Arthur Lowe’s final comedy performance proves a disappointment. Les reviews the Network DVD release…
This six-part sitcom was first broadcast in the summer of 1982, a few months after the untimely death of its leading man, Arthur Lowe. As a fan of his I was looking forward to seeing his final comedy performance but I was very dismayed by what I saw.
The character A J Wentworth began life in a column in the pages of Punch magazine in 1938. Based on the real-life experiences of its author H F Ellis, a retired teacher, the character went on to greater popularity in the 1950s in the USA in The New Yorker magazine. In the TV series, Wentworth is a maths teacher at Burgrove, a posh boys’ prep school in the 1940s. Although committed to his vocation his ineffectual attempts at discipline lead to the boys and other staff members running rings around him. Adapted by Basil Boothroyd, on paper this TV adaptation looked to have a winning formula. School-set sitcoms had always been popular on British telly whether it be London comprehensives (Please, Sir) or posh boarding schools (Billy Bunter, Whacko etc). On paper this should have been a success combining an already successful literary property with a popular headline star (Arthur Lowe) and a very impressive supporting cast (Harry Andrews, Marion Mathie, Deddie Davies etc). The script is very static and talky and relies upon having a top-of-his-game leading man to get the laughs while every other character plays it straight. Unfortunately what should have been its biggest asset, Arthur Lowe, is also its biggest handicap and the resulting series is, to put it kindly, a train wreck. Had Lowe been on the form he displayed in the early years of Dad’s Army with his clarion voice, old-school diction and pitch-perfect characterisation, this could have been quite watchable. Here he is much diminished by both age and drink.
Prior to 1968 Arthur Lowe had built a career as a highly-respected character actor both in comedy and drama working with many of the best British directors of the time. Short, stout and balding he specialised in playing Little Napoleons – pompous, fussy authority figures with delusions of grandeur. In 1968 he was cast in what became his most popular and defining role – Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. This ran for nine years and is still being repeated today. During that time he went from character actor to bona fide star and created one of the most enduring comedy characters in British telly. Throughout the 70s he featured in many TV comedies and Wentworth was his final starring role before his death in 1982. Unfortunately Lowe’s later years were plagued by chronic alcoholism which is very evident in this series. Compared to his beautifully precise turn in Dad’s Army, here he is an unfocussed mumbling shadow of himself constantly tripping over his lines and with a boozer’s nose that the make-up girls can barely conceal. Considering this was a studio-bound multi-camera show, Lowe delivers many of his lines in solo close-ups which suggest to me these were recorded separately to try and get the best take. Unfortunately this kills the energy of what should be a strong ensemble piece. For a fan of Lowe, like myself, it’s painful to watch him struggle so. Also, Lowe’s visible difficulty clearly has the rest of the cast on edge and the barking precocious child actors who share many of his scenes don’t have the solid anchor they need to build a successful rapport. Unfortunately the director doesn’t quite manage to pull it all together because, I imagine, he was so busy trying to get a performance out of Lowe everyone else in the cast were left to their own devices. In the case of the children this is very evident and the tight direction they needed is conspicuously absent. As a result of all this the show is just boring and even, at times, verges on being unwatchable.
There are, however, some plusses. Now and again Lowe musters flashes of his old brilliance and he even occasionally manages some successful repartee. He also resorts to some of his tried-and-tested tricks to pick things up a bit and while hardly constituting a rounded performance they help to make up for the significant deficiencies. The supporting cast includes some top talent of the time. Harry Andrews had been a staple of British cinema and TV, specialising in uptight military roles and here, as the headmaster, he brings his usual authority and a strong presence. Marion Mathie, best known from Mapp and Lucia, embodied condescending snobbery like few others. As the school matron and Wentworth’s bete-noire she enlivens every scene she is in and is probably the most watchable element of this series. It’s a great pity then she doesn’t have much to do.
If you want to see Arthur Lowe at his considerable best then find some DVDs of Dad’s Army or Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s films. Otherwise best to give this a miss unless you are a Network sitcom completist.
The six 25-minute episodes are contained on a single disc. The bulk of the series was shot in the studio on video and there are occasional location scenes shot on 16mm film. The tapes used for the transfer are in excellent shape and the mono soundtrack is undamaged although Lowe’s slurred delivery is often difficult to make out. There are no extras.
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