Sunday, 4 February 2018

Seventies TV: Man About the House

I'm watching Man About the House and it's making me feel rather bad about all the dreadful things I've said about 1970s TV. I have rather tended to characterise it as gritty, dreadful, a product of the very difficult time which gave it birth. Even the shows which aren't consciously 'gritty', I have portrayed as superficial, silly, racist, you name it. And it isn't even that I haven't seen much seventies TV - I've watched loads of these shows. And my unfortunate tendency repeats itself - that I tend to think of it as the age of the sit com. And I don't like sit coms. I particularly don't like George and Mildred. I've tried, but it just doesn't do it for me. I don't really have a sensible reason for it, I just don't like it. And as we all know, George and Mildred is a spin-off of Man About the House. I don't like spin-offs. At this point you could begin to think that I'm an old curmudgeon who doesn't like anything.
Hence it was such as surprise this week when I found an odd series of Robin's Nest for sale and thought I'd give it a go. It's a spin-off, and it's a sit com, and I didn't mind it at all. I won't personally go out of my mind for it, but it was caused me to give Man About the House a go and I'm surprised to find that I rather like it.
Man About the House draws on another thread of seventies culture which I have rather tended to ignore, namely its sexiness. Nowadays that mixed-sex house-shares are no big deal, I was surprised to find that it was considered very risque in its day because it shows a man flat sharing with two women. There isn't any grittiness here, what is depicted is a happy life of young people sharing a flat. My only criticism of the life portrayed is that the flat they live in is decorated in the latest style for the 1970s, and is too prosperous for three adults who are on low incomes or students.
And it's incredibly sexy. Perhaps that is the element of 1970s TV that I haven't picked up on enough in the past. A recurring image in the titles and on the DVD releases is of a pair of Y-fronts hanging between two pairs of knickers, indicating a certain, shall we say, familiarity between the three. There is a certain easiness and flirtiness between the three of them. In fact all of the characters in the shows are obsessed with sex and a lot of the show is about getting it, not getting it, and thinking about it. In the way of the 1970s such themes as porn are not taboo.
I had simplistically accepted the view on the internet that the youngsters are the ones having the sex (or talking or thinking about it) and George and Mildred are the ones not doing it. Mildred is reputed on the internet not to be interested at all, however their relationship is far more nuanced and there are occasions where Mildred plainly wants sex but it's George that isn't interested. It seems that George is definitely interested by just not in Mildred, because of the frequent occasions when his stashes of porn are revealed. So far the approach to sex and sexuality is so conventional and boring.
Not forgetting that this was in the years following the second wave of feminism, when great criticism was levelled at the male gaze towards women, and particularly around porn and rape culture. The sexuality criticised by the second wave of feminism is represented in the figure of George Roper.
Then Man About the House turns it completely on its head by making Robin a rather unusual sex object for the gaze of the girls. Richard O'Sullivan even became a rather unlikely sex symbol as a result of starring in this show. The girls are dfefinitely liberated - I love the way Chrissie keeps a little black book of men she's been out with! And yet, and yet... His character is even more complex than that. As a cookery student he takes on the traditionally female role of doing all the cooking, while the girls go out to work. At the beginning of the show they tell Mr Roper Robin is gay to overcome any objections to mixed-gender flat sharing, and he very frequently acts like a gay man. Perhaps this is what attracted the controversy at the time, that these complicated gender and sexuality roles couldn't easily be explained in simplistic terms, and thus brought on people's fears that literally anything could happen.
Otherwise the show is a real seventies blast. I particularly love the way the woodwork in the pub is painted purple! The Ropers' sofa is upholstered in vinyl (torn on both arms) which looks like it would be hideously slippery and sweaty to sit on. Their furniture is a mixture of different times as most people's furniture is. The youngsters' flat upstairs is as I said furnished much more contemporarily, which is rather nice. And of course everything is of its period and looks right and not overdone. The smoking in the pub is quite something - you can see literal clouds of smoke. I don't remember actually seeing clouds of smoke in the days when more people smoked, but perhaps it did happen. As an ex-smoker myself I'm also tending to notice that some of the actors have what I can only describe as smoker's teeth - something you don't see in The Avengers, where they were presumably ruthlessly cleaned for a TV appearance.
Production values are of the time, and apart fom an occasional external shot, mainly in the titles, the show is almost completely studio-bound.
My conclusion is that I have overlooked a gem of seventies TV which isn't in the mainstream of the gritty TV of the time. If you don't like rude jokes you won't like it, I would have to say, but if you can cope with any of the sex comedies of the time, you will surely like Man About the House.

2 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (about TV Lend-Lease):

I'm in a quandary about what to write here: The three shows you're talking about here never really made the trans-Atlantic trip, and I don't know if the three US versions (a friend calls these the Americlones) were ever seen in GB.

First off, here are the equations (Britain to America):

Man About The House = Three's Company

George And Mildred = The Ropers

Robin's Nest = Three's A Crowd


I've only given the most cursory looks at the British originals on YouTube.
Consequently, I have no idea if you've done the same with the US shows, at whatever level.

From the little I've seen, I can only attest to the fact that while the writers (Cooke and Mortimer) kept the basic set-ups in all three shows, changes were made in certain of the character dynamics, because the actors all had differing strengths that dictated how the scripting went.
That was a little awkward: what I mean was that in the US, the audience watches the Stars (or at least they did in the '70s).
Three's Company made a star of John Ritter, with a major in physical slapstick.
It also made a short-lived national craze of Suzanne Somers, whose version of Chrissy was an airheaded child-woman (unlike her British namesake).
There are other aspects for comparison, but the main one to mention here is that of the three Americlones, Three's Company was the only one to have a sustained success in the US ratings; the other two were also-rans that didn't last.

I'll leave it at that for now; if you have any questions, I can try to answer them for you as best I can.
'Til then ...

John said...

Thanks, Mike. Frankly I'm as confused as you and have never seen the US shows you mention. And just to make it even more complicated I have also never seen the imitators this show spawned in European countries like Holland and Finland!