If you are meant to leave the best until last, does that mean that you put your worst first? If that’s the case, then the BBC is following that rule with its sitcom season. One of the headline grabbing programmes of the season was the remake of Are You Being Served. There is currently a renaissance for the work of David Croft and his various co-writers. Dad’s Army has recently been made into a film with Toby Jones, Billy Nighy et al; there was a biopic made about messrs Croft and Perry last Christmas and now we have this remake. In the case of this one, we have to ask ourselves…why?
The BBC are also remaking classic shows which have been lost from the archive, so we have Kevin McNally as Tony Hancock on Radio 4 and Simon Day as Alf Garnett. Fair enough. They are just filling in the gaps. But a complete like-for-like remake? This one-off (please let it be a one-off) is set in 1988, 3 years after Grace Brothers closed its doors (only to reopen them 7 years later with Grace & Favour, but let’s not dwell on that). The original series had been on since 1972 and by 1985 it looked tired. Actually, it looked exactly the same as it did in 1972. The set, the costumes, the gags. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the original as a child; but as I (and it) became teenagers, I began realising that humour had changed. By the mid 80’s the alternative comedy scene was flourishing and double entendres and stereotypically camp characters were about as funny as big bow tied, velvet suited comedians. It was of its time, it did what it did, now let’s move on.
I assume the remake is part of the nostalgia fest where people are rediscovering their guilty pleasures. “Everyone loves Dad’s Army…what else has David done that we can remake…”It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”? …ah, perhaps not”. You see, the problem is that just because someone has written one or two brilliant sitcoms, it doesn’t mean that everything they touch is gold. For every ‘Allo ‘Allo there is an Oh Doctor Beeching! smudging their pristine CV.
The remake was written by Derren Litten (of Benidorm and Catherine Tate fame). The show pretty much felt like it was one of the missing episodes as the gags where straight out of 1978, not 1988. The problem it has was that it was neither fish nor fowl. It wasn’t a repeat (they have John Inman and Molly Sugden in to make them more bearable); it wasn’t a reboot (as was Porridge, but more on that later); it was, at best, an homage. Sherrie Hewson was great playing Molly Sugden, playing Mrs Slocombe; Jason Watkins was “very strong” at impersonating John Inman playing Mr Humphries; and Roy Barraclough did a great turn as Arthur Brough being Mr Grainger, but none of them played the parts themselves, they just impersonated the originals. It felt like a Comic Relief sketch, which was perhaps the idea.
If people looked forward to greeting the staff of Grace Brothers back into their living room, then there was a definite suspicion about a remake of Porridge. How can anyone match the mannerisms, timing and delivery of its star…Christopher Biggins. Oh, ok then, Ronnie Barker (but Biggins was in the original and shared a cell with a heavily made up David Jason).
The killer ingredient that this show had was the original writers. We wrote about Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais in the blog here about how they simultaneously created some classic sitcoms and then effectively killed the genre by creating comedy dramas such as Auf Wiedersen Pet. They had obviously been persuaded to write for this remake, and surprisingly, it worked. Kevin Bishop played Fletcher’s grandson so he had a few of the mannerisms (the killer punch line delivered whilst turning his head over his shoulder was pure Barker) but he was his own character. Yes, there was soft guard, a bossy Scottish guard, and a lag who ruled the prison (as there were in the original) but at least here the actors played them as characters, not caricatures. I did find myself thinking that this could easily be turned into a series and would sit nicely on BBC 1.
The other trick that producers do when they want to launch a new comedy without taking too much of a risk is to take the characters back to their youth. This has already been done relatively successfully with Last of the Summer Wine (First of the Summer Wine); Only Fools and Horses (Rocks and Chips); and Inspector Morse (Endeavour….hold on a mo., one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong. Flipadoodle, dramas are doing the same trick as well!). The current sitcom which has the time travel experience, is Keeping Up Appearances (Young Hyacinth). Presumably we will soon have the Vicar of Dibley when she was just a curate.
Time Travel seems to be a running theme as they are also bringing back Goodnight Sweetheartfor one episode (again written by the original writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran). We will have to wait and see how they fair.
Over on BBC 2 meanwhile we had pilot central. So far we have had The Coopers vs The Rest, which was a cross between Out Numbered and Raised by Wolves (which sadly hasn’t been recommissioned by C4); Home From Home about a posh and common couple living side by side in a caravan park (with lodges), which when you remove all the sustainable living stuff, was the central driving theme behind The Good Life. You can do a like-for-like comparison between the hot tub scene and this scene from the Good Life. There was also Our Ex-Wife, which felt like it would make a good 90 min feature, but can’t see it running for series after series, whereas the other two could sit quite comfortably on primetime BBC One.
Frankie Boyle recently came out complaining about the state of sitcoms on TV; but at the end of week one of the season it’s fair to say that there have been considerably more hits than misses (on TV and radio) and that there is life in the genre, even if Mrs Brown’s Boys won best sitcom of the century. Ok, there is nothing as radical as the Young Ones or The Mighty Boosh in the line-up, but perhaps those only come along once every generation. I suppose one good thing is that it is the BBC that’s having a sitcom season and producing these remakes. If ITV did it, it would be a very different affair. I’m not sure the nation is ready for remakes of Love Thy Neighbour or Mind Your Language.