I’ve been watching sitcoms. Again.
Every morning, around nine o’clock, ITV3 reruns old sitcom episodes. So, over the spring and summer weeks there has been an assortment of 70s comedy to enjoy, including Man About The House, George and Mildred, the more dubious pleasures of Mollie Sugden in That’s My Boy. and Bless This House. Quite apart from the fact that there were still some laughs to be had (it’s Sid, for God’s sake, so of course there are), it’s interesting to look at them another way: as little capsules of social history, on screen. The things we laughed at (and continue to) can tell us an awful lot about ourselves, and the people we used to be; if you don’t think this is the case, think about relatively recent rows about the pulling of episodes or Fawlty Towers or Little Britain, and what people were objecting to.
Bless This House is interesting for a number of reasons:
The original writers, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, were responsible for a number of other sitcoms that showed up on TV in the 60s and 70s. One, George and the Dragon, with Sid James and Peggy Mount, was the reason that Sid couldn’t film Carry On Follow That Camel and saw Phil Silvers in there instead; Nearest and Dearest; the now infamous Love Thy Neighbour, as well as the rather less remembered Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width. With Bless This House you can see, especially early on, that things fall into a fairly familiar pattern, with Sid, and his neighbour and partner-in-crime, Trevor (the much missed Anthony Jackson, beloved of those of a certain age as Fred Mumford in early Rentaghost(1)), getting up to the usual lairy overgrown boy antics. Diana Coupland, as Jean, is very much the model of the suburban housewife of the period: ditzy, and very much stay-at-home while her husband is the principal breadwinner. He has two teenage children, Sally (at school, or college) and Mike (initially at art college, then job hunting, before working for a local newspaper), It’s a typical middle-class surburban set-up, but very much lower middle-class when compared to BBC sitcoms of the era (2). It’s surburban, alright, but it’s certainly not the commuter-belt idyll of Terry and June’s Surbiton. or The Good Life. There are no Margots in ITV-land. This was comedy more tailored to a less metropolitan, and perhaps a less cosmopolitan demographic. It’s certainly a very white demographic (3). Sid is a stationery salesman: middle-aged, in an ostenibly white collar job, but not managerial. It perfectly captures a moment. The show began in 1971, just as the second wave of feminism was washing against patriarchy’s nervous, but still sneering, shore, so the writers manage to crowbar in some token bra-burning wisecracks. But it’s not all bad. The children frequently point out Dad’s more reactionary foibles, and they usually have a ready ally in Mum.
There’s a lot of time in the pub, ogling the barmaids, and drinking half pints our of those peculiarly bullseye beer glasses. Which brings us to another issue: just how old is Sid supposed to be? When Bless This House started in 1971, Sid James was 57 years old. The show ran until his death in 1976. So here he’s a middle-aged man, only a few years older than me right now. In one episode, Sid’s “father” appears, played by an actor who may not in reality be much older than Sid, though that’s always challenging when you’ve got a face like a well-pickled walnut. That said, as time goes on, and both Robin Stewart and Sally Geeson as his children, Mike and Sally, age, it does feel a bit more plausible. And there are at least two episodes I saw that relied on the death of Sid’s elderly relatives. You have to wonder just how old these people were when they finally shuffled off the mortal coil, given that Sid looked like he’d lived the life of three busy men at that stage.
Given the dearth of new sitcom in mainstream TV these days, it’s strange to remember just how much of it (the studio sitcom) there was around in this period, and just how much along class and age lines it was drawn, especially on ITV (4).The shifts in tone on Bless This House are more noticeable when you notice the other writers used. One in particular stands out (5): Carla Lane (co-writing sometimes with Myra Taylor), who was contributing here at around the time she was workng on The Liver Birds for the BBC, and just before starting on Butterflies on BBC2 (6). Bless This House was also produced by the estimable William G Stewart, who was responsible for a sizeable chunk of ITV comedy output in the 1970s, and was later the host of Fifteen to One(7).
While lots of people remember the BBC’s sitcom output of shows like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Good Life, To The Manor Born, as well as Lane’s own Butterflies, quite a lot of ITV’s output is little remembered. This includes the work of Chesney & Wolfe, who were the creators of The Rag Trade, and On The Buses. They also gave the world Romany Jones and its infamous spin-off, Yus, My Dear (8). What is noticeable about most of this is that it’s pitched squarely at a working-class audience. If anything, Bless This House is at the gentrified end of their market. And it’s a pattern that continued for a lot of the 70s and early 80s. And even when they moved away from it, in shows like Robin’s Nest, or George and Mildred, most of the comedy still came from some form of class-based friction, G&M was the most obvious example of that kind of idea, with the Ropers having to rub along with their neighbours, the rather more well-to-do Fourmiles, as well as Mildred’s sister and company-director husband. That tide did begin to shift though, with these kinds of traditional nuclear family sitcom being replaced by shows like Mind Your Language, reflecting cultural shifts and even later by shows like Me and My Girl.
But anyway, I digress. It’s not just the rush of nostalgia that comes from watching shows like this that I well remember seeing as a kid that hits me. What strikes you is just how different the world is. Superficially it doesn’t look all that different, but the gender roles are certainly not what they are now, even though Sid having two adult kids still living at home won’t be entirely unfamiliar to some. Watching Sid rattle round in his old car, going into an office filled with files and paper, not to mention — gasp — using a payphone are all slightly jarring. This is a world before the laptop I’m writing this on, before the mobile phone, before the double-glazed, centrally heated homes many of us take for granted now. It’s a place that exists in still-living memory. It really is a snapshot of another world.
(1) Rentaghost. What with all the pantomime horse hi-jinks of later series, it’s easy to forget just how bleak the original premise was. Fred Mumford falls off a ferry unregarded, and drowns. He returns as a ghost to set up the agency with Claypole and Davenport primarily because he hasn’t the heart to tell his parents that he’s dead.
(2) Even though the BBC were also the first home of possibly the most iconic working-class sitcom of all: Till Death Us Do Part, and Alf Garnett
(3) Love Thy Neighbour began the following year , in 1972, and though its reputation has not aged well, both the writers and lead actors’ — especially Rudolph Walker — analysis of the relationships between the characters is rather more nuanced. It ran for eight series.
(4) The later, infamous “punk” episode of Terry and June notwithstanding
(5) Though you also have the presence of Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke as Script Editors to even things out during the run.
(6) Butterflies began on BBC2 on 10 November 1978. The last episode of Bless This House was broadcast on 22 April 1976.
(7) And married Sally Geeson too.
(8) Chesney and Wolfe had a long and interesting career, having worked with the likes of Beryl Reid, among others.