Tuesday 22 August 2017

Man About the House, season 1 (1973)

Man About the House was one of the most popular British comedy series of the 70s. It ran for six seasons from 1973 to 1976. It was so successful that a (very inferior) American clone was produced. It’s the sort of comedy that only the British seemed to be able to pull off - risque without being crass and good-natured but with enough bite to avoid blandness.

The premise is simple. Two girls sharing a flat in London are looking for a third girl to share, but instead of a girl they end up with apprentice chef Robin Tripp who is very much a man. In 1973 the idea of men and women sharing a flat together without sharing a bed was still quite daring and it gave the series a very contemporary feel with enormous potential for sexual humour.

The series succeeds because writers Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke resisted the temptation to rely entirely on sexual humour (although there is plenty of that) and concentrated on making it funny. They also very wisely did not push things too far. It’s risque but it’s never grubby.

Richard O’Sullivan was probably the biggest star in British television comedy of the 1970s with no less than three hit series to his credit. He strikes just the right balance. Robin is obviously very much aware of the physical charms of his two female flatmates but in his own way he’s a gentleman. He admires but he doesn’t leer. Well, not in an excessively vulgar way.

Paula Wilcox as Chrissy and Sally Thomsett as Jo are equally good.

Sally Thomsett had the trickiest role. Jo could easily have been just another dumb blonde but Thomsett makes her slightly eccentric rather than dumb. You get the feeling that Jo isn’t a fool but she just doesn’t quite see the world the way the rest of us see it.

The cast is rounded off by Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce as the landlords, the obviously inadequate Mr Roper and the obviously sex-starved Mrs Roper. In comedic terms it’s a dream cast - all five regulars are thorough professionals who know how to make the most of the material.

The fact that the two girls are quite lovely doesn’t hurt. What I like is that they’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could conceivably meet in real life, or even (if you were very lucky) imagine sharing a flat with. They don’t look like models.

The sexual tension is provided by Robin and Chrissy. It’s clear that Robin would very much like to get Chrissy into bed. She’s obviously somewhat attracted to him as well, but she’s not sure if he’s really Mr Right and she doesn’t want to get involved unless and until she is sure. This is always a good formula for a television series, the “will they or won’t they” dynamic. In this case it not only provides laughs but also some genuine emotional interest. We like these two characters so naturally we’d like to see them get together.

In fact we like all three flatmates and the fact that they are three people who are genuinely fond of one another helps to keep the humour good-natured. We laugh with the characters rather than at them.

Comedy relies a good deal on misunderstandings and this series uses these classic comedic techniques to good effect, as in the episode in which Chrissy is alarmed when she is convinced that Robin is going to try to seduce her and then gets mortally offended when he doesn’t.

Man About the House is startlingly and amusingly politically incorrect. Some of the lines in the series would get a writer lynched today. Over-sensitive modern audiences would have apoplexy at some of the jokes.

On the other hand there’s a certain refreshing innocence to the series. There’s an assumption that it’s quite reasonable for people not to jump into bed with every attractive member of the opposite sex. In that respect it was perhaps just a little behind the times but it’s an attitude that adds to the charm of the series.

Man About the House spawned two spin-off series, George and Mildred (which was a gigantic hit) and Robin’s Nest (which was moderately successful) which followed the further fortunes of Robin Tripp as a restaurateur.

This was the kind of sitcom that by the 1990s with the emergence of the so-called “new comedy” would be reviled as hopelessly old-fashioned. In fact it’s a good deal funnier than most of the new-style comedy, and it's also a good deal less mean-spirited.

Network have released the complete series (all six seasons) in a DVD boxed set. The transfers are pretty good.

While sex does provide much of the humour this is not Benny Hill-style grubby schoolboy humour. It’s also a long way from the cringe-inducing sex comedies that the British film industry was cranking out at the time. This is closer to classic old-school farce.  There was still a limit to what you could get away with on television in 1973 and the series is a good example of why it’s an advantage to have to work within limits. The writers have to work much harder and they have to rely on genuine wit. It’s also a product of an age when comedy writers did not have to live in terror of offending somebody.

Man About the House really is very funny. Highly recommended.

Monday 7 August 2017

The Avengers - Don’t Look Behind You (1963) and The Joker (1967)

Brian Clemens was never troubled by the idea of recycling script ideas that worked but there was one occasion in The Avengers when he not only recycled some ideas, he recycled an entire script. The script in question was Don’t Look Behind You, transmitted originally in 1963 as a Cathy Gale episode. Four years later it was remade, in colour, as the Emma Peel episode The Joker.

The remake is every bit as good as the original, some say it’s even slightly better, and that’s saying something since Don’t Look Behind You was an absolutely superb story.

It’s certainly worth watching these two episodes back-to-back.

Since Don’t Look Behind You was shot live on videotape and The Joker was shot on film there are naturally some major differences in the feel of the two episodes. There are also some changes to the script itself.

Don’t Look Behind You gets off to an extraordinarily creepy start as we see a man, an obviously somewhat deranged man, cutting up a photograph of Mrs Gale from a magazine. 

We know something twisted is on the way but the story then persuades us that everything is all quite innocent. Mrs Gale has written an article on medieval influences on fashion and design and as a result has been invited to the country house of a very eminent elderly medievalist. It’s a wonderfully spooky 16th century house and the set design is truly magnificent.

Of course being shot on videotape gives the episode a very stagey feel but this is one of the episodes in which that staginess works wonderfully well and adds to the menace, to the slowly building terror and the growing sense of weirdness.

The old medievalist’s ward, the deliciously crazy Ola (Janine Gray), seems to be the only one at home and when she is called away Cathy is left alone. Then an eccentric young man, who we assume has read far too much beat literature, appears on the scene. He seems like he could be quite dangerous but is he the one Cathy needs to worry about? She certainly needs to be worried about somebody. There is someone in the house who is stalking her but he appears to be intent on sending her mad first. And he’s succeeding.

Although it falters just a little towards the end this is a slow burning exercise in terror that works admirably. Honor Blackman admits that she had trouble making this episode as she was genuinely creeped out by the whole idea. Steed only appears sporadically in this story so Blackman has to carry things on her own most of the time, which she does to great effect.

Peter Hammond is regarded by many as the finest television director of his era and on the basis of this episode that reputation was well deserved. He uses an incredible number of mirror shots but they suit the feel of the story and genuinely enhance the atmosphere rather appearing gimmicky.

One recurring them in the 1963-64 era of The Avengers is that Mrs Gale does not entirely trust Steed, and she has good reason for her suspicion. The Steed of the early seasons of The Avengers is a much more ruthless and cynical character than the later Steed and he is quite prepared to use people, including Cathy, if it suits his purposes. His personality has a real edge to it (which Patrick Macnee conveys very effectively) that was softened considerably in the later years of the series.

The major change in The Joker is that we know from the start what is going on. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It does convince us that Mrs Peel is in very real danger, but on the other hand the subtle menace in Don’t Look Behind You is in some ways more effective - both the viewer and Mrs Gale are presented with a situation in which we know something twisted is going on but we have no idea what it is.

There are some slight but important differences in the performance. In Don’t Look Behind You the strange young man is more frightening because he really does seem totally out of control. And Janine Gray as Ola seems much more convincingly mad and thus more potentially dangerous than Sally Nisbett in The Joker. Peter Jeffreys in The Joker and Maurice good in Don’t Look Behind You are both excellent villains, terrifying but oddly sympathetic.

In The Joker Emma is invited to the home of a famous bridge player rather than a famous medievalist and the set design is more surreal compared to the Old Dark House of Don’t Look Behind You. Both episodes look terrific in their own ways. 

In The Joker Sidney Hayers throws in a couple of homages to the earlier episodes by using mirror shots, not quite as expertly as Hammond but they’re still effective.

It’s impossible to fault the performances of either Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg.

For my money Don’t Look Behind You is one of the great episodes of the series, probably in the all-time top five. The Joker is not quite as good but it’s still excellent. If you haven’t seen them watch both. If you’ve seen them then both are worth watching again. Both episodes are reminders of just how good The Avengers could be.