If you have read Robert Webb's memoir How Not to Be a Boy you may remember that the youthful Webb mentions an unlikely source of comedic inspiration: the mainstream sitcom No Place Like Home, which ran for five series on BBC1 in the 1980s.
It's about a middle-aged man, chagrined to find his grown-up children have taken up residence in the family home once again - a bit like Eric Chappell's Home to Roost, on around the same time - only more so, as this put-upon dad is lumbered with four kids and a wife. Not the most obvious sitcom, perhaps, to stir the blood of one who went on to star in a gloriously dark example of the genre but that's what seems to have set the seal on his decision to become a performer.
Not that he offers an unqualified tribute to the ability of its writer, Jon Watkins. Watching an episode in the afterglow of his own comic triumph in a school play, the young Webb is far from uncritical:
That night we're all in the living room watching the BBC sitcom No Place Like Home starring William Gaunt [who plays the father] and a young Martin Clunes.
What would it take, I wonder, to be allowed to do that as your job? It really doesn't look that hard. Does it look easy because they're very good at it? Or is it just easy? They don't seem to be doing it as well as John Cleese does it. Do they know? Do they go to the pub afterwards and say, 'Well, we can't all be John Cleese.' Or is it because of the script? Would the young, tall one with the big ears be as funny as John Cleese if he had some funnier lines? Maybe he would. This is serious. I lean in and look hard for something that Mr Clunes is doing that I couldn't do just as well. Hmm, for a start he's a grown-up who looks like he ought to be on TV rather than a Lincolnshire schoolboy who obviously mustn't. And he's very clear and confident. And he talks with that accent from the south of England that so many funny people on TV have. He just looks like he belongs there. How did he do that?
Suddenly I have a name for that feeling I had in Dad's car on the way back from the Flashdance fireworks. That feeling, the one that made me blush, was an overwhelming desire to be famous.
No Place Like Home determined Robert Webb's future choice of career by virtue of not being offputtingly good, then. Having seen quite a few episodes I'd say he does have a case, but the show is not without charm and in what follows I propose to bang the drum - softly - on its behalf.
I have no recollection of ever seeing it in the mid eighties, but when all series were repeated in rapid succession on the Drama channel in 2015 I recorded my responses in this blog, and I'm going to repeat some of those observations below. As Webb suggests, there is certainly a sense of some actors being underused, or of the script affording them limited opportunities to shine ... and yet ... well, it may not break any barriers but there is a lot to enjoy - largely down to the fact that the performers are indeed "very good at it."
It's a great thing that digital TV's appetite for material has led to the resurrection of so many sitcoms but there is one unfortunate effect when seeing them in a solid slab like this, or through boxset binging, rather than spread out over several years. It quickly becomes apparent whether some promising new development - the proposed blossoming of a character, or the possibility of some change of emphasis - was actually followed through. Which may explain why, not long into the fourth series, I began to lose interest in monitoring the show: there came a point where there seemed no likelihood of further surprises, no development into something richer and stranger, despite the potential being there. I think part of the problem was that with such a large cast some performers, including Liz Crowther and Helen Dorward (the latter in a tantalising cameo) had the briefest of moments in the sun.
Yet whatever the limitations of the script, the opportunities not seized for character development, No Place Like Home remains enjoyable throughut: the playing is always done with verve, and there is a real warmth about proceedings.
Okay, here are my initial thoughts in 2015 after watching most of the first two series:
It's an odd sitcom to judge. 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 have returned to the parental home 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: more a kind of slow deflation as new and confusing events dance mockingly 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 gentle encouragement 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 the manner of 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. Does it matter? I suppose not.
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 one sitcom doesn't quite come off is every bit as interesting to me as why another does. And having a daily sitcom waiting patiently on your hard disk drive for your return - well, it seems rude not to afford it the courtesy of at least one viewing 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. Whew.
So it's really 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 five 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 a few more precious minutes in each episode 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, I 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 in the manner of The Wright Stuff. 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.
Here's the next piece I wrote, midway through the third series:
I am still watching No Place Like Home and still trying to puzzle out precisely what it is I feel about it. And an episode broadcast yesterday has helped me along the way.
First of all, when I was talking about tempo earlier - well, it's obvious now. It's not a farce as such, but it is played at a farcical pace: that's why you're drawn in (if you are anything like me), and even as you register the improbabilities it is a place where you want to be.
Because the performances are, uniformly, superb. From the morose Arthur (William Gaunt) holding it all together, to the manic son-in-law (Daniel Hill), a sort of oversized child or puppy, repellent and endearing in equal measure, everyone seems to get the most out of the dialogue. My sense that neighbour Vera (Marcia Warren) was out of place no longer seems relevant: naturalistic it ain't, but who cares? I can't remember now whether initial episodes were perhaps less certain, but in recent episodes everyone seems to get it. It's not the same, but one of the joys of Third Rock From the Sun was that everyone had locked into a way of playing, taking their lead from John Lithgow's manic Dick Solomon.
The writing, however, I am less sure about. I suspect that portions would make for dreary reading on the page. But then again it was written to be played, not read.
By and large there aren't many outside characters in individual episodes, but yesterday's plotline, about Vera's crazy menagerie getting out of control, involved a protest by a group of neighbours whom Arthur sees queueing up outside Vera and Trevor's house to complain.
And here's where I get confused - but in a good way. As I scanned the faces, predictable suburban types, I was drawn to one in particular, a woman who had quite a substantial chunk of half-surreal dialogue about a disappearing parrot who had made his escape posing as one of the plastic birds in the cage (it could have been written for Freddie Davies).
And as I listened and marvelled I thought several things. Where the h*ck had I seen her before? The answer is that she was Helen Dorward, who played Avis Tennyson ("no relation") in Crossroads, a particularly feckless waitress who succumbed to a cutprice Bilko called Bill Warren, and even took him back after some duplicity had been exposed.
But I was also wondering: "What's this going to lead to for the episode as a whole?" And the answer was: nothing. The neighbours did not show up at the subsequent court hearing, for all their protesting, and we saw Ms Dorward's character no more. I do hope we might see her again in a later episode, but who knows?
So it was just a perfect little cameo which allowed the actress to play a kind of exaggerated version of Avis, or a near relative. Which, in terms of plot structure, was sort of bad. But in the minute or two that her musings lasted we were given all we really needed to know about the character. So you could say the decision was sort of right. And both the performance and the sheer quality of the writing justified this diversion up a cul de sac. And soon the spotlight was firmly put back on Vera, giving an impassioned defence of her animal kingdom.
There are many moments in No Place Like Home where individual lines and aspects of plot development feel like they need tweaking. But it matters and it doesn't. The characters come on and they entertain and beguile us, and that's enough. I also recall what my friend late of North Berwick once said about an episode of Simon Nye's Hardware. Structurally it was slipshod and lazy, but it made him laugh (as it did me). No Place Like Home is, I suppose, the lightest of fare, but played beautifully, and I look forward to returning to the Crabtrees' home tonight.
This next bulletin was written after watching the first episode of the fourth series:
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, getting riotously drunk with the newly single Trevor, 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 determined 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, rather like Vera's character.
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 Dorward." 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 Eliot's chorus hastening towards Canterbury Cathedral I must watch it: be it good or be it bad I'll be there till the bitter end.
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, pretty much any termigant has to be a substantial improvement). Astonishly, however, I have also 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 (literally, as her husband Trevor has observed on occasion). 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.
I wasn't able to record the second episode of the fourth series but below is my response to Episode Three. Despite the promise made at the end this was to be my final piece about the show, but if Forces TV does transmit all five series I solemnly promise to add more. And if I have appeared to be damning with faint praise at times I do hope what follows may help counterbalance that. Incidentally, for those interested in what might be termed the musicality, or tempo, of a sitcom I recommend an interview with Amir Korangy, who played a supporting role in the US sitcom Superstore; it can be found here. Okay, here are my thoughts on Episode Three:
Again, most odd compared to the approach of earlier series. The episode was sparsely populated, with the new Nigel established as being the only one now living at home, and the story centred around trying to get a new lady friend for Trevor. Beryl and Arthur thought the object of his fancy was the matronly florist but oh, +++SPOILER ALERT+++, it turned out to be the much younger part-timer - oh dear - but then she took umbrage at Trevor's being married, so problem solved. But then Trevor got a new girlfriend, a rather butch policewoman, so Bravo, I say. Which is the sort of weak half-pun Jon Watkins has often included in the show in the past. I do hope they will return. (Maybe there'll be a spin-off series about Trevor's pursuit of his new love called Get Carteret?)
But as with the first episode the emptiness of that formerly heaving home really hit me. It can't have been much fun for the younger actors in the earlier series, often with little to say, but as I've said earlier the crowd effect helped create a frantic, confused speedy jumble, and actors and script seem more exposed now. The new Nigel was given far more lines than Martin Clunes had ever been given, though I couldn't help wondering how Mr Clunes would have delivered them.
Raymond was absent, which was a hole, but I know he will be back later, as will Liz Crowther's character. Her character is wonderfully dopey, and clearly besotted with Raymond.
I shall watch the next episode with interest but I would dearly love to know the rationale behind this slimmed-down group of Crabtrees. Is it a cost-cutting exercise or did the new director have ideas about revivifying the show by concentrating on key characters?
Which reminds me of the end of an episode from the densely populated era. Arthur, Trevor and Raymond are going off fishing. As they drive away, Raymond frantically squealing with delight like a five year old ("Me and Dad are going fishing!"), the family, who have all come out to see the trio off, walk back to the house in the evening sunshine. As they do so, Vera peels off to spend a lonely Trevorless night in her place ... then Beryl signals to her, and Vera opens her arms with joy to be escorted into the Crabtrees' home by the two sons.
It's not particularly funny - indeed it's not funny - but it's a moment which helps explain why this occasionally silly, unambitious and outdated comedy still has an impact - on me, at least: there's a heart which makes you forgive it a lot. So I shall stick with it, and continue to bring back bulletins from the frontline - or, if you will, my crumb-infested sofa. You deserve nothing less.