Death log 2016 – part 2

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.

 

Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.

 

© Richmond Film Productions / Rank

 

TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).

 

Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).

 

© CBS / Epic

 

A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6802

 

There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6940

 

Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.

 

© Arena Productions / MGM Television

 

On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7111

 

The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7196

 

© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios

 

Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

TV comic genius 5: Steptoe and Son

 

(c) BBC

 

In the UK in the early 1970s, all young kids – like me – loved the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son.  We particularly loved the irascible and wily old rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe, played by Wilfred Brambell, who seemed so grotesque that he could have been created by Roald Dahl.  With his skull-like head, contorted features, mangled dentures, slobbering voice, spiteful cackle, stick-thin limbs, revolting habits and total disregard for personal hygiene, how could kids not have found him fascinating?

 

Those youngsters in the playground unlucky enough to be a bit sallow or thin-faced or to have a propensity for scratching themselves were doomed to live out their schooldays branded with the unglamorous nickname ‘Steptoe’.  And when we weren’t tormenting other kids for looking like Albert Steptoe, we tried our best to impersonate him: backs hunched, eyes leering, noses screwed up, teeth bared, voices gargling, “’Aaa-rold!  ’Aaa-rold!”

 

Harold Steptoe – Albert’s son and reluctant partner in the rag-and-bone trade, played by Harry H. Corbett – seemed a more conventional character to us young ’uns and was therefore less interesting.  But we did impersonations of him too, from the moment that frequently arose in the show when Harold would glare at Albert, his expression suggesting someone who’d just had a rhinoceros fart into his face, and contemptuously intone, “You dir-ty old man!”

 

We loved watching Steptoe and Son, which we managed somehow to do despite it being shown past our official bedtimes – after the Nine O’Clock News if I remember correctly.  We loved the yelling matches between Albert and Harold and the occasional slapstick: Harold pouring a bottle of surgical spirit over Albert’s bare arse in the 1974 episode Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs, or Albert trying to take a bath in the kitchen sink in the 1972 movie spin-off, only to have the curtains collapse and his emaciated nakedness revealed to a neighbour-lady outside.  We loved the ramshackle squalor of the Steptoe living room, as junk-filled as their front yard, with its anatomical skeleton, stuffed bear, gramophone, non-working grandfather clock and dusty old boxes containing Albert’s long-lost false teeth.  And we loved the sight-gags about the dung that regularly tumbled out of the Steptoes’ carthorse.

 

(c) BBC

 

For years my favourite Steptoe episode was 1974’s The Seven Steptoerai, which saw Harold and Albert’s livelihood under threat from a protection racket run by loathsome local gangster Frankie Barrow (deliciously played by character actor Henry Woolf).  Improbably, Albert assembles a ‘team’ consisting of his pension-age cronies who take on Barrow’s goons in the Steptoe yard and defeat them in vicious hand-to-hand combat.  The old fellows have somehow become adept at kung-fu fighting through watching lots of Bruce Lee movies at the local fleapit.  In the supporting cast for this episode is the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, whom I assume played one of the gangsters.  I love the idea that Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies once had the crap beaten out of him by Old Man Steptoe and his mates.

 

It’s a shock, then, to watch the show on Youtube forty years later and realise how bleak it is.  There’s a tragedy to it that sailed over my head when I was nine years old.  It’s still hilarious at times, but there are also moments when it definitely feels not funny because the depiction of Albert and Harold, and the relationship between them, is so painful.  (The Seven Steptoerai is actually a rare thing in the Steptoe world, a crowd-pleaser.)

 

Tellingly, my better half – who’s American – finds Steptoe and Son difficult to watch.  She admires the writing and acting, but to her the show just seems too depressing to be enjoyable.  It probably didn’t help that the episode with which I tried to introduce her to Steptoe and Son was 1972’s The Desperate Hours.  This has a pair of escaped convicts – a young one played by Leonard Rossiter and an old one played by J.G. Devlin – invade the Steptoe residence and demand food, warmth and shelter.  “First of all,” says Rossiter, “we want some grub.  We’re starving!”  “So are we,” stammers Harold.  It transpires that financially the Steptoes have been going through a bad patch, with the result that their electricity keeps getting cut off, the house is freezing and the only sustenance in the kitchen is some cold lumpy porridge, a rock-hard piece of bread and some ancient cheese.  “You can scrape the green bits off,” says Albert helpfully.

 

Rossiter and Devlin soon realise they were better off in prison – which, predictably, is where they are again at the episode’s end, though not before the Steptoes have cadged off them some cigarettes and some money to stick in the electricity coin-meter.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Harold and Albert are equally imprisoned, in poverty.

 

(c) BBC

 

The Desperate Hours also highlights a different type of imprisonment – a spiritual type – that’s a strong theme throughout Steptoe and Son.  Harold befriends Rossiter’s convict after hearing how his career in crime was hobbled by his partnership with the elderly Devlin.  It was Devlin whose geriatric incompetence got the pair of them caught in the first place.  And it’s likely that his slowness and frailty will get them caught again following their escape.  The convicts’ relationship, Harold realises, parallels his own relationship with his dad; because Harold has spent years trying to better himself and escape from the lowly life of a rag-and-bone man, only to have every attempt thwarted by the exasperating but crafty and manipulative Albert.

 

It’s more complicated than that, though.  Harold’s aspirations for better things aren’t always noble.  Sometimes they’re fueled by pure snobbery.  In another 1972 episode, Porn Yesterday, Harold finds an antique What the Butler Saw machine during his rounds and is horrified to learn that one of the naked performers cavorting on the naughty film-reel inside is his own father – during hard times in the 1920s, Albert was forced to eke a living acting in vintage porn movies.  One of Harold’s first thoughts is that if this revelation gets out in the local community, it’ll scupper his chances of joining the golf club.

 

And Harold can be callous.  In an earlier episode, 1964’s Home Fit for Heroes, he joins a yacht-crew who intend to voyage around the world for two years and he has no qualms about abandoning Albert to a miserable existence in an old folks’ home.  The plan falls through eventually, but not because Harold suffers a crisis-of-conscience about his father.  It’s because the bright young things crewing the yacht change their mind about having Harold on board.  They decide – irony! – he’s too old to travel with them.

 

Meanwhile, the reason for Albert’s deviousness towards Harold isn’t that he’s a bastard who wants to keep his son in a life of penury.  It’s that he knows, deep down, that if Harold leaves him he’ll die a sad and lonely old man.  In Home Fit for Heroes there’s a scene where Harold bids Albert farewell at the old folks’ home.  Then the camera lingers on Albert, sitting silently and alone on the bed of his bare new room.  And it lingers… and lingers… and lingers.  That’s another disconcerting example of Steptoe and Son ceasing to be funny.

 

(c) BBC

 

Steptoe and Son was the brainchild of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing partnership who’d previously penned radio and TV scripts for the celebrated Tony Hancock.  It was born out of an episode called The Offer that Galton and Simpson wrote for the anthology series Comedy Playhouse and, subsequently, it ran for eight seasons: four black-and-white ones broadcast from 1962 to 1965 and four colour ones broadcast from 1970 to 1974, with Galton and Simpson providing all the scripts.  There were also two movie versions, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1975, but they weren’t up to much (though the second one at least featured the welcome return of the delightfully scummy Frankie Barrow).  Meanwhile, American TV producer Norman Lear borrowed the premise for the African-American sitcom Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977 and was set in the Watts district of Los Angeles.  Among the writers contributing scripts to Sanford and Son, incidentally, was the late, lamented Gary Shandling.

 

In recent years, the comic excellence of Steptoe and Son has been overshadowed by speculation about what went on behind the scenes.  It’s been claimed that the relationship between stars Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett was as antagonistic as the relationship between their characters.  Brambell was a gay man at a time in Britain when being a practising homosexual could land you in prison and, supposedly, his paranoia about this led to him drinking too much and regularly fluffing his lines – much to the anger of Corbett, a serious method-actor who’d once been touted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando.  That Corbett’s career as the British Brando never materialised, due to him being typecast as Harold Steptoe, allegedly embittered him further about the show and about Brambell.  In 2008, this unhappy narrative became the basis for a BBC Four play called The Curse of Steptoe, starring Jason Isaacs as Corbett, Phil Davis as Brambell, Burn Gorman as Galton and Rory Kinnear as Simpson.

 

By 2008, both Corbett and Brambell were long dead and couldn’t give their side of the story.  But Galton and Simpson were still around – and are still around – and made no bones about how they thought The Curse of Steptoe’s version of events was rubbish.  The two actors, they argued, had “worked beautifully together.”  My own suspicion is that the stuff about Corbett and Brambell being at each other’s throats was indeed a myth.  Partly it was fuelled by people’s tendency to confuse what they see onscreen with what they assume is the case off it.  And partly it was because Galton and Simpson’s careers were already associated with one tragedy – after breaking with them in 1961, Tony Hancock lost his comedic magic touch, saw his career decline, succumbed to alcoholism and died of an overdose in 1968 – which I suppose made it tempting to cook up another tragedy to associate with them.  Hence, The Curse of Steptoe.

 

Steptoe and Son is for my money the best situation comedy that British telly ever produced.  As I said, Galton and Simpson are still with us – both now a venerable 86 – and in May this year they were awarded a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which was long overdue.  Harold and Albert, meanwhile, bowed out with a 1974 Christmas special wherein Harold, for once, manages to rid himself of Albert.  Temporarily, at least – tricking the old codger into going off on holiday so that he can spend some quality time at home with a (hitherto-unmentioned) girlfriend.  And I think that was an appropriate time to bid adios to the duo.

 

I’d really prefer not to know what happened to Albert, Harold and their rag-and-bone business during the cutthroat Thatcherite 1980s.

 

(c) BBC

 

The last Ronnie

 

(c) BBC

 

The death the other day of the diminutive comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett dominated Britain’s TV news broadcasts, which prompted one truculent commentator to complain on Twitter about the media’s ongoing trivialisation of current affairs.  (Yes, Gerry Hassan, I’m looking at you.)

 

Well, I’m as against the trivialisation of current affairs as much as the next humourless curmudgeon.  But in the case of Ronnie Corbett I’ll make an exception.  I’m glad that he dominated the news.  He deserved to.

 

By his life’s end, Ronnie Corbett occupied a unique position in the British comedy world.  He was part of the old-fashioned, golf-playing light-entertainment establishment that includes such venerable personalities as Bruce ‘Brucie’ Forsyth, Jimmy ‘Tarby’ Tarbuck and Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson.  But he was adored by younger and more anarchic comedians too.  (Though I use those adjectives subjectively.  I’m referring to any British comedian who became famous after about 1980.  And come to think of it, some of them aren’t so young, nor so anarchic, anymore.)

 

What’s often forgotten is that Corbett and his long-term comic partner Ronnie Barker (who died in 2005) were involved with another strand of British humour, the Monty Python one.  Both men worked with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman on The Frost Report, hosted by journalistic legend David Frost from 1966 to 1967.  And various Pythons wrote sketches for them in subsequent years.  Indeed, I’ve read that Corbett and Barker first gravitated towards one another because they felt slightly out-of-place among Frost and the Pythons, who’d all been educated at Cambridge University.  Although Corbett and Barker had grown up in big university towns, Edinburgh and Oxford respectively, neither of them had attended university.

 

(c) BBC

 

That maybe fed into The Frost Report’s most celebrated moment, the Class Sketch, which has the towering John Cleese, the average-height Barker and the tiny Corbett standing in a row, respectively representing the upper, middle and working classes.  The three of them extol the advantages and disadvantages of their social positions, whilst physically reinforcing what they say by turning to look down on, or up at, their neighbours.  Of course, Cleese has all the advantages and does all the looking down; whereas Corbett is confined to delivering the regular punchline: “I know my place.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VxkltwS9g0

 

Corbett and Barker revived the sketch for the BBC’s Millennium Show in 2000, with Stephen Fry standing in for Cleese.  It sounded like it was going to be pants, but given a charming historical twist – now Fry is Modern Man, Barker is Renaissance Man and Corbett is Medieval Man – it works rather nicely.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JSahEDRjvw

 

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker made waves, with their comedy sketch show The Two Ronnies becoming a mainstay of the BBC’s Saturday-night schedule – a schedule already packed with massively popular shows like Doctor Who, The Generation Game and Match of the Day.  Okay, it also included Jim’ll Fix It, but let’s not talk about that just now.

 

Though The Two Ronnies sometimes got astronomical ratings – 17 million on one occasion – the duo never received the critical acclaim they deserved.  The critics of the time seemed to consider them a tad too bland and showbizy in comparison with the era’s other big TV comedy double-act, the more character-based and idiosyncratic Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.  It wasn’t until 1987, when the show was shelved because of Barker’s failing health, that, belatedly, people realised how good it’d been.

 

While Morecambe and Wise had fixed personas – Morecambe was the anarchic buffoon and Wise the harassed straight man – the Ronnies were malleable.  Both men could play funny or straight and during those 16 years they essayed many different characters.  And like another Saturday-night BBC staple, Doctor Who, I think I appreciated The Two Ronnies so much because it was, at heart, a writers’ show.  Among The Two Ronnies’ writing talent were Cleese, Idle, Palin, Jones, John Sullivan, Barry Cryer, David Renwick, the brilliant but deranged Spike Milligan, and David Nobbs, author of the sublime and subversive sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

 

Because they didn’t have to create their sketches around established personalities, the writers were able to experiment – and they and their two performers had a lot of fun playing with the English language and exploiting its paradoxes and absurdities.  (They also, it has to be said, crammed in a lot of good-natured smut.)

 

(c) BBC

 

The most famous example of Two Ronnies-style wordplay was the Four Candles sketch, which was written by Ronnie Barker.  (Nobly, Barker kept his writing identity secret and submitted scripts to the show under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley, wanting his work to be considered by its own merits and not by who he was.)  Four Candles has the proprietor of a hardware store – though for joke purposes it also sells peas – being driven mad by a series of misunderstandings with a near-monosyllabic customer.  It revels in the peculiarities of English pronunciation and their potential for misinterpretation: for example, H-dropping (‘o’s’ mistaken for ‘hoes’), homophones (‘p’s’ mistaken for ‘peas’) and juncture (‘fork handles’ mistaken for the titular ‘four candles’).

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz2-ukrd2VQ

 

Also clever was the Mastermind sketch, a piss-take of the BBC’s relentlessly-interrogative quiz show.  Corbett plays a contestant whose chosen subject is “answering the question before last each time”.  This leads to such surreal exchanges as: “What is palaeontology?”  “Yes, absolutely correct.”  “What’s the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage?”  “A study of old fossils.”  Although the cultural references (Dean Martin, Len Murray, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Bernard Manning) have dated, it’s still very amusing.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0C59pI_ypQ

 

The format of The Two Ronnies also allowed both Ronnies to perform individually.  Critical opinion once had it that Barker was the more talented of the duo, but time has proven kind to Corbett.  There’s now much admiration for the technical skill he showed during his regular solo slots when he’d sit on an armchair and tell the audience a long and rambling joke.

 

Admittedly, you’d normally see the punchlines to those jokes on the horizon, five minutes before they arrived; but their telling was glorious.  Corbett delivered masterclasses in cadence, digression, self-deprecation, innuendo, comic timing and mutual performer-audience conspiracy.  (You know that the joke’s going to be rubbish.  He knows that you know that it’s going to be rubbish.  You know that he knows that you know…  Etc.)  All came in the inimitable Corbett package of chortles and catchphrases: invariably, “Now I know what you’re thinking…” and “I was having a round of golf with the producer the other day…”

 

Come to think of it, he was probably the closest thing Britain had to a practitioner of rakugo, the venerable Japanese art of comic story-telling.

 

A decade after The Two Ronnies, and at a time when Ronnie Corbett’s profile was much lower than it’d been, Ben Elton – one-time doyen of Britain’s alternative comedians – persuaded him to dust down the armchair and appear in a regular guest-slot on 1998’s Ben Elton Show.  Prior to his first performance, Corbett was dreading how Elton’s young and racy audience would react to an old fogey like him.  But, needless to say, when he materialised onstage on the armchair and in the trademark glasses and golfing sweater, a cheer went up; and lo, a star was reborn.

 

Of course, it transpired that the younger generation loved him too – having watched The Two Ronnies as kids.  So started the Ronnie Corbett revival, which probably peaked on Christmas Day 2010 when the BBC aired a special called The One Ronnie, which had Corbett appearing in a series of sketches alongside such modish comic talent as Miranda Hart, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Harry Enfield and Rob Brydon.  Incidentally, Brydon is something of a Ronnie-obsessive: he seems to have spent half his career doing impersonations of him.

 

The same year, he appeared in the comedy-horror film Burke and Hare alongside another slew of modern comedians and comic performers, including Simon Pegg, Reece Shearsmith, Bill Bailey and Jessica Hynes.  (And the other day, both Pegg and Shearsmith showed their respects by tweeting pictures of themselves posing with him during the movie’s making.)  Directed by John Landis, Burke and Hare was set in Corbett’s native Edinburgh and had him playing the head of the city’s early-19th-century militia.  The American-but-Anglophile Landis is a big Two Ronnies fan, by the way.  He’d even wanted to cast Ronnie Barker in An American Werewolf in London back in 1982.

 

(c) BBC

 

But Corbett’s greatest late-career moment surely came in 2006, when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had him cameo in their showbiz satire Extras.  The show depicts him as an unlikely drugs fiend who entices Gervais and Merchant into a toilet cubicle backstage at the BAFTA Awards Ceremony to snort cocaine.  They’re caught by security.  The ensuing scene has the three of them lined up in front of a disgruntled security chief: “Corbett…  It’s always bloody Corbett!”  With Corbett standing next to the medium-height Gervais and the gangly Merchant (who looms over him like Chewbacca looming over R2D2), it’s reminiscent of the Class Sketch with Barker and Cleese forty years earlier.

 

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2qzdkd

 

TV comic genius 4: Peep Show

 

(c) Channel 4

 

Now seems an opportune time to write some words in praise of Channel 4’s long-running situation comedy Peep Show, which last night aired its final episode.

 

Peep Show has, over twelve years and nine seasons, been a hilarious and compelling saga of male loser-dom.  It’s charted the progress, from their late-twenties to the beginning of their forties, of two misfits who seem totally dissimilar – apart from the hopelessness that pervades both their existences and especially pervades their dealings with the opposite sex – but who have a symbiotic relationship nonetheless.

 

There’s the cerebral, conservative, timid and endlessly self-torturing Mark Corrigan, the sort of bloke who muses when he spies a women he once went to school with: “I should speak to her, but what the hell should I say…?  Anything that doesn’t mention I masturbate over her memory is probably good.”  And there’s the dim, carnally-obsessed, self-deluding and relentlessly naïve Jez Usbourne, whose love-life seems to be a mantra of: “Oh God, I think I love her.  I think I’m falling in love.  Or getting a bone-on, which is basically the same thing when you get rid of all the Valentine cards and bullshit.”

 

While Jez is an unrepentant slacker, Mark has resigned himself to a weary and dreary lifetime of office-work, tax returns, mortgages and bills; and the former spends the show as the latter’s lodger and co-habitant in his pad in the unglamorous southern-London district of Croydon.  Inevitably, there’s friction between the two: “You’re a posh spaz,” Jez accuses Mark at one point.  “Really?  Well, I’d love to know in what way I’m a posh spaz.”  “In the way that you do posh, spazzy things…  Like tidying up and… ironing your socks.”  Or as Jez describes Mark another time: a “fusty, sweater wearing, spirit-crushing no-fly-zone with a ten-foot carrot up his ass.”  But there’s a real sense that neither would survive without the other.

 

(c) Channel 4

 

Playing Mark and Jez are the comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb and such is the impact they’ve had in these roles that I find it difficult to accept them doing anything else.  Their BBC2 sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, for example, doesn’t quite work for me – because no matter who they’re playing, I keep expecting there to be a flash of lightning and a puff of smoke, and suddenly the pair of them have reverted to being two neurotics from Croydon.

 

Sitcoms about people living in flats together are ten-a-penny – ranging from the charming old 1970s show The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to that 1990s / 2000s epic of smug yuppie ghastliness Friends.  But Peep Show has two distinguishing traits.  Firstly, the audience is frequently treated to point-of-view shots where Mark and Jez peer wearily / cynically at the world around them and their inner thoughts play as voice-overs.  Needless to say, these thoughts are usually angst-ridden in Mark’s case (“How do I feel?  Empty?  Check.  Scared?  Check.  Alone?  Check.  Just another ordinary day…”) and delusional in Jez’s (“I’m definitely the alpha-est male here…  I’m definitely king of the hippie jungle!”)

 

The other distinguishing trait is the show’s dark tone – and during its nine-season run there’ve been moments when I’ve wondered, queasily, just how dark it can get.  Season 4 alone, for instance, had Mark lying at Jez’s behest about being touched inappropriately in the gym, so that a gym-worker who is Jez’s love rival loses his job.  (“Please don’t do this!  This is my career!”  “You should have thought about that when you were touching his cock.”)  It has Jez peeing his pants in the middle of a wedding ceremony.  (“Am I actually going to piss on the church…?  Richard Dawkins walks the walk but does he actually follow through with an actual act of piss?”)  And it has the infamous episode Holiday, which climaxes with Jez eating bits of someone’s pet dog – which he’s accidentally driven over and then tried to dispose of by setting on fire – pretending that it’s barbecued turkey.  (“I’m eating dog leg!  This is definitely a new low.”)

 

(c) Channel 4

 

Thankfully, when the antics of the two main characters become too disturbing, Peep Show has an entertaining supporting cast to divert one’s attention.  This includes the various women who, over the years, have had the misfortune to become involved with Mark and Jez: the increasingly unhinged Sophie (Olivia Coleman), Mark’s ex-wife and mother of his child, who by Season 9 has become a shambling alcoholic; the eccentric Dobby (Isy Suttie) who replaces Sophie in Mark’s affections when he discovers that Dobby is as much of a misfit as he is – the problem being that she’s a cool, bohemian misfit, whereas he’s truly the misfit’s misfit; Jez’s posh ex-girlfriend, Big Suze (played by Sophie Winkleman, who in real life has a properly posh pedigree – she’s married to Lord Frederick Windsor, son of Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin); and the vacuous and fickle Russian bisexual Elena (Vera Filatova), with whom Jez becomes infatuated in Season 6.

 

Inevitably, the male supporting characters get entangled in this web of relationships and become rivals to Mark and Jez.  There’s Alan Johnson (Paterson Joseph), Mark’s frighteningly focused alpha-male boss who eventually ends up with Big Suze, though not before Mark discovers to his alarm that he’s developed a ‘man-crush’ on him.  There’s the annoying Jeff (Neil Fitzpatrick) who delights in tormenting Mark about his lack of virility whilst also pursuing Sophie.  And there’s the mouse-like, perpetually unhealthy Gerrard (Jim Howick), who becomes Mark’s main competitor when he’s trying to woo Dobby and who often seems to have the upper hand because Dobby feels sorry for him – having a tube up his nose helps.  In a typically dark Peep Show twist, Gerrard dies at the start of Season 8, but even then he manages to get in the way of Mark and Dobby: “Well played, Gerrard.  You couldn’t beat me on earth, so now you’re shitting on me from heaven, like a dead jealous person.”

 

(c) Channel 4

 

But Peep Show’s greatest supporting character is the substance-addled Super Hans, played by the excellent Matt King.  As well as being Jez’s not-to-be-trusted partner in his attempts to crack the music business, a drug-fiend and a liability to all who know him, Super Hans has a predilection for snakes – though his knowledge of which ones are poisonous and which ones aren’t is a little shaky.  “Red next to black, jump the f*** back,” he assures Mark and Jez when he turns up at a party draped in one lethal-looking serpent.  “Red and yella, cuddly fella.”  “But red is next to black,” points out Mark.  “Yeah, I dunno…  He’s been milked, I should think.”

 

(c) Channel 4

 

I suspect that the show’s writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, have had a dilemma with Super Hans – wanting to limit his appearances so that the character remains fresh and funny, whilst also having him in the limelight long enough to keep the audience happy.  Come to think of it, the worst thing that Channel 4 could do now would be to give him his own spin-off series.  Meanwhile, I’ve no doubt that there’s a clothing company somewhere churning out T-shirts emblazoned with Super Hans’ endlessly-quotable and usually drug-inspired one-liners.  (Most memorable of all: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis.  You can’t trust people.”  I think that’s the Peep Show quote I could live my life by.)

 

It’s probably just as well that Peep Show ended last night, before it stopped being a comedy altogether and turned into something bleaker.  I imagine that if Mark grew a little more of a backbone and Jez developed a little more of a brain, they’d become like the Brandon and Philip characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope – and end up murdering someone just for the hell of it.

 

(c) Channel 4

 

TV comic genius 3: Bilko

 

From www.bpsas.co.uk

 

I don’t know about you, but with all the terrible things happening in the world recently I feel I could do with a laugh.  So I’ve decided to inaugurate on this blog a semi-regular series called TV Comic Genius, which will look at various TV comedy shows I’ve been fond of over the years.  I’m dubbing this first instalment number three because, looking in the Blood and Porridge archives, I realise I’ve already written pieces about two of my favourite comedies, Dad’s Army (http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=4548) and Father Ted (http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5159). 

 

What qualifies as great comedy is purely a matter of taste – my taste.  So don’t expect me to be writing about Friends anytime soon.  Or anytime ever.

 

I can’t help but feel that Sergeant Ernie Bilko – played by the late, great Phil Silvers in the CBS situation comedy that ran from 1955 to 1959 under the titles of The Phil Silvers Show and You’ll Never Get Rich, though British audiences usually knew it as plain old Bilko – is a figure whose genius is under-appreciated in his native land.

 

My American girlfriend, for instance, seems strangely unaware of the greatness of the show, in which the devious Bilko runs the motor pool at a US Army base called Fort Baxter and takes every opportunity to fleece his fellow soldiers in gambling rackets, get-rich-quick schemes and generally dodgy pieces of capitalism, whilst simultaneously running rings around his incompetent commanding officers.  Whenever I mention it and she professes her indifference, I find myself waving my arms in the air, suffering palpitations and spluttering, “But it’s Bilko…  Bilko…!  Bilko!!!

 

I’m surprised that Americans don’t have Bilko higher on their cultural radar.  In the UK, in contrast, people of my age and older seem to have absorbed the show into their DNA.  The BBC first broadcast it from 1957 to 1961, and then repeated it from 1961 to 1967, and then pretty-much showed it on a loop, in the late evening or early morning, from 1973 to 2004.

 

It was a British Bilko fan, for instance, who caused a near-riot when she wore a T-shirt with the crafty sergeant’s face on it whilst travelling through Tibet in 1987.  In a Tibetan town called Gyangste, a Chinese soldier tried to tear the T-shirt off her while hundreds of locals gathered around them and grew increasingly agitated.  The incident was triggered by the resemblance — visible to Chinese and Tibetan eyes, if not to anyone else’s — between Phil Silvers and the Dalai Lama (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-11-13/news/mn-13983_1_dalai-lama).

 

From www.avelyman.com

From www.zeropoint.ca

 

And recently a devoted fan in the English Midlands town of Coventry opened a museum dedicated to Bilko (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-34639443).  Journalists treated the story with bemusement, though considering the number of British Bilko buffs I’ve known over the years I’m just surprised such a museum wasn’t opened here sooner.

 

Why did Bilko appeal so much in Britain, I wonder?  Could it be the sergeant’s similarity to the greatest comic character in British literature, Sir John Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two and The Merry Wives of Windsor?  Both Falstaff and Bilko are swaggering, garrulous, egomaniacal characters for whom life wouldn’t be worth living if they didn’t think they were cocks of the walk.  They manipulate like mad, they’re entirely untrustworthy, and despite their endless boasts about being dynamic men of action they plainly hunger for the easy life.

 

And to justify their self-importance, both need a constant entourage of simpler-minded souls around them.  But while Falstaff makes do with Bardolph, Nym and Ancient Pistol, Bilko has an army of disciples, sidekicks and stooges.  It’s literally an army because it consists of corporals, privates and fellow-sergeants at Fort Baxter – Barbella, Henshaw, Fender, Zimmerman, Paparelli, Mullen, Dobermann, Ritzik and Grover.  (These were played by, respectively, Harvey Lembeck, Allan Melvin, Herbie Faye, Mickey Freeman, Billy Sands, Jack Healy, Maurice Gosfield, Joe E. Ross and Jimmy Little.  At least three of them later worked for the TV kiddies’ animation studio Hanna-Barbera – Melvin voiced Drooper in The Banana Splits, Gosfield voiced Benny the Ball in Top Cat and Ross voiced Botch in The Hair Bear Bunch and Sarge in Hong Kong Phooey – so when I first saw Bilko as a teenager, I was puzzled that though I didn’t know the faces of his entourage, they certainly sounded familiar.)

 

The size of their ‘crews’ isn’t the only way in which Bilko and Falstaff differ.  The latter’s seedy exuberance has its limits.  Falstaff’s ultimately shown to be pathetic and contemptible.  He’s crushed at the end of Henry IV Part Two when Prince Hal snarls, “I know thee not old man…” – the prince has ascended to England’s throne and he’s disgusted to see his disreputable, roly-poly former companion turn up at his coronation looking for favours.  Accordingly, it seems apt that Falstaff dies at the start of the ensuing Henry V.

 

Bilko, though, is a force of nature.  Not even a king could put him in his box.  If he’d received the rebuttal that Falstaff did in Henry IV Part Two, you suspect that a minute later he’d have bounced back and smooth-talked Hal into buying a dodgy second-hand coronation carriage or a hundred pairs of boots – all left boots, no right ones – for the coronation-parade guard of honour.

 

 From www.emmytvlegends.org

 

Bilko’s dishonesty and the fact that he’s unstoppable should make him monstrous.  He does, however, contains glimmers of virtue.  Occasionally he’ll act protectively towards the soldiers serving under him, even if for the rest of the time he’s trying to empty their pockets.  For instance, in the episode The Con Men Private Doberman – who, played as a man-child by Maurice Gosfield, measuring five-feet-two-inches tall and 200 pounds in weight and sporting a nose that wouldn’t disgrace a proboscis monkey, is surely the most hapless character in the show’s cast – receives a pile of money as an insurance pay-out.  Bilko stalks in like a Jurassic Park velociraptor to relieve Doberman of his money, but then the ultra-naïve private tries to give it to him, believing that Bilko will invest it wisely in one of his schemes.  Bilko backs off, unexpectedly conscience-stricken.  Later, a trio of conmen cheat Doberman out of the money and Bilko intervenes, takes on the conmen at cards and wins it back for him.

 

In other words, being with Bilko at Fort Baxter is like living in a high-tax-regime Scandinavian country.  It takes away your money but at least you get some paternalistic care in return.

 

Of course, Bilko contains a more obvious strand of socialism.  The show revels in how the blue-collar drones at the bottom of the pile hoodwink, manipulate and put one over on the fat-cats at the top – in this case the commanding officers at Fort Baxter, who’re usually depicted as a shower of rarefied and gullible nincompoops.  It’s telling that many of the non-commissioned men at the base have non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant surnames – Barbella, Zimmerman, Paparelli, Ritzik, Bilko himself – while the officers’ quarters have the stultifying air of an ‘old money’ country club.

 

From www.philsilvershow.com

 

The base’s commander, Colonel Hall, played by the wonderful Paul Ford, is at least wise enough to know that Bilko is always up to something.  But he’s never quick-witted enough to figure out what he’s doing, and how to stop him, until it’s too late.  Meanwhile, though Bilko comes from a lower stratum of Fort Baxter society, he never misses a beat when he intrudes on its upper echelons and rubs shoulders with his supposed superiors.  He’s particularly good at flattering and, of course, manipulating the silly, giddy creatures that are the officers’ wives.  (“I’m sorry, the Colonel didn’t tell me his daughter was visiting…  Why…  It’s Mrs Hall!”)  While those ladies blush and titter before Bilko’s smarm, poor old Hall watches with the anguish of a farmer seeing a fox move in on his prize hens.

 

Nonetheless, you get a sense of dependency – affection, even – between Bilko and Hall.  In the episode The Transfer, the colonel’s dream seems to come true when Bilko is reassigned to another base and is replaced at Fort Baxter by a proper, professional soldier.  Unfortunately, his replacement proves to be so efficient that he makes life a misery for all the other, less competent men around him, Hall included.  The Colonel realises that – surprise! – he actually misses Bilko and wants him back.

 

Indeed, very occasionally, Hall allies himself with Bilko, though the results are predictably disastrous.   This is never more so than in the episode The Case of Private Harry Speakup, in which Hall wants to speed up the induction process for new recruits and Bilko lends a hand by making the medical and psychiatric tests less rigorous.  As a consequence, a pet chimpanzee called Zippy accidentally gets inducted and ends up in army uniform.

 

The remarkable thing about Bilko is that for a show six decades old, it’s still extraordinarily funny.  Much of this is due to the smartness of the scripts, which were largely written by Nat Hiken, the show’s creator.  (Among the other writers contributing to the show was a pre-Broadway Neil Simon.)  Hiken’s talents helped Bilko win three consecutive Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series, though in 1959, the last year of its life, it lost out in the Emmys to the more-of-its-time The Jack Benny Program.  Incidentally, does anyone today find the creaking, ponderous Jack Benny funny?

 

But obviously, a large part of the joy of Bilko comes from Phil Silvers’ performance in the main role.  All glasses, grin and jabbering voice, Silvers swooshes around Fort Baxter like a quick-thinking, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing whirlwind.  So fast does he go that it’s a wonder Silvers manages to affect any comic timing or, indeed, generate any coherent jokes from the character.  But he does, endlessly.  It doesn’t surprise me that the great comic character actor Robbie Coltrane has praised him for “the speed and accuracy of his delivery.”

 

Classic TV comedy is full of memorably manic performances.  But they run the risk of becoming tiresome.  One example is Basil Fawlty, who – despite the talents of the man inhabiting the role, John Cleese – leaves you feeling exhausted after you’ve sat through a half-hour episode of Fawlty Towers.  Yet I’ve never had that feeling with Bilko.  So entertaining is his high-octane conniving that I could happily spend whole days in his company.  Mind you, by the end of it, he’d no doubt have fleeced me of every penny in my possession

 

And by the way, any BBC people who might be reading this – isn’t it time you gave the show another airing?  By modern standards, it might be a bit too technically primitive for your mainstream channels.  But I don’t see why it couldn’t be repeated on BBC4, which would give yet another British generation a chance to appreciate the genius of Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken.

 

From fountainpop.com

 

A story of Scotland’s independence referendum: ‘Mither’

 

From www.derekthomas.wordpress.com

From www.sodahead.com

 

Today, September 18th, is the first anniversary of 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. 

 

That’s right – a year has now passed since the Scottish electorate voted, by a majority of 55% to 45%, in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.  A year has passed since the circuses of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns were in full swing, which brought with them all manner of spectacles and happenings: interventions in support of the ‘no’ camp from personages as mighty as Barack Obama, the Pope, the Queen and J.K. Rowling; George Osborne threatening Scots that he wouldn’t let them continue using the pound if they voted ‘yes’; Alex Salmond losing his cool at Nick Robinson and the BBC; Jim Murphy getting struck by that dastardly egg; and the mainstream newspapers assuring us that a ‘yes’ vote would cause the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gallop across Scotland spreading war, conquest, famine and death.

 

One narrative that the media peddled back then was that Scotland had become a divided country.  Families were in turmoil.  Parents and children, brothers and sisters, who’d previously lived together in harmony, had changed into rabid yes-sers and no-ers who were suddenly at each other’s throats.  For instance, last summer, the journalist Jenny Hjul wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In Scotland… politics has become deeply personal.  We might have friends who are nationalists but they aren’t speaking to us at the moment…  The coming referendum has rendered such cross-party camaraderie inconceivable and it’s hard to see the day when things will return to normal.”  To be honest, considering the anti-independence poison and bile secreted by Hjul and her husband, the Telegraph’s Scottish editor Alan Cochrane, into their writings over the years, I’m amazed that they ever had nationalist friends in the first place.

 

Anyway, the Scottish-families-divided-by-independence theme inspired me a while ago to write a short story that took the idea to its logical extreme.  And seeing as it’s September 18th again, I thought I’d take this opportunity to post the story here.  So I now give you…  Mither.

 

***

 

I must have dozed while I sat in the office and read the literature that’d landed on our porch floor that morning.  I hadn’t heard her go out.  I only heard the porch door scrape open and shut as she came back.

 

‘Mither,’ I said when she entered the office.  ‘You were outside.’

 

She settled into the armchair with the tartan-patterned cushions that’d been her seat – her throne, we called it – when she ran the business by herself.  Now that I was mostly in charge, I had my own seat in the office but I kept the throne there should she want to use it.  She smoothed her skirt across her knees.  She was a modern-minded woman – at times too modern-minded because she had some ideas you’d expect more in a giddy teenager – but she avoided trousers and stuck to old-fashioned long skirts.  ‘Aye, Norrie.  I’ve been out and about.’

 

I didn’t like the sound of that but before I could quiz her she leaned forward from the throne and took the leaflet out of my hand.  ‘What’s this you’re reading?  Don’t say they’ve shovelled more shite through our door.’

 

It pained me to hear her genteel voice soiled by coarse language.  But I stayed patient.  ‘It’s actually interesting, Mither.  It’s an interview with a normal young couple, a professional young couple, about what might happen if the referendum result is…’  I searched for a word that’d cause minimum offence.  ‘Unexpected.’

 

Mither sighed and her eyes swivelled up in their sockets.

 

‘Now I ken you’re sceptical, Mither.  But they seem decent.  He’s called Kenneth and she’s called Gina.  And they’re worried about the effect independence would have on them.’

 

Mither’s eyes swivelled down again.  Then I saw them twitch from side to side while they scanned the text on the leaflet.

 

I pressed on.  ‘It wouldn’t have a good effect, Mither.  It’d be bad for them.’  Why did my voice tremble?  Why was I afraid?  ‘The financial uncertainty. How would decent hardworking people like them – like me – cope if all the business fled south and the prices shot up?  And the banks…  Why, I read in the paper the other day about an expert who said the bank machines would stop dispensing cash if the vote was yes!’

 

‘Does,’ asked Mither, ‘this say what Kenneth does for a living?’

 

‘And even if we still have cash, Mither, what would our currency be?  We won’t have the pound – George Osborne and Ed Balls down in Westminster won’t allow it!  We’ll have to make do with some banana-republic-type currency.  Or worse, the euro!’

 

From mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com

 

‘Norrie,’ said Mither, ‘calm down.  Does this leaflet actually say what Kenneth’s job is?’

 

‘Aye, of course it does.’  I faltered.  ‘Well, no. Maybe it doesn’t.’

 

She sighed.  ‘It certainly doesn’t, Norrie.  And I’ll tell you why.’  She raised the leaflet so that I could see a picture of Kenneth, Gina and their children on it.  She placed a fingertip against Kenneth.  ‘It’s because he’s Kenneth Braithwaite, who’s one of our local councillors.  One of our Conservative Party councillors.  But that fact isn’t mentioned here.  It pretends that he’s an ordinary unbiased person like you or me.’

 

I chuckled nervously.  ‘Now Mither.  I wouldn’t say you were unbiased.’

 

Mither rose from her throne.  ‘I am unbiased.  My mind’s open to facts and I form opinions and make decisions based on those facts.  Facts, mind you.  Not the propaganda and smears and scaremongering that’s poured out of the political and business and media establishments during the last year.  Not the drivel that’s clogged and befuddled your impressionable young mind!’

 

Before I could reply, she tore the leaflet down the middle and returned it to my hands in two pieces.  Then she hustled out of the office and shut the door behind her with enough force to make a stuffed owl wobble and almost fall off a nearby shelf.  I heard her shoes go clacking up the stairs and then another door slam, presumably the one leading into her room.

 

I seethed.  How I hated, how I loathed this referendum!  Setting family members against one another day after day!  I looked at the leaflet again and realised that by a creepy coincidence Mither had ripped it down the middle of the family-picture.  Now Kenneth and a little boy occupied one half of it while Gina and a little girl were sundered and apart in the other half.

 

And they seemed such a nice family.

 

*

 

I hated the referendum but I couldn’t wait for the day of it, September 18th, to come – and take place and be over with.  The problem was that the time until then seemed to pass very slowly.  And during this time it felt like a war of attrition was being waged against me.  I grew more tired and depressed the longer those separatists raved in the media and on the streets and from the literature they popped through the slot in our porch door.  A rash of yes stickers and posters spread along the windows in the street-fronts of our neighbourhood.  Some of them even appeared on the houses of people I’d thought were decent and sensible.

 

I began to panic.  God, could it happen?  I had visions of the doors padlocked and the windows boarded up on the old family business and Mither and I living in poverty alongside hundreds of thousands of other suddenly-penniless Scots.  While around us, food prices and fuel prices skyrocketed, the banks and financial companies whisked all their offices away to London, the housing market disappeared into a giant hole, the hospitals became like those in the developing world, and terrorist cells congregated in Glasgow and Edinburgh and prepared to attack England across the new border.

 

But worst of all was the madness this referendum campaign inspired in Mither.

 

She sensed when I was worn out.  While I was napping, or dozing off behind the desk in the office, or slumped in a stupor in front of the TV, she’d leave her room and creep down the stairs and do things.

 

These might be wee things.  If I wasn’t in the office, she might use the computer and I’d discover hours later that it was open at frightful separatist websites like Bella Caledonia or National Collective or Wings over Scotland.  The day’s Scottish Daily Mail might disappear from the kitchen table and turn up, scrunched into a ball, in the recycling bin in the corner.  Or if the Mail was left on the table, any photographs in it of Alistair Darling or George Osborne might have shocking words like tosser or bampot graffiti-ed across them in Mither’s curly handwriting.

 

More worrying was her tendency sometimes to sneak outdoors.  It would’ve been bad enough in normal times because she was too old and frail to be wandering the streets alone.  But in these dangerous times – who knew what she was up to and who she was associating with?

 

The evidence disturbed me.  When I visited her room I found a growing collection of things that she could only have acquired during trips outside – little Scottish saltire and lion-rampant flags, booklets of essays and poems written in support of independence, brochures for events with sinister titles like Imagi-Nation and Yestival, posters where the word can’t had the t scrawled out so that they read can instead.  She’d amassed badges, stickers and flyers with the word yes emblazoned on them.  What a disgusting-sounding word yes had become to me.  I’d contemplate Mither and imagine that horrible word spurting from her lips –

 

‘Yes!  Yes!  Yes – !’

 

And she’d argue.  Goodness me, what had got into the woman to make her so bloody-minded?  In between quoting names of people I’d never heard of, but who were undoubtedly up to no good, like Gerry Hassan and David Greig and Lesley Riddoch, she’d taunt me mercilessly.

 

‘So go on.  Tell me.  Explain.  Why can we not be independent?’

 

‘Because… We can’t!  We just can’t!  We’re too… too…’

 

‘Too wee?’

 

‘Aye!  Well, no.  Not that, not only that.  We’re also…’

 

‘Too poor?’

 

‘Aye, that’s true, Scotland’s too poor to be independent.  But the main reason is that we’re…’

 

‘Too stupid?’

 

‘Och stop it, Mither!  Stop!  You’re putting words in my mouth!’

 

‘But you agree with that basic proposition?  Scotland can’t be independent because it’s too small, its economy’s too weak and its people aren’t educated enough?’  She sighed.  ‘That’s what we’re up against.  A mass of our fellow Scots, yourself included, brainwashed by the establishment into believing their own inferiority!’

 

I stormed out of the room at that point.  What horrible people had she been talking to?

 

(c) The Independent

From www.yeshighland.net

 

A few weeks before the referendum-day, her madness reached what I assumed was its peak.  After the last guests had left the premises and after I’d washed and put away the breakfast things, I took the vacuum cleaner into the porch and started on the carpet there.  It took me a minute to notice something odd about the rack on the porch wall where I stored leaflets about local attractions that our guests might be interested in: Rosslyn Chapel, Abbotsford, Traquair House, Melrose Abbey and so on.  The leaflets in the rack had changed.  The tourist ones had disappeared.  In their place were different ones.  Political ones.

 

I put down the vacuum-hose and approached the rack.  Crammed into it now were leaflets I’d seen in her room advertising those sinister-sounding events like Imagi-Nation and Yestival and other ones promoting the unsavoury websites she’d consulted on the computer like National Collective, Bella Caledonia and Wings over Scotland.  Also there were leaflets for organisations with different but strangely-repetitive names: Women for Independence, Liberals for Independence, Polish for Independence, Asians for Independence, English for Independence, Farmers for Independence…  One organisation, whose leaflets were merely sheets of A4 paper that’d been photocopied on and folded, was even called Hoteliers for Independence.

 

I couldn’t help reading that Hoteliers for Independence leaflet.  It ended with the exhortation, ‘Please contact Hoteliers for Independence for more information at…’ and gave an address.  My insides turned cold as I read the address.  I found myself pivoting around inside the porch and facing different internal doors that led to different parts of the guesthouse.  I half-expected one door to have hanging on it a sign that said HOTELIERS FOR INDEPENDENCE – THIS WAY.

 

Then I peered up towards where a certain bedroom was located on the first floor and lamented, ‘Oh, Mither!’

 

*

 

One afternoon, close to September 18th, I woke from an unplanned doze at the desk in the office.  I’d been dreaming.  A voice in the dream had droned about – what else? – that ghastly referendum.  Disconcertingly, back in the conscious world, the voice continued to talk to me.  I realised it came from a shelf above me, where the radio was positioned between a stuffed gull and a stuffed pheasant.  The radio was tuned in to a local station and the voice belonged to a newsreader.  He was explaining that a politician, a Labour Party MP, was visiting our region today.

 

This MP had toured the high streets and town centres of Scotland lately.  To get people’s attention he’d place a crate on the pavement, stand on top of the crate and deliver a speech from it.  He’d speak bravely in favour of Great Britain and the Union of Parliaments and denounce the separatists and their vile foolish notions of independence.  And I’d heard from recent news reports that the separatists hadn’t taken kindly to his tour – well, as bullies, they wouldn’t.  They’d gone to his speaking appearances with the purpose of heckling him and shouting him down.

 

(c) BBC

 

Then the newsreader named the town the MP was due to speak in this afternoon.  It was our town.

 

And immediately I felt uneasy because I realised I hadn’t seen or heard anything of Mither for the past while.  I went upstairs and knocked on her door.  There was no reply.  The guesthouse was empty that afternoon and so I hung the BACK SOON sign in the porch-window, went out and locked the door after me.  Then I headed for the middle of town.

 

It wasn’t hard to find where the Labour MP was speaking because of the hubbub.  The MP seemed to have turned his microphone to maximum volume so that he could drown out the heckling and shouting from the separatists in his audience.  I emerged from a vennel and onto the high street and saw the crowd ahead of me.  It contained fewer people than I’d expected.  Some of them wore no badges and carried no placards – among them, I thought I glimpsed Kenneth and Gina from the brochure that Mither had ripped up – and some had badges and placards saying yes.  Looming above everyone was the MP on his crate.

 

The separatists present were trying to make themselves heard – without success, thanks to the MP’s bellowing voice and the amplification provided by the microphone.  It wasn’t until I reached the edge of the small crowd that I could understand what they were saying.

 

‘Answer the question, Murphy!’

 

‘He won’t answer the question!’

 

‘Quit shouting, man, and answer the question for God’s sake!’

 

Then I saw a figure standing at the back of the crowd a few yards along from me.  The figure wore a long flowing skirt, a woollen cardigan and a lacy Sunday bonnet that obscured its face.  A handbag dangled from one of its elbows and a small egg carton was clasped in its hands.  As I watched, the figure prised the lid off the carton,  lifted one of the six eggs inside and stretched back an arm in readiness to throw it –

 

I rushed at her and shouted, ‘Mither! Oh my God!’

 

(c) STV

 

What happened next is confusing.  I remember reaching her and knocking the carton from her hands so that eggs flew in all directions.  I remember not being able to halt myself in time and crashing into her so that she fell and I fell too, on top of her.  But then, somehow, I found myself lying alone on the ground.  Mither had disappeared.  She must’ve been sprightlier than I’d thought.  She’d gathered herself up and hurried away and left me there.

 

One of the eggs had made its way into my right hand.  Now it was a ruin of flattened broken shell.  Meanwhile, the yolk, white and shell-pieces of other eggs formed a gelatinous mess on the front of my woollen cardigan.

 

Then I was being helped to my feet.  Around me, I heard voices:

 

‘Who is it?’

 

‘Some auld lady.’

 

‘No, wait… Christ!  It’s a man!’

 

‘It’s young Bates.  You ken, Norrie Bates?  Him that runs the Bates Bed and Breakfast?’

 

‘Why’s he togged out like that?’

 

Someone took my arm and led me away.  Behind us, the MP, who seemed not to have noticed the commotion with Mither and me, kept roaring into his microphone.  We turned a corner into a side-street and paused there.  I identified the man steering me as Charlie Massie, who was the proprietor of another B and B in the town, a few streets away from ours.  He’d always seemed a gentle friendly type and it surprised me to see a yes badge stuck to his jacket lapel.

 

Charlie looked perplexed.  He scanned me up and down as if my appearance was a puzzle he wanted to solve.  ‘Norrie,’ he said at last.  ‘I think you need to go home.  As fast as you can manage.’

 

My head ached.  Something was squeezing my skull, which in turn was squeezing my brain.  I raised a hand and found my head enclosed in a lady’s bonnet.  It exuded two ribbons that were knotted under my chin.  In a final gesture of spite Mither must’ve fastened it on my head before she’d escaped.  ‘Aye,’ I whispered.  ‘I’ll go home.’

 

‘By the way,’ added Charlie, who seemed greatly troubled now.  ‘How’s your mither?  I haven’t seen her for a while.’

 

*

 

It was the morning of September 19th.  The radio had disappeared from the office and I guessed it’d travelled upstairs to Mither’s room and informed her of the result.  Still, in case she hadn’t heard, I felt obliged to go to her room and let her know.

 

She looked very small, thin and frail as she huddled there amid the paraphernalia she’d acquired, the flags, placards, badges, posters, leaflets and booklets.  On the floor around her, in a serpentine coil, there even lay a blue-and-white woollen scarf with a pair of knitting needles embedded in one unfinished end of it.  That was another lark she’d been up to.  Knitting for independence.

 

Because she looked so weak and unwell now, I understood that she knew.  The result seemed to have drained the life from her, leaving her a husk.

 

But I repeated the news.  ‘Mither.  It’s a no.’

 

She didn’t answer.  No sound came from her mouth, which was stretched back in a rictus – if I hadn’t known she was grimacing in pain and dismay, I’d have thought she was grinning.  I looked into her eyes, trying to find a glimmer of acknowledgement for me, a spark of recognition that I was standing before her.  But the eyes were blank and gaping, almost like they weren’t eyes at all but two dark holes.

 

And although I was relieved and delighted about the result, I suddenly and inexplicably felt as though a part of me was dead.

 

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

 

A Ted talk

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

One of the problems with growing older is that every time an anniversary – of something you love or that’s important to you – crops up, it affects you like a punch to the solar plexus.  “Jesus, is it really ten years since they released that album?”  “Bloody hell, no!  It can’t be 15 years since that movie came out!”  “What, 25 years ago that happened?  25 f**king years?  No!  Surely not!”  The result, once the initial wave of shock has passed, is that you spend five minutes studying your ravaged face in the mirror.  Then you spend the rest of the day in a daze, reliving fond – though now bitter-sweet – memories from long ago.

 

And the same thought keeps flashing inside your head: “Aw!  I was so young then!”

 

I had an experience like that recently when I read in the Guardian that this month is the 20th anniversary of the debut, on Channel 4, of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ much-loved situation comedy Father Ted.  Yes, that surreal and slapstick-ridden saga of three hapless priests and their demented housekeeper living on a remote Irish island is now two decades old.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/apr/20/father-ted-legacy-20-years-on-up-with-this-sort-of-thing

 

The very first episode of Father Ted reached our TV screens in April 1995.  Which was the year of the Oklahoma Bombing, the Tokyo Subway gas attack and the Unabomber; of Jacques Chirac becoming French President, Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank and O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder; of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the feud between Blur and Oasis and the release of the world’s first full-length computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  It was that long ago.  Now please excuse me while I go off and stare at myself in the mirror for five minutes.  Aw!  I was so young then…

 

Okay, five minutes have passed and I’m now back at my keyboard.  The thing with Father Ted is that the show feels like it’s never left us.  This is despite it running for just three series, plus a Christmas special, and notching up just 25 episodes.  Also, the fact that its third season would be its last was tragically underscored when the show’s star, Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack just 24 hours after the final episode had finished filming and two weeks before Channel 4 began to show the final season.  Thus, even before Father Ted had ended its TV run in 1998, fans were sadly aware that it was all over.

 

However, those 25 episodes have seemingly spent the last decade being broadcast on an endless loop on Channel 4’s digital / Freeview subsidiary More 4.  If you desperately need a Ted-fix, it seems to be there for you most evenings.  And every Christmas-time, Channel 4 still gives a prominent festive airing to the 1996 Christmas special, the one where Ted and gormless sidekick Father Dougal and half-a-dozen other priests get trapped inside the ladies’ lingerie section of a giant department store.  I suspect this is the only TV programme some people in Britain watch at Christmas-time.  These days, it’s the only thing I ever watch at Christmas-time.

 

So why was Father Ted so good?  There are many factors that can contribute to the success of a TV sitcom.  And if you wrote those factors down in a list and started ticking off the ones that apply to Father Ted, you’d probably find at the end that you’d ticked all of them.  For example…

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Being trapped

The clue is in the term itself: situation comedy.  The more limiting the situation the characters are in, the more they get on each other’s nerves and the more comedy is generated as a result.  See Slade Prison in Porridge (1974-1977) or the World War I trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  Father Ted’s setting isn’t quite as claustrophobic as those.  But the Parochial House is pretty bad – with Dougal practising his relentless buffoonery, Father Jack sitting drinking and swearing in the corner and Mrs Doyle torturing her charges with endless cups of tea.  And the wider environment, Craggy Island, isn’t much better – it’s populated by misfits like Tom, the village idiot / truck driver / pest-control officer / armed bank robber, and John and Mary O’Leary, the shop-owning couple who when they aren’t grovelling to the priests are busy trying to murder each other.  The place is maddening for someone with Ted’s intelligence and aspirations.  Which leads neatly to…

 

Frustrated aspirations

Many great sitcoms have a lead character or characters who believe they’re capable of greater things but are continually thwarted by their circumstances and the less able souls around them.  Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962-1974) was forever trying to climb the social ladder but was held back (1) by his being a rag-and-bone man and (2) by his wheedling, devious and utterly exasperating old dad.  The elderly leads of Dad’s Army (1968-1977) were brave former soldiers desperate to do their bit for King and Country against Hitler, but because of their age and infirmities they had to make do with playing at being soldiers in the local Home Guard unit.

 

Ted’s aspirations aren’t complex.  He’s a regular bloke pining for money, comfort and an easy life (as in the episode Going to America) or for the love of a good, preferably beautiful and wealthy woman (as in the episode And God Created Woman).  Fulfilling those aspirations isn’t going to be easy, though, as Ted – despite his apparent disinterest in religion – has somehow ended up becoming a priest.  The fact that the community of priests that Ted belongs to consists mostly of idiots doesn’t help, either.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Recognisable characters

Obviously, it helps a sitcom’s success if viewers can identify with its characters.  Ted is a recognisable everyman figure, but the show’s other characters – though drawn with hugely-broad brushstrokes – are hardly ones that people in Ireland, south or north of the border, are unfamiliar with.  You don’t have to wander far on the Emerald Isle before you encounter an amiable young dimwit like Dougal or a cantankerous old drunk like Jack.  As for Mrs Doyle, I seem to remember Northern Ireland being overrun with types like her in my childhood – ladies of a certain age, both Protestant and Catholic, who’d treat their guests to an almost psychotic level of hospitality.  If you set foot in their parlours and didn’t immediately consume a gallon of tea and several kilos of their best cakes, buns and biscuits, they’d take it as a mortal insult.

 

A family unit

Many successful sitcoms are about families.  Many others feature a set of characters who interact in family-like ways.  Their relationships are recognisably parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife, etc.  Thus, in The Thick of It (2005-2012) we have an abusive father (Malcolm), a well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Nicola), a bratty child (Ollie) and a dotty uncle and aunt (Glen and Terri).  And the family dynamic doesn’t necessarily require the presence of both genders.  In the all-male Porridge, there’s an overbearingly strict father (MacKay) and another well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Barrowclough), plus two sons chaffing against their parents’ authority, the streetwise older brother (Fletcher) and the naïve kid brother (Godber).

 

Thus, in Father Ted, it isn’t difficult to see how Ted, Mrs Doyle, Jack and Dougal fill the roles of stressed-out dad, hectoring mum, sozzled old granddad and naïve young son.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Work

Some of the greatest sitcom characters, in Britain at least, are defined by their jobs – world’s worst hotelier (Basil Fawlty), world’s worst office manager (David Brent), world’s worst D.J. (Alan Partridge).  Meanwhile, sitcoms like The IT Crowd (2006-2013, written by Linehan) and Black Books (2000-2004, with both Linehan and Arthur Mathews contributing to the scripts) show the endless jealousies, rivalries and antagonisms that arise in a workplace.  These are invariably petty conflicts that outside observers, i.e. the sitcom audience, find both ridiculous and hilarious.  It’s a variation on the first item on this list, being trapped.  You don’t want to spend 40 or more hours every week with these losers and misfits around you.  But you signed the job contract and they’re your colleagues.  You have to.

 

Ted probably isn’t the world’s worst priest.  (That title may well belong to Dougal or Jack.)  He is, though, tortured by his work situation.  He has to deal with the army of oddballs who make up the local priesthood – bores (Father Paul Stone), annoyances (Father Noel Furlong), delinquents (Father Damo Lennon), bitter rivals (Father Dick Byrne) and utter sadists (Father Fintan Stack, the priest who plays his beloved jungle music really loud).  He also has to deal with the idiocies of the organisation that employs him – such as the All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Championship, the All Priests Stars in their Eyes Lookalike Competition or the church hotline that puts you on a hold while a real nun sings Ave Maria down the phone-line at you.

 

Lies that escalate

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) mined comic gold from the deceptions of Basil Fawlty.  His attempts at, say, hiding a dead body from the hotel guests or hiding a pet rat from a hotel inspector would trigger chains of events where confusion escalated into embarrassment and then into disaster.  Similarly, Ted is forever trying to lie his way out of tricky situations.  How can he hide the fact that he’s just destroyed the car that was going to be the prize in the big fundraising raffle from his parishioners?  How can he hide the fact that the Parochial House is infested with rabbits from his bellicose superior, Bishop Brennan, who’s coming to visit and who coincidentally has a massive rabbit-phobia?  Predictably, each lie ends up causing him a hell of a lot more trouble than the trouble it was originally meant to avoid.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Catch-phrases

It’s an easy route to comic success.  Load your comedy show with catch-phrases and hopefully the public will be shouting at least some of them on the street the next day.  It often works, though.  Look at how The Fast Show (1994-1997), The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) or Little Britain (2003-2006) quickly imprinted themselves on the national consciousness.  Father Ted, of course, is choc-a-bloc with them – Jack shouting, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!” or Mrs Doyle going, “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” or Bishop Brennan bellowing, “Crill-eee!”

 

Even one-off lines from individual episodes have passed into everyday usage – “Down with this sort of thing!” (from The Passion of Saint Tibulus) or “That would be an ecumenical matter!” (from Tentacles of Doom).  Indeed, just the other day, while I was having lunch with someone, I suddenly found myself intoning: “There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island.  And I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”  At which point my girlfriend told me not to order another pitcher of beer.

 

Of its time

Dad’s Army couldn’t have appeared at any period other than the 1960s / 1970s.  World War II still loomed large in many people’s memories but sufficient time had passed for its awfulness to feel less pronounced, so that it was the right moment for a sitcom making gentle humour out of it.  The Office (2001-2003) was perfect for the early noughties.  Tony Blair and the Nu-Labour government were at their peak and Britons were supposed to feel good about themselves – the economy was booming but everyone now inhabited a nicer, more civilised, more PC and touchy-feely environment.  But the suspicion – which the show confirmed – was that, under the surface, working practices were just as callous, exploitative and horrible as they’d been before.

 

Similarly, Father Ted couldn’t have arrived at any time other than the mid-1990s.  Ireland had become more cosmopolitan and streetwise and it now had the confidence to poke fun at its old stereotypes and clichés.  Sadly, this was also before the dark secrets of the Catholic Church came tumbling out of the closet.  Indeed, Linehan, interviewed two years ago in the Independent, said he wouldn’t have penned a series about loveable buffoonish priests if he’d known what he knows now about the industrial levels of child abuse perpetrated by his country’s clergy: “I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/graham-linehan-ive-come-to-hate-the-church-8665386.html

 

Come to think of it, modern-day Ireland would be a lot more at ease with its religious heritage if the Catholic Church had been staffed purely by the likes of Fathers Ted, Dougal, Jack, Dick Byrne, Noel Furlong, Fintan Stack and so on.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Favourite TV comedy songs

 

(c) Channel 4

 

With The Thick of It finished and Peep Show on a long hiatus, I’d assumed there was no decent comedy on British television at the moment.  Yes, I know some people like Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda but any time I’ve encountered it, I’m afraid, my facial muscles haven’t come remotely close to forming a smile.  And yes, the BBC4 comedy The Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook and starring Crook and the excellent Toby Jones, won acclaim a little while ago.  But though I liked Crook’s show, about a pair of hopeless metal-detecting enthusiasts whose love-lives are even more hopeless than their metal detecting, I didn’t find it particularly comic.  Rather, it seemed to me a gentle, melancholy drama with a streak of wry humour.

 

And as for asking me if I like watching Citizen Khan or Mrs Brown’s Boys…  Well, you might as well as ask me if I like eating dumplings that have been fashioned out of dried vomit and then deep-fried in manure.

 

However, over the last month, my negativity about the state of British TV comedy has been proven wrong.  For I have greatly enjoyed the latest season of Toast of London, the Channel 4 sitcom starring Matt Berry as a middle-aged actor struggling to make ends meet in the recording studios, on the film sets and on the theatre stages of showbiz London.  Among other things, Toast has to endure the belligerence of his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who comes across as half-Mary Poppins and half-dominatrix; and various nefarious plots hatched against him by his acting rival and arch-enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock).  At the same time, Toast takes every opportunity going to shag Purchase’s desperate-housewife missus (Tracy-Ann Oberman).  In fact, the mellifluous, baritone-voiced and altogether hammy Toast is a splendid comic creation.  He’s a variation on those barnstorming over-the-top actors that in real life the British drama world has churned out by the dozen: Todd Slaughter, Donald Wolfit, Graham Crowden, Steven Berkoff and Brian Blessed.

 

The show’s style complements its main character.  An endearing mixture of absurdity, stupidity, surrealism, catchphrases (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”) and occasional showbiz satire, it also contains enough good-natured smut to float a fleet of Carry On films.  If its whimsical nature feels familiar, that’s probably because it’s co-written (with Berry) by Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote the legendary Irish-priest sitcom Father Ted back in the 1990s.

 

One thing I particularly like about Toast of London is its musical interludes.  Berry and Matthews know the value of slipping an occasional, good comic song in among the humorous scenes.  This is to be expected because, in addition to acting and comedy, Berry has an excellent track record in making music – serious music as well as silly stuff.  His albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf are laudable confections of non-cheesy pop, non-pompous progressive rock and slightly-spooky Wicker Man-y folk music and can be listened to at YouTube, here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5E13AF0E5205D540

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8zVDNg2iCm5CzQKty-VoId9IXBohxUyM

 

Anyway, Toast of London has set me thinking.  What are the best comic songs to have appeared on TV comedy shows over the years?  By ‘comic song’, I don’t mean a simple parody of a ‘serious’ song or musical genre (which is what Not the Nine o’Clock News used to do in the early 1980s).  No, I mean a song that holds up as a song in its own right, with a proper tune and lyrics, whilst also managing to be funny.  Here are my favourites.

 

In the world of TV comedy songs, one name that looms large is Monty Python – and for this we should thank the musical and lyrical talents of the Python team’s second-youngest member, Eric Idle.  It’s fashionable nowadays to knock Idle for being a sell-out, because he was the one who transformed the second Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot!, a money-making juggernaut of a stage musical.  And apparently he was the driving force behind the team getting back together this year and mounting some indifferently-reviewed (but, again, massively lucrative) farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena.

 

But at least Idle was the man who put the music into Monty Python.  Because of him, you can rarely utter the show’s name in a British pub without middle-aged men around you bursting into lusty renditions of The Lumberjack Song.  My favourite Idle-penned Python song, though, is Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song, in which some Australian philosophy lecturers sing about the drinking prowess of history’s greatest abstract thinkers.  I probably like it because I studied philosophy at college and, after a gruelling lecture where I’d squirmed and sweated and tried to get my head around the basics of classical Greek philosophy, it was nice to hear this song and have Idle assure me that “Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle” and “Socrates himself was permanently pissed.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc

 

It’s just a shame that Idle’s most famous song is the dirge-like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  It was funny enough when it was sung during the crucifixion sequence in the third Python move, Life of Brian, but over the years, irritatingly, it’s become a ubiquitous anthem extolling the supposed British virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.  And I have to confess I cringed when Idle turned up and sang it during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  (Although he was still better than the Spice Girls.)

 

One man who shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about Monty Python music is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and pianist Neil Innes, whose CV includes stints in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, GRIMMS, Beatles piss-take The Rutles and The Idiot Bastard Band, as well as an association with Python that started in 1974 (after John Cleese, temporarily, left the troupe).  In addition to Python song-writing duties, which included penning the tunes for Holy Grail, Innes has the distinction of being one of only two people who wrote sketches for Python who weren’t in the core team of six – the other person, coincidentally, was Douglas Adams.   I thought it was a bit off of the Python gang not to invite Innes back to participate in the O2 Arena concerts – an invitation that they did extend to the show’s resident female performer, Carol Cleveland.  But Innes himself didn’t seem that bothered.  In an interview for www.musicradar.com, he said: “…Eric Idle is in charge.  And he’s got Arlene Philips, and boy and girl dancers, and a band.  You don’t really need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.  Now Eric’s gone all show business, he sees it as he sees it.  It fills me with horror to be honest.”  And no, he didn’t like Idle’s performance at the Olympics closing ceremony, either.

 

(c) BBC

 

Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s, no round-up of great TV comedy songs would be complete without a mention of one of Arthur Matthews’ previous credits, the much-loved Father Ted.  Responsible for the musical component of Father Ted was Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish frontman with the celebrated ‘chamber pop group’ The Divine Comedy.  After the theme music (which was reworked as Songs of Love on The Divine Comedy album Casanova), Hannon’s best-known work on the show is surely My Lovely Horse, the song sung by Ted and his gormless side-kick Father Dougal in the episode A Song for Europe when they were bidding to become Ireland’s entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.  Incidentally, Hannon also wrote the overwrought anthem The Miracle is Mine, sung by Ted’s nemesis Father Dick Byrne, who wanted to be Ireland’s entry too.

 

My Lovely Horse is ghastly, in a uniquely Eurovision way, but it’s brilliantly ghastly.  It’s no surprise that, recently, life tried to imitate art and a petition was launched in Ireland demanding that My Lovely Horse really be Ireland’s entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzYzVMcgWhg

 

Incidentally, Hannon made a guest appearance in the latest episode of Toast of London, performing half of the vocals on a duet that Toast sings with his old friend, the debauched Soho-loving artist Francis Bacon.  Yes, I know Francis Bacon died in 1992.  But Berry and Matthews cunningly get around this in their script by stating that no, Bacon didn’t actually die.

 

Moving from the British Isles to America, and from live action to animation, we inevitably come to The Simpsons.  The show’s head honcho Matt Groening is a big music buff – he’s curated two of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals, one in the US in 2003 and the other in England in 2010, and performed in the ‘literary’ rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King.  So it’s no surprise that The Simpsons has always been choc-a-bloc with songs and music.

 

My favourite Simpsons’ comedy song is probably Dr Zaius, performed in the episode where Troy McClure wins a role in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.  However, because it’s really a spoof of an existing song – Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian musician Falco – I can’t nominate it here as a bona-fide comedy song.  Instead, I’ll opt for Your Wife Don’t Understand You, But I Do, that brief but glorious encapsulation of everything that’s bad (and good) about country-and-western music, sung to Homer by Lurleen the Waitress when he retreats to her honky-tonk bar to drown his sorrows following a particularly bitter bust-up with Marge.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCzPAaIGOZM

 

(c) South Park Studios

 

But when it comes to funny music, The Simpsons is outdone by its more scatological cartoon rival South Park.  From the beginning, South Park wore its musical interests on its sleeve – the theme tune was performed by Primus, The Cure’s Robert Smith made a guest appearance in an early episode, and of course its Chef character was voiced by the late, great soul-funk-jazz legend Isaac Hayes.  However, it wasn’t until the release of the South Park movie in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed their inner Stephen Sondheims – they packed the movie with spiffy song-and-dance numbers like Blame Canada, Uncle-F*cka and Kyle’s Mom is a Big, Fat Bitch.  (Curiously, Eric Idle made a guest vocal appearance in the film too.)

 

Since then, the show has been a parade of musical delights.  I particularly liked Butters’ version of What, What (in the Butt) and Cartman’s swashbuckling song, Somalian Pirates, We (which includes the jolly lines, “We’ll shoot you in the face with glee / We’ll cut off your cock / And feed it to a croc / Somalian pirates, we!”).  But at the end of the day I guess my favourite South Park song is a typically salacious, but nonetheless funky number sung by Chef, Simultaneous.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QHL_JkVgj8

 

From beatcrave.com

 

One live-action American comedy show that should be saluted for its musical greatness, meanwhile, is the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, about a hapless singing duo from New Zealand trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make a name for themselves in New York.  Written and performed by the show’s two Kiwi stars, Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie, the songs in Flight of the Conchords are guaranteed to raise a smile; but the one that made me laugh out loud was their attempted debut in the rap world, Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenocerus.  Actually, lyrics like “They call me the hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorus / Poppin’ off the top of this oesophagus / Rockin’ this metropolis” are better than what you’d get in 95 percent of serious rap songs.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FArZxLj6DLk

 

Incidentally, I can’t wait to see Clement’s new mockumentary-vampire movie We Live in the Shadows.

 

Finally, and especially because I mentioned him at the start of this post, I should add something by Matt Berry to my list of favourite TV comedy songs.  Not, however, from Toast of London.  Rather, I think his funniest musical moment came when he sang One Track Lover during the 2004 spoof horror show Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.  The song is a piss-take of those toe-curlingly rubbish 1980s soft-rock power ballads.  However, when Richard Ayoade suddenly breaks in with his attempted rap, it becomes a thing of genius.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO-ZGP68-3w

 

(c) Channel 4

 

Bill’s final bow

 

(c) Warner Brothers

 

In my youth I only knew Tony Hancock because he’d had small roles in a few films I’d seen on TV, such as Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and The Wrong Box (1967).  These were made in the twilight of Hancock’s career, after he’d grown inordinately fond of the bottle and after he’d split with the team who’d made his radio and television shows such a success in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a team that included co-star Sid James and the brilliant writing duo of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.  But occasionally at school, in the middle of a lesson, a 30 or 40-something teacher would suddenly spout a vintage line from Hancock’s earlier, happier years: “A pint of blood?  That’s very nearly an armful!” or “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?  Did she die in vain?”  This usually didn’t get any laughs from my classmates or me.  Rather, we’d just stare at the teacher in slightly uneasy bemusement, whilst wondering, “What the hell is he talking about?”

 

What goes around, comes around.  Nowadays, I’m sure many a teenager experiences the same bafflement and embarrassment when somebody my age comes out with a choice line from Blackadder: “I’ve got a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel!”

 

In the early 1980s, however, BBC Radio 4 repeated some old episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, which I listened to and was immediately captivated by.  In those days at least, Hancock had been a comic genius.  But what was also vital to the show was the troupe of performers working with him, performers who helped to put his brand of funniness into sharp relief.  Besides Sid James, these included Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and, in the role of Hancock’s hapless lodger, the Australian actor Bill Kerr.  Actually, I thought Kerr was particularly important for the show’s chemistry because the persona he created, affable, easy-going but pretty dim-witted, was the very antithesis of the harassed and acerbic Hancock.

 

A few days ago, I read that Kerr had just died in Western Australia at the age of 92.  This surprised me because I hadn’t known Kerr had still been on the go in 2014, long after the passing of James, Williams and Jacques and long indeed after Hancock’s suicide in 1968.  (Then again, Galton and Simpson are still with us.  Both writers are in their mid-eighties now.)

 

Kerr was a native of Wagga Wagga, an Australian city whose other claim to comic fame is that Dame Edna Everage is alleged to have been born there.  He arrived in the UK in 1947 and thanks to his association with Hancock’s radio show – he didn’t accompany Hancock when he made the jump to TV – he was for a while the most famous Australian in British light entertainment.  Well, I suppose Kerr probably had to share that honour with Rolf Harris, although I found Harris’s style much more juvenile, ingratiating and annoying.  (Whatever happened to Rolf Harris, by the way?  Oh…  Oh yes.  Don’t answer that.)

 

In 1979, Kerr returned to Australia, where he enjoyed a second wind in the local film industry as a leathery old character actor.  He appeared in two movies directed by Peter Weir, Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) – both of which starred Mel Gibson, an Aussie who’s had almost as spectacular a fall-from-grace as Rolf Harris – and he was also in the TV mini-series Anzacs (1985).

 

My favourite Bill Kerr movie from this period, though, is the 1984 ‘Ozploitation’ horror movie Razorback.  It’s an Antipodean version of Jaws, featuring a pig – a huge razorback boar – instead of a shark, filmed around Broken Hill and directed by Russell Mulcahy, who’d later make the Highlander movies.  Kerr plays Jake Cullen, a grizzled outback variation on the Robert Shaw character in Jaws, although unlike Shaw his interest in killing the marauding monster isn’t financial.  It’s intensely personal because at the start of the film we’ve seen the boar dragging away his infant grandson.  In an echo of 1980’s real-life ‘dingo-baby’ case (itself filmed as A Cry in the Dark in 1988, with Meryl Streep and Sam Neill) nobody believes Jake’s story and he gets blamed for the child’s disappearance.  Embittered but still kindly under his harsh exterior, Kerr’s character is the best thing in Razorback.  He’s certainly better than the shonky-looking giant boar, which for most of the film Mulcahy wisely keeps off-screen.  And it’s pretty harrowing when Jake and his loyal dog both get killed late on.

 

I can also remember seeing a BBC TV documentary, presumably in the 1980s too, in which Kerr went camping in the Australian outback with another old mate of his from the British comedy world, Spike Milligan.  Though I liked and admired Milligan, I have to admit that the man had his demons.  And it says a lot for Kerr’s patience that he could bear to share a tent with the notoriously up-and-down comic in the midst of the stewing heat, presumably surrounded by such members of Australia’s flora and fauna as common death adders, highland copperheads, mulga snakes, redback spiders, giant centipedes, bull ants and paralysis ticks (and probably the odd razorback boar too).

 

When word came of Kerr’s death at the end of last month, his son was quoted as saying that the venerable comic and actor had expired in front of his TV set, whilst laughing at an episode of one of his favourite comedy shows, Seinfeld.  I really can’t imagine a nicer way to go.