Hardwicke House

Genre: Sitcom
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 24/02/1987 - 25/02/1987



Before starting secondary school, Curious British Telly assumed that it was going to be exactly like Grange Hill. We were, therefore, prepared to steal cars, kill people and hunt for ghosts overnight with the caretaker.

Sadly, these levels of excitement were never matched, but there was that one crazy summer where we were crowned UK School Quiz champions.

A better reference point for the secondary school experience would have been Hardwicke House - essentially a mish mash of ideas with irritating characters and terrible jokes.

Back to Class

Hardwicke House is a sitcom heavily indebted to anarchy and therefore labelled as part of the 'alternative' comedy scene of the 80s. The episodes are set against the ghastly backdrop of an inner city school, Hardwicke House. The stories are mostly driven by the heightened behaviour of teachers who care very little for the pupils under their supervision.

There are surreal flourishes such as a vicar being killed by a falling crucifix whilst even more sedate plots such as the delivery of stationary are pushed to the extreme.

Trying to ignore the ever present chaos is headmaster RG Wickham (Roy Kinnear) who would ideally be in a nice private school rather than glugging whiskey and praying for a way out. His right hand man is the creepy deputy head Paul Mackintosh (Roger Sloman) - a character that perhaps every schoolchild will recognise before shuddering uncontrollably. The head of English position is taken by the terribly punned Herbert Fowl (Granville Saxton) who was seemingly unaware that corporal punishment had recently been banned in state schools.

Following on from the language department is a youthful Pam Ferris as French teacher, Mrs Crabbe - the show's 'right on' character. Continuing the show's mindnumbing ability to conjure up terrible monikers is the wheeler dealer History teacher, Mr Flashman (Gavin Richards). A more conservative and teacherly name is given to the new Geography teacher, Peter Philpott (Nick Wilton), who wants nothing more than to educate the masses about oxbow lakes.

Being a school, there are, of course, pupils present. Frequently pictured as a stampeding, pillaging mob, there are a few pupils which we get to know throughout the series. The obligatory 'bad boy' is Slasher Bates - destined to leave school and run protection rackets - played by the 'actually in his mid-20s', Kevin Allen. A spotty nerd, who else, also makes the cast list in the guise of Spotty (Paul Spurrier) who, as Head Boy, spends most of his time polishing apples for the teachers, only to be met with disgust and ridicule due to his complexion.

The Head Girl position has been awarded to Donna (Cindy Day) and this may, or may not be, due to her conformity in wearing various sexual outfits bestowed on her by the teachers.

Schools Out!

A seven episode series produced by Central Television, Hardwicke House was due to be transmitted between February - April 1987 at 8.30pm on ITV.

Hardwicke House was the first writing effort of Richard Hall and Simon Wright who had first met whilst teaching several years before. Having made a surfeit of appalling observations on school life, they decided to collate them together and get writing.

Speaking just before production began on the series, Wright said "It's such a rich subject, so ripe for this kind of treatment. Nothing that's happened to me at anytime in my life is anything like the three tears I spent teaching. I'm amazed that no one's done this sort of thing for such a long time.". 

The first episode of the series aired on 24th February 1987 and was a double length episode. This episode, The Visit, saw the son of the South African ambassador starting at Hardwicke House and subsequently getting lost amongst the chaos of the school.

The show met with something of a critical and public battering. According to The Sun (so take with a pinch of salt), ITV switchboards were jammed with complaints. Mary Whitehouse was also hovering in the background and was described, hilariously, by Wright as "a stupid old woman". An outraged mother, meanwhile, screeched "How dare they put it out so early when children are still watching telly."

The second episode, First Day of Term, aired the next night on 25th February 1987 and was a standard 30 minute episode. Centreing around the delivery of school stationary, various members in the school seem rather obsessed on getting their hands on this rare commodity.

The latest episode did little to quell the outcry over the show, so director of programmes at Central, Andy Allan, pulled the plug on the series.

Allan explained that "Our research indicates that Hardwicke House has a certain appeal to young adults but it's clear that its current time of 8.30 p.m. is not acceptable to the majority of viewers.".

Attempts were made to reschedule the series for a later time slot, but this never came to fruition; since 1987, Hardwicke House has never been repeated.

There is great interest in the untransmitted episodes - particularly one which featured Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson returning to the school as pupils from borstal and trying to topple Slasher. A short 20 second clip of their performance survives as an outtake which is up on YouTube - it's typical 80s Rik and Ade which tantalisingly promises a great, lost episode.

There were fears that Central had panicked and erased the tapes to soothe the viewing public, however, this was never actioned and the tapes remain. Somewhere.

Putting on the School Blazer

Curious British Telly was rather baffled by Hardwicke House for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there's the labelling of the show as 'alternative comedy'. Sure, there are hints of anarchy and some surreal moments - Slasher's gang member Junior gobbling down raw liver is a bizarre image - but these also seem to be linked to some conventional and outdated humour.

Take Donna, for example, she seems to be nothing but an excuse to have a dolly bird in revealing outfits. Where the writers could have lent her some savvy to skewer the sexual politics in the school, they have, instead, left her as a leftover from a Carry On film.

Interestingly, Simon Wright had worked as a producer with the godfather's of alternative comedy on The Comic Strip Presents. Unfortunately, we don't feel as though he brought enough of their parody expertise over to Hardwicke House.

Whether it is 'alternative' or 'traditional' is a moot point when you begin to wonder if it is actually comedy at all. We perhaps smirked once or twice through the 80 or so minutes we watched, so it's an abysmal hit rate. Compare this to Red Dwarf - itself quite an alternative comedy - which would follow the next year and is still funny 25 years later.

It was a first attempt by Wright and Hall at a sitcom, so we perhaps shouldn't be harsh. Some more experienced names in the writing credits wouldn't have hurt though. This experience may also have led to the formation of more rounded characters. Those present seem quite one dimensional - Mrs Crabbe is portrayed as striving for moral virtues, but this is never pushed to the ridiculous extremes needed for a comedy and why is she like this? Sadly, her surface remains unscratched and we never see what's beneath.

Slasher, again, is a similar case in point and remains nothing more than a caricature of a school bully - perhaps seeing a different side to him, such as an under the thumb boyfriend could have been more entertaining. RG Wickham gets close to the pathos required, but he seems lost amongst the myriad of characters running riot. Some more screen time for him and his predicament of overseeing the chaos would have been a good focal point for the series.

Aside from our horror regarding the show, the public were suitably outraged as only precious humans can be. Now, we love nothing more than a good furore - especially when Mary Whitehouse rears her head. Therefore, we were rather disappointed to find that Hardwicke House wasn't the subversive, shocking show that 1980s parents thought would corrupt the youth.

Of course, 2013 is a very different televisual landscape to that of 1987, so it's interesting to see what was considered subversive in the near distant past - frankly, it's nothing compared to Kinga with the wine bottle on Big Brother *shudders*.

The one moment that did seem a bit close to the knuckle was the electrocution scene. The charred schoolgirl being carried out isn't a pleasant scene and does seem out of place for a show being broadcast in the 8.30pm slot. However, the pulling of the show from the schedules has given it a unique, curious edge which, perhaps, wouldn't have been present had it been broadcast at 10pm. Either way, we still would have given it a review.

Believe it or not, there are some things we like about the show. The opening credits and music (composed by Peter Brewis) are so incredibly 1980s that you're taken back to a time where saxophones, drum machines, graffiti and photo animation reigned supreme. One character that we were really keen on was Harry Flashman - Gavin Richards was born to play dodgy Londoners and we're always keen to see him pop up. His performance saves Flashman from being reduced to just another stereotype and brought some much needed charm to the series.

The show's mysterious status is very appealing too - the short outtake that surfaced featuring Rik Mayall and Ade Edmundson promises that perhaps the writers could have captured the hyper, manic edge they failed to achieve in the first two episodes. Quite why the show wasn't just moved to a later timeslot, or even to Channel 4, remains a mystery and it would be interesting to hear from some Central executives on why this never materialised.

Final Grade

Ultimately, we see the show as a big failure.

Many years later, in 2001, Teachers began airing on Channel 4 and showed how to pull off the act of depicting 'respectable adults' acting worse than the children.

The two broadcast episodes of Hardwicke House were, luckily, recorded and are now housed on YouTube - don't expect any 1080p sharpness from the episodes, but they're watchable enough.

A real oddity in the past of British TV, we would welcome a DVD release of the show just to see what happened as the series went on. As it is, we can't see that happening due to the lack of interest.

LINKS

School's Out! - A very detailed overview on the show and it's history - http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/?page_id=330

PRESS CUTTINGS




Broadcast - 06/03/1987 

 










Glasgow Herald - 26/02/1987 pg.28

CONVERSATION

3 comments:

  1. I remember watching the first two episodes of Hardwicke House in 1987 and thinking they were a bit different to the usual ITV fare, but not necessarily in a good way. Bear in mind I was only thirteen at the time and therefore any depiction of a nightmarish school where all the teachers were either psychotic or incompetent and all the pupils were irredeemably dense was always going to be a winner, but there was nothing going on here that Grange Hill, the Bash Street Kids, Ripping Yarns and the St Trinian's films hadn't already done. ITV clearly primed the series as a big hitter, hence the presence of several very decent British character comedy actors (Roger 'Mr Bastard' Sloman, Nick Wilton, Tony Haygarth and Roy Kinnear among them) and heavy publicity in the TV Times, but it seems nobody had taken into account the fact that the scripts stank. Conspiracy theories working overtime here, I'd guess someone high up at ITV saw the programmes, thought "Oh Christ, what have we done? This is dreadful" and decided to run it into the ground as quickly as possible by cooking up a nice bit of boil-in-the-bag instant controversy. How best to do that? Schedule it in the 8pm weekday slot. Had Hardwicke House gone out in the Spitting Image / Hale and Pace Sunday 10pm slot, it wouldn't have raised a single eyebrow - in fact, it would have looked very tame indeed.

    I'd like to say that this is some great piece of art martyred on the cross of political correctness, but it really isn't. Like a lot of comedy series that whipped up a stormcloud of protest, taken out of context, away from all the fuss and furore, Hardwicke House just wasn't very good. If it has an antecedent, that would be Curry and Chips - the painfully unfunny Johnny Speight-penned Spike Milligan / Eric Sykes blackface bonanza routinely described as one of the funniest series of all time by people who haven't actually seen it, feigning outrage because it was cancelled after only six episodes by PC killjoys who failed to recognize the genius therein. Like Curry and Chips, Hardwicke House may have a lot of talented people in it and a reputation that grows unchecked with each passing year, but it would be a strange fan who rates it as the best work of anyone involved.

    Incidentally, the show's writers later collaborated on Roy Chubby Brown's dreadful big-screen debut U.F.O, a film which even its star has little time for.

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  2. It can be ordered from ITN source. At 150 quid an episode. I wonder how many copies one would have to sell on ioffer to recuperate that...

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    1. How easy is it to get stuff from ITN Source though? I think I looked into getting something else from them once and gave up as it seemed nigh on impossible. Even at £150 I'm pretty certain that several people would have purchased these already and made mention of it online.

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