Not long after I got my first DVD player and started amassing the collection I jokingly refer to as “the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives,” an online friend of mine explained to me the difference between Region 1 discs, Region 2 discs, etc. He further enlightened me to the fact that certain films and TV shows might be available in other regions that were not obtainable here—and that it was certainly possible to purchase them on discs that I could play here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. provided I had what was called a “region-free” player.
Well, it didn’t take me too long to acquire that extra piece of equipment—though I did put some careful thought into what my first Region 2 purchases would be. One day, on a whim, I ordered three DVDs—two of them were The Witchfinder General (1968; aka The Conqueror Worm) and Slacker (1991)…both of which at the time had not been released on Region 1 discs. The third was the first series of a Britcom called Birds of a Feather.
Birds was a phenomenally popular BBC-1 frolic (on the air from 1989-98, with a total of 102 episodes) that starred Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson as, respectively, Sharon Theodopolopodos and Tracey Stubbs—two sisters who move in with one another when their husbands wind up in the clink for armed robbery. The comedy arose from the culture clash between the two siblings, with Tracey living a luxurious existence and Sharon more accustomed to life on the dole. The third “Bird” on the series was their next-door neighbor, Doreen Green (Lesley Joseph), a man-eating temptress fooling around with other men behind her husband’s back.
If by this time you’re saying to yourself: “This premise sounds vaguely familiar…” it may because you remember a short-lived Fox sitcom entitled Stand by Your Man along similar lines. Man was based on the British original, with Melissa Gilbert and Rosie O’Donnell as the sisters and TDOY fave Miriam Flynn (the best thing on the show) as the neighbor. It ran for eight episodes before the suits realized that casting Gilbert and O’Donnell in a sitcom was just unbridled insanity.
Quirke and Robson’s chemistry as the sisters made Birds work as a comedy because the two women had a history together, growing up together as school chums and even working on two series entitled Pauline’s Quirkes and Pauline’s People in the late 70s. Quirke and Robson were also in the cast of Shine On, Harvey Moon—a comedy-drama set in post WW2 England written by the team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran…who, in one of those amazing blog coincidences, were also the masterminds behind the creation of Birds. (Marks and Gran also created another favorite Britcom of mine, the comedy-fantasy Goodnight Sweetheart.) The DVD release of Birds, put out in 2003 by a company called Prism Leisure Corporation, offered the first six episodes of the show’s first “series” and in watching all six I realized that this was a program I wanted to see more of and that I wanted to collect.
Unfortunately, the Prism release was a “one-and-done.” No further series were released, and in fact, the DVD itself went out-of-print (though it was briefly re-released last year through Fremantle Media) leaving fans of the series high and dry. I entertained the idea of obtaining the entire show’s run through those unorthodox channels to which I must often resort, but in receiving an e-mail from Amazon.co.uk the other day it looks as if I won’t have to. Network DVD, a company whose specialty is making British TV programs from the past available on disc, is re-releasing the first series and introducing Series 2 to Region 2 on Monday, August 30th.
I’ve bought a lot of product from Network—notably the complete runs of Man About the House, George & Mildred, and Robin’s Nest, the three Britcoms that were adapted into the American sitcoms Three’s Company, The Ropers, and Three’s a Crowd. Network doesn’t often release comedies that originally aired on the BBC though it’s not without precedent—the company put out two collections of The Goodies in 2003 and 2005, and Network is also where I acquired and was introduced to Ever Decreasing Circles, the Richard Briers sitcom that ran on the Beeb from 1984-89. Network has an exclusive contract with ITV, however, and many classic television favorites—Bless This House, Father Dear Father, Nearest and Dearest, On the Buses—have seen DVD releases over the past several years, allowing both the UK populace and curious Britcom fans like myself to enjoy a good wallow in nostalgia, fish-and-chips style.
At one time during the 70s, there were a slew of sitcoms on American TV that were inspired by hit UK programs—All in the Family (taken from Till Death Us Do Part) and Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son) are the obvious success stories, but there were other shows introduced that didn’t quite make the grade. An interesting example of this was a short-lived 1979 series entitled Miss Winslow and Son, which I mentioned in passing when I did that Mayberry Mondays episode that featured a young Darlene Carr. Carr starred as Susan Winslow, an unwed mother who’s just given birth to a bouncing baby boychik despite the disapproval of her socially prominent mom and pop, played by Sarah Marshall and OTR vet Elliott Reid. The kid’s dad had moseyed off to a job in Brazil, leaving Sue on her own…but her next-door neighbor, an arrogant and sarcastic author named Harold Neistadter (played by the peerless Roscoe Lee Browne), would often help with the baby when necessary.
Miss Winslow ran for five weeks on CBS before folding its tent—due in part to both low ratings and the controversial (for its time) nature of the show—and I remember watching a few episodes because I was curious to see it knowing of its British origins (my Britcom obsession has sort of kicked in by that time). The British version, known as Miss Jones and Son (Miss [Elizabeth] Jones was played by one of my Britcom faves, Paula Wilcox of Man About the House fame), didn’t fare much better (a total of twelve episodes over two series) but I heard at the time that it was a little more “daring” in that it audaciously allowed the baby’s father to hang around rather than conveniently shipping him off to South America to appease the bluenoses. I’ve never seen Jones, but Network will once again rectify that when they bring out the first series to Region 2 on Monday as well.
The BBC sitcom classic Till Death Us Do Part inspired All in the Family as I noted in a previous paragraph—but I’ve always thought it interesting that when Family spun-off Edith Bunker’s sister Maude into a separate series, and that series in turn gave birth to Good Times…that Good Times returned to the other side of the Atlantic, inspiring a series entitled The Fosters, a sitcom about an immigrant couple from Guyana raising their family on a South London housing estate. This show, which was an ITV staple for two series in 1976 and 1977, featured Norman Beaton and Lenny Henry in the cast—Beaton would later go on to star on Desmond’s, a popular Britcom that was shown on BET for many years, and Henry headlined Chef!—a public television favorite. (I once saw Good Times’ Jimmie Walker perform at a student function at Marshall University in 1983 and during a Q-and-A I asked him if he had ever seen the British series…he confided that he had not. But he—and you—can do so at your earliest opportunity; Network released the first series of thirteen episodes in July of this year.)