Monday, 21 April 2014

Tuesday 4 February 1964

I'll start off by saying that this is possibly my favourite episode of Steptoe and Son, thanks to its brilliant skewering of cinema culture in Britain at the time it was made.  If I ran a film studies course, this would be compulsory viewing.

The Steptoes are getting ready for an outing to the pictures.  Harold fetches his socks from the oven, where they've been drying, experiencing near-orgasmic pleasure as he pulls them on: "Sheer ecstasy... the magic of hot socks!"

We're also treated to an insight into Albert's wardrobe that black and white television wouldn't normally allow us, as his son scolds him for his inability to co-ordinate: "We do not wear our green and white spotted scarf with our blue tie with the jagged stripes on, do we?" Harold's appalled by Albert's view that it doesn't matter what he wears as he'll be in the dark anyway: "You might as well say there's no point washing any higher than the neck or any lower than the wrists.  The grimly inevitable response: "I haven't."

Harold's even more disgusted by the revelation that Albert's still wearing his pyjamas beneath his suit.  And a pair of thermal longjohns beneath those.  It's all justified by Steptoe Sr with the picturesque phrase "I'm colder than a penguin's chuff." (Looking at Harold's tie we may note that his clashing horizontal and vertical stripes aren't much better than what he criticised his father for).

The Steptoes' attempt to decide what to go and see gives us a decent snapshot of what cinemas had to offer in early 1964.  There's The Monster from the Black Bog, but Albert went to see that at a matinee during the week.  His description of it is such a vivid portrait of the reception of the endless cycle of British horror films being churned out at the time by Hammer and its imitators - and their often barely coherent plots- as well as of the contemporary experience of cinemagoing, that I'll quote it in full.

Albert: Cor, you should've heard those old birds screaming! Good film, though.  There was this great big thing about 200 foot high.  It rose out of the bog, all dripping with slime.  Radioactive, it was.  And it went through London, knocks the buildings down, and then it picks up this bird and bites her head off! Just like eating a jelly baby it was.  Talk about laugh!

Harold (drawn in, despite himself): Why was it radioactive?

Albert: Well, you see they'd been dumping atomic waste from the power station in the bog, and it brought him back to life.

Harold: How did it end?

Albert: I dunno.  Some silly old cow sitting next to me complained to the manager, and I got thrown out.

Harold: Thrown out?!

Albert: I didn't do anything! I dropped me glasses, that's all.  Skinny old legs she had, anyhow.  I'd sooner've had a go at the monster.

Jason and the Argonauts is on at the Majestic, but Albert's seen that too (Harold's not keen on the idea of him sneaking out to the pictures when he's meant to be working at the yard).  Albert wants to go and see Nudes of 1964 at the Argosy, but Harold swiftly vetoes it: "If you get thrown out of The Monster from the Black Bog, Lord knows what would happen if you got in there."

Harold explains that "For me the cinema is an art form, not a tawdry peepshow".  He decides they'll go and see Fellini's 8 1/2 at the Playhouse.  Albert finds it confusing before he's even got there: "Eight and a half? Eight and a half what?... Why eight and a half? Why not seven and three quarters?... Maybe it's his hat size."

The film comes highly recommended by Harold's favourite film critic, the Observer's Penelope Gilliatt ("I find her tastes and mine coincides all the time"), and besides, his a big fan of Federico Fellini ("Didn't he used to sing with Charlie Chester?" asks Albert). Albert's reluctant: he hates subtitles: "I go to the films to see a picture, not to read.  I can read here," but despite his initial reluctance ("I don't want to wear me glasses if I'm not seeing any crumpet") is prevailed upon to pick out a pair of specs from the huge, tangled mass he keeps in a drawer.

We head to the cinema - the poster for 8 1/2 juxtaposed with that of Nudes of 1964 next door (the imagery they use is pretty similar - intellectuals want to see crumpet too, it seems to imply, but they need to justify it by having it inserted into a meandering plot).

Albert feels no such need to justify his interest in looking at women's bodies.   "We are going to see Fellini's 8 1/2, Harold urges as his father stops for an ogle.  "I'd rather see her 48 1/2!" chortles the dirty old man.

As they queue, Albert annoys the other patrons by moaning about pretentious dream sequences in the arty films Harold's dragged him to in the past: "Oh no, not another one of them! Not another like Last Year at Marienbad.  That was another one of your dreams.  Even you didn't know what that was about... If they wanna experiment let them do it with their own money, not my 4/6."  Cheesed off with the rubbish he's been made to see, Albert waxes lyrical about the golden age of Hollywood, disgruntling the queue by launching into an impromptu Top Hat routine.  Still, he finds a kindred spirit in ticket clerk Damaris Hayman, who keenly shares his reminiscences of Lost Horizon and The Good Earth.

Albert continues to provide his son with maximum embarrassment when they get inside, loudly demanding to go to the loo, falling through his seat, loudly cleaning his glasses and necessitating several changes of where they sit

While Albert disturbs everyone in the theatre by going to get a drink (it turns out that even in the 60s cinemas were charging ludicrous prices for refreshments), Harold tries to get to know a young lady sat next to him - much to her boyfriend's dismay.

Albert's slurping and loud interruptions during the film provoke the ire of the man sitting behind the Steptoes, eventually leading to an auditorium-wide ruckus that sees the manager ejecting Harold for harrassing his female neighbour.  Albert is not kicked out, but decides to leave voluntarily.

Once they've left, Albert can't get in to see Nudes of 1964 fast enough.  Appalled at the behaviour of his "subhuman" father, Harold waits a few seconds, turns up his collar and follows the old man in - making sure he gets a seat on the other side of the cinema.

An acknowledgement in the end credits reveals that the actual soundtrack to 8 1/2 was used in the episode.  What's not revealed is the significance of the episode's title: is Sunday for Seven Days meant to echo the oblique titles of arthouse movies? Or am I missing something obvious? Write in if you've got any ideas.

Tonight's episode of The Plane Makers is one of the show's more business-focused instalments, which I tend to dread.  But thanks to a breezy script from Tony Williamson and some interesting character development, it's actually one of the most enjoyable episodes yet.

There's a flu bug flying around the Scott Furlong works, and Arthur Sugden's secretary Margie's been hit especially badly.  Arthur doesn't have time to notice, though - he's too busy running the business while John  Wilder's in Italy negotiating the sale of four Sovereign jets.

Things are due to get increasingly difficult for Arthur: the episode's title refers to the buyers' insistence that the Sovereign used for the demonstration flight be fitted with a new Mark 7 engine: which isn't due to be in production for another year or so .  Arthur's placed under enormous pressure to accomplish the seemingly impossible, within a week.  The first hurdle he faces is the workers, who need to be informed they'll have to rip out an engine they've just put in and replace it.  He leaves that task to hapless foreman Ted Castle (Charles Lamb).

Arthur himself requests that the less-than-impressed engineer, Dave Richards (Douglas Hayes) draft a completely new design within a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, Margie's getting worse: Wilder's secretary Kay Lingard takes charge, bustling her off home.  Arthur barely notices she's gone, he's too busy trying to negotiate with engine manufacturers Crane Wescott.  Their director Mr Lewis (Lloyd Lamble) insists it's no can do, as he's got his hands full - apparently with his secretary.

Arthur decides he'll have to pay a trip to Manchester himself to see the company's notoriously difficult boss, Sam Wescott.  Meanwhile, Kay's stepped into the breach to take Margie's place for a few days.  As she tells a distinctly nervous Arthur, "I've just told Mr Wilder on the phone that I'm keeping an eye on you.  He's only too delighted."

The workers are threatening to revolt over the mandatory overtime Arthur's imposed in order to get the new engine fitted in time, but he manages to defuse the situation by promising shop steward Jack Wilks (Douglas Blackwell) a new shift system will be implemented if the job goes according to plan.

As he reveals to Don Henderson (acting as Wilder's mouthpiece), Arthur is worried his boss has deliberately set him up as a scapegoat should the Italian deal fall through.  Don dismisses the notion, but suggests he should use the military version of the Sovereign - for which Crane Wescott expect to provide the engines as a weapon to get Sam Wescott to do what he wants.  Arthur, who knows full well that there isn't going to be a military version is horrified by the idea of being so deceptive, and even more uncomfortable when Don points out that it's exactly what Wilder would do.

One of the best things about the episode is its expansion of the character of Kay Lingard, who up to know has had little to do other than be super-efficient beneath an elaborate hairdo.  During her time working with Arthur the pair build up an unlikely but sweet friendship.  She accompanies him to Manchester, and on the way there is strangely dazzled by his tales of growing up in Ossett, near Wakefield - she's never been north of Birmingham: "I always get Yorkshire and Lancashire mixed up."  "You'd better not let them hear you say that at Old Trafford!"

George A Cooper plays Sam Wescott, who proves impervious to all Arthur's attempts at speeding up production on the Mark 7.  Arthur's fear that he's been set up as part of a devious Wilder plot grows when Sam reveals that he spoke to Wilder just a week before and there was no mention of the matter at all.

Arthur invites Wescott and Lewis to dinner at his hotel, in the hope that a deal could be worked out in more convivial surroundings.  Can he swing them with his idea of cutting out the lengthy testing process on the engine by doing it in the Sovereign itself (I know this all sounds pretty dull, but the whole thing moves along at a fair old clip).  Meanwhile, a flabbergasted Don Henderson receives a phone call from Wilder announcing, without explanation, that the new engines aren't required after all.  Henderson decides to postpone telling Arthur.

It's the audience's knowledge that Arthur doesn't need to get hold of the engine immediately after all that gives the remaining part of the episode its power.  As Sam and Arthur continue to debate the issue of the engine, Kay and Lewis go for a walk.  They both head to Kay's room, where she doesn't put up much resistance to Lewis' attempts to snog her.

Arthur, seeing them come down, asks Kay what's happened.  She's entirely blasé about Lewis's advances, but Arthur's absolutely horrified.  Confronting Lewis about it, and threatening to tell Sam, all he gets is the man's scorn for being so naive about the way business is done.  Realising what he's dealing with, Arthur decides it's time the gloves were off, and informs Wescott that if he doesn't get the engine straight away, the contract for the military Sovereign's engines will be awarded to someone else.  It works, of course.

In the train on the way back, Arthur's in turmoil about the Wilderesque deception he's pulled, and also about Kay being subjected to Lewis's filthy pawing.  Turns out Arthur's even more naive than he thought: Kay calmly explains that she's entirely used to that sort of thing, just seeing it as a necessary part of the job.  This final scene seems chilling now not so much because that sort of thing's so much more widely condemned these days, but because of the likelihood that, nonetheless, it's still going on.


  1. Sunday For Seven Days is old cinema ad speak: new film starts on Sunday, showing for the next week. Then a new title starts the next Sunday! Presumably Nudes Of 1964 would be replaced by Naked As Nature Intended or something. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you! I'm so glad that's now been explained.