In the gloomy lab of a crazed scientist’s lair the spooky organ music rises to a crescendo. The thunder cracks and the lightening flashes. The hand-stitched body-parts on the gurney start to twitch and there’s no longer any doubt. “It’s alive” yells Dr Frankenstein, “it’s alive!”.
This is exactly what happened in the mind of head comedy commissioner Shane Allen when he decided to launch the BBC Sitcom Season, reviving comedy classics from the last 60 years, to mark the anniversary of the first broadcast of Hancock’s Half Hour arguably the originator of all tv sitcoms. It’s up to us to decide if these unnatural creations are monstrous, or if like the good Doctor’s best known creation, they’ll have us in stitches.
Are You Being Served was a selection of actors doing their best impressions. Despite their considerable efforts it was a painful pub tribute band; very earnest and a little bit desperate to please. The writer Derren Litten seemed to think all the jokes all had to be explained. Where they expecting a particularly stupid audience? This made the whole thing extremely slow and off-paced.
It was a missed opportunity that this super old-fashioned department store couldn’t be updated beyond 1988. I think it could have been really interesting to see it as it would be in 2016. The weird time-shift is stranger still when you learn that the original only finished in 1985. So that three year hop forward seems totally redundant.
It was all quite uncomfortable, especially the lengthy series of gags confusing the boss’s wife with a dog (dire even before we got to the inevitable finger up the bum part). The impressions were affectionate and you can tell the cast were great fans of the original, but it was flat and uninteresting. I did like Jason Watkins as Mr Humphries, but then again I could watch him in anything. His was an excellent John Inman impression. But one decent impression isn’t enough to hang a whole revival on.
Porridge was a proper update which followed the original closely. No wonder, as it was written by the original team – Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. It was in the same spirit with actors and characters inspired by the inmates and guards of the much-loved 1970’s HMP Slade. There was a nod so big it could give you whiplash to a few classic punch lines and those, of course, were the funniest parts – the literal two fingers up to Mr Meekie (the perfectly cast Mark Bonnar) and this classic face-off:
“I know you’re at it and I will bring you down if I ever find you up to something larcenous.”
“Then I won’t Mr Meekie.”
“Let you catch me”
The new Fletcher played by Kevin Bishop was a good fit too, but as guest blogger Susie Sue rightly pointed out he did seem utterly delighted with himself throughout and needs to tone it down a bit. Ronnie Barker made this character a classic because he was so cheeky and funny, but brought pathos and depth to the role too. Bishop can’t do that with a maniacal grin on his face at all times.
Shame that the hard-men weren’t smoking jacket wearing sophisticates as in the original, but I guess that wouldn’t get your far in the modern prison system. And I’m fairly sure prisons don’t look like that any more. But a self-contained literal locked room (or in this case a corridor) really is a fabulous setting for any tv show and I can see why the horizons weren’t expanded.
A few gags fell flat but over all it was, as you’d hope, charming and very enjoyable, reminding us about the importance of kindness, little victories and sticking it to the man. I’d happily watch a full series.
I had high hopes for Young Hyacinth as it stars Kerry Howard. She’s an absolutely exceptional comedy actress, especially as bitchy nightmare sister and chief problem-causer in BBC3’s superb Him & Her. Turns out repulsive Laura and hideous Hyacinth have much in common.
Patricia Routledge was Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet, obviously) the great and terrifying snob of Keeping Up Appearances, the matriarch of her suburban domain. This back story shows her character was formed when she was a housemaid to a posh family in the 1950’s. She was dead set on her great aspirations and was determined to drag her family up with her, whether they liked it or not.
This was a story of sisterhood – the love and hate that makes a family, how they irritate each other constantly but are still loyal to a fault. It was like Raised by Wolves in vintage clothes. A tiny criticism would be that drunken Dad played by Mark Addy (again, not much of a stretch from drunken King Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones) was a bit under-used, but this half hour had to be about the star.
Kerry Howard gave an incredible performance. She had studied Routledge’s performance and had her voice, mannerisms and facial movements down to a tee. I had no idea how strange Hyacinth’s slightly panicked toothy smile was until I saw Howard’s pitch perfect impression. She was inhabiting the character as opposed to the AYBS tribute act.
And her understanding of Hyacinth’s desires and flaws gave a pantomime dame depth and a sweet sadness. She really wanted the perfect family but had to deal with constant disappointment – an alcoholic father, a mother who ran off with an American service man and sisters who don’t live up to her high moral standards, who she must have realised were having a lot more fun than her.
The episode was really well contained and cleverly used all the space provided on the canal. It had a great vintage look and beautiful interiors especially the run-down lock-keeper’s cottage. It was a really elegant script, where everyone had at least one great line.
Hyacinth’s post-war beginnings and early 1990’s obsession with candlelight suppers and Royal Doulton china with the hand-painted periwinkles feel pretty distant from 2016. But the themes of re-making your life and hiding a shameful past should be extremely familiar to anyone who uses Instagram and Facebook #nofilter babes. It’s the real me! On the basis of this excellent half hour I’d be shocked if we didn’t see much more of Hyacinth and her sisters.
Didn’t catch the comedy first time around? All these shows are now available on iPlayer.