Friday, 29 March 2013

Hardwicke House


If there’s a setting which is symbiotic with the heartbeat of comedy then it surely has to be a secondary school. The anarchic unpredictably of hormonally challenged teenagers is enough, on its own, to cultivate extreme laughter. But then you also have that age old comedy favourite of battling with authoritarian figures in the form of teachers. It’s these teachers, though, who are most interesting. Charged with corralling together unenthusiastic pupils and prone to their own flights of grandeur and pettiness, teachers are rich in comedy. A lesson in this comedic exercise can be found in Hardwicke House.

RG Wickham (Roy Kinnear) is the hard-drinking headmaster of Hardwicke House, a crumbling and graffiti ridden secondary school in the Midlands. Rebellion and anarchy is the stock-in-trade of the pupils at Hardwicke House and Wickham struggles to contain it. Unfortunately, for Wickham, he’s helpless in the face of rampaging pupils climbing up assembly hall curtains and setting up a breakers yard in the car park to earn a few quid. And this isn’t just because Wickham is partial to a lunchtime sherry or two. Equally culpable of letting chaos run untempered is the teaching staff of Hardwicke House.

Deputy head Paul Mackintosh (Roger Sloman) is determined to undermine Wickham at every chance. The Dickensian cruelty of Herbert Fowl (Granville Saxton) underlines his role as a narcissistic sociopath. Dick Flashman (Gavin Richards) has a charming smile which he regularly uses to disguise his slick crafty nature. A wet weekend elongated to a lifetime sums up the personality of anxious geography teacher Peter Philpott (Nick Wilton). And then there is Cynthia Crabbe (Pam Ferris), a French teacher with radical and impassioned liberal leanings.

Awaiting this hodgepodge of educational egos are a series of manic adventures. Ex-pupils return from a spell in borstal to take up a number of grievances with Fowl. Wickham struggles to impress a South African ambassador whilst the school descends into a riot. Flashman applies his cunning wiles to a plan that promises to save Philpott’s career. And Fowl is crucified live on stage as part of a school play. Amongst the teachers narratives there’s also room to look at the pupils. Some of the teachers look a little too closely at glamorous 6th former Donna (Cindy Day) whilst they all steer clear of future crime boss Slasher Bates (Kevin Allen) who likes to feed younger pupils raw liver.

Recorded in the Summer of 1986, at a disused school in Nottingham, Hardwicke House was a product of Central Television’s output. Writing the series were Simon Wright and Richard Hall, both ex-teachers and relatively new to scriptwriting, although Wright had previously produced The Comic Strip’s feature-film The Supergrass. John Stroud, a stalwart of directing British comedy until his untimely death in 2009, took on the task of directing all seven episodes. But there was a slight problem which would dog the efforts of all the cast and crew. Only the first two episodes (out of seven recorded were ever transmitted.

The hour-long debut and 30-minute followup episode were transmitted on consecutive evenings in February 1987 in 8pm and 8.30pm timeslots respectively. And the result was a frenzied criticism from the public, critics and teachers. The rest of the series’ run was swiftly axed with Andy Allen from Central conceding that it had not gone down well with viewers. Central remained optimistic, however, that the series would eventually air in a late-night slot. It was a suitable and sensible plan, but ultimately one that failed to come to fruition. And, as the furore died down, all but the most ardent comedy fans forgot it had even aired in the first place.

Nick Wilton, a friend of the Curious British Telly mission, took the time to regale me with a few memories regarding the production of Hardwicke House:

"I don’t think I was on the list that the casting director drew up, but one of my best friends was up for a part in the series and said he thought there was a part that I’d be a good fit for - the well-intentioned but naive new teacher, Peter Philpott. I phoned my agent and they managed to get me an interview. Sadly my friend didn’t get the part he was up for.

It fantastic to work with such an incredible cast. Roy Kinnear was an absolute legend and I loved his dry sense of humour. I was a huge fan of Roger Sloman too - I regularly rewatch the BBC play Nuts in May, which I managed to record on one of its reruns. Most of my scenes were with Granville Saxton, and I loved working with him - if the series had run its course (and the second series, which we were already contracted for) I’m sure he would have become a household name. I had some fascinating chats with Gavin Richards about the Dario Fo play Accidental Death of an Anarchist which he adapted and starred in (and which I had played at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton).

The series was shot on single camera. It was a lot of fun and we had a lot of laughs shooting it in a disused school. The kids were great. I also remember some fun journeys back to London on the train with other members of the cast - Kevin Allen, in particular, being a little bit “mischievous”. Unfortunately it wasn’t really suitable for the early time slot which meant that a lot of people were offended by it. The comedy was extreme at times and the education system was not portrayed favourably. I had already signed for the second series so had turned down other work, but that's how the industry works sometimes!"

If there has been a sitcom enshrined in mystery and half-truths then it is Hardwicke House. The series’ mostly unaired status has led to all manner of rumours building up amongst ardent comedy aficionados. Pinpointing the existence and location of the master tapes have been subject to the most speculation. Some say that Central incinerated the tapes and scattered the ashes in Antartica. Others state that government officials seized the tapes under the Obscene Publications Act and are currently locked in a vault under Whitehall. More sensibly, some say they sit on a shelf in the ITV archive. Thankfully, in 2019, all the episodes leaked online. 

With all these episodes now in the public domain it’s possible to take a comprehensive look at Hardwicke House. And the concept of the series gets it off to a flying start. The pupils provide a fine bedrock of chaos – see how the terrified residents of nearby houses board up their windows and retreat inside when it’s the end of the school day – but focussing on the children would have been too obvious. Besides, Grange Hill was delivering a nice line in comedy at the time. Anyway, the writers of Hardwicke House instead train their focus on the petty, childish and squabbling characters within the staffroom.

The characters, although skirting a little too close to caricature at times, are instantly recognisable to anyone who passed through British education in the 20th century. At times they are disturbingly accurate, a case in point being Mackintosh’s worrisome obsession with the bodies of pubescents. Fowl also strikes a chord as an old school disciplinarian whose contempt for children is bafflingly at odds with his profession. Wickham, too, seems to have little interest in his pupils, but his motivation has clearly been eroded over the years and now marinades in assorted alcohols.

What really stands out in these characters are the performances. Roy Kinnear could have changed his name to Mr Sitcom and no one would have batted an eyelid. That’s how talented he is. And the tragicomedy world-weariness he brings to Wickham is superb. Gavin Richard’s wide boy charms have never had a greater platform to shine as the wheeler dealer Flashman. The delusive optimism and meek trappings of Philpott are explored with finesse by Nick Wilton. Granville Saxton, an expert in villainous characters, pitches Fowl with the requisite odiousness. And Pam Ferris excels in displaying the pretentious and cartoonish sloganeering of Crabbe.

“But what about Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson’s performance?” I hear you cry. Well, what else would you expect from the ruling monarchs of anarchy and alternative comedy? From the moment they manically race into the grounds of Hardwicke House, destroying the playground in the process, they are in imperial form. Mayall is at his high octane best as Lenny and Edmondson imbues Tiny with a mind-numbing moronity. It’s truly one of the greatest guest star appearances that no one knows about. And whilst we’re discussing Hardwicke House pupils, Kevin Allen deserves singling out as a major highlight with his confident bully boy turn as Slasher.

All of these elements, however, mean little without the scripts. So, how do they fare? Well, for a start, they aren’t that offensive. But they do feel near the knuckle for a pre-watershed series. A pupil being electrocuted and a vicar being killed aren’t common tropes of primetime sitcoms, so it feels an odd move by the schedulers. But Hall and Wright can hardly be held account for what time ITV decided to transmit Hardwicke House. What’s more disappointing is that the implied paedophilia of Mackintosh and Flashman’s manipulation of Donna breezes by without so much as a challenge. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth due to the characters’ lack of comeuppance and fails disastrously in using comedy to condemn.

Nonetheless, the scripts do start to build traction following the clumsy look at South African politics in the first episode. Hall and Wright clearly know their way round a plot and their experience in teaching keenly informs the power struggles of the staffroom. It wouldn’t be entirely unfair, though, to say the scripts lack big laughs. And this, along with the general lack of sympathy generated for the teachers, provides the biggest thorn in Hardwicke House’s side. It doesn’t feel like a traditional gag-fest sitcom, hence no laughter track, but it’s too cartoonish to fit comfortably into the comedy-drama niche.

If you’re expecting an alternative comedy that rivals The Young Ones then Hardwicke House is not the series you’re looking for. There’s a brand of anarchy at the heart of Hardwicke House but it’s tame and only sprinkled throughout the series. More pointedly, it’s painfully obvious that the scripts require a further edit to bolster the comedy. And, despite fine performances, Icelandic teacher Moose (Duncan Preston) and PE teacher Savage (Tony Haygarth), need chopping as these barely traced characters add nothing.

It’s easy, given the legends that have been constructed around it, to be harsh on Hardwicke House and, in many respects, it’s deserving of criticism. But if you look a little closer you’ll find that there’s something worthy bubbling away at its heart. There are some fantastic performances, which segue into engaging double acts such as Flashman/Philpott, and the plots benefit from innovation and a sprightly pace. With a little refinement, and better scheduling, Hardwicke House could have developed into something exciting. Regardless of the series’ faults, it remains of absolute interest to any aficionado of British comedy.

11 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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    2. Well, many people expect to find everything for free online. Actually I didn't go through with it either... But I'm not in the UK so I have that excuse too.

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  4. Buying from ITN source would not give you the copyright surely?

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  5. Anyone know what building they used for the external shots?

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  6. All episodes available now on YOUTUBE! Enjoy (or not!) at your leisure....

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  7. This series was a total misadventure in every way. I'm not sure they gave much thought to the practical (especially acoustic) aspects of shooting it entirely on location (in what looks like an effectively derelict building) either.

    What I will say though is that it is kind of refreshing that in those days this sort of thing could still make it to the screen. There was enough chaos in the system for wild outliers (good and bad) to sometimes break through the safety net of averageness.

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  8. I think it's hilarious, especially the School Inspector Ep. With accurate publicity it would've been a cult. I've been called that.

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