Monday, March 03, 2008

From Small Screen to Big (and Back Again)

There's something joyous about UK sitcoms from the mid-part of the nineteen seventies. Amateur they may well be, full of missed cues and fluffed lines they certainly are, but they're also unmistakably British: products of the first half of that strangest of periods, when the hippy idealism of London in the 1960s spread out weakly across the provinces, and the counter-culture, ruthlessly diluted until the original sense of revolution had all but disappeared, was invited into suburban living-rooms.

That they were popular with the viewing public is without doubt, even if TV critics scoffed at them (one American critic memorably describing the US version of Man About the House as "quite simply, the worst piece of sitcom trash that's ever been on television"). Viewing figures were high enough to lead to spin-off series (Man About the House alone generated two successful follow-ups in George and Mildred and Robin's Nest plus attendant movies), format exports to the USA* and to make stars of the actors involved.

Interestingly, they were also part of that period in UK television history when the various regional ITV companies were not - as they are now - completely without merit. While the very top layer of sitcoms in the period were predominantly made by the BBC, there were plenty of ITV offerings in an equally vibrant second tier of comedies. For every Porridge occupying the very pinnacle of comedy, there was a
lesser - but still entertaining - Please Sir! down amongst the foothills. But what unites each of these shows is that most 1970s of phenomena, the movie adaptation.

To understand the reasoning behind the creation o
f a wealth of big screen versions of what are in every way small screen endeavours, it's necessary to go a bit historical for a moment. Feel free to skip past this bit if you've got no interest in the behind the scenes stuff. I'll let you know when you're safe to rejoin the masses.

In 1949, Harold Wilson - at that point Head of the Board of Trade - had suggested the imposition of a tax on box office receipts in the United Kingdom, with the proceeds of this new levy being ploughed back into the British film industry.
The idea was taken up by a government keen to support a domestic film industry being destroyed by Hollywood and so the levy was introduced in 1950 on a voluntary basis, before becoming a statutory with the introduction of the Cinematograph Film Act in 1957. The most basic consequence of the levy was that a proportion of the ticket price was to be pooled and divided among British films which qualified during the year in question.

[Welcome back to those who chose to miss out that in-depth, detailed and scholarly single paragraph on taxation matters. Take a seat and grab a biscuit from the packet on the table. The rest of this is more interesting, I promise.]

The net effect of the new tax was immediately apparent, as British film makers cast about for opportunities and quickly cast an eye over contemporary TV hits for inspiration. The first of the Eady funded movies was a big-screen version of The Army Game entitled I only Arsked! in which an Arab prince hires the lads from Hut 29 to protect him from revolutionaries back home. Unfortunately, while I do have a copy of the movie, I've never managed to work up the energy to watch it (both because I prefer the sequel series, Bootsie and Snudge, and because the lack of William Hartnell in the movie removes the Doctor Who link which can get me to watch almost anything). In similar vein, both Jimmy Edwards Whacko! and Peggy Mount's The Larkins were given the big-screen treatment soon afterwards, but life's too short, frankly, even if The Larkins at least sounds worth watching.

Instead, let's flit forward about ten years, to the first and a contender for the best of the big sitcom movies - Till Death Us Do Part. The initial thing worth noting about it is that whereas The Army Game upscaled the action by dropping the cast into a succession of harem-related hi-jinks in the Middle East, TDUST did so by the unique method of expanding the timescale and showing Alf Garnett's life from World War II to the present day. It's a very good idea, as the strength of the TV show lay in large part in the combination of Johnny Speight's writing for, and Warren Mitchell's performance as, arch-bigot Garnett. With a running time three times longer than the TV show it is possible to show Alf growing into the racist misanthrope he eventually becomes and so manages to open up the series without losing the very element which made the TV version popular enough to generate a movie. It's also very well directed, with every sign that money has been spent on it (not an accusation you could aim at every sitcom movie). The 1972 follow-up, The Alf Garnett Saga, is a direct sequel but is probably best avoided. Even the inclusion of the majestic John Le Mesurier as Alf's new neighbour can't save a film in which the parts of Rita and Mike are both inadvisedly recast and the high point of the plot is Alf taking an acid trip!

If Till Death was a sixties sitcom given longevity by the (non) appeal of its star, then Man About the House was the epitome of sitcoms in the 1970s. With Richard O'Sullivan's Robin Tripp as the man sharing a flat with two girls, Jo and Chrissie, the TV series revolved around Robin's attempts to talk Chrissie into bed and the trio's interaction with their landlords, the scruffy and lazy George Roper and his fun-loving, sex-starved wife Mildred. Like Till Death the writers choose to dump the core concept of the tv series and instead open things out, but with less clear-cut success.

In common with every other one of these movies, this opening out basically involves moving the action from within one location and out into the wide world (in passing, isn't it odd how every one of these movies uses sets utterly unlike those seen in their TV counter-parts?)

Demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the movie version of MatH concerns itself with the problem of urban redevelopment and the lack of affordable housing for young people in London. Arthur Lowe (taking a break from playing the officious but caring Captain Mainwaring) here plays Mr Spiros, the acerbic CEO of a building company who orders the ever dependable upper class twit Peter Cellier to buy all six houses in the Roper's street, so as to knock them down and build offices. Predictably George wants to sell up, whilst Mildred and sitting tenants Robin, Chrissie and Jo are determined to hold out against the redevelopment. Comic misunderstanding and deviousness ensues and for the first hour the film feels exactly like a TV episode with a slightly bigger budget.

In the final section, however, the film kicks up a much-needed gear. The gang follow George to the Thames TV studios where he's trying to hand his house deeds over to Cellier's Morris Pluthero. Once there, Spike Milligan makes a couple of appearances at his most manic self, while Jack Smethurst and Rudolph Walker from execrable racecom Love Thy Neighbour (also adapted for the big screen) meet George in the studio bar and briefly poke fun at their sitcom characters when Smethurst indignantly berates George for directing a 'humorous' racist comment at Walker. As is often the way all returns to the status quo in the end - even Robin's nearly successful attempt to seduce Chrissy is interrupted in the nick of time!

The subject of famous guest stars is one of the few interesting points in the movie adaptation of the Sid James vehicle, Bless This House. For reasons which appear obvious, Robin Stewart who played Sid's son Mike in the TV series was replaced with seventies sex farce staple (and all-round ugly git), Robin Askwith. In fact Stewart simply couldn't do the film as he had another acting job for the period in which filmed took place. The addition of next door neighbours Terry Scott and June Whitfield - essentially reprising the same characters as they always play - is a more obvious attempt to inject some star appeal into proceedings, as is the replacement of Anthony Jackson (in the role of Sid's best friend Trevor) with Carry on regular Peter Butterworth. The fact that the creative team behind the Carry Ons, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, were producer and director of the Bless This House movie is presumably not co-incidental.

In fact these two were themselves interlopers, with series creators Vince Powell and Harry Driver also replaced on scripting duties and, as far as I can see, absent entirely from the film's crew. That this makes little difference to the finished product - a tale of star crossed lovers getting together in the face of parental disapproval, with a side order of home whisky making and an intriguingly modern interest in the environment - does, however, demonstrate the rather routine nature of the source material.

The Bless This House solution of simply dragging a half-hour story out so that it fills 90 minutes is actually quite unusual in the sitcom movies of the period. The approach taken by George and Mildred in 1980 of adding a ludicrous twist to the regular fare - in this case, a hitman trying to kill George in a London hotel - is even more unusual (and that's the least of the problems suffered by this worst of the TV spin-offs, in which all expense seems to have been spared and where Yootha Joyce was quite literally dying on her feet).

More common is the idea of sending the cast away somewhere - a concept which in retrospect is particularly bizarre in a sitcom, where the setting is integral to the comedy, and where it's a cliche of the genre that the characters work best when trapped with one another. Holiday on the Buses, Steptoe and Son Ride Again!, Are You Being Served? and Please Sir! all follow the ill-considered path of sending the cast on holiday, and although both Steptoe and Please Sir! emerge with a reasonable amount of their reputations intact, credit for this goes to the strength of the original premise and the quality of the actors involved more than anything else. Are You Being Served! and Holiday on the Buses, on the other hand, collapse in a welter of jokes about humorous foreigners and middle aged lechers.

Which leaves only the very best sitcom spin-offs to finish.

could be said also to have tried sending the core cast on holiday, although in this case that holiday involved escaping from prison! The writing is crisp and clever, Barker and Beckinsdale are as wonderful as ever and Dick Clement directs with aplomb. Even if there hadn't been a Porridge television series, this tale of two inmates breaking into prison would be fondly remembered as one of the better British movies of the 1970s. I could waffle on about Porridge for longer, but really - do yourself a favour and get the dvd.

While you're at it, do the same thing with the Dads Army movie. It may have been an unhappy experience for the cast** but little of that shows on screen, even if does flag a little towards the end. Demonstrating the process by which the Home Guard came into existence, the film is obviously helped by the brilliant ensemble cast, but the decision to re-tell the whole of the first TV series was a masterstroke which paid off handsomely. Again, highly recommended to any fan of the television show.

One last thing - lots of character actors turn up in numerous different spin-off movies, to the extent that watched one after another it appears that there were only about a dozen actors available in the seventies. Johnny Briggs (MATH, BTH), Bill Pertwee (MATH, DA), Jack Smethurst (MATH, PS, LTN), Carol Hawkins (BTH, PS), Patsy Rowlands (PS, BTH), Michael Robbins (MATH, OTB, TDUDP) and - showing a willingness to serve above and beyond the call of duty - the mighty Bill Maynard (MATH, BTH, S&S, TDUDP, plus the TV version of Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii, sundry Carry Ons and Confessions of... movies galore). Without the safety net of these cut-price knock-offs of popular telly you wonder how some of this lot would have paid their mortgages...

Actually, one final last thing - how cool would it be if they were still making these movies? Imagine a big screen version of My Family where dentist Ben and his dysfunctional brood head for the Costa Del Sol, or where Ashley and Elaine from the Two of Us buy a rundown hotel in the countryside, with predictably hilarious results?

Very cool, that's how cool that would be.

* Should anyone have a copy, I would love to see the single pilot episode of the US version of Are You Being Served, Beane's of Boston
Primarily due to interference from the the studio who wanted to make it more cinematic rather than reflecting the TV series and hence recast Mavis Pike with a bigger name and moved filming to a new location. More specifically, there was a good deal of unrest caused by the fact that the director Norman Cohen was both not terribly good and was being told what to do on a daily basis by studio bosses who weren't even on site, and the manner in which rewrites were taking place outwith Croft and Perry's control.

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Blogger IZP said...

How disappointed you must be to have written all this into the void, when a "Pertwee DVD not all that good shocker" post might have garnered reams of response.
I don't have masses to add, except to ask-

1) Is Bresslaw not a good enough DW link for you to watch I Only Arsked? Please produce a neddlessly convoluted Army Game/Doctor Who/Carry On rock family tree/comedy connections graph for me by lunch time. Use both sides of the paper if necessary. Do not include Leslie Phillips.

2) How can you discuss the Till Death movie and not mention the *interesting* dubbing of Brian Blessed, and the rather nice Ray Davies song at the end that I wish he'd sung himself?

In the Alf film Speight was trying to get finianced a few years before he died, Alf would end up in Downing Street on drugs again, as it happened. In this story Alf's long unseen grandson (see colour Till Deaths) is a Labour leader, who, milking the fact he was raised in poverty by a single mum, digs up his working class roots to help swing the election in his favour. After he's elected Alf finds some dope in amongst his student paraphenalia and old electric guitar and is soon having visions of Winston Churchill (some recycling here I reckon, chums, and I suspect closely allied to the Alf meets the Queen dream stuff first done in The Blood Donor episode). Alf also becomes a popular figure leading a pensioners' revolution in what sounds pretty much a precursor of the Legacy of Reginald Perrin.

While rightly praising the Dad's Army and Porridge movies you have however neglected to mention another of my faves of the genre- The Likely Lads film. You can't whack a bit of on form Clement and La Frenais, can you?

2:35 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Oh good, someone read it!

It's more petulance at the lack of Hartnell which has put the kibosh on "I only Arsked". I'm bound at some point to find myself with nothing but actual tv that's on the telly now or the IOA movie to watch - and I rarely watch actual TV.

I didn't mention Blessed's dubbing because I couldn't find anything which said why he'd been dubbed - do you know?

I'm quite glad they didn't get funding for a third movie - it sounds...less than brilliant.

And arrgh - how could I forget the LL movie? It's one of my favourites too. I blame old age, eating away at my brain...

3:11 pm  
Blogger Scott Liddell said...

You would think this post constitutes a large amount of work, but actually he just records the stuff that I have to listen to and from work each day and then gets an army of drones to type it out.

Yes, I'm *that* lucky...

3:24 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Scott; "he just records the stuff that I have to listen to and from work each day"

true enough. tonight you have a choice of:

1. Older companions in Dr Who: A Good Idea Poorly Implemented

2. Views of Robin Hood: From Intrigue to ASBO


3. Just how good is the 'Heathen' album by David Bowie (with illustrations and arm waving).

3:40 pm  
Blogger SK said...

So what choice was made? Inquiring minds need to know!

9:56 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "So what choice was made? "

Would you believe he refused to discuss any of those topics and so instead had to listen to my amusing humorous monologue, "Seventies Miserablist Drama (or Why Everyone Has to Die in the End)" :)

1:40 pm  
Blogger SK said...

'And that, m'lud, was why I decided to steer into the path of the oncoming traffic.'

2:54 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I am so fed up with my little speeches being used as alibis by bad drivers!

2:57 pm  
Blogger TimeWarden said...

I wonder what Cleese and co. would've done with a "Fawlty Towers" movie, as Torquay, the English Riviera, is already seen as a holiday destination?!

As well as "Heathen", both "Outside" and "'hours...'" are, also, excellent albums from Bowie's later catalogue but I'm on an "Aladdin Sane" high at the moment! Pianist Mike Garson really does shift the given material in new directions.

12:54 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

TW: "Torquay, the English Riviera,"

Hee hee - possibly the funniest phrase in world travel :)

TW: "As well as "Heathen", both "Outside" and "'hours...'" are, also, excellent albums from Bowie's later catalogue"

Don't forget 'Reality' - 'Pablo Picasso' is a fantastic song!

TW:" but I'm on an "Aladdin Sane" high at the moment! Pianist Mike Garson really does shift the given material in new directions."

Garson's fabulous - have you heard the show he did with Bowie, like this

1:16 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

It's interesting to note that this tradition of changing locales continues in the big Christmas specials for any given sitcom. Often this is a case of changing the sit and reducing the com. :)

9:51 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "It's interesting to note that this tradition of changing locales continues in the big Christmas specials for any given sitcom"

Yeah, and it continues to ruin them (that Only Fools and Horses set in the States was bloody awful!)

11:01 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Yeah, and it continues to ruin them (that Only Fools and Horses set in the States was bloody awful!)"

You're not wrong.

And I meant to add, that's a great 'article' (I know some people would tell me off for assigning such a label to a mere blog post, but what do I care! :) ). I'd forgotten quite how many of our old sitcoms got the movie treatment and unfortunately my memory of most of the movie versions was probably coloured by the likes of the Are You Being Served one (erk) but it's useful to be reminded that some - like Dad's Army, Till Death... had their merits. An interesting choice of topic, hats off to you, sir. :)

Only sorry it took me a while to get around to reading it.

12:51 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF:" Only sorry it took me a while to get around to reading it."

Like Ian said, I should be used to only getting anyone reading if I'm battering on about Doctor Who :)

1:55 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Like Ian said, I should be used to only getting anyone reading if I'm battering on about Doctor Who :)"

Yeah, but it's nice to change the record from time to time. Even when I'm yammering on about some other show, I find Doctor Who getting a mention though. Just no getting away from it. :)

3:46 pm  

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