Wednesday, 7 August 2013
Wednesday 7 August 1963
The credit the creator of Taxi! (also the man behind Dixon of Dock Green, Sergeant Cork and seemingly endless scripts for screens big and small) receives at the end of the show reveals what a major player he was in British TV of the early 60s. This episode itself may be written by someone called Lee Dunne, but Taxi! is emphatically "A Series By Ted Willis".
The show's title sequence is so engaging that even before The Villain has properly started it feels like a tragedy that it's all that remains of Taxi!'s two-year run (it's the fifth episode of the first series, for anyone who's interested). A black cab weaves through the busy streets of central London, accompanied by Bunny Lewis's irresistibly catchy coffee-bar Latin theme, the show's title leaping out of the sign above it (and acquiring an exclamation mark in case we weren't already excited). Various disembodied hands attempt to hail the vehicle but when we finally see that the driver has the instantly recognisable, grinning face of Sid James, he talks directly to us: "Right mate, 'op in!" As the cab drives through Piccadilly Circus the episode's title appears, flashing like the neon signs around it.
Sid's character is, of course, called Sid. Sid Stone, in fact. He shares a flat with two other cabbies played by almost equally familiar figures: Bill Owen as slow-witted Fred Cuddall and Ray Brooks, perfecting the slick ladykiller image that would shortly be exaggerated to the point of absurdity in Richard Lester's The Knack as young Terry Mills. Amongst their decor of choice is that ultimate signifier of a working class man's home in the 60s and 70s, Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl.
(It's complemented on the walls of the flat by another image of exotic womanhood: an Eartha Kitt LP cover).
The obvious point of comparison for Taxi! is Carry On Cabby, released in June 1963 and starring both James and Owen. And where Carry On Cabby takes the relationship between James and wife Hattie Jacques surprisingly seriously, Taxi! too is only partly comic. It's similar to a later transport-based sitcom, On the Buses, in its raucous camaraderie between working men, but the lack of a live audience straight away tips the viewer off that this is humorous drama rather than a sitcom proper.
Taxi! is a rare dramatic opportunity for Sid James, whose career was almost exclusively confined to comedy after Hancock's Half Hour came to TV. Sid Stone's a characteristic Sid everyman figure, but one who gets to be unusually serious. In The Villain, he's righteously outraged by the behaviour of fellow cabbie Jack Melia (Alan Curtis), an old-style driver who resents the introduction of radios into the cabs of companies like Sid's ("You blokes better get with it, you know," Sid tells him, "This is 1963, you've gotta have a radio cab or you might as well be driving a horse and cart"). Melia scorns traditional cabbie etiquette by stealing customers from other drivers, especially those with radios. He and Sid nearly come to blows, but Sid instead decides to set the law on him.
For many of Sid's colleagues, reporting someone to the police is an even worse violation of the cabbies' code than anything Melia's ever done, and he finds himself ostracised by some of them. Later, Terry gets into a fist fight with one of Melia's mates (Terry pulverises his opponent and, preening proto-Mod that he is, is more worried about the bloodstains on his expensive shirt than anything else).
Initially convinced he was in the right, Sid begins to feel guilty that the charges against Melia are likely to lose him his job. These feelings are magnified when Melia's wife comes to call. She's played by Jennifer Jayne (last seen around these parts as a mute Medieval peasant), and finds only Fred at home. She pours her heart out (she can't bear Jack's manner either, but they've got three kids, and if he loses his job how will they survive?) and Fred becomes instantly smitten.
The lovestruck Fred convinces Sid to ask the police to drop the charges against Melia. But wait, what's going on? Mrs Melia gave Fred a Brixton number, but Melia lives in Forest Hill. Sid suspects foul play and comes up with a plan to get his own back: he pays a visit to the Brixton residence, asks the couple awkward questions about their children, then springs Melia's unsuspecting real wife on them. The fake wife didn't know anything about her, either. Her final judgement on the beleaguered villain: "You berk!"
Like most of Willis's work, there's an endearing earnestness to Taxi!: the show's genuinely interested in the working lives of taxi drivers and the changes affecting them, and presents them in a way that's just the right side of didactic. Though, of course, it's now impossible to say how representative The Villain is of the series as a whole. One interesting aspect of the show is its habitual use of diagonal wipes for changes of scene. Quaint though this looks, it adds to the show's appealing paciness, giving the impression it can't even wait to finish one scene before it gets started on another.
Slightly less appealing is a scene with Sid explaining his fares to a comedy Indian (Peter Elliott, who popped up with a similar act in various things including Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon). The indignant gentleman's reaction: "You're all bloody robbers!"
The show benefits greatly from its music, not just the theme tune but Johnny Pearson's ultracool jazzy incidental cues as well. You can listen to the version of the theme released as a single by The Robinson Crew (formerly Lord Rockingham's XI of "Hoots Mon!" fame) here.