Les Anderson looks at the UK DVD release of this seventies British sitcom starring Wendy Craig…
And Mother Makes Three was a very successful Thames TV sitcom starring Wendy Craig which ran for four series from 1971 to 1973. A sequel with an extended cast, And Mother Makes Five, ran for another four series from 1974 to 1976. This set collects together the first four series which were previously available individually.
It’s impossible to discuss And Mother Makes Three properly without considering Wendy Craig’s career as it was this series that firmly established her TV persona as a scatty have-a-go middle-class mother. It was a persona that she made her own on-screen for an almost-unbroken 17-year period over several different TV series. Tailored as it was to her talents, And Mother Makes Three without her presence would have been a very different, lesser show. She had started out as a straight dramatic actress in the 1950s and had already made a respectable name for herself as such by the mid-60s. In 1963 she had turned in a BAFTA-nominated performance in Joseph Losey’s The Servant. She then more than held her own against the formidable Bette Davis (during her Gothic Hag phase) in Jimmy Sangster’s melodrama The Nanny. Her performance as a distraught guilt-ridden mother being manipulated by all around her was intense and convincing. In 1967 however all that would change when she first appeared in the BBC’s sitcom Not in Front of The Children in the first incarnation of her most popular persona. That ran to four very successful series, made her a household name and landed her a BAFTA award for best TV actress. I can’t say for certain but given the BBC and ITV’s propensity over the decades for poaching each other’s talent, I imagine And Mother Makes Three was created as a vehicle for her by ITV to further exploit her popularity. After And Mother Makes Five finished in 1976 she then took the unorthodox (for the time) step of effectively sending up her own screen image in Carla Lane’s highly-regarded Butterflies which ran on the BBC until 1983. Carla Lane had written for And Mother Makes Three and had taken that show’s basic set-up (clueless middle-class mother with two lovable rogue teenage sons) and effectively deconstructed it by having her experience a mid-life existential crisis while having to put up with her two indolent wastrel sons and disinterested husband.
In And Mother Makes Three, Craig played Sally Harrison, a widowed mother of two sons (aged about 15 and 10 in the first series) who shares a house in a small English town with her also-widowed Auntie (Valerie Lush) who acts as her housekeeper, confidante and best friend. Sally’s sons were played by the same actors in all eight series, the older son by Robin Davies and the younger by David Parfitt. The basic set-up in the first series is that Sally works as a secretary-come-receptionist in a local vet’s while Auntie (who we presume is retired) stays at home. Sally has a knack for ending up in ludicrous, farcical situations which are usually the result of a misunderstanding or her own good intentions going awry. Her relationship with her boss veers from exasperation (he sacks her a couple of times) to romantic (he almost proposes to her) depending on the whims of the scriptwriters. By series three the vet has packed up and gone and his premises taken over by a smoothly handsome rare book dealer (!) David Redway (Richard Coleman) who first of all employs Sally and, by the end of series four, has married her. With the inclusion of his daughter as a regular character the show continued for another four series as And Mother Makes Five.
So how does it fare as a domestic sitcom? Not at all badly, mainly due to the considerable talents and charm of Wendy Craig. This is really just a piece of entertaining fluff played by her with great skill. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere the main purpose of these light-entertainment shows was to deliver as large an audience as possible to the station’s advertisers so the episodes had to be well-made to keep the audience’s loyalty and the presence of a popular headline name was a big advantage for these lighter pieces. Of the supporting cast I particularly liked Valerie Lush (what a fantastic name) as Auntie. She plays her as the seen-it-all wise woman with a nice line in silk blouses, wry smiles and an always-there shoulder to cry on. With a gin bottle in one hand and a teapot in the other. Of the boys, Robin Davies (who sadly died in 2010) had already appeared in a hugely successful series the year before in Catweazle so was experienced and had a likeable screen presence. The younger boy David Parfitt was much more inexperienced and it shows. In the first series he is embarrassingly bad but he does grow into it and by the third series he has improved, thank goodness. After And Mother Makes Three Five ended he went on to become a successful high-profile film producer, working in particular with Kenneth Branagh over the years.
I think the first two series work better than the later ones because the character dynamic is simpler – well-meaning mum is run circles around by her lovable scamp sons and relies on her sensible foil (Auntie) to keep things right. With the introduction of Sally’s future husband David in the third series the dynamic changes, particularly once they marry. He takes on the mantle of straight man to Wendy Craig’s clown, making Auntie rather redundant. Instead of Valerie Lush’s wry ripostes, Richard Coleman tends to play his character straighter and with quiet exasperation and I found him a little one-dimensional and samey. His physical appearance as a typical 70s smoothie with blow-dried immovable quiff and lavish sideburns also makes him look more stereotypical now than he might have appeared at the time. Also as the child actors grow up their performances and attitudes change. David Parfitt’s character is young enough to stay essentially frozen for the first few series but his increasing experience improves his performance. However Robin Davies’s performance style changes noticeably between series two and three. It becomes much more low key and less energetic than the rest of the cast which actually works slightly to the show’s disadvantage. Unlike many sitcoms of the time with all-adult casts which essentially remain immutable through time and reuse the same basic set-up in every episode, And Mother Makes Three, to its credit, changes its set-up and character dynamic as the years go on and even has story arcs over seasons three and four concerning Sally and David’s engagement and wedding. But despite these quibbles the show stands the test of the time better than many of its contemporary rivals.
The set is made up of four discs, one season per disc. Seasons 1 and 4 have seven episodes apiece, seasons 2 and 3 have the more usual six each.
Transfer and Sound
This was one of the higher-budget sitcoms of the period judging by the quantity of location work featured. As usual for the time, all the studio stuff was shot on video and the location sequences on grainy 16mm film. All the master tapes are in excellent shape, considering their age and there is hardly any damage at all. The picture quality of the oldest material is noticeably fuzzier than material from the later-70s would be but it still probably looks better than it would have on first transmission. Bear in mind, as always, that the bulk of the audience would have been watching in black and white on 14-inch or 16-inch screens. Or possibly even a whopping 19-incher if they were particularly nouveau-riche. The sound is mono and clear and the seasoned cast make sure the lines are heard and the audience laughter doesn’t overwhelm any of it.
None at all.
I’m not sure if this will be to everyone’s taste. I remember enjoying the show a great deal when I was a child and was surprised at just how vividly some lines and scenes came back to me while watching it. By modern standards it’s twee but it’s still entertaining fluff and without Wendy Craig’s considerable talent it would be much much less than it is. As already mentioned, she had proved her credentials as an actress in the 60s but And Mother Makes Three gave her the opportunity to display her comic timing and gift for clowning. But what is also interesting is the way in which she, after ten years in the public eye as the scatty mother, then completely subverted her And Mother character in Butterflies. It would be worthwhile watching the two shows back to back.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum