Michael Elphick is back as Ken Boon, the former fireman with the heart of gold, a passion for adventures and his trademark motorbike. Les Anderson takes a look at Series 2 on DVD…
It could reasonably be said that the character most associated with the late Michael Elphick is Ken Boon, the retired firefighter and eponymous hero of the popular comedy drama that ran for six seasons on ITV from 1985 to 1993. Largely typecast by his imposing physical appearance and gravelly voice with a strong East End accent, most of his career was spent playing heavies, some with a soft centre, some not. However if you survey his career (courtesy of imdb and numerous obits) you’ll find some very interesting collaborations in there. As a teenager working backstage at Chichester Festival Theatre he was encouraged to take up acting by none other than Lord Olivier. At drama school he was great friends with Bruce Robinson which led to an appearance in Withnail And I. He built up a consistent career in character parts and throughout the 70s and early 80s he popped up regularly on TV. One of his first principal parts was in a play by Dennis Potter called Blue Remembered Hills which took the unusual step of casting all the child protagonists with adult actors. Elphick, of course, played the bully.
It was in 1984 that he undertook his first leading role and arguably his most interesting collaboration playing for a then-unknown Lars Von Trier in his first feature, the dystopian whodunnit Element of Crime. If memory serves, the critical reaction at the time was that the film was an interesting curiosity (shot almost entirely at night with a sepia cast to the image) but Elphick acquitted himself well as the down-at-heel private eye sent on an existential quest. His solid presence and performance anchored a somewhat pretentious directorial technique.
He then returned to TV and his first leading role in a series, the eponymous Private Schultz in which he played a Schweyk-like character involved in a Nazi plot to flood the UK with counterfeit sterling during the Second World War. From that he moved on to a romantic sitcom Three Up, Two Down which cast him in an odd-couple will-they-won’t-they relationship with Angela Thorne. Simultaneously with this he took the lead in Boon which crystallised in the public eye the persona most associated with him, the rough-round-the-edges decent everyman with a soft centre who is buffeted by fate but always lands on his feet. He was introduced in the first series as a firefighter invalided out of the service who attempts to set up in business (this is the 80s, after all) with the assistance of his fellow retired firefighter Harry (David Daker).
Series one of Boon was shot in the then-usual mixture of location footage on 16mm film and studio interiors on video. For the second series the decision was taken to shoot entirely on location on film. This was becoming common practice for the higher-quality popular dramas of the day. And, as is always the case, some characters from series one were dropped and new characters introduced. For better or worse, this brought a then-unknown Neil Morrissey to the public eye and he quickly became a favourite with the audience as Rocky, the lovable gormless bike courier, a character type he was then to develop into Tony in the insanely popular Men Behaving Badly in the 90s.
The basic setup for the second series has Ken acquiring a courier franchise, Texas Rangers, which he operates, with the help of Scouse motormouth Debbie (Lesley-Anne Sharpe), from the back of a country hotel recently purchased by Harry just outside Birmingham. He employs Rocky in the first episode and the basic character dynamic for the series is set up from that point on. Ken is a bluff but loveable man trying to make his way from day to day in a sometimes bewildering and changing world. He loves Westerns and motorbikes and his acquisition of the courier business (after some bovver with the local wide boy) allows him to indulge his first love, biking. He has no immediate family or even a wife or girlfriend which makes him a completely free agent domestically and dramatically and allows him a far wider range of interaction with other characters. Although he does have the odd moment of romance (Amanda Burton in this series) and it could be said that Rocky and Debbie are his surrogate children in the overall character dynamic. Harry, his best friend, is that symbol of the 80s, the self-made businessman and would-be entrepreneur who has more ambition than ability and is often the innocent victim of dodgy deals. Rocky is Rocky. The dramatic device of the courier firm is very useful as it allows a wide variety of characters and locations to be used, changing from episode to episode. Many episodes consist of Harry being the potential victim of some con or other usually at the hands of corrupt businessmen or property developers, Rocky grabbing the wrong end of the stick and Ken being the Sensible One who rescues them from themselves. As well as rescuing the guest star of the week from a similar fate.
You can usually tell the quality of TV series by the roster of guest artists and this show, for a populist drama, boasts some interesting names and some quality turns. Every week has a standalone story with a featured performer. Phyllis Calvert, a glamorous star of British cinema of the 40s and TV in the 60s, pops up in the second episode playing against type as a foul-mouthed cantankerous old farmer about to be evicted by, you’ve guessed, corrupt property developers. Other guest turns include familiar faces of the time – Diane Keen, Roy Kinnear, Georgina Hale, Adrienne Posta (took me right back!), Stephen Greif etc. Stars-in-the-making include Tony Head (who doesn’t even get guest billing), Tony Slattery, Amanda Burton and Ray Winstone. We also have an ‘introducing…’ credit for Camille Coduri who would become famous 20 years later playing Billie Piper’s mother in Doctor Who and who looks almost exactly the same in 1986 as she did in 2006. Creepy.
As a drama the show has no pretension to depth. At a time when Heritage Television was consolidating its hold on the higher-brow audience, Boon was made as a light drama for a mass audience. It features believable characters and concentrates on contemporary themes and situations. The principal characters are universally working-class, although some have middle-class aspirations (Harry). Although it touches lightly on some heavier issues – Irish terrorism, money-laundering and even the porn industry, depths are never plumbed and there’s even a whiff of the good old farcical Brit sex comedy. However, amidst the sea of poodle-perms, mullets, shoulder pads and stone-washed denim there are some unchanging archetypes and some very recognisable people and situations which make the show just as entertaining today as it was 20-odd years ago. And it doesn’t indulge the excesses of the time now to be seen in many modern 80s-set series. If anything it’s quite dowdy, design-wise.
Judging by the array of locations and the sheer number of people on screen I would hazard a guess and say this was a big-budget show and clearly a ratings leader for ITV. Which still didn’t stop them writing in open doors for all the principal characters in the last episode (character fates are always subject to talent contract renegotiations) including Boon himself. There had been quite a cull of principals between series one and two so no-one was sacred.
As far as Michael Elphick was concerned, this was the zenith of his career. Already a heavy drinker (his complexion noticeably deteriorates in this series of Boon – check his face in the last episode against his close-up in the opening credits), he was poached by the BBC in the early 90s to headline the drama Harry which finished in 1995 after only two series. Shortly after this his partner of 30-odd years succumbed to cancer and he hit the bottle with a vengeance. His last significant TV role was in 2001 in Eastenders as the villainous Uncle Harry, an incestuous child-molester who made his 13-year-old niece pregnant. His features now bloated by alcohol, he was also the subject of rather unpleasant and unfair tabloid interviews with other cast members who described him as a shambling old drunk stinking of booze. He left the show shortly after and died in 2002 from alcohol-exacerbated illness.
The 13 episodes are presented on four single-sided discs. Episodes can be chosen individually from menus and each are approximately 50 minutes in length and split into 10 chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and sound
As you would expect from a 1980s series shot entirely on 16mm film the images are soft and grainy, not to say murky in low-light settings. Colours are muted. Because of the difficulties involved in location lighting, night interiors are almost chiaroscuro. Principal characters sit in a pool of bright light while the background of the room is practically in darkness. This is most noticeable in the various restaurant scenes where the extras at the back are almost dining by touch alone. But that was the dominant practice at the time and would not have been remarkable.
The quality of the prints is extremely good and there is hardly anything in the way of scratches or dirt visible. As always with Network’s releases, the digital transfer is excellent particularly considering the softness of the source material. I lack the technical expertise to tell whether the transfer was taken directly from the film prints or a tape copy but I can say that on my old CRT telly the picture was as good as you could want. In the case of these archive releases you really have to look at picture quality on its own terms – you can’t possibly compare it to a gee-whizz ultra-graded 21st-century digital image made specifically for a flat-screen HD telly. But for what it is, it’s excellent.
The soundtrack is mono only and is well-presented and clear. No damage is apparent and dialogue is crisp.
None at all, not even subtitles.
Not quite the nostalgia blast that something like Ashes to Ashes aspires to be, perhaps because of the lack of prominence of brands of the time (not a can of Tizer to be seen) but all the better for it. However the series is fondly-remembered by many and is a fitting tribute to Michael Elphick at his best and most popular.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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