Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy

Infidelity is a dangerous art to practice and one that comes pre-loaded with a weapons-grade risk. Nonetheless, it’s a perennial indulgence that mankind has been keen to nourish. A common joke, in the British Isles, is for an individual to jest that they will never stray from their partner within their post code. The rather feeble humour of this remark is that there’s less chance of being caught. Admittedly, there’s a logic what with the increase in distance reducing any visibility to the unknowing partner. Extend this to several postcodes and a national border and it should be ridiculously easy. But even with this on their side it’s far from easy for Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy.

Dan Milton (Malcolm Storry) and Aubrey Owen (Peter Blake) are a pair of dog food carrying lorry drivers who work for Bona Fido and Doggy Dins respectively. Meeting, quite by chance, at the Coronation Café, Dan and Aubrey quickly strike up a conversation about their similar loads before discussing their own lives. Dan, better known as Dogfood Dan, hails from Hull where he’s married to Helen (Elizabeth Mickery) and mostly sups ale while watching Rugby League. Aubrey aka the Carmarthen Cowboy resides in Carmarthen with his wife Gwyneth (Arbel Jones) and dreams of becoming a Mastermind champion.

Thanks to some wonderful synchronicity, Dan hauls dog food to Carmarthen on exactly the same day that Aubrey delivers dog food to Hull. It’s a relatively harmless coincidence, but one that the pair plan to elevate to something more exciting. Tipping each other off on the best places to meet women in their home towns, Dan and Aubrey head out to start affairs. And, with startling ease, they each embark on one almost instantly. The only problem is that, unbeknownst to them, it’s with each other’s wife. So, whilst Dan is supping ale with Myfanwy aka Gwyneth and boasting about the abnormal loads he carries, Aubrey – under the guise of Labour MP Aneurin - is enjoying Beef Stroganoff with Helen. But just how far will these affairs go?

Dogfood Dan trundled onto BBC2 in February 1988 with the six episodes going out on Thursday evenings at 9pm. But this wasn’t the first the world had seen of the series. Writer David Nobbs had previously debuted the Dogfood Dan universe in 1982 as a one-off installment of ITV’s anthology series Playhouse. Starring as the titular characters in that incarnation were David Daker and Gareth Thomas. Neither actor made the transition to the BBC series, but much of the dialogue carried over verbatim. Alan J.W. Bell, the BBC’s in-residence expert of directing comedy, was called for to direct and produce the episodes, none of which were repeated.

With a name enshrined in the annals of British television history, thanks alone to The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, David Nobbs’ creations always demand investigation. And Dogfood Dan takes a simple, yet delightfully structured concept which promises plenty of potential. Slotting together deception with an underlying, unseen irony, Dogfood Dan has a pleasing, traditional core which hooks the viewer in. Nobbs also uses the situation to provide plenty of discussion and philosophy on the nature of relationships. Discussions which are expertly conveyed through the deep thinking of Aubrey and the more direct approach of Dan.

Aubrey and Dan, both played fantastically by Peter Blake and Malcolm Storry, may be in the same profession, but they are vastly different characters. And Nobbs uses this to foster plenty of comedy. Whereas Aubrey will quote Shakespeare as he muses on the futility of relationships, Dan’s contributions are mostly suited to the touchline of a Rugby League match – his most articulate phrase being the recurring “By the cringe!” These differences make for a pleasing bonhomie and their weekly catch ups in the transport café are a highlight of the series, all homespun philosophy and disparaging digs at the partners of those they are wooing.

Dogfood Dan has a strong footing to get started, but how does it unfold over its six episodes. Well, the fantastic cast – including the equally deceptive and culpable Elizabeth Mickery and Arbel Jones (with her intense, detailed gossiping about the mundane) – and gentle, warming humour of Nobbs just about carries it through. But the main criticism to level at Dogfood Dan is its formulaic nature. The majority of episodes follow a similar routine of transport café to affair section to home life and repeat. This soon becomes grating, with miniscule advances in plot and similar jokes being recycled, and it’s only in the final two episodes that the setup changes in any way.

The 1982 Playhouse version removes much of this criticism thanks to its much reduced running time. It also benefits from a more delicious ending where all four guilty parties are plunged together. The BBC series, meanwhile, decides to instead maintain a status quo for the relatively innocent affairs. It’s far from a condemnation of infidelity, but Nobbs does, at least, give the control and upper hand to the female characters to avoid any male-dominated manipulation. And the theme tune, written by Richard Stilgoe and sung by Lonnie Donegan, is a soaring piece of brilliance. In conclusion, as a weekly view rather than a binge watch, Dogfood Dan is an inoffensive, yet likable sitcom. You may find yourself wanting to stray, but there are enough gentle smiles to keep you faithful.

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