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Why Young Mr Grace and his glamorous nurse make me hanker for TV's lost golden age

Rebooted BBC sitcoms struggle to emulate the universal appeal of the truly sublime originals, writes Gail Walker

Published 09/08/2016

Ronnie Barker as ‘Fletch’ in Porridge
Ronnie Barker as ‘Fletch’ in Porridge

Well, that was certainly a shock ... I opened up the paper and there it was - a publicity photograph for the "rebooted" Are You Being Served? The horrible thing was that everything looked perfect in every detail, but so terribly, terribly wrong in spirit.

Indeed, the experience was not unlike those "What is wrong with this Picture?" psychological tests.

Now, don't get me wrong: the cast are absolutely top notch - and anything that features the talents of Roy Barraclough, Sherrie Hewson and John Challis will have viewing figures of at least one.

But, as the old saying goes, you can never go back. Just look at that absolutely terrible Dad's Army film of earlier this year. The cream of British comic acting - Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon - conspiring with wrong-headed and frankly dense producers to produce a film so painfully bad it was offensive.

The Beeb's celebration of 60 years of the sitcom - British Sitcom: Sixty Years Laughing At Ourselves - will feature a reboot not just of Are You Being Served? but also new versions of Porridge, Up Pompeii and - a slightly later one - Keeping Up Appearances.

I shall be there, but I shall also be emotionally prepared for disappointment and/or anger. Because the Beeb is dealing with precious stuff here. Our memories.

Just the mere mention of Are You Being Served?, Hi De Hi, Dad's Army, 'Allo 'Allo, The Good Life, Citizen Smith, Some Mothers Do Have 'Em - even failures like Going Straight, or complete non-PC rubbish like Mind Your Language - is a veritable time machine to a simpler, more comfortable (if not necessarily better) time with the family gathered round the one TV, selecting from three channels.

Not only were families united, the whole country was. You were watching, your friends were watching, your neighbours were watching. All waiting to gaggle with delight, guffaw, or squirm uneasily as we found out how Fletch planned to get one over on Mr Mackay.

In other words, it was the Seventies and Eighties - an era of Angel Delight, Smash and a televisual world where the boss (played inevitably by Reginald Marsh) was turning up unexpectedly at Terry And June's.

Forget about the three-day week, the Yom Kippur War, the Winter of Discontent, the advent of Maggie and Greenham Common, for many of us this was a time all about Friday and Saturday nights gathered round the TV with our parents and siblings, watching what Fletch, Miss Brahms and Foggy Dewhurst were up to.

And just as I miss that sense of togetherness, I miss my sitcoms.

(Of course, like all love affairs, my relationship with "sitcom" changed as the Seventies shaded into the Eighties and I learned to despise and look down upon the catch-all simplicities of You Rang, My Lord. Surrounded by my Penguin editions of Bronte and Camus, I wanted something more... more... something. If millions could like it, then it wasn't for me. What a fool I was. It is only now, thanks to satellite TV and the joys of all those reruns of classic series that I can now say that 'Allo 'Allo is a work of pure unadulterated genius, that Keeping Up Appearances is brimming with universal truths about the make-up of all families and their negotiations, that Porridge is script writing at its finest, comedy and pathos and social commentary and much more all at once).

For most of us, the Seventies/Eighties and sitcoms are synonymous - aiming for the lowest common denominator, iffy taste, prurient while revelling in smutty seaside postcard double (and more often than not single) entrendres.

Think orange and yellow. Think beige. Think of a lift, or a waiting room - above all, not threatening. Unlike today's sitcom world where niche and edgy rules. The natural home of sitcom in the Seventies was BBC1; now it's whatever Channel Four is calling itself these days or some BBC "experimental" off-shoot.

And while of course, technically, they may be sitcoms - in that they are comedies (allegedly) set in a specific situation - they are not my sitcoms. Not Friday evening at 7.30 with the whole country watching the same sitcom.

Indeed, the nearest sitcom in the spirit to the Golden Greats of the Seventies, Mrs Brown's Boys, only serves to painfully point out how things have changed.

First of all, MBB would have been wheeked off after the first "f***" (ditto Father Ted, arguably the last great nod to both sitcom and Laurel & Hardy) and, secondly, no decent sitcom would break the fourth wall.

Like Japanese Noh plays, or ancient Greek drama, classic sitcom has its rituals and conventions and it's first rule was the cast was the cast and the audience was the audience and never the twain should meet. So, no knowing glances, no clever stuff about art and reality - just get on with the melon jokes.

A simple world indeed. And yet I miss it more and more as the years go by. Proust had his madeleines, all I need is Young Mr Grace (accompanied as always by a sexy nurse) waving his stick (phnarr... phnarr) and saying "You've all done very well" to roll back the years.

The latest box set of some US "must-see" import or watching Toast Of London or Friday Night Dinner on Catch Up just can't do that.

To paraphrase the closing credits, You have been watching... Magic.

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