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Armchair Theatre: an appreciation

Archive television fans have been rejoicing over the past few weeks with reruns of some of the Thames episodes of Armchair Theatre on Talking Pictures TV.

Armchair Theatre was a series which ran on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. It was originally a production of ABC (Associated British Corporation) until its successor Thames Television took over in mid-1968.

Network on Air have released several volumes on DVD, beginning in 2010 with a two-disc set of Thames episodes and then in 2012 with another two-disc set. Since later in 2012, subsequent releases have been purely of ABC episodes, licensed to the company by Studio Canal, and have so far numbered two four-disc releases in the general range, and four Armchair Theatre Archive releases of one-disc each.

Armchair Theatre title card, ABC years

There are approximately 170 episodes which have survived the widespread wiping of video tapes in the past, from a total of around 450. As well as official releases a number continue to circulate on the collectors’ market either as DVD-Rs or uploads to streaming sites.

Made during a time when plays were regular fare on television (The Wednesday Play/Play for Today, Theatre 625, Thirty Minute Theatre, Play of the Month, Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and others), Armchair Theatre stands out as a groundbreaking training ground for writers and directors finding their feet as well as stand-out performances from a wide range of actors, both veteran and new faces.

Although some actors rated performing on the stage over the new medium of television in the 1950s, writers were far more pragmatic, with Harold Pinter as one who recognised that an at-home audience of just over 6 million for A Night Out (1960) was far more lucrative than a theatre audience for The Caretaker, which was running at the same time.

I’ve started putting my thoughts together on the various episodes on the associated Armchair Theatre review project page here, and eventually all the episodes I have seen will have capsule reviews. Not every episode is a winner, but the standard, at least in the ABC years, seems consistently high, especially in the years where Sydney Newman was in charge (1959-1962).

There were spin-off series (Armchair Mystery Theatre), later Thames series using the same prefix but little in common (the group of TV movies under the title Armchair Cinema and the serial thrillers under the name of Armchair Thriller), and even a parody on radio in Round the Horne’s Armpit Theatre. The titles gave a sense of occasion, too, whether theatre masks or something more abstract, and in an era of two TV channels at the start of the series, Armchair Theatre could guarantee a captive audience, as well as giving the new upstart ITV a bit of class.

In the early days plays were performed live, and were a mix of new drama, titles imported from the USA, and adaptations of well-loved classics (The Emperor Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest). Later the plays were more or less original, and if a slight dip in quality occurred in the later Thames years, it coincided with what many archive TV fans class as the end of the golden era of the television play.

Check out the official Armchair Theatre releases from Network.

Twitter announcement from Talking Pictures TV about their showings of Armchair Theatre.

Purchase Armchair Theatre: The Lost Years by Leonard White, who produced the series between 1965 and 1969.

Purchase Anatomy of a television play: an inquiry into the production of two ABC Armchair Theatre plays by John Russell Taylor.

Purchase The Armchair Theatre: how to write, design, direct, act, enjoy television plays (1960).


Last Laugh in Vegas (ITV)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had regular variety shows as television entertainment, attracting large audiences and affection. This was the era of sitcoms like Hi de Hi, comedy duos like Cannon and Ball (a couple of lads from my own home town of Oldham), stand-up shows like The Comedians, and a gentler, easier style of music.


Last Laugh in Vegas carries on where The First Marigold Hotel left off, with nine entertainers between the ages of 64 and 82 taking a chance on appearing live on stage in Las Vegas. Over four shows on ITV, and a final episode on ITV3 which gives us the full 90 minute show, we meet the seven men and two women whose names may have been familiar back then, but which have become less well-known in recent years.

Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have performed together as a double act for more than half a century (even if a couple of decades of that time was spent ignoring each other off the stage), and their natural chemistry and ability still shines through, although Bobby can be a bit of a stirrer and Tommy a bit of a grumpy old man. I even found myself remembering the words to their theme song, and it’s a long time since their series was on the box.

Bobby Crush won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager, and has spent most of his career impersonating the larger-than-life Liberace. He’s an emotional old boy, easily pleased or upset, but his story is perhaps the most touching, as we see in the episode where he watches his younger self tinkling the ivories, reflecting on his need to stay closeted while dealing with the pressures of sudden fame – those large TV audiences I mentioned earlier were huge for talent shows in the 1970s.

Anita Harris was a pop star for a while, but she appears delicate now (although looking fantastic for 75); I last saw her in the Royal Albert Hall one-off concert performance of Follies where she performed a duet with Roy Hudd. During Last Laugh in Vegas we see her vulnerability and learn about her husband’s memory problems, and if she can no longer sing she can still put across a song, which shows professionalism.

Kenny Lynch may have been Jimmy Tarbuck’s stooge in ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s for years, but he’s a reasonable crooner on stage, and an hilarious foul-mouthed grouch in private. Now in his 80s, he has the feel of an old, well-worn overcoat which has a classy past. His close friend (so close he calls him “Kipper”) is another former pop singer (self-obsessed, and described by himself as an ‘icon’), the heavily Botoxed Jess Conrad, the elder of the group. I saw Conrad in the 1980s in a 60s show alongside such luminaries as Tommy Bruce, Terry Dene, Mike Berry, Cissy Stone, and Screaming Lord Sutch, and he came across then as he does now, a deluded lounge lizard. Is it an act? The jury is still out.

Su Pollard may always be Peggy from Hi de Hi, but she has a past in musicals, and I was impressed by her in the musical Shout at the Arts Theatre some time ago. She’s larger than life and the only one of the group who looks as if she would just slot in perfectly in Vegas, and it is no surprise in the final episode to see her get a video message from a drag queen friend.

Bernie Clifton was a fixture on variety shows way back when with his ostrich act – which, if you’re not familiar with it, is hard to describe – and he reprises that here, while showing a softer side with a decent singing voice, and a sense of fun when rescuing Anita’s errant knickers. His obvious joy on receiving a standing Vegas ovation for his singing was touching indeed, and on the evidence seen in this series he seems a genuinely nice chap.

Finally, Mick Miller, the comic with the bald head and straggly hair. You may remember his drunken entertainer act from the past, or his laconically delivered funny lines. Disappointment as a boy when he wanted to be a professional footballer led him to the stage, and it was good to see his act go down a storm.

The reason this show worked – and sadly, it didn’t get the ratings it should have, hardly reaching 3 million – was the blend of ‘reality’ and careful scripting which set up conflicts, introduced the sentimentality of the past and connection with families, and made us laugh at the sight of goat yoga or Jess Conrad attempting to make a cup of tea.

And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Frank Marino, one of the richest drag queens in the world, who acts as the Vegas show’s producer, and who looks like a bizarre hybrid of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.

More, please.

Last Laugh in Vegas episode one expires from catch-up TV next week.

Downton, we have a problem …

Now into its fourth series, something has gone rather awry with Downton Abbey.

The series which brought us such off-the-wall storylines as Matthew being paralysed in the War only to find he could suddenly walk again, a Crawley cousin who went down with the Titanic coming back to life with comedy make-up and a Canadian accent, and a butler who was in a music hall act, has gone in a rather strange direction as of last Sunday.

The attack on Anna Bates was horrifying, heartbreaking, and out of step with a show those of us who have been dedicated watchers have turned to for a bit of escapism on a Sunday night.  Yes, we have had shocking deaths (Lavinia, Lady Sybil, Matthew) and the whole storyline around Mr Bates’ arrest for the alleged murder of his first wife, but now we are in the emancipated 1920s, I was waiting for the female servants, especially those who are as strong and sympathetic as Anna, to grow in this world which gives them a bit more of a say.

By the end of the 1920s, women over 21 would be allowed to vote, and things were slowly becoming better for women who were in service.   Anna would and should be on her way to achieving some independence.  This is exactly why seeing her battered and terrified after a violent sexual attack was so shocking.

Rape should never be used as entertainment or to gain ratings, and it is never OK to imply that because of the times or the culture it was ever acceptable for a man to make a pass at a woman, and then batter and rape her if she says no.  I don’t think Downton did show this storyline as entertainment, but the fact is that the show is accepted as light entertainment, something to wind down to at the end of the weekend, and the combined effect of this expectation and the shocking, unexpected storyline was distressing.

I watch gritty shows.   I have no problem with them.  But I don’t expect my period dramas to have women abused in this way, especially when the character concerned has already been through the mill.   Modern TV seems to be saying that no one is allowed to be happy.  It makes me feel just a little bit sickened.

I’m not taking anything away from Joanne Froggart’s performance as Anna – she was excellent and convincing throughout this episode as she has been before,  She is a superb actress.  I just feel sad that the future for her character seems to be a heavy dose of misery and potential disgrace.

With regret, I’m saying goodbye to a show I really liked and from characters I had grown fond of over the past few years.  I wish them well – but the mis-step in this episode is a step too far for me.

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