The first month of 1963 was the coldest of the 20th century in England and Wales, with most of Britain covered in a thick blanket of snow and freezing fog everywhere making day-to-day life a struggle. For those not enjoying themselves skating on a nearby river, there was the slight comfort of being able to huddle up at home and be entertained by one of the country's most beloved comedians and the writers behind his hugely popular TV and radio shows. Only now performer and writers had parted company, their talents split not just across different programmes but different channels too.
Wallah-Wallah Catsmeat kicks off the second series of sniping between senior and junior rag and bone men, from the golden pen of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. And what better way to start a new series of a sitcom than an episode that sees one of the regular characters contemplating suicide?
The episode's title refers to Harold's threats to sell Hercules, the Steptoes' increasingly knackered horse, to be made into cat food. But when Hercules comes down with a mysterious illness, Harold realises how much he depends on the animal for his livelihood.
It's a brilliant episode soaked in the bleakness that characterises Galton and Simpson's comedy writing (often leaving us wondering if it's really comedy at all). Harold's reaction to the prospect of losing his mode of transport is far from stoic: the most memorable part of the episode is the histrionic monologue railing against British social conventions with which he greets Albert's offer of a crisis-calming cup of tea:
"Oh, ain't it pathetic? Your faith in the healing powers of a cup of tea! That's your answer to everything, ain't it? A nice cup of tea. The Englishman's panacea! 'Mother just died? Oh, what a shame! Have a cup of tea' 'Just been run over? Never mind, have a cup of tea'. I have been offered tea for disasters, funerals, operations, floods, war, Dunkirk, the Blitz, coronations, piles, hysteria, hunger marches and insomnia. Nice mug of tea in one hand and thumbs up for the camera with the other. Britain can take it! Well they can have it. I'm sick and tired of being a cheerful, chirpy Cockney sparrow. I am as entitled to be as miserable and as depressed as anybody else. So you can stick your cup of tea right back down the spout."
|"Britain can take it!"|
Eventually Harold's panic at the idea of being destitute drives him, to Albert's horror, to suggest they both join with the horse in a suicide pact: "Just one wallop with the steam hammer it's all over, you won't feel a thing". In 2013, a sitcom with a tone as melancholy as Steptoe's would undoubtedly be made without any kind of laughter track. In 1963 Harold can desperately lament "There's nothing wrong with being dead, it's the living part that frightens me" and be greeted by waves of audience laughter - an incredibly strange and disturbing moment. Harry H Corbett is remarkable playing a man deep in (slightly knockabout) despair:
While Harold's is the face of pure despair, Albert's is, as always, the face of pure deviousness, as he finds a way of turning Hercules' indisposition to his advantage:
Stalwart cockney character actor Leslie Dwyer turns up to represent the area's other rag and bone men, who pledge their help in finding stuff for the Steptoes to sell while Hercules is out of action. This hint of a rag and bone brotherhood is touching, but obviously the Steptoes quickly abuse it, realising that as long as there's no horse they can get other people to do all their work for them. Now they just need to convince the vet (a wonderful guest spot from John Laurie, being a dour Scottish stereotype as only he could) to keep Hercules ill for as long as possible. His deep interest in their stock of whisky might help...
|"They wouldnae let me practice on human beings"|
And here, through the magic of the internet, you can watch the whole thing for yourself:
Over on the other side, the star of Galton & Simpson's previous comedy masterpiece is setting out on a new adventure of his own without them.
Tony Hancock's ATV series has a terrible reputation. It wasn't very well received when broadcast, and after Hancock's death his brother, considering it to be embarrassingly below par, vetoed it being repeated or released to the public in any form (apparently all 13 episodes still exist, but I've only been able to get hold of six - so that great lugubrious face will be popping up intermittently in these pages over the next few months). Happily, it's actually nowhere near as bad as reputed. The writing might not be up to Galton & Simpson standards, but Hancock's as brilliant as ever, there's a truly dazzling roster of guest stars, and most importantly it's funny. At times it's very funny indeed.
And look who turns up in the very first shot of the first episode:
Yes, it's Vladimir Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl, the inescapable mass-market Mona Lisa of the 60s and 70s. Sadly the monochrome strips her of that infamous green flesh tone, but you can't have everything. You might be seeing quite a bit of her around here, as I intend to capture every time I see her pop up in a film or TV show. But I digress. The episode (called The Assistant, though the title doesn't appear on screen) begins with a fairly lengthy dialogue-free scene, possibly an attempt to show viewers straight off that there'll be more of an emphasis on physical comedy than in the radio-derived BBC series. Hancock gazes into various department store windows, eventually horrified to witness a window dresser unclothe a dummy.
Hancock: Yes, the pater was a great friend of Lenin. Yes, dear old Lenin. Len, we used to call him. He was round our house all the time. He'd sit there, eating a great big plateful of samovar, then he'd have a cup of cocoa. He was a lovely fella. I saw him just the other day.
Cargill: Lenin is dead.
Hancock: Yes... yes, I thought he was a bit quiet.
His customer service skills exhausted, the demoralised Cargill offers to pay off Hancock's store account if he can work at the store for a week without being rude to a single customer - an offer our hero enthusiastically takes him up on.
|Ready to serve the Great British Public|
Griffith: You'd be bitter too if you were down there in the bad times. You don't know what the bad times were like.
Hancock: What were they like?
This latest guise doesn't last long, and in a sequence that justifies the ATV show's existence all by itself, Hancock spends the rest of the afternoon playing Subbuteo with the grand but game Mrs Hart, played by David Lean's Miss Havisham, Martita Hunt.
Strangely, the whole reason for Hancock being employed in the shop gets completely forgotten about: he is rude to a customer, but nothing happens, he just carries on working in the shop until it's time for the episode to end and Patrick Cargill to turn up looking exasperated. So yes, not as tightly written as Galton and Simpson's episodes. But still enormous fun.