Sunday, 14 February 2021

A Small Problem

A short stature is not one that tends to be celebrated in our society. There’s a tendency to ridicule those who don’t conform to specific measurements and an unfair labelling of them as weak and ineffective. It’s all part of humanity’s kneejerk reaction to anything that’s slightly different. An approach to thinking which has been responsible for all manner of prejudices since humans took their first breath and started to eye their neighbour suspiciously. And a lack of inches is far from an endorsement of weakness, Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was only 5ft 4in. But prejudice takes no prisoners and it’s more than possible that height could cause A Small Problem.

The Britain depicted in A Small Problem is one where the scourge of society is anyone considered a “small”. This prejudice is one which Roy Pink (Mike Elles) had been more than happy to indulge in and, truth be told, still is. But his circumstances have recently changed. Roy, who stands at 5ft ¾in, had previously avoided the 5ft limit used to classify a small. However, a recent change in EEC regulation means that this limit must now be measured in metric units as opposed to imperial. And, to bring British smalls in line with their European counterparts, this limit is now 1m 55cm which Roy, excuse the pun falls just short of. He is now a small.

No longer deemed a worthy member of society by “normals” it’s time for Roy’s life to change. Aside from being beaten in the street by a woman wielding a baguette, Roy’s dog has been shot by the council and he’s been evicted from his house. His new home is south of the Thames in Adelphi House, a crumbling tower block in the heart of a ghetto for people of a diminished stature. Roy resolutely claims that his reclassification is merely a clerical error, but his pleas fall on deaf ears – most notably his tall brother George (David Simeon) and George’s wife Heather (Joan Blackham) who are so horrified by his new status that they tell their friends and family that Roy has suddenly died.

Whilst Roy attempts to have his reclassification overturned he will have to put up with with his fellow “shrimpos” at Adelphi House. Howard (Christopher Ryan) may appear to be little more than a cinema projectionist, but he’s a hardline member of the Small Liberation Front. Fred (Dickie Arnold) is constantly trying to make the best of a bad situation and heads up the Residents Association group with his wife Lily (Christine Ozanne). Libertarianism is the foundation of everything that the petition-wielding Jenny (Cory Pulman) stands for while the conniving Sid (Big Mick) favours calling everyone a dickhead. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Motokura (Tetsu Nishino and Sayo Inaba) have been frogmarched into Adelphi house following a trip to Britain to scout out a new factory.

Mike Walling and Tony Millan were best known, in 1987, for their acting roles with significant parts in Brush Strokes and Citizen Smith respectively. But as with many actors there was a burning desire to be writing scripts as well as performing them; A Small Problem was their first full series commission. Providing a little more experience on the production side of things was director David Askey, a fixture of BBC studio floors since 1957’s My Pal Bob. The transmission time for all six episodes of A Small Problem was 9pm on Mondays over on BBC2. There was to be no second series of A Small Problem and repeat runs proved to be equally elusive.

34 years on from the transmission of A Small Problem, I managed to get in touch with Tony Millan to find out a little more about how the series came to be:

"Some people said we had ‘nicked’ the idea from a Randy Newman song, “Short People”. Not so. Indeed I never heard the song until ‘A Small Problem’ was well into production. What happened was: Mike Walling, my writing partner, was walking to my house past some tennis courts and noticed two guys playing. One was very tall, the other rather short. The tall one clearly had an advantage. Mike was about 5’5” himself, so he naturally sympathised with the short guy. We were throwing around ideas for a comedy show, when he said, “What if anyone under 5ft had to go and live in a ghetto?”

It was immediately obvious. ‘Heightism’. This was a perfect satirical analogy for all the blind prejudices that people carry around – racism, homophobia, religious bigotry. This was in 1986 when Apartheid was still enforced in South Africa, queer-bashing was Saturday night pastime in some areas and sectarian bombings were a daily occurrence in Ireland. Rather a big subject for a half-hour comedy show? Well, we were ‘young and fearless’, or perhaps just naive in those days... and we hadn’t written anything before.

Mike and I met working on a movie. Inevitably there’s a lot of sitting around waiting to be called for what might only be a thirty second shot. So we spent many hours just amusing ourselves. We wrote one or two sketches which never saw the light of day. But Mike had sold a couple of scripts before and had an agent. So we thought we would see if we could write something together. “A Small Problem” was our first attempt. Mike and I finished the first script on a Friday afternoon. We took the typewritten pages down to Prontaprint and had three photocopies made – one for him, one for me and one for our agent. [This was before the days of word-processing and PCs.] 

Then we dropped into a wine bar on Kensington Church Street to celebrate. Who should be sitting at one of the tables but Gareth Gwenlan, the Head of BBC Comedy. We had both worked for Gareth as actors, on quite different productions, so he was probably bemused to see us together. “What are you two doing here?” he asked. “We’ve just finished this”, said Mike and slapped a copy of the script on the table. Gareth put it in his bag and said he’d read it.

We spent the weekend wondering whether we should go back to Prontaprint for another copy to send to the agent, or which of us should sacrifice his own copy of the script. We needn’t have worried. On Monday morning, our agent rang to say, could we go into Television Centre because Mr Gwenlan wanted to talk about some script which she knew nothing about. By Tuesday lunchtime, we had not only sold the first script, but Gareth had commissioned a whole series of six episodes. It was dead easy, this scriptwriting lark. So we carried on doing it for another thirty odd years."

Satire is, and always has been, a powerful tool for getting points across about the state of the world. And, in 1987, when it came to prejudice, there was a pressing need for the megaphone of satire. Britain had experienced numerous race riots in its crumbling cities throughout the 1980s and South Africa’s apartheid was very much the poster boy of prejudice and subjugation.
A Small Problem takes the tensions and discriminations of these social issues and uses them to inform its universe. The ghettos that the smalls are relegated to in South London mirror the segregation of apartheid and the demeaning terms of “shrimp” and “midgo” are the ugly, yet instantly recognisable face of bigotry.

It’s very easy, in unskilled hands, to blunt the focus of satire and, inadvertently, celebrate the powers that need to be toppled. But there’s no evidence of this in A Small Problem. Walling and Millan’s scripts never punch down, only ever highlighting the ease with which toxicity can flourish against an accepted backdrop of prejudice. Police brutality is frequently referenced throughout the serial, an accusation which dogs the establishment to this very day, be it through threatening to break the legs of the Motokura’s or casually ripping up Jenny’s legal travel warrant. And the social hysteria exhibited by Roy’s brother and sister-in-law over his reclassification highlight the dangers of mob mentality and propaganda.

But satire has a dual-purpose, so, as well as having to inform, it also needs to be funny. A task which A Small Problem manages to achieve with little trouble. The comedy is a nice balance of alternative and traditional sitcom whilst the seriousness of the situation takes it into dark territory. The strongest strands of comedy within the series centre around Roy’s refusal to accept that he is now a small. This “delusion of height” marks him out as the archetypal fall guy with his ignorance frequently fashioning its own noose. Whether he’s getting arrested for being caught with a copy of Little Women or being framed as an arsonist it’s deliciously satisfying to see him fall from grace.

Episodes are powered along by plots which, although not complex works of art, keep the narrative going forwards. And there’s little room to get bored thanks to the numerous threads unfolding through each episode. One moment you’re watching Howard plan meticulous bombing campaigns. The next it’s time for Fred’s attempts to get a tree installed at Adelphi House. And, then, Roy is desperately seeking a “tall” reference from his brother as an anti-smalls episode of The Archers plays in the background. The three worlds combine effortlessly and episodes fly by with the type of pace that comedy gets up for in the morning.

No single character hogs the camera, so the series has an ensemble feel and allows all the performers to have their time in the spotlight. Christopher Ryan is on terrific form with a character which is more nuanced and refined than his most famous role as Mike The Cool Person. There’s further excitement from Mike Elles as Roy Pink who grasps the comedy and drama aspects of the piece with a measured brilliance, how he didn’t secure more of a career in the industry is an utter mystery. And Big Mick guarantees laughs every time he steps on screen with his devil-may-care self-centredness. A fine set of performances all round and any complaints about the cast are only worthy of falling on deaf ears.

It’s not as rip-roaringly funny or powerful as the zeitgeist grabbing Spitting Image but that’s truly in a league of its own. It may be slightly flippant to equate racial prejudices with a lack of height, but A Small Problem succeeds by detailing the dirty mechanics of inequality. Quite why it remains obscured by the passage of time is a head-scratcher. I had heard many rumours that the BBC buried it as it was “flooded with complaints” But any hard evidence of this proved difficult to find  – save for a complaint in the Sandwell Evening Mail that small people can be glamorous. Thankfully, Tony Millan was able to provide a definitive answer on the matter:

"The BBC had an audience feedback programme running at the time, called ‘Open Air”. After the first two shows were broadcast we had a call from them. They said they’d had a lot of complaints and invited us onto the show to defend ourselves. We weren’t very keen. After all, if people don’t find a joke funny, you won’t persuade them it is, by explaining it. But Mike and I agreed to appear.

The show was broadcast live from Pebble Mill in Birmingham. We were in a tiny studio in Television Centre and we were introduced on air to a young couple sitting in the Southampton studio. When the picture of them popped up on the monitor, we knew we couldn’t come out it this interview well. The girl was less than 4ft and sitting on a low sofa, her feet didn’t touch the ground. Her boyfriend was a lanky 6ft 3ins and had his knees tucked under his chin. He said nothing. She was the aggrieved party.

She was particularly offended by a line in the title song: They’re the lowest of the low, they refuse to grow, you know. She said it was, “Just horrible”. It was hopeless to point out the irony – that people can’t refuse to grow. But Mike tried. Any argument about Swiftian satire (A Modest Proposal – compare and contrast) wasn’t going to get a fair hearing, but remember, Mike had been a teacher. His eyes widened and became more manic as he tried to convince her that we were not advocating ‘Heightism’. My eyes sank deeper in their sockets as I adopted what I hoped was an inscrutable pose.  Not our finest hour.

There were stories in the media of shorter people complaining bitterly about the show. But apart from the Open Air episode, we never encountered anything, or were reliably informed about any complaints. I think they were just that, stories in the media. One newspaper ran a piece in its television listings saying:

'THE LITTLE FOLK START A BIG ROW

Little people are set to make a big fuss tonight

after watching a TV comedy that gets laughs out

of people of restricted growth'

This appeared on the morning before the first episode was transmitted. Perhaps more clairvoyance than journalism. We weren’t unduly worried by them. After all, we were on the side of the oppressed – I would say ‘underdog’ but it might be misinterpreted"

So, there we have it. There was some mild outrage regarding A Small Problem. But it's a small blot in the series's copybook. And, with bigotry still rampant in the 21st century, A Small Problem deserves another look with a fresh set of eyes.

2 comments:

  1. I vaguely remember this, though those memories didn't mark it as a comedy!

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  2. "And, in 1987, when it came to prejudice, there was a pressing need for the megaphone of satire."

    Oh, goodness, yes, just what the 80s needed, satire about apartheid: because there wasn't already enough satire about apartheid in the 80s, or to counter all the pro-apartheid programmes on the box?

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