Only Fools and Horses

The Funny Side of Christmas (1982)

On 26th December 1982, BBC1 broadcast The Funny Side of Christmas, ‘a specially-written show taking a lighthearted view of the festive season’,  and comprising unique mini-episodes of some of the BBC’s biggest comedy hitters, all linked by a jovial Frank Muir. Naturally, we got our hands on a dodgy VHS copy and (brace yourselves) actually sat down together on Bob’s sofa to watch the whole 80-minute show…

Andrew: ‘A touch of nostalgia on BBC1 this Christmas’, proclaims the continuity announcer. Not for me, I’m afraid. Apart from the Last of the Summer Wine segment, which turned up online a couple of years ago, the rest of this festive offering is completely new to me. In fact, I’m unfamiliar with quite a few of the programmes featured within it. I won’t reveal which just yet.

Bob: Ah well, speak for yourself. I’ve just been transported back to Christmas 1982, when I finally got my hands on a Sinclair ZX81 computer and spent most of the day playing 3D Monster Maze on the TV in our front room, while my Dad tried to shoulder barge me into the kitchen so he could watch Ben-Hur. This was broadcast on Boxing Day evening, wasn’t it? I have vague memories of watching it, but that’s all. My copy of the Christmas 1982 Radio Times (mint condition, North-East region – oh yes, Drew… read it and weep) tells me that it was sandwiched between the 1970s King Kong remake and a late screening of Convoy. Meanwhile, primetime BBC2 was showing Burden of Dreams, the story of Werner Herzog’s desperate battle to finish his film Fitzcarraldo in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. Up yours, Mary Berry! 

Andrew: I feel bad for saying this, but Frank Muir really was the dull man’s Dennis Norden, wasn’t he? It’ll be The Funny Side of New Year by the time he’s gotten through this interminable introduction!

Bob: Oh, come here and let me batter you over the head with my vintage Radio Times collection. And they’re in a BLOODY big box. Muir was a brilliant comedy writer and an unrivalled pun-master. He just belonged to a slower, gentler age. But yes, I admit… for a man who starts by saying he couldn’t think of anything to say about Christmas, he goes on to make a decent fist of it! 

Andrew: At last, our first taste of sitcom arrives in the form of a reunion for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. I’m only semi-familiar with the series, so it’s up to you to tell me whether this fits in to its continuity or not, Fischer.

Bob: The final series ends with Reggie trapped back in the same suburban, middle-management hell from whence he came, so there’s no reason why this little skit couldn’t follow on from it. It’s odd to realise that this was broadcast only three years after the end of that final episode, as 1982 already feels like a completely different era. Does Reggie Perrin work in the age of the home computer, the Space Invader machine and Depeche Mode? I’m not sure it does… it’s a sitcom that seems SO entrenched in the social mores of the 1970s.

Andrew: It’s always a joy to watch Leonard Rossiter at work. In fact, the same is true of all of these actors! It’s just a shame that this skit really seems to consist of one joke padded out with familiar catchphrases. It doesn’t really have a reason to exist beyond getting the gang back together.

Bob: No, it’s purely a reunion gang show, but a nice one nevertheless. Good to see Michael Ripper, too… a Hammer Horror stalwart, and a man frequently glimpsed behind the reins of a rickety carriage in a spooky thunderstorm! I wonder if he’ll turn up in the Butterflies sketch as well?

Andrew: Onto Les Dawson… and the older I get, the more I grow to love Cissie and Ada. I think that’s got a lot to do with how brilliantly observed those characters were. They’re basically my Auntie Mary or Nana Betty and their friends. Even though time has moved on, the characterisation still applies; today my Mam and her sisters will do things that instantly bring Dawson and Barraclough back to mind. It’s a good job none of them read this blog, or I’d be for the chopping block!

Bob: Tremendous, isn’t it? It’s interesting to watch the contrasting styles of Dawson and Barraclough too. Dawson is ALWAYS doing something… he’s a great physical comedian, and he literally can’t stop moving. Whereas Barraclough gives Ada an almost-elegant poise. Some tremendous lines in this. Not only was the Christmas sherry ‘brewed in a bucket’, but…

Ada: Leonard and I are firm believers in tempus fugit.

Cissie: I know, I’ve often seen the bedroom curtain drawn.

Perfect.

Andrew: And now onto Yes Minister. I’ve never cared for Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister and this skit doesn’t do anything to win me over. The writers and producers clearly couldn’t be arsed, judging by how short this runs. When the Reggie Perrin lot can be bothered enough to revive a dead series, you need to do more that shoot a gag on a standing set.

Bob: Not surprisingly, Yes Minster washed over me as a kid… but as an adult viewer, I’d urge you to give it another go. It’s magnificent. One of the cleverest, funniest and most subversive sitcoms ever made. And extraordinarily prescient, too… I’ve watched them all in recent years, and my jaw his literally dropped at the plotlines and references that still echo, almost word-for-word, with the political events and figures of 2015. Three lead actors working their socks off, and a host of brilliant guests, too.

But yes, I’ll happily concede this sketch was knocked off in twenty minutes at the end of a day’s filming!

Andrew: I’m pretty sure Nigel Hawthawne is reading from cue-cards as well. Although to be fair, that was a long speech.

Bob: Again, give the series a try. He’s incredible in it.

Andrew: And now to Peckham Market, and Del and Rodney Trotter flogging some very tacky Christmas trees. Now, this really is a special production. It’s the first segment to feature a fully-fledged plot and it uses multiple locations, guest actors, is filmed on location and even treats us to a new arrangement of the theme tune! John Sullivan and company were really on form. 

Bob: A lot has been said over the years about Only Fools and Horses being a slow-burning success, but I don’t really remember it that way. David Jason was a big star by 1981, Nicholas Lyndhurst was a household name from Butterflies, and the opening episode got nearly ten million viewers! It was definitely a series that was watched and loved from the very start, and certainly the talk of my school from the very earliest episodes. And it effectively had two Christmas specials in 1982… this lovely extended sketch, and then the brilliant Diamonds Are For Heather, broadcast only four days later.

Andrew: Even more important that any of that, though, is that this mini-episode features Lennard Pearce as Grandad. The early years of this show have always been my favourite and Pearce is a bit contributing factor to that, so any chance to experience more of his performance is to be cherished.

Bob: He’s great, isn’t he? He was a proper, serious actor as well… he was a regular at the National Theatre in the 1960s, and appeared onstage with Olivier and Anthony Hopkins. And yes, this IS a bona fide mini-episode. You’re right, the early years of Fools & Horses are absolutely the best, and this is effectively a lost episode of the show at its peak. It’s pure 1982 as well! ‘Microchip Christmas trees as advertised on Tomorrow’s World’ that are ‘going down like Union Jacks in Buenos Aires’. And – the clincher – Del announces that he’s ‘surrounded by wallies’!

Is this the last recorded use of the word ‘wallies’? What a perfect early 1980s term of abuse! Bring me 3D Monster Maze, I want to go back to 1982 NOW.

Anyway, yes… hats off to John Sullivan and the team for pulling out every stop for this. A gargantuan, and utterly worthwhile effort.

Andrew: It’s worth mentioning at this stage that between every segment, the programme has been returning to Frank Muir’s fake living room for some more wittering. Hearing him condescendingly introduce Lenny Henry, Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield as ‘a trio of young people’ is rather disconcerting today, given how the three have them have now risen to the starry heights of Hollywood comedy, the Shakespearian stage and… erm… magic? OK, I’ll admit it; I’ve never seen Three of a Kind before.

Bob: Ha, he’s almost apologetic, isn’t he? More pure 1982 on display though… a synth-funk soundtrack, and jokes about credit cards… everyone’s VERY keen to appear like, totally right-on and, like… cool!

Andrew: Come back Frank, all is forgiven! This really is woefully bad. Especially the tortuous Ullman monologue. The BBC made three series of this?

Bob: Three of a Kind is an odd one for me. I absolutely loved it as a kid, and at the time it felt very much of the same movement as something like The Young Ones… comedy that belonged completely to me, and to the spanking newness of the early 1980s. And it absolutely has all the trappings of that new wave of comedy – the jokes about Space Invaders and CEEFAX, the current pop videos, the downbeat ‘Fatcher’s Britain’ ambience. But I bought the DVDs when they came out, and loads of that is essentially window dressing to some very old and creaky jokes! It’s very well performed, but it does feel like an ancient, cobweb-covered BBC executive has decided to give these ‘new wave chappies’ a hesitant run-out on the Beeb. Of its time, let’s say.  

Anyway, here’s the main event… it’s the Last of the Summer Wine segment…

Andrew: Is it just me, or is Clegg’s house here a redress of the set for Compo’s digs? Anyway, once again Clarke nails his anti-Christmas colours to the mast. Our trio is absolutely determined to give no indication that today happens to be Christmas Day. Christmas last must have been very traumatic, although I’m not sure which Christmas that would have been, continuity wise. Any ideas?

Bob: Bizarrely, the Summer Wine trio seemed to have two separate Christmas Days in 1982! We’ve already seen them going on holiday for the festivities in All Mod Conned… but 24 hours later, this was broadcast, with them firmly staying at home and being miserable. The 1983 Christmas Special isn’t set at Christmas though, so should we be generous and assume that THIS is Christmas 1983, just broadcast 364 days too early? That would explain why they’re all so traumatised, having been through the disastrous events of All Mod Conned a year earlier.

Thank God we’re not Doctor Who fans, Drew… we’d drive ourselves mad with this kind of nonsense.

Andrew: I know it’s silly, but Clegg saying ‘Wensleydale’ gives me a tiny thrill.

Bob: I’m still thinking about how much Roy Clarke seems to dislike the festive season! Almost all the Summer Wine specials have had no Christmas setting at all, or have dwelt upon how depressing his main characters all find it. Even this little skit is no exception! ‘There will not be one solitary sign that this is Christmas Day,’ mutters Clegg. ‘I want us all to think of it as some dreary Sunday in late November’.

Andrew: Clegg and Foggy usually have to keep Compo in check, but for once he appears to be really trying to go along with their plans. That is, of course, until it transpires that he has adopted three buxom ‘orphans’ for the day, plunging Foggy and Clegg into abject terror.

Bob: What on EARTH persuaded them to tag along with Compo? And shower kisses over these three shabby old blokes? It gives hope to us all. ‘I like the tall one, he just fits…’, as Brian Wilde pulls one of his best rabbit-in-the-headlights faces.

Andrew: And so Clegg decides that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, uttering what, if this episode had a title, would surely be it… ‘Christmas is Compulsory’.

Bob: It’s an odd little interlude to our quest, isn’t it? A nice snippet, though. It’s such a shame the DVDs weren’t put together with a bit more attention to detail… stuff like this (and the pilot) should surely have been included as extras. Let’s form our own DVD company and do it PROPERLY!

(Opens wallet to find only moth droppings and old bus tickets)

Andrew: Butterflies is another series I’m not too familiar with, I’m afraid. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a complete episode. I do, however, remember the special Children in Need episode that was made in 2000. Alongside this little instalment, that makes two important mini-episodes that are pretty much lost to history. So yes… it’s such a shame that these kind of oddities are so often left out of ‘Complete’ DVD releases. Has any of the content from this special ever been officially released?

Bob: The Reggie Perrin clip is on the DVD box set, but I’m not sure that anything else has sneaked out!

Andrew: I’m definitely not a Carla Lane fan, The Liver Birds and Bread leave me completely cold. But this I could see myself warming to, for some reason.

Bob: Butterflies goes alongside Yes Minister as a sitcom that made little impression on me as a kid… but my God, as an adult it’s an absolute revelation. Put The Liver Birds and Bread to the back of your mind, because Butterflies is a completely different kettle of fish, and it’s masterfully written. It’s a brilliant depiction of middle-class stagnation and boredom, and the feeling of imprisonment and utter ennui that surburban affluence can bring about. With utterly believable characters, superbly portrayed. It’s as melancholy as it is funny, but it’s absolutely Lane’s masterpiece.

Anyway, our second helping this evening of Nicholas Lyndhurst, Geoffrey Palmer… and Michael Ripper! Get in, I’m crossing off the little faces on my Britcom Bingo card as we speak. This has a beautiful exchange between Wendy Craig and Bruce Montague on the pains of bygone love, and possibly the last recorded sighting of the National Government Issue 1970s ‘PHWOAR’ gesture (insert right palm into crook of left elbow, raise left forearm with clenched fist)

And so we come to another little lost TV rarity… Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith acting out what was apparently intended as a mini-pilot for their Alas Smith and Jones series. Not The Nine O’Clock News had ended in March 1982, and with Rowan Atkinson already making The Black Adder, and Pamela Stephenson (I think) decamping to the USA for Saturday Night Live, Mel and Griff were left having to persuade the BBC that they were worthy of making their own sketch show. 

And you can see why they were successful! This is a perfect little sketch, with Mel grumpy and pompous as a bedbound patient spending Christmas in hospital, and Griff fabulously irritating as his visitor. His line ‘I have an extensive collection of video naaaaaarsties’ is also used on a bootleg BBC VT Christmas Tape that I’ve seen thousands of times, so has been firmly ingrained on my consciousness for years. It actually feels odd seeing it in context for the first time!

And I’d also like to point out that, at this stage in proceedings, Drew was so distracted by my dog clambering all over him that he failed to make any notes whatsoever on this sketch. Youth of today, etc.

Andrew: Open All Hours making an appearance alongside Last of the Summer Wine here really does cement Roy Clarke as one of the kings of early ‘80s comedy. In fact, there are a few people who crop up twice during this special; we’ve already had Geoffrey Palmer, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Michael Ripper, and now it’s David Jason’s turn.

Bob: I love Open All Hours, and this is another great little sketch. Jason and Ronnie Barker have such an incredible rapport, and it’s a masterclass in writing for TV… the whole series is packed with jokes and one-liners, but not one of them feels contrived – they just flow beautifully from the natural conversation of the characters. So many sitcoms make the mistake of shoehorning great jokes into the mouths of characters who would never actually say them… but it’s not a trap that Roy Clarke falls into.

Andrew: David Jason in particular is a revelation. For some reason, I think I must subconsciously place Open All Hours chronologically ahead of Only Fools and Horses, because seeing them side-by-side is rather jarring. There is absolutely no trace of Del Boy in Jason’s portrayal of Granville and vice versa. It’s odd, because they’re both playful, cheeky and entrenched in business.

Bob: They are, but Granville has the downtrodden edge that Del Boy lacks. Del is convinced his millionaire playboy lifestyle is just around the corner, but Granville knows he’s just a smalltown fantasist who will never escape from that grotty little shop. But yes, extraordinary to think that Jason was appearing in both series simultaneously. Just like Barker, he had a talent for vanishing completely beneath his characters. Who would have thought that Arkwright and Norman Stanley Fletcher were the same bloke?

Andrew: There’s a standout Clarkian (I’m trademarking that word) exchange here that is worthy of the best of Sid and Ivy’s barbs.

Arkwright: I was hoping her Mother would be going away this Christmas.

Granville: Oh aye, where to?

Arkwright: Heaven.

In fact, I think this may even top the Last of the Summer Wine skit as my favourite component of this special. It really feels like a truncated episode of the series rather than a quick sketch. The Summer Wine scene doesn’t quite achieve this, thanks to the lack of location filming.

Bob: Yep, another little beauty. And that’s the end!

Andrew: So what have we learned on this time-travelling festive-odyssey? Well, if nothing else, the idea that Roy Clarke really doesn’t care for Christmas has been well and truly hammered in.

Bob: That Les Dawson fiddles with his knockers more than Roy Barraclough.  

Andrew: Also, the more things change the more they stay the same! Christmas 2013 saw Yes, Minister remade and Open All Hours return to television with a new festive special. Then, in 2014, Only Fools and Horses was resurrected as a sketch for Sports Relief. Even Reggie Perrin returned for a remake between 2009 and 2010. Not that I’m complaining!

Bob: I was complaining when we didn’t get tickets to see Still Open All Hours being filmed. Can I put 3D Monster Maze back on now?