Tuesday, 7 December 2010


If the world can celebrate the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, then I can do likewise for Home to Roost, the 1985-90 Yorkshire TV sitcom which similarly featured a talented and likeable 20-something actor locked throughout the run of the series in a late teens timeframe -- none too convincingly, even from the start.

Not sure I can stretch the similarities any further.

Home to Roost, written by sitcom veteran Eric Chappell, starred John Thaw as Henry Willows, middle-aged divorcee leading a quiet life until his wayward 17-year old son Matthew -- Reece Dinsdale -- turns up on the doorstep having run away from home, or been thrown out.

The humour in the series comes from the conflict between the two as we, not so much they, discover how alike they are.  Eric Chappell's scripts were wonderful - indeed I would argue the first series of seven is the finest thing he ever wrote, Rising Damp included - and John Thaw and Reece Dinsdale, two fine, classically-trained actors both from the North of England, bounced off one other with great skill in the usual sitcom tradition.

It is also something that is now, regrettably, extinct, at least in the British Isles: a pre-watershed comedy that is good.  A study should be done on exactly how and why this format perished, for perish it did.  Comedy in this country now belongs to the git, and the git alone.

My first exposure to the show came with a rather unusual trailer they ran some weeks before it began.  Basically, it was the entire opening scene.  Unusual then, and indeed now.  Here it is:

INT hallway.  Evening.

Doorbell rings.  HENRY WILLOWS answers to see a young man (MATTHEW WILLOWS) standing there.  He looks him up and down.

Matthew: Hello

Henry: Yes?

Matthew: Remember me?

Henry: Yes

Matthew: I'm your son.

Henry: I know

Matthew: Aren't you going to ask me in?

Henry: No.

Matthew: I'm Matthew.

Henry: I know you're Matthew, I was at the christening.

Matthew: Aren't you surprised to see me?

Henry: No, I've been expecting it.

Matthew: How could you have been expecting it?  It's been seven years!

Henry: I know.  You're not going to make a habit of this are you?

Matthew: I thought you'd be pleased to see me.

Henry: Well, life's full of disappointments.  Now do you mind moving your foot out of the door, there's something I want to catch on the television.

Matthew: But dad!

Henry: Don't call me that!  You made your choice.

Matthew: That was seven years ago, I was only t-- what am I supposed to call you?

Henry: (thinks) What about Mr Willows?

Matthew: That was seven years ago Mr Willows, I was only ten.  Look, do you mind if I come in, it's cold out here.

Henry: I'm not responsible for the weather.

Matthew: I've got something to tell you.

Henry: Well, tell me.

Matthew: I'm frozen.

Henry: Is that it?

Matthew: No.

Henry: That's the trouble with the younger generation, they're soft.  When I was your age I was doing the evening newspaper round in this sort of weather.  And I didn't have a topcoat, my mother had to thaw me off the bike...  All right, you can come in for five minutes.

And it is played beautifully right from the off.

Something else to mourn in the world of comedy is the demise of the writer, i.e. someone with their own unique turn of phrase, someone who can craft wit in dialogue outside of actual jokesLast of the Summer Wine may have outstayed its welcome by a decade or two, but Roy Clarke is a bone fide writer and right to the end the programme still had that going for it.  I fear most sitcoms nowadays are penned by comedians.  I shudder at such a thought.

Eric Chappell too is most definitely a writer, and his legacy will live for ever thanks to Rising Damp but it was by no means his only triumph.  Home to Roost was the last of his three big solo successes, the other being Only When I Laugh, but it's the least remembered never mind celebrated, which I think is a shame.  To be fair, it was never the ratings juggernaut the other two were, but it's one of my personal favourite sitcoms ever and deserves a bit of celebrating in this its anniversary year.

The show began on Friday 19th April 1985 at 8.30pm with the episode "A New Life", wherein Matthew does indeed inveigle his way into his father's home, disturbing not only Henry but also his cleaning lady Enid Thompson - played by Elizabeth Bennett - a widow with an unrequited interest in him.  And over the next seven weeks much hilarity ensues, as they say.  Except that it genuinely does here, I promise.

Particular highlights of the first series include: "Bad Apples", where Henry tries to get Matthew admitted to his old school; "Suspect", where Matthew is under suspicion for theft of a silk tie, not to mention "something worse, far worse" a joke that should remain unspoiled; and "Dating Henry" with the elder Willows smitten with a girl young enough to be his daughter.  All well-worn sitcom subject matter even back then, but executed with such elan it would be churlish to complain.

The series ended with "The Way We Were" guest-starring Sheila Hancock in fine form as Henry's ex-wife, and Matthew's mother, Sue - unfortunately the one and only appearance of the character.

Ratings were good, over 11m average, and a second series was put in motion.

In the meantime though, I just have to digress and mention the US version, You Again, starring Jack Klugman as Henry, John Stamos as, er, "Matt" - and Elizabeth Bennett as Enid!

It is, I guess, a testament to the original's impact that it transferred across the Atlantic so speedily.  You Again debuted as a mid-season replacement on NBC during 1985-86, immediately broke the top twenty and was renewed.

Like many of these UK-to-US revamps, it initially remade Eric Chappell's scripts for the original before forging its own path - an inevitability given the disparity in episode numbers between American and British shows.  It wasn't long before the Beach Boys guested - alas, not a new "jump-the-shark"-esque idiom to denote bad sitcoms getting worse, the Beach Boys really did guest star, in Season 2's "The Audition".

But back to Elizabeth Bennett - uniquely in sitcom history, she reprised her housekeeper role for this version, albeit here called "Enid Tompkins".  I would love to know how this came to pass, but my guess is that the US producers simply loved her in the original.  Not surprising, she's brilliant.

The little I've seen of You Again - Channel 5 here in the UK showed it in the wee small hours in the late '90s - I haven't liked any more than any other US revamps of UK shows.  The very precise comic timing of the originals is always lost, American actors being too laid back in their approach for this kind of thing.

Anyway, having been a replacement itself, You Again needed one as it only made it to half-way through the 1986-87 season before being cancelled.

But jumping back six months or so...

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