Taking a break from his mammoth review of Manhunt, Walter Dunlop returns with a look at 1960’s sitcom Pardon the Expression.
Series One –
Series Two –
You wouldn’t expect your average British soap opera to be fertile ground for a sitcom. Indeed, I’m hard pushed to remember many spinoffs at all, if you discount all those tedious direct-to-video hour long specials that EastEnders, Brookside et al keep pushing out.
Coronation Street’s always had a wide vein of whimsy running through it though – certainly any time I’ve ever tuned in there’s been some sort of bizarre subplot happening, or banter between characters which leaven the dark goings on elsewhere.
It has, rather astonishingly, managed not one but two spin-off series in its time. The first, The Brothers MacGregor, careered out of a brief cameo at Eddie Yates’s engagement party in 1982, with the original actors Tony Osoba and Carl Chase replaced for the series main run by Paul Barber and Philip Whitchurch.
It managed to entertain the nation for 26 episodes before being quietly cancelled. Many watching, I imagine, were unaware of the series origins. This isn’t the first time a character from the Street walked out of his cosy little niche and ended up a long way from where he started. Some seventeen years earlier there was Pardon the Expression.
From 1960 to 1965, dedicated worker at Gamma Garments and sometime lay-preacher Leonard Swindley was one of Coronation Street’s most loved characters. No wonder, given that he was played by one of Britain’s most loved actors, Arthur Lowe.
In his time on the street, Swindley nearly walked Emily Nugent up the aisle (she was the one who called it off) and was eventually promoted upwards in Gamma Garments before leaving the Street. Two days later, he walked into a new post as Assistant Manager at Dobson and Hawks clothing stores.
Which brings us to Pardon The Expression, or the further adventures of an innocent abroad. For those of us who can’t get enough of Arthur Lowe, these two series give us ample opportunity to luxuriate further in his company, as well as providing the missing link in his sixties television work – five years on the Street, two years on Pardon, and then in 1967, the call of the BBC and a certain World War II-based sitcom.
I’ve long had this theory about a certain type of British comedy character, that we seem to produce never-ending variants of the little-man-with-aspirations type. You can see it in the work of Galton and Simpson all the time, from Hancock to Steptoe, to the various grotesques in their Comedy Playhouse work and beyond.
They’re all over the work of other writers in this country as well: Rigsby to Reggie, Rene Artois to Captain Peacock. Usually, these characters are accompanied by someone who not only allows them a sounding board, someone to bounce off, but who also deflates their pomposity, showing the vulnerability underneath which can be all that stops them from becoming monstrously unlikeable.
For me that’s why Hancock on his own never works as well without Sid James or Bill Kerr in tow. Charming self-centredness becomes arrogance if there’s not someone there to haul him back.
I’ll take the Hancock of The Missing Page over the monster who stalks the final BBC series, or indeed the maniac who rampages through Hancock’s ITV work in the sixties. Perry and Croft obviously recognised this when they gave Mainwaring a whole platoon to keep him under control.
It’s in the way that he deals with other people that we see the little man with a fundamentally good heart, always striving to do the right thing but not necessarily equipped with the greatest of social skills. To see how badly things can go wrong even with a great actor like Lowe, I’d direct you to Car Along The Pass from The Galton and Simpson Playhouse in 1977.
Saddled with an ineffectual wife (or at least, one who sheathes her claws until the dying seconds of the episode), Lowe’s character runs rampant in an enclosed space and leaves this viewer wanting to throttle him. It’s all bluster, no soul.
Thankfully, Pardon The Expression suffers no such problems.
In Pardon, the writers give Swindley a virtual family of supporting characters – almost all of them working for him, looking after him and ready to pick him up when he falls. It’s really rather sweet: everyone below him in the pecking order adores him (several of the girls on the shop floor admit to finding him rather sexy), and senior management recognise a scapegoat and whipping boy when they see one.
It gives Arthur Lowe a fine assortment of types to bounce off, and he makes full use of them. Not for nothing was he one of Lindsay Anderson’s favourite actors: along with Rossiter, Lowe’s one of the finest reactive actors this country ever produced. Just watch the way he responds to what everyone else is doing in any given scene, whatever he’s working in. Magnificent.
Things start off relatively normally, in traditional ITV sitcom-land. The girls on the shop floor discuss the arrival of their new assistant manager, with dark mutterings as to just how long he’ll last, given the remarkable turnaround the post has previously seen.
Store head Mr Parbold is something of a martinet, it seems – a martyr to his stomach trouble, given to arbitrary decisions and even more arbitrary firings.
Following a disastrous first day which he somehow manages to survive, Swindley’s fundamental good nature and kindness wins him devoted admirers virtually from the get-go (his first act is to kindly clock in for a persistently late girl, which gets her and all her companions on his side straight away).
He even manages to make an ally of the fearsome floor manager Miss Sinclair – disdained by her underlings, and a fawner to anyone further up the chain, Swindley somehow brings out the best in her and she becomes a staunch if sarcastic ally.
Played with a Miss Brodie-esque starchiness by Joy Stewart, Miss Sinclair frequently walks off with entire scenes thanks to her ability to pocket them with one well placed insult in the right place.
Miss Sinclair’s natural enemy is the formidable Canteen Manager, Mrs Edgeley, played by Betty Driver, shortly to leap to soap immortality as Betty Turpin in Coronation Street. Here, she and Miss Sinclair conspire to keep Swindley as near to a state of on-the-rails as possible.
He gives off such a vulnerable, helpless quality that you can’t help but root for them as they attempt to keep him from the eye of the venomous Mr Parbold.
Paul Dawkins gives an interesting, if uncertain performance here – initially seemingly wielding the axe with an iron will and a hair-trigger whim, he eventually settles down into “bumbling” – easily enough outwitted, given time.
Dawkins would doubtless have continued this into the second season but a serious car accident ruled him out and following a first series cameo Robert Dorning stepped in as Mr Hunt, forming a nice little double act with Lowe. The two of them spar wonderfully, vying with each other to see who can deliver the most deliriously pompous lines, much to the distress of those around them.
The first series is harmless enough – lots of standard sitcom plottery abounds, from Swindley losing the key to the security bag in the first episode, to having to wine-and-dine the Headmistress of a neighbouring girl’s school in order to secure a prestigious clothing contract.
Swindley is put in charge of the store for a day, deals with a troublesome pensioner and has to run the gamut between lecherous middle management and their disapproving wives in an attempt to mount a pageant for the local Chamber of Commerce.
An attempt to get rid of the dead wood on the staff provokes an all-out strike, the conclusion to which not only satisfies everyone on the staff but made this viewer go “aw, bless him” as the end credits rolled.
Even at its most formulaic, Pardon is always watchable – with the number of top flight actors in front of the camera and a writing staff that includes Jack Rosenthal, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, that’s pretty much a given.
There are a surprising number of fluffs and missed cues, and a running theme of the first series is scene endings that go on just that little too long as characters are left to mug helplessly until the camera leaves them to move on to the next set.
But all that’s forgiven, as there’s bags of charm. It rattles along nicely, and there’s a feeling of the studio audience rooting for the characters too – just listen to them cheer when Swindley makes his appearance in the first episode, or the “ooooh!” that goes up when a carefully planted line pays off in the second show.
Guest-star spotters will be well served. Dig through these episodes and you’ll find appearances by Julie Goodyear, John Le Mesurier, John Laurie, Amanda Barrie, Warren Mitchell and even “Sir” Ben Kingsley. It’s always a little pleasure to spot a familiar face, and these episodes will keep you busy for hours.
It’s not the greatest sitcom ever written, rarely rising to the heights, but it’s by no means the worst. I’ve recently watched some episodes of Tripper’s Day – Leonard Rossiter’s last sitcom work and a sort-of variation on the seam being worked here – and the difference in quality is remarkable. Even someone of the calibre of Rossiter can sink like a stone when nobody else on the production team seems interested.
Things get odder as the remarkably extended second series goes on. Whereas the first luxuriated in a twelve-episode running length (unusual in Britain, even then – most sitcoms averaged between six and eight shows per season, although Hancock’s Half Hour’s fourth season made it to a production – busting thirteen episodes), the second runs for 24 weeks.
Not all of the regions made it through to the end, with some giving up halfway through and coming back for the final episodes.
A look at the schedules for 13 May 1966 reveals that while London sticks doggedly with the series run, more or less everyone else had bailed in favour of The Man in Room 17. And even London’s got it stuck in a not terribly favourable 9:40 PM slot.
At least in the first series Pardon benefited from leading in to “Coronation Street” itself, airing at 7pm in most regions. It makes sense to place it there – a post watershed sitcom, it is not. At least by the final episode to be broadcast (27 June 1966), things seem to have settled down a bit – although in most regions you’d have been entertained by either Love Story starring Patrick MacNee or an episode of The Dean Martin Show while you waited.
If you lived in the Scottish Television region, you wouldn’t have seen the final episode at all. Plus ça change…
Several episodes were never shown at all – 39 shows were apparently made, but only 36 ever aired. Network have managed to unearth one of these shows, the original opener to Season Two.
It’s included as a bonus feature on the second box set, so you too can scratch your head and wonder at the internal politicking of television companies. It’s not significantly better or worse than any of the other episodes on the set, so why was this and its two fellows never shown? It’s very strange.
This extended season running time appears to go to the heads of the writers as some very strange plots begin to surface, with strange shenanigans in the bedding department (Who’s Been Sleeping In Our Beds), a trip to the corporation rubbish dump to retrieve the results of the annual stocktaking (The Annual Stocktaking, funnily enough) and some decidedly dodgy Middle-Eastern drag going on in the annual cabaret (A Sheikh in the Night – surely contender for rudest joke ever to be slipped past an unwary censor, that title…).
It all culminates in the magnificently strange two parter Thunderfinger as Lowe and Dorning go undercover to attempt to discover who’s been stealing industrial secrets, but are thwarted at every turn by the mysterious Mr Neptune and “Miss Solare”.
There’s much joy to be had here as Lowe and special guest The Blessed John LeMesurier display that chemistry that would serve them so well for years to come.
Blofeld has a cat on his lap before the inevitable reveal. Mr Neptune has the largest, fattest rabbit you’ve ever seen. Must have put an intolerable strain on the thigh muscles.
Each of these two episodes ends with a go-go-girl frugging in the best sixties groovy style to a note-perfect rendition of the 007 theme.
The strangeness is even reflected in the series two opening titles, with the series title rendered in a typeface that can only have emerged in 1966. And nowhere else.
Network’s presentation of both series is impeccable as ever. Aside from the bonus episode mentioned above, there’s nothing by way of extras. I don’t necessarily see this as a problem. They’re lovely to have, but if the series is good enough – which this is, even at when it coasts – then you’ve spent your money well.
The menus are simple and straightforward to operate – still picture of Arthur, tinted in a manner most pleasing with a simple menu enabling you to jump to the episode of your choice. No bells or whistles, cheap and cheerful – which reflects the work-a-day nature of the series, if nothing else.
The film prints suffer badly from time to time with scratches and the occasional splice, the picture quality can occasionally be said to be less-than-optimum. You are however, now able to buy a complete run of an obscure sitcom, unseen for forty years for a perfectly reasonable price.
To complain that the episodes don’t look like they’re made yesterday seems churlish.
In conclusion, then? As a showcase for just how good Arthur Lowe can be, this is unbeatable. As a piece of television history it sits squarely in the box labelled “entertaining diversion”, and if nothing else, the flights of fantasy and strangeness that creep in as series two ticks on make it worth digging into.
I recommend it unreservedly to sitcom students, fans of Arthur Lowe and those of you who might hanker after a little piece of innocence, where kindness prevails and even the bad ‘uns aren’t that bad really. Well worth your time.
Pardon the Expression Series One and Two are available now from Network DVD.