Saturday 1 March 2014

Tuesday 7 January 1964

As you're no doubt aware, home video did not exist in Britain in 1964.  It did have a precursor, though, in the form of soundtrack recordings of select programmes.  Obviously the programmes most suited to this were ones that relied heavily on dialogue, and the comedy of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson was especially successful in this medium (Hancock's Half Hour had started off on radio, of course, and Steptoe and Son would later be adapted for the benefit of wireless listeners), as demonstrated by of Steptoe and Son records reaching both the LP charts (selected scenes from the show's first series) and the single charts (the sketch especially written by Galton and Simpson for the Royal Variety Performance - with Harry H Corbett speaking obviously overdubbed lines to cover the visual jokes).  This also, of course, shows how hugely popular the rag and bone men's intergenerational bickering had become, with a huge audience settling down to watch as their third series began...

Things get off to a gentle start with Harold Steptoe taking his father for a ride in the country.  He has absolutely no ulterior motive in doing this.  None whatsoever.  But hang on a moment, what's that beautiful big house through the trees there? "Oh! I wonder who lives there? It must be a millionaire at least... Hang on, there's a notice.  I wonder what it says?"

A horrified Albert takes over the reins and drives back home as fast as the Steptoes' elderly horse can possibly go.  "Slimy, that's what you are," he angrily tells his son when they reach home.  "Connving, cunning - just like your mother.  God rest her soul."  Harold signally fails to look his father in the eye and say he doesn't want to put him in a home.

Harold tries to shift the blame for his desire to offload his father: "It's like what they said in the Guardian the other week.  You are the victim of western society in not knowing how to look after its old people."  Harold explains how things are different in the East: they respect the elderly, as they worship their ancestors.  "Well then!" cries Albert.  "Oh, well, we're not wogs, Dad" Harold responds.  Yes, it's appallingly racist - but it perfectly exposes the limitations of Harold's liberal pretensions.

Eventually, Harold reveals the reason for his plan to dispose of Albert: he intends to go round the world in a sloop.  His father's reaction isn't the most supportive you could imagine: "You should be in a home, not me!"

Despite Albert's insistence that travel's pointless as everywhere is much the same, Harold's brimming over with exotic fantasies: "I want to sit by the campfire with a bunch of sheikhs, sorting through the rice for a couple of sheep's eyes... Pearl fishing in the coral sea, ivory smuggling up the coast of Africa, whale hunting off Antarctica..."

"Shipwrecked off Southend."

Turns out Harold won't be going alone.  He answered an ad in the New Statesman requesting "Five blokes and five birds" to undertake the voyage.  Albert picks up his own ideas from this what the purpose of the trip is.  His son's revolted: "Please do not be so suburbanly preoccupied with sex.  These are highly intelligent people.  They don't look at life like that."  Albert's unconvinced: "I'm going to be bunged into an old people's home while you float round the world with five bits of crumpet."

Although it's not quite clear why the far from infirm Albert would need to be put in a home, even with Harold preparing to sell off the yard to fund his travels, into the home he goes.  There he's greeted firstly by "Miss!" Lotterby (Marie Makino), the resident in charge of "games and extracurricular activities": "Once you've settled in I'll pop up to your room to see what you're interested in!"

Despite this terrifying encounter, Albert's keen to impress on the home's matron (Peggy Thorpe-Bates) his intention of being a troublemaker: "You got old ladies here? Well you better keep them locked up for a start!"

Albert has one word of greeting for his fellow residents gathered in the lounge: "Bags!"

But despite all Albert's bluster, it's genuinely affectingg when Harold leaves his father behind, Wilfrid Brambell's miserable face and the pan out showing the bareness of his new room combining to tug on every last heartstring.

But of course his stay at Chartwell House is destined to be brief.  As Harold excitedly prepares to leave behind Shepherd's Bush and see all the sights the world has to offer, irony strikes in the form of a letter rescinding his place on the voyage,  the other shipmates (average age: 20) having decided that it just wouldn't be right to take a practically ancient 37 year old with them.

Still, at least Albert gets a good laugh out of it...

It's good to have you back, boys.  Next, after several weeks of John Wilder's boardroom wrangles, tonight's  Plane Makers is more of a standalone affair.  It's an early work from Peter Nichols (whose career as a playwright hadn't yet taken off), and it's possibly the best episode of the show yet.

A Bunch of Fives  is the first episode of The Plane Makers to feature neither Patrick Wymark nor Reginald Marsh.  Robert Urquhart and Jack Watling get top billing this week, but both Auntie Forbes and Don Henderson are really peripheral to events.  However, we're privy to the revealing information that Don and his frosty wife sleep in separate beds.

That's not the case with Scott-Furlong test pilot Colin Stock (Glyn Houston) and his wife Peggy (Viola Keats), whose relationship seems happily physical.

By contrast, David Fleet (Barrie Ingham), a slick PR man ("Working class born and bred, but I hope it doesn't show from the front"), shares his bed with a succession of young women.

What links the three men is that they're all going on a Scott-Furlong sales trip to the Mediterranean to drum up more interest in the company's Sovereign jets.  Also aboard the plane will be stewardess Jane Gaunt (Wendy Craig): "Not much wrong with that undercarrriage!" remarks Mac (Freddie Earlle), the most gittish of the sales team aboard.  Later, he tries to force his attentions on an unwilling Jane.  In a manner almost unthinkable today, she merrily brushes the incident off.  But Colin Stock, who's clearly taken a shine to the stewardess, is outraged by it and promises to give "a bunch of fives" to anyone else who attempts the same.

First stop on the flight is Milan.  (This was also a time when, in TV land at least, an Italian waiter would react to an Englishman demanding "Look here, John, just bring us two lager beers, chop chop.  Compronny?" with nothing more than an indulgent smile).

Stock and Jane have dinner together, where she reveals that she's the widow of a pilot, who had several near misses in his career and then got run over on his way to the chemist's.  Now she lives with her mother: "Two widows, getting more and more obsessed with gas bills and shopping lists."  Despite being a happily married man, the pilot's incensed by David Fleet putting the moves on his dinner companion.

Slimy sales executive and expert shit-stirrer Christopher Chappell (Frederick Bartman - perhaps best known these days for being acquitted of beating an employee in his antiques shop to death in 1991) is quick to point out to Stock that Jane and Fleet have gone off together, though when he encounters her on the hotel landing later she denies it, suffering his drunken attempt at snogging her before returning to her room, and Fleet.

On the flight to Rome the next day, Auntie Forbes, a man who's never been encumbered by relationships with women, senses Stock's not enjoying the trip much.  As he stresses to his co-pilot the need to properly take in one's surroundings on a visit abroad, Robert Urquhart stumbles over his lines in a manner worthy of William Hartnell: "You know, if you're wandering around some purpose, you should, er, er, really try to make it of some purpose."  Auntie decides he'll have to take Stock in hand and ensure he sees everything worth seeing.

Jane, meanwhile, has fallen head over heels for Fleet: "You're so different from the sort of men I usually go out with... you're witty, with it, hep."  "Hip... not hep, hip."  "There you are, you see!"

Their increasingly close relationship just serves to aggravate Stock, who's become totally obsessed with Jane, eventually leading to a punch-up between the pilot and the salesman aboard the plane.

This leads to a splendidly farcical scene as Don and the rest of the sales crew try their best to convince a potential buyer that everything's hunky dory.

Don's keen to forget about the incident, but it serves as a perfect opportunity for Chappell, who's not exactly subtle about his desire for the sales director's job, to embarrass his boss: "You know as well as I do Mr Wilder will hit the roof when he hears about this."  "Well who's going to tell him?" "Aren't you?"

By this time, the sales flight has reached Greece.  At a party held by a potential buyer (with some tremendous extras among the partygoers), Stock has another try with Jane: "Single people think if you're married you're miraculously satisfied," he laments, only to be stopped in his tracks by her response: "I was".

The highlight of the episode, and Nichols' finest dialogue, come in a tender scene between Fleet and Jane, in which the swaggering PR man reveals that underneath his bravado he's a bundle of insecurities, and feels greatly inferior to a man like Stock, who, in being able to fly a plane, has an undeniable skill: "Untalented people like you or me, and like Don, we just spend all our time trying to keep our jobs, or trying to get someone else's."  Touched by this vulnerable side to her lover, Jane promises to help him become more fulfilled.  "You've no idea what it'd be like, helping me.  You'd have to find enough optimism for both of us, because I never finish anything."

Stock's now sobered up from his infatuation with Jane, giving her relationship with Fleet his blessing and shifting his aggression to a more deserving target in Chappell.

When the Sovereign finally returns to London, Stock's greeted by his who wife, who notices the results of his scuffle with Fleet:  "What have you done to your face? Was it a belly dancer?" (I don't know if the casting of 30s film star Viola Keats - 15 years Glyn Houston's senior - was meant to explain Stock's interest in another woman.  If so it backfires as in her all-too-brief screen time she gives such a vivacious performance it seems baffling that he'd ever want to stray).  Meanwhile, Jane waits for Fleet, who's nipped off for a few minutes.  He doesn't come back.

As Don and Auntie offer her a ride in their taxi, Jane faces up to the fact that sometimes optimism just isn't enough...

It's a brilliant, heartbreaking piece of TV drama, and a welcome reminder that The Plane Makers can be a lot more than just middle-aged men in suits when it wants to be.

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