Friday, 23 January 2015

No Place Like Home (80s BBC sitcom currently being repeated)

The world will little note nor long remember my thoughts on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home yet I feel compelled to record them. If you'd like to look over my shoulder - if, indeed, you too have been watching the current reruns on the Drama channel - then feel free.

I don't think I ever saw this when it was originally broadcast but now, thanks to the magic of Freeview, I have been able to watch most of the first two series over the space of a couple of weeks. 

And I still haven't come to a decision about it. I do recall seeing William Gaunt in a more recent sitcom with Penelope Keith (Next of Kin) in which his role was essentially that of feed to Ms Keith, but with occasional opportunities for pathos which made me wonder how he would be as the centre of a sitcom.

Well, unknown to me, he'd already been in such a role - and No Place Like Home ran for four series. What's more, it had an early role for Martin Clunes. Here are all the family members (sans appurtenances):

It's an odd sitcom to judge, or so it seems to me now. It's undoubtedly mainstream, and at least some of the time in a kind of sitcom neverland, but it also pushes, or at least gently nudges, at the boundaries a bit in an effort to reflect the changing social attitudes in the 80s. The four overgrown kids who return to the parental home (that's the premise) have sex, live with their partners, and the father ruefully accepts the situation. He's not having a mid-life crisis like Ria in Butterflies - or, for that matter, Reggie Perrin. It's more like a kind of slow deflation as new and confusing events dance around him. It's no longer a world he recognises but he continues to bankroll, and therefore tacitly condone, his offspring's behaviour, aided by a bit of nudging from his wife.

The setup could allow for something much darker, but however irritated Gaunt gets there is no fundamental change in his passivity. He was the breadwinner through his kids' childhoods and that is what he continues to be.

There are cartoonlike aspects. The meddling neighbour, Vera, played by Marcia Warren, is useful for pushing the plot forward at times, but the performance seems at odds with that of the actor playing her husband. Early on in the first series there were some variety-style high jinks with the husband trying to restrain an offscreen brute of a dog, in exactly the same manner as a Morecambe and Wise routine, and there is much talk of the menagerie of animals the neighbours supposedly have. Yet the husband also has naturalistic conversations with William Gaunt as they try to hide from their respective families.

Gaunt's wife is also an interesting figure. Her children try to encourage her to be more independent, and in the last episode I saw there was a plot revolving round what she might do with her husband's redundancy money (set up a pet shop with Vera was the unlikely answer), but she seems as much the slave of her children's demands as her husband's.

Watching it now, none of this ought to work terribly well, and indeed there are times when I'm not entirely sure why I'm watching it. But as one who religiously sat through every episode of Ben Elton's The Wright Stuff I obviously have a high tolerance threshold, and the question of why a sitcom doesn't quite come off is every bit as interesting to me as why one does. And having a daily sitcom waiting on your hard disk drive for you to come home - well, you may as well watch it before you delete it forever.

And last night, with two episodes on my hard drive needing to be watched, I found myself warming to it more. One plot revolved around Gaunt's character Arthur meeting his first girlfriend again. The opportunity for wilful misunderstanding by neighbour Vera was duly taken, although (spoiler alert!) the reunion never had any chance of progressing beyond friendship,and the entire family later sit down to have a meal together with this notional threat - who, it transpires, only wanted to put a bit of business (no, not that sort) in her old boyfriend's way.

In the subsequent episode Arthur is facing the threat of redundancy unless he relocates to Manchester. Once his family point out to him that they couldn't survive without his patronage (and free accommodation) he has a change of heart and storms in to see his boss (John Barron, giving a performance of an eccentricity surpassing that of Marcia Warren's Vera) only to discover that everything's okay: another employee is now willing to make the trek North.

It's a sitcom about a man who is, at worst, mildly exasperated with his family, and there is really very little at stake ... and yet, on the basis of the last two episodes I know I am going to watch it to the end, even if the Drama Channel shows all four series.

Why? Well, it's partly down to the quality of the performances, despite the lurches between something like naturalism and something rather bigger. And Gaunt's hangdog face, and manner, makes him right for the role: difficult to imagine Richard Briers keeping a lid on his propensity to fizz. The scenes where he commiserates with his neighbour are very pleasing, which reminds me of the equivalent characters in the sitcom All About Me, which featured Jasper Carrot and Meera Syal (though she wisely jumped ship after Series One). Whether it was about bad writing or bad performing I couldn't say at this distance, but Carrot's character had a confidante at work who was so patently a cipher that it was painful to watch. And my feeling about those two most recent episodes of No Place Like Home was that everything possible had been wrung out of the storylines by the performers. The writer, Jon Watkins, may not be delving into the hot heart of human suffering but those episodes, in particular, felt fully realised. And the series was originally broadcast on the Beeb, so more time to delve into character. Granted, the four children don't always seem fully distinguished from each other, but the focus is on how Arthur reacts to them.

I'm not quite sure what else I want to say other than the series seems ... well, warmhearted, I suppose. By which I don't mean the bolted-on moment of sentimentality which afflicted the endings of episodes of the Carrot sitcom All About Me (it really wasn't very good). It's not afraid to have slightly downbeat endings. Is it unambitious? I suppose it is. Nothing ever really goes too wrong. The wife will never (I'm guessing) break free, nor the chicks leave the nest. And we know, for all his complaining, Arthur doesn't really want it any other way. But I find myself enjoying the playing out of these small tensions. No Place Like Home isn't groundbreaking. But it is very well made, with small incidents mined to the full. I don't know Jon Watkins' other work, and perhaps I'll explore it after this. 


Watched another episode tonight, centering around the idea of a curfew and found myself laughing out loud at the moment where, for reasons which need not detain us here, the various offspring set off in cars in the middle of the night and bumped into each other. 

That oughtn't to be terribly funny, but I think I was responding to a rhythm, a pace - a music, one may as well say. Judged coldly on the page individual lines might, I imagine, fall a little flat, but onscreen it's all so engaging. It's a sitcom which doesn't set its sights too high and yet ... it's polished entertainment, for one thing. It doesn't feel "Beneltoned" - a term coined by Richard Herring meaning underwritten. Candyfloss light the situations may be but there is ... I dunno, something which makes me want to surrender, and I can only put it down to the musical thing: an act of hypnotism akin to the experience of seeing (and hearing) the Master Musicians of Joujouka at the Royal Festival Hall.

Anyways, I shall stick with it and report back if my feelings change. 

Further thoughts here.
Further further thoughts here.

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