Friday, 22 June 2012

MISFITS by Eric Chappell (Yorkshire TV, 1981)

The cast of YTV sitcom Misfits: (l-r) ENN REITEL as Skinner; ANNE STALLYBRASS as Mrs Ridgeway; and KEVIN LLOYD as Oscar
Right up front, I have to say I cannot really comment about the content of Misfits at all.  So far as I'm aware, it has never been shown in the UK since its original transmission in June/July 1981.  I watched every episode, so I must've liked it - but I was 10 at the time and all I can remember is that one of the two male characters, probably Enn Reitel* as Skinner, wore a blue jeans and sweatshirt combo that I liked so much I've more or less copied it ever since.

* Pronounced N Rye Tell, as I remember the 'TV Times' telling us once.

However, as it was written by Eric Chappell - only his fourth sitcom creation after The Squirrels, Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh - it must've been good.  I imagine it followed his usual pattern of well-drawn characters, idiosyncratic turn of phrase, glorious gags and expertly crafted, fast paced stories.  Given that it was about two young men lodging with an older female character, perhaps it was even reminiscent of Rising Damp in many ways.

Something I've noticed about Chappell sitcoms over many years of watching is that they require a certain acting style.  Just as there is David Mamet-speak, there is Eric Chappell-speak.  Watch a handful and see.

There's a tangential connection to Only Fools and Horses - discussed at length elsewhere in this blog - in that Enn Reitel's commitment to this prevented him taking the role of Del-boy, as the recording dates clashed.  No, really.

The earliest mention I can find of the series is in an interview with Eric Chappell in The Stage and Television Today, dated 7 August 1980: "I am aware that I have been writing about older characters and wanted to create a series about young people - not only to involve young actors, but to explore that kind of comedy.  The two lads in The Misfits have an ambition to go to India, to travel, but never quite manage to make it".

Actually, that reminds me of something else about the series I do remember: that I liked the idea of the two main characters not actually getting to Katmandu.  In fact, not even leaving the confines of a house.  I probably identified with that even then.

Later in the same article: "I think my strength is writing naturalist comedy, as realistic as possible without losing the humour.  I'm disappointed that many critics do not take situation comedy more seriously.  It's not the Cinderella of television by any means, but I still feel that too many critics think of comedy as a passing thing. I really would like to see it with greater status".

Misfits cast Anne Stallybrass, formerly of The Onedin Line, as the "happily divorced" Mrs Ridgeway, and Enn Reitel and Kevin Lloyd as the two 30-ish drifters, Skinner and Oscar, alleged friends of her son who turn up at her door.  This was the first of a number of Eighties sitcom star vehicles for actor and renowned voice artiste Reitel, later seen in The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim on BBC2, the near silent The Optimist on Channel 4, and Mog on ITV - the first and last of these scripted by Clement and La Frenais.

It was also an early starring role for character actor Kevin Lloyd, later to find fame as D.C. "Tosh" Lines in The Bill before an untimely death aged 49, in 1998.

The seven-part series was recorded late March to early May 1981 under experienced sitcom producer/director Ronnie Baxter (Rising Damp, In Loving Memory, The Galton & Simpson Playhouse, The Nesbitts are Coming, many others).  Transmission was shortly thereafter: 5th June to 17th July in the coveted Friday night at 8.30pm slot.

Kevin Lloyd and Anne Stallybrass in the only actual picture from the series I could find - from 'TV Times' dated 30 May - 5 June 1981.  An interview with Ms Stallybrass helped publicise the opening episode.

The seven episode titles, and their listing magazine synopses, are as follows:

"MAY WE COME IN?" (5th June 1981)
When Skinner and Oscar appear out of the fog in search of the YMCA, Mrs Ridgeway is understandably surprised.  She's even more surprised when they claim to be making their way to Katmandu.  After a gold cigarette case goes missing, she becomes convinced her quiet life will never be the same again.

"THE DEBT MAN COMETH" (12th June 1981)
Determined to get to Katmandu, the boys approach Mrs Ridgeway for the money.  They decide to rely on the old Skinner charm (which no woman can resist) and soon find themselves out of pocket.  The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a debt collector.

"MEN ABOUT THE HOUSE" (19th June 1981)
When Mrs Ridgeway needs a few jobs doing around the house, Skinner and Oscar volunteer - with dire consequence...

"A TOUCH OF CLASS" (26th June 1981)
Skinner and Oscar decide to visit the local pub to meet the natives.  Unfortunately the natives don't wish to meet them...

"ONE FOR THE POT" (3rd July 1981)
When the boys have finally eaten their way through Mrs Ridgeway's deep freeze, Skinner offers to shoot something for the table.  Oscar doesn't mind chasing after birds but not the feathered variety and the two friends soon fall out...

"HAPPY EVER AFTER" (10th July 1981)
Liz puts her hand to a bit of marriage guidance but receives some unwanted help from Skinner and Oscar.

"SONS AND LOVERS" (17th July 1981)
When Mrs Ridgeway entertains Vernon, her man of mystery, she warns the boys to keep out of her way.  But Vernon soon becomes more than mystified by Skinner and Oscar...

Unfortunately, none of these ring any bells with me.

The series did okay in the ratings: both the first and last episodes made No. 7 in the week's charts with over 12 million viewers.    Other episodes seem to have been around the 10m mark, for an average I guess of about 11m.  Competition from BBC1 was nothing special.  Other ITV sitcoms on air at the same time were the new Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself with Robin Bailey, a third series of Bless Me, Father with Arthur Lowe and a second for John Mills and Megs Jenkins in Young at Heart.

11m was not as high as usual for Eric Chappell series at this point, but it was the summer.  Certainly if you'd done a sitcom audit for the year, much better than Only Fools and Horses....

However, it didn't continue for some reason.  It doesn't have the same star wattage as other Chappell series, though that oughtn't to have mattered - maybe it did to the IBA.  He moved on to The Bounder starring Peter Bowles, a better remembered series although it only produced two series.

So, Misfits remains in classic sitcom limbo, a shame because anything by Eric Chappell has got to be worth a look.  There's a chance that one of these days, Network DVD will rescue it from obscurity.  In the meantime, if anyone out there does remember it with greater clarity than me, please do share your opinions.

Next time: L for Lester starring Brian Murphy.  No, not really but I will probably look at Cowboys with Roy Kinnear and Colin Welland sometime soon.