Contributed by Matt Donnelly
Last week whilst at Edinburgh I was lucky enough to attend a preview screening of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s one off revival of Porridge. Shane Allen, BBC’s controller of comedy, explained that he was passionate about creating a season dedicated to celebrating the British sitcom. He talked about how comedy was always seen as the poor relation when the BBC were putting together a season citing Upstart Crow‘s last minute inclusion in the recent celebration of Shakespeare. Shane was also quick to reinforce the fact that all of the sitcoms that have been recreated as part of the season have been done so by their original writers. The one exception is David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s ‘Are You Being Served?’ which has been recreated by the sitcom’s superfan; Benidorm writer Derren Litten.
Clement and La Frenais’ update of Porridge casts Fletch’s grandson Nigel Fletcher (Kevin Bishop) in the lead role who is incarcerated following a bout of cyber crime. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of Nigel’s time in prison as he finds himself with his fingers in plenty of pies and under the watchful eye of a surly Scottish prison guard; Officer Meekie (Mark Bonnar). Nigel isn’t too happy when he discovers he has a new cellmate that is until he discovers that Old Joe (Dave Hill) previously was inside Slade Prison with his grandfather. The main plot of the first episode sees Fletch threatened into helping the prison’s most fearsome inmate Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson) expunge his rather colourful criminal record before his parole hearing. This is made harder by the fact that Nigel isn’t allowed near any computer screens since his trial however Weeks manages to smuggle in all the tools our hero needs to carry out his plan. The episode ended with a nice little wink to the past as Nigel and Joe talked about Fletch’s love of little victories which the new duo achieve after securing a new TV for their cell.
Like the majority of the audience tuning in I was unsure of the recreation of Porridge for the modern era and this version of the classic sitcom wasn’t without its problems. The main issue I had was when Clement and Le Frenais were tasked with talking about cyber crime and technology. The lines about drones and syncing iPods felt like two old men were writing about things that they didn’t really understand. These moments did make me feel that Clement and Le Frenais could have done with teaming up with a younger writer who had more knowledge of these sort of elements. Whilst the dialogue is patchy, the characterisation is stronger with plenty of hints to the past in the characters of both Nigel and Meekie. The interaction between prisoner and guard was reminiscent of the interplay between Fletch and McKay with the snappy exchanges providing the highlights of the show. Some elements of the update don’t feel as forced as others such as the use of a female governor (Pippa Haywood) and Joe’s line about how he couldn’t deal with the new automated ways the doors locked during the night.
The best reason for watching this update though are the performers who in my opinion lift the sometimes questionable material. Kevin Bishop brings a freshness to the character of Fletcher and perfectly interprets Clement and Le Frenais’ dialogue for this new generation. Bishop has the right sort of energy to anchor the sitcom and makes Nigel a loveable rogue that you want to root for. However in my opinion it’s Mark Bonnar that steals the show as the antagonistic Meekie who is always one step behind the new incarnation of Fletcher. Bonnar has great comic timing and he and Bishop bounce off each other perfectly. Depending on the audience reaction I can absolutely see Porridge returning for a full series as I feel the update works perfectly. Bishop and Bonnar make for a great comic double act and as long as Clement and Le Frenais are still at the helm I think this updated Porridge could easily find a regular home on BBC One.
The same can’t be said for Are You Being Served? which does very much feel like a one-off celebration of everything that made Croft and Lloyd’s camp comedy so well-loved. Derren Litten’s version of the department store sitcom picks up where the old version left off as we reacquaint ourselves with the staff of Grace Brothers. The basic premise of the show sees the latest Mr Grace (Matthew Horne) attempting to bring the store into the 20th century and in particular updating the practises on the first floor. An injection of new blood into the store comes in the form of Mr Conway (Kayode Ewumi) whose appointment doesn’t go down too well with the long-standing duo of Mr Humphries (Jason Watkins) and Captain Peacock (John Challis). They’re even more horrified when they discover Mr Conway has no retail experience but at the same time has a knack of selling jeans to teenagers.
You know exactly what you’re getting from Are You Being Served? so you thoroughly expect to see Mrs Slocombe (Sherrie Hewson) coming through the famous lift doors covered in sewage and complaining about her pussy. If innuendos are your bag then Litten’s script has you covered especially in the scenes involving the dry Mr Rumbold (Justin Edwards) and his perky secretary Miss Croft (Jorgie Porter). Also every effort to play the nostalgia card is taken and the build-up to the famous ‘I’m Free’ catchphrase is milked to all its worth. The cast all seem to be having a good old time of it with Jason Watkins and Roy Barraclough being the standouts as Mr. Humphries and Mr. Grainger respectively. Ultimately this seems to be Litten’s love letter to his favourite comedy and it’s a great celebration of the wide range of BBC comedy that David Croft was responsible for. However, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think there’d be any call for it to return for a full series.
In fact the best bet for a returning series of this revivals would be the prequel to Keeping Up Appearances, Young Hyacinth. Written by the sitcom’s original scribe Roy Clarke, this one-off sees the show’s original family living in the 1950s with Hyacinth (Kerry Howard) dreaming of a better life. The prequel sees Hyacinth working as a maid for the well-to-do Cooper-Smiths (Tony Gardner and Debra Stephenson) and learning new words on a daily basis. Fans of the original comedy will be pleased to see that this is the time where Hyacinth starts calling her parents mummy and daddy much to the chagrin of her sisters. Those sisters all show hints of what they’re going to turn out like with Violet (Tamla Kari) already chasing a man who will look after her, Rose (Katie Redford) chasing any man she can and Daisy (Katherine Pearce) trying to hold the family together. Clarke also imagines a younger version of Daddy (Mark Addy) who works as a broom salesman and who often ends up smooth-talking his female clients. Hyacinth is also quick to paper over the cracks of her parents’ failed marriage claiming her mother died in the blitz whilst in reality she ran off with an American serviceman.
Whilst not as gag-heavy as the other offerings in this season, Young Hyacinth has a depth that is lacking in both Porridge and Are You Being Served? It’s clear that Roy Clarke has had Hyacinth’s back story in his head for sometime and relishes the opportunity to tell it. The scenes in which Hyacinth tries to learn words like impersonal whilst at the Cooper-Smith household show the building blocks of what went to make one of our country’s most-loved comic figures. It’s also interesting seeing the family in their original setting living on a house by a canal where Daddy works as a lock master. As this episode was focused on telling Hyacinth’s story there was very little time to show the interactions between Daisy and Rose which in my opinion were some of the highlights of the original series.
If Young Hyacinth does indeed go to a full series then I think Clarke should concentrate on telling the sisters’ stories as much as he does that of his protagonist. Talking of Hyacinth, I would say that Kerry Howard does a good job of calling back the original performance of Patricia Routledge whilst at the same time putting a new spin on the character. Howard is ably supported by Mark Addy as her drunken father and Katie Redford who really makes you believe in her version of the young promiscuous Rose.
It appeared as if there was a last ditch attempt made to fine one final sitcom to revive in order to create a double bill with Young Hyacinth on Friday night. That surely can be the only reason that Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran were given the call to bring back Goodnight Sweetheart. I’ve never thought of the time travelling comedy as one of the classic British sitcoms.
Following the 1999 finale which saw protagonist Gary Sparrow (Nicholas Lyndhurst) trapped forever in 1945 with his wife Phoebe (Elizabeth Carling) and their baby son. We catch up with Gary in 1962 where he is clearly enjoying life in the pub with his new family however he’s longing to get back to the modern day if only to enjoy a pizza or a curry. He is able to start time-travelling again thanks to being present at his own birth and holding himself as an infant. He returns to a 2016 where everyone is on their phone and his other wife Yvonne (Emma Amos) is a successful entrepreneur and features as a panellist on Dragons’ Den whilst best friend Ron (Victor McGuire) works as her driver.
I have to say I didn’t find much to laugh about in Goodnight Sweetheart and found a lot of the laughs to be quite cheap. In fact one joke really made me feel uncomfortable as Gary was shocked to see a gay couple kissing in public, the fact that this then garnered a laugh from the audience was even more bizarre. The only joke that made me titter was the fact that everywhere Gary went he heard ‘Hello’ by Adele, a song that you couldn’t move without hearing lat last year. Furthermore when he plays it back to his family in the 1960s the lyrics do actually have a lot in common with the themes of the sitcom to the extent where I wondered if Adele was a secret fan.
Whilst the jokes often fell flat, Marks and Gran were able to add a little bit of emotion to the episode when Gary realised he had a daughter in 2016 that he never knew about. I felt that the exchange between Gary and his daughter provided the highlight of the episode and to me was the only memorable part of this revival. Ultimately I can’t see the BBC taking a chance on a new series of Goodnight Sweetheart and it almost feels like they’re trying to get on the good side of Marks and Gran after losing the Birds of a Feather reboot to ITV.
As we were told several times during the Porridge screening, the BBC isn’t looking to bring back any of these series back for now but I’m guessing if the ratings are good then any or all of the writers will be quickly called upon to write new episodes. However if none do go to series then I still think it was a nice little gesture to call back to some of Britain’s best-loved sitcoms in this way. I agree with Allen when he says that comedy gets treated like a poor relation and watching these new variations on classic shows was a nice little treat. I do feel if this season does do one thing then it’s highlighting the great comedy tradition we have in this country and to look to the future to see what new comedies that the BBC have in the pipeline.