Friday, 31 March 2017
What passes for acceptable behaviour in society is constantly evolving and reflects the changing times we live in. And these, sometimes radical, shifts in decency and morals can horrify the old guard.
Where once, they had been assured of a landscape governed by a shared moral yardstick, they may suddenly find themselves adrift of society’s progress.It clearly creates a sense of discord between the generations, but you know what, discord breeds comedy. And sometimes it can be a real side splitter.
You only have to take a look at grainy 1960s news footage of old chaps shaking their heads and spluttering “Have you ever seen the like? A skirt which is miniaturised?! Dear heavens!” to see how the preposterous and sanctimonious guarding of moral decency is hilarious.
And, of course, the comedy doesn’t necessarily come purely from old fashioned values held up against the modern world. That, after all, would be rather one dimensional. The real comedy enters the equation when there’s a conjoined level of hypocrisy, so would we see this in Grundy?
Transmission: 14/07/1980 - 18/08/1980
Leonard Grundy (Harry H Corbett) has had his marriage dissolved and it’s left him feeling a little paranoid. As he leaves the court a single man, he becomes convinced that a reporter is on his trail and keen to uncover the salacious details of his marriage.
And the last thing that a newsagent needs is for the intricacies of his private life to be splashed all over the very product he sells. After all, it’s a highly lascivious tale what with his wife leaving him for Burt Loomis, bed salesman extraordinaire with the tagline “Bounce with Burt, the best beds in Basingstoke”.
Luckily, his scarlet haired pursuant isn’t a journalist. In fact, Beryl Loomis (Lynda Baron) – yes, wife of Burt – is simply a fellow divorcee. And it’s this common ground they share which she believes could lead to a beautiful, yet platonic friendship with Grundy.
It’s a relationship which appears – despite Beryl’s enigmatic flirting – to lack the romantic frisson developing, quite by chance, between Grundy’s daughter Sharon (Julie Dawn Cole) and Beryl’s son Murray (David Janson).
Nonetheless, Grundy views both sets of relationships as equally repugnant to his moral compass which is struggling to point true north in a society where erotic magazines are embraced and as he spies in an issue of Love and Romance “half the London population practice oriental lovemaking techniques”.
But why does he keep letting Beryl into his life?
A Moral Blueprint
Grundy was a six episode ITV sitcom which aired during the summer of 1980. The series had been planned to air at the end of 1979, but after the first episode was recorded in summer 1979, a 10 week industrial dispute brought ITV programming to a halt.
And in more depressing news, Harry H Corbett suffered a slight coronary after recording the first episode.
Behind all this chaos, though, there was a series of scripts which had been crafted by Ken Hoare. A stalwart of television comedy, Hoare had written extensively for Stanley Baxter and scripted shows such as Beggar My Neighbour and Turnbull’s Finest Half Hour.
And Hoare’s scripts managed to pull in some very respectable viewing figures. The first episode garnered 12.15 million viewers and was the fifth most viewed programme that week. Ratings dipped down to 9.5 million during the middle of the series run, but leapt up to 11.95 million for the final episode.
Loose Morals Laid Bare
With vivid blue eyes and a characterful face built upon the foundations of a strong jawline, Harry H Corbett was a captivating sight whenever he stepped onto stage or screen. And it’s no surprise to hear that he was touted as “the English Marlon Brando” in the early days of his career.
With highly nuanced facial expressions, Corbett could convey a thousand emotions and words with just one turn of the head. The success that this brought Corbett on the stage meant that it was inevitable that television would soon come calling. And, with Steptoe and Son, Corbett found himself catapulted into the public’s consciousness.
As Harold Steptoe, Corbett seared his face into the British consciousness with an iconic intensity which has traversed the decades and delighted millions, but the majority of people know little of his other work. In particular, his final transmitted piece of work, Grundy, remains curiously consigned to sitcom oblivion.
And if there’s one thing that piques my inquisitiveness more than a forgotten sitcom starring a sitcom great then, quite frankly, it’s nothing more that witchcraft and deserves to be hurled into the village pond. So, with no witches making themselves known in my local vicinity, I trotted off to the BFI Archive to watch three episodes of Grundy.
When looking back at a beloved actor’s final piece of work it’s difficult to separate the tragic context of death from a truly objective point of view. However, I’m not a foolish man and when I say that Harry H Corbett is absolutely fantastic in Grundy you have to believe me that these words are much more than just a schmaltzy, hollow tribute.
Because, frankly, Grundy itself is not the finest vehicle for an actor to be sent off in, but Corbett manages to raise his head proudly above the parapet of mediocrity.
Leonard Grundy - a knowing nod to Mrs Grundy, fictional 18th century doyen of respectability – is most certainly a character primed for comedic hilarity. With a sanctimonious relish he rejects the permissive society around him, but his pomposity in underlining this sets him up for almighty fall after almighty fall.
And what seems to really grind Grundy’s gears is the modern obsession with sex. For Grundy, it all went wrong for society when sex education started getting a bit too graphic and real. In his day he was taught about the life cycle on the salmon and that was spicy enough.
Naturally, this aversion to enjoying the pleasures of the flesh no doubt ruined Grundy’s relationship with his ex-wife, Vera.
Whereas Grundy views Vera as failing to stick to her moral principles, he prides himself on a resolute moral rigidity. This clashing outlook on life is best typified when, discussing whether he enjoyed their sex life, Grundy quips “I had far too much respect for my wife to enjoy anything of that nature.”
Corbett, of course, was a highly talented actor, so it’s always a delight to see him exercising his acting ability. And he doesn’t disappoint with Grundy who feels unlike any other character he portrayed over his long career. It also helps that he’s paired with the legendary Lynda Baron.
Baron’s CV is as dazzling as Corbett’s talent and, truth be told, she matches him scene for scene when it comes to thespian smarts. And Baron has been blessed with a particularly mischievous and saucy smile which provides the perfect catalyst for riling up Grundy’s moral yardstick.
And the premise of Grundy is one which is just ripe for plenty of comedic strife. Setting up Grundy with the ex-wife of the man who ruined his marriage is a clever move, but then romantically pairing the respective offspring of both these families is a sublime touch.
However, the relationship between Grundy and Beryl is a rather baffling affair and this is where the problems begin to seep into Grundy. Beryl is constantly sending out mixed signals which not only confuses Grundy, but also leaves the viewer mystified as to her intentions.
Sure, she’s lonely, but from the very first episode she makes it clear she’s not interested in Grundy physically. YET SHE FLIRTS OUTRAGEOUSLY. And there’s no progression to this relationship whatsoever throughout the course of the series, which makes for a frustrating watch.
Adding further fuel to this frustration is the character of Grundy himself. Now, whilst he’s played with assurance by Corbett, the actual character is nothing more than an incredible bore. With a suffocating sense of fear pervading his every step, Grundy becomes an unlikeable character punctuated by nothing but misery and negativity.
Perhaps the only thing which brings Grundy any joy is his daughter who he claims is the best thing to survive from his divorce. Unfortunately, Sharon, along with Murray, feels pushed out of the main narrative and remains forgotten for long periods, so any sense of engaging parental relationships are struck off from the get go.
So, with the main thrust of Grundy being centred on Grundy – and, to a lesser degree, Beryl – what are we left with in terms of storytelling? Well, there’s certainly a lot of talking…
Yes, that’s right, Grundy delights in two hander scenes. Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with long stretches of dialogue, but they have to have a point. They should tease out character traits and slowly build up tension in order to provide a worthy payoff.
Grundy, however, eschews this for tedious exchanges which sadly fail to advance the plot or characters. And this leads to some particularly boring episodes.
The very first episode, for example, repeatedly hammers home the point – in a train carriage – that Grundy doesn’t like sex or anything remotely immoral. This appears to continue for 5 years, but I suspect it’s closer to 20 minutes.
When you compare this to, say, the first episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads – also set on a train – there’s absolutely no parallel. Admittedly, the reveal at the end of the first Grundy episode is nicely realised, but it feels like such a trek to get there.
Ken Hoare was a fine comedy writer, but in Grundy he struggles to ever get to the heart of the characters. Their motivation is poorly calibrated and as a result it’s difficult for them to produce any humour which truly resonates.
Sure, there are some nice lines such as Grundy claiming Sharon and Murray’s date at the Indian restaurant will result in Sharon being "swept along on a tide of promiscuity and poppadoms", but in three episodes I barely uttered a snigger.
The final episode is perhaps the funniest with Grundy receiving a selection of porn mags meant for a rival shop. Claiming that he needs rubber gloves to handle them followed by a wash with carbolic soap afterwards, Grundy is sent on a farcical journey to offload the offending magazines and reclaim his issues of ‘My Poultry World’.
Closing the series, this episode, rather than aligning him in some erotic liaison with Beryl, instead sees Grundy being arrested for handling copies of ‘A Pictorial Treasury of Scandinavian Au Pairs’. Finally, there’s an ignominious end for Grundy and it certainly titillated my comedy receptors, but it was too late to endear the series to my heart.
There’s a fantastic premise lurking deep within Grundy’s soul, but sadly it’s obstructed by subpar humour and sloth like plots which lack any dynamism. The brilliance of Corbett and Baron’s performances can’t be denied, but I just wish they were acting in a different sitcom.
Corbett’s career contained many highs, however, and I don’t feel as though Grundy detracts from his legacy in any way. It just feels like a wasted chance to channel the talents of a great actor into something very special.
And this leaves me as morose as Leonard Grundy would be if a strip club opened next to his newsagents.
This is an excerpt from my book The Hidden Gems and Oddities of British TV Comedy Vol.1
Since publishing, a clip from the first episode has appeared on YouTube