For those who may care about such things, the Drama Channel has just started repeating the fourth series of No Place Like Home - and by the show's previous standards the tone is distinctly odd.
The Series 3 finale, shown the previous day, was crammed with characters as usual, only more so, as the Crabtrees celebrated their silver wedding and non-speaking uncles thronged the living room. The plot, revolving around rival attempts to celebrate the occasion while those involved affected to know nothing about it, was properly farcical, even if the plotting was rather less intricate than Fawlty Towers, and Raymond, the annoying but sort of endearing son in law, did an Eamon Andrews as the kids covertly arranged their surprise for their parents: a This Is Your Life type reunion of relatives.
Arthur and Beryl, despite having (separately) made other plans for a meal and a night away, had no choice but to succumb, but it was good humoured: even Vera, the meddlesome neighbour had a kiss bestowed on her from Arthur when she presented the couple with a commemorative salver - and, in a rare moment of self knowledge, she alluded to the "tolerance" her neighbours had shown her. And watching William Gaunt, cigar and drink in hand, there was a kind of end of term atmosphere to the proceedings which seemed to be about the actors as well as their characters. I have written in the past about episodes tailing off or deliberately ending on a downbeat, but on this occasion Arthur paid a sweet compliment to his wife and the whole thing ended on a note of warmth, with much cheering from the audience.
Well, the new term is rather different. Martin Clunes has left the show and his replacement, while not quite a lookalike, certainly borrows the mannerisms and the hairstyle, though the ears look distressingly normal. I have read that the actor playing the other brother sadly died before this series, but his replacement did not appear in this first episode.
There was - it seems absurd to say "darkness" about the proceedings, but without a swarm of family members, and with much talk of couples separating, the show seemed to be edging towards something more sombre. I don't know whether Marcia Warren reappears later, but the real bombshell of the episode was that Vera was staying with her sister, had got rid of most of her animals, and Trevor seemed to imagine the separation might be permanent.
Now, when Morecambe and Wise slimmed down their comedy famously got better, but when you remove or thin out the crowd of siblings and others who help with the farcical tempo then No Place Like Home becomes ... well, something else. (And I'm not using jive jargon in this instance, Daddio.)
There was a new director - hitherto it has always been Robin Nash, also the producer, or Susan Belbin - so I don't know whether that contributed to the change of atmosphere, but the overall effect was a little melancholy. At one point Arthur absents himself from involvement in his married daughter's breakup, goes and gets drunk with Trevor in the greenhouse, actually having beer, and although we are told he was dragged up to bed the episode ends with his being back in the greenhouse in the middle of the night, he and the newly single Trevor, riotously drunk, even though we only see and hear them from a distance. It's quite a serious note to end on, given the normal parameters of that little world. Beryl seemed quite distressed earlier about having to drag the drunken Arthur to bed.
So what will happen? Who knows? I can't find much online, and part of me doesn't want to know. But a show without Vera may be a bit like Hancock's Half Hour without the appearance of Kenneth Williams. Like Hancock, will No Place Like Home mutate into something else? Hard to imagine, but I know it ran for a fifth series, so we shall see. It was pleasing to see that Liz Crowther, the pesky Raymond's work colleague, had been brought back, and that Raymond himself, despite splitting up with Lorraine, was determine to stay in the family (her family) home. With the absence of Martin Clunes and possibly Marcia Warren, we will certainly need the regular injection of his energy.
So watch this space for further updates. It's not impossible that the show will reshape itself, but I don't feel optimistic. Arthur may be the centre of the show but he needs his batty satellites.
In a separate note, Marcia Warren was playing a child murderer on Casualty last Saturday. The actress is now thirty years older than she was on the sitcom but it was disturbing to note that the character's aggressive bonhomie seemed not a million miles from that of Vera, especially as the charm was turned on and off like a tap, replaced with an abruptness of manner.
Is this the way that No Place Like Home is going to go? Alright, probably not, but if I could send one message to the past it would be this plea: "Bring back Helen Durward." She has bags of experience playing Avis on Crossroads, and she is capable of the right sort of performance. She could easily be a different sort of annoying next door neighbour, and Trevor could come to love her, in time. (She's initially a lodger, let's say, having been ousted from her house, then things take a turn for the better. With her love for parrots, she couldn't be a better fit.)
So that's my message, my instruction, to Robin Nash. Thirty years too late: he and his directors have long ago already done whatever it is that they have done and like a chorus I must watch it. Be it good or bad I'll be there till the bitter end (assuming the Drama Channel is broadcasting all five series), never forgetting I have a self-imposed duty to inform and occasionally entertain the readers of this blog.
Postscript: *** SPOILER ALERT ***
I have just read that Marcia Warren did indeed leave after Series 3, so presume a large part of Series 4 will involve Trevor's efforts to find solace elsewhere (though after Vera, any termigant has to be a substantial improvement). Astonishly, however, I read that Vera is replaced by another actress in Series 5. That is quite a shock: Martin Clunes' part was relatively small but Vera's are pretty big shoes to fill. Nevertheless it means that Series 4, sans that big, big performance might indeed go in another direction, as the first episode suggests. We shall see.
Initial post about No Place Like Home here.
Further thoughts here.