Monday, 26 January 2015

Seventies TV: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Picture credit: http://www.steve-p.org/sm/smdae1.htm
It is actually with a sense of relief that I come to cast my jaundiced eye over one of the sacred cows of 1970s television. There has been a hiatus in these series of posts, not because I've stopped watching 1970s TV, but because I've been watching some shows that have left me with nothing frankly to say. Porridge left me unmoved. I remember liking this as a child, but now find it the sort of television that goes on in the background, & you just pay no attention to. Man About the House is new to me, but I find that beyond saying that it's about not getting it & that a lot of unnecessary fuss is made about mixed-sex flat-sharing, I have nothing to say about it. Similarly, Only When I Laugh, which is another series that started in the 1970s & carried on into the 1980s, I remember as boring with the odd contrived laugh. I'm now more prepared to view it as a situation comedy, but really it isn't doing anything for me.
It is therefore with a sense of relief that I arrive at Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (hereafter SMDAE), which I remember seeing with my parents as a child & finding uproariously funny. Unfortunately the only thing I remember about it is Frank's little catchphrases, which are frankly annoying. I'm relieved to discover I'm impressed with how good it is as a situation comedy. I've also managed to find out quite a lot of surprising stuff about this show:
'Some Mothers was dreamed up by an Isle Of Wight-based writer, Raymond Allen. Allen eked out a living writing single sketches from home for the likes of Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd. This didn't really bring in enough cash to live on so he also had a "proper" job cleaning his local cinema. Over the years he had submitted over 40 full-length scripts to assorted TV producers, but all had been rejected. Following the advice which accompanied one reject letter, Allen decided his next idea would be firmly based on something he knew about – himself.
'As a starting point, Allen borrowed some characteristics from a strange man who used to stop by the cinema that Allen cleaned at and ask inane questions about the current films that were playing. Following the advice he had received in the earlier rejection letter, Allen also folded several autobiographical facets into the mix – his character had few friends and suffered from insecurity and depression, as did Allen himself. Allen also still lived at home with his parents and could, in fairness, be called a "mummy's boy". Thus, step by step, the new character was born. Allen "borrowed" his character's name from the strange cinema man, too – Frank Spencer.
'Allen's proposal landed on the desk of Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, who saw the potential in the idea. Over a series of subsequent meetings, Mills (who had taken on the role as the programme's producer/director) and Allen added in other ingredients to the prototype character. Frank was a walking disaster area – fully competent at being incompetent. 'Whether it was mending a boiler, auditioning for a job at a holiday camp or transporting a child's playhouse back home – if he could get it wrong, he would get it wrong. He was also given a supreme ability to annoy people. Within the space of a ten-minute conversation, otherwise calm and rational folk could be reduced to tears by Frank's inability to answer any question coherently, or his habit of peppering his responses with long-winded and trivial monologues (usually concerning his childhood). Frank was easily shocked and immensely naïve – any vaguely risqué comment or action would result in a startled "oooh" and a shocked expression. The image was completed by his clothing – his permanent attire was a raincoat and beret worn atop tight trousers and a gaudy tank-top, which he even wore in bed.
'Rather surprisingly, the somewhat effeminate Frank Spencer was married. His mild-mannered wife, Betty (played by Michele Dotrice, actually fifth choice of actress after Sinead Cusack, Elisabeth Sladen, Linda Hayden and Nell Curran), seemed to exist on the edge of a nervous breakdown brought on by Frank's almost uninterrupted stints of being out of work and the couple's general lack of money. Nevertheless, she was loyal to him and always took his side when he was being criticised or picked on.
[...]
'As with much television in the seventies, self-appointed media watchdog, Mary Whitehouse, found the show displeased her. She attacked the series publicly, describing the Frank Spencer character as "a purveyor of pornography" apparently after his habit of pulling at the top of his leg while complaining of an unspecified problem vaguely in the area of his genitals ("Genitals – that's a very rude word for her to use," pointed out a mid-seventies TV interviewer. "It's a very long word for her to use," retorted Crawford). In fact, Frank's downstairs "trouble" was understood by the production team simply to be mild incontinence, and nothing sexual at all.' (http://www.steve-p.org/sm/)
The trouble I'm now having with Frank Spencer, is that this history of someone who obviously had difficulties coping with life & put them into a sitcom character, makes me not feel sorry for Frank. The simple fact is that people who really have mental health problems are crippled by them - Frank is plainly not crippled.
Rather, he presses some unfortunate buttons in me, & I see him as one of these people who could well pull themselves together if they tried, but instead go through life making dependent relationships with people who feel sorry for them & expecting everyone to carry them. In the episode about the baby, Betty even expresses my conviction: 'Sometimes I think you do these little things just to upset me.'
Frank reminds me of somebody in my workplace: I have told the manager over & over that the only way ahead with her is to manage her through the door. Things always go wrong when she is around. Things get 'lost'. Essential pieces of paper get put in the wrong folder. Things get done wrongly over & over again. Of course many of these there is nothing to connect her to them, but if the management were thinking of anything other than dogs, chickens & boyfriends, they'd be making careful records of what's happening when & making the connection with the perpetrator. The trouble is that people feel sorry for these people, or else like to think the best, & so they carry them.
His apparent effeminacy comes across more as haplessness to me. I seem no reason to suspect homosexuality - I think he's more likely to be the sort of man whom everyone wonders whether he's gay until the right woman comes along to take him in hand. The question is more about Betty: yes, women do marry men their mothers disapprove of, but ideally because the man is exciting or she is rebelling, not because she's picked the runt of the world's litter. No woman in her right mind would think she could 'make something' of Frank Spencer, so it seems Betty's motivation for marrying him would be a purely codependent one. Incidentally it tickles me no end to find the president of the pensions board of the USA Presbyterian church is called Frank Spencer & has published on twitter a series of meditations for survivors of sexual abuse.
Frank Spencer, as with my colleague, if left to his own devices would not fall flat on his face, because he creates these situations himself. *Nobody* (of normal intelligence) so lacks intelligence or foresight.
I'm interested in Mrs Whitehouse's reaction to this show, which is hilarious in retrospect. The 'trouble' referred to is plainly lavatorial rather than sexual in nature, although I find it interesting how much double-entendre there is in this show (such as Frank under the blanket in his RAF dormitory).
In conclusion this show has made me laugh out loud & it is a relief to see it is different from the selection of catch-phrases I remember. But on a completely personal level Frank is too annoying a character who does not elicit my sympathy. I don't stand fools gladly. Or at all!
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