Watching: The Complete First Series Review
Watching was the very thing that ITV let slip away - a primetime sitcom that drew in audiences in their millions. Indeed, the thirteen million that sat down to Watching in its peak is the kind of audience that's almost unheard of now. From the late-eighties through to the early-nineties, though, even a sweet, sometimes funny but unadventurous sitcom like Watching could sweep up audiences that, in such numbers, would leave you thinking that Scouse wit had only arrived with Emma Wray singing, "It was boredom at first sight."
Wray was the star of this show, a genuine comedy find who both sang the theme song and starred as Brenda Wilson, a early-twentysomething who's out of work, out of luck and out of love. Thatcher's Britain is biting Liverpool hard and she and her sister Pamela (Liza Tarbuck) are reduced to thinking that an evening in their local, The Grapes, is a great night out. There they people-watch, guessing the age, occupation, religion and history of those who've also stopped in for the night but one night in comes Malcolm Stoneway (Paul Bown), who's dressed in leather and carrying a helmet. Thinking that he's a wild biker, Brenda arranges a date with him only to find, disappointed, that her biker rides with a sidecar and that, on a weekend, he hides out in the countryside bird-watching.
Therein was born this comedy of manners in which the Scouse Brenda and the Chester-born Malcolm hold unsteadily to a relationship. He's wetter than the skies over Manchester, Liverpool's near-neighbour, and she's coarser than sandpaper but together, there's something sweet about Jim Hitchmough's writing. Unlike other romantic comedies, there's no sense that the success of this relationship is a given - his mother doesn't much like Brenda, her sister despairs at Malcolm's naivety and even Brenda and Malcolm don't look as though they're in this for the long run but something draws them together. At first, we're presented as seeing Malcolm as the poor relation in their affair - the theme song says as much, with Wray singing, "He's no one's Mr Right / So what do I see in him?" - but as this season progresses, we're led to believe that they're together largely because neither one is anyone's idea of a perfect partner. The theme song admits as such, with the second verse seeing Wray admitting, "But then I'm not so ideal / I'm not gentle or genteel", before she asks, "What does he see in me?"
What follows is a sitcom that gently teases its characters with some kind of happiness without ever letting them forget that it may not last. Writer Jim Hitchmough mixes the northern comedy of The Liver Birds with the safer southern laughs of Sorry!, placing Liverpudlians Brenda and Pamela a world away from the suburban home of Malcolm and his mother. Or, if not a world away, then at least the width of the Mersey. This odd mixture doesn't always work - some of the second-line characters such as Pamela's lover/boss Sidney (Philip Fox) and Malcolm's workmate Terry Milton (Perry Fenwick) look to have come from another sitcom - whilst the main cast don't ring true to life. Anyone as spineless as Malcolm is really only ever found in sitcoms whilst Brenda is a curious mix of street smarts and innocence, verbally loud but emotionally quiet. But Watching - the title refers both to Malcolm's bird-watching as well as Brenda and Pamela's people-watching - found a comedy star in Emma Wray, who was good looking, funny and shameless, almost all that you'd want for in a sitcom actress. As to why she didn't go on to better things, you can probably blame her co-starring with Liza Tarbuck who enjoyed the kind of success that should also have been Wray's. Not to deny Tarbuck, who was excellent in Linda Green, but Wray could well have done more than she did with this being just about her legacy.
As such, Watching isn't a bad one to have but it's only ever ordinary being neither funny nor leftfield enough to be a classic. Still, for six years, it was the kind of show that is now entirely absent from ITV's schedules and I can imagine this being picked up by those nostalgic for the mismatched love affair between Brenda and Malcolm.
Meeting (26m06s): From a lunchtime meeting in the park, Pam and Brenda retire to the pub where over half-an-ale and a vodka-and-lime, Brenda meets Malcolm, who with his leathers, is pegged as a wild biker. But is he? It would appear not when he shows up for their first date with a sidecar and takes Brenda on an exciting afternoon of...bird-watching?
Wrestling (25m13s): Against all the odds, Brenda and Malcolm meet in The Grapes once again. She tries her best to be pleasant but he still calls her bloody rude - and they arrange a second date but not before Malcolm upsets Pamela and learns that 50pisn't enough to get a local kid to watch his bike.
Outing (25m16s): Having ended their previous date without speaking, Brenda visits Malcolm at his work dressed in her very best clothes and they arrange for a day out in Chester. But when Malcolm has a run in with a few bikers at a service station, who take a particular interest in Malcolm's sidecar leaving poor Brenda on her own as he rides off.
Confusing (24m46s): With their relationship still taking its first, stumbling steps, Malcolm's friend Terry thinks that he needs help and decides to pay a visit to The Grapes to talk to Brenda. She's not stupid, though and takes Terry for what he is, setting him off on a date with Pamela and figuring out a way to get back with Malcolm.
Leaving (25m29s): After the adventure with Terry, which was more than Pamela could take, she asks Brenda to move out of her flat having had enough of Brenda's meddling in her love life. Deciding to turn over a new leaf, Brenda spruces herself up, meets Malcolm's mother and tells him that they can spend a day together anywhere he wants. On a visit to a transport museum - great for Malcolm, unutterably dull for Brenda - she decides to move to London.
Repenting (25m38s): Brenda went through with her threat to leave Liverpool for London and actually got so far as...Crewe, phoning Malcolm to come and pick her up. Feeling sorry for her little sister, Pamela lets Brenda move back in with her but the end of her relationship with Sidney may also have had something to do with it and, as thanks, Brenda decides to throw a surprise party for Pamela with the help of Malcolm.
Hiding (25m26s): Having nothing in common hasn't bothered Malcolm and Brenda up to now but she fancies the idea of accompanying Malcolm on one of his bird-watching trips. Surprisingly, Malcolm is looking forward to it but he's let down when they arrive at his perch and she's interested only in crashing out in his hide. As indeed does Malcolm, doing his back in and having to lie up for three weeks, which gives Brenda the chance to get her old social life back.
Seasoning (25m45s): Christmas is coming and after a recommendation from Sidney, Malcolm and Brenda go in search of a tree taking Pamela along so she can meet up with Sidney. But Sidney cancels via a note to Pamela and, back home with Pamela feeling down, Malcolm agrees to have a romantic Christmas with Brenda, hoping to add some Christmas cheer to her family. Sidney isn't finished yet, though, leaving a final humiliation for Christmas afternoon but Pamela, like all women, has the last word on their relationship.
Anyone who revisits old VHS tapes and enjoys the adverts almost as much as the programs will be forever frustrated by Network DVD releases, with shows that break for adverts that never come. That, in itself, is worthy of mention but habitual buyers of Network product ought to be used to that by now. However, this is poor even for a television release with it looking as though it's been transferred off a hazy videotape onto disc without so much as anyone looking in on it to make sure that it's progressing well. It's soft, the colours are too rich and it's not much better than an E-180 sourced from the show's original run. The soundtrack isn't as bad, though, with it being a reasonably acceptable one but, like some of the laughs, very ordinary. There are, however, no subtitles.
As with other Network britcom releases, there are no extras on this DVD.
Despite the problems, Watching is not the kind of show that's likely to enjoy a remastered release anytime soon and this may well be as good as it's going to get. With that said, Network could have done better but Watching is still likely to walk out of the shops in the hands of those who have fond memories of it, maybe not the 13 million who once enjoyed it but a percentage of those nonetheless.