Are You Being Served, Porridge, Goodnight Sweetheart, and Keeping Up Appearances – four landmarks sitcoms being revisited, but which are worth your time? And should any of them make a full time comeback?
The recent ratings success of Still Open All Hours has whetted a lot of appetites, both from audiences and programme makers. As part of Landmark Sitcom Season, the BBC has revisited four beloved sitcoms from the past, and here I take a look at the four one-off episodes, all of which are available on the BBC iPlayer for the rest of September.
Are You Being Served? – Click HERE to watch!
The first offering is a continuation of Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft’s department store sitcom. Newcomer Mr Conway (Kayode Ewumi) joins the sales team in the menswear department, and is taken under the wing of Mr Humphries (Jason Watkins replacing the frankly irreplaceable John Inman) and Roy Barraclough’s Mr Grainger. He takes a fancy to Miss Brahms (Wendy Richards is replaced by Jorgie Porter), who works in ladieswear with Mrs Slocombe (Sherri Hewton taking on the role from Molly Sugden). Meanwhile Mr Grace (Gavin & Stacey’s Mathew Horne) is determined to drag Grace Brothers into 1988, introducing computers and yuppie motivational talks to the dusty offices of Mr Rumbold (Justin Edwards taking over from Nicholas Smith), as Captain Peacock (John Challis) runs the shopfloor in the same way as ever.
Although a typically Seventies sitcom, Are You Being Served? actually ran until 1985, so the “jump” to 1988 would be the next step. And the new cast has a similar ensemble feel as the original. Challis and Barraclough are comedy veterans, and Jason Watkins, Mathew Horne, and Justin Edwards are all fine comedic actors.
But this new episode falls very flat. It feels like a cheap knock off of what was never the most robustly written sitcom in the first place. Although Sherri Hewton does a decent Mrs Slocombe impression, her and Watkins have the same issue, never quite escaping the shadows of their predecessors. Croft and Lloyd created Dad’s Army, but Are You Being Served? was never in that league of sitcom, and new writer Derren Litten (of Benidorm) can’t raise the bar high enough to warrant more than a one off return. This is a pretty unfunny retread that felt like it belonged on Dave or UK Gold rather than BBC1.
I’m not too concerned about the dated material, but it’s just not quite funny enough across the board to be enjoyed on anything more than a strictly nostalgic level. I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Porridge – Click HERE to watch!
Porridge is probably my favourite sitcom of all. The tales of Norman Stanley Fletcher at HMP Slade, and the performance of Ronnie Barker, are just perfect, so it was with some trepidation that I saw it was being revisited.
Kevin Bishop takes the lead role as Nigel Fletcher (grandson of the original Fletch), locked up for identity theft and fraud. He’s banned from using any computer equipment, but when Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson, aka Chris Fincy from The Office) needs his records expunged for his parole hearing, Fletch is left with little choice but to hack into the prison’s computers. He has to hide his activities from the ever watchful Officer Meekie (Mark Bonnar) and the bumbling but good-hearted Officer Braithewaite (Dominic Coleman). Fletch also acquires a new cellmate, Joe (Dave Hill), an old lag who knew the oringal Fletcher and Gobder, and he gives the episode its heart with his line about “small victories”.
Dick Francis and Ian La Frenais also wrote The Likely Lads and Auf Weidersehen, Pet, and then moved into films with Still Crazy, Flushed Away, and Across The Universe amongst others, so it’s good that they decided to return to one of their most famous creations. Maybe it was my left-over affection from the original, but I really liked this. A few jokes fell flat, but I laughed a lot through the half hour. Kevin Bishop isn’t Ronnie Barker, but there were just a few hints in his performance, a twitch here, a vocal inflection there. Similarly, the show itself has a few nods to the original: Messers Meekee and Braithewaite are pretty much straight replacements for MacKay and Barraclough, and Weeks is very similar to Harry Grout. And it’s always great to see Ricky Grover in a decent role.
I’d like to see more of this incarnation. It didn’t rely solely on nostalgia but had enough references to hook me in. Kevin Bishop is a big enough presence to lead the series as well.
Goodnight Sweetheart – Click HERE to watch!
Although the repeats are a staple of the ITV3 daytime schedule, Goodnight Sweetheart is a BBC sitcom, and this is the only one the quartet that is an actual continuation with the same actors reprising their roles.
In the original run, Nicholas Lyndhurst was Gary Sparrow, a TV repairman who discovered a portal that allowed him to time travel back to Second World War London. He ended up living a double life with two wives – Yvonne (Emma Amos) in the present day and Phoebe (Elizabeth Carling) in the 1940s. The finale (which aired in 1999) saw the portal close and Gary forced to chose his life with Phoebe and his new born son.
So, when we return to the show in 2016, Gary has been living the last 16 years with Phoebe, his son Michael, and daft policeman Reg (Christopher Ettridge). It is now 1962 (complete with new rock n roll version of the theme tune) and Gary is content but bored. He is tired of rissoles for tea and taking the dog for a walk, and with his birthday coming up, he is worried about getting old. He decides to go to the hospital where he was born, and when he is handed the infant version of himself, he is thrown forward into present day London. As in, 2016 London, with its hipster cafes, smartphones, and electric cars. Yvonne has become an even more successful businesswoman, and has gone on to join Dragon Den. When Gary goes to try and explain and apologise to her, he meets old friend Ron (Victor McGuire), and discovers he has a daughter Ellie. He then travels back to 1962, happy to be able to return to his double life. Lives?
Original creators Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran returned to write this episode, and actually did a very good job updating the premise in both time periods. There are some good jokes dropped in the script – “American hot with extra hot” and the “stealing” of Gary’s songs that he had stolen – and the actors all slip back into their roles like it was yesterday.
I could see this returning for a full series if Marks and Gran (and of course Lyndhurst) were willing. Nicholas Lyndhurst always regretted not being able to do more of the Only Fools and Horses prequel Rock and Chips due to John Sullivan’s death, so maybe he would be interested in a more permanent return. There is plenty of material to be mined in both the non-swinging Sixties and modern settings, and the fact that Gary got so used to his life in the past, when the jump from 1999 to 2016 would be jarring enough. Switching the man out of time gags to Gary in modern day is interesting, and I would certainly give it a chance.
Young Hyacinth – Click HERE to watch!
And the final offering is a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances, a sitcom that although incredibly popular here, had an even bigger international appeal as a comedy of British manners. Patricia Routledge made Hyacinth Bucket a British TV legend (and vice versa), and her snobbish attitude, playing off against her working class family, was perfect sitcom material. Here, we are given a look at Hyacinth before she became Mrs Bucket.
Kerry Howard (Laura from the excelent Him & Her) takes on the role of young Hyacinth, working as a maid for the Cooper-Smiths (Tony Gardner and Debra Stephenson). This glimpse of upper class living has ignited something in Hyacinth, and she is beginning her social climbing ways, planning for a day when she has best china and good towels.The only problem is that her drunkard, womanising father (Mark Addy in great form as usual) and her three sisters live in a small cottage beside a canal.
Young Hyacinth is an interesting creature. Outside of the central character, the show is a bit flat. The characters are all very thin, only the lustful Rose has any real relation to who she becomes in Keeping Up Appearances, but Daddy and the Cooper-Smiths all have great potential, especially with actors of such calibre taking the roles. But then… Kerry Howard is great as Hyacinth. Her flustered performance – with affected accent wobbling when required – is pitch perfect, easily surpassing the jobs done by the cast in Are You Being Served? Original creator Roy Clarke (Last Of The Summer Wine and Open All Hours) has opened up a new world by setting the show in an unspecified Northern location in the 1950s, but the number of original stories he can tell about a young social climber in this world would seem a bit limited. For a “new” show, that could be a problem, as not many fans of the original will hang round with such a different setting, and if it starts repeating storylines and themes it will pale in comparison to what was a beloved, landmark sitcom. It would have a bit of work to do to set up the premise of the series, and of the four this feels most like a pilot that would need a bit of reworking before becoming a full series.
So, four new episodes. If taken as a series of pilots, I reckon Goodnight Sweetheart could work pretty well in a full return, as would Porridge, although that is more of a reboot and wouldn’t quite have the same built-in audience. Young Hyacinth is an interesting concept but might struggle if it’s only selling point is… well, a young Hyacinth Bucket. Finally, I could see Are You Being Served? coming back in the future as a Christmas special, but a full return would need much, much better material.
But as a set of one-off returns, they were all enjoyable enough, even Are You Being Served? – if it just a nostalgic one-off.
The BBC is also producing new version of some lost episodes of Till Death Do Us Part, Steptoe and Son, and Hancock’s Half Hour, which I will also review when they have been released.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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