Spin-off series are peculiar. It’s virtually impossible to take a supporting character from a popular show, pluck him out of the original setting and put them down in a whole new series unchanged. Some aspects will change. Usually any little sharp edges are smoothed down in order to make the audience tune in to view a more likeable central character. An entirely new family unit may be grafted on – all the better to hang new plots from.
Usually you lose a little of what grabbed your attention in the first place but if you’re lucky, you’ll get something equally worth your while, and which explores the character more than would ever be allowed in the parent series. If you’re very very lucky, the scene-stealer who appears for five minutes, overshadows the lead actors and then walks off with the episode in his pocket will reveal sufficient depth to carry an entire show by themselves.
Which brings us to “Charles Endell Esquire”.
Viewers of a certain age will recall a time when Adam Faith bestrode the entertainment firmament like a blonde colossus. He made ’em swoon in the early sixties as he hiccupped his way through a myriad of pop hits. He tried his luck with film around about the same time, but what really sealed his immortality was his leading role as Ronald “Budgie” Bird. The series which took his name – “Budgie”, of course – was a ratings success for LWT throughout the early seventies.
Imperturbably cheerful, Budgie was a permanent thorn in the hide of his sometime boss Charles Endell Esq – a towering performance in every sense of the word by Iain Cuthbertson. Club owner on the surface and gangland sleaze merchant underneath, Endell stalked his way through the series trading insults, quips and occasionally blows (the violence implicit in his character does eventually erupt in one episode which features a rather remarkable confrontation in a church between Faith and Cuthbertson which goes somewhat farther than you’d expect a mainstream series to go). The country rang with cries of “I hate you Budge” as briefly, wonderfully, the shadowy sinister Charles Endell became famous and Iain Cuthbertson became a cult hero.
When “Budgie” chirped its last it seemed that was it for all of the characters. It disappeared, only to be kept alive by occasional repeat runs. No new adventures were forthcoming. Then in 1979, STV suddenly popped up with a new show, starring the returning Cuthbertson as “Charles Endell Esq”. It was heavily promoted. It even got a TV Times front cover. Unfortunately, the broadcast dates coincided almost exactly with the 1979 ITV Technicians strike. The commercial networks faded from our screens for thirteen weeks and with them went the new series. It vanished into limbo for almost a year, reappearing in April 1980 with a repeat of the only two episodes which had aired and then finishing the run to no great fanfare.
After that, Charles Endell Esq faded into obscurity for good along with the show that bore his name, and that’s a shame because the show was a little gem. It really deserved better. Now, viewers have the opportunity to rediscover what they may have missed the first (and second) time around as STV unveils the series in its entirety, courtesy of their YouTube channel.
Produced by STV and developed by Robert Banks Stewart, the series has an impeccable pedigree. It’s written by some of commercial television’s best writers, for a start. Banks Stewart contributes two episodes. Bill Craig, Terence Feely, Alistair Bell and Jeremy Burnham handle the rest. If you ever watched ITV between the sixties and nineties, you’ll have run across episodes of series written by that lot. You’re in safe hands.
You’re in even safer hands when it comes to the producer. In overall charge is Rex Firkin, a man who was responsible for a dizzyingly high number of quality series for the network. “Bouquet of Barbed Wire”, “Within These Walls”, “Upstairs Downstairs”…. all his. On a personal note, he produced my single favourite drama serial of all time – “Manhunt”. Seeing his name turn up on the credits here guarantees you a professionally made series with superb production values.
It’s difficult to establish just who directed some of the episodes, because two of them lack a credit. We know for certain that Gerry Mill directed the first and second, David Andrews the fourth and Clarke Tait the last. I’m guessing from the extensive and beautifully shot location footage in episode five that Gerry Mill had a hand in it somewhere, but I can’t be certain.
No one’s ever put up their hands and accepted responsibility/blame for the erm, unusual title sequence – a montage of Cuthbertson in a virulently coloured pair of pajamas which then cuts to him spraying on deoderant, sitting in the bath and finally sewing himself into a corset before sashaying out of the door to take on the world. Meanwhile something which can only be roughly called a “tune” plays over this edifying spectacle. Bearing a surface resemblance to “Cinderella Rockefella” by Esther and Abi Ofarim and with lyrics intoned by Cuthbertson over a moog backing with female backing vocals that sound actively demented, it’s the world’s first sprained theme tune. I rather like it. The end theme is even better as Iain cuts loose like a wounded moose. He sounds like he’s having fun. You will too, once the shock wears off.
We open with Robert Banks Stewart’s “Glasgow Belongs To Me”, and Endell’s on his way back home after seven years and three months detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. His dark doings have finally caught up with him, and his mucky book empire has fallen. It took him with it and he isn’t best pleased by what he finds when he gets out. Finding that Soho has become an altogether darker place in his absence – even the filth’s got more disturbing – he decides to cut his lossses and get out.
Almost immediately we’re greeted with a very different take on the character by Cuthbertson. Endell’s mellowed while inside. He’s avuncular, friendly (most of the time) and almost cuddly. A far cry from the whiplash temperament he used to sport. Moving centre stage seems to suit him. As the adbreak bumper says (a simple voiceover played while a cigar burns in an ashtray) “See Me? Ah’m Back…”
Within seconds of arriving back in Glasgow he’s met by his old school pal Shug Dickson (Phil McCall) – now a Sergeant with the Strathclyde Polis. Shug isn’t pleased to see him, not one bit. There’s enough criminals in town without Charlie adding to them. Unperturbed, Charlie saunters into the morning and begins setting up in his new home. With his driving license still retained in Swansea the first thing he’ll need is a driver so following a recommendation from an old mate he fetches up at the World Wide Taxi hire company, enlisting the services of Hamish MacIntyre Jr as chauffeur.
Hamish is played with bleary innocence by Tony Osoba, fresh from his own stint inside on the BBC’s “Porridge”. Lanky, permanently bewildered and sporting at all times a truly hideous bunnet and tartan bomber jacket combo, Hamish can be guaranteed to be of almost no use whatsoever during the course of an episode. As a driver he’s barely competent. As a minder he’s useless. In one memorable instance he sits mildly reading a comic while a gigantic fight breaks out around him, on the grounds that he “couldnae add anything to it, so why bother?” All the same, he’s essential as a sounding board for Charlie and general dogsbody.
Having fetched up at the “Cally”- once Glasgow’s premiere hotel and now a shelter for the homeless, Charlie encounters Kate Moncrieff (Rohan McCullough). Kate’s a good soul, always interested in doing good for the less fortunate and by-the-by, also Charlie’s parole officer. There’s definitely the spark of a romantic attachment between them, but it’s all implied. Bar one dream sequence and a couple of dinner dates, these two are chaste on-screen. Indeed, there’s no sex at all in this series. The intricate plots don’t have room for them, to be honest. Everything’s implied, and that’s fine by me. I can join the dots for myself.
Before too long Charlie fetches up at the dance studio run by his old pal Dixie (Annie Ross). She obviously has affection for him from times long ago and eventually takes him in. Only one problem – the aforementioned Shug, disgruntled copper extraordinaire happens to be her brother.
And so the stage is set. The rest of the episode concerns Charlie’s attempts to reclaim £180,000 worth of cash from his shady representative Archibald Telfer (Bernard Archard, being cadaverously sinister as only he can). Charlie also runs into Alistair Vint and King Kenny Croall. One’s a slimy sleaze merchant played – oh yes – by Rikki Fulton, and the other’s Glasgow’s premiere hard man (played by Bill Denniston, reunited with Cuthbertson after years together on the BBC’s “Sutherland’s Law”). Both will cross paths with Endell on many occasions as the series wears on.
Once all that’s been established, episode two gives us a chance to see Endell in full flight. Bill Craig’s “As One Door Closes Another Slams In Your Face” involves Charlie with a shady deal involving a painting, a trade union and a most unusual member of the upper class. Mr Forbes Forbes (Bernard Gallacher) is more than a match for Endell’s slippery ways and the scenes between them are a series highlight. Vint discovers that dealing with Charlie can be bad for your health, but that’s more than matched by Endell’s realisation that the same applies to working with “King” Croall.
Episode three sees a slight misstep, as the show takes on pop music head to head, and loses badly. In “Slaughter on Piano Street” Charlie’s wish-fulfilling dream sequence is interrupted rudely by the sound of “Blunt Instrument”. After an initial set-to Charlie soon realises that there may well be a way to get ahead in this pop music lark and maybe – just maybe – a chance to settle his conscience over a long-standing emotional entanglement.
Sadly, it would appear that a Blunt Instrument is what Banks Stewart employed in crafting this one. The band are laughable (although to be fair, the script demands them to be), the attempts at grafting Charlie into teenage culture just don’t work and the song that runs throughout the episode grates from the first note. It’s intriguing that at the same time this was being made, Banks Stewart was developing the first season of “Shoestring”. Broadcast in late 1979, the episode “Find The Lady” finds Eddie Shoestring embroiled in a sinister case of murder involving a teenage rock band. On this occasion the writing has been handed over to Philip Martin, who delivers his usual blend of heightened realism, unnatural dialogue and general oddness to arresting effect. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for “Slaughter on Piano Street”. A misstep, but at least they tried.
“The Moon Shines Bright On Charlie Endell” is much more assured. In fact, it’s quite a romp, as Charlie decides there’s money in the hooch business and takes himself out of town to build himself an illegal still. Unfortunately, Vint’s after him, so are the Polis, and it’s a race to see who’ll have his guts for garters first.
Terence Feely’s snappy script certainly gives the cast enough to play with and everyone’s visibly having fun. Cuthbertson is at his towering best, especially when playing off Joan Fitzpatrick’s eternal busybody, Mrs McTeague. Tons of beautiful location footage enlivens up this episode no end, as does a sweet little cameo from Russell Hunter as a concerned ex-con pal of Charlie’s. The whole thing revs up into a tense little sequence as events converge on the little country cottage in which the admirable firm of “Glen Endell” have established themselves.
Back in Glasgow for episode five, “Stuff Me A Flamingo” sees Endell somewhat reluctantly employed by “King” Croall to look after his chain of massage parlours and nightclubs while he’s enjoying an enforced stay in Barlinnie. Alistair Bell delivers a tightly plotted farce script which manages to take in a gangster with an old movie fixation, a dog with a secret and a copper who thinks that a false mustache and French accent are a foolproof disguise. This one’s far and away the funniest of the run, with the one-liners flying as Charlie finally thinks he’s on the up-and-up only to discover that things are about to take a turn for the worse with the unexpected scampering of tiny feet. Watch out for David Swift – some years off from his memorable monster as Henry Davenport in Channel 4’s “Drop The Dead Donkey” – playing an alcoholic kennel owner who tries to put the squeeze on Charlie. And if you’ve been wondering when Gerard Kelly was going to turn up – as he inevitably must – wonder no more. Here he is, in a very early role. In the light of his recent passing there’s an added poignancy to him appearing here, so young and full of life in a spit-and-a-cough part. Greater things were to come for him. He’ll be missed.
Three cheers for Jimmy Logan too, who pitches up here. Everyone you could ever hope for from a Scottish series of this vintage is here, they really are.
The series ends with Jeremy Burnham’s “If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em” – and Charlie’s decided to try his hand at the sporting game. He sees a chance to sign up one of Scottish football’s brightest hopes and sell him on to the Americans. For reasons of his own, Vint doesn’t want him to. Meanwhile, a returning Forbes Forbes wants Charlie to help him throw a racing fixture and when Charlie fails at one but succeeds all too well at the other, it looks like the walls are closing in on him. With sterling support from the ever faithful Dixie (Annie Ross rarely gets much to do, but she’s magnetic when she’s on screen), a welcome final visit from the ever watchable Shug Dickson and a final gigantic punch-up, this one’s got more or less everything. Even Hamish proves himself to be quite useful when it comes down to the wire.
There we leave “Charles Endell Esquire”. To judge by the dialogue in the last scene, everyone expected to return for a second run. Everything’s left deliberately open-ended. Plot threads are tangling nicely. Relationships are heating up. It all looked good. Circumstances conspired otherwise and instead Charlie and friends vanished into obscurity. Remembered by a few, forgotten by many more. It deserves much, much better. It’s a great little series and even the lesser moments are lifted by Cuthbertson into something thoroughly watchable. At it’s worst you’ll still not feel as if you’ve wasted your time. At its best – and that goes for at least two episodes – it can stand proud with any other light drama series produced for British commercial television.
Not bad for a shadowy smut peddler from the wrong side of town.
More info at http://www.stv.tv/topics/charles-endell/