Festive Episodes Of All Your Comedy Favourites!

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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, 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…!

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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 on this collection, it’s probably safe to say.

Billy Liar 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 auditoned 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.

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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 disguide 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…

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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.

 

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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…

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.

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