Game Show Memories – Families At War.

Families At War (BBC1, 1998-1999)

Over the years, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have been a rather successful comedy double-act. Their sketch show on Channel 4 did well, to the point that Vic had a chart-topping single. They then went over to the BBC and made some more shows, including the comedy panel game Shooting Stars. Their rather surreal style is probably the ultimate example in “you either like it or you don’t”, and they baffled as many people as they entertained.

But after a while, it was clear that they wanted to try something a little different, but still featuring plenty of bizarre twists. After a pilot, their new game show Families At War was given a series in a Saturday Night slot. To promote this, they appeared on the cover of TV Times, which wondered if BBC1 viewers were ready to enter their rather weird world.

Noel’s House Party had ended for good a few weeks earlier, could this be the show to replace that one as a greatly admired success? To make sure that their antics didn’t get completely out of hand, helping Vic and Bob along was the more conventional host Alice Beer, who was on a lot of other TV shows around this time (presumably Carol Smillie was too busy).

Two teams of three took part. It was clear from the start that this was going to be something different when they all introduced themselves with a song. All of them had a talent, such as singing or dancing, and they had to show this off in a rather unusual way. To determine who did best, a panel of 12 voted for their favourite. They changed every week, and on one occasion were 12 jockeys from Gillingham.

Whoever got the most votes won the round. There were also a few bonuses on offer if they played their challenge hats. The family that won the most rounds went into the final. In this, Vic was dressed as a spider and placed among some prizes. They then had to wheel him in various directions against the clock to hope that he could grab the ones that they wanted.

All of this added up to some very bizarre moments, almost like a warped version of The Generation Game. But Families At War maybe not too surprisingly did very badly in the ratings, and there was only one series. But the ones who did watch are unlikely to forget what they saw. Vic and Bob did a little better in their next attempt to appeal to a more mainstream audience when they starred in a revival of drama series Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased).

The Comedy Vault – Sorry!

Sorry! (BBC1, 1981-1988)

The Two Ronnies was a hugely successful comedy sketch show, but Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett were rather different to the average comedy double-act, because they also worked on a lot of shows individually. Corbett starred in various sitcoms going back to the late-60s, but this is the one that was the most memorable of them.

All of the episodes of Sorry! were written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent, who contributed to a huge amount of comedy shows over the years, and I think I’m right in saying that they also wrote some of the “Ronnie in the chair” monologues on The Two Ronnies. Corbett played Timothy Lumsden, who at the start of the first series was 41 (even though he was actually a decade older than this).

He was a librarian who tried to remain cheery, but he became somewhat downtrodden because he still lived with his parents. Unlike his sister Muriel, he is still somewhat dominated by his mother, and he does have the urge to make changes in his life. There were some episodes that followed the usual fare where he tried to get a girlfriend, and he did indeed date a few women, although they turned out to be somewhat sappy.

And then there were some episodes that took some rather unusual twists. Well you would never believe what kind of things that Timothy could mix up, and how much chaos all of this could cause, embarrassment seemed to follow him around. By what turned out to be the final series, Timothy (now 48) met Pippa, who was the one he finally left home with.

And of course, the opening sequence always has to be referenced when looking back at this show, as there was some rather groovy music, accompanied by a bright pink version of Timothy’s head. Well it’s definitely one way to get the attention of viewers. There were 42 episodes of Sorry! in seven series, and all of them have been released on DVD.

I didn’t see too many of the episodes first time around, but I do remember that some of them eventually turned up on Granada Plus in a repeat run many years later. If this does have to be compared with Barker’s work, then maybe this didn’t touch the heights of Porridge and the like, but this was still a more than decent sitcom that was a regular fixture in the schedule throughout the 80s.

The Comedy Vault – As Time Goes By.

As Time Goes By (BBC1, 1992-2002, 2005)

This is a sitcom that ended up running for over a decade, usually being shown in the Sunday evening slot, and always seemingly being followed by Antiques Roadshow (I suppose that even now when I hear the theme music I think this will be shown next, or that it’s time for a bath), but this definitely found a durable formula with viewers.

The idea is that Lionel is someone who has returned to England after working in Kenya for many years, and he now wishes to write his memoirs. Whilst trying to organise this, he decides to hire a secretary, and he soon discovers that he is already familiar with her mother Jean. They had been rather fond of each other many years ago, but hadn’t been in contact for 38 years by this point.

When a name from the distant past unexpectedly walks back into your life, can you take a second chance, with the benefit of being older and wiser? It is fair to say that the on-off romance between Jean and Lionel continued to the point where viewers were very keen to follow the situation, and hoped that they would come to the right decision and eventually marry.

Other regular characters included Lionel’s literary agent Alistair, who he always had trouble with, and various other family members and friends who had complicated love lives too. But what really made As Time Goes By stand out were the main cast members. Even though they were having successful award-winning film careers by this point, they always managed to add a touch of class to the sitcom genre.

Jean was played by Judi Dench, and Lionel by Geoffrey Palmer. And well, I always felt that Palmer was worth watching because he had a terrific voice, and by this point he had long-since perfected his curmudgeonly but charming style. Whether it was in other sitcoms like Butterflies or Fairly Secret Army, you couldn’t go wrong him really (let’s not think about those “Slam In The Lamb” adverts for now though).

And all of the episodes were written by Bob Larbey, who by this point was something of a comedy veteran. There were 67 episodes of As Time Goes By in nine series, they have all been released on DVD and are still repeated fairly frequently. There were also three series on BBC Radio 2 in the late-90s that continued the story. After the end in 2002, a few years later there some reunion specials in the Only Fools And Horses-style where things were finished off for good.

The Comedy Vault – Brush Strokes.

Brush Strokes (BBC1, 1986-1991)

This is another sitcom that was rather popular with viewers throughout the late-80s, and going into the early-90s. All of the episodes of Brush Strokes were written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who had already proven their comedy credentials by being behind such successes as Please Sir!, The Good Life, and Ever Decreasing Circles.

The main character was Jacko, who was played by Karl “you shouldn’t be scrubbing at your age, auntie!” Howman (who had previously appeared in the Esmonde and Larbey sitcom Get Some In!). Jacko was a painter and decorator who lived in London, and he managed to take being a “cheeky chappy” to new levels. He liked to flirt with the women whose houses he was working in, often to the point that he would start to date them, or ever consider marrying them.

His boss Lionel was rather grumpy, and along with his wife Veronica, they didn’t seem to realise that he was rather fond of their daughter Lesley, and secretary Sandra as well. Life at home consists of living with his sister Jean, and her husband Eric, who was his friend and work colleague as well as his brother-in-law (Eric was played by Mike Walling, who wrote episodes of various sitcoms himself including Birds Of A Feather, The Brittas Empire, and the mighty Not With A Bang).

The other main character is Elmo (not the one from Sesame Street), a rather dense individual who runs the pub that Jacko often visits (Elmo was played by Howard Lew Lewis, who also appeared in Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, and occasionally as a bumpkin-type on Noel’s House Party). By the later series, Jacko has made himself a few pounds, and launches his own business called Splosh. This meant that he would often answer the phone with a cheery “good morning, Splosh!”.

Elmo went up in the world too, and he turned his pub into a rather horrid bright pink wine bar, but Jacko remained a valued customer. Most episodes ended with Jacko finishing off painting a wall accompanied by the theme music “Because Of You” by Dexys Midnight Runners (which was also their final UK Top 40 hit single), and somehow was always rather relaxing to watch.

There were 40 episodes of Brush Strokes in five series, and they have all been released on DVD. There have been some repeats in recent years too. A year after this ended, Howman went on to star in yet another Esmonde and Larbey sitcom, which was Mulberry. I must admit that I have no memory of watching this though. I do remember watching in him Babes In The Wood though…

The Comedy Vault – Waiting For God.

Waiting For God (BBC1, 1990-1994)

This is another sitcom that was popular with viewers on BBC1 throughout the early-90s, when they were way ahead of ITV in creating successful comedy shows. Waiting For God was set at the Bayview Retirement Village, and centred around Tom and Diana, a pair who might be aging, but definitely feel that they have much more to offer the world. How much humour can be squeezed out of this idea then?

Tom was played by Graham Crowden, a veteran actor, and recently was the centenary of his birth. And Diana, who is much more angry and cynical than Tom, was played by Stephanie Cole, who was not even 50 at the time of the first series, and make-up was able to make her look older. But all these years on, I’m still not sure if she has reached the age of the character that she played.

An unlikely friendship between Tom and Diana soon forms, as they struggle to prove to their relatives and friends that they are still fully functioning. Among those who often visit Tom are his boring son Geoffrey, along with his wife Marion. The manager of Bayview was Harvey, who was a rather oily individual, who liked to keep everything running smoothly, as long as it made him lots more money.

This led to several clashes with Tom and Diana, who always stood up for themselves (or sat down if their back had gone), and for the other residents, to make sure their wellbeing was as important as they felt it was. Also featuring was Jane, who was a rather downbeat assistant to Harvey, but remained loyal, whatever schemes he had been up to.

Harvey really is keen to build an empire, and he also has ambitions to join a golf club. I presume that is a club where golf is played, not a club that you play golf with, I don’t know. There were 47 episodes of Waiting For God in five series, and this did well enough for there to be a couple of Christmas specials. All of the episodes have been released on DVD.

They were all written by Michael Aitkins, and this was by some distance his most successful work. Among his other sitcoms are Honey For Tea and A Perfect State, which were two of the biggest comedy flops on the BBC in the 90s, and are just about forgotten now. This one isn’t though, having entered and remained in the repeats loop, with episodes still being shown on various channels to this day, and in more recent years, there has also been a stage show version.

The Comedy Vault – The New Statesman.

The New Statesman (ITV, 1987-1992)/A B’Stard Exposed (BBC1, 1994)

This is definitely considered to be one of the better ITV sitcoms of its era. By the late-80s, Rik Mayall had established himself as one of the leading names in British comedy. And now having finally left the likes of The Young Ones behind, he wanted a new challenge, and he ended up playing another rather remarkable sitcom character.

The New Statesman (not to be confused with an earlier BBC2 sitcom that starred Windsor Davies) was created and mostly written by Marks and Gran, the double-act who would go on to score many other sitcom hits including Birds Of A Feather. Mayall starred as Alan B’Stard, who at the 1987 General Election not only becomes an MP, but he also has the biggest majority in the House Of Commons.

But he was unlike most other politicians, being greedy and nasty on a huge scale. He soon takes the opportunity to do everything that he can to further his profile, always putting himself first. Several other politicians and colleagues get caught up in his schemes, and he also flirted with just about every woman that he meets, which is something of a concern to his wife.

The New Statesman was shown by ITV in the 10pm on Sunday slot, where the likes of Spitting Image would usually be, and this equally satirical show became popular enough to be associated with the excesses of the era. Along with the four series, there was a feature-length special, and the final edition was on BBC1 and titled A B’Stard Exposed, where the MP turned interviewer Brian Walden met the man himself to look back on his spectacularly sleazy career.

This also won a Bafta, and all of the episodes have been released on DVD too. After a break, the idea was revived as a stage show, with Mayall again taking the lead role, and he also went on to play a similarly devious character in Believe Nothing, another Marks and Gran ITV sitcom (that I reviewed a while back), but this one made little impact with viewers by comparison.

And after that, there was a series on ITV where every week there was a short documentary looking back at a classic sitcom (not that they had many to choose from), followed by an episode from the archive. The New Statesman was one of these, and viewers enjoyed seeing this again. Overall this did do well, but B’Stard was an exaggerated character, and a lot has changed since then, you wouldn’t really find any MPs doing anything like him now, would you…?

More TV Memories – May To December.

May To December (BBC1, 1989-1994)

This is another of those sitcoms that was consistently popular throughout the early-90s. May To December starred Anton Rodgers, who had already long since proved that he could be good value in sitcoms, following his appearances in ITV’s Fresh Fields (where the boss often unexpectedly came round for dinner), and the sequel French Fields.

This was something rather different to that though, as Rodgers played Alec Callender (and he seemed to have picked up a Scottish accent from somewhere), a widowed middle-aged solicitor who began to feel that his job wasn’t too exciting, and he wondered where his life was going. He then meets Zoe, a PE teacher who is going through a divorce, and she is many years younger than him.

There is then the beginning of a rather unlikely romance. Alec becomes rather fond of Zoe, but not so much that he realised that she turned into a different woman after the second series. Alec also eventually meets Zoe’s parents, and he gets on rather well with them too. Some of the other regular characters are Alec’s son Jamie, along with his work colleagues Mrs Flood and Hilary (replaced by Rosie in the final series).

Viewers were keen to see how this rather cosy couple would develop, and after a while, Alec and Zoe got married, and he becomes a father again, after she gives birth to a daughter. If he wanted his life to be more interesting, it now is. There were 39 episodes of May To December in six series (including one Christmas special), but only the first two have been released on DVD. An indication of the popularity was when this was given a Radio Times cover.

Another notable thing is that the creator and the writer of the majority of episodes was Paul Mendelson, who would soon have another BBC1 sitcom on the go, after the launch of So Haunt Me, which ran for a few series, but wasn’t as successful. And eight episodes were written by Geoff Deane, the former frontman of pop group Modern Romance, as I have explained in a few other pieces. After the end on TV, there was one further series on BBC Radio 2 in 1998.

In more recent years, May To December has been one of the several sitcoms that have been repeated on the London Live channel. And although it was good seeing these characters again, this still doesn’t seem the right place to be showing old sitcoms. And this was in a 45-minute slot, meaning there were 15 minutes of advert breaks, which is rather ridiculous. There’s only so many times they can show that advert for Wowcher. I’m about to get immensely annoyed and I think I like it.

More TV Memories – Comic Relief.

Comic Relief (BBC1/BBC2, 1986-present)

It wasn’t really until the mid-80s when singles were realised to support charities that would become chart-toppers and sell in ludicrous amounts, along with endless telethons too. After the groundbreaking success of Live Aid, it was realised that these were ways to raise amounts of money like never before. So the decision was made to host a special show where the biggest comic talent around could perform.

The first edition of Comic Relief was actually a pre-recorded stage show at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, and some of the highlights were then shown on TV. This all seemed to go down rather well, and when the first Comic Relief single topped the chart for a long time itself not long after, it was realised that this idea could have a big future.

Two years later, this was turned into a live telethon show, that took up the majority of the night. And of course, there was the opportunity to buy a red nose, a tradition that has continued ever since, and people across the country were encouraged to do some rather silly things to help raise some money as well. The earliest editions seemed to consist of plenty of fun sketches, featuring some unlikely combinations taking part.

The hosts included the likes of Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys Jones, who rather entertainingly were barely able to hold everything together, and would end up overrunning by about three hours. By the early-90s, this was an event that took place every other year. The variety of red nose designs on offer increased, and the “we don’t know what’ll happen next” air continued to hover over the TV show. There were also further treats like The Great Big Stupid Celebrity Sketch Show (that was the actual title).

There were often special editions of popular sitcoms like Men Behaving Badly and The Vicar Of Dibley too. By the 2000s though, something had changed, and things started to become a little more settled, with several non-comedians hosting, constantly going on about how much we needed to donate right now. The air of unpredictability had gone, and the comedy acts who did perform died rather badly on stage (Mitchell and Webb being one example).

This was rather disappointing, as many felt that there was now little difference between this and Children In Need. Seriously, who cares who the winner of Celebrity Fame Academy is? There have been some innovations in more recent years, including an edition that came live from the O2, where nobody could see or hear anything. Comic Relief is still going and undoubtedly has helped many people around the world, but doesn’t seem to be that much of an event nowadays really.

The Comedy Vault – Goodness Gracious Me.

Goodness Gracious Me (BBC2, 1998-2001, 2014-2015)

This is the sketch show that was one of the more successful comedy shows of its era. Goodness Gracious Me was the show that took a look at life with an Asian twist. The first editions were actually on BBC Radio 4 in 1996, although I didn’t hear them first-time round, but like with many other shows, they have constantly been repeated on BBC7/BBC Radio 4 Extra.

This was well received, and led to the transfer to TV in 1998. And once again, this is a comedy show where I saw the majority of the editions for the first time on UK Play, or PlayUK, or whatever it was called that week (why isn’t this great channel still going?). Their range of regular characters managed to strike a chord with plenty of viewers from various backgrounds.

These included the gossip reporter, the man who thought that everything was Indian, a Bollywood film star, and a rather rude kangaroo. If you were a viewer, you would know why people were starting to say “cheque, please”. Some of the sketches were performed in the studio with a rather basic set design, but the ideas always managed to get across. And whilst maybe not hitting the heights of The Fast Show, this still turned out to be a decent-sized success.

Among the cast members was Dave Lamb, who is better known nowadays for being the rather booming voiceover on a lot of shows, where he has managed to take sarcasm to extraordinarily new levels. By the time of the second series, Goodness Gracious Me was popular enough to be winning awards, and for there to be a stage tour featuring a lot of the now rather familiar characters.

There was also a special theme night, and among the shows was a look behind the scenes (and by this point I think that some editions were repeated on BBC1 in a late-night slot too). Following the third and final series, there was a one-off special featuring sketches made on location in India. And after this, some of the cast stayed together to work on comedy chat show The Kumars At No. 42. The majority of the episodes have been released on DVD.

In more recent years, Goodness Gracious Me was occasionally revived, firstly with a special that was part of BBC2’s 50th anniversary celebrations, meaning that for the first time in about 15 years, the cast got together to go through some of the best-remembered characters again. Further specials were as part of a season about India, and another celebrated 20 years of the TV version.

The Comedy Vault – Steptoe And Son.

Steptoe And Son (BBC1, 1962-1965, 1967, 1970-1974)

This is one of the few sitcoms that I am familiar with that launched over six decades ago, and this still seems to be shown on TV regularly. Steptoe And Son was created and written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were already regarded as some of the best British sitcom writers, and this success went on to enhance their reputation even further.

This was all about the father Albert, and his son Harold, trying to make a living in London, which was rather difficult sometimes, and you could say that he was the original rag ‘n’ bone man. Back in the days when it was possible to be innovative and do things that viewers really hadn’t seen before, Steptoe And Son managed to succeed in doing something rather new in two areas.

Firstly, the lead characters were played by actors who were more used to straight roles, so they didn’t bring an exaggerated comedy style as most might’ve, and there was also the opportunity to explore more darker areas than usual, such as Harold’s wish to move away and hope for something better in his life, even though he realises he is short of time and can’t put up with dirty Albert and his onions any more.

This led to a lot of memorable ideas and scenes, and the first run, which was in black and white, did well. Some of the early episodes were then recovered, and there was a lot of interest when they were going to be repeated on TV for the first time in years. The picture quality was rather terrible, but the comedy quality more than made up for this, and we should be grateful this still exists at all.

And then, after a gap of almost five years, there was a second wave of episodes, this time in colour, and these were arguably better received than the original run. Steptoe And Son managed to stand out in another way too. There was a film version made, which was considered to be rather good. And then there was a sequel, which was up to standard as well which was an achievement.

The films are repeated rather frequently, and somehow, despite however many times you’ve already seen them, you end up watching to the end yet again. In the 70s, there was also an American version called Sanford And Son, which ran for five years, but has never been shown in this country, which is a surprise. All I know about this is from the references in shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy.

There were eight series, and all of the episodes have been released on DVD. There were even stage tours, adverts, and a radio series, which pushed the idea as far as it could go. Long after the end, viewers have continued to be interested in the repeats, and the friendship between the two main actors, which has been explored in various documentaries as well.