Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Comedy Classic Begins: The First Two Episodes of Steptoe and Son


Sometime it almost feels like a privilege to watch some of the stuff that I write about on this blog. When I got into viewing British television, there would be programs I heard about or maybe seen an episode of that I really wanted to see more but wasn’t always possible due to these programs not being available in the states. One of the series I wanted to see more of was Steptoe and Son.

Back in the days when I was trading tapes, I was lucky enough to get a hold of an episode of this series. As anyone who had a history of trading tapes and had been doing it long enough will tell you, sometimes you end up with the more rare stuff before getting the more commonly available stuff. In this case, on a tape of the Doctor Who story The Edge of Destruction from the BBC master tape there was an episode of Steptoe and Son titled My Old Man’s a Tory from series Four. This little gem was rare because the original quad tape had been wiped years and years ago and there was no 16mm print. What we had was the episode taped from the master tape onto the Shibaden video system for the writers of the series (Ray Galton & Alan Simpson) so they could have their own copy. A lot of the Series Five and Series Six episodes were recovered this way too but My Old Man’s a Tory was in real bad shape. The line structure of the image was all crazy. I had this episode and watched it. It was funny and intelligently written. It was BBC television from the 1960’s which I considered to be gold. Over the years I was able to collect quite a few of the episodes on VHS but not all. Then, like a gift from God, the BBC started to release all the episodes on DVD. I still look at my shelf and chuckle to myself that I can watch any episode of Steptoe and Son when I want to see one. I was thrilled when this series came up this week.

Alan Simpson and Ray Galton had great success writing for Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour. The BBC saw them as very talented and wanted to give them the opportunity to write more for the organization. The writers agreed to write six comedy episodes and Steptoe and Son came about because the writers needed to write a cheap production which just had two characters and limited sets. It was never intended for this episode to become a full-fledged series. It wasn’t until rehearsals that Tom Sloane, the head of BBC comedy, told them he thought this episode had the potential to be a series. The first episode was part of Comedy Playhouse where it did very well. It returned later in the year with the start of the first full series.

The Offer TX: 04/01/62

The role of Albert Steptoe went to Wilfred Brambell; Albert’s son Harold would be played by Harry H. Corbett. There was only 13 years difference between the two actors. Steptoe and Son would be the first situation comedy that did not employ comedians to play the roles. The comedy would come from the writing and situations.

The Offer begins the way so many episodes of the series start off: Harold comes home from the rounds as a Rag and Bone Man. He is tired and his cart is filled with all sorts of dilapidated items. Albert is at home, as an old man there is not much he can do or at least the is the impression he gives. As soon as Harold gets into the yard, Albert starts laying into him about what a horrible Rag and Bone man he is. Soon after they start emptying the cart, Albert starts finding items picked up on the rounds that he really likes and wants to keep them for himself. Harold is furious at the idea that all the good things he picks up won’t be flogged but go to his father. Harold explains to Albert that he has an offer for a better job and if Albert keeps this up, then he will take the offer and leave Albert to fend for himself. As they continue to unload, Harold brings some bottles of alcohol he picked up into the house. He takes these almost empty bottles and uses the alcohol left to fill up the bottles in his collection. It is then he notices that Albert has been at the gin while Harold has been out on the rounds. Harold is livid and decides to take the offer. In a fit of anger, Harold starts loading up the cart but this time with his own stuff. He’s had it with the old man and is going to ditch him. Albert tries everything he could think of to stop Harold from leaving including faking a heart attack. Harold will listen to none of it. He made up his mind. The cart is loaded and all Harold needs to do is get the horse and he is off. One minor inconvenience for Harold, his father will not allow him to use the horse. Harold is forced to try and move the heavy cart by himself. The result is that the cart will not move. Harold is stuck just as he has been his whole life. In a very sad moment, he breaks down. Even Albert can’t help but to feel sorry for him. Albert collects Harold and brings him back into the house.

The scene when Harold is trying to move the cart and breaks down is interesting. Clearly, the audience is not really sure what to make of it. This is a comedy series after all and when Harold is trying to move the cart it’s funny because Harold is putting forth so much effort but doesn’t move at all. It’s when Harold breaks down and Harry H. Corbett exhibits real tears is when the audience doesn’t really know what to do. It’s audible on the soundtrack when some are still chuckling but clearly some get what is trying to be achieved. It’s a very powerful moment which doesn’t really get repeated on the emotional level again. Though that moment shows how this was a very different situation comedy than what had come before it.

The Bird TX: 14/6/62

When Harold gets home from doing the rounds, he is very secretive. He plans on going out for the night, just like he did the night before. He gets ready by having a wash but Albert is skeptical as Harold had a wash the night before. He’s even shaving for the second night in a row. He only usually shaves twice a week. Albert is trying to get it out of him but Harold reveals very little. Albert tries to keep him to stay at home with the lure of Perry Mason being on TV that night but even that has no effect. Finally, Harold spills the beans by telling his father he is going to meet a bird. Albert can’t believe why Harold would want to meet girls when he has Albert for company!

In typical Steptoe and Son fashion, Albert and Harold spar with insults back and forth. This, as always, is wonderfully written. Finally, Albert offers that Harold and his girlfriend have dinner at the house. Harold is unsure what to make of this because suddenly Albert is so nice. The night of the dinner, Harold is very nervous. He also notices that Albert never washed up and forces him to clean himself up by running his head under a faucet. Harold’s date is late. Time keeps passing by and there still is no sign of Harold’s date. Finally, Harold loses it and explodes. He clears the table by throwing all the plates off it and destroys everything in sight. He rampages through the room. He is furious that the woman stood him up! Just then, a knock on the door; his date finally arrives. Harold is not content with her being late; he opens the door, tells her off and slams it in her face. No one is going to take advantage of Harold Steptoe! He goes off to bed and Albert follows him but before leaving the room, stops at the grandfather clock and moves the hands back to the correct time.

Both episodes are depressing. I’ve never really thought of it before but I felt an inner sadness as the episodes were going on. Especially with The Offer. It’s sad when Harold is clearly more intelligent than he was ever given credit for. He had been held back from doing just about anything his whole life and has never been given the opportunity to do more with his life. Maybe what saddens me is that Harold was just a little bit older than I am and that I felt bad that he had very little to look forward as long as he was burdened with his father. I think around this age, it’s not uncommon to think to oneself about what accomplishments have been made and what to do with the time remaining. It really resonated with me in a way that I had not noticed before. It’s been a few years since I watched the episode but I was a younger person when I last watched it, perhaps all that plays into it. A very interesting observation.

The Bird was depressing because it is just the first of many times of Albert doing something to sabotage Harold. He specifically turns Harold against his girlfriend. It is very funny but it is also quite cruel. The reason Albert does this is that he wants someone to take care of him and go out on the rounds. I suppose another reason he does it is because he likes to have control over Harold. The real difference between The Offer and The Bird is that The Bird is a little more slapstick which becomes a hallmark for the series where The Offer almost plays as drama in many ways.

I have heard people complain about the early DVDs of this series. Basically, the prints of the episodes are the positives that have been struck years ago. This is basically what masters were available off the shelf in the BBC archive and putting them onto DVD. I understand what they are talking about but yet do not agree with them. Of course I would love this series to get the same love and care that the Doctor Who DVDs get but that is not likely to happen. Since I am an easy going consumer, I rather have episodes released in the quality they are in now rather than have them not released at all. The BBC would need to go back to the negatives for the early episodes and re-transfer the episodes. That cost money but the ironic thing is that it is very possible that Steptoe and Son would outsell the classic Doctor Who DVDs although the Doctor Who DVDs are the ones that have been completely restored from the ground up.

The print quality of The Offer is pretty poor. There are a lot of scan lines throughout the entire episode and everything looks really zoomed which is not uncommon with a telerecording. But it’s even more so than a regular telerecording. The difference between the two episodes is really profound. The Bird is an altogether much better print than The Offer. It doesn’t have the scan lines and it’s just a little easier on the eyes. Although it has not been cleaned and there are tape drop outs, I find this completely acceptable to watch. Once again, if it is this vs. nothing at all, the choice is really easy for me.

Steptoe and Son went on for a total of eight series, 2 films and a radio series. It was a massive success and turned the two stars into household names. I watch it and find the quality never dipped throughout any of the series and in fact improved over the years. My recommendation for anyone who has seen any of the episodes is to seek out the radio series; it’s just as good as the TV series and is great to listen to on the go. And, if you are reading this article and never seen the series, go and find it. All episodes are released in a boxset and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Next week: We finish off the September theme month of first episodes with the very seldom seen series Come Back Mrs. Noah with the first two episodes. This series doesn’t have the best reputation. Is that reputation deserved?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

All Gas & Gaiters: The First Two Episodes


It’s sad when a TV show is forgotten through the mists of time because so many episodes are lost. Over the years, many TV series have been exported to the US in particular for the Public Television (PBS) market and have gone on to be quite popular. I think All Gas & Gaiters would have fallen into this category if so many episodes were not lost. It is true that the first two of five series were recorded in black & white but series such as Dad’s Army made its way over here to some success. Of course, I could never understand why people have such an aversion to black & white television, but that is another article.

All Gas & Gaiters was a series that was conceived by husband and wife team Edwin Apps and Pauline Devaney. The two were both actors but decided to have a go at writing. The main reason for this is that they needed to stay at home waiting for calls for possible job opportunities; they might as well try their hand at writing. They had written a piece for television but they wanted to do more and try to do something in comedy. An idea presented itself from a dream Edwin had and this formed the premise to The Bishop Rides Again! They sent the script in to the BBC under the name of John Wraith since they were friends of Frank Muir who was the head of comedy at the BBC and didn’t want to create an awkward situation. Eventually, Muir talked to both of them and found out it was Edwin and Pauline who wrote the script. He loved it and commissioned it for an episode of Comedy Playhouse.
Comedy Playhouse was a really interesting idea. Starting in 1961, it was a series of unrelated comedy episodes that would run every year. Some of the episodes would be so good they would go on to become series. Sometimes, the BBC would put shows in there they knew they wanted to become full time series but used Comedy Playhouse as a way to test the waters. Some of the most notable series to come out of Comedy Playhouse and become a whole series would be: Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served?, Last of the Summer Wine, and of course All Gas & Gaiters. Of Course, by this stage, All Gas & Gaiters would air as its episode title, The Bishop Rides Again. Comedy Playhouse lasted for 15 series and ended in 1975.
The Bishop Rides Again TX: 17/05/66

The pilot for Comedy Playhouse was situated around a clergy at the fictional church St. Oggs and how these people work together. There was the Bishop played by William Mervyn, The Dean played by John Barron taking the part in a similar direction he takes a lot of the roles, as a bossy and often difficult person. Robertson Hare plays the Archdeacon and Hare was 75 when he took the role and was an immediate success. Finally, the Chaplain named Noote was played by Derek Nimmo. This part would turn Nimmo into a household name.

The episode revolves around a bequest of £60,000 to St. Oggs. In order for St. Oggs to get the money, the Bishop would need to re-enact the medieval custom of riding around on horseback dispensing forty pairs of stockings to forty virgins. In this case, there is no room for interpretation of the request. It needs to be forty virgins and they have one day to do it all the while with the Bishop travelling on horse.
First they need to get forty pairs of stockings. The Bishop sends Noote to do this. Noote is required to go into a woman’s clothing shop to get them. After he leaves, with a lot of strange looks from the shoppers, Noote bumps into a Police Officer and all of the stockings fall out into the street. The Police Officer takes Noote back to the Bishops house to confirm Noote is not some sort of pervert.
After all that is figured out, The Bishop sets out on horse, Noote on foot and the Arch Deacon following along in a car to dispense the forty stockings. Things start off bad as it is raining but the rain is the least of anyone’s worries. Not only does the Bishop need to hand out the forty stockings but he needs to make sure they are virgins and has to figure out a way to be sure. This leads to a lot of innuendo and confusion. After working on it all day, they have only been able to give one pair away and that was only to an eleven year old girl which after they hand it off to her, they run. The Bishop thinks he has until midnight to give away all forty pairs but as he sits in the Archdeacon’s car trying to figure out what to do, the Dean bicycles by and informs the Bishop that he only has till sundown. It’s already after 3pm.
Later, the Bishop goes home and realizes that not only had he failed to get rid of the stockings, he had failed to secure the money. Suddenly, Noote realizes that he made a mistake and that he had arranged for the Bishop to speak with young women who were in the convent. There were over forty of them. The Bishop is able to get rid of the stockings and secure the money.
This is a fun episode which is a farce but had a lot of enduring characters. On fun bit of casting is a young James Beck who plays the Police Officer. He would go on to play Sgt. Walker in Dad’s Army. The episode went out under the title of The Bishop Rides Again and also credited John Wraith as the writer of the episode. The BBC had already commissioned Edwin Apps and Pauline Devaney for a full series of episodes for the start of 1967. They needed a title for the series. The title they chose was going to be Gas and Gaiters but the head of BBC Comedy wanted to have the “all” from a quote where the title came from. The series was known as All Gas & Gaiters. Where the writers got the quote from was Charles Dickens’ Nicolas Nickleby from 1839 in particular this excerpt, “‘Aha!’ cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. ‘I see her now, I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last—at last—ALL IS GAS AND GAITERS!’”—Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens, page 403. The phrase is a colloquialism meaning ‘a satisfactory state of affairs, everything is as desired.’ Over the years it was shortened and appeared in 1862 as All Gas and Gaiters. The writers decided to retain a naming convention that had developed with the pilot by starting each episode title with The Bishop……
The Bishop Gets the Sack TX: 31/01/67

The Bishop gets a letter from a Producer at the BBC who wants to make a program about St. Oggs. The Bishop immediately sees this as a great opportunity to advertise St. Oggs with the hope of bringing more tourists to the area. The Bishop is responsible to find someone on his staff to host the program and knows that the Dean has impeccable knowledge of St. Oggs though the Bishop also know how boring the Dean can be and plans to not even tell him about the program. Just as he hatches this plan, the Dean calls him to let the Bishop know that he also received a letter from the BBC to do the same program and offers up his services to host the show. The Bishop informs him that he has already someone lined up….himself!
The next day, the Bishop is at the steps of St. Oggs in front of BBC cameras trying to host the program. He is awful! He keeps speaking to the wrong camera and is generally boring. The Producer has a plan and has a private word with the Bishop. As he does so, Noote starts talking to a Production Assistant. The PA tells Noote that the Producer is going to sack the Bishop but Noote shouldn’t worry because the Producer is so smooth that the Bishop is not even going to know it is happening. Sure enough, the Bishop comes back and explains to Noote that he doesn’t feel, since he is such a busy man in a high position, should waste his time on hosting a TV program. Just then, the Dean turns up, finds out about the opening and takes a turn at being the presenter of the program. His style is much different than the Bishops. For starters, the Dean points out garbage cans as being the most important thing at St. Oggs and he talks about how he will fine people if he catches anyone not using it. Of course his expression, as only John Barron can do it, is severe and humourless which of course is extremely funny. Now, the Producer has to have a talk with the Dean to discuss how presenting a TV program is far beneath a man as busy as the Dean….
The Bishop and Noote decide the best person to do this is the Archdeacon but because the program needs to be recorded the next day, they make the Archdeacon practice all night! They make him practice so much so, he loses his voice. Just as the Bishop feels all is lost, he realizes the only person left to do it is Noote himself. To help Noote along, they give him a little dutch courage and suddenly he is a TV star! He is excellent hosting the program and everything works out.

Just as we saw James Beck in The Bishop Rides Again, we see another Dad’s Army cast member in The Bishop Gets the Sack. The Producer is played by John Le Mesurier aka Sgt. Wilson. I always enjoy everything I see him in.

All Gas & Gaiters is pretty fun show. The jokes are a little predictable and the acting was a little stiff but we were also watching the first 2 episodes. This week, during my commutes, I have been listening to the existing radio episodes of the series. These were done in 1970 & 1971. They are very, very funny. It is clear that over the years since the series began, Edwin and Pauline’s writing style improved quite a bit. The pacing and the storylines were really quite enjoyable. The Bishop Rides Again and The Bishop Gets The Sack are both quite funny but there isn’t much depth to the storylines and they are pure farce. Like most great series, it is not uncommon to start out funny but not hit its stride for another year or so. Too bad we will probably never see more episodes again.

Out of the 33 episodes of this series only 11 episodes exist in the BBC archives. This includes 2 episodes from Series 1, 2 episodes from Series 4 and all of Series 5. Only the Comedy Playhouse Pilot was found in 2001. A quick clip of The Bishop Rides Again was featured on a documentary about missing episodes narrated by Terry Wogan called, Missing Believed Wiped. This documentary is really quite interesting, focusing on Dad’s Army, but gives us a really good background into the story of how and why episode went missing. If anyone is interested in it, it is on the Dad’s Army Series 1 & 2 DVD set. When I saw the clip from The Bishop Rides Again, it piqued my interest about the series. Just by chance a few years later, I was looking on Amazon and I realized the existing episodes were released on DVD.

The DVD set is two discs. It is a really nice cover which is actually from one of the covers from the Radio Times. What is really interesting about the cover is that Radio Times cover was taken when John Barron had left the series and was replaced with Ernest Clark. Clark is actually on the Radio Times cover but when this DVD set was released, DD Video did a really good job of photoshoping Barron in Clark’s place. Barron eventually returned to the role in later series. The unaltered version is on the PAL VHS version of this release. There are also comprehensive Viewing Notes written by Andy Priestner. They are written by someone who truly enjoys the series and that makes the Viewing Notes very special. The one thing that really bothers me about this DVD set is that the menu on either disc has a PLAY ALL function. It is probably one of my biggest pet peeves of any DVD release is when there in not an option to play every episode on the disc without having to go back to the menu. I don’t know why they do it but I’ve found this on a few discs and it makes no sense to me at all.

I’ve enjoyed watching episodes of this series and listening to the radio episodes. While listening to the radio episodes, it’s fun to think, with a fair amount of confidence, that I am the only person in the US who is listening to these episodes. Like Edwin Apps, I prefer the black & white episodes. There is something about them that just feels right in terms of the subject of the series. The series just looks a little cooler. Who knows? If more episodes existed maybe this would have made it over to the US for PBS viewing or could have seen more reruns in the UK. Unfortunately, this little gem has been sequestered into the realm of the forgotten TV series. That really is a shame.

Next week: The first two episodes of a series written by the masters of comedy Galton and Simpson. Truly one of the greatest comedies of all time: Steptoe & Son. The Offer (Comedy Playhouse) and The Bird.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

All Creatures Great & Small's Very First Episode: Horse Sense


Horse Sense TX: 08/01/78

Ah, September! Growing up, September always meant two things for me: trudging back through another year of school to achieve mediocre grades and the start of the new TV season. It has become clich├ęd to explain that perhaps younger people may be surprised that network television followed a rigid schedule of September being the start of the TV season and the end was May. It has a special place in my heart to such an extent that I have shoe horned it into my little blog. Now, as I mentioned before, every program I watch for this blog is generally randomly picked. Though, it is a tradition for me that any program I pick in September, I automatically watch the first episode of the series. This year we kick it off with All Creatures Great and Small. This is nice as I took May to look at final episodes and last episode I looked at in May was the final episode of All Creatures Great and Small. Fall also seems to be the perfect time of the year to watch All Creatures Great and Small. It is best to watch particularly on a Sunday afternoon eating a roast by a fire. None of which I have actually ever done.

Where we left the good people of Darrowby in May is a completely different place as where we start off with this episode. The first episode of All Creatures Great and Small is called Horse Sense and this is truly a first episode. Sometimes, new TV series start up with all the characters in one place such as Absolutely Fabulous. All the characters exist in their settings from the start and we, the viewer, are allowed into this world. This is a perfectly acceptable way to start a TV series. With Horse Sense, we start off on the bus with young vet James Herriot on his way to the small town of Darrowby. He has just graduated from veterinarian school and is qualified to work in practice. He has come out to Darrowby to interview with a practice in hopes to get a as an assistant.
After getting off the bus, he makes his way over to Skeldale House where the practice is located. A certain Siegfried Farnon should be there to welcome him in but he’s not there. He away visiting his mother and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hall, doesn’t know when he will be back. James doesn’t have to wait long to get into the thick of it as some of the farmers come to pay Siegfried a visit to get him to come out to their farms. This includes Mr. Biggins who waffles over whether or not someone should come out to see his cow. Biggins is a character that will make appearances in episodes right up to the final one.

Finally, Siegfried comes back from his visit to his mothers and takes James on the rounds with him. They stop at a farm with a horse that had puss in his hoof and another farm where a cow had a blocked teat. The cow wasn’t too happy with James and kicked him down. James who was undeterred got up and finished the job. There are a montage of scenes indicating that James & Siegfried has done a lot of visits. Included in this montage is the first time, of many, where we see someone put there arm way into a cows arse and pull stuff out. Hmmm…maybe forget the earlier suggestion of watching this while eating a roast. After that, James and Siegfried stopped at the local pub in Darrowby where Siegfried offered James the job. It is at the pub where it is obvious that farmers don’t hold vets in very high regards. To be more accurate, they are very skeptical of parting with their money for services. Biggins made a big deal of this earlier when he had visited Skeldale house.

Basically, life had changed for James at the pub. He was one of the few graduates from veterinarian school to get a job which paid well and included room & board. The next day he started in earnest as he opened up surgery at the practice. This was an area that Siegfried wanted to improve in the practice as he felt the industry was leaning towards more small animal work. The only customer James got was a small girl who didn’t speak and she brought in a tortoise which looked like it was healthy. The episode ends with James needing to rush out to look at a horse that belongs to a Lord. The lord was not in attendance but a very bad tempered manager was there. Normally, horse work would be handled by Siegfried but he was once again away visiting his mother. What James found on the horse was that it was beyond help and was in excruciating pain. James needed to put down the horse. The Manager was extremely upset about this and threatened to sue. The follow episode Dog Days, shows as Siegfried does the post mortem on the horse that James was right.

If I may steal a bit from my article in May, how All Creatures Great and Small got to TV is interesting. James Herriot was a country vet in Yorkshire. His actual name was James Alfred Wight. For years, Wight had a desire to write but as being a vet, the practice took up most of his time. Finally in 1966 at the age of 50, Wight was challenged by his wife to finally sit down and start writing, what he eventually came up with was the short book, If Only They Could Talk published in 1970 and followed up by It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972. In that same year, these two sets of stories ended up being published together under the banner title, All Creatures Great and Small as US publishers thought the two other books were too short to publish on their own. When All Creatures Great & Small came out, it became a massive hit prompting a film in 1975 called All Creatures Great and Small and a sequel, It Shouldn’t Happen to A Vet the following year.

In 1975, Producer Bill Sellars was invited by the BBC to take the first two Herriot novels and create a series from it. Sellars eventually went on to produced all 7 series of All Creatures Great & Small plus 3 specials between 1978 to 1990. Sellars cast Christopher Timothy as James, Robert Hardy as James’ employer Siegfried Farnon and Peter Davison as Siegfried’s younger brother Tristan. The first 3 series, originally set around 1937, focused on James coming to Darrowby. He is a calm person is a sea of eccentric Yorkshire farmers, crazy episodes with Tristan, and meeting his wife Helen. The third series ends with James, Siegfried, and Tristan answering their countries call of duty and entering into the War. The series return for 2 specials in 1983 and 1985. All Creatures Great & Small returned as a regular series in 1988. By this point, the series was co-funded by the US network A&E and stayed on the air until 1990 finishing with Brotherly Love.
This is an awesome opening episode to an incredible series. To me, the thing that was missing from the later A&E co-produced episodes is energy. From the opening music, which is more driving and almost jazz-like during the first 3 series, to the youthfulness of the actors, there is something really fun about these episodes. It almost feels like perhaps the actors mirror the characters they play. For example, Christopher Timothy is very early on in his career. This is the first series where he is the lead. It’s his first major job just like the James Herriot he plays. By the time we get to the end of the series, he is definitely in a routine. Life seems very routine for James. In fact he is not very interesting at all and maybe that is why the focus for the final episode was more towards Tristan or the two brothers who were fighting. In Horse Sense, James is youthful. A whole new world is there for him. This episode has some nice touches.

There are a couple of moments in the episode where James stops and basks in his moments of personal success. He is proud of himself to take the journey to Darrowby, he is proud of himself to prove to Siegfried on the rounds he is a very capable vet and he is proud of himself that he got the job. All of those are sweet moments because it shows he cares and had worked really hard to get where he eventually ended up and would stay for his entire career. With the job situation for Vets being so poor in the 1930’s, I would assume he was extremely worried about what he was going to do for the future. The bus scene at the beginning of the episode is one of my favourites. Throughout the entire series James had exhibited a youthful naivety about himself and it really is in full gear in this episode. He asks the guy next him a couple of questions and then the guy turns it around and asks James a question he can’t really answer all that well. The first shot inside the bus is almost a two shot with James and another woman even though the woman is in the row in front of him. Afterwards after they get off the bus, James asks her for directions. The woman is Helen who would eventually become James wife. A really wonderful idea of having her just in the opening of the first episode. I didn’t notice that the first time I watched it. It is also possible I didn’t even see it until much later when I revisited the series. All Creatures Great and Small was an early PBS British television program for me. After I got into Doctor Who, I wanted to see more programs created by the BBC. I suddenly had an intense fascination with what the BBC was and the programming they put out. To be honest, this is a fascination I still have today. Though, back then I was hungry for anything I could get my hands on. Looking back, it’s not a bad fascination to have when you are eight years old. While other kids were into the coolest trends, I was tracking down what other output I could watch from the BBC. It’s funny to think, I really haven’t changed between then and now. What was a plus for me to watch All Creatures Great and Small was that when I noticed it on KTCA one Sunday afternoon, I recognized Peter Davison in it. Of course, because he was in it, I had to watch it. As time went on, I stopped watching it. A big part of it was that it was no longer being shown on KTCA and I never taped any of the episodes. Cue my article from May as I wrote about seeing A&E was running “new” episodes. Of course these are also good but it really lacked what I remembered as this amazing programs. Could it be that the memory cheats?

Flash forward to the early 1990’s and I had a friend in financial difficulty. To give her some money, I bought all of her movie version VHS tapes of Doctor Who (as one does) and also about 4 tapes of All Creatures Great and Small tapes on LP speed. I think it was between 12 and 16 episodes on the tapes. I stuck in the first tape and a flood of memories returned to me. I don’t really mean about the plot, although some of it was familiar, I meant more about the style and energy of the series I remember loving as a child. The opening theme music, aka Piano Parchment by Johnny Pearson, had a lot more oomph in the original episodes than it did in the A&E episodes. In the early episodes, the theme music is over-modulated and almost distorts but it is a beautiful piece of music. This great music is set to visuals of a car driving down country roads, going through puddles on a sunny day. The show was recorded in the 1970’s and looked it which only benefitted my viewing experience.

I love the BBC practice at the time of recording all interior shots in studio on videotape and shooting all the exteriors on film. I can appreciate why this may be jarring to some and possibly why a director may be pulling their hair out, but I love the look to it. I had never seen anything like it before. Plus, years later when I actually thought about it, it made me think that small jarring visuals like that only told me the story was good enough to overcome small visual obstacles like that. Seeing this series, especially series 1-3, was great too because it opened up the world to me; it was so different than the Minnesota suburb I lived in. All Creatures Great and Small showed me beautiful English country sides that I have loved forever since.

One other thing I always wanted to give credit to the BBC for was the opening scene in the bus. James is sitting next to a disfigured person who is playing the part of the passenger. As he should be, he is integrated into the scene as a person sitting next to James. There are no mentions of his disfiguration; he is equal. I think that is great. The reason I mention in is because I am struggling to think when I ever saw a US program where someone with a disfigurement is in a scene and there is no mention what so ever about it. They are part of the scene and it is done. This is not a “special episode” of All Creatures Great and Small where James sits next to someone different on a bus. My point is that the series, the director, and the BBC looked passed it and hired this person for a part that needed to be filled. I do remember where there are actors hired in roles where they are in wheelchairs. Maybe I am jaded but when people with disabilities are casted in roles now, it almost seems it’s more to check something off a checklist than to hire the best person for the role regardless of how “perfect” they are.

Next week: We continue to watch the first episode of a series as well as continuing to watch series which start with the word “All”. Next week I look at the first 2 episodes of All Gas & Gaiters: The Bishop Rides Again (Comedy Playhouse) and The Bishop Gets the Sack.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Summer Drought for The Vicar of Dibley

Summer TX: 1/1/2000

Is there ever a series that you really like and rarely ever get around to watch it? I think I can place The Vicar of Dibley into this category. The series started in 1994 and it is about Geraldine Grainger who, as a vicar, is placed in a parish in the small village of Dibley. When the series started, it was a pretty big deal in the town of Dibley for a woman vicar. Dibley Chairman of the PCC, David Horton couldn’t believe their new vicar could be a woman. In real life, the struggle was getting much bigger with male priests threatening to leave the church if woman were allowed in.

In a very appropriate timing sort of fashion, this week’s episode is called Summer. This works out real well as Summer is just about over and this seemed to be as good of time as any to view this episode. It is summer and Dibley is in a drought. Worse yet there is a water ban. Weeks go by where no one can use any water or do any bathing. Everyone is pretty ripe by this stage. After fierce complaining to the water board, a representative shows up to give an update on a new plan. This plan simply consists of Dibley which is deep in the valley to be completely flooded and thus being turned into a reservoir for the other nearby villages. Needless to say this idea does not go well and they protest. The way the water board explains that the plans have been on display for a long time is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ writing for The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A lot of the villagers stand to get a lot of money for the buyout of their land by the water board. David Horton stands to get about £4 million. People like Frank and Jim who do not own their own property would get nothing. Although they all seem happy about the move out of Dibley at first, they in fact our not and decide to fight. Geraldine decides the only action to take is to chain herself to the church. Soon, the other board members do the same. Eventually, the Water Board changed their mind and decided not to turn Dibley into a reservoir and the board decides to erect a statue of Geraldine. Well, not Geraldine the Vicar but Geraldine the infant daughter to Alice and Hugo.

Like I said, I rarely watch this show although whenever I see it or put in a disc, I love it though there are still a lot of episode I have not seen. This is one of them. If I hadn’t known better, this could have passed as a final episode. Not so much a happy ending but a sort of Little House on the Prairie type ending where everyone needed to save Walnut Grove but once they realized they could not fight it, they blew up Walnut Grove. Of course, I knew that wasn’t going to happen but there was something very final about the early part of the episode where they all had to come together to save their village.
Now, I am confused about one thing. This grouping of episodes that have titles of the seasons, is it a series (which would make it Series 3) or are they specials? I have seen this differently in a few places. My DVD collection is The Ultimate Vicar of Dibley Collection (Universal, 8253202) which has these episodes on the Disc 4. Disc 3 is listed as The Complete Second Series but Disc 4 is titled as The Seasonal Specials. BBC programs, which sells the series to PBS stations lists this as Series 3 which also makes sense since it is a grouping of four episodes. I suppose it really doesn’t matter and since the episodes aired on BBC1 within days of each other, Series 3 may be the best description.

The episode itself is quite funny though I don’t think I would rate it among the best offering from the series. The solution to chain themselves up to the church really didn’t seem all that interesting to me though there is a great moment when the vicar is presiding over a service while the congregation is in the church and Geraldine is chained up to the outside of the church. It is even funnier when they all have to leave after the service and the only way out is for all of them to crawl underneath her, through her legs to get through. The thing that makes The Vicar of Dibley so special is the characters in the village. Each one of them is basically stupid, with the exception of David. These people could easily be annoying or disgustingly creepy but the actors who portray these characters make them very loveable. I think Owen is the greatest evidence of this. He comes from a family of murderers, he mutilates animals, there are hints of bestiality but he is a warm character. I applaud Roger Lloyd-Pack who plays Owen because it just goes to show what a great actor Roger really is in that role. It also shows how versatile he between roles like Owen and when he plays Trigger in Only Fools and Horses.
Speaking of Owen brings up an interesting point. It is easy to get trapped into thinking this is a feel good series about a woman who is a vicar. If someone is not knowledgeable about the subject, they could think this could be categorized along the lines of Touched By an Angel or Highway to Heaven. No, no no. Folks, this is British comedy! Just that fact alone means that it will not be categorized along the lines of Touched By an Angel or Highway to Heaven. There is going to be a twist to it. It is going to take the subject and make it real and put some real humor to it. There is a great tradition of Clergy-type comedies to show how real these people can be, including faults. I love series like Bless Me Father, All Gas & Gaiters, and of course, Father Ted. Sometimes the people playing priests are not very bright, or they gamble and drink. Geraldine likes men and she loves to have a laugh. She also stays true to her faith though she may have unconventional ways to preach the faith to others. Geraldine may be unconventional but she is incredibly kind.
Under the sugar-coated top layer of being misled into thinking this is a kind-warm fuzzy feeling program, there is the darker side to The Vicar of Dibley. Not counting the above paragraph about Owen, there are more nods towards bestiality, sex among pensioners with hookers and other people, incest, and general rudeness. It sounds like a list of horrible, horrible crimes but it works really well as a very funny and odd comedy.
I also took some time to look at The Story of Dibley. It’s one in a series of programs about the background and making of some of the BBC’s greatest programs. It was very good and gave some solid background on what was going on in world at the time in regards to women wanting to be priests. It was very enjoyable and although it was not about the making of the final episode, The Vicar in White, it was made during the making of that episode and aired after the series had ended.
Next week: We are in September and what I like to do in September is automatically watch the first episode of anything I pick. I will be watching All Creatures Great & SmallHorse Sense. The first episode of one of the greatest TV series ever made. I cannot wait.