Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Are You Being Served? Christmas!

As a writing exercise, it is important to me to keep up this blog. I want to document my thoughts on the programs I watch and enjoy. I know not that many people view this blog and of the people who visit, I am not sure how many people actually read it. I just want to practice writing and trying to formulate some thought on what I am viewing every week. It is a kind of experiment for me.
Why am I going into such detail? Because I am sick. I have a high temperature and am achy all over. It’s Christmas Eve and probably will not have a chance to write up about last week’s viewing especially as I plan to write up a review of The Next Doctor over the next couple of days. So this will be short. Yay!
After a couple of weeks of watching pseudo Christmas episodes of programs I randomly pciked, this week I watched two bona fide Christmas editions of Are You Being Served?: Christmas Crackers and The Father Christmas Affair. Just like mentioned in last week’s article on Keeping Up Appearances, all of the Christmas specials for Are You Being Served? were taken out of the episode syndication package with the rest of the series and held separately generally only available for December viewing.
I could imagine that these episodes could have been really exciting for regular viewers in 1975 and 1976 respectively since they aired so long after the previous series ended. It would have made it feel really special. For Christmas Crackers, Series 3 ended in April of 1975 and The Father Christmas Affair would have aired after Series 4 would have finished broadcasting in May of 1976. So there was a sizable gap between regular series and specials.
Christmas Crackers starts off as a meeting with the Grace Brother staff trying to figure out how to get more people into the store over Christmas. It was soon discovered that Young Mr. Grace decided the staff will dress up in Christmas style costumes and serve the customers this way. Apart from a slight interlude with a Christmas lunch that goes horribly wrong in the canteen, the whole episode ends in song. One thing that really stuck out at me while watching this was that the timing in the episode was off by some of the main cast. Frank Thornton steps on a couple of the other actor’s lines and even jokes. Trevor Bannister does very much the same. The entire rhythm of the episode seemed way off. I am not privy to production dates for Are You Being Served? as I am with other series so I am not sure if this was recorded as part of the third series or was this done closer to its Christmas broadcast. Generally, I have never liked any of the musical numbers in Are You Being Served? I think John Inman, Larry Martyn, Nicholas Smith can carry a tune quite well but trying to understand Arthur Brough is impossible and listening to Wendy Richards is just plain uncomfortable to my poor ears. The biggest cringe-worthy moment of the episode to me is watching poor Trevor Bannister nearly fall down the stairs coming out of the lift in his pirate costume with him only able to use one leg; he nearly looses his balance. You could see the look of horror on his face and you could also hear some gasps from the audience. It is not quite as big of a deal as I make out but it is certainly noticeable.
The Father Christmas Affair is much more enjoyable viewing. Apart from one of the funniest gags in the series involving a mechanical Father Christmas opening up its arms to reveal it is wearing nothing under it’s cloak while saying “Ho, Ho, Ho little boy, have I got a surprise for you!”, it is just a fun, enjoyable episode. It’s intentionally over the top and silly. Mr. Grainger needs to update his yearly act he gives to the old people’s home. Instead of doing his Winston Churchill impression, Mr. Humphries suggests Grainger tries to mimic the Al Jolson number Mammy including the use of blackface. While this is happening Young Mr. Grace is offering £50 to the person he chooses to play Father Christmas in the store. Since Grainger can’t get the grease paint off his face, he auditions for the Father Christmas role with it on. Luckily for him, Young Mr. Grace brings along a little black boy who immediately identifies with Grainger and thus Grainger gets the role. It’s a fun episode with another musical number of sorts. This time it’s Mr. Humphries and Mr. Lucas trying to teach the very immobile and rigid Mr. Grainger a simple dance routine for the song Mammy. Unlike Christmas Crackers, The Father Christmas Affair doesn’t try to do too much in the episode and lets the story play out and focus more on the characters. This is hardly surprising to me as I find many of the episodes of that series to be superb such as Fifty Years On and Oh, What A Tangled Web.
I viewed these episodes from the R1 releases. The quality is much better than the copies shown on our PBS station. The colors are vibrant and there is not much in the way of tape drop out. There are some but nothing like the copies we had seen here before which were from copies bicycled around the country. I like to generally get any British series as R2 PAL releases as much as possible but I am glad I didn’t with this. The R1 release included a couple of discs of extras plus even more importantly, none of the episodes on these sets are cut in any way. The same can not be said about the R2 releases.
Next Week: A Tribute to Producer and Director Bob Spiers who passed away on 12/8. I will be watching some of the programs he worked on including The Comic Strip Presents, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Dad’s Army, Come Back Mrs. Noah, Fawlty Towers, (Maybe the Australian version!), Bottom, and Absolutely Fabulous. I know he has done a lot more work than this but those are the only things I have in my collection that he had any involvement.
Coming Soon: I occasionally do pseudo reviews. I call them pseudo because I don’t have any business reviewing anything! I plan on posting reviews for Doctor Who episode, The Next Doctor and the DVD for Doctor Who: Battlefield soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Keeping Up Appearances

“The Bouquet residence, the lady of the house speaking!” Not really Bouquet is it? It’s Bucket. This is a handful of series shown on my PBS station in the 1990’s that I absolutely loved. Keeping Up Appearances. The series about a woman who goes through incredible lengths to have others believe she is in a higher social standing than she really is. To be able to pull this off, she often hides the family members she embarrassed of from other people, plays up her own social standing, assumes that other people of higher standing knows her and should acknowledge her, and talks up her husband as someone who is more important than he is much to his embarrassment.
This week I look at 2 *Holiday* specials from the series. These were Sea Fever and Historical Pageant. Going into it and picking the episodes to watch, I knew that they were not yuletide spirited choices and I didn’t care. Christmas was still a few weeks off so it didn’t bother me too much. They originally aired on BBC1 on 12/25/94 and 12/24/95 respectively. Historical Pageant is actually the last episode of the series and I have never seen it before.
The PBS station in my area show these series continually but the way that BBC Worldwide Americas offer the series, they will take out the Christmas specials from the rotation and the stations will need to purchase these episodes separately. This is why watching this series on PBS one will never see it straight through from beginning to end. Generally, the Christmas specials will show up in December (hardly a radical idea) but will be also placed in that month because that is when those stations have pledge drives to try and get money out of viewers to support the programs. This is supported by my BBC Worldwide Americas syndication information about Keeping Up Appearances where a station can purchase series 1-5 sans Christmas specials. It does separately point out 4 specials for purchase. This would also possibly explain why I never seen Historical Pageant as I just simply missed any of the Christmas specials when broadcast on my PBS station.
To be honest, I have only seen 1 of the 4 listed specials on my PBS station, The Father Christmas Suit. Sea Fever and Angel Gabriel Blue I owned the pre-recorded video.
I chose Sea Fever because I always liked it. I liked how it got all the regulars (minus Daddy) into the special but also allowed them to not be in the entire special. Emmet and Elizabeth are in the early part of the special. Rose is seen for a little bit but the episode revolves around Hyacinth and Richard going on a cruise on the QEII. It takes them forever to get to the ship including them actually missing its departure and catching up with it elsewhere. This is all due to Hyacinth thinking she can navigate Richard to the QEII better than Richard’s own directions. Once they finally get on board ship, Hyacinth sees Onslow and Daisy on the ship and Hyacinth immediately believes that they are stow-aways. The truth is that Onslow and Daisy won the cruise and did not want to tell Hyacinth in case it made her jealous. The best scene of the episode is when Onslow and Daisy start the dance at the end of the episode and Hyacinth breaks in and dances with Onslow. Now that is at the end of the episode, what about everything in between?
I like much of the episode because it gets the characters out of their normal surroundings. What is annoying though is Hyacinth. I know her character is meant to be annoying and rubs people the wrong way. This time, she just bugs me. Hyacinth in the series is a strong and tough woman. She can deal with any crisis in often amusing ways. In Sea Fever, she gives up too easily. She is reduced to tears too often. That just doesn’t feel right for her character. Once she finds out that Onslow and Daisy are on board after winning the trip, that’s different. She is just jealous and it is funny. When she is crying because she missed getting on the QEII the first time just does not feel right to me. Of course, as an American Football fan, see her searching the ship for Onslow and Daisy in a Minnesota Vikings hat is a treat. After all, I come from Minnesota. I also thought this episode was a little timely because the QEII made its last voyage this year to be docked in Dubai to be turned into a luxury hotel.

I enjoyed Historical Pageant a little more. Often, I see that with Christmas Specials from the UK that episodes are kind of pantomime in nature. Are You Being Served? does it as did Doctor Who Voyage of the Damned. Oh, that wasn’t meant to be pantomime? Anyway, Historical Pageant is about Hyacinth organizing a pageant for the church. She is to play the Queen in the pageant and she is looking forward to all the volunteers to help her put this pageant together. Of course, once everyone in the parish realizes that Hyacinth is running the pageant, no one shows up to help. Hyacinth needs to get her family involved including Onslow. The Vicar is set to see the play but immediately considers it to be unacceptable and asks for the curtain to be lowered based on Hyacinth’s appearance as the Queen. As it is lowered, it hits Hyacinth on the head sending her to the hospital. This is a one of a handful of occasions we see Hyacinth’s sister Violet and her husband Bruce who are always fighting and talking about divorce.
As this was the final episode of the series and that I have never seen it before, I had seriously wondered if Elizabeth dropping the curtain on Hyacinth’s head would kill her. It actually makes sense since Elizabeth is so clumsy she breaks Hyacinth’s cups in every episode. Hyacinth also bullies Elizabeth too. This would have been a satisfactory ending to the series for me. I like to think that on her way to the hospital she quietly passes away. Well, she could have done so!
After 5 years of the “Hello Mrs. Bucket, I mean Bouquet!” joke it was time for the series to end. I have stuck up for the series after people thought it should have been done after 1 series of the same type of humor. I have always loved it but it is clear by this episode, the ideas have run out of steam. Too many unfunny pieces to it including Daddy and the dance instructor dancing continuously through different parts of the story. Though, it was fun to see Una Stubbs make an appearance.

I watched this from the BBC R1 set. I thought the episodes looked softer than they should. Most of the other BBC comedies on DVD look great. I was not sure if that was because some were recorded on 2” quad tape which would give a stronger picture vs. 1” tape. I am not sure what Keeping Up Appearances would have been recorded on but it is possible to start off in 1” and end up on D3. I also have the R1 release of Grace and Favour which looks real good and was done at around the same time of Keeping Up Appearances. It is possible the episodes for the Keeping Up Appearances release was sourced from the BBC Worldwide Americas analog tape library. I have not seen the R2 Playback release of the series though all my ‘Allo ‘Allo! discs are from the R2 Playback collection and look good.
When I first went through all of the episodes for Keeping Up Appearances, I always thought Richard was going to get a backbone, have enough and leave Hyacinth to go off with Elizabeth. Now that I have finally seen the final episode, I know that is not the case….sadly.
A quick shout out: One of the few BBC comedy series I have never seen episodes of is Last of the Summer Wine. I just want to give my condolences to the family of Kathy Staff who died last week. I have wanted to check it out but am a little unsure of watching 29 series of something right now.
Next Week: True Christmas episodes of the classic series of Are You Being Served? with Christmas Crackers and The Father Christmas Affair.

For more information on Keeping Up Appearance, please check out:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Benny Hill

One of my first memories of British television goes back to the early 1980’s. Most people had seen British television on PBS with such series as Fawlty Towers or Good Neighbors (The Good Life) but my earliest memory goes back to our CBS affiliate WCCO with the one and only Benny Hill. WCCO would broadcast Benny Hill Sunday nights at 10:35 after the news. I would sit and watch it with my mom. Of course being of a young age, most of the sexual innuendo would fly right over my head. Come to think of it, it probably flew over my mother’s head. Why would she let me watch it at such a young age? I would look forward to the bit every week where Benny would run after the women or the women would run after Benny to the tune of Yakety Sax which was basically the theme tune for the series. For commercial stations such as WCCO, Benny Hill must have been syndicated in half hour episodes with commercial breaks. We certainly did not get whole episodes.
As it is December, when I randomly chose Benny Hill, I decided to try to find something with some Holiday flair. I only have about 22 episodes of the series in my collection. Most sourced from the A&E DVD releases. So I looked through my database to see what would be appropriate and found from Disc 1 Episode 2 which was broadcast on December 25th 1969. Seemed to be a good choice!

Watching the episode was like stepping back through time. The humor is both simple and complex. Benny Hill uses word play very well. I do know that later on, Benny gets a little more overt in trying to get the ladies but here he is quite subdued. My favorite sketch of the episode is ‘The Short Happy Life of Maurice Dribble’. It’s about a man’s whole life, from birth to death, sped up over a matter of 10 minutes. Within the sketch, there is some great music which I instantly recognized yet can barely describe. It is like sped up music which sounds like it is being played backwards yet had an old time feel to it. I am sure anyone who is a fan of Benny Hill will know what I am talking about. There is also Benny’s Bloopers. This week part of the bloopers, which are not real bloopers but fabricated as bloopers or screw ups, focuses around shooting a western in a saloon. Benny comes in as a cowboy, asks for a beer at the far end of the bar. The bartender is at the other end and should slide the beer down to Benny to catch. Obviously, we know what is going to happen. We know what is going to happen when Benny walks into the saloon. Hell, we know what is going to happen when we even see the saloon set. It’s still funny! The bartender slides the beer down to Benny who gets distracted at the moment he should grab the beer and of course the beer slides off the bar onto the floor. Over the course of this segment, it happens probably about 6 times. Maybe because I am simple, I laughed at it every single time.

I think the only thing that bored me to tears and stuck out like a sore thumb in this episode were the musical numbers. Now, I have seen my fair share of Benny Hill episodes. I have seen him sing many songs, which have never really done much for me but in this episode he had musical numbers from 2 musicians. The Ladybirds and Miss Ira Heath. After doing a little research, apparently The Ladybirds did over sixty appearances on the show over the years. I have never seen them before prior to watching this episode. Regardless, the musical numbers have always bored me even though The Ladybirds did a decent rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”. It was respectable but I had absolutely no interest in Miss Ira Heath singing “Wedding Cake”.

The last sketch, before the obligatory chase scene, was a take off on “This Is Your Life”. Like many of Benny’s sketches, this was overly long (kind of like my blog) but had warmth and charm about it (unlike my blog) which made it worthwhile to watch. I am not sure what was up with this sketch as it felt like the presenter (Nicholas Parsons) just had, for his script, a list of questions and Benny would make up the answers of the spot as he went a long. There were some truly excellent quips to this as Benny was not the subject of the “This Is Your Life” style program but played the different parts of the people who the subject of the program knew from over the years. When the subject realized it was about his life, he received a small box of chocolate from the presenter. Every time Benny came out as a different character he would be interviewed by the presenter and leave when he was finished. As he was leaving the set, you could see if was taking off his costume only to put on a new one before coming back out on stage. My favorite bit from this scene is that he is dressed as a lady for one of the characters. Before he leaves on this occasion, he asks for a piece of candy from the guy who this program is about. Benny takes the piece, pops it in his mouth, and goes off stage to change. When he comes back, as a different character I think as a band leader, he says to the guy he took the candy from as a different character still chewing it, “You didn’t tell me it was a caramel!” Well… made me laugh! I thought the DVD was presentation was quite nice. As I mentioned earlier, this is the A&E release and not the PAL Network release. I know the first thing that we are not going to get since it is a R1 release are ad caps. It’s too bad since these make the program complete and can often lead to nasty editing jobs. This wasn’t too bad though. I thought the quality of the episode was great. Obviously a mixture of film and video from a 2” tape converted to NTSC, I though it looked fine. I did think some of the sequences of the episode were out of sync in terms of audio. I wasn’t sure if it was my system or the DVDs. Another thing I really liked about the DVD sets is that each episode is chaptered by skits or musical numbers. I know I should expect that as it is the only smart thing to do but I just feel you never know what to expect from these companies. The smart things isn’t always the thing they choose to do.
I remember many occasions over the years telling people I really enjoy British television and their response being, “Do you mean like Benny Hill? I don’t like him!” This always made me sad for 2 reasons. Number one is obviously not all programs are like Benny Hill and secondly, why do people not like Benny Hill? From what little research I did, Benny even gets a cool reaction in the UK. He was attacked by grave robbers less than six months after he was buried. Give the guy a break! I have watched Benny Hill on and off over the last twenty years and will always remember him best as when I was watching him get chased to the tune of Yakety Sax! More people should do the same!
Next week: More Christmas goodness with a couple of episodes of Keeping Appearances. Sea Fever and Historical Pageant.