Howard's Way - Series One Review
Has the age of the richly spicy drama now passed? Time was when the schedules of the BBC and ITV - and there weren't very many more channels than those two - was stuffed full of the likes of Dallas, Dynasty, The Colbys and Falcons Crest but as the eighties passed into the nineties, the success of the homegrown soap surpassed that of the American imports and instead of JR Ewing, Blake Carrington and Sable Colby, we made do with Dirty Den, Mike Baldwin and Bobby Grant. Indeed, there was something of a turn against the well-to-do, with the defiantly working class Grants being the heroes of Brookside while the middle-class Max Farnham was written as a philandering, kerb-crawling yuppie, more able to keep a grasp of his Filofax than his trousers on.
But shortly before this sea-change, the BBC and ITV looked to have a little homespun success with glossy dramas. After the critical hooting that greeted Triangle - not the recent miniseries but the soap set on a North Sea ferry that featured Kate O'Mara sunbathing topless underneath a steel-grey and very Northern sky - ITV dabbled but without a great deal of success. The name escapes me but I remember a drama set in the world of rally-driving that's only notable for having at least one pair of bare female breasts per episode but the BBC, in 1985, had a good deal more success with Howards' Way, a Sunday night soap set in the world of shipping that from its Simon May and Leslie Osborne-penned theme tune, its use of acceptable swearing - 'bloody' gets used an awful lot - and its putting its budget right there on the screen screamed class...at least for an burgeoning middle class now reaping the benefit of a second term under Margaret Thatcher who couldn't wait, like Tom Howard, to buy up a detached house in the country, drive a Jag and give birth to children who they'd name Leo and Lynne. Hardly what dreams are made of, though.
Set in the seaside town of Tarrant, Howards' Way begins with Tom Howard winning the Commodore's Cup, a local yachting competition, but there are rumours that Southern Aviation, for whom he works designing aircraft, are about to make him redundant. Sailing to victory, Tom drives his family home for a spot of lunch, over which he announces, having failed to have found a better time, that his job is disappearing in a merger between Southern and another company. With his family quickly losing their appetite - an elegantly-finished Bird's Trifle appears to go untouched - Tom announces that he is now out of work and that he has nothing in his future other than a golden farewell from his ex-employers. Seeing her comfortable lifestyle floating away with the tide, Tom's wife Jan panics - as much as a middle-class housewife is wont to do - and tries using her contacts to arrange another job for him, eventually finding a nice desk job a commutable distance away in London.
But Tom's having none of it - nearer to retirement than to the start of his working life, he declares that he will spend the rest of his time in the labour market doing something that he enjoys. It's just about then that Jack Rolfe calls, fresh from a pint-and-whisky-chaser at his local. With an eye on Tom's redundancy package, Jack, who's but a formal letter away from foreclosure, tells Tom that he's looking out for an injection of fresh capital and maybe a good designer...aircraft, boats...not entirely different methods of transport. Selling off his Commodore's Cup-winning boat and investing and accepting a job in Rolfe's yard, Tom Howard declares himself happy for the first time in years. But sharks - metaphorical ones in the shape of Ken Masters - are circling and, back at home, Jan Howard pours herself a large gin'n'tonic...
It's easy to laugh at Howards' Way. After Victoria Woods' Acorn Antiques, soaps like this one, glossy or not, have a recognisable televisual shorthand so to not waste time on building up a character through expensive screen time. Marriage in trouble? Then, like Tom and Jan Howard, there will be a bottle of sleeping pills beside the bed and, as the lights go off, the two of them will pull apart, the gap between them a metaphor for the distance in their marriage. With doors being slammed, posh totty among the boating crowd - Lynne Howard (Tracey Childs) makes regular appearances in a swimsuit and it's quite obvious that she tends towards not wearing a bra - hints of affairs between Tom Howard and Polly Urquhart and Jan Howard and Ken Masters and, proving that the best form of discussion in a soap is just short of hysterics, a good deal of dialogue that's accompanied by finger pointing and raised voices. When Jack Rolfe and Tom Howard have it out over the future of the yard in an argument that was brewing since the first lines of dialogue in the first episode - whether or not to pursue more modern shipbuilding techniques in an attempt to keep the yard solvent - there's such a release that one feels the need to light a cigarette immediately afterwards.
To top it all, there's a BMW-driving bastard in the shape of Ken Masters. The British do love a bastard. Having already seen JR Ewing as the archetypal bastard - and Joan Collins as his counterpart, the bitch - we then had them in all sorts of soaps, even to the murdering bastards-in-exelcis, EastEnders' Nick Cotton and Coronation Street's Richard Hillman. To be honest, Masters is something of a disappointment...a Ryman's League bastard when compared to the Premier League nastiness of Phil and Grant Mitchell. With little more than a boating shop and a petrol station to his name, he's barely on a par with Ian Beale but with a little bit of flattery and the sharing out of his limited wealth, Jan Howard is smitten and the two of them tango out of his office and into his bedroom. Speaking of which, his greatest act as a soap bastard is to watch a post-coital game of snooker on the television. In amongst the fashions, the language and the hints at union rule in the Mermaid Yard, nothing in Howards' Way says the eighties quite like Ken Masters coming down from an orgasm by watching a game of snooker on the television. Indeed, I dare say that he wasn't the only one to bring the weekend to an end with a swift act of lovemaking, a cigarette and an hour of two of Steve Davis vs Bill Werbeniuk before the working week started once again.
But if you imagine that I'm writing most of this with a smirk, that's an impression that's only partially accurate. As the season progresses, the storylines and characters twist around one another until Tom Howard's investment in the Mermaid Yard becomes but a secondary concern to the various bedroom shenanigans, the behind-the-scenes dealings of Ken Masters and the personal traumas suffered by the Howard and Urquhart families. When eighties favourite Tony Anholt appears as Charles Frere - arriving to reveal his past history with Avril Rolfe and to seduce Lynne Howard - the series seems complete but over five further seasons, the stories became even murkier. Some of it wouldn't stand up now but with a touch more humour, there's no reason why Howards' Way or a show like it would not be scheduled by the BBC on a Sunday evening. Certainly, it compares well to Holby City and is no less ridiculous than Babylon Hotel but there's a stiffness about it that the last twenty years has ironed out of glossy dramas. The cast certainly seem to be aware of the laughs to be had from the show but it doesn't translate terribly well from the set to one's home and although a line like Lynne Howard's, "I don't think I could ever love a man as much as I love the Flying Fish", is so wooden that you expect the subtitles to require the occasional coat of varnish, it's delivered very seriously.
As much as that may well be the case, anyone who enjoyed this in 1985 is likely to do so even now. Howards' Way is well-made, has the requisite mix of decent folk and outright bastards and frames the drama nicely against the backdrop of the boating yard. With there being a few quite touching relationships - Tom/Avril, Kate/Jack and Leo/Abby - scattered in amongst the slap'n'tickle of Ken Masters and Charles Frere, it works a treat as a romantic drama even if the central story of familial breakdown gets lost amongst the more outrageous moments in the show. But although there isn't quite enough of them to make Howards' Way the equal of The Colbys - at least not the flying saucer that swallowed up Emma Samms - it does have its fair share and possibly for that alone, Howards' Way will please anyone with fond memories of the time.
Howards' Way was obviously very well made and, in most respects, it doesn't look at all bad on DVD but fitting in four fifty-minute episodes on the first disc has obviously had an impact on the amount of noise in the image, with the picture not looking a great deal better than it would were you watching this being broadcast on Sky. Similarly, the amount of detail in the image isn't that impressive but so long as it remains on an average screen, it won't look terrible. Blown up, though, to a big screen and the faults are obvious. As for the audio track, it does its job but it makes very little impression.
Commentaries: There are three in the set on episodes 1, 12 and 13 and all of them feature Stephen Yardley, Jan Harvey and, as an arbitrator and fan of the show, Tim Teeman of The Times. As you might expect, given how much time they spent in the office and in bed together, Yardley and Harvey sound like old friends and with a fair bit of prompting from Teemon, they provide an entertaining set of commentaries that cover a good deal of the pre-production, of the actual filming and how the characters and later seasons developed. Given the twenty years that have passed between the making of these episodes and now, Yardley and Harvey tend towards having something of a rose-tinted view of the making of Howards' Way but, with Harvey laughing through every one of their onscreen clinches, they clearly enjoy watching the show manage to bring the audience with them.
When the series ends with Tony Anholt on his boat, in bed, in the arms of a young lady wearing nothing but a basque and saying to a shocked Lynne Howard, "...this is Honey Gardiner, my wife", it concludes in as assured a manner as Moonraker's, "I think he's attempting re-entry, sir." You really can't help but think, "But of course!"
The BBC and 2 Entertain clearly have hopes for Howards' Way as they're bringing out the second series very soon after this one and although they haven't done a terrible job on the release, it doesn't feel quite enough. It's a shame that more of the cast aren't involved - interviews would have been nice to add to the set alongside the three commentaries - but with five more seasons, there's plenty for 2 Entertain to get right yet.