29 April 2011

"Here I am - daddy!"

The post below about the Only Fools And Horses episode Thicker Than Water got me thinking, for no intelligent reason, about great sitcom episodes that featured a one-off appearance from a parental character.

"I never raised a hand to your mother Rodney, except in self-defence..."

We start with the awesome Peter Woodthorpe's turn in the aforementioned edition of Only Fools And Horses. It was the Christmas special of 1983, in the days when Christmas specials could just maintain the status quo of the Trotter lifestyle before elongated episodes forced John Sullivan into more outlandish plots and settings. The premise was simple; the long-lost dad of Del and Rodney (and son of Grandad), Reg Trotter, turns up after 20 years away on Christmas Eve, looking destitute and claiming illness. His manipulation of his father and younger son and slow isolation of his suspicious elder son takes hold over 20 minutes until his scheme is uncovered.

It's beautifully written, and performed from the textbook, as Del goes from unforgiving to desperately caught in two minds over family ties while his dad shamelessly steals his clothes, booze and cigars and quickly reverts to the exploitative type that Del always warned Rodney about. The moment when Rodney admits to Del he was right about their bad father is especially poignant. And there are few better lines than: "Some people get wise men bearing gifts. We get a wally with a disease!"

"Shall I make us all a cuppa?"

There was a very good episode of Men Behaving Badly (which, after going out of fashion quickly, is now quite funny to watch again) in which Gary unwillingly permits his father to visit, with the consequence of the doddery but shrewd old man forever embarrassing his son or just unwittingly saying the wrong thing at the wrong point. Richard Pearson plays the role splendidly, aided by the side plot of Gary having split with Dorothy and therefore trying to pull one of the trio of girlfriends Tony has on the go. The latter two efforts are foiled by his dad, who happens to mention to one that the date coincides with Dorothy's engagement party ("Gary's looking for someone to take so he can make her jealous!"), and to the other - a strict vegetarian - that he'd acquired some veal for tea, moments after Gary had lied that he was a vegan.

Most of it is farcical, and there is exceptional slapstick as Gary makes to attack his father from behind in the pub, only for Tony to prevent it by diving on Gary at the last minute. But at the end Gary still flips ("oh for God's sake, go home you old fool!") and his dad leaves with his head held high, rejecting his son's apology with aplomb.

"It's on the top shelf in the lower cupboard on the left..."

In Drop The Dead Donkey, we met the parents of Helen, the lesbian deputy news editor, who was still in the closet in her private life and so had pretended she had a boyfriend. Dave the editorial assistant, who was mad about her after a drunken one-night stand, agreed to be her bogus boyfriend for the evening, and again we got a farcical situation of him trying to appear familiar with her home (opening the broom cupboard door instead of the kitchen, etc) while also overdoing the boyfriend bit to his own benefit by deliberately planting a huge snog on Helen's lips when arriving. As Drop The Dead Donkey rarely took the characters out of the newsroom, and even more rarely did so to show aspects of their private life, it was a brave bit of telly, one that could have been honed in good time, given that the bulk of the show had to be written in the days leading up to broadcast. This was about Helen's repression and Dave's clumsiness, but the pay-off line from her dad - telling Helen that this fella of hers needed to seek psychiatric help - made it all worthwhile.

"Oi'm very pleased to meet yer, Mister Flitcher!"

In Porridge, Godber's mum turned up at visiting day with the broadest Black Country accent ever heard, to the extent that I can't believe anyone from that distinguished part of the world has ever genuinely sounded like that.

"Felicity Kendal is sweetly pretty, just what a real girlie should be!"

We got the brilliant pisstake of "safe" sitcoms with the arrival of Neil's strait-laced, bridge-playing parents in The Young Ones, but that was a script that broke every rule (and wall) going, even by the standards of a programme already renowned for rather offbeat methods.

"I vish him to marry zis rosebush!"

In Blackadder The Third, we got a rare example of a visiting parent who was also portraying someone that actually once existed. The arrival of George III allowed Blackadder to take his self-sacrificial role as the Prince Regent's duel stand-in to a new extreme, becoming regent himself in one fell swoop. The problem with that was that even though George III was too mad to recognise his own son, that wouldn't have stopped his lackeys from noticing the sudden change of face.

"Lad's got to get married sometime, he can't be happy all his life..."

The very last edition of Man About The House brought a stack of parents into the mix, as Norman and Chrissy got married. Glynn Edwards played Chrissy's farmer dad ("I've brought you a cockerel!") while the excellent Leslie Sands was Norman and Robin's father, blatantly ignoring his younger son's claims to attention and even garnering Chrissy's sympathy, despite the fact she was marrying the older, wiser one. His act of coughing all over the wedding cake looks improvised to this day, but still got a laugh.

Oh, and not forgetting...

27 April 2011

"We see more of Halley's Comet than we do of him!"

The dreadfully sad death of John Sullivan produced some terrific tributes and some refreshingly wide-eyed revisits of his work. The problem in recent times is that one programme, Only Fools And Horses, overshadowed his other admirable projects, and within that one scene, the "Del falling through the bar" moment in Yuppy Love, became regarded as his crowning glory.

It is a brilliant gag, of course. Timed impeccably, serious element of surprise which added to the laughter, and the fact that when you see it again, there is no hint of self-protection from David Jason at all. I laughed until I felt capable of a self-inflicted injury when I first saw it.

But then they showed it again, and again, and again. And they talked about it again, and again, and again... No joke is as funny when you've heard it before, and the same can be applied to visual gags when you know what's coming. You get to the point where it becomes so dominant that you almost begin to hate it. The same applies to the chandelier episode, A Touch Of Glass, discussed here.

Good gags do not make a great episode make, and still I maintain the title of best episode of Only Fools And Horses remains a two-horse race between Thicker Than Water and The Longest Night. The former brought out serious family tensions with the unwelcome, disruptive return of Reg Trotter; the latter saw them innocently involved in a bogus armed robbery. Both were out of the show's comfort zone; an imposter was in their flat in one, and the whole show was set outside their flat (and the pub - the only episode to do so) in the other. Neither were about tucking up mugs on the streets with boss-eyed dolls, nor drinking malibu and cherryade and non-alcoholic lager top. They put the family bond - and, it seemed, their actual lives - on the line, and never was Sullivan and his prime programme better than when showing the frailties and dilemmas of family life.

26 April 2011

Something about Dick Turpin wearing a mask

I got wheelclamped on Friday night. My own stupid fault, but nonetheless I have never felt so violated - and robbed - in my life. It was a vile experience.

The new Manchester gig comes with no onsite parking and so I have to park on the streets. That's fine, as after 6pm it's entirely free everywhere, but with free parking comes popularity and as I arrived for work on Good Friday I simply could not find a space. I drove round in circles for ages, hoping someone would vacate a space as I chased the wild goose, but it didn't happen and eventually I got to the point where I was going to be late. So I pulled into an access road with spaces and parked up, noticing the wheelclamp warning signs but not realising it wasn't a randomly roaming company operating, but a more sinister process. Also, the other cars parked thereon had no permits in their windscreens. I deliberately chose a space that I could see from the window behind the DJ area, meaning I could put on the eight minute version of Space Cowboy by Jamiroquai and beetle down to shift the car.

Every five minutes I looked outside. No space on the road, no clamper on the access street. Back to the tunes.

Then, out of nowhere, a doorman walked up to me and told me the clamper was hovering. I shot outside immediately but was too late. Clamp firmly padlocked on, notice hanging from the window. A van was behind, with a woman in the driving seat making a call. She immediately came out to tell me what was happening.

Are you ready for this?

One hundred and fifty pounds to shift it, or it'd be towed away and it would be closer to five hundred.

That's £150 now, rising up to almost £500.

The club manager, who knew the clamper personally, came out to try to reason with her but, just like when you get done for speeding, the enforcers in question are not interested in reasons or excuses. They have a job to do, a job that doesn't have room for compassion. I was shocked to find she was working after 10pm on Good Friday. She replied that she was on call only - meaning that a resident of this access street had actually rung up to complain, springing her into action. That turned me from feeling stupid and angry to feeling bitter and homicidal.

I have worked in magistrates courts over the years and I've seen people convicted of causing grievous bodily harm who have been fined less. I have no qualm with my culpability but I do have issues with both the punishment and the utter lack of discretion or bargaining power. I didn't have £150 on me. Who does, apart from a professional footballer? Some cashpoints won't give you £150 in one fell swoop. I dread to think of how much these sods make either on flogging unclaimed cars or fleecing major wedge out of people whose biggest crime is trying to keep their motor safe.

I expect most people who work for wheelclamping companies struggle to justify their jobs in their social activity. People who have little respect for authority have similar issues with the police or the revenue and customs people, but wheelclampers have little to with the law of the land or bonafide authority figures. They make their own rules and seem to have little or no monitoring of their actions going on from those alleged to represent us.

In the end, my manager just handed my wage for the night straight to the clamping woman and I went to a cashpoint and felt my heart sink as I withdrew the remainder. Sod's law then dictated that there were several legal spaces now available to me, all of which were very much full at the time I'd arrived for work. Jamiroquai had long died - I'd rushed in mid-discussion to get the six minute version of Something Good by Utah Saints on and keep the punters happy - and so I skulked back into work while my manager shifted my car. I then essentially worked the next four and a half hours for free. During that period, no car pulled into the space I had expensively vacated.

I can appeal, and intend to. I don't hold out much hope but it's too much money to not even try.