The success of importing the BBC’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus to public television stations in the mid-70s led to a “British Invasion” of sitcoms and comedy shows that, sadly, have been abandoned because these same stations are apparently unable to see offerings beyond the overexposed Are You Being Served? I rag on AYBS a lot, but it’s mostly due to its saturation in the U.S. TV market; here in the Peach State, Georgia Public TV has started running it again on Saturday nights and I’ve been DVRing episodes to revisit from time to time. When AYBS is running on all cylinders, it’s delightful: a slyly satirical take on the U.K. class system, featuring a cornucopia of fine British comedy vets. But if past performance is any indication, GPTV is going to rerun and rerun and rerun AYBS until everyone is bloody sick of it. (Well, me, anyway.)
I remember there was a great deal more variety on public television schedules back in the day, as the young kids like to call it. I was introduced to The Goodies, a hilarious show starring Tim Brooke–Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie that has only recently surfaced on Region 2 DVD in its entirety (there were three previous “best of” releases and a set featuring their solo series on ITV). (I’m waiting for the price to come down on The Goodies: The Complete BBC Collection…and then I hereby forswear it shall be mine. Oh yes…it shall be mine.) The 1970s brought about the likes of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Good Life (U.S. title: Good Neighbors), and The Two Ronnies, and your only real hope of revisiting these shows again is to actively seek them out on Region 2 DVD (I believe Good Life is only one of this bunch available for purchase on Region 1).
One series that I fondly recall around this time was a Carla Lane-created comedy entitled Butterflies, and I’ll readily confess that at the time it wasn’t my cup of tea (oh, this English stuff just clings to me) but when I revisited it a while back I found myself enjoying much more of the nuance (I’m speculating that I was just too young when I originally watched to grasp its maturity). Actress Wendy Craig starred as housewife Ria Parkinson, a much-put-upon housewife stifled in her suburban existence by her dealings with her taciturn and distant husband Ben (Geoffrey Palmer of As Time Goes By fame) and feckless offspring Russell (Andrew Hall) and Adam (Nicholas Lyndhurst). Unappreciated by her family, she finds solace in the kindness of stranger (and businessman) Leonard Dunn (Bruce Montague), who affords her the liberating attention she desperately craves. The relationship between Ria and Leonard was merely a platonic one; despite her restlessness and frustration with her existence, Ria was too devoted to her family to ever really entertain thoughts of a more serious (and physical) assignation.
I didn’t learn until later that Craig’s role on Butterflies was sort of a continuation of the type of housewife roles she had made famous in previous Britcoms—the best example of this being …And Mother Makes Three, an ITV series that cast her as widow Sally Harrison, struggling to make a new life for herself and her sons Simon (Robin Davies) and Peter (David Parfitt). After four series (26 episodes), Sally marries widower David Redway (Richard Coleman) and their new family (David has a daughter, Jane [Miriam Mann]) is chronicled in the follow-up, …And Mother Makes Five (which also ran for 26 episodes over four series).
The first of Wendy Craig’s domestic sitcoms began with a 1967 Comedy Playhouse pilot, “House in a Tree,” which eventually developed into the popular Not in Front of the Children (created by Richard Warner, who later contributed scripts to Craig’s “Mother” series). Children features Craig as Jennifer Corner, a middle-class housewife taking life as it comes alongside her husband and three children. Children would run for four series between 1967 and 1970 (37 episodes) and win the actress a BAFTA TV Award in 1969 as Best Actress. But here’s the kicker: of those 38 episodes (including the pilot), only eight of them have survived the ravages of time, neglect, and the BBC’s asinine (in retrospect) “wiping” policy, whereupon they erased tapes in order to use them again and again and again. (Many a TV treasure has been lost due to this shortsighted practice, but I digress.)
The remaining episodes of Not in Front of the Children were collected for a Region 2 DVD release in 2014, and when I spotted a pretty good eBay deal on the set back in December, I decided to have a flutter. It’s an entertaining little TV offering; maybe not groundbreaking or worthy of inclusion on a CTVBA list (family sitcoms are a dime a dozen) but I enjoyed getting the opportunity to see it because I love Britcoms so. The earliest surviving installment, “The Word” (09/08/67), will give you an idea of how the show works: housewife Jennifer (Craig) is anxiously awaiting a drinks drop-in from her new neighbors but when son Robin (Hugo Keith-Johnson) lets loose with a bit of profanity during a game of play with his sisters (Roberta Tovey, Jill Riddick), Jen works herself into an amusing state of angst that he may have been overheard next door. You never really hear the naughty word emerge from Robin’s impressionable little gob but there’s much hilarity in how Jennifer begs her art teacher husband Henry (Paul Daneman) to discipline the little potty mouth (and also to rectify the ticklish situation of numerous paintings of nudes he has hanging around the house).
“The Word” isn’t as daring as its plot would seem to suggest but it was refreshing to see a sitcom exercise that kind of freedom in the plot department (I can’t imagine anything like that on U.S. TV screens at that time…though I think that if Buffy on Family Affair had been allowed to drop an F-bomb now and then I might have enjoyed that series more). Craig’s dread over making an unfavorable impression is risible at every turn, and I thought Daneman got off some sparkling lines. (The female neighbor, Mrs. Wyatt-Pearson, is played by Diana King; she turns up on AYBS from time to time as Captain Peacock’s wife and had a memorable turn on Fawlty Towers as a confused guest in “The Wedding Party.”) Daneman played Henry in both Children’s pilot and the first series and while it may be premature to critique his performance on the basis of one episode, I thought he came off funnier than the actor who took up his canvas and paints in Series 2, Ronald Hines.
I will say this for Hines, though: his chemistry with Craig is far more engaging, and I found them pretty believable as a couple (though again, the remaining seven Children episodes are from the second/fourth series so that may color my perception some). Hines, a veteran from 60s Britcoms like Mess Mates and Marriage Lines, is first-rate as the replacement Corner family patriarch, whose funniest showcase in the surviving episodes is “The Iron Hand” (03/22/68). Jennifer is at her wits’ end with the misbehavior exhibited by her brood and decides that she will no longer play “Lord High Executioner,” leaving the disciplinary tasks to Henry. As his bad luck would have it, the decision to crack down on the Corner kids coincides on the day before his birthday…and he’s convinced that he’s going to suffer, present-wise, from amping up the punishment. As the episode progresses, Jennifer has threatened the kids with no TV that evening (“Daddy says…”) but she’s committed both herself and Henry to the boob tube shutdown, and it’s hysterical watching the entire family go through withdrawal.
“Change of Policy” (04/12/68) is also enjoyable and a counterpart to “Iron Hand”: Jennifer and Henry have been told by their kids that they embarrass them too often in public, leaving Jen to her usual hand wringing until both of them decide to ease off doting on their offspring. “Religious Revival” (03/01/68) is a bit of a novelty: a handsome vicar (Edward de Souza) persuades Jennifer to resume attending church services on Sundays. Mama Corner runs this past the family…and they predictably put up resistance, but the five of them eventually succumb to the vicar’s personable charms. Daughter Amanda (Riddick) starts asking her mother what certain words in the Bible mean (among them “begat”), leading to Jennifer’s predictable discomfort while Trudi (Tovey) starts a fan club for the reverend, charging interested parties a shilling for membership (dad Henry even ponies up to join).
There are no existing TV episodes from Series 3, so the final two installments (from Series 4) will surprise viewers with a major leap in continuity as Jennifer has brought another Corner into the world (And Mother Makes Six!): baby David, who figures prominently in “A Babe Around the House” (10/03/69) as Jen experiences her usual Weltschmerz when she’s convinced Amanda is jealous of the new baby. (I’m think it’s more of a case of Amanda being confused by her sister Trudi’s change in appearance; Verina Greenlaw took over for Roberta Tovey in Children’s final series.) The eighth and final episode, “Pastures New” (12/05/69), is the only one on the DVD set in color; the family is preparing to move out of their beloved Battersea (a London suburb) house to a cottage in the country with predictably screwball results. (Baby David is packed away in the moving van by mistake, for starters.) The remaining four episodes in Series 4 found the Corner clan adjusting to their new environs before the program called it a wrap on January 2, 1970.
The small number of surviving Not in Front of the Children TV episodes reminds me of a similar Britcom that aired at the same time, All Gas and Gaiters (only 11 telecasts are available, released to Region 2 DVD in 2004, though a collection of eight scripts from missing shows has been released in book form). The reason for this is that even though the boob tube retention was negligent, both Gaiters and Children were later adapted for radio (using in many cases the original scripts), allowing for a record of Gaiters in its entirety and twenty-six visits with Children on BBC Radio 2 in 1969 and 1970. (Wendy Craig reprised her role as Jennifer Corner and Francis Matthews played Henry; both series of the radio Children aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra in 2017 and 2018.) If you enjoy Britcoms as much as I do (I can’t be the only one) I can recommend a purchase of Not in Front of the Children wholeheartedly…and if anyone gets wind of the radio version turning up on BBC Radio 4 Extra again, drop me an e-mail.