Saturday, 5 November 2016
The world of boxing may be brutal and drenched in machismo, but there's a certain romance behind its narrative which is difficult to deny. Packed full of rags to riches charm and containing a multitude of colourful, yet highly dubious characters, it's no surprise that the public have such a fervoured interest in the stories which take place in and out of the ring.
The success of films such as Rocky and Raging Bull are proof of this demand, but, generally, these narratives have focused squarely on drama and rarely comedy. Sure, I guess you could say that Rocky V was a comedy, but that was purely unintentional. And this lack of comedy is a surprise considering that boxers are firmly committed to that cornerstone of all great comedy characters: an unshakeable sense of self belief
However, the world of pugilism colliding with comedy in a hefty uppercut isn't completely uncharted territory as British boxing discovered in Seconds Out.
Transmission: 1981 - 1982
Pete Dodds (Robert Lindsay) is a promising young British middleweight hailing from the rough and unforgiving streets of Derbyshire. However, Dodds' ascent to the top is stalling due to his in-ring buffoonery which he claims is crucial to mark him out as an entertainer. Unfortunately, for Dodds, all it's doing is chipping away at his credibility and slowly inching him away from a shot at the British title.
Luckily, boxing manager Tom Sprake (Lee Montague) has been keeping tabs on Dodds and can see the potential in his toughened knuckles. Sending his trusted trainer Dave Locket (Ken Jones) to sound out Dodds, Sprake is keen to take the young pugilist under his management. The initial meeting, though, goes disastrously with Dodds mocking Locket's credentials and christening him Granddad.
It's everything that Sprake feared would define Dodds' lack of professionalism, but Sprake also realises that he can exploit the tension between Dodds and Locket to focus Dodds' errant mind and channel his aggression into his training. Following a meeting with Sprake, Dodds discovers that Locket is genuine and agrees to come on board.
Together, this trio will compete with disastrous photoshoots, shady characters hoping to exploit Dodds' new fame and even a disastrous retreat to one of Britain's most depressing hotels as Dodds tries to climb up the ladder to championship glory. And, to add an extra dimension of frisson, Dodds only goes and lands himself a girlfriend in series two in the form of bleach blonde beauty Hazel (Leslie Ash).
Training For The Big Fight
Airing over two series between 1981 - 82, a total of 13 episodes (all titled Round 1, 2, 3 etc) of Seconds Out were produced by the BBC and transmitted on Tuesday (Series 1) and Thursday (Series 2) evenings at 8.30pm. The first series was never repeated on terrestrial TV, but the second was able to muster up a solitary repeat in 1983. No commercial releases have followed, but pirate copies of the series (hewn from UK Gold repeats in the 90s) are floating around.
Seconds Out came from the pen of Bill MacIlwraith, a writer of some renown who had started off his career as a RADA trained actor before deciding that his future lay within the world of scriptwriting. A technically adept writer, MacIlwraith wrote long running West End plays alongside TV shows such as The Human Jungle, Two's Company and episodes of Armchair Theatre.
Producing Seconds Out was legendary producer Roy Butt whose long list of credits contains such comedy gems as Only Fools and Horses, Are You Being Served and Last of the Summer Wine. Butt, of course, had previously worked with Robert Lindsay on the second series of Citizen Smith where one of Butt's main objectives was to improve cast punctuality.
And the Citizen Smith link continues as Seconds Out replaced a proposed John Sullivan sitcom entitled Over the Moon which would have seen Robert Lindsay playing a football manager determined to rise through the leagues with great success. With Over the Moon cancelled, Sullivan consoled himself by getting started on a little sitcom called Only Fools and Horses...
Getting In The Ring
Much like anyone in these fair isles with an ounce of taste and a pulse, I've long admired the fantastic talents of Robert Lindsay. A comic actor of the highest degree he's captivated audiences with his comedic turns in Citizen Smith, Nightingales and My Family to cherry pick but a few. And Lindsay, of course, can back this all up with a strong set of credentials as a serious actor which has seen him pick up BAFTA, Tony and Olivier awards.
It's this level of acting expertise that, combined with the relative obscurity of the show, made Seconds Out so appealing for me. Here was a chance to view the young Robert Lindsay, hungry for creating amazing entertainment on our screens in a setting which had rarely been employed in the world of sitcom. And hardly anyone could remember the series either, so it almost felt custom made for Curious British Telly.
An episode had surfaced on YouTube a few years back, but had since been removed. However, if you look hard enough (or shell out a few quid) you can soon get your grubby, nostalgic mitts on both series. With these in my possession, I stepped into the ring with Seconds Out.
Now, the first thing you're probably interested in is whether Robert Lindsay has undergone a gruelling training regime and strict diet of egg white encased chicken breasts in order to transform his body à la Robert de Niro in Raging Bull. Well, the answer is no as Lindsay merely looks in decent shape for a man in his early 30s.
However, his apparent lack of method acting doesn't harm his acting talents in Seconds Out. In fact, as Pete Dodds he's better than ever and, thanks to the strong characterisation provided by MacIlwraith, Lindsay gets to showcase his wide range of expressive acting and that wonderful comic timing which has served him well over the decades. Naturally, his performance also benefits from the fantastic talent around him.
Lee Montague, as ever, is in effervescent form with his irresistible Jewish cockney charm informing every syllable that spills out of his mouth. And it's amazing to believe that, on the evidence of this cheery, enthusiastic patter - Montague is equally adept at slipping into menacing guises, but take a look at his past credits and you'll discover just how diverse his acting can be.
Likewise, Ken Jones brings an experienced cynicism to Dave Locket with shades of arrogance and trademark Northern bloody mindedness. Despite all this, Jones still manages to conjure up a likeable character and even, in one episode where it looks like his career as a trainer is over, empathy. And if that doesn't speak volumes about his abilities, I don't know what does.
Perhaps the only disappointment is Leslie Ash. She's not given any particularly interesting storylines as Hazel, though, so it's not a surprise that she fails to engage. And, aged just 21, it's not surprising that she's outshone by those around her. It's by no means a terrible performance and joining the series halfway through was always going to be a struggle, but she falls just short here.
And it's in the dialogue that Seconds Out allows these characters to shine, particularly the male triumvirate. MacIlwraith had, by this point, a rich pedigree in writing for stage and screen, so it's no surprise to discover that Seconds Out is a dialogue heavy affair. However, far from being a leaden, dreary affair discussing ducks flying south from Moscow, it's a sprightly dialogue packed full of vim and vigour with plenty of what we refer to these days as "banter" from Dodds.
The dialogue succeeds in being so engaging because Dodds, Sprake and Locket are such a wonderful set of characters. All squabbling together as a tight unit, they're all striving for the same result but disagree on how they're going to get Dodds to fame and glory. Naturally, the old hands of Sprake and Locket feel that they're best equipped to plot this course due to their experience, but Dodds grouses at this proposed relinquishment over his own destiny and helps to stoke the fires of tension between the trio.
Clearly, from my gushing praise so far, Seconds Out has a strong foundation for MacIlwraith to build a fine sitcom on, but how do the plots stand up? Do they drive the action forwards with all the fleet footed magic of a featherweight at the top of their game? Or do they flail around like a lumpen heavyweight who's seen better days? Well, I'd say they're closer to a middleweight who can't quite fulfil their promise.
Seconds Out follows the world of boxing closely, but there's no wry skewering of the politics of boxing (just look at Don King, his hairstyle alone is a long running sitcom) and, instead, the narrative follows Dodds' gradual rise to the top. Unfortunately, the individual plots feel a little trifling and lacking in depth on the whole and this is where Seconds Out fails to land a killer knockout blow.
Take, for example, the episode which sees Dodds, Sprake and Locket holed up in a godawful hotel with a depressingly strict and miserable owner. It's a classic sitcom setup and taps into that sense of being trapped, which all the best comedy exploits. However, there's no journey taking place for the characters or even the plot. There's a few set pieces which create a few giggles, but the characters merely move from the hotel to the hospital and back again in which feels like a wasted half hour.
Other episodes have great setups, but still fail to make the most of them which, again, is a little frustrating. This is best observed in the series two episode which sees the apparent movie mogul George trying to exploit Dodds' new found wealth by conning him into funding a film which Steven Spielberg is 'interested' in. Conflict between Dodds, Sprake and Locket reigns supreme and we see Dodds' soft underbelly exposed to a harsh world he's not quite ready to deal with yet.
However, George remains nothing more than an unheard voice at the end of a phone and, as a result, the episode feels a little one dimensional. It's in sharp contrast to the Fawlty Towers episode 'A Touch of Class' where we're confronted with conman Lord Melbury face to face in a plot which feels far superior. I appreciate that comparing any sitcom to Fawlty Towers is a little pointless, but when you're battling in the same ring you need to be able to compete.
The plots are serviceable affairs, though, and MacIlwraith has the necessary talent to ensure they're not a yawn fest. And there's heart to the episodes too. Although Dodds and Locket are forever at each others throats, you can see the respect Dodds has for Locket when it becomes apparent his trainer's health is struggling. Likewise, the tears from Sprake at Dodds championship success are a nice touch and display the journey and relationship which has developed there.
And the series ends with a nice twist - albeit Dodds' retirement from boxing is rather sudden following one defeat- with Dodd's joining forces with Sprake on the management side of things. The final series wasn't completely closed and seems as though it could have explored this development further, but ultimately it wouldn't have had the same impact with Dodds removed from the frontline of boxing.
Seconds Out achieves that rare feat of amazing acting and great acting, but it never quite nails the plots as effectively as it could have. It's no surprise that, instead, it was one of its peers - Only Fools and Horses - which went on to dominate the 1980s and the difference between the quality of plots is vast. However, Seconds Out makes for a decent watch due to the talent involved and any sitcom aficionados should find something to enjoy in it.