Backs to the Land - Series 1 Review
While watching this latest Network release of an ITV bread-and-butter sitcom I asked myself why were these shows made? I'm sure even at the time of transmission they had no real claim to any real artistic merit or 'classic' status. For every Fawlty Towers and The Good Life in the 1970s there were dozens of lesser shows such as Backs to the Land. In effect they were made purely and simply to entertain and there's nothing wrong with that. ITV sitcoms, in particular, were made to deliver an audience to their advertisers. Hence the need to give them mass-appeal in order to pull in the widest audience. One way to do this was to put situations on-screen that reflected the audience's own lives and experiences and the target demographic for Backs to the Land falls squarely into that category. When it first aired in 1977, many of the 50-something women in the audience could and would have served as Land Girls during the Second World War.
In line with the over-riding modern trend to show the war effort as a heroic coming-together of the nation's men to Defeat The Nazi, the contribution of the many young women conscripted during the war (oh yes, there was female conscription too) is now sadly overlooked. Because many of the men not in reserved occupations were in the forces, much of the manual labour required by the country in factories and on the land was carried out by young 'mobile women' as they were called. These were single women with no dependents who were called up by the government. If you're interested in seeing more about that you should watch a great old Gainsborough film from 1943 called Millions Like Us in which Pat Roc does her patriotic duty in a factory alongside Eric Portman and many of the character actresses of the day.
Anyway, Backs to the Land deals with this very succinctly by opening in early 1940 on the Norfolk farm of Tom Whitlow (John Stratten), an old miser and all-round misanthrope. His two sons who labour for him (played by the real-life Troughton brothers) are called up and he finds himself with three land girls to replace them. These are clueless posh deb Daphne Finch-Beauchamp (soon-to-be Bond Girl Marilyn Galsworthy), pragmatic Golders Green Jew Shirley Bloom (Philippa Howell) and cockney sparrer Jenny Dabb (Terese Stevens). This set-up allowed the show’s creator and writer David Climie (an old sitcom hand) to combine some basic sitcom tropes – fish-out-of-water (city girls working on a farm), culture clash (sophisticated city girls vs country yokels) and the battle of the sexes. Having said that, this is not really a sophisticated piece by any standards. Characters rarely extend beyond caricature (as written) and rely heavily on the actors to bring them to life with varying degrees of success. Marilyn Galsworthy appears to barely act at all, Philippa Howell has the most thankless task getting beyond the 'I should care' level of her dialogue but the real star is Terese Stevens as Jenny. Feisty and lively, the character is the dynamo of the show and Stevens successfully pulls it off, lighting up every scene she appears in. And boy can she sing too. But perhaps the most skilled actor in the cast is John Stratten as the skinflint farmer Tom Whitlow. A 'weel-kent face' in 70s telly, he usually played sinister, rather creepy villains and he brings an almost disturbing intensity to the part here. As written, I could easily see the part being played very successfully by someone like Peter Butterworth but in Stratten's hands it becomes something else altogether and his sometimes-manic wild-eyed intensity occasionally threatens to overbalance the simplistic postcard humour of the show but does blend well into the more farcical situations.
Unfortunately Climie relied heavily on using stereotypes elsewhere particularly amongst the country folk who are universally portrayed as feckless simpletons (most of the men) and scheming jealous bitches (most of the women). There is also a Lady of the Manor straight out of a 1940s film and an unctuous vicar to boot. One aspect that doesn't help things get any better is the performance style which consists of everyone pretty much shouting their lines at each other. However, in mitigation, this might be partly due to the production circumstances as the series was shot entirely on video including the extensive location scenes and this often resulted in actors having to over-project to be heard over the background noise. I believe it wasn't possible to post-dub dialogue in those circumstances. And the annoying hysterical canned laughter doesn't help either.
But there are plusses too. Unlike most domestic sitcoms of the time which revolved around families bickering in their living room, episode after episode, Climie did attempt to develop the situations and the characters as the series progresses. Philippa even receives a marriage proposal which allows Climie to investigate the topic of an urban Jewish girl potentially marrying a young rural gentile. But don't expect any moving investigation of the plight of the Jews on the continent at that time – this is never referred to and the whole overbearing Jewish mother scenario that ensues could just as easily have come out of a contemporary sitcom. The show also had a far bigger budget than was usual for a sitcom judging by the variety and scope of locations and the sheer number of new characters who come and go, particularly in the later episodes. Which includes a then-unknown Bill Paterson in episode five as a Glaswegian squaddie with just a handful of lines.
For the production values alone this is definitely a cut above many of the end-of-the-pier sitcoms of the 70s and although the humour is of the postcard variety it's still worth a watch. The show was fairly successful and lasted for three series in total but with some changes in principal casting as it went on. I also have to mention the theme song which has remained stuck in my head since I first watched the show thirty-three years ago. Written by Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch as an affectionate pastiche of the patriotic songs of the time, it is sung by a bona-fide WW2 'forces sweetheart', Anne Shelton.
There is a single disc containing all six episodes, each approx 25 minutes long. They are split into chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
The series is shot entirely on video, including the extensive location scenes. This results in a consistent visual quality to the image and as archive releases from this time go, the picture quality is good with hardly any tape damage. The sound in the location scenes can be quite muffled with some dialogue being difficult to make out because of background noise which also isn't helped by the intrusive canned laughter.
As usual with Network releases there are no subtitles and, on this release, no other extras of any kind.