Friday, 12 February 2021

Lame Ducks

Some people take to life like a duck to water. Their lives are full of social and professional successes and the only way, for them, is up. But not everyone’s life is an effortless triumph. The world may be full of round holes, but there are just as many square pegs out there, forever banging their heads against the periphery of normality. These are the lame ducks of life. They don’t mean any harm and, like everyone, they just want to be happy. But they’re not designed for the rewards of normal life. What happens, though, when they gather together into a flock of Lame Ducks?

Brian Drake (John Duttine) is a man of sober tastes. He’s never worn denim and the idea of European food is enough to cause him great anxiety. And he’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with the upwardly mobile Jean Drake (Primi Townsend). Mr Drake’s destiny, however, is about to take a sharp sidestep. Out on his lunch break, Brian is knocked down by a lorry full of turnips. Waking up in hospital, he is informed by his wife that his employer is terminating his contract. And, as a result, she’s leaving him for Ray (Giles Cole), a moustachioed gent with his own car and a love of European cookery. 

Rather than sinking into the depths of depression, Brian uses his misfortune to start afresh as a free man. And his immediate aim is to move to the country and live as a hermit. But he won’t, contrary to the definition of a hermit, be on his own. Also in hospital with him is Tommy (Patric Turner), a reformed pyromaniac who is perpetually cold and clad in gloves, scarf a woolly hat. Desperate to make a break from his endless cycle of drifting from hostel to hostel, Tommy teams up with Brian. But Brian must first attire himself in double denim and purchase a clapped out psychedelic van which he fills with farm animals.

Stopping off at a roundabout to dig up some of Tommy’s secret fuel supplies, the pair pick up a hitchhiker by the name of Angie (Lorraine Chase). A strong-minded individual who has lived with 18 “fellas”, Angie is trying to make her way to Hengistbury Head to reunite with one of her fellas. But first she takes Brian and Tommy to a vintage steam rally to track down an aging alcoholic who dabbles in country properties. With Tangledown Cottage secured, the trio become a quartet as they adopt ex-postman and aspirational ball walker Maurice (Tony Millan) who is the rally’s star attraction.

Tangledown Cottage, located in Scar’s Edge, appears safe and remote. But it’s not secure from the attentions of Jean Drake. Determined to screw her ex-husband for every penny he has, she employs the services of Ansell (Brian Murphy), a private investigator with an allergy to almost everything. Ansell, though, being an outcast ends up joining forces with Brian once he tracks him down. And it’s at Scar’s Edge that these lame ducks will attempt to grow vegetables, help the wealthy eccentric Mrs Kelly celebrate Happy Harvest Day and plan for their futures.

One element that will not feature in their futures is Tangledown Cottage. Following a séance arranged to remove resident spirit Harold – keen on Friars Balsam and leaving flowers for the ladies – Maurice’s ball comes to life and causes the crumbling cottage to finally collapse. But the gang are not homeless for long. The charity of Mrs Kelly finds them taking up residence at the disused Stutterton Stop train station. This new environment is the setting for a number of encounters with stilt-walking vicars, ravenous ballroom dancers and Tommy’s ghoulish new girlfriend. And, just maybe, Mrs Kendall will finally get a steam train running on the line again.

Lame Ducks ran for two series of six episodes between 1984 - 85 initially on BBC2. The first series occupied an 8.30pm Monday timeslot whilst the second series was bumped up to the 9pm slot on Tuesdays. Both series were repeated in a bulk run during 1986 on BBC1 in a 7.40pm timeslot which is more in keeping with the content of the series. Since then, repeats have been non-existent. And, for any of you sitcom enthusiasts planning to make a visit to Stutterton Stop station, please be aware that this is a fictional name. Thankfully, the station filmed is still active as a heritage railway site in Devon under its true name of Staverton Station.

Peter J. Hammond is a writer for who respect will never be in short supply. Having created the innovative and complex world of Sapphire & Steel, Hammond’s back catalogue also includes episodes of The Bill, Ace of Wands and, if you can track it down, one of the most atmospheric TV plays ever in Lost Property (also starring John Duttine). But what would a Hammond sitcom be like? Well, it’s far from a high-concept programme such as Sapphire & Steel and it’s light years away from the gritty days of The Bill. Nonetheless, Hammond weaves his magic throughout Lame Ducks.

If you were to peer momentarily into the world of Lame Ducks then you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled across a Roy Clarke sitcom. The programme is coated with a veneer of cosiness and there’s certainly plenty of gentle farce, such as people tumbling into old wells and the chaos of a trolley dash in the local Co-op. But look over the hedges and walls of Lame Ducks’ warmth for a second or two longer and Hammond’s offbeat brand is alive and well. It’s there with the charming, flower giving ghost Harold, it’s present in the nightmarish Sally and Angie’s dream sequence on meeting a mysterious stranger on the platform is far from conventional.

Lame Ducks, though, is not defined by these idiosyncrasies and therein lies its strength. Episodes are breezy affairs with only occasional sidesteps and this combination makes for a brief pace. It could be said that the first series takes some time to get going, what with the central quintet only coming together by episode five, but, if anything, it adds a pleasing continuous nature to the series. This approach is mostly abstained from in the second series, but the episodic structure does little to detract from its appeal.

Laughs are, on the whole, gentle little jabs at the humerus, but much like the wider universe of Lame Ducks, Hammond teases in a number of deeper gags throughout. In amongst the many jokes regarding Angie’s countless relationships, Maurice’s obsession with world records and Ansell’s constant need for medication, there is time for a more surreal brand of comedy. The appearance of Tommy’s girlfriend Sally (Juliette Grasby) may be vaguely terrifying, but her character is steeped deeply in the ridiculous and adds an intriguing layer of darkness. Likewise, the eccentricities of Mrs Kendall are in rich supply.

A large proportion of Lame Ducks engaging nature can be attributed to the characters and performers behind them. The central quintet have all been on the receiving end of a judgemental society and are underdogs of the highest pedigree. These qualities endear them to the viewer and, again, contribute to the series’ welcoming air. John Duttine and Lorraine Chase occupy the forefront of the action, delivering an unlikely relationship and one that teeters perilously close to romance. Brian Murphy is, as you would expect from a sitcom legend, effortlessly comedic with his authoritative gentility. Tony Millan and Patric Turner, meanwhile, bring a rearguard action of character acting to complete the set.

The lesson to be learned from Lame Ducks is that there’s a square hole for even the squarest peg. Loneliness, and enforced hermitage, isn’t the solution to being a society-prescribed outcast. You simply have to build relationships with the right people. And it’s a worthy message which Hammond is to be commended for bringing to life on the screen. So, put away your prejudices, and embrace the amiable (and occasionally offbeat) charms of Lame Ducks. It’s a flock worth joining.

A few months after writing this article, I managed to get in touch with Tony Millan who played Maurice who was only too pleased to answer a few questions about the series:

How did you first get involved in Lame Ducks?

I got a call, out of the blue, from John B. Hobbs. I had worked with John before, as the director on other shows. He told me that he had just been promoted to producer/director. His first show was to be Lame Ducks and would I like to play the part of Maurice, the ball-walking postman? So, no interview or audition, just a straight job offer.

I had actually heard of the show. My very good friend (still is), Mike Grady, had told me he was in a new sit-com, playing… Maurice, the ball-walking postman. I tentatively mentioned this. There was a pause at the other end of the phone and John said, “Ah, yes, Mike can’t do the job.” I had to check it out with Mike before I said anything else.

It transpired that when he had accepted the part, Mike hadn’t been told that he would need to undergo a three week course in ball-walking with Circus Hassani, which had a summer residency at Chessington World of Adventures. And he had a booking for that period which clashed. So I rang John back, accepted the job and spent the next three weeks travelling to Chessington every day, being instructed by Max, my trainer, on the technique of walking on balls and barrels. The secret is to keep moving.

What can you remember about working with the cast?

The show is about a bunch of misfits who come together to start a new life together. Fittingly, the cast came from very different backgrounds. Whilst I and Brian Murphy were habitués of television comedy (though Brian was a star from ITV – the ‘other side’ as they used to say at the BBC), John Duttine came from Drama, and was a very experienced leading man. Lorraine Chase had made her name as a model before showing her talent as a performer in a series of commercials. This was her first television acting engagement.

Maybe because we were thrown together like this, we became a very close company. Everyone brought a different experience to the show and it produced a very good mix. Casting throughout the two series continued to be eccentric, even though it might not have been apparent at the time. The stilt-walking Vicar who was rivalling Maurice for a place in the Guinness Book of Records, was played by Gregory Doran, who later became, and still is, Artistic Director of the RSC.

Even the opening credits were out of the ordinary. Franklin, the cartoonist of The Sun, provided ‘the story so far’ in a series of drawings. We were each given an original cartoon. The one that depicts Maurice’s recruitment to the gang has Frankin’s trade mark little gnome in the bottom left hand corner.

Did you have much involvement with PJ Hammond during your time on the series? And what did you feel his writing brought to Lame Ducks?

Peter was around all the time. This was his first, maybe his only foray into television comedy. I think he found it interesting to watch how the actors worked out the comic potential of his scripts. Nearly all of Peter’s writing has an element of fantasy to it, even the police procedurals. So it’s not surprising that his comedy took off in that direction. From an actor’s point of view it was very liberating. It’s not every day you are asked to walk around the world on a 5ft yellow ball.

There was quite a lot of location filming involved in the series, so what sort of challenges does this bring for an actor?

In common with every other sitcom of the time, we went on location for three weeks, to film all the exterior scenes which were then ‘played in’ when we recorded in front of a studio audience. It can be tricky to time a scene on film, to allow for a laugh that will come from the studio audience when they see it. Continuity can be a major headache. Not just in terms of costume or hair length. When you walk into a studio set you have to be giving the same performance that you gave on a Thursday afternoon two months ago.

The first scene I filmed was at a traction engine rally near Oxford. It was actually Maurice’s first appearance in the show. He is supposed to be a star attraction at the rally, but when he finally turns up both he and his ball are deflated. My problem was that I knew, however the character spoke, moved, his demeanour, his body language, defined the performance that I would be giving for the rest of the series. The character had to be fully formed before the first take. When the character you’re playing is something of an odd-ball, that’s a bit daunting.

Do you know if there were ever plans for a third series?

I don’t think a third series was ever planned. I think there was degree of uncertainty on the ’Sixth Floor’ about how to handle the show. I remember when the first episode was transmitted, audience research showed that 11.1 million viewers had watched it. This was the highest audience figure ever recorded for a BBC2 comedy. When the Head of Comedy saw the report he sent it back, saying, “Surely you’ve got the decimal point in the wrong place. You must mean 1.11million.” But it was correct and the figures stayed high throughout the first series. The schedulers changed the time and the channel for the second series, which didn’t work so well. After that they didn’t pursue a third series.

And what was it like walking on a giant rubber ball?

As I said, I had to learn to walk on the ball – but it wasn’t easy. There were two models, a rubber one which was only partially inflated for the scenes where it had suffered a puncture, and a fibreglass model for the ‘walking’ scenes. Unfortunately when the fibreglass was cast it came out slightly egg-shaped. So as it rolled, it would pivot on the peak and then suddenly lurch forward. I could keep it stationary by paddling, like treading water. But I couldn’t control it on the move, so Max my trainer doubled in the shots of it trundling along the road. I did walk on the barrel at the fête – though I didn’t do the final shot where Maurice leaps from the barrel and demolishes the marquee. That was Max again. He was brilliant.

Many thanks, Tony!

2 comments:

  1. Would love to see this again.

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  2. Thanks for all this information. All I could recall was Lorraine Chase's need to get to Hengistbury Head in a gentle comedy about a group of "lost " people. As with the first comment, I'd love to see it again.

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