Before I start, let me first credit this glorious illustration, commissioned in 1979 for Look-In magazine, to Arnaldo Putzu, who sadly died in September this year but who leaves behind a treasure trove of, primarily, movie posters from Carry On to Get Carter. While searching for a still to illustrate this blog about Man About The House, I found it on a site that sells original illustrations called The Illustration Gallery, who should also be credited, although they have sold the original painting (acrylic on board, 550cm x 650cm), and I am now filled with jealousy towards whoever owns it.
Now that you know how much I love BBC4’s weekly re-runs of Top Of The Pops shows from the 70s, if I tell you that I’m also hooked on daily re-runs of Man About The House on ITV3, you’d be within your rights to shout, “If you like the mid-to-late 70s so much, why don’t you go and live there?”
Well, I do have a soft spot for the era, because it’s when I grew up, and both shows were fixtures in my house. In fact, we watched all the sitcoms of what is now considered a golden age for British comedy, from Are You Being Served and Dad’s Army to On The Buses and Love Thy Neighbour. I wasn’t really aware of it, but Man About The House was a little hipper than all of the above. It was about younger characters, who lived in trendy London (Kensington, in actual fact, which is weird now that I am a London native of almost 30 years; all I can say is that it can’t have been as chi-chi and Sloane-colonised in the 70s as it is now). Writers Brian Cooke (still with us) and Johnnie Mortimer (sadly, not) were cartoonists who’d worked together on Round The Horne, but I think Man About The House was their first big TV smash. They wrote every all six series – comprising six or seven episodes each – which ran between 1973 and 1976, two series a year, mostly.
The set-up was controversial for the time: a guy sharing a flat with two girls, neither of whom he is going out with, although not for want of trying. Richard O’Sullivan is perfect as the catering student, Robin – who went on to run his own bistro in the equally good, but at times woefully unconvincing Robin’s Nest – cheeky and likable enough to carry off what might have come off like simple lechery in the hands of a lesser actor. (Compare and contrast with the late Doug Fisher’s Larry – Robin’s slightly rougher and readier pal – whose “phwoooargh“-based attitude to women is far more bottom-pinching and bit-of-stuff in comparison.) Because Robin is matched against two women, Paula Wilcox’s self-improving Chrissy, and Sally Thompsett’s frankly ditsy – but equally Robin-resistant – Jo, he is always on the back foot, and the general air of sexism is always countered with genuflections towards feminism.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship is that of landlord and landlady George and Midred Roper, who live downstairs – and also landed their own spin-off series, George & Mildred, which, I can vouch, is just as watchable 40 years on, albeit more predicated on class than sexuality. Although Mildred falls broadly into the archetype of battleaxe, while George is the pathetic, henpecked husband, it is she who’s the sexual predator, and he who has a headache. In one episode I’ve just seen, he makes some home brew and gets all tiddly, and, for one time only, suggests the “early night”. Mildred is a new woman the next morning. This certainly turns the truism of the sex-starved male and the disinterested female on its head, and provides constant laughs.
I don’t wish to write an academic essay on the show. I like it because a) it’s still funny, if crudely staged and sometimes too broadly acted (you will be lucky to spot a supporting actor who went on to do anything of note, outside of the great Roy Kinnear, who was way too good to be playing a one-note layabout like Jerry), and b) it’s a fascinating snapshot of a changing society. Women were definitely still regarded as objects to be lusted over, and their advances in terms of career and independence were frankly regarded with suspicion. But Robin needs Chrissy and Jo more than they need him. They find him sleeping in the bath after a houseparty in the first episode and he ends up filling the rent gap left by a departed flatmate, largely because he’s a great cook. More turning of the tables. They tell the Ropers he’s gay initially, so that they won’t object to him cohabiting with two “birds”. And again.
Just as the formerly inoffensive sight of Jimmy Savile in a clip of Top of the Pops will now be viewed through a prism of suspicion and afterknowledge (if they are viewed at all), so with any comedy of the 70s, the modern viewer will continually encounter humour that has been almost entirely discredited by what I like to think of as the 1980s enlightenment. Despite the progressive use of homosexuality in the first episode, any further exploration of this area amounts to little more than the occasionally pursed lips and limp-wristed gesture from Robin or Larry. It’s not exactly gay-bashing, but it adds to the discussion not a jot. Similarly, in a recent episode, there was a rape joke, and guess what, it was Chrissy who made it, and not Robin. You are taken aback by these relics from a less informed age, but it is silly to call for retroactive censorship, just as you have to leave the name of the dog in The Dambusters. (He was called Nigger. It’s problematic to our sensitive ears but it’s a fact.)
The most important thing is that there’s a joyful simplicity about 1970s sitcoms. Unlike the intricately plotted nature of even more mainstream sitcoms today, these approximately-23-minute ITV episodes usually just end, often on a fairly weak punchline. The form was in its prime, and yet, with no sitcom filmed “single camera” in those days, no efforts were made in the direction of realism. These were like farces from the stage, with characters entering through doors and exiting through doors, and scenes beginning at the beginning and not halfway through conversations. All that said, studio sitcoms of today still use these devices. Having worked on many episodes of Not Going Out, in which – hey! – a man shares a flat with a woman he fancies but cannot have, I have been co-responsible for many gags which hinge on the fact that their front door is left open so that another character can wander in at will. (George and Mildred knock and enter, which is convenient, but so does Kramer in Seinfeld.)
“Sitcom” means many different things in 2012: Hunderby, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Twenty Twelve, Benidorm. In 1975, it meant one thing, and Man About The House is an intriguing example of that thing. O’Sullivan, as is well known, was laid low by a stroke a few years ago and lives in a retirement home for old actors. Paula Wilcox has enjoyed the sort of later-blooming renaissance she deserved, with older parts in shows like The Smoking Room, Rock & Chips and (though I hate to mention it) The Green, Green Grass. While Sally Thomsett, who I’ve just said hello to on Twitter, retired from acting after the Man About The House film (slightly saucier than the telly, but at least it featured the whole principal cast), but clearly loves having been in such a beloved show. She’s currently enjoying the re-runs being on, and so she should.
I just wished to mark my appreciation. I love modern comedies like Fresh Meat and Rev and Girls, which play with expectations of TV comedy, and pull it into new shapes, but, with this show and George & Mildred providing the templates for successful US shows, Three’s Company and The Ropers, I’m hardly going out on a limb in naming Man About The House a bedrock contribution to television.
Oh, and put “Arnaldo Putzu” into an image search and see what wondrous works he made.