Monday, 22 February 2021

Lord Tramp

It’s comforting to dream about the all the possibilities that a sudden windfall could bring. One moment you’re struggling to stave off the wrong end of your overdraft and the next, well, it’s whatever you heart desires be it sailing a luxury yacht around the Med or buying rare comedy memorabilia such as the actual suit worn by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Yes, the process of rags to riches is an appealing one, but does it bring happiness? Are these transformations too swift and too unnatural for those individuals whose lives are suddenly turned upside down? Or can this sea change in life events pass them by and fail to temper their interest in a dustbin full of potential and a comfortable park bench? Let’s ask Lord Tramp.

Lord Fitch-Woldingham has passed away and it would appear that there is no next-of-kin to inherit his grand estate. But, after a little digging, it is discovered that a distant cousin is alive and well. Rather than being a textbook example of nobility, however, this relative is far removed from his Lordship in practically every way. And the most diametric difference is that Hughie Wagstaffe (Hugh Lloyd) is a tramp. With a penchant for rummaging through dustbins, Hughie is like a pig in the proverbial when it comes to life as a down and out. But his sudden inheritance means that he’s going to have to swap sleeping rough for snoozing in a four posted bed once used by Queen Elizabeth.

Hughie won’t be on his own as he adjusts to life in his country estate as he’s also inherited a handy set of staff. Housekeeper Miss Pratt (Joan Sims) is determined to transform Hughie into a respected member of the gentry and calamitous butler Tippings (George Moon) would simply be happy to deliver breakfast all in one piece. Challenges facing Hughie in his new role include hosting a social soiree with the local well-to-dos, coming face to face with a headless ghost and opening up his grand house as a tourist attraction to pay off debts. The allure of a dustbin remains tantalisingly attractive for Hughie, though, and trouble is never far behind. A fact compounded by the presence of his old, homeless friends The Duke (Jack Watling) and The Bishop (Leslie Dwyer)

Lord Tramp originated from a concept devised by Hugh Lloyd and was inspired by the wildly successful Upstairs, Downstairs which had concluded its five series run in 1975. Lloyd’s take on the posh and the snooty, however, was intended to be an inverted Upstairs, Downstairs. Whilst the concept was Hugh Lloyd’s, the scripts were trusted to Michael Pertwee – yes, that’s right, brother of the great Jon and an individual who had been writing for television since the late 1940s. The series was part of Southern Television’s concerted investment into light entertainment, a move spearheaded by the new head of LE, Terry Henebery. Episodes of Lord Tramp went out on Monday afternoons at 4.45pm on ITV in August 1977 with a repeat run coming in December 1978.

The early timeslot granted to Lord Tramp indicates that it was part of the children’s lineup on ITV. And indeed it was, with episodes following on from Chris Kelly’s imperial Clapperboard. But it doesn’t feel like an out and out children’s production. There’s no sex or violence, obviously, but neither does it rely purely on slapstick and world-weary gags that adults have heard a million times before. Admittedly, there is some room within the scripts for this, but its joined by so much more. The gags conjured up are more than worthy of a primetime slot and Pertwee skilfully weaves in visual gags involving Hughie made up to look like Hitler, farcical scenes where Tippings gets drunk on army rum and surrealist flourishes such as a historical portrait coming to life.

Lord Tramp is also to be commended for its dedication to plots. They may not be multi-layered marvels of narrative plotting, but there’s enough for Pertwee to heighten the fish out of water ethos of Lord Tramp. Episodes centre around Hughie embracing life in his new and unusual landscape, so there’s plenty of room for him to butt heads with stuffy ex-army generals at cocktail parties and a particularly farcical plot sees Hughie teaming up with Mayfair’s premier interior designers to revitalise his central heating. All with hilarious consequences. But the glue that holds everything together in Lord Tramp is the cast.

Hugh Lloyd, who had popped up in Michael Pertwee’s Hogg’s Back in 1975, was a stalwart of British television for several decades and was never more comfortable than when in a comedy. Despite his naturally lugubrious disposition, Lloyd deploys a rapscallion charm as Hughie that warms the cockles. Joan Sims, another staunch lifer of television, makes for a perfect straight woman to Hughie with her impeccable politeness and mild horror at his passion for grime. The long serving character actor George Moon strengthens matters with a delicious performance of bumbling, stammering comic charm. The most enjoyable moments, however, unfold arrive whenever Jack Watling and Leslie Dwyer careen onto screen with their unruly brand of vagrant hilarity.

You don’t have to be a child to enjoy Lord Tramp as there is enough quality from start to finish for the episodes to fly by with a breezy charm. Genuine laugh out loud moments regularly punctuate the scripts – although the lack of a laughter track presents an oddly muted delivery – which are as playful as they are straightforward. It would be difficult to single Lord Tramp out as a standout classic of the genre, but you're more than guaranteed 25 minutes of fun.

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