Saturday 15 August 2015

All Gas and Gaiters (1966-71)

Ecclesiastical sitcoms enjoyed quite a vogue on British television in the late 60s and early 70s. All of them starred Derek Nimmo, an actor with a particular gift for portraying bumbling, well-meaning and very funny clerics. The first, and the best, of these series was All Gas and Gaiters which ran for five seasons on the BBC between between 1966 and 1971.

Sadly only eleven of the thirty-three episodes have survived the BBC’s relentless zeal to destroy as many of its own programs as possible. Those surviving episodes provide an example of the best of British television comedy.

All Gas and Gaiters focuses on four hapless clerics in the fictional St Ogg’s Cathedral. Bishop Cuthbert Hever is a very worldly bishop, a man who enjoys the good things in life and whose main desire is to avoid any unpleasantness. The elderly but jovial Archceacon Henry Blunt, is rather too fond of a tipple. The bishop’s Chaplain, The Rev. Mervyn Noote, is somewhat bungling although he’s actually quite bright. He wants nothing more than a quiet life but that’s the last thing he’s likely to get at St Ogg’s. These three would have a very pleasant life but there is one serpent in the ecclesiastical garden - the Very Reverend Lionel Pugh-Critchley, the Dean of St Ogg’s. The Dean is enthusiastic and zealous. His enthusiasm for efficiency and reform is just the sort of thing to make the quiet life impossible.

The husband-and-wife team of Edwin Apps and Pauline Devaney wrote all thirty-three episodes. While there’s an element of gentle satire their scripts display a considerable degree of affection for their characters. Even the Dean, for all his officiousness, is fundamentally a good man. He just happens to be one of these people who can’t leave well enough alone. The bishop is certainly worldly, he enjoys his comforts and he has a horror of rocking the boat, and he is always on the lookout for ways of making money. His money-making schemes are however always for good causes, never for his own personal benefit. He has in fact a very real devotion to the Church - he simply manages to combine this with his love for the good life. The Archdeacon is elderly and not very efficient but he’s kindly and gentle. Noote does the very best he can and in his own way he’s a devoted son of the Church. We can’t help liking these characters and although the series is very funny indeed the humour is consistently good-natured.

One of the great strengths of the series is the superlative casting. William Mervyn, a very fine character actor with a considerable gift for comedy, gives the Bishop just enough pomposity to be amusing without ever being irritating. Mervyn also starred in the delightful offbeat crime series Mr RoseRobertson Hare, who had a very long and successful career mostly in farce, is a delight as the sherry-loving Archdeacon. Derek Nimmo, who built his career on playing loveable silly asses, is perfect as Noote. The Dean was potentially the trickiest character but John Barron’s performance is superbly judged - the Dean is a man who genuinely cannot see that his zeal for efficiency is going to antagonise people.

Not only are the four regular cast members uniformly superb, they play off one another with tremendous zest. It’s a joy watching four great comic actors all at the peak of their form.

All Gas and Gaiters was apparently enormously popular with Anglican clergymen. It was also enormously popular with the public. In fact it was loved by everyone, except apparently for the BBC who destroyed most of the episodes.

When we think of 1960s British comedy we generally tend to think of the Carry On movies and the rather risque style of television comedy that relies to a very large extent on sexual innuendo. There is very little of that in this series. All Gas and Gaiters represents a very different British comedy tradition, an engaging mix of wit and farce with a lovely balance of visual and verbal humour, comedy  that could be described as ideal family viewing whilst still being laugh-out-loud funny.

We can at least be extremely grateful that eleven episodes have survived and that all are included in a two-disc DVD set. This set, which happily is still in print, is an absolute must-buy for lovers of British television comedy. Very highly recommended.

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