Classic ITV Christmas Comedy is a 4-DVD set from – who else – Network, featuring seasonal episodes from all your favourite ITV sitcoms. And On The Buses. It’s a typically impressive feat of archive-scouring, with big hitters sitting alongside shows that possibly nobody has thought about from that day to this, but there’s enough alarming names amongst that twenty-strong tracklisting to make you wonder whether anyone could make it through the entire collection without tracking down and punching the Yorkshire TV ‘Chevron’. Well, you guessed it, that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing. Episode by episode, I’ll be reviewing them all as a worryingly mirth-free Advent Calendar countdown, and doubtless pulling few punches when it comes to certain laugh-deficient offerings. So get that paper crown and world-weary expression on, glance outside the window at some badly-matched stock footage of snow falling, and let’s go…!
The Dustbinmen: Christmas Special (1969)
Jack Rosenthal’s earthy lefty-skewed escapades of a bunch of cynical refuse collectors and their clashes with bosses and householders alike. And often each other. Began with every single episode going to the very top of the ratings, and also aroused the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who was somewhat less than keen on the amount of bleedin’ this and piggin’ that per episode, which makes it all the more puzzling that it’s now largely forgotten.
Originally broadcast as part of All Star Comedy Carnival – the yearly ITV Christmas Day bonanza featuring contributions from all of their comedy big hitters (which that year included Cribbins, The Real Mike Yarwood?, Dear Mother… Love Albert… and, erm, Coronation Street), this ten minute short finds Winston, Smellie, Cheese And Egg, Heavy Breathing and Eric in the pub on Christmas Day, and comes across more like vaguely witty left-wing theatre than the average ITV sitcom. There’s lots of union-related blather and bemoaning of the meagre Christmas Box haul from their regular collectees, as well as something about how they’d like to see Des O’Connor instead of the Queen unless he wore a tiara, before – you guessed it – they end up being bought a round by a couple with a baby on the way. This epiphany somehow leads them to pay a pilgrimage to a local church in their faithful bin lorry ‘Thunderbird 3’, where the priest reminds them that they haven’t collected his bins in a while. “Well, we all said we’d rather be working – and our prayer was piggin’ answered!” muses Cheese And Egg, before regaling the gang with The Parable Of The Prodigal Dustman, which basically involves anyone who says Merry Christmas getting a bin emptied over their head. You can guess what happens next.
Whether or not it is actually still funny is another question – without being directly topical, this is very much humour that tapped into the identifiable social concerns of its time and inevitably carries less comic clout now – The Dustbinmen is an interesting show in that it is so far removed from anyone’s image of an ITV sitcom. It’s grimy, foul-mouthed and politically aware, and has no winners or losers – just some blokes doing their job. It’s an enjoyable way to open this collection, but in some respects also the worst possible way to open it – things can only go downhill from here, and if you’ve seen what’s coming up, you’ll know that’s a very large hill…
Please Sir!: And Everyone Came Too (1970)
Idealistic young schoolteacher ‘Privet’ Hedges does his best to inspire his suspiciously mature-looking ‘unruly’ charges, to the dismay of his variously lazy, eccentric and sociopathic colleagues. Despite being archetypes, the pupils are well-observed, likeable and relatively on-the-money as youth cult representations; the big screen version, where they were allowed more room as characters – and which was an ITV Bank Holiday staple for many years – is notably superior to the actual episodes.
Mr. Hedges is about to marry his long-term girlfriend Penny, and for some reason he’s invited all of the staff and students from the school along with apparently no family from either side. We join him the morning after his stag do, waking up next to a ‘mystery woman’ who turns out to be boozy colleague – and unlikely best man – Mr. Price. Everything has been carefully planned, but unfortunately by the wrong people; hard-of-thinking Sharon and Maureen somehow contrive to turn up at his house with Penny’s dress, leading janitor Mr. Potter to offer them a lift, having momentarily forgotten that he’s supposed to be driving Hedges and Price. A massive snowfall and associated train cancellations – complete with grumpy station master – wreak havoc on their efforts to get to the church on time, though they actually somehow manage to arrive there before Potter, who managed to get the dress to the right place in time but in the process forgot to pick up his wife. The happy couple have claimed to be off to Portugal on honeymoon – when they’re actually staying in a nearby guest house – in the hope of getting a bit of privacy; unfortunately, due to the adverse weather conditions, all of the guests end up staying there too, in one big room to boot. In the middle of all this, Craven, Duffy, Den and Frankie exchange some witticisms about home brew, and the rest of the staff get a single line remembering their own weddings each. They really did like their large ensemble casts back then.
Although tame by modern standards, in its time Please Sir! was effectively To Sir With Two Fingers, avoiding the usual ‘naughty schoolboy’ clichés in favour of rowdy realism courtesy of yobs, bikers, prototype disco divas and Girls Who Smelt Of Spam, and it’s not difficult to see why it was so widely loved at the time. Duffy may not be the most subtle or acutely observed representation of the typical ITV sitcom audience member, but at least he was one. This is only really a Christmas episode by virtue of mentioning snow a bit – and depicting it on what appears to be knackered stock footage of an Alpine log cabin – and there’s an interminable literal gag-free ‘Wedding Photos’ sequence, but at the same time it’s actually quite likeable. The characters are all decent and there’s not a bigoted or offensive joke in sight – in fact, Brinsley Forde was briefly in the cast as a sympathetically-portrayed black pupil towards whom no prejudice was tolerated – and while it’s admittedly still not a patch on the movie, this is something that is very pleasant to watch again. You do get the feeling, though, that this momentum is not exactly about to be maintained…
On The Buses: Christmas Duty (1970)
Jack-the-lad bus drivers lustily pursue women half their age as the very dregs of Sixties liberalism turn sour. Massive in its day, but by the mid-eighties, in a time when there weren’t repeats or commercial releases of archive material wherever you looked, it was all but forgotten; the cast were forever being ‘reunited’ on chat shows to widespread bafflement and disinterest. Subsequent attempts to reclaim it as some kind of beacon of pre-PC free expression that them Eurocrats in Brussels put a stop to have foundered on account of its thin comic content.
Due to a reason that the writers haven’t thought up yet, Stan and Jack find themselves having to work a shift on Christmas Day. After they’ve gleefully broken Blakey’s present for his wife, and hung some mistletoe over the door of the women’s toilets – causing poor old Blakey to be mistaken for a rogue perv as he attempts to take it down in the name of decency – that is. Stan’s family argue over whether they should delay Christmas Dinner until he returns from work, leading to an hilarious subplot in which his brother-in-law is too drunk to pick him up on his motorbike, so they send his sister – who can’t operate one – instead. Stan and Jack are nearly hit by her, but tragically survive. Blakey’s mended present for his wife is not so fortunate. In the meantime, back at home, the turkey has started burning and the fire brigade have put out the blaze. “You’ve always wanted a White Christmas”, observes Stan, “and now you’ve got one!”.
On The Buses is, quite bluntly, an awful sitcom about awful people. It’s not even really possible to attack this episode for making light of two unfunny subjects – drink-driving and, well, groping – because there aren’t any actual jokes to make light of them with. In the year that this went out, the editors of an underground magazine were arrested on obscenity charges after publishing a mock-obscene image of Rupert Bear, and the entire audience of an Andy Warhol film were cautioned for having the temerity to watch an artful and inoffensive movie in legitimate circumstances; they should have prosecuted everyone involved in this sorry exercise instead. Even speaking as a veteran contextual apologist for the less enlightened films and television of yesteryear, I find it difficult to find anything worth defending in On The Buses, primarily because it just isn’t funny. The only decent human being in the entire programme is Blakey, and he’s the much-abused target of every single… no, I’m not calling them jokes. You’re supposed to think that he’s an absurd and boring figure of mockery, though, and yet you’ll spend the entire episode rooting for him. This could not end soon enough, frankly. And I’m now desperately hoping that the start of the next sitcom in this collection will at least be distractingly odd…
All This – And Christmas Too! (1971)
Between 1969 and 1973, there were numerous Carry On productions made especially for television, broadcast on or around Christmas Day. Apart from 1971, when viewers thrilled instead to this canonically-dubious standalone comic play. Sid James stars as, erm, ‘Sid Jones’, a decent, upstanding and cheerfully put-upon husband and father, who has more in common with his character from concurrent ITV sitcom Bless This House – which never actually had a Christmas Special, and so isn’t represented in this set – than with his Carry On persona. And if you think the television Carry Ons are forgotten, this effort is so obscure that it didn’t even make the first edition of Mark Lewisohn’s invaluable Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy.
All This – And Christmas Too! starts with a burst of Also Sprach Zarathustra and a spaceman walking across an alien landscape; after what seems like about an hour, this is revealed to be Sid James, who promptly leaves the quarry and gets on a bus with a world-weary expression. Sadly, it’s never quite as interesting, amusing or just plain baffling again. Sid and his Kenneth Connor-portrayed mate Willy are planning to get in a couple of pre-Christmas swift halves while his pregnant older daughter rests upstairs and the younger one takes over the living room with her blasted popular beat music. Her latest favourites are heavy rockers The Hell’s Angels; “and that’s where they belong!”, quips Sid. While Sid and Wally are out, her friend drops round a baby for her to look after; returning from the pub, Sid and Wally assume that this is his newly-born grandson. Given that Wally’s reaction is “should it be that colour?”, you don’t really need to have the all-too-predictable storyline spelt out to you. Then the eldest actually goes into labour, and there’s something about a mousetrap and… no, it’s just too dull to follow.
You’re probably not unreasonably assuming that part of the reason for All This – And Christmas Too being so obscure is that it’s so offensive that it’s been deliberately hidden away. That’s really not the case, though – it’s no more or less unpleasant than any average ITV sitcom of the era, and although there are some mild but unfortunate names deployed in the confusion, Sid also does launch into a speech proclaiming that this is his grandson and he loves him and woe betide anyone who has anything to say on the matter, which while far from enlightened is still hardly what you would expect to find in a comedy of this vintage. No, the real problem with it is that it’s just unspeakably boring. It’s not even particularly bad as a script, and the performances are as strong as you’d expect from an experienced cast, but it really does seem like it was written one way – as a laugh-a-minute half-hour of escalating comic chaos – and directed another, as a subtle feature-length comedy drama. The resultant show has the drawbacks of both and the strengths of neither. A bit of a shame, really, as you really do want a long-forgotten Sid James oddity to be at the very least interesting. Mind you, there is that inexplicable 2001: A Space Odyssey intro, which is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen on television (and that’s a pretty high-set bar to be frank). Oh well, maybe the next one will have a bit more comic wallop to it…
Nearest And Dearest: Cindernellie (1972)
Textbook battleaxe Hylda Baker and shifty betting-friendly boozer Jimmy Jewel are a bickering brother and sister who inherit a huge sum of money on the condition that they co-operate in running the family pickle factory for five years. A premise that is about as seventies sitcom as they come, and given an extra edge by the fact that, reputedly, the two stars hated each other in real life as well. It ran to massive popularity from 1968 to 1973, and was followed by the short-lived spinoff Not On Your Nellie, though is perhaps now better known to some via the fact that XTC relentlessly watched a VHS of the series whilst recording at a remote studio, and incorporated audio clips into Collideascope.
Nellie and Eli are squabbling in the pub when they encounter Rupert Tempest, a decidedly suspicious-looking ‘thespian’ who is putting on a panto nearby. Nellie is keen to attend as she thinks her raw talent may be spotted by a passing agent; Eli isn’t, until he’s introduced to the two seventies-as-it-gets dolly birds that make up Tempest’s ‘company’. Unfortunately, the cast promptly spot the holes in his financial arrangements and hightail it; it’s up to Nellie and Eli to take up the vacant roles and rewrite the threadbare script (“Terence Rattigan doesn’t work for peanuts”) to suit their somewhat unique talents. Needless to say, this isn’t the quick and easy – nor indeed financially advantageous – solution he was looking for.
Noisy, fast and vulgar – virtually every second line is an innuendo, and they’d probably be able to make an innuendo out of that statistic too – Nearest And Dearest is an absolute riot and tremendously good fun. Up to the ad break, at any rate. The second half of this episode is taken up by them actually acting out the panto, which isn’t anywhere near as enjoyable, although the audience seem to be having worrying levels of hysterics whenever a man in drag appears. Sometimes, the temptation to take the lazy option with Christmas Specials was too strong for anyone involved to resist, and this was definitely the case here, as they literally gave up halfway through. By and large, Nearest And Dearest itself was a fun if not exactly highbrow series, and pulled off the rare feat of inspiring a big screen version that actually kept up that momentum. Sometimes, though, the drop in quality between movie and television was just that bit too big…
Billy Liar: Billy And The Gift Of The Magi (1973)
Speaking of the Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy, one of the entries that provoked a flurry of excitement – alongside the likes of The Black Safari and Fred Emney Picks A Pop – was Billy Liar. Given the cult popularity of the 1963 film adaptation, how come nobody really knew that there had been a lengthy – running to nearly thirty episodes – television incarnation in the early seventies? There was such a high volume of obscura listed in the book that it was possible to believe that everyone had just forgotten about it, as opposed to tried to forget about it, and it remained something of an unknown quantity until the complete series was finally released on DVD…
In amongst his Reginald Perrin-prefiguring daydreams and direct-to-camera poems, Billy Fisher asks for a pair of yellow trousers for Christmas; or, as his bluff father has it, “yellow trousers, bloody yellow trousers, yellow bloody trousers!”. He’s also presented with two festive problems: he’s given the last of his spending money to the Salvation Army without buying anyone any presents, and is also under pressure to invite his girlfriend Barbara along for Christmas Dinner, despite his fear that she wouldn’t feel comfortable in the family atmosphere (“what bloody family atmosphere?”). With no other options, he has to pilfer stock from the funeral home where he works to pass off as gifts, and also avoid Barbara crossing paths with the Salvation Army Girl he’s made ‘plans’ with for Monday. Slightly more surreal and macabre than anything else in this collection, it’s probably safe to say.
Billy Liar the film – as you can read more about here – is a modern masterpiece; the simultaneously sympathetic and pathetic tale of a young man conditioned against taking his own decisions, whose misguided attempts to put everyone else first invariably result in nobody being put first, including himself. Billy Liar the television series… doesn’t quite come off. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall were clearly both restricted by the ITV sitcom format and depleted by the demands of the need to place a very specific character in different situations every week, and the results are a bit of a muddle, although it’s worth stressing that George A. Cooper is fantastic as Mr. Fisher. It was very clearly an attempt to do what Peter Tinniswood achieved with I Didn’t Know You Cared a couple of years later, but he had the luxury of working on the BBC and, well, not having to to churn out twenty odd of the things. Meanwhile, let’s not gloss over Peter Skellern’s uncharacteristically dreadful theme song, which you can’t help but notice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of The Fiddley Foodle Bird. Mind you, it could have been worse. There was an American sitcom based on Billy Liar, starring a young Steve Guttenberg, which is perhaps best left as a mystery. While we’re on the subject of Transatlantic adaptations, though…
Two’s Company: A Loving Christmas (1976)
Elaine Stritch and Donald Sinden star as an American writer living in London and her pernickety English butler, marked out by sharp dialogue and first class performances, with many episodes featuring just the two of them in a single set. Little remembered but massive in its time and frequently hailed as one of ITV’s finest sitcoms. It did, however, lead to a disastrous American adaptation which made three belief-beggaring mistakes – relocating the action to New York, which dulled the culture clash; bringing in a bratty teenage daughter, which blunted the irritated-yet-affectionate dynamic; and casting a disinterested Peter Cook, who had auditioned on a whim while on holiday, and accepted the series to pay off a debt Private Eye had incurred. His anecdotes about the episode were generally funnier than the show itself.
Dorothy and Robert are both planning to go away for Christmas, so they exchange their presents early; an Edward Elgar LP for her, and the slightly less gladly received King Porter Stomp by Jelly Roll Morton for him (“I wasn’t expecting a present, especially after that magnificent tax-free bonus” – “It wasn’t tax free…”). Once the coast is clear, both sneak back to the house with prospective paramours – and turkeys – in tow. Preferring to avoid each other until Christmas, Dorothy and Robert agree to stay on different floors of the house, a situation which becomes increasingly impossible due to broken central heating, ill house guests, ‘sleep-cycling’ and the unexpected arrival of obnoxious cousin Clarence from America. They probably would have been better going away, to be honest. “You had to bring back Florence Nightingale”, muses Dorothy as the dust settles. “I thought you called her the Mona Lisa?” – “Too bad she isn’t – we could hang her in your apartment”.
Sharp, witty and featuring two top drawer actors clearly relishing every line of dialogue, Two’s Company is an unexpected triumph. This is partly due to its clear stylistic influences from higher quality American sitcoms – in fact, you cannot help but be struck by how similar the storyline is to the average seasonal episode of Frasier – but it’s mainly down to the cast and the script. This is the first show in this set so far that’s left me wanting to watch the rest of it, and right at the moment praise is not coming much higher than that.
Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box (1976)
The only sketch show included in this collection. Ahead of the curve in using television as a comic tool rather than just a medium, Stanley Baxter was hugely popular throughout the sixties and seventies, though the associated lack of catchphrases and need to continually disguise himself unfortunately resulted in him being hardly remembered now. His shows were so technologically intensive that they were eventually relegated to holiday specials only, and eventually cancelled altogether in the mid-eighties by a cost-conscious BBC. After which he took on the role for which he is probably most well-known now, bumbling exiled wizard Mr. Majeika.
It’s a bit difficult to write a plot summary of a sketch show, but while conspicuously avoiding sending up The Sex Pistols’ encounter with Bill Grundy, Stanley takes aim at a number of the big small-screen sensations of 1976 including Bruce Forsyth (“rotten to see you…”) and Nana Mouskouri. There’s also room for a film noir accidentally colliding with a panto, a dig at the BBC’s new onscreen branding, lampooning of Christmas Specials presented by ageing crooners, and even a couple of links featuring cleaners in the Film Library, and all of it achieved with the thankful bare minimum of blacking up. That extended ‘Jewish BBC News’ sketch can fuck right off though. ‘Michael Gefiltefish’ indeed.
Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box is, unfortunately, one of those shows that you want to be brilliant but just isn’t. The main problem with it is that while the pastiches and parodies are pitch perfect – and his portrayal of every single character in them is still staggeringly impressive – they’re really only there to prop up corny gags that can’t really even have been all that funny back in 1976. You could not unreasonably argue that he was an early pioneer of this style and someone had to go first, but Monty Python were pulling the structure of television apart only a couple of years earlier, and End Of Part One went in to deliver the knockout blow only a couple of years later, and sadly it now just comes across as a poor relative of both. It feels churlish to criticise the show, however, as Baxter is a genuinely brilliant performer and there is more imagination on display here than in ninety eight percent of the other programmes included in this set. And at least he wasn’t just trading on former glories…
The Rag Trade: The Christmas Rush (1977)
Running to huge popularity on the BBC between 1961 and 1963, The Rag Trade was significantly more groundbreaking than you might expect from its creators, who of course went on to write On The Buses. Set in a fashion house workshop filled with sparky, politically aware independent women, and charting their struggles with men and management with sympathy and good humour, it was also virulently funny and helped in no small part by an impressive cast that included Miriam Karlin, Wanda Ventham, Barbara Windsor, Sheila Hancock and Esma Cannon. Every frame of the surviving episodes crackles with excitement and wit, and it even led to a spinoff of sorts; Wild, Wild Women, again starring Windsor, which looked at how their counterparts fared at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Following various unsuccessful attempts at launching an American adaptation, the BBC expressed an interest in a revival in the mid-seventies; they turned down the resultant pilot but LWT hastily commissioned a new series. The only problem was that feminism and union relations had both moved on in the interim. As indeed had most of the cast.
With a huge commission to complete before closing the factory for Christmas, Fenner Fashions manager Harold Fenner has completely forgotten to get his temperamental wife a present. As he needs to be present to make sure that the order is ready on schedule, he asks his redoubtable shop steward Paddy to find a suitable gift for her. While Paddy is out, he realises that he’s forgotten to get her a present as well, and asks his wife for help. The only problem is, he’s been regifting each other’s presents for years and realises too late that he’s about to get rumbled. Meanwhile, the machine room full of eccentrics struggle with frozen turkeys and mistletoe, and basically anything but the order.
Underneath the perhaps ill-advised revival of The Rag Trade, there’s a good series struggling to get out. The comic plots are simple but rock solid; Paddy and Harold, it transpires, have had a relationship in the interim, and are now recast as close friends who still care about the other’s wellbeing rather than warring workmates; although they get little more than one-liners in this particular episode, the wider cast is now ethnically diverse; and in a pleasingly absurd touch, they are now joined by Olive from On The Buses actually as Olive from On The Buses. Sadly, though, there just isn’t the same spark as the earlier series; whereas the original version of The Rag Trade was fighting a fairly daring fight for its time, now it’s more or less just another sitcom and neither the writing, the direction nor the performances have that same urgency and verve. It’s certainly not bad, and surprisingly far from offensive, but overall it has much the same effect as when you get to the last album in a Complete Album Collection box set by which time musical fashions had changed and most of the classic line-up had left for solo careers. All the same, it’s still welcome as a reminder of a series that doesn’t get anywhere near as much recognition as it should.
Bless Me, Father: The Season Of Goodwill (1979)
Immediately after finishing work on Dad’s Army, Arthur Lowe accepted an offer from ITV to star in this series of adaptations of the comic memoirs by former novice curate Peter De Rosa. Set in 1950, and audaciously aiming at and succeeding in winning over a Sunday night mainstream audience with comedy, Bless Me, Father followed truculent, cunning yet good-hearted Roman Catholic parish priest Father Duddleswell through his various moneymaking schemes and attempted avoidance of duties, neither of which he was at all helped in by idealistic young curate Father Boyd and housekeeper Mrs. Pring; some readers may detect a certain note of familiarity in this setup. Gentle and whimsical, Bless Me, Father was a runaway success and ran for three series, and is often held up as a forgotten highlight of ITV’s not exactly highlight-strewn history of sitcoms. Which makes its subsequent obscurity all the more bewildering.
With December 25th fast approaching, Father Duddleswell cannot resist a bit of a wager with local ne’er-do-well Billy Buzzle; the two disagree over the prospect of a White Christmas that year, and Buzzle promises that if it doesn’t snow, he’ll deliver a turkey and a giant Christmas Tree to the Presbytery. “I don’t take bets in the House of God”, frowns Duddleswell, “so let’s go outside and shake on it”. While keeping a fretful eye on the weather forecast, he also has to deal with stolen collection plate money, a last-minute emergency engagement as a Retirement Home Santa, and a dog determined to sing a duet with him. Even then, how can he be sure that the not exactly honourable Buzzle doesn’t have a further trick up his sleeve?
Bless Me, Father is cheerful, heartwarming and understatedly wry, and of course is driven by Arthur Lowe’s typically flawless performance as the rogueish priest who still puts the needs of other above his own, but only just. That said, it relies so much on the conventions of the Catholic Church for its humour that anyone unfamiliar with them would have a hard time finding it relatable, and it’s also a little too gentle and respectful. No doubt many readers will be thinking of the inhabitants of Craggy Island by this point, and there’s nothing in here – or indeed any episode of Bless Me, Father – to rank with “YOU LET DOUGAL DO A FUNERAL?”, “Nyurrrrrrrrrrr Stupid Priests” or “Am I still on that feckin’ Island?”. Admittedly this slightly loose-edged Festive episode is not up to the usual standards of the series, but all the same, Bless Me, Father very much has the air of something that seemed a good deal more cheeky and irreverent in the late seventies than it does now. And speaking of humour way out of its context…
The Army Game: Bootserella (1960)
Although National Service was well on the way towards being phased out by the time it appeared on the nation’s television screens, The Army Game spoke directly to several generations who had been through the unifying rite of passage that was conscription, and was ITV’s first real big comedy hit. It ran to massive viewing figures between 1957 and 1961, and made stars of several of its cast including William Hartnell, Bernard Bresslaw and Charles Hawtrey. Even after finishing, an almost equally successful sequel cleverly followed mismatched Drill Hall colleagues Bootsie And Snudge into ‘civvy life’. Such was the popularity of The Army Game that the cast were frequently called on to take part in extra-curricular variety engagements. Including this.
Broadcast as part of a Christmas edition of ITV variety show Chelsea At Nine, this twenty-minute sketch sees the cast of The Army Game essentially just giving an in-character and in-costume retelling of Cinderella. Apart from host Bernard Braden repeating endless variations on a joke about his favourite children’s story being Lolita, and confusingly addressing the performers variously as the cast of The Army Game, as their character from The Army Game and as their in-panto characters, that’s basically all there is to it.
The Army Game is a sitcom that, while not exactly riotously funny, stands up better than might be expected given that its cultural context is now so utterly remote. A reworked pantomime where the humour hinges on familiarity with the sitcom’s characters, however, is both hard to like and hard to get much laughter out of. This is not so much a Christmas Special as it is a glorified DVD Extra, and although it’s nice to have The Army Game represented on here – especially in the absence of several other of ITV’s big comedy smashes – perhaps that’s where it ought to have stayed.
George And The Dragon: Merry Christmas (1966)
‘Edgy’ modern historians can controversially claim that the ‘Swinging Sixties’ meant nothing to anyone bar a couple of models hanging around Carnaby Street all they like. Its influence can be detected anywhere and everywhere that dedicated followers of fashion would never have dared venture, including this updated take on a conventional sitcom format. Sid James is George Russell, chauffeur to moneyed Colonel Maynard, who is sufficiently imbued with the spirit of the age to have caused sixteen housekeepers to ‘retire’ from their position in rapid succession. Enter the formidable Gabrielle Dragon, played by the equally formidable Peggy Mount, who has been hired specifically to keep him in line. Although they may differ on their attitudes to sexual freedom, the two become unlikely allies, if not actual friends, and a mutually advantageous scheme is never too far away.
Following a lengthy opening scene in which they and gardener Ralph exchange presents with each other and their employer – they’ve all got him bedroom slippers – George and Gabrielle head off for their respective Christmas celebrations. She is expecting a warm welcome from her sister – who isn’t expecting her – while he has plans with a loud young lady in fab gear (“How long have you been there?“, George asks when Gabrielle surprises them; “Since just before you started to crease her PVC”). When both Christmases go very wrong indeed, it’s up to the two unlikely associates to rescue each other’s festivities.
Despite certain of its attitudes not having worn too well, George And The Dragon is certainly a cut above the usual ITV sitcom fare, with the clash of culture clashes well explored and the cast visibly enjoying their clearly easy rapport. Despite the obvious connotations of the name, ‘The Dragon’ is actually a confident and sensitive woman who simply stands for no nonsense rather than the time-honoured comedy ‘battleaxe’, and George displays occasional flashes of decency and morality (albeit admittedly on a relative scale). This is not an especially straightforward episode for newcomers to the series to follow, as around half of it hinges on pre-existing knowledge of the characters and their attitudes to each other, but it picks up in the second half, especially when it becomes clear that George and Gabrielle care more about each other than certain people who are supposed to care about them do. It’s some way from being a forgotten classic, but it’s also much more interesting and watchable than you would expect from a sitcom of this particular vintage and origin. Also it’s got a rather quite splendid loungey brass theme tune.
My Husband And I: No Place Like Home (1987)
It’s not often that giving an ensemble player in a popular but defunct sitcom their own all-new series actually works, but it was a strategy that ITV tried repeatedly throughout the seventies and eighties. When the bafflingly enduring That’s My Boy came to an end in 1986, the writers wasted no time in installing Mollie Sugden in a new workplace-set sitcom, playing the head of an advertising agency who has to hire her husband – played by her real-life husband William Moore – as a new doorman. To be fair, this was quite a strong premise for a sitcom, but it seems that nobody remembered to put any jokes in. Or anything at all really.
Nora and George Powers have just come back from holiday in Spain. They idly muse on how nice it would be to live there, which is overheard by one of the women in the office, so they have to pretend that they’re going to emigrate out of politeness but then they don’t. And that’s it.
From the premise to the opening titles to the Wedding March-quoting theme song, you would be forgiven for assuming that My Husband And I dates from the mid-seventies. Which is why it’s something of a surprise to see it introduced by a solid gold 3D Yorkshire Television ‘chevron’ and realise that it’s actually from the mid-to-late eighties. But that’s honestly all that’s worth remarking on about it. There isn’t just a lack of jokes, there’s a lack of anything much happening at all, so much so that you’re pretty much still trying to work out what the storyline is as the closing credits roll. Sugden and Moore are both good in the lead roles, but are let down by having so little to work with, and by being supported by a poorly defined office full of ‘Sharons’ cackling about their boyfriends’ sexual habits and tutted at by a stern and frosty career woman. Which frankly makes it sound as though they are all given more to do than is actually the case. It’s quite common these days to hear people – including me – bemoaning the fact that ITV no longer put sitcoms on in the early evening. Then you remember examples like this, and kind of understand why.
Only When I Laugh: Away For Christmas (1981)
With its hardly upbeat central characters confined to a hospital ward on a long-term basis, and boasting the dubious distinction of the single most melancholy theme song in sitcom history, Only When I Laugh doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh a minute cavalcade of sharp wit and knockabout comedy. Yet that’s exactly what it was, hugely loved by a massive audience and clocking up an impressive twenty nine episodes between 1979 and 1982. One of the few actual ‘classics’ included here, and would almost certainly be more highly regarded if wasn’t for the fact that writer Eric Chappell had also previously created Rising Damp.
It’s Christmas on the ward, and while Figgis is as curmudgeonly and cynical as ever, Archie is looking forward to a late-night visit from the nurses, and Norman is looking forward to a nice long game of Escape From Colditz. There’s only one barrier to this – they’ve been joined for Christmas by a visitor from another ward, a small boy whom the hardly exactly full of festive cheer Nurse Gupte (“Working Christmas… is it against his religion?” – “No, he’s just bloody miserable”) informs them is being kept under close observation due to his tendency to start fires. This makes them somewhat regret their decision to give him a lighter to play with. Adding to the paucity of Christmas Spirit, strict ward consultant Mr. Thorpe is lurking around dressed as Santa (“You look the picture of kindness and benevolence… no-one would know you!”), intending to deliver presents to the children and something slightly less gift-wrappable to the nurses…
There’s very little that needs to be said about Only When I Laugh other than that it still stands up hilariously well, and indeed stands well above pretty much anything else in this set. James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli are inspired and distinguished choices as the three leads, as is the then little-known Richard Wilson as Thorpe, and the script is of as high a standard as you would expect from Eric Chappell. The contrast between the gloomy setting and production touches and the genuinely warm and witty interplay between the characters is sharp and effective, albeit amusingly underscored on this occasion by ending with footage of the out-of-character cast congratulating each other on a good take. What’s more, there’s not a single shred of ‘problematic’ humour in the entire episode. Would it be too much to hope that more of the same might follow…?
That’s My Boy: Cold Turkey (1983)
Although Christopher Blake – one of those sadly forgotten big television names who was all over top-rated dramas and sitcoms throughout the seventies and eighties – was the nominal lead of That’s My Boy, it was Mollie Sugden as his estranged mother who emerged as the real star of the series, grateful of the success after a couple of misfires and always happy to promote the show on Aspel And Company or Good Morning Britain. Hardly surprisingly, it was a huge and enduring hit – running near-constantly between 1981 and 1986 – and the cast were amongst ITV’s most recognisable faces of the time. There was only one problem – nobody ever seemed to find it that funny…
It’s set to be a chaotic Christmas in the Price household as Robert has invited a lonely colleague, Angie has invited his unpopular adoptive mother out of politeness, and Ida has invited her shifty brother, all of them without consulting each other. Somehow, they also end up playing host to a live turkey.
It feels wrong to have a go at That’s My Boy. It’s good natured and – a couple of dodgy gags aside (“That fairy’s not straight!” – “I’ve never met one that was!”) – fairly inoffensive, and at its heart is a decent and relatively straightforwardly amusing programme. However it’s also belief-beggaringly slow and takes what seems like an entire act to get from one plot point to another; moves awkwardly and jarringly from scene to scene with crude video wipe effects that would have been more at home in The Les Dennis Laughter Show; and is introduced by quite possibly the cheapest opening titles and most banal theme song in television history. All in all it has the air of something that wants so desperately to be good clean fun for all the family, but lost its nerve somewhere along the line and goes out of its way to sabotage its own chances of mass appeal. The only real saving grace is the toweringly likeable performance from Mollie Sugden, who gives Ida an appealing down-to-earth quality that you could be forgiven for not expecting given the caricatures she more normally traded in. And as it turns out, it wasn’t actually that difficult to combine this approach with an actual halfway decent sitcom…
Hallelujah!: A Goose For Mrs. Scratchitt (1984)
Given how closely she was latterly associated with serious drama (notably Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads) and religious broadcasting, especially her sixteen year stint as the presenter of the BBC’s Praise Be!, it’s easy to forget that Thora Hird was a gifted and prolific comic performer. However she enjoyed a long history of highly-rated roles in comedy films and three successful sitcoms – the BBC’s sixties hit Meet The Wife, as namechecked by The Beatles in Good Morning Good Morning; ITV’s gently bleak In Loving Memory, which was more akin to a social realist play with advertiser-friendly gags shoehorned in; and the more upbeat Hallelujah!, which followed the fortunes of a small-town Salvation Army branch. Although one of many religiously-themed sitcoms that have appeared over the years, it is possibly the only one to have featured sympathetically-portrayed lay worshippers as the main characters.
With Christmas approaching, Brigthorpe Salvation Army are hosting a party for disadvantaged local children, who prove to be more disruptive, questioning and rock music-obsessed than anyone had bargained for. Keen to restore order and remind everyone that “This is the Sally Ann, not The Old Grey Whistle Test“, Captain Ridley rolls up her sleeves and tries to distract the youthful miscreants with a story about her grandmother which, as her colleagues cannot help but notice, bears some striking similarities to several distinct and contradictory Charles Dickens novels…
Reflecting the inclusive street-level activities of the charity that it portrays – other episodes touched no matter how lightly on homelessness, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy – Hallelujah! is not what you would expect from a religious sitcom. Although played for laughs throughout, it is still aware of the real problems in the real world and Captain Ridley and her band are never shy of rolling up their sleeves and offering help. In this episode, the rowdy children are shown as maladjusted and seeking attention rather than feral disposables, and the Army’s reactions to them are exasperated and understanding rather than pious and judgemental. That said, the bulk of this episode is taken up by a genuinely funny and intentionally haphazard Dickens pastiche, featuring a rare television guest appearance from Joan Sims, and while perhaps not as radical as this description might make it sound, Hallelujah! deserves slightly better than to be bracketed with the bulk of unchallenging ITV sitcom fare. Speaking of which…
Duty Free: A Duty Free Christmas (1986)
Few sitcoms have enjoyed – if that’s the right word – a sharper fall from grace than Duty Free. Back in the eighties it wasn’t just ITV’s top-rated comedy show, even beating the combined might of the soap operas in the ratings in at least one occasion, but now it finds itself widely deployed as shorthand for ‘naff’. This may be partially attributable to disparaging surreal references by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer – not the only sitcom they had this kind of detrimental and reputationally damaging effect on, of course – but really it’s something of a mystery. Although not to everyone’s taste, and certainly less widely relatable than writer Eric Chappell’s other sitcoms, it was sharply written and well acted and a cut above most of the shows that sit alongside it here. In fact it often felt like a drama. And never more so than in this episode…
Broadcast on Christmas Day to a rapturous reception, this feature-length special sees the Pearces and the Cochrans in Spain for the Festive Season, as matters surrounding David and Linda’s affair come to a head against a backdrop of a hastily-arranged resort party and the inevitable last-minute standing in for Father Christmas. And… there’s really not much more of a plot than that.
Filmed entirely on location and with no audience laugh track, A Duty Free Christmas is surprisingly – and disappointingly – hard going. The actual jokes fall flat, while the bitter and recriminatory arguments just feel uncomfortable. It’s only really in the third act, when Amy and Robert decide to confront their away-playing spouses with mischief and sabotage on their minds, that it really takes a turn for the amusing. As a climactic episode for long-term viewers – of which there were millions upon millions – it undoubtedly delivered. Viewed standalone, however, it just doesn’t. It’s a shame to think of a series that deserves much better being represented by this frankly unrepresentative edition.
You’re Only Young Twice: Twas The Night Before Christmas (1980)
One of those sitcoms that was massively popular with very young children who were allowed to ‘stay up’ to watch it, You’re Only Young Twice charted the comic strip-like escapades of a group of ‘ladies of a certain vintage’ residing in the well-appointed Paradise Lodge. The constantly bickering caricatures were a favourite with audiences and clocked up thirty one episodes between 1977 and 1981, but nowadays hardly anyone remembers anything about it. To the extent that this writer sat down to watch it expecting an entirely different theme tune…
Christmas is approaching, and the fearsome Flora has her usual plans for how everyone else in Paradise Lodge should celebrate it. Her long-suffering sidekick Cissie is inevitably drafted in to play Santa, but there’s a complication; a burglar, also dressed up as the man in red, has broken into the Lodge. Who’s going to end up with the valuables and who’s going to end up with the pointedly-bought rubbish?
It would be a stretch to describe You’re Only Young Twice as a ‘classic’, but it’s certainly a good deal more fun than its latterday reputation might suggest. The cast, and Peggy Mount and Pat Coombs as the two leading elderly tearaways in particular, are hilarious, and while the plots are never more than standard comic misunderstandings – perhaps a part of the reason why none ever seem to have lodged themselves in the collective memory – they’re effectively constructed and deployed. It’s certainly a good deal more enjoyable than many of the other shows presented here, suggesting that maybe good clean fun has its place after all.
Home To Roost: Family Ties (1987)
Another of Eric Chappell’s many and undervalued successes for ITV, Home To Roost starred John Thaw in a ‘rare sitcom role’ – well, that’s how everyone else always describes it – as Henry Willows, a newly divorced man and loving it until his teenage son Matthew (Reece Dinsdale) shows up demanding to live with him. They are also occasionally joined by Matthew’s younger siblings; Julie, an adolescent best described as ‘a handful’, and Frank, a loud and attention-seeking ten-year-old. None of which exactly helps Henry to enjoy or exploit his new-found freedom, but he bears it all with… well, a good deal of exasperation really. Packed with smart one-liners, topical and relevant concerns and a rare determination to find the best in everyone in a difficult situation, Home To Roost was one of ITV’s biggest hits of the late eighties, and the sort of comedy show that had relatives rolling on the floor in worrying hysterics whenever you dropped round on a Friday night.
Henry has been dating a woman that he’s not told about his family yet, and decides to take her away for Christmas so that they can get to know each other better. Unaware of his real plans, the children decide to surprise him and turn up unannounced. While Henry tries desperately to keep everyone apart from each other until he’s comfortable with it, Julie has her eye on an older man, and Frank is bored and determined to make a nuisance of himself. It’s up to Matthew to hold everything together, and that should never be anyone’s preferred solution.
Although the pace does flag slightly across this double-length special, Home To Roost is still a likeable and on occasion rip-roaringly funny sitcom. What’s most surprising to see is how well-written the younger characters are, and that they have different dynamics between themselves and with their father. Their personalities and dialogue are convincing too; as well as an argument about which character was which in The Magic Roundabout, there’s even a bit of excitable (and, even more surprisingly, accurate) chat about Zombie Flesh-Eaters. As is all too common with Christmas Specials, this is very much a straightforward farce, but for once the writing actually aspires to that level rather than just borrowing the form, and the results speak for themselves. So are we going to go out on a high…?
Watching: Seasoning (1987)
Few comedy shows divided viewers of a certain age like Watching. Depending on which side of the fence you fell on, it was either an endearing, realistic and sharply funny superior take on the comedy-soap hybrid style that was all the rage in the late eighties, or a twee sappy irrelevance that people who snorted at you for liking This Is David Lander and Snakes And Ladders told you that you should watch instead because it was good. The fact that it had one of the most irritating theme songs in televisual history did not exactly help matters. Nor did the fact that it was shoved into the Sunday night ‘edgy comedy’ slot where you would more normally have found Clive James chortling at Pace microwaving a Spitting Image puppet of David Steel or something.
A traditional family Christmas is in the offing in the Wilson household, and while Pamela is content to sit back and enjoy herself with one eye on ‘the fellers’, mouthy Brenda and her more subdued motorbike-loving boyfriend Malcolm are tasked with securing a ‘real’ Christmas Tree at a bargain price from some less than savoury family associates. Needless to say, events do not go exactly to plan.
Watching is not quite the high watermark of television comedy that many seem determined to remember it as, but neither is it as dull and drippy as others insist. It’s a fine ensemble piece with authentic local flavour and genuine-seeming characters; a world away from the world of Carla Lane and company, and in some respects paving the way for the more widely acclaimed likes of Cold Feet and This Life. It’s certainly the most accomplished piece of television in this box set, but is that actually all that important? Along the way we’ve seen good, bad, baffling, gritty, fantastical, subtle, unsubtle, disappointing, surprising and, regrettably, On The Buses, and in many cases part of the fun has been seeing the joins. It’s important not to get too caught up in this reverie, though. Right at the moment, we’re surrounded by depressing examples of the pointless and deluded cul-de-sacs that nostalgia can lead you into, and whenever ham-faced irrelevances start droning on about how the biased BBC should remember the glory days when you got proper sitcoms where you could call women a cow and everything, you can bet your last Euro that they aren’t thinking about a good ninety percent of the programmes included here. It’s fine to miss the days when you could see a fun and very occasionally harmless sitcom in the early evening on both (or even all four) channels, but don’t confuse that with the quality of the actual programmes themselves. Often they just didn’t have any. So that’s Christmas On ITV done with, and as we move into the New Year, maybe it’s time to have some new sitcoms by new writers starring new people in those long-neglected early evening slots. And as there isn’t a Yorkshire Television Ltd. any more, there’s no risk of it being punched either. Sadly.
Classic ITV Christmas Comedy is available from Network here.
Buy A Book!
You can find an even longer version of Festive Episodes Of All Your Comedy Favourites!, with more on the many other shows mentioned in passing and plenty of equally fascinating and bewildering background detail, not to mention a brand new piece on the Rising Damp Christmas Special, in Can’t Help Thinking About Christmas, a collection of some of my Festive-themed pieces. Can’t Help Thinking About Christmas is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Or Do You Get Paid By The Joke? is a somewhat more charitable discussion of the movie version of Billy Liar, which you can find here.
A Fast Exciting All-Action Game is a feature looking at some of the more ridiculous TV tie-in board games of the seventies, including the totally uncalled for On The Buses game; you can find it here.
You can hear all about a much more palatable variant of Christmas television in the Looks Unfamiliar special on The Box Of Delights here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.