Les takes a look at this 1970s comedy series starring Diana Dors which is now available as a ‘Complete Series’ set from Network…
I’m sure that someone somewhere at some time must have written an academic treatise on The Importance of the Sofa in Domestic Sitcoms. Many sitcoms over the years which are set in a family home place the fourth wall well and truly behind where the telly usually sits – or the fireplace in bygone days. Which allows the audience to watch the family in all their domestic glory as they sit on the sofa and interact with each other while (often) watching the telly. Perhaps the most extreme and successful example of this is The Royle Family.
Anyway, Yorkshire Television adopted the sofa format in 1970 for their Diana Dors vehicle Queenie’s Castle. The premise for this show was simple – domineering matriarch and ageing glamourpuss Queenie Shepherd shares her council flat in Leeds with her three grown-up indolent sons plus her brother-in-law. Her husband is never seen, being constantly away from home ‘working’. Most episodes concern Queenie and her family’s attempts to outwit authority and maintain their slacker lifestyle. While constantly trying to get one over on her neighbour and self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Petty (played by Lynne Perrie in pre-Corrie days).
Back in the early 70s, the television schedules (just 3 channels, remember) were cluttered with sitcoms like this ranging in quality from classic (Steptoe, Fawlty Towers etc) to abysmal (Pardon My English springs to mind). The ITV regions used to churn these out with regularity, each region bringing its own local flavour to each show. One appealing factor to the TV companies was that these shows could be made very cheaply. All you needed back then was a couple of standing sets – usually the living room and kitchen – in front of ‘a live studio audience’. Unlike the US sitcoms with their vast writing teams and 26-episode seasons, most UK sitcoms ran to six episodes and were the product of a single writer or writing partnership.
In the case of Queenie’s Castle, the writers were Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall who were an established force in British television having contributed to TW3 and The Frost Report amongst many other things. Having said that, Queenie’s Castle is a far cry from sophisticated political satire and is more of an end-of-the-pier show with situations and humour aimed squarely at working-class audiences. The characterisations are broad and the style is hammy with the actors declaiming loudly at each other in a very theatrical manner. The show ran to three series between 1970 and 1972 and by the third series Waterhouse & Hall handed writing duties over to established comedy writers of the day such as John Junkin.
The performances by the principals are pretty much on a level ground with no-one particularly outshining any other. The three sons are played by Barrie Rutter (now artistic director of Northern Broadsides Theatre Company), Freddie Fletcher (fresh from playing the older brother in Ken Loach’s Kes) and Brian Marshall as ‘Our Bunny’. Queenie’s brother-in-law Jack is played by Tony Caunter, then a jobbing character actor but now best known as Eastenders’ Roy Evans.
The star of the show was the late Diana Dors. In the 50s she had been what was then known as a ‘starlet’ and glamour model and had made several films, some of note, but was probably better known for her rather notorious party-girl image and publicity stunts – a sort-of 1950s Katie Price but with talent. By 1970, at the age of 39 and with her figure now somewhat fuller she was busy reinventing herself as a character actress of some skill and a prominent celebrity. She took up almost-permanent residence on TV chat shows and the popular quiz show Celebrity Squares (now there’s a format ripe for revival) and was known for her intelligence and sharp self-deprecating wit.
The role of Queenie suited her down to the ground and she brings to it the same sharp sense of humour and earthy sexiness for which she was best-known. Unfortunately the scripting and directing style required her to perform in a broad declamatory manner which was probably thought most suitable for the target audience of the times. She is also hampered by being coiffed and made up like a pantomime dame and costumed by the best that Littlewoods catalogue had to offer, no doubt to give her characterisation a sense of authenticity. Believe me there were definitely working class sexpot mums at that time who looked just like Queenie. But the strange dichotomy at the heart of the show is just how sexless Queenie is. Dors was still a sexy woman with a terrific pair of legs that were showcased at every opportunity and she could turn on the glamour when necessary – see the screencap below from the series two closer in which Queenie fantasises what life would be like if she won the Pools (no Lottery in those days). But she is never allowed to have any kind of romantic or sexual liaison. I imagine because her character is married with an absent husband and she is so domineering no man could stand up to her. Certainly not the four men she shares her home with (who share four bunk beds in one room – this is the 70s after all).
Overall, the show does improve as it goes on. Series one is too shouty and broad but by series two the scripts had improved and the cast are more relaxed with each other which comes across in the performances. Series three had a little more money spent on it but it’s all still end-of-the-pier stuff. Nothing in it made me laugh out loud but a few wry smiles were raised. Strictly for sitcom completists and Dors fans only.
Each of the three series consists of six 25-minute episodes complete with ad-break title cards. Each series has a disc to itself. For the first two series, most of the action is shot in the studio on video with the usual unplanned camera moves and line fluffs common to sitcoms of the time. There are occasional location sequences shot on very grainy film. Taking everything into consideration, the picture quality is pretty good and commensurate with other Network releases of the period. By the third series it appears the budgets were a little bigger and more filmed location work is featured. However the opening titles (on film) do get progressively more scratched and grubby as the years go by. And only the first two episodes of the first season are in colour. The remaining four are in watchable black-and-white.
Mono only but clear (although the theme music is quite muffled).
None at all.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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