Saturday 13 February 2021

Men of the World

Men, as we all know, have a tendency to strut, pontificate and make silly tits of themselves. It’s a misguided attempt to keep the embers of patriarchy flickering when all it really does is fan the flames of equality. But, deep down, men are aware of this. Because they do have feelings. And, as such, they need strong friendships and they need love. Nonetheless, these desires are insulated by thick coats of arrogance and delusion which make them perfect for comedy. Want a quick demonstration of these social dynamics in action? Just look at the Men of the World.

Lenny Smart (David Threlfall) may be nearing 40 and have a broken marriage behind him, but all is not lost. He is, after all, the proud owner of TV’s Greatest Theme Tunes Volume 1 and 2. More important though is his friendship with Kendle Bains (John Simm), a twenty-something clutching frantically at mid-1990s idealism whilst trying to get his end away. And the pair of them are trapped together for not only do they both work at the same travel agents, but Kendle is renting Lenny’s spare room.

Despite these trappings there’s more to Lenny and Kendle’s lives than selling package tours to the Algarve and arguing about the washing up. Along with input and observations from Lenny’s childhood friend Gilbey (Daniel Peacock), our intrepid duo will take on a number of intriguing challenges. Kendle, on his birthday, becomes convinced that the neighbour across the road is a murderer. Lenny strives to prove that he was the scorer of a winning goal in an under-11s cup match. Meanwhile, Kendle appears to have found love when Becky (Eva Pope) enters his life, but will he be able to hold on to her?

Landing bang in the middle of the 1990s, Men of the World garnered two series of six episodes and was produced by Alomo Productions (the company set up by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran). Both series aired at 8.30pm on BBC1 with neither series securing a repeat. All of the episodes are up on YouTube, albeit in a rather fuzzy VHS transfer, but to get an even deeper understanding of the series I got in touch with Daniel Peacock. It may be over 25 years since Men of the World was last seen on our screens, but Peacock's memories remain fresh:

"After the success of Teenage Health Freak on Channel 4, I was approached by Marks and Gran to see if I had any ideas for a prime time comedy. I’d always been a fan of The Likely Lads and wanted to write a two hander. The title Men of the World came about when I decided that they should work in a travel agents. With the characters, I was trying to show that the older you get the more bitter and twisted you can become. Young people shouldn’t always listen to their elders. Without wanting to or knowing it, an older generation can often give bad advice born out of their own mistakes. After writing a first draft, Alomo took it to the BBC and within weeks the pilot was commissioned.

Both John and David were a delight to work with. Hard working and very funny - the perfect combination. It really was great working with them. I’d acted in my own written work many times before so I was used to it. I took direction like everyone else. Only once did I find myself in a scene enjoying David and John's banter so much that I’d forgotten I was in the scene and my line was next. I bump into them from time to time and we always end up laughing. Both great guys.

I changed things in the second series as I wanted to clash John's happiness with David's misery. Hence it was important to give John something/someone to make him happy. Hence, Eva Pope. Eva fitted right in and became one of the gang. There was plans for a third series, but when it started to get compared to Men Behaving Badly the BBC decided not to continue. As far as I was concerned, the two shows were completely different apart from having Men in the titles. If I had to write it today, I’d do the same, except make it funnier"

If you ask people to name a mid-1990s BBC sitcom centering around two men living together and exploring masculinity then almost everyone will answer Men Behaving Badly. And that’s a perfectly fine answer. But it’s not the only answer. There’s also Men of the World. Are the similarities between the two, however, enough to render Men of the World redundant? Sure, Men Behaving Badly captured the laddish zeitgeist of the 1990s with an unerring accuracy. And, yes, it’s still referenced decades after it finished. But Men of the World is a very different and interesting kettle of fish.

Daniel Peacock has, in Men of the World, crafted a tale of male solidarity. Neatly conforming to sitcom regulations, Kendle and Lenny may be mates, but their differing personalities throw up all manner of conflict. Kendle, seemingly caught between New Man and New Lad, is the voice of na├»ve youth full of optimism, hope and foolish pretension. Lenny, a decade older, embraces his life experience and uses it to his advantage – such as pinching bonus holiday weekends from high spending customers – but, as Kendle puts it, he remains an oik. Both characters, however, elicit sympathy.

Lenny is clearly still smarting from the emotional heartbreak of his divorce. Despite trying to soften his pain with a string of frivolous relationships, he craves long term security. This is laid bare where he tries, with a disturbing gusto, to adopt a family as his own within days of meeting them. And then there’s Kendle, poor young Kendle. Still searching for his identity – he’s a closet historical saga fan and has Oasis posters on his wall – Kendle struggles to find a romantic soulmate. When he does, Becky unfortunately provides the perfect opportunity for Kendle to display his immaturity.

Bringing these characters to life are a fantastic set of performers. David Threlfall may have been popping up on TV since the late 1970s, but back in 1994 he wasn’t quite the household name he is today. Nonetheless, his comic timing and dramatic ability is deployed effortlessly in Men of the World. Even further back, in terms of experience and recognition, is John Simm. Only a few years into his career, Simm takes the bait of his big break and ably demonstrates why a special career lay ahead. Eva Pope, meanwhile, may only appear in a few episodes, but as with Simm, it’s an impressive performance which defies her fledgling status.

These performances need fine scripts behind them and Daniel Peacock is only too happy to oblige. Men of the World takes in farcical narratives played out by characters foolishly trying to get ahead. It’s very much a traditional sitcom and, given its pre-watershed timeslot, does little to shock as other series of the time did. Nonetheless, Peacock’s scripts play out with a modern, youthful feel where there’s precious little room for meandering. And, watching many decades later, there’s a pleasing nostalgia to spotting all the 90s references peppered throughout the episodes.

Men of the World may have retreated into one of the lesser visited recesses of the public consciousness, but it manages to stand on its own. It’s a completely different series to Men Behaving Badly and, whilst it’s not exactly a family-friendly sitcom, Men of the World can boast a wide appeal. An absorbing case study of male friendships, Men of the World is, if you really want a mid-1990s Manchester reference, the sitcom equivalent of Acquiesce by Oasis. And, just like Lenny and Kendle need each other, we all need Men of the World.

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