Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Tuesday 14 January 1964

The sight of a semi-naked Albert  basking under a sun lamp is surely enough to distress even the stoutest-hearted of men ("What a revolting sight you are to come home to," notes his son.  "You look like a pamphlet for famine relief").  So it seems only fair that there's a scare in store for Steptoe Sr when Harold returns to the yard with his latest finds.  Well, a couple of scares in fact: the first is the arrival of Harold himself, who the temporarily blinded Albert initially takes for a burglar.

When he realises it's just Harold, he waxes lyrical about the sunlamp in the face of his son's scepticism: "Apart from making you brown, they bombard you with vitamins.  It's like the sun, you see.  It gets in through your pores and has a go at your bones."  Or it would, if he'd put an ultraviolet bulb in it, rather than the normal 60 watt one he's unwittingly been using.

Albert puts his clothes back on and proceeds to help unload the cart - only to recoil in horror at what's on it: a load of coffins (pronounced "corfins").  They cost Harold £6.5/, and he's determined to keep them in the house despite Albert's superstitious objections: "I'm not leaving them out here to get warped.  Who wants a warped coffin?" "It's you that's warped!"

"These coffins go into my house over my dead body!" Albert insists.  "Well that's one sale," his son less-than-sympathetically replies.

Harold's bemused by his father's stock of absurd superstitions: "Oh my God, the omens we have had.  Cross-eyed dogs; 'Don't step on a spider or else it will rain'... I'll never forget the day a sparrowhawk dropped dead at my feet.  You said that meant I was going to be Prime Minister."  Albert insists he hasn't always got it wrong: "You scoffed when those pigeons settled on Mrs Bentley's roof, didn't you? I said, that's an omen, she's not got long to go.  And I was right, she was dead inside 18 months." "Dad, she was 102".

Albert's objections to the coffins are not to be dismissed: "If they stay here this house will be a house of mourning!" he insists.  Harold sighs.  "Well it hasn't exactly been a fun palace for the last 20 years, has it? Straight out of Dickens, this place is.  Mind you, I don't think Fagin could've lasted more than a couple of nights in this doss house.  Come to think of it, you're a little bit like him, aren't you...?"

Harold tries to reason with his father: "If they was an omen of doom there wouldn't be a live undertaker left in the country.  They'd all be stretched out in their own boxes." He winds Albert up with the suggestion that they go into undertaking full time: "There's three things what the human race has got to do: eat, drink and snuff it.  You get in on any one of those, mate, and you're set up for life."  It's all about the three Bs: Beef, Booze and Boxes.  Albert's unimpressed: "You're evil, that's what you are - evil!"

Albert won't sleep in the house while the coffins are there: he's going to spend the night with the horse: "It'll be purer out there with an innocent animal than in here with the smell of evil and death," he announces in one of his periodic fits of religious fervour.

Harold scoffs at his father, but alone in the house that night he begins to feel uneasy.  That skeleton's never seemed quite so frightening.

That night, Harold's wakened by a terrible storm outside.  The lights have stopped working, and he's forced to shuffle round the house with like a frightened Gothic heroine.  Are those pigeons he can hear settling on the roof?

Finally, he joins Albert in the stable, promising to get rid of the coffins the following day as long as he doesn't have to stay in the house.  It's an occasion for much smugness on Albert's part - or at least it is for the few seconds that Harold's degeneration into a terrified little boy isn't totally unbearable...

Tonight's episode of The Plane Makers features a pair of guest stars guaranteed to gladden the heart of any 60s film and TV fan.

Magee makes a return appearance as abrasive Scott-Furlong works manager Bill Breen, while Villiers plays the episode's title character.  More formally known as Harvey Graves, he's an upper class "deb's delight" who's sailed straight into an executive position thanks to having an uncle on the company's board.  When we first see him he's easing his sports car into the parking space reserved for John Wilder (marked by a sign in a font of the kind more readily associated with hairdressers catering to an elderly clientele).  The commissionaire's near apopleptic about the mistake, but Wilder, turning up in time to see Graves cheerily vacate the spot, insists he shouldn't get himself het up about it: "It's not your job he's after".

Arthur Sugden's disgruntled by both the blatant nepotism that got Harvey his job and the fact that the Smiler's been added to his workforce without him even being consulted.  Wilder soothes these concerns by revealing that he wanted Harvey in the role due to his previous job with one of Scott-Furlong's competitors: he's hoping they can make good use of what he learned while he was there.  And Harvey clearly has other uses as well: when Wilder has trouble getting past the secretary of a Whitehall bigwig, the Smiler volunteers to take over the phone: "Cynthia? What do you mean, who is it? Yes, of course it is! Well, it's rather a long story, old darling, but Birmingham doesn't exist any more.  No, I'm with Scott-Furlong's now.  Yes, really! Ah, well, a lot of air has been sucked through the jets since we saw My Fair Lady together... Look, darling, I wonder if you could put me through to Mike?" Mike goes on to do exactly what Wilder wants him to.

One person Harvey seems rather less likely to influence is Bill Breen (seen below accepting an especially gruesome cup of coffee from Arthur's Fag Ash Lil incarnate secretary Margie.  Rather more chippy about his working class origins than Arthur, Breen feels decidedly uncomfortable at having a young posho snapping at his heels - and he comes straight out with his knowledge of what both Wilder and Sugden are too polite to mention - Harvey was persuaded to leave his previous job after taking the group manager's secretary on an impromptu trip to Paris.  Echoing Wilder - Arthur assures Breen he needn't fear for his job - Harvey's likely to have his eye on a rather more senior position.

Breen's attempts to shove Harvey into the most lowly corner of the factory he can fail miserably, and before he knows it he and Arthur are giving young Graves a personal tour of the premises.  Graves isn't too impressed with the shop floor: "It lacks what one might describe as poetic flow..." The facial expression with which Patrick Magee responds to this airy proclamation is priceless.

It's only a matter of time before Harvey's using an increasingly wrathful Breen to hold up plans for him...

...and talk of "poetic flow" has infected other members of the team.

Impressed with Graves' progress, Wilder moves him up to work directly with Arthur Sugden.  Arthur's still on probation in his role as Wilder's number two, and it's becoming increasingly clear that the managing director would like to replace the salt-of-the-earth former factory hand with the public school charmer.  On the surface Arthur seems perfectly sanguine about it all, but the fact that he's suddenly cancelled a two week holiday tells its own story.

Meanwhile, Harvey's prime concern is hanging about the typing pool, charming its polka dotted dictator Miss Fitzmeyer (Pat Nye).  She looks forward to his personal appearances: "Normally the phone rings and some gruff voice says 'Send a gel to my office'.  Makes us feel like a vice ring."  It's all a preamble to choosing a secretary of his own, and his eye finally alights on a very pretty young lady named Lamorna (Gabriella Licudi).

At the same time, Harvey's up to his old tricks again, regularly wining and dining Lamorna's friend Kay Lingard, secretary to John Wilder.  A trip to Paris is in the offing.

But before that can happen there's a sudden turnabout in Harvey Graves' fortunes (very sudden, in fact - the episode's climax seems extremely rushed).  Just as Arthur Sugden's beginning to warm to Harvey, Wilder learns that the Smiler has been sneaking about the factory trying to get a look at the latest top secret designs.  Wilder becomes convinced that the man who was very recently his new favourite is in fact spying for the company he ostensibly left - and leaves it up to a bewildered Arthur to get rid of him.

Shortly after Harvey's two prospective love interests find out about each other, he's called in to see Arthur, who sheepishly mumbles about having more assistants than he needs.  It's clearly a story Harvey's heard before, and his hearty exterior briefly slips as he reveals how much he's enjoyed working with Arthur, and that he doesn't think he'll ever find a workplace where he's trusted.

Worthwhile mainly for the exuberance James Villiers brings to his role (one its impossible to imagine anyone else playing as well), The Smiler eventually fails to satisfy: it's just too low key, with Harvey's exit, ambling off down the corridors of Scott-Furlong feeling mildly disappointed, a decidedly feeble pay-off.

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