Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Come Back Mrs Noah


Space is the final frontier and it’s one that has fascinated humans since they first crawled out of the primordial soup and cocked their eyes towards the Milky Way. This obsession has led to a pop culture littered with galactic adventures that form fantastical narratives out of the great unknown. And this popularity is seemingly endless. No one ever rolls their eyes at the prospect of yet another space-based narrative. Instead, we consume these interstellar stories with a ravenous passion. But a space setting alone doesn’t guarantee success. There needs to be a hook, an original hook. So, what about a housewife being accidental jettisoned into space? It sounds original but will it leave us shouting Come Back Mrs Noah?

Mrs Gertrude Noah (Mollie Sugden) is a Yorkshire housewife who has concocted the perfect bakewell tart recipe. So good is it, in fact, that it’s been awarded first prize in the Modern Housewife Magazine Cookery Competition 2050. And Mrs Noah’s prize is a tour of the soon to be launched space station Britannia 7. Her visit to the space station, housed at the Pontefract International Space Complex (PISC), is a publicity coup for the project and is being covered by the BBC’s Far and Wide programme. Roving reporter Clive Cunliffe (Ian Lavender) is on location to document Mrs Noah’s visit, but it’s a broadcast which is going to suffer a massive technical hitch.

As Mrs Noah is given a tour of Britannia 7 by proton physicist Carstairs (Donald Hewlett) and neutron physicist Fanshaw (Michael Knowles), a malfunction is detected down at mission control. A disastrous set of events lead to a group of neutrinos accelerating and Britannia 7 is sent into automatic lift off. With Britannia 7 now orbiting the Earth, it’s down to Garfield Hawk (Tim Barrett) of mission control to bring the occupants of Britannia 7 back to terra firma. But this will only be possible if he can keep his hands off his young assistant Scarth Dare (Ann Michelle).

The prospects for those stranded on Britannia 7 may not look promising, but they’ll be fine for light bulbs as maintenance officer Garstang (Joe Black) is also on board. And, as they await their rescue, there will be plenty to keep these unlikely space explorers busy. The living units aboard the Britannia 7 result in a class war when they are divvied out. An experiment with a matter transporter results in a grotesque electroclone of Mrs Noah. And there’s also the tricky matter of coaxing eggs out of a space hen. Back on Earth, Far and Wide’s host (Gorden Kaye) keeps viewers up to date on the situation with daily bulletins.

Come Back Mrs Noah is a rather infamous entry into the British sitcom canon due to its apparent position as the worst sitcom ever made. It’s a rather grand accusation and one that would indicate it was written by a rank amateur. But, on the contrary, Come Back Mrs Noah was written by the legendary writing duo of Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft. With writing credits between them which encompassed Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, it’s no surprise that the BBC were eager to green light their latest project. Joining Lloyd and Croft from these previous endeavours was director Bob Spiers who had also squeezed series seven of The Goodies on to his CV. A pilot episode of Come Back Mrs Noah aired in December 1977 with the rest of the series, and a repeat of the pilot, following in the summer of 1978 on BBC1. The series was never repeated. But neither was it ever forgotten.

There’s a certain relish with which people describe Come Back Mrs Noah as "the worst sitcom ever" that you can’t help but be intrigued by it. After all, for one single sitcom to be singled out, against thousands of others as the absolute nadir of situation comedy, it must be monumentally bad. And, much like a car accident, it’s too tempting to look away from. We want, for some inexplicable reason, to be occasionally outraged by the quality standards of television. Perhaps it helps us appreciate the gold a little more, but these sorts of debates are for a different day. Anyway, whilst Come Back Mrs Noah is far from gold, it’s not the worst sitcom ever. In fact it’s rather fun.

If you want to understand what Come Back Mrs Noah is like then it can be summed up in two words: camp and ridiculous. And there are few sitcoms which can match it in either element. Mrs Noah’s backside is regularly pinched or prodded resulting in manic audience laughter. Carstairs improvised demonstration of a docking procedure finds him repeatedly stuffing a sausage into a hollowed out loaf of bread. And Vicki Michelle’s robotic housemaid strips to her underwear after misunderstanding Fanshaw’s instructions, a move which appears to initiate cardiac arrest in at least one audience member. It’s relentlessly and unashamedly broad. But there are more refined moments.

Lloyd and Croft have a pedigree which renders any accusations of amateurishness mute. Yes, there are many cheap gags within Come Back Mrs Noah but there is plenty of comic wizardry at play too. Gorden Kaye’s Far and Wide sections never fail to tickle the old funny bone with plenty of opportunity for “The 101 year old King Charles the Third” style gags to be sneaked in. Slightly less engaging are a string of gags featured throughout the programme focusing on a proliferation of Asian culture in Britain. Different times for certain, but misjudged and rather uncomfortable now. Thankfully, these only account for a small percentage of the gags on offer with the rest tackling more character based japes.

The scripts also benefit from being gifted that sitcom golden egg of trapping a disparate set of individuals together. There’s little room for the characters to escape each other and the resulting tensions help to inform the comedy. It’s a premise which would be revisited most closely, and infinitely more successfully a decade later in Red Dwarf. Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s space-based narratives, however, had a little more depth to engage viewers and last for decades in their imagination. The plots within Come Back Mrs Noah are functional enough to keep the episodes ticking along, but suffer from rather bloated scenes which add little to nothing in terms of story advancement.

These narratives are mostly kept afloat by the quality of the performances. Mollie Sugden may be asked one time too many (per scene) to gurn disapprovingly at an ageist/sexist joke, but there’s much more to her inventory than mere facial contortions. Capable of switching from authoritarian battleaxe to slapstick victim in a second, Sugden is a true great of comic acting. Ian Lavender also does much to distance himself from the wet-behind-the-ears charm of Private Pike with his performance as Cunliffe, a role which reuires a more biting, sardonic set of emotions. Finally, the reunion of Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles from It Ain’t Hot Half Mum brings a pleasing familiarity and worn-in bonhomie to proceedings.

Come Back Mrs Noah may be emblematic of all the worst excesses that 1970s comedies are chastised for, but it’s not beyond reproach. The series revels so vigorously in the ridiculous and the corny that it feels like an absurdist exercise in what’s possible in a 7pm sitcom. At first it will confound your senses, but let go of any prejudices and you’ll soon start to warm to Mollie Sugden floating around in zero gravity as the other characters crack entendres about flatulence – no, really, you will. While the series’ lack of repeats mark it out as a misfire – although it was regularly shown in the US – there is no denying that you can’t ignore it.

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