THIS week, a fond look back at a classic example of the ‘so bad it’s good’ school of TV comedy. I refer you, m’lud, to Nearest and Dearest.
In seven series on Granada from 1968 to 1973, the early ones in black and white, this is the story of Eli Pledge and his sister Nellie, who are bequeathed a hefty sum by their father Joshua provided they work together for at least five years at the family business, Pledge’s Purer Pickles in Colne, Lancashire. No mean feat, because they hate each other’s guts.
The writer was the brilliant John Stevenson, who would provide some of the classic Coronation Street scripts from 1976 to 2006 as well as the sublime comedy series Brass, starring Timothy West as mill owner Bradley Hardacre, which I mentioned here.
Stevenson must have cringed to see the havoc wreaked on his work by Nellie, played by Hylda Baker, and Eli (Jimmy Jewel). They were both well known on the Northern comedy circuit, but actors they were not. Even from the earliest episodes they constantly fluffed their lines but retakes were rare, if at all. By the end Baker had to rely on cue cards, and whispered prompts from co-star Madge Hindle, to get through the script.
It didn’t help that Jewel and Baker loathed each other off screen as well as on. In this excellent piece, writer Graham McCann describes their working relationship as ‘the most toxic in the whole of British sitcom history’.
Much of the comedy is based around smutty double entendres and Nellie’s malapropisms. Asked by her cousin Lily Tattersall, played by Hindle, if she knows the facts of life, she draws herself up to her full 4ft 10in and declares: ‘Of course I do! I’m well over the age of content!’ In another episode, she has a would-be gentleman friend named Vernon Smallpiece, and calls him ‘Vermin Bigpiece’. She dismisses the womanising Eli as a ‘big girl’s blouse’ and asks him who he thinks he is ‘sat sitting there like a big business typhoon!’
Among the regular supporting cast was foreman Stan Hardman, played by the great Joe Gladwin, veteran of so many adverts for Hovis bread. At this point I can’t resist revisiting a spoof performed by, I think, the Grumbleweeds.
‘When I were a lad, me mam used to give me slice after slice of ’Ovis. It made me regular, regular as clockwork. Every mornin’ at six o’clock precisely I used to pass a large and healthy motion. Trouble were, I didn’t get up till seven.’
Another stalwart of the cast was Edward Malin, who played Lily’s mute and incontinent husband Walter – ‘have you been, Walter?’
A typical episode, which you can see here, is An Open And Shut Case, from series 4. It starts with Eli slurping a cup of tea with evident disgust – ‘I’ll kill that cat’ – before Nellie comes in wearing, for no apparent reason, oilskins and a sou’wester. ‘I feel like that Grace Darling when she’d been out all night struggling with the oars,’ she complains. ‘I’ve done a bit of that meself,’ replies Eli.
It emerges that the entire staff of the pickle factory have failed to turn up. ‘Absenteeism,’ they call it, says Eli. Nellie retorts: ‘If they want to go in for absenteeism, they can do it at ’ome.’
Lily and Walter are called in to help with the pickling and after a morning’s work it is discovered that Walter’s false teeth have gone missing. Eli concludes that they must be in one of 36 jars which have been delivered to a corner shop. Thirty-four are safely recovered but the remaining two are still at large. One has been bought by a nymphomaniac named Mrs Jones, whom Eli visits and whose husband comes home to smash the jar over his head – no dentures there. The last is behind the bar at the pub. Nellie tries to buy it but the landlord insists pickles are there not for sale but to be given away free with drinks.
Nellie works her way through almost the entire jar, washed down with copious schooners of sweet sherry. When the vicar, played by Roy Barraclough (like Madge Hindle a future Corrie star) comes in, he finds her in a drunken state and she belches mightily in his face.
Eventually, it turns out that the dentures were in Walter’s pocket all along.
OK, sophisticated is not the word that comes to mind but there is an inspired amateurishness about Nearest and Dearest which for me never palls. In fact I have just bought the entire 45-episode run on DVD and look forward greatly to being sat sittin’ in front of the telly.
Going back to Brass, I received an email from Ian Dickinson in deepest Yorkshire, alerting me to a blog he set up dedicated to the execrable poetry of Matthew Fairchild. You can find it here, and these are some of my favourite verses.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more interesting
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
But that is quite another thing.
To be or not to be
That is the question
It all depends
That is the answer.
Under the heavy bedspread me
And Patience twine us hands
A beauteous lady fair is she
What showed me promised lands.
And on a birthday card to Charlotte Hardacre:
A little bird tells me you’re eighteen
I bet you’re thrilled to bits
It wasn’t a robin redbreast
It was one of a pair of finches.
Old jokes’ home
I met a Dutch girl with inflatable footwear. Phoned her up for a date but she’d popped her clogs.
A PS from PG
‘Do you know,’ said a thoughtful Bean, ‘I’ll bet that if all the girls Freddie Widgeon has loved were placed end to end – not that I suppose one could do it – they would reach half-way down Piccadilly.’
‘Further than that,’ said the Egg. ‘Some of them were pretty tall.’
PG Wodehouse: Young Men in Spats