Les reviews the Network DVD release of this eighties ITV sitcom starring Mollie Sugden…
As part of Network’s continuing tsunami of ITV sitcom releases, series one of That’s My Boy takes its turn to hit the shelves. First transmitted in October 1981 and written by Pam Valentine and Michael Ashton the show was conceived as a vehicle for Mollie Sugden. At that time Mollie was an extremely popular comedy actress and was still appearing as her most enduring character, Mrs Slocombe, in the BBC’s classic nudge-nudge sitcom Are You Being Served?. Having said which, that show had been on air for about nine years by then and had already slid into terminal self-parody. She had also appeared regularly throughout the 70s in another very popular BBC sitcom, The Liver Birds as Sandra’s ghastly snobbish mother. I have to pin my colours to the mast here and declare myself a fan back in the day. However I’d never seen this particular series because, believe it or not, I didn’t have a telly at that time.
As a Yorkshirewoman Mollie tended to stick to her roots and play Northern characters, even Mrs Slocombe whose snooty hauteur was quickly discarded in favour of Yorkshire underpinnings when exasperated – as she so frequently was. Her typecasting could also probably be put down to her physical appearance. She was no beauty and possessed of a ‘Junoesque’ figure (as Mrs Slocombe would say) so she was never going to play elegant or romantic leads. She also had a great gift for physical comedy and as such was a fearless performer and completely unconcerned about how ridiculous she might look – which sometimes worked against her.
That’s My Boy was not the first sitcom designed to capitalise on her popularity. She had, a few years earlier, taken the lead in the now-notorious Goodbye Mrs Noah for the BBC written by the creator of Are You Being Served?. It is now regarded as one of the worst sitcoms ever made despite her efforts. As a performer she wasn’t as technically accomplished an actress as say Thora Hird and she avoided the path taken by many comedy performers in their later years who move into straight drama such as Thora did in her 70s to great acclaim. But this may also have been due to the years of serious illness she endured in later life. Although Mollie had a limited bag of tricks at her disposal she used those she did have very effectively. If repeatedly. A little Mollie certainly went a long way.
The basic premise of That’s My Boy stretches credulity. She plays Ida Willis, an irascible Yorkshire housekeeper who now works for various middle-class families (presumably in London). Having left yet another job she installs herself as live-in housekeeper to a young couple Robert (Christopher Blake) and Angela (Jennifer Lonsdale). He is a doctor and she is a model. By the end of the first episode she has established, by chance, that he is the child she gave up for adoption twenty-seven years earlier when she was what was then known as ‘an unmarried mother’. And that’s it. She continues to work for the couple whilst exercising her rights as a mother over her son, to his and his snooty adoptive mother’s disgust. The remaining episodes deal with the usual variety of domestic misunderstandings common to sitcoms of the time.
Along with many of the other bread-and-butter sitcoms that the various ITV companies used to churn out, this is designed to deliver the largest audience it can to the station’s advertisers and so had to have mass appeal. It is by no means sophisticated comedy. The sits and com are farcical and end-of-the-pier in style which suited Mollie’s broader, more physical style of comedy down to the ground. The actors playing the young couple are both appealing and attractive. Christopher Blake was already known for his work in the drama Love for Lydia but appears out of his depth with comedy but that could be due to his character being severely under-written and deliberately made unsympathetic to the audience. His visible discomfort could also be put down to him having to appear shirtless in every episode which would be quite unusual for a mainstream sitcom these days. Jennifer Lonsdale who plays his wife also has an attractive screen presence and shows a lot of skin but is the least capable actor of the three leads and gets by but no more. She and Christopher Blake are little more than decorative eye-candy and are there merely as foils to Mollie.
The production method may also have had something to with this. Having sat in several sitcom audiences in the 80s I can say that the proceedings are very theatrical in style. A whole episode is recorded in one evening in front of a studio audience and played out in continuity which is why many older sitcoms tend to look like stage farces because that’s essentially what they were. Time pressures are so great there are few opportunities for retakes so the actors are expected to rattle through regardless and without a top-flight script and cast (such as in, say Steptoe and Son) the results can often feel wanting. But we mustn’t forget these episodes were only meant to be seen once and the target audience were notoriously undemanding so it didn’t really matter as long as they kept tuning in each week. Unlike American sitcoms, most British efforts only had a run of six episodes a year.
The set contains six 25-minute episodes on a single-sided disc.
Transfer and Sound
This was clearly one of the less expensive series to produce as it was almost entirely studio-based and so shot almost entirely on video. The quality of the tapes is exemplary with no visible damage at any time. The few location scenes were shot on 16mm film and are also in excellent shape. As these archive releases go the picture is as good as you could expect. The mono soundtrack is in similarly excellent shape.
None at all.
Criticisms aside, the show is moderately entertaining. The cast are well-rehearsed, no-one trips over the furniture and the show is technically slick overall. Something which is strikingly unusual is that there is little indulgence in the excesses of 80s fashion. The costumes and hairstyles are conservative and relatively undated which gives the show a more universal appeal. It isn’t a hollow nostalgia exercise. The show was also one of the more popular sitcoms of the 80s as it ran for six series and several Xmas specials which is a success by any standards. Network will no doubt release these in the near future.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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