Monday, 24 July 2017
Society simply wouldn't operate without a little bit of community spirit running through our veins. It's this sense of commitment to our fellow man which ensures we have peace of mind, security and, most importantly, a feeling of togetherness. Sure, there are always hermits and loners in amongst this throng of connected individuals, but at least community provides them with something to rebel against, so everyone's a winner.
And it was in 1982 - for the UK - that an upgrade to community spirit was delivered with the establishment of neighbourhood watch schemes. Based on similar practices well established in the USA, these schemes looked to foster a communal spirit by inspiring people to come together to keep a watchful eye on their communities and make them a safer place to live.
The scheme has been a tremendous success and it's now estimated that 3.8 million households fall under the jurisdiction of a neighbourhood watch, so this is a level of security which can't be ignored. However, with no specific rules or central, governing bodies in place, a neighbourhood watch can soon become somewhat of a wild beast and start to cause more trouble than it solves as evidenced in Wyatt's Watchdogs.
Transmission: 17/10/1988 - 21/11/1988
Major John Wyatt (Brian Wilde) is a retired army officer living in the quintessentially English village of Bradly Bush. However, even this quiet, leafy village has the capacity to be struck down the rigours of crime and this is suddenly brought home to Wyatt when his sister Edwina (Anne Ridler) has her house burgled. Determined to create a safer environment for his fellow villagers to live in, Wyatt - with the approval and careful eye of the local police - forms a neighbourhood watch scheme for Bradly Bush.
Wyatt, of course, is somewhat of a pompous twit, though, so his resolute bloody-mindedness seriously hamstrings the activities of his watch. He's not on his own, though, so joining him in the Dogmobile (Wyatt's Range Rover) is the suave security alarm salesman Peter Pitt (Trevor Bannister) and proper English village lady Virginia (April Walker) who swoons whenever confronted by a set of previously unconquered X and Y chromosomes.
Keeping a careful eye on Wyatt's questionable and calamitous activities is the local police sergeant Springer (James Warrior) who seems determined to discourage Wyatt from going one step too far and, of course, ridiculing his various downfalls. And what type of village would this be without a religious figurehead? Step forward the Vicar (David Jackson) who's keen to interfere and save a few quid by getting new age travellers to repair his leaky plumbing.
Together, this assortment of fantastically British characters take on plots which see them hot on the trail of a terrorsome gnome thief, filming a crime prevention video and even getting providing an anti-theft identity engraving service. And, as decreed by Eric Sykes in the 1947 Sitcom Regulations Act, all of these endeavours end up going down the swanny for the audience's viewing pleasure.
Watching the Production
Wyatt's Watchdogs aired during autumn 1988 on BBC1 at 8pm on Monday evenings and ran for one series of six episodes. Despite the somewhat cosy trappings of an English village, a comedy vicar and all manner of whimsy, you may be surprised to learn that Wyatt's Watchdogs was written by Miles Tredinnick who was the lead singer of classic 70s punk band London (where he performed under the name Riff Regan).
Looking back at his initial ideas for the series, Tredinnick remembers focusing on the glory days of classic British comedy:
"I was trying to create a contemporary Dad's Army type show where a whole load of people are thrown together in an unlikely group to combat local crime. Neighbourhood Watches were very current at the time and I thought that if you put some pompous twit in charge it might have some comedic legs and be funny. I was also trying to create a gentle comedy rather in the fashion of the old Ealing comedies. I wanted oddball characters like they had in Passport to Pimlico or Whisky Galore!"
With a firm concept in mind, Tredinnick's next step was to secure a commission and, although he did, it was after an unusual series of events:
"I badgered my agent Tessa Le Bars to send the BBC comedy department a stage play that I had written called Laugh? I Nearly Went To Miami! which had just been published by Samuel French Ltd as I thought it might show the BBC the kind of dialogue I wrote. A sort of comedy calling card if you like.
Everyone thought I was mad sending the BBC a stage play but they must have liked it because the next thing I know I’m in a meeting with Christopher Bond at TV Centre and he said they wanted to commission me to write a pilot script on any subject I wanted. They asked me to go away and come back with three ideas and they would choose the best one. Talk about having all your Christmases come at once!
Well I went away and wrote Bovver which was about a skinhead who still lived at home with his mum – it was very much inspired by John Sullivan’s Citizen Smith – the idea being that the skinhead couldn’t be as tough as he would like with his fellow gang members whilst his mum was always popping in with cups of tea and tidying his room! Smooth Operators which was about three switchboard girls in a legal firm who spent more time discussing their boyfriends then answering calls and my third one was Wyatt's Watchdogs.
That was the one they liked and it eventually got the green light for a pilot episode by Gareth Gwenlan, the Head of Comedy and Michael Grade who was then the Controller of BBC1. But the first I heard that they were going to make a pilot episode was one morning when I got a phone call from Alan Bell who wanted to discuss casting. He assumed that I already knew it had got the go ahead. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I kept repeating 'So you’re going to make my sitcom?' again and again. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. Typical BBC"
Both Brian Wilde and Trevor Bannister were well established sitcom stars, so securing the pair of them was a real coup for Wyatt's Watchdogs and led to Tredinnick having to make adjustments to accomodate both their talents and standing:
"Brian Wilde was Gareth Gwenlan’s suggestion. I had originally seen the John Wyatt role as ideal for Reginald Marsh who I admired from shows like George and Mildred, The Good Life and Terry and June. But as soon as Gareth suggested Brian I was in. I had always been a huge fan of Brian Wilde in Porridge (my favourite sitcom ever) and was delighted at the prospect of writing for him. His timing and delivery was always superb in my opinion.
Trevor was different. We were casting the pilot episode 'One Big, One Not So Big' and Alan Bell suggested Trevor Bannister for Peter Pitt? Well, I'd always loved Trevor in Are You Being Served? so we got him in for a reading with Brian Wilde. It was immediately clear that there was some kind of chemistry going on between them. It worked very well as they had both known each other from an earlier ITV sitcom The Dustbinmen that they’d both been in. Obviously I had to build up Trevor’s part considerably as originally the show was only supposed to be a star vehicle for Brian"
Tredinnick's original vision for the series also had to be changed slightly as the series entered pre-production:
"The first script was quite different to what it eventually became. I had originally set the show in London’s East End with Wyatt looking down through his binoculars from the 17th floor of a high rise tower block trying to spot local wrong-doers. I think it was Brian Wilde who asked if it could be moved to more leafy surroundings and so I changed it to accommodate him.
In the end, the series was filmed in Claygate, Surrey although my fictional name for the village was ‘Bradly Bush’. It was very convenient for all the crew (most of whom lived in London) and especially for Trevor Bannister and Alan Bell as they lived only 20 minutes away in Thames Ditton"
And even the series title went through a number of changes thanks to the bureaucracy of television scheduling and marketing as Tredinnick remembers:
"The original title was Wyatt's Watchdogs. That was the title under which the show got commissioned but then as the filming dates approached, Alan Bell said he wasn’t too keen on the title as it sounded a bit like a children’s programme. So I suggested Every Street Should Have One and everyone seemed happy with that.
But then after the filming but before we got into the weekly studio recordings, word came through from the BBC bosses that the show was going to be aired in the autumn at 8pm on Mondays on BBC1. It was going to follow Coronation Street on ITV and be transmitted before another new BBC comedy called Streets Apart.
Well all these ‘streets’ would have looked a bit silly in the schedules so Gareth Gwenlan asked me to come up with a new title. Now, you may think picking a title is a straight forward thing but actually it’s quite difficult. After a few days I gave Gareth a list of alternatives but he didn’t like any of them so in the end and with the transmission date looming closer and closer it was decided to go back to the original title Wyatt's Watchdogs"
The series was restricted to just one airing and there neither repeats or any commercial releases, but off-air recordings (not HD quality, but watchable enough) are circulating on torrent sites or rather overpriced (considering the quality) bootleg DVDs are for sale on various online marketplaces.
Every Street Should Have One
Wyatt's Watchdogs was a sitcom which had been recommended to me by several people and, given the fact that it had only aired once nearly 30 years ago, meant that there must have been something special lurking in its inner workings to engender such long lasting affection. Personally, I can't remember watching it at the time, so I had no personal recollections of it. I had, at the time it aired, been watching Last of the Summer Wine for a few years, but I'm pretty certain I started when Brian Wilde had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Michael Aldridge as Seymour.
So, yes, Wyatt's Watchdogs had passed me by like a day of sobriety for an alcoholic. However, much like an alcoholic frantically searching the house for that last bottle of low cost, high strength cider, I was determined to find Wyatt's Watchdogs. And, for a year or two, I drew nothing but blanks until I was lucky enough to uncover a recording of the series by some innovative soul. By now, of course, I was well aware of Brian Wilde's ability as an actor having continued watching Summer Wine and witnessing his reappearance in 1990.
What was even more intriguing about Wyatt's Watchdogs was that long term Summer Wine director Alan J.W. Bell was on board as well as Ronnie Hazlehurst who composed the theme tune and incidental music for Summer Wine. With all theses Summer Wine references and foundations, I began to wonder whether it would simply be a rehash of that series, but with a dose of crime fighting for good measure. However, Wyatt's Watchdogs proved to be a very different beast.
Sure, Brian Wilde playing a pompous ex-military type isn't far removed from the character of Foggy Dewhurst, but Major Wyatt is much more grounded in reality. You see, at least for the last two thirds of its run, Summer Wine was set in what was very much a cartoony, utopian idyll, seemingly untouched by the modern world or any of the harsh realities of life (Compo's death aside). And, for Summer Wine, this was the perfect flavour for a show whose exaggerated characters were there sought to celebrate the constituent parts of the British personality.
In Wyatt's Watchdogs, though, Brian Wilde is playing a character who has genuine, real life problems on his hands in the form of crime. Okay, he also has to worry about keeping an eye on his precious drinks cabinet, but it's refreshing to see him in a role which allows him a more dramatic narrative even if it is just hunting down a gnome thief or trying to secure victory in a 'best kept village' competition. Ticking off every aspect required to elevate his pompousness to a particularly high pedestal, Wyatt is perfectly poised to suffer fall from grace after fall from grace.
And, in sharp contrast to Wyatt, we have Peter Pitt played with complete relish by Trevor Bannister. The complete opposite of Wyatt, Pitt is diametrically opposed to Wyatt's outlook on life and, to Wyatt at least (but virtually no one else in Bradly Bush), Pitt is little more than a charlatan intent on flogging burglar alarms. In reality, Pitt is a jovial, charming soul and his free enterprise activities are merely a symptom of his personality rather than any duplicitous scheme to make a few sales.
Wyatt and Pitt make for a fine double act and are one of the series redeeming and best executed features, being as it is, a pre-requisite (as laid down by Eric Sykes in 1947) that conflict is the epicentre from which all belly laughs emanate. And Tredinnick reveals that he revelled in writing these scenes:
"I always think that one of the best bits about the show is the constant bickering between Brian and Trevor. I love that kind of writing – two people trying to outdo each other and neither willing to back down - and found those scenes exciting to write"
Although the main thrust of the narrative concentrates on Wyatt and Pitt's activities, the supporting characters around them all provide little flurries of excitement. Springer provides Wyatt with another battleground, but this time Wyatt's adversary comes with some real authority behind him, as well as a desire to see Wyatt land flat on his face. And perhaps my favourite character is the prone-to-a-gamble Vicar with David Jackson delivering a sparkling performance as the engaging holy man.
And it was the fantastic cast in place which really made Wyatt's Watchdogs for Tredinnick:
"The regulars April Walker, Anne Ridler, David Jackson, and James Warrior were all very funny and a joy to work with. As were the supporting actors. Eva Stuart, Brian Wilde’s wife, appeared in one episode as a snooty antique shop owner, (I think it’s the only film of the two of them acting together). Clive Mantle played a hilarious stoned hippy traveller called Baza; Martin Benson (who I had only known from films like Goldfinger and one of the Pink Panther movies) played a Judge and Timothy Carlton (Benedict Cumberbatch’s father) had a role as the antiques expert Toby Todd"
Tredinnick's scripts for this fine cast are particularly pleasing with plenty of action to provide the narrative with a sense of pace which never leaves you staring out the window and pondering life. And there are plenty of gags peppered throughout as well as the comedy arising from Wyatt's misplaced sense of purpose and importance. It's all very innocent and certainly indebted - as Tredinnick intended - to shows such as Dad's Army and similar family favourites.
The tightness of the scripts is also complemented by Alan Bell's direction, but, given his experience, this shouldn't really come as any surprise and Tredinnick was highly appreciative of the magic Bell brought to the production:
"We got on brilliantly from day one. Alan is an incredible film director (just look at some of the LAS episodes, beautifully photographed and with great composition) but he also instinctively knows what’s funny. He has a great sense of humour and always created a very happy atmosphere on set.
For me, a complete novice in television, he was patient and very helpful. He allowed me to sit in on everything – the casting, the rehearsals, the filming, the music recording with Ronnie Hazlehurst, the editing, the lot! I learned so much from him in every aspect of how to put a TV show together. I am very grateful to him"
Wyatt's Watchdogs is certainly packed full of charm and merit, but unfortunately that all important second series didn't manifest itself with a commission as Tredinnick recollects:
"A second series was pencilled in and I had already started writing the first episode which involved Wyatt and his neighbourhood watch team taking to the river in a rubber dinghy trying to catch waterborne crooks! I remember having a meeting with Trevor Bannister and coming up with all kinds of possible shenanigans/bungles for a new series.
We discussed some great ideas. It was quite surreal in a way because in real life Trevor was in charge of his own neighbourhood watch in Thames Ditton. Talk about art imitating life!
Unfortunately when the show aired it was up against the popular Benny Hill Show on ITV and just couldn’t win the ratings war. Despite the fact that 8 million viewers tuned in if you didn’t attract 10 million plus back then your show would be cancelled. We were all very upset. It had been a happy series to work on"
Worth a Watch?
Taking its lead from the spirit of neighbourhood watches, there's a pleasing level of community at the forefront of Wyatt's Watchdogs from both the cast's performance and the level of expertise behind the camera. It may feel, at times, quaint and old fashioned, but perhaps it aired in an era where times were simpler and the TV audience wasn't fractured into so many specific niches.
Tredinnick certainly notices a marked difference in today's sitcom landscape compared to that of yesteryear:
"There aren’t many sitcoms made in the traditional way anymore are there? These days they seem to be more light-hearted dramas whilst the best sitcoms had a funny line almost every third line. The show I wrote an episode for after Wyatt's Watchdogs was Marks and Gran’s Birds of a Feather and there they practically insisted on so many laugh-out-loud lines per episode.
The old sitcoms were designed to make you laugh. The best ones were written by skilled comedy writers and performed by actors who just knew how to deliver lines. Take Trevor Bannister’s previous show Are You Being Served? Whether you liked it or not everyone in it knew how to say their lines with impeccable timing probably learnt from years in the theatre and being in farces etc"
Wyatt's Watchdogs is a fine example of a traditional sitcom and one which refuses to vacate the affections of those who watched it almost three decades ago. For Tredinnick it's a series packed full of memories which he believes are worthy of a reappraisal:
"Wyatt's Watchdogs wasn’t as successful as the BBC had hoped but it was two years of my life that I look back on with immense pleasure. I know a lot of people enjoyed watching it and even today people ask me if there is ever going to be a DVD release? Maybe one day that might happen. Who knows? With sitcom heavyweights Brian Wilde and Trevor Bannister bickering and snapping at each other like only they could, it would probably sell quite well"
And you know what? I couldn't agree more, so come on, BBC, lets get a broadcast quality copy out on DVD. With commentaries and blooper reels. And even a Wyatt's Watchdog 'Neighbourhood Watch' sticker to display in your window to deter would be criminals.