Les takes a look at Series 2 of this Thora Hird starring comedy series which is out to buy on DVD now from Network…
This particular sitcom has a peculiar production history. It started out as a one-off pilot made by Thames TV in 1969 as part of a short season of new comedies. It was common practice in those days for tv companies to try out new sitcom ideas by doing short seasons of one-off pieces, the more successful of which could be developed into series. The better known examples of this would include Rising Damp, Steptoe and Son and Open All Hours. In contrast, In Loving Memory had to wait ten years before being picked up and developed further by Yorkshire TV as a vehicle for Thora Hird’s considerable comedic talents. It ran for five series from 1979 to 1986 and is one of the better examples of the genre at that time.
By the late 1970s, Thora Hird had established herself as one of the UK’s top comedy actresses and had already headlined several successful sitcoms. She had famously begun her stage career as a babe in arms in 1911 when her music-hall manager father had allowed her to be taken onstage during a show. By no means a beauty she established a successful career in light character parts and in later years branched out into serious drama with key roles in films such as A Kind of Loving. But comedy was what she was best at and in her 70s she was headlining two successful sitcoms simultaneously – In Loving Memory and Hallelujah! She was also an established face on the TV chat show circuit with her extremely down-to-earth Yorkshire persona endearing her to the public. So by the age of 76 in 1987 you would imagine her career would have neared its end. Not so. For his Talking Heads series of monologues that year, Alan Bennett had written the piece A Cream Cracker Under the Settee specifically for Thora and the rave reviews (and awards) she garnered transformed her almost overnight from well-loved comedy star to National Treasure. She was made a Dame in 1993 and continued to work right up until her death in 2003.
So it’s interesting to see her at a time shortly before she attained such exalted status. In Loving Memory was written by Dick Sharples and is set in a funeral parlour in a small Yorkshire town in the early 1930s. The parlour is run by widow Ivy Unsworth (Dame Thora) and her nephew (and surrogate son) Billy Henshaw (Christopher Beeny). It’s a fairly standard Northern English comedy setup of stern-but-loving matriarch and gormless-but-loveable ‘son’ negotiating a daily round of misunderstandings. Many of the situations revolve around Billy’s romantic aspirations and Ivy’s commercial and social aspirations. Like many British sitcoms set in a working-class milieu, In Loving Memory does have a certain obsession with class and one of Dame Thora’s specialities was the mock-genteel ‘telephone voice’ which cracks the audience up every time.
Before viewing this disc I was convinced that the series would have been on a par with some of the lesser examples of Northern working-class sitcoms of the 1970s such as the various Hylda Baker vehicles but I was very pleasantly surprised. The episodes are well written and the humour is gently farcical but with a wry, earthy and sometimes melancholic streak which gives it a strong sense of humanity. The quality of performance all round is very high and the roster of guest artists contains some of the strongest and most familiar comedy actors of the time such as Avis Bunnage, Hilda Fenemore, Stella Tanner and others. Christopher Beeny copes extremely well in such exalted female company and effortlessly embodies the ever-bumbling Billy, giving him a very sympathetic quality despite his gormlessness. My only criticism is he’s a shade too old for the part. Beeny was 39 at the time of the second series (and looks every day of it) and Billy is written to be much younger. In fact Beeny had played the character in the pilot ten years earlier and no doubt carried on as if the intervening years had never happened.
However, as already mentioned, the series was a vehicle for Thora Hird and she does not disappoint. Compared with some other sitcom stars of the time, she is a highly-polished performer. She is (almost always) line-perfect, she doesn’t fumble with props, never bumps into the furniture and her timing and rapport with the audience are second to none. But her style and approach, honed over decades in rep and variety theatre, was definitely becoming old-fashioned particularly when placed against the new alternative comedy that was waiting in the wings. Two years after this series of In Loving Memory aired, the first films from The Comic Strip presents… hit the screens and revolutionised narrative TV comedy in the UK. By the time In Loving Memory finished in 1986, it would have looked very old-fashioned indeed.
The series is made up of seven 25-minute episodes on a single double-layered disc. All episodes are the usual mixture of in-studio video sequences and location shooting on 16mm film. As always with Network releases, the picture quality for both is excellent. The source materials are in pristine condition with only occasional damage visible and the transfers are excellent all round. Most of episode one is filmed on location in the countryside and the production values are very high indeed. Photography, lighting and performance would not shame a quality drama. And that goes for the series as a whole. All the studio sequences appear to have been meticulously rehearsed as there are no dialogue fluffs, no bumping into the furniture and no crazy spontaneous camera moves of the kind which plague lesser shows of the time. One unusual feature of this series is that each episode has a different visual background for the opening credits every week made up of old black and white photos of the time. Which means that every credit sequence is pristine with no film or tape damage such as occurs on stock opening credits.
Mono only and very clear. Things are also helped by Dame Thora’s decades of stage experience – every line is clear and her timing is immaculate.
None at all.
I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud more than once. I was expecting something a bit twee and slightly dull but instead found well-written material performed by one of our comedy goddesses at the height of her powers and I now count myself a fan. Not that you’d guess…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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