Thursday, 3 April 2014

Tuesday 28 January 1964





By means unknown, Harold Steptoe has gained access to an exclusive block of flats in order to pester the residents about selling their junk.  We learn just how exclusive the place is when Harold has a door opened to him by a forbidding butler (Frank Thornton), who tells him to hop it in no uncertain terms.
"You capitalist lackey!" snarls the rag and bone man, "You wait till the election!"


Harold gets a warmer reception from Gwendolyn Watts as French au pair Monique (her English isn't very good: "Me scrubber!" she announces by way of explaining what she does around the place).


Despite the language barrier Harold's instantly smitten, and works up the nerve to ask her out.  "Me not always look like this," he tells her, in classic "loudly addressing a foreigner" style, "Me dead sharp when dressed up.


At the Steptoe residence, Albert's cutting a rather bizarre figure dressed up in some African tribal gear he's bought.  This vignette, and the "African" arrangement of "Old Ned" that accompanies it may well have been influenced by the opening of Zulu just a few weeks previously.


Arriving home to see his father in this unusual garb, Harold finds the spectacle risible to say the least:  "You must admit it's a bit kinky, isn't it? I dunno, there's a definite touch of The Avengers about you sometimes." (I think this might be the first time one of the shows I write about here has referenced another).


It's strangely poignant when a sheepish Albert tells his son he was "Just having a little try-on, a little pretend."

This scene seems to take place some weeks after the first one, with Albert questioning Harold about why he's been out every night, and finally deducing it's all because of a bird.  The dialogue here's almost identical to that from the earlier episode "The Bird", and the hearty laughter from the audience may be because some of them had become familiar with it through multiple listens to the massively popular Steptoe and Son LP, which included an audio recording of that episode.

Having failed to get Albert out of the way for the evening, Harold has to endure the old man's ridicule when he puts on a Teach Yourself French record.  Albert thinks there's no point to learning languages: "What are you trying to do, get us into the Common Market? Gonna take Mr Heath's place, are you? Or are you going totting around Paris, you great fairy?"


Harold explains that his new girlfriend is French ("I see, you can't get hold of an English bird, so you have to get hold of a wog!").  According to Harold, Monique is from a wealthy landowning family, and he has dreams of running their vineyards for them.  Albert's a tad sceptical, and even more so of Harold's claims to be in love with Monique.


Harold decides that as he's serious about Monique, he'll have to take the plunge and introduce her to his father.  He begs Albert to be good when she comes round: "I promise to be the soul of discretion," Albert says, shiftily.

Next evening, Harold's amazed to see how beautifully Albert's done up the parlour, with Union Jack and Tricolore on display.


Monique and Albert get off to a dodgy start ("Ah! So this is old Misery Guts!" she exclaims upon meeting him), but Harold's soon horrorstruck by the revelation that Albert is fluent in French, and so can converse with Monique far better than he can (it's a brilliant pay-off to Harold's earlier taunts to Albert that he was stationed in various countries in World War 1 but didn't pick up any of the lingo).


Much to Albert's enjoyment, Harold's utterly humiliated, and rushes to his French dictionary for help.  "Et que voulez-vous boire, mon petit?" Steptoe Sr asks his son at one point.  "I beg your pardon?" asks a flustered Harold.  "What do you want to drink, you great pillock!"


Harold takes his father aside for a moment to take him to task for concealing his facility with the French language (and for stealing his bird).  Albert tells him he learned the language when he was billeted in a French village: "I've been out with French birds too, you know.  That's where I learned it.  Much better than records!"

But there's a shock in store for the Steptoes: in his conversation with Monique Albert learns she's from the same village he stayed in.  Getting out his photos of the period, he's alarmed when Monique recognises a woman in one of the pictures as her grandmother.


A stunned Albert realises that this means he's Monique's grandad: he and her grandmother had been in love and planned to marry but were separated by the war: later he learned she'd had a little girl.  Obviously Albert's just assuming she didn't have any children with anyone else, but Monique seems convinced by the story, and is overjoyed at discovering her long-lost Grandp√©re.  On learning the news Harold's slightly less enthusiastic: "I find the whole sordid affair entirely repugnant!"


Invited to join in the celebration, Harold can only sit and let the horror of having planned a future married life with his own niece wash over him.



"She looks like me, don't she?" Albert asks him.  "She's got my nose, and my eyes."  "Yes," responds Harold.  "And when she goes home you're going to get my bleeding fist!"



It looks like Scott Furlong's ruthless managing director John Wilder might finally have met his match, in the unlikely form of a 69-year old spinster.  Miss Geraldine Pettifur (Marie Lohr) owns two large properties that Scott Furlong plans to annexe in order to expand the operations.  But despite her hatred of the noise made by the planes constantly flying over her house (which she constantly writes to make the company aware of), Miss Geraldine refuses to sell.  A relic of the pre-World War 1 era who refuses to live in the present, she was born in her house and is determined to die in it.  The other owners of land surrounding the Scott Furlong factory have been easy enough to buy out, but as Wilder notes, there's little point just offering Miss Geraldine money: "She's enough to buy us out!"  If its plans are to stay on course, Scott Furlong needs the Pettifur property in just over a week.

A long stream of Scott Furlong executives have gone to plead their case to the old lady, only to return with ears boxed and tail between their legs.  Wilder's decided the man for the job is Nigel Carr (Jeremy Burnham), the company's biggest smooth talker.  He arrives at the Pettifur residence at 12 pm, which unfortunately is when Miss Geraldine has her lunch every day (in keeping with tradition it's always the same thing: the rather mind-boggling dish of eggs and brandy).  Miss Geraldine's long-suffering companion Harriet (Ruth Kettlewell) announces the gentleman's arrival.  The old lady's response tells you everything you need to know about her character: "At luncheon time? A gentleman? You're using the language loosely again, Harriet!"


Despite his reputation for getting any female eating out of his hand in two seconds flat, Nigel Carr fails miserably with the formidable Miss Pettifur: "Oh, I do hope they haven't sent a nincompoop just to dispense flattery!" she frets.  Carr's patronising treatment of Geraldine as a fluffy old dear turns out to be a huge misjudgement.  She lets him twinkle away, before apprising him of exactly what the situation is regarding her land: "I want it, and you want it.  Unfortunately for you, I have it."


A sheepish Carr reports back to Wilder, embarrassingly worse for wear after an accident at the Pettifur residence.  Wilder is incandescent at his underlings' inability to talk Miss Geraldine round.


"Am I surrounded by idiots, Miss Lingard?" he asks his secretary, who's sporting yet another new hairstyle.  "Yes, Sir," she calmly responds.


Deciding it's the only way he'll achieve his aim, Wilder heads off to see Miss Geraldine himself.  Perfectly friendly toward her sworn enemies, the old lady plays him at croquet (the genteel croquet lawn with massive jet in the background is the episode's most potent image).  Wilder proves useless at the game, though Miss Geraldine, having sized him up in a moment, tells him "I'm sure there are many games that you invariably win at."


A strange kind of flirtation develops between the two - Wilder (who, by way of setting the two up as opposites, tells her his job requires him to live in the future) takes the tack of being deadly earnest with Miss Geraldine about his motives: he describes the way her house will be demolished, with "all this beauty" eventually replaced by "an efficient box".  "I hate your progress," she tells him plainly.  "If you moved from here, with our help," Wilder responds, "You'd be rid of that noise forever."  He's caught totally off guard by her response: "Then what would I have to complain about?"


Geraldine, dwelling, as ever, on the past, tells Wilder he reminds her of her old sweetheart: his death in the First World War led to her current Havisham-esque existence: "It wasn't only Arthur who died that weekend, it was everything."  Geraldine tells Wilder of the half-life she's lived for the past 50 years, and that it's only her running conflict with Scott Furlong that's given her something to live for once more.  He's utterly gobsmacked when she reveals the result of his own intervention:

Geraldine: I think I might very well have faltered.
Wilder: You mean, sold out? To us?
Geraldine: Yes, if I hadn't met you personally.
Wilder: If you hadn't met me?
Geraldine: Yes.  It's only when one meets the best of the opposition that the game becomes really fun, don't you agree?


The flirtation analogy becomes explicit when Miss Geraldine arrives at Scott Furlong for her first ever flight, in a Sovereign jet.  Wilder urges Auntie Forbes to treat the old lady as if it was a love affair - utterly baffling to Auntie, who's clearly never had one.


The old lady's overwhelmed by her first trip in a plane, but eventually enjoys the experience immensely.  "But are we any better off for it, Mr Wilder?" she asks.  Wilder, in perhaps the show's best insight so far into what makes the character tick, talks of the sense of pride and fulfilment he gets from running a successful company.  She sums it up as "power", a word Wilder rejects as too loaded (though it will prove an important one in the character's trajectory on TV).


Miss Geraldine gets a grand tour of the Scott Furlong works.  Her hibernation from progress for the past 50 years is precisely what makes her so fascinated by every new piece of technology she sees as she travels this palace of modern marvels.



One of the episode's highlights sees Miss Geraldine embarrassing Wilder by enthusiastically greeting a group of workmen whose names he proves unable to tell her.  Wonderfully, the elderly aristocrat happily joins them in a cup of tea, deciding "I must send Harriet here to take lessons about how to make tea, good and strong."


After he sends Miss Geraldine back home, Wilder instructs his men to press on with their development plans, secure in the knowledge that he's won.  On his next visit to Miss Geraldine's he lessens the charm a bit to spell it out to her.  If she doesn't sell up she'll have a runway at the bottom of her garden and an engineering works at the end of her orchard.  Besides, the factory's defence work means he could probably get a compulsory purchase order anyway.  "You're no gentleman, Mr Wilder," Miss Geraldine scolds him.  "You take all the fun out of it."  She graciously accepts defeat, but not before she's secured double Scott Furlong's original offer.


The minute Wilder's gone Miss Geraldine gets on the phone to her broker, and insists that her entire share fund be ploughed into Scott Furlong...


Miss Geraldine is a terrific Plane Makers, with Patrick Wymark getting a rare chance to make John Wilder a likeable character.  And it's hard to imagine anyone being more perfect than Marie Lohr in the episode's title role.  A stage star since the Edwardian era, Lohr's best remembered today as the society matron who dies protecting her village from Nazis in the Ealing classic Went the Day Well? Her role in The Plane Makers is almost a reprisal of that part, but with the forces of progress the new invaders, and ones that prove far more implacable.

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