Howard’s Way: Series Five Review

Memorable though the theme song is, Radio 4’s Sailing By would have been so much better…

He may have flew through space at the helm of an Eagle in Space: 1999 but the empty blackness of the cosmos was never a natural home for Tony Anholt. Every bit the dashing leading man, the slow-as-syrup stories didn’t help either and one could positively imagine him busting out of that tight-fitting white suit to trade blows with aliens. Space: 1999 simply never offered him the opportunity. And then there were the ladies. A pre-Manimal shape-changer like Catherine Schell wasn’t going to draw blood to anyone’s loins, not unless they had a somewhat dubious interest in the film output of the state of Denmark during the years when pornography vied with Carlsberg, LEGO and Bang & Olufsen hi-fis for the Danish equivalent of a Queen’s Export Award.

Howard’s Way was a much more suitable place for Anholt to lay his hat. His drawing the first series to a close by sharing his bed with a certain Honey Rider was as perfect a television moment as any. And yet series five of Howard’s Way begins almost as well. Without a word of explanation, Anholt finds himself in Malta and being led off his flight to a waiting Rolls-Royce. That a vaguely foreign-looking chap is watching them only less discretely than were he carrying an enormous pair of comedy binoculars or sitting on a park bench peering through eyeholes cut into his newspaper completes the picture. Anholt is there both to do business and to wriggle his way out of a fraud investigation but in spite of his whereabouts appearing to be more Merseyside than Mediterranean, he cuts rather a dashing figure. Somehow, his wearing a linen suit seems perfectly apt, no matter that he does so in a gale that would blow the birds out of the sky and under a sky that hasn’t seen sunlight since 1923.

When his old sparring partner in Triangle pops along for the ride, it’s a moment akin to when someone first popped cheese and pickle into a sandwich together. Or when John Kettley first looked up into the skies and pondered the kind of weather the day might bring. Or when Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball first met…only Kate O’Mara fills a bikini better than Ball, Kettley or a couple of bits of cheddar. And it’s something of a relief that, unlike her appearance in Triangle, she seems to want to keep her clothes on this time. She sight of O’Mara sunbathing beneath the steel-grey skies of the North Sea was as improbable a sight as any ever broadcast and while those of the Solent offer the occasional glimpse of blue sky and sunlight, no one of sound mind would dare sunbathe without a fresh pair of hot water bottles warming their gusset. And besides, with O’Mara nearing fifty by the time of Howard’s Way, one becomes all too aware of how the elderly feel the cold more than most.

Now, with my having a somewhat erratic selection of Howard’s Way on DVD – to date, only series one, four and five have come my way – I’ll admit to not quite keeping up with events in Tarrant. Instead, this viewer follows the series with an eye solely on the comedy, wholly unexpected mind you, that emerges out of a drama set in a business as dull as boat building. Happily, things are, if you’ll excuse the pun, in less choppy waters than in series four where the goings on in the shipyards were complicated by Sir Edward Frere’s search for oil underneath the rivers and streams of the south of England. Indeed, at one point he believed himself to have found some oil, albeit that it seemed to be located beneath a duck. Series five gets back to basics.

This time around, Howard’s Way is about boats, yachts and everything else that bobs about on the surface of the water. While this does make following the series easier, there’s also a seemingly endless litany of boating terms. Thirty-six footers, the virtues of a wooden hull against fibre-glass and the folly of fitting larger fuel tanks to powerboats are topics that come and quickly go again. And this is so very dull. Having once spent Cowes Week in, well, Cowes, I knew that boating folk were dull. Their sweaters, chinos and deck shoes should tell you they’re dull long before they actually open their mouths. Even their hair can tell you how dull they are. But you could bed the entire crew of a yacht and still not, at least not until watching this series of Howard’s Way, properly discover just how dull talk of boating is. Host a national conference on Tupperware in my living room but please spare me any more talk of boats.

Even if you can get past all the talk of boats, there’s so much talk of share prices, insider dealing and profit-and-loss that one does wonder about having drifted out of Howard’s Way and into a thirteen-hour special edition of the Bloomberg channel on yachting. Only the linen suits, with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, the espadrilles and Jan Harvey’s sculpture in hair give away that it isn’t. Unfortunately, this is all rather confusing. The talk of majority shareholding is fine but why Charles Frere wastes his time with the likes of Ken Masters and Avril Rolfe is beyond this viewer. Frere is sufficiently wealthy and quite enough of a bastard to light his cigars with five pound notes, perhaps even snatched from the hands of orphans. In the last series, he pootled around Tarrant in a white Lamborghini while this series sees him in a chauffeur-driven Roller. Masters drives a Volvo. Frere lives in a mansion, Masters and Rolfe in bijou apartments. Frere has the ear of Swiss bankers. Masters looks as though he barely has that of the receptionist at Ocean Finance. It’s like Dallas, only that instead of JR Ewing crossing swords with Cliff Barnes (and the rest of the oil barons), he spent all his time and effort trying to drive his local petrol station out of business.

Howard’s Way is certainly about business but it’s the kind of business that you might read about in the local press, where the building of a new extension to a popular local store makes front-page news. Or a real-life Jack Rolfe meets a member of the local council to discuss a planning application. Perhaps even a, “Local Man Sails To Victory In Yacht Race!” Be happy with that and there’s certainly something to enjoy in Howard’s Way, although you may have to peer through the City jargon to get to it. Otherwise, there’s still plenty to like but while there’s a lot of unintentional laughs to be had, not enough to endear Howard’s Way to those not already devoted to it.

This is pretty much a reprint of what I wrote when first reviewing Howards’ Way for this site some time ago. The show 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. There are some obvious problems with the encoding on the first disc but, to be fair, things to get better on the remaining discs in the set, which offer only three episodes apiece.

However, I would say that this series does look slightly better on DVD than the first, although that’s probably less to do with the quality of the transfer and more the amount of money that the BBC were spending on Howard’s Way in 1988. Still, there remains a softness to the picture and there isn’t a great amount of detail even in the best shots but watching it on a reasonably-sized television wasn’t a particularly upsetting experience. As a summary, this is probably a fair representation of the show at its time of broadcast rather than being a grand restoration job by the BBC.

As for the audio track, it does its job but it makes very little impression. There isn’t ever a problem with understanding the dialogue – or at least hearing it as some of that sailing talk can be terribly hard to comprehend – but that’s probably got a lot to do with how sparse Howard’s Way sounds. It’s often as it the BBC production crew shushed a vast part of the southern coast of England while filming. That theme tune, as rightly famous as any, does sound good, though, and 2 Entertain have once again included English subtitles. They are very good for that.

There are no extras on this DVD release.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jul 06, 2008

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