Friday, 24 December 2010

Home to Roost (continued)

“I have found [the part of Henry] the most frightening in 24 years of acting.  To make people laugh in a TV comedy is the most unfunny thing I could have done.

“In a series like that you are acting.  It’s far tougher than playing Regan – or Inspector Morse” --  John Thaw quoted in “Sweeney” John cops new crime beat by Garth Pearce, Daily Express Sat 5 July 1986.

Series Two was recorded in April-May 1986, during Elizabeth Bennett's hiatus between seasons 1 and 2 of You Again, and not long before John Thaw began filming what was to become arguably his biggest role, that of Inspector Morse.

Broadcast for 7 weeks from 5th September, again on Fridays at 8.30pm, I recall being quite disappointed in this run.  Looking back on it now it's still a funny show, but perhaps lacking in the very strong punchlines of the first series.  Incidentally, if you're flicking channels and stray upon the show on ITV3, this series can be immediately identified by Reece Dinsdale's long hair - surely not inspired by his US counterpart...?
Anyway, highlights this time round include Matthew learning to drive in "The Test", featuring a short film sequence, "Protest" with Matthew liberating Henry's goldfish in the name of animal rights, and "Julie", starring Rebecca Lacey in the first of three appearances as Matthew's younger sister, who calls her father 'dumpling' and can wrap him round her little finger in a way Matthew most certainly cannot!

The episode "Open House" deserves a mention for its now terribly dated depiction of teenagers at a party Matthew holds at the house in Henry's absence.  Matthew himself largely avoids these shortcomings throughout the 5 year run thanks in no small part to the deft performance of Dinsdale, always likeable and believable in the role, but I think it's fair to say the series was walking a continual tightrope in this regard.

A quick mention of the series' production methods: Home to Roost, like most Yorkshire Television sitcoms of the era, rehearsed in London before being recorded in Studio 4 of YTV studios in Leeds - a look at the sets for Series 2 by production designer Mike Joyce can be found here, whilst a nifty 360° tour of the studio is here.

Like in most of Eric Chappell's sitcoms, the studio audience seem particularly receptive which adds to the enjoyment of the show immeasurably.  A million miles away from the hollow guffawing which passes for  audience appreciation in today's, admittedly few, multi-camera comedies.

Ratings of around 10 million guaranteed a further series the following year.

Series Three began on 24th October 1987, this time on Saturdays at around 8pm.  A big change was the absence of Elizabeth Bennett.  With the US show now defunct, perhaps she felt she had portrayed Enid for long enough?  I'm inclined to say it was a last minute decision however, because apart from the opening episode which deals with her departure - Enid has won £100,000 on the premium bonds! - and the hunt for her replacement, the remainder of the scripts contain her in all but name.

Actress Joan Blackham more than capably portrayed her successor, Fiona Fennell, for this run - another widow with a keen interest in her employer.  Other guest stars include Leslie Ash, Nicky Henson as Henry's younger, better-looking and supposed more successful brother Edward in "Success Story", and Lysette Anthony as Matthew's object of infatuation in "The Real Thing".

Whether due to the change in timeslot or John Thaw's higher profile after the debut of Morse, this series enjoyed the show's highest audience to date with an average 12m tuning in.

Funnily enough, or not as the case may be, I just have to mention the change in lighting style from this point onwards in the series.  Lighting cameraman Peter Squires takes over from Vince Barber and invests the principal location, the Willows house, with a much more subdued look which I personally feel gets in the way of the comedy.  I missed the bright look of Series 1 and 2, but there are conflicting schools of thought on this issue.

This wasn't quite it for 1987 as, in keeping with Eric Chappell's other big hitters, the show enjoyed a solitary Christmas edition, the double-length "Family Ties" on Sunday 27th December.  In this, Henry hopes to enjoy Christmas at a luxury hotel with a lady friend, Cynthia - played by Sherrie Hewson, currently of Loose Women fame - but his plans are greatly complicated by the arrival of all his offspring, including youngest son Frank, a bedwetter, who book into the hotel too.
In keeping with the festive spirit, there is more of a farcical element to the proceedings here as Henry tries to keep the presence of his children in the hotel from Cynthia for as long as possible.  It is also much more of a vehicle for John Thaw himself than usual, perhaps in deference to his newfound fame as Morse.  But then again, perhaps not and I'm reading too much into it.  Wouldn't be surprised.

The Enid/Fiona housekeeper character was dropped from this point on, with neither Elizabeth Bennett nor Joan Blackham reappearing.  Creative?  Budgetary?  Who knows.

No series appeared in 1988, possibly due to Thaw's commitment to the Arthur Miller play "All My Sons" at the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre taking up his annual hiatus from Morse, but a fourth and final batch of seven episodes followed in 1989.

Recorded in March-April but not screened until December, this last run was very welcome and proved as strong as ever, with "Bridge of Sighs" kicking things off with guest star Jill Gascoigne as Henry's old flame, the thrice-married Judy Schwartz, returning from America to pick things up where they left off.  Matthew's jealousy rears its head at the thought of his father's departure. 

Guests in this series include Sam Kelly and Ray Winstone.

The series ended on 19 January 1990 in a touching but far from cloying manner with "Leaving" as Matthew finally goes off to University - Reece Dinsdale was 30 by this point - having passed his "A" levels in the Series 3 finale "Paper Chase".  He got the same results as me by the way, watch the episode if you're interested!

And so Henry looks forward to resuming his quiet life, until in the closing moments youngest son Frank comes to stay, his mother having decided that its his turn to look after him!

Like Only Fools and Horses.... six years later, this final episode rather fittingly gained the highest ratings of them all, with almost 14m tuning in.

The generation gap is usually a good starting point for a sitcom, and like Steptoe and Son before it the conflict in Home to Roost came from right vs. right, as both parent and child have, or should have, equally valid points of view.  Maybe that's why I like it so much.

Or maybe simply because it's so funny, plus in my opinion it's a masterclass in comic delivery by these two guys below.

Home to Roost is somewhat overlooked in the John Thaw canon, not to mention that of Eric Chappell and I've never understood why.  Occasionally corny but always a good laugh, well acted and at its best, sheer brilliance.  Check it out.

"I loved working with John.  He gave me good advice.  He said keep people guessing.” - Reece Dinsdale quoted in interview with Steve Hendry, Sunday Mail 5 April 2009

Merry Christmas one and all!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010


If the world can celebrate the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, then I can do likewise for Home to Roost, the 1985-90 Yorkshire TV sitcom which similarly featured a talented and likeable 20-something actor locked throughout the run of the series in a late teens timeframe -- none too convincingly, even from the start.

Not sure I can stretch the similarities any further.

Home to Roost, written by sitcom veteran Eric Chappell, starred John Thaw as Henry Willows, middle-aged divorcee leading a quiet life until his wayward 17-year old son Matthew -- Reece Dinsdale -- turns up on the doorstep having run away from home, or been thrown out.

The humour in the series comes from the conflict between the two as we, not so much they, discover how alike they are.  Eric Chappell's scripts were wonderful - indeed I would argue the first series of seven is the finest thing he ever wrote, Rising Damp included - and John Thaw and Reece Dinsdale, two fine, classically-trained actors both from the North of England, bounced off one other with great skill in the usual sitcom tradition.

It is also something that is now, regrettably, extinct, at least in the British Isles: a pre-watershed comedy that is good.  A study should be done on exactly how and why this format perished, for perish it did.  Comedy in this country now belongs to the git, and the git alone.

My first exposure to the show came with a rather unusual trailer they ran some weeks before it began.  Basically, it was the entire opening scene.  Unusual then, and indeed now.  Here it is:

INT hallway.  Evening.

Doorbell rings.  HENRY WILLOWS answers to see a young man (MATTHEW WILLOWS) standing there.  He looks him up and down.

Matthew: Hello

Henry: Yes?

Matthew: Remember me?

Henry: Yes

Matthew: I'm your son.

Henry: I know

Matthew: Aren't you going to ask me in?

Henry: No.

Matthew: I'm Matthew.

Henry: I know you're Matthew, I was at the christening.

Matthew: Aren't you surprised to see me?

Henry: No, I've been expecting it.

Matthew: How could you have been expecting it?  It's been seven years!

Henry: I know.  You're not going to make a habit of this are you?

Matthew: I thought you'd be pleased to see me.

Henry: Well, life's full of disappointments.  Now do you mind moving your foot out of the door, there's something I want to catch on the television.

Matthew: But dad!

Henry: Don't call me that!  You made your choice.

Matthew: That was seven years ago, I was only t-- what am I supposed to call you?

Henry: (thinks) What about Mr Willows?

Matthew: That was seven years ago Mr Willows, I was only ten.  Look, do you mind if I come in, it's cold out here.

Henry: I'm not responsible for the weather.

Matthew: I've got something to tell you.

Henry: Well, tell me.

Matthew: I'm frozen.

Henry: Is that it?

Matthew: No.

Henry: That's the trouble with the younger generation, they're soft.  When I was your age I was doing the evening newspaper round in this sort of weather.  And I didn't have a topcoat, my mother had to thaw me off the bike...  All right, you can come in for five minutes.

And it is played beautifully right from the off.

Something else to mourn in the world of comedy is the demise of the writer, i.e. someone with their own unique turn of phrase, someone who can craft wit in dialogue outside of actual jokesLast of the Summer Wine may have outstayed its welcome by a decade or two, but Roy Clarke is a bone fide writer and right to the end the programme still had that going for it.  I fear most sitcoms nowadays are penned by comedians.  I shudder at such a thought.

Eric Chappell too is most definitely a writer, and his legacy will live for ever thanks to Rising Damp but it was by no means his only triumph.  Home to Roost was the last of his three big solo successes, the other being Only When I Laugh, but it's the least remembered never mind celebrated, which I think is a shame.  To be fair, it was never the ratings juggernaut the other two were, but it's one of my personal favourite sitcoms ever and deserves a bit of celebrating in this its anniversary year.

The show began on Friday 19th April 1985 at 8.30pm with the episode "A New Life", wherein Matthew does indeed inveigle his way into his father's home, disturbing not only Henry but also his cleaning lady Enid Thompson - played by Elizabeth Bennett - a widow with an unrequited interest in him.  And over the next seven weeks much hilarity ensues, as they say.  Except that it genuinely does here, I promise.

Particular highlights of the first series include: "Bad Apples", where Henry tries to get Matthew admitted to his old school; "Suspect", where Matthew is under suspicion for theft of a silk tie, not to mention "something worse, far worse" a joke that should remain unspoiled; and "Dating Henry" with the elder Willows smitten with a girl young enough to be his daughter.  All well-worn sitcom subject matter even back then, but executed with such elan it would be churlish to complain.

The series ended with "The Way We Were" guest-starring Sheila Hancock in fine form as Henry's ex-wife, and Matthew's mother, Sue - unfortunately the one and only appearance of the character.

Ratings were good, over 11m average, and a second series was put in motion.

In the meantime though, I just have to digress and mention the US version, You Again, starring Jack Klugman as Henry, John Stamos as, er, "Matt" - and Elizabeth Bennett as Enid!

It is, I guess, a testament to the original's impact that it transferred across the Atlantic so speedily.  You Again debuted as a mid-season replacement on NBC during 1985-86, immediately broke the top twenty and was renewed.

Like many of these UK-to-US revamps, it initially remade Eric Chappell's scripts for the original before forging its own path - an inevitability given the disparity in episode numbers between American and British shows.  It wasn't long before the Beach Boys guested - alas, not a new "jump-the-shark"-esque idiom to denote bad sitcoms getting worse, the Beach Boys really did guest star, in Season 2's "The Audition".

But back to Elizabeth Bennett - uniquely in sitcom history, she reprised her housekeeper role for this version, albeit here called "Enid Tompkins".  I would love to know how this came to pass, but my guess is that the US producers simply loved her in the original.  Not surprising, she's brilliant.

The little I've seen of You Again - Channel 5 here in the UK showed it in the wee small hours in the late '90s - I haven't liked any more than any other US revamps of UK shows.  The very precise comic timing of the originals is always lost, American actors being too laid back in their approach for this kind of thing.

Anyway, having been a replacement itself, You Again needed one as it only made it to half-way through the 1986-87 season before being cancelled.

But jumping back six months or so...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sitcom oddities

I watched a couple of sitcom rarities the other day, neither very good but both interesting because of their connection to other, much better, shows.

First up, the moderately famous "No Ill Feeling!" episode of LWT's 1971 series Doctor at Large starring the late Barry Evans as newly graduated Dr Michael Upton, former student from the earlier show Doctor in the House

Written by John Cleese (one of six episodes he penned for the show), "No Ill Feeling!" was something of a prototype for Fawlty Towers, depicting as it does Upton's stay in a hotel where he is unnerved by the proprietor, played by Timothy Bateson, and one of the guests, a tiresome jokester (Roy Kinnear) whose eventual comeuppance is the episode's raison d'etre.

Basil Fawlty was of course inspired by Cleese's 1969 stay at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay where he observed first hand the antics of its misanthrope proprietor Donald Sinclair.  And so this brilliant idea for a sitcom received its first airing here, a full five years before Fawlty Towers.

Unfortunately however, it's terrible.  Little of Cleese's unquestionable genius for the form is evident here, in a tiresome 25 minutes featuring annoying, impossible characters at every turn.  Bateson's hotelier is not so much misanthropic as just plain strange, and given to Spoonerisms - not a particularly rich vein of humour onscreen in my opinion, possibly because I've never actually heard anyone use one in reality.

And as I've intimated, the hotel manager is so far down the list of importance in the storyline that it's hardly been worth anyone commenting on its existence - as Fawlty in nascent form that is - all this years.

Connie Booth deserves every inch of her credit for the later series, especially as she had nothing whatsoever to do with this.

Next up, was the pilot for Cosby, Bill Cosby's 1996-2000 follow-up to the mighty The Cosby Show, and based on no less an original source than One Foot in the Grave!

This was undoubtedly one of the worst things I have ever seen.  Bill Cosby's loose improvisatory style was completely at odds with the necessarily tight structure of David Renwick's original creation; not to mention the miscasting of the essentially good natured-seeming Cosby as a curmudgeon.

The show ran for four seasons, and I would hazard a guess that its resemblance to the original, tenuous even here, was invisible by the end.

Never screened in the UK to my knowledge, and not available on DVD.