Friday Film (58)

For Simon Wood…

I was sad to hear — on my way to work, the other morning — of the death of actor Rodney Bewes at the age of 79. During my childhood, his distinctive, hamster-cheeked appearance — and his even more distinctive vocal delivery — made him an immediately recognisable figure in several TV and film  productions whose sheer quality meant that they became a valued part of my life.

I’m not able to remember the precise chronology; but there was a point when I recognised the twenty-something Bewes in the 1963 monochrome classic Billy Liar — in which he played Billy’s friend and songwriting partner Arthur Crabtree. Here’s the trailer: see if you can spot him…

(Full disclosure: for me, the ‘real’ Billy Liar was and is the version I saw first — which was the 27-episode LWT TV comedy series that ran from 1973-4… Sorry,  cinéastes; but much as I love the famous John Schlesinger movie (and its widely (and stupidly) misunderstood ending — which I will happily explain to anyone in return for a double whiskey), I actually feel it as something that followed the TV series, which starred Jeff Rawle and memorably co-starred George A. Cooper, Colin Jeavons and May Warden… [See the first episode here.] So now you know.)

Then there was Spring and Port Wine (1970) — which, to this day, I consider a marvellous depiction of industrial working class life and values in the north west of England at a time of rapid social and cultural change. In this film — written by Bill Naughton (1910-92), originally as a stage play, and set in Bolton, Lancs — Bewes played the ‘second-eldest child’ (he was actually 32 at the time!) of James Mason and Diana Coupland, I mean of Rafe and Daisy Crompton… Here’s a clip:

(And remember, folks: it’s in the nature of things … well, certain things, anyway … that Hannah Gordon — the woman playing young Harold’s big sister, Florence — was actually four years younger than Bewes…)

But, of course, the only reason I recognised Bewes in either of these films was that I already knew him as one of the ‘Likely Lads’

Now, this posting is one of our ongoing weekly series of ‘film and TV music’ pieces — and this is the point in it where the musical stuff starts to arrive. Because the first thing to say about our famous sit-com — written by the magnificent partnership of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais — is that, to start with, it didn’t have the music that everyone remembers. When it was just The Likely Lads (1964-6; 20 episodes, most of them since thrown away by the BBC), all the music was written by Ronnie Hazlehurst (1928-2007), and it sounded — as you would expect! — like this

The ‘other’ music — the song that everyone recalls — was written almost a decade later, for the follow-up series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, which ran from 1973-4 for a total of 27 episodes (every one of which has miraculously survived).

I myself am not old enough to remember anything at all about the original series’ first broadcasts; but these later outings of the same characters — Bewes playing ‘Bob Ferris’, a textbook exploration of how 70s working-class aspiration meant being tugged in two directions at once (and from within, as well as without) — are shows I remember very well indeed. And, as far as memorability goes, I stress that I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are actual lines from certain of these episodes that I remembered word-for-word, even though I never heard them more than once, and was a mere nine or ten years old at the time…

“… Your average nightly consumption’s a gallon…!”

Ah, yes: here it is…!

I think a good deal of this memorability had to do with the ‘atmosphere’ in which the show was watched in our house (and probably in many others as well…). Yes, there were incidents and utterances in the series that were funny in a straightforwardly comic sense; but over and above that was the feeling of danger that surrounded so many things the characters said and did. And, mostly, this danger was sexual. I don’t know which episode it was — because I’ve never seen it since — but I swear there was a point where Ferris’s unambitious and (in a stereotypical sense) ‘proudly working class’  friend Terry Collier (James Bolam) spoke the words ‘rape and pillage’ … and the air in our living-room absolutely froze

In short, a significant element of the show’s power was the highly unpredictable nature of its relationship with sexual mores at a time when the so-called ‘permissive society’ had apparently arrived in the UK, but in many places still hadn’t quite unpacked: you literally never knew what might be about to be either asserted or questioned — or just openly referred to — by the two central characters. (And if you need to be reminded just how ‘edgy’ BBC comedy could be back then, remember that there are at least two references to ‘wife swapping’ in The Good Life [1975-8]: I have another vivid memory of Margo Leadbetter’s concerned observation that ” … it’s already reached Esher…”)

But there is one other aspect to this 1970s incarnation of the show that I used to find genuinely intense — and this was the signature tune heard at the start and the end of each episode. Not knowing much in intellectual terms, back then, about what music was or how it worked, all I knew was that something almost distressingly surprising happened at the point when the music burst in to round off an episode. Here are three examples of those moments — with a bit of comic-dramatic context left in place…

If you’d asked me about all this at the time, the ten-year-old that was me might possibly have come up with two suggestions. (Yes, I was a comedy-analysis bore even then…) First, I could have drawn attention to how the entry of the music was carefully timed in regard to the comic content of the episode’s final filmed moment. Secondly, I could have pointed to that little stab of pain we all feel when meaningful TV comedy reaches its externally imposed ending and is wrenched away from us in an instant. But, as I now know, these two thoughts wouldn’t have been anything like the whole answer.

For when I saw some episodes of the show again, many years later, I suddenly realised that a major part of the answer — or, as I should perhaps say, a C-major part of the answer —  is this…

Yes: as you will just have heard and realised (I hope…), the opening music and the closing music are in different keys. The programme starts with music in C major — but ends with a sudden eruption of the same musical idea (though not quite the same music)  in D major, a whole tone higher. You may say that no-one without a sense of ‘absolute pitch’ would possibly react to a signature tune’s having jumped up a tone since it was last heard, 27 minutes and a lot of laughs earlier; my answer would be to say that, left conceptually unmolested, people are a lot smarter and more sensitive musically than they — and you — think they are. And, just for good measure, I’ll add a reminder that the great musical thinker and writer Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) was firmly of the aural opinion that the ‘supertonic major’ — that’s D major within a C major context — wasn’t even capable of functioning as a real key: I imagine that the end of the show would have made him jump as well…

But I’m not quite finished with the signature tune. Because, while I must have watched more old British sitcoms down the decades than anyone I know apart from Neil Clark, I’ve yet to encounter a single TV comedy theme-tune that is more achingly, sob-inducingly sad than this one.

It was poignant as hell back in the 70s; now, with so many of that world’s achievements erased — and so much of its working-class promise squandered — by the criminal insanity of a four-decade, life- and planet-destroying drive for short-term profit maximisation and elite hyper-enrichment, the little fragment of song breaks one’s heart…

Thanks for everything, Rodney, man…

MD

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3 thoughts on “Friday Film (58)

  1. Adds “Billy Liar” to Boxing Day film list and smiles heartily with all those Bob and Terry reminders. Terry’s eyes when Thelma starts cosying up to him are worth a micro donation on their own, even if I haven’t got a clue what D major within a C major context is all about…

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