Saturday 18 June 2022

Mann's Best Friends

Outsiders and outcasts have long provided fertile ground for comedy. With their peculiar takes on the world, these square pegs desperately try to force themselves into society’s round holes with all the success of a hammerhead shark. It’s a popular trope, and one which has been responsible for much of the comedy I hold dearest to my heart. The Young Ones, The Inbetweeners and Peep Show have all dabbled, with hilarious results, in the art of the outsider and I dare say it will be forming the foundations of comedy for centuries to come. But it’s not always successful, not capable of imprinting itself on a time, a place, a demographic. Even if it is written by one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific scriptwriters.

Roy Clarke needs little introduction, so we’ll simply state that he started writing for British television in 1968. And didn’t stop writing. By the time that Mann’s Best Friends made its debut, on the 15th of April 1985, Clarke was a relentless scriptwriting machine. Not only was he working on Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours, but he somehow managed to defy the laws of time and also fit in scripts for The Clairvoyant, Pictures and The Magnificent Evans. Most of Clarke’s oeuvre has emanated from the BBC’s transmitters, but Mann’s Best Friends represents an interesting anomaly in that it was Clarke’s only outing, up until now, with Channel Four. Produced by Thames Television, Mann’s Best Friends ran for six episodes and received just one repeat run.

Mann’s Best Friends begins with Hamish James Ordway (Fulton Mackay) seeking accommodation following his retirement from the Water Board, an organization he dedicated his life to. Although the initial scenes position him as a somewhat bumbling buffoon, Ordway’s desire for order and precision is soon established. However, the letting agent’s suggestion of paying a visit to The Laurels will test Ordway’s assiduous ways in a way that rivals even that of a burst water main on a busy high street.

His first impression of The Laurels is a curious one: after discovering that the entrance gate isn’t attached to its hinges, Ordway is immediately chased up and down the street by the snarling, snapping jaws of Simba, the resident Alsatian. Temporarily outpacing Simba, Ordway soon encounters landlord Henry Mann (Barry Stanton), a kindly, innocent gent with a passion for rescuing animals and rehousing them. For Ordway, however, The Laurels will represent anything but a sanctuary.

It’s clear, from the off, that The Laurels is a curious extension of Mann’s personality, a fact most readily underlined by the appearance of his ghostly mother, Mrs Mann (Barbara Hicks), who, wearing a wedding dress, rises from a table to boast about her social success in the afterlife. Luckily, this ghostly apparition is only visible to Mann, and the chances of Ordway flying out the door are (temporarily) on hold. He does, however, still have to meet his potential fellow tenants.

Duncan (Bernard Bresslaw) is an aggressive, ceiling-heighted man who has barely enough brain cells to run on anything except primal instincts. The brute strength of Duncan is contrasted sharply by the eccentric form of Irvin (Clive Merrison), a man who, despite being average-to-just-under-average height, is convinced he’s a dwarf, and constantly being discriminated against for this reason. And the final tenant is Dolly Delights (Patricia Brake), who is clearly a prostitute but, in Mann’s eyes, is actually giving all those middle-aged men acting lessons.

The chaos of The Laurels is everything that a fastidious chap such as Ordway stands for, and there’s absolutely no way he can take up residence there. But, eventually, his mind is swayed when Mann offers him free board and lodging in return for restoring order to The Laurels.

The episodes that follow, well… they’re… uh scripted 25-minute episodes? Yeah, I don’t feel too bad summing them up as that. And that may sound harsh, but the pertinent fact you must be made aware of is that the plots, if they’re even present at all, are paper thin. It’s a strange accusation to levy on Roy Clarke, given his track record in the game, but it’s one which is unarguably unarguable in almost every episode.

Only the first episode has any semblance of a plot, and that’s more of a scene setter for the series, rather than a recognisable narrative. I suppose, at a push, the fifth episode attempts to establish a plot early on – where Ordway attempts to hold a tenants meeting – but it quickly falls apart at the seams and descends into chaos, a brand of chaos which is as far removed from meticulous sitcom farce as you can imagine. Aside from that, episodes mostly consist of Simba chasing people up trees and Irvin’s unnecessary rants which take the viewers on a trip to nowhere.

As I say, it’s unusual to experience this problem with Roy Clarke, and, regardless of your opinion on Last of the Summer Wine, he consistently served up clear, identifiable plots for 37 years, even if they did all involve going down a hill in a bathtub or armchair. In Mann’s Best Friends, however, the episodes all morph into a forgettable homogenisation of tired tropes.

The characters populating the universe of Mann’s Best Friends also require a careful inspection. First and foremost, the performances are one of the saving graces of the series. All of the cast are accomplished performers, although, to my eyes at least, Clive Merrison and Barry Stanton were unfamiliar faces – a quick internet search, though, revealed that Merrison had played Mark Corrigan’s father in Peep Show quite brilliantly. Fulton Mackay, with his curiously defined and right-angled movements, has the strongest characterisation as Ordway, a character who admittedly isn’t a million miles away from Mr Mackay in Porridge. Mann, too, has all the initial shadings of a fascinating character, but there’s not enough depth and, instead, this is jettisoned in favour of mild peculiarities.

Sadly, the rest of the characters do little more than trade upon their one-dimensional personalities: Duncan’s an idiot, Irvin an eccentric (whose constant declaration that he’s actually a dwarf becomes tiresome very quickly) and Dolly a family-audience friendly tart with a heart. Stories should be driven by the personalities of those characters populating them, but those within Mann’s Best Friends feel rushed and the small semblances of plot around them suffer greatly as a result.

Is it funny? No, not really. There’s the occasional chuckle of a line – such as Ordway proudly claiming in a tearoom that every drop of water in there has, at some point, passed through him – but the notes I took whilst watching the series barely mentioned any zingers or set pieces. Saying that, the final episode – where Ordway has a runaway mouse hiding in his clothes – does result in a classic sitcom ‘trousers falling down’ moment, which always appeals to the childish idiot inside me. Ultimately, though, the comedy throughout the series is below par and fails to sparkle with any regularity.

I’ve put the boot in to Mann’s Best Friends and this isn’t something I enjoy doing in any way, shape or form, but it’s a sitcom which, aside from the performances, is consistently weak. Interestingly, there’s a parallel between this sitcom and its contemporary Lame Ducks, which aired on BBC2 between 1984 – 86. Both feature a collection of oddbods coming to live together as well as some mild supernatural action, but Lame Ducks, written by PJ Hammond, delivers more likeable characters and stronger plots. Regardless of my criticism, watching the six episodes of Mann’s Best Friends was far from difficult and, for the comedy afficionado, it’s worth investing some time in but I’d hold on to your pennies and head over to YouTube rather than paying for the DVD.

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