Monday 24 July 2017

Wyatt’s Watchdogs

Society simply wouldn't operate without a little bit of community spirit running through our veins. It's this sense of commitment to our fellow man which ensures we have peace of mind, security and, most importantly, a feeling of togetherness. Sure, there are always hermits and loners in amongst this throng of connected individuals, but at least community provides them with something to rebel against, so everyone's a winner.

And it was in 1982 - for the UK - that an upgrade to community spirit was delivered with the establishment of neighbourhood watch schemes. Based on similar practices well established in the USA, these schemes looked to foster a communal spirit by inspiring people to come together to keep a watchful eye on their communities and make them a safer place to live.

The scheme has been a tremendous success and it's now estimated that 3.8 million households fall under the jurisdiction of a neighbourhood watch, so this is a level of security which can't be ignored. However, with no specific rules or central, governing bodies in place, a neighbourhood watch can soon become somewhat of a wild beast and start to cause more trouble than it solves as evidenced in Wyatt's Watchdogs.

Genre: Comedy
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 17/10/1988 - 21/11/1988

Major John Wyatt (Brian Wilde) is a retired army officer living in the quintessentially English village of Bradly Bush. However, even this quiet, leafy village has the capacity to be struck down the rigours of crime and this is suddenly brought home to Wyatt when his sister Edwina (Anne Ridler) has her house burgled. Determined to create a safer environment for his fellow villagers to live in, Wyatt - with the approval and careful eye of the local police - forms a neighbourhood watch scheme for Bradly Bush.

Wyatt, of course, is somewhat of a pompous twit, though, so his resolute bloody-mindedness seriously hamstrings the activities of his watch. He's not on his own, though, so joining him in the Dogmobile (Wyatt's Range Rover) is the suave security alarm salesman Peter Pitt (Trevor Bannister) and proper English village lady Virginia (April Walker) who swoons whenever confronted by a set of previously unconquered X and Y chromosomes.

Keeping a careful eye on Wyatt's questionable and calamitous activities is the local police sergeant Springer (James Warrior) who seems determined to discourage Wyatt from going one step too far and, of course, ridiculing his various downfalls. And what type of village would this be without a religious figurehead? Step forward the Vicar (David Jackson) who's keen to interfere and save a few quid by getting new age travellers to repair his leaky plumbing.

Together, this assortment of fantastically British characters take on plots which see them hot on the trail of a terrorsome gnome thief, filming a crime prevention video and even getting providing an anti-theft identity engraving service. And, as decreed by Eric Sykes in the 1947 Sitcom Regulations Act, all of these endeavours end up going down the swanny for the audience's viewing pleasure.

Watching the Production

Wyatt's Watchdogs aired during autumn 1988 on BBC1 at 8pm on Monday evenings and ran for one series of six episodes. Despite the somewhat cosy trappings of an English village, a comedy vicar and all manner of whimsy, you may be surprised to learn that Wyatt's Watchdogs was written by Miles Tredinnick who was the lead singer of classic 70s punk band London (where he performed under the name Riff Regan).

Looking back at his initial ideas for the series, Tredinnick remembers focusing on the glory days of classic British comedy:

"I was trying to create a contemporary Dad's Army type show where a whole load of people are thrown together in an unlikely group to combat local crime. Neighbourhood Watches were very current at the time and I thought that if you put some pompous twit in charge it might have some comedic legs and be funny. I was also trying to create a gentle comedy rather in the fashion of the old Ealing comedies. I wanted oddball characters like they had in Passport to Pimlico or Whisky Galore!"

With a firm concept in mind, Tredinnick's next step was to secure a commission and, although he did, it was after an unusual series of events:

"I badgered my agent Tessa Le Bars to send the BBC comedy department a stage play that I had written called Laugh? I Nearly Went To Miami! which had just been published by Samuel French Ltd as I thought it might show the BBC the kind of dialogue I wrote. A sort of comedy calling card if you like.

Everyone thought I was mad sending the BBC a stage play but  they must have liked it because the next thing I know I’m in a meeting with Christopher Bond at TV Centre and he said they wanted to commission me to write a pilot script on any subject I wanted. They asked me to go away and come back with three ideas and they would choose the best one. Talk about having all your Christmases come at once!

Well I went away and wrote Bovver which was about a skinhead who still lived at home with his mum – it was very much inspired by John Sullivan’s Citizen Smith  – the idea being that the skinhead couldn’t be as tough as he would like with his fellow gang members whilst his mum was always popping in with cups of tea and tidying his room! Smooth Operators which was about three switchboard girls in a legal firm who spent more time discussing their boyfriends then answering calls and my third one was Wyatt's Watchdogs.

That was the one they liked and it eventually got the green light for a pilot episode by Gareth Gwenlan, the Head of Comedy and Michael Grade who was then the Controller of BBC1. But the first I heard that they were going to make a pilot episode was one morning when I got a phone call from Alan Bell who wanted to discuss casting. He assumed that I already knew it had got the go ahead. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I kept repeating 'So you’re going to make my sitcom?' again and again. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. Typical BBC"

Both Brian Wilde and Trevor Bannister were well established sitcom stars, so securing the pair of them was a real coup for Wyatt's Watchdogs and led to Tredinnick having to make adjustments to accomodate both their talents and standing:

"Brian Wilde was Gareth Gwenlan’s suggestion. I had originally seen the John Wyatt role as ideal for Reginald Marsh who I admired from shows like George and Mildred, The Good Life and Terry and June. But as soon as Gareth suggested Brian I was in. I had always been a huge fan of Brian Wilde in Porridge (my favourite sitcom ever) and was delighted at the prospect of writing for him. His timing and delivery was always superb in my opinion. 

Trevor was different. We were casting the pilot episode 'One Big, One Not So Big' and Alan Bell suggested Trevor Bannister for Peter Pitt? Well, I'd always loved Trevor in Are You Being Served? so we got him in for a reading with Brian Wilde. It was immediately clear that there was some kind of chemistry going on between them. It worked very well as they had both known each other from an earlier ITV sitcom The Dustbinmen that they’d both been in. Obviously I had to build up Trevor’s part considerably as originally the show was only supposed to be a star vehicle for Brian"

Tredinnick's original vision for the series also had to be changed slightly as the series entered pre-production:

"The first script was quite different to what it eventually became. I had originally set the show in London’s East End with Wyatt looking down through his binoculars from the 17th floor of a high rise tower block trying to spot local wrong-doers. I think it was Brian Wilde who asked if it could be moved to more leafy surroundings and so I changed it to accommodate him.

In the end, the series was filmed in Claygate, Surrey although my fictional name for the village was ‘Bradly Bush’. It was very convenient for all the crew (most of whom lived in London) and especially for Trevor Bannister and Alan Bell as they lived only 20 minutes away in Thames Ditton"

And even the series title went through a number of changes thanks to the bureaucracy of television scheduling and marketing as Tredinnick remembers:

"The original title was Wyatt's Watchdogs. That was the title under which the show got commissioned but then as the filming dates approached, Alan Bell said he wasn’t too keen on the title as it sounded a bit like a children’s programme. So I suggested Every Street Should Have One and everyone seemed happy with that.

But then after the filming but before we got into the weekly studio recordings, word came through from the BBC bosses that the show was going to be aired in the autumn at 8pm on Mondays on BBC1. It was going to follow Coronation Street on ITV and be transmitted before another new BBC comedy called Streets Apart.

Well all these ‘streets’ would have looked a bit silly in the schedules so Gareth Gwenlan asked me to come up with a new title. Now, you may think picking a title is a straight forward thing but actually it’s quite difficult. After a few days I gave Gareth a list of alternatives but he didn’t like any of them so in the end and with the transmission date looming closer and closer it was decided to go back to the original title Wyatt's Watchdogs"

The series was restricted to just one airing and there neither repeats or any commercial releases, but off-air recordings (not HD quality, but watchable enough) are circulating on torrent sites or rather overpriced (considering the quality) bootleg DVDs are for sale on various online marketplaces.

Every Street Should Have One

Wyatt's Watchdogs was a sitcom which had been recommended to me by several people and, given the fact that it had only aired once nearly 30 years ago, meant that there must have been something special lurking in its inner workings to engender such long lasting affection. Personally, I can't remember watching it at the time, so I had no personal recollections of it. I had, at the time it aired, been watching Last of the Summer Wine for a few years, but I'm pretty certain I started when Brian Wilde had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Michael Aldridge as Seymour.

So, yes, Wyatt's Watchdogs had passed me by like a day of sobriety for an alcoholic. However, much like an alcoholic frantically searching the house for that last bottle of low cost, high strength cider, I was determined to find Wyatt's Watchdogs. And, for a year or two, I drew nothing but blanks until I was lucky enough to uncover a recording of the series by some innovative soul. By now, of course, I was well aware of Brian Wilde's ability as an actor having continued watching Summer Wine and witnessing his reappearance in 1990.

What was even more intriguing about Wyatt's Watchdogs was that long term Summer Wine director Alan J.W. Bell was on board as well as Ronnie Hazlehurst who composed the theme tune and incidental music for Summer Wine. With all theses Summer Wine references and foundations, I began to wonder whether it would simply be a rehash of that series, but with a dose of crime fighting for good measure. However, Wyatt's Watchdogs proved to be a very different beast.

Sure, Brian Wilde playing a pompous ex-military type isn't far removed from the character of Foggy Dewhurst, but Major Wyatt is much more grounded in reality. You see, at least for the last two thirds of its run, Summer Wine was set in what was very much a cartoony, utopian idyll, seemingly untouched by the modern world or any of the harsh realities of life (Compo's death aside). And, for Summer Wine, this was the perfect flavour for a show whose exaggerated characters were there sought to celebrate the constituent parts of the British personality.

In Wyatt's Watchdogs, though, Brian Wilde is playing a character who has genuine, real life problems on his hands in the form of crime. Okay, he also has to worry about keeping an eye on his precious drinks cabinet, but it's refreshing to see him in a role which allows him a more dramatic narrative even if it is just hunting down a gnome thief or trying to secure victory in a 'best kept village' competition. Ticking off every aspect required to elevate his pompousness to a particularly high pedestal, Wyatt is perfectly poised to suffer fall from grace after fall from grace.

And, in sharp contrast to Wyatt, we have Peter Pitt played with complete relish by Trevor Bannister. The complete opposite of Wyatt, Pitt is diametrically opposed to Wyatt's outlook on life and, to Wyatt at least (but virtually no one else in Bradly Bush), Pitt is little more than a charlatan intent on flogging burglar alarms. In reality, Pitt is a jovial, charming soul and his free enterprise activities are merely a symptom of his personality rather than any duplicitous scheme to make a few sales.

Wyatt and Pitt make for a fine double act and are one of the series redeeming and best executed features, being as it is, a pre-requisite (as laid down by Eric Sykes in 1947) that conflict is the epicentre from which all belly laughs emanate. And Tredinnick reveals that he revelled in writing these scenes:

"I always think that one of the best bits about the show is the constant bickering between Brian and Trevor. I love that kind of writing – two people trying to outdo each other and neither willing to back down - and found those scenes exciting to write"

Although the main thrust of the narrative concentrates on Wyatt and Pitt's activities, the supporting characters around them all provide little flurries of excitement. Springer provides Wyatt with another battleground, but this time Wyatt's adversary comes with some real authority behind him, as well as a desire to see Wyatt land flat on his face. And perhaps my favourite character is the prone-to-a-gamble Vicar with David Jackson delivering a sparkling performance as the engaging holy man.

And it was the fantastic cast in place which really made Wyatt's Watchdogs for Tredinnick:

"The regulars April Walker, Anne Ridler, David Jackson, and James Warrior were all very funny and a joy to work with. As were the supporting actors. Eva Stuart, Brian Wilde’s wife, appeared in one episode as a snooty antique shop owner, (I think it’s the only film of the two of them acting together). Clive Mantle played a hilarious stoned hippy traveller called Baza; Martin Benson (who I had only known from films like Goldfinger and one of the Pink Panther movies) played a Judge and Timothy Carlton (Benedict Cumberbatch’s father) had a role as the antiques expert Toby Todd"

Tredinnick's scripts for this fine cast are particularly pleasing with plenty of action to provide the narrative with a sense of pace which never leaves you staring out the window and pondering life. And there are plenty of gags peppered throughout as well as the comedy arising from Wyatt's misplaced sense of purpose and importance. It's all very innocent and certainly indebted - as Tredinnick intended - to shows such as Dad's Army and similar family favourites.

The tightness of the scripts is also complemented by Alan Bell's direction, but, given his experience, this shouldn't really come as any surprise and Tredinnick was highly appreciative of the magic Bell brought to the production:

"We got on brilliantly from day one. Alan is an incredible film director (just look at some of the LAS episodes, beautifully photographed and with great composition) but he also instinctively knows what’s funny. He has a great sense of humour and always created a very happy atmosphere on set.

For me, a complete novice in television, he was patient and very helpful. He allowed me to sit in on everything – the casting, the rehearsals, the filming, the music recording with Ronnie Hazlehurst, the editing, the lot! I learned so much from him in every aspect of how to put a TV show together. I am very grateful to him"

Wyatt's Watchdogs is certainly packed full of charm and merit, but unfortunately that all important second series didn't manifest itself with a commission as Tredinnick recollects:

"A second series was pencilled in and I had already started writing the first episode which involved Wyatt and his neighbourhood watch team taking to the river in a rubber dinghy trying to catch waterborne crooks! I remember having a meeting with Trevor Bannister and coming up with all kinds of possible shenanigans/bungles for a new series.

We discussed some great ideas. It was quite surreal in a way because in real life Trevor was in charge of his own neighbourhood watch in Thames Ditton. Talk about art imitating life!

Unfortunately when the show aired it was up against the popular Benny Hill Show on ITV and just couldn’t win the ratings war. Despite the fact that 8 million viewers tuned in if you didn’t attract 10 million plus back then your show would be cancelled. We were all very upset. It had been a happy series to work on"

Worth a Watch?

Taking its lead from the spirit of neighbourhood watches, there's a pleasing level of community at the forefront of Wyatt's Watchdogs from both the cast's performance and the level of expertise behind the camera. It may feel, at times, quaint and old fashioned, but perhaps it aired in an era where times were simpler and the TV audience wasn't fractured into so many specific niches.

Tredinnick certainly notices a marked difference in today's sitcom landscape compared to that of yesteryear:

"There aren’t many sitcoms made in the traditional way anymore are there? These days they seem to be more light-hearted dramas whilst the best sitcoms had a funny line almost every third line. The show I wrote an episode for after Wyatt's Watchdogs was Marks and Gran’s Birds of a Feather and there they practically insisted on so many laugh-out-loud lines per episode. 

The old sitcoms were designed to make you laugh. The best ones were written by skilled comedy writers and performed by actors who just knew how to deliver lines. Take Trevor Bannister’s previous show Are You Being Served? Whether you liked it or not everyone in it knew how to say their lines with impeccable timing probably learnt from years in the theatre and being in farces etc"

Wyatt's Watchdogs is a fine example of a traditional sitcom and one which refuses to vacate the affections of those who watched it almost three decades ago. For Tredinnick it's a series packed full of memories which he believes are worthy of a reappraisal:

"Wyatt's Watchdogs wasn’t as successful as the BBC had hoped but it was two years of my life that I look back on with immense pleasure. I know a lot of people enjoyed watching it and even today people ask me if there is ever going to be a DVD release? Maybe one day that might happen. Who knows? With sitcom heavyweights Brian Wilde and Trevor Bannister bickering and snapping at each other like only they could, it would probably sell quite well"

And you know what? I couldn't agree more, so come on, BBC, lets get a broadcast quality copy out on DVD. With commentaries and blooper reels. And even a Wyatt's Watchdog 'Neighbourhood Watch' sticker to display in your window to deter would be criminals.


  1. Lovely insightful read mate! It's one I do recall from my childhood, and I know I found it funny. Tredinnick makes a very valid point about how modern sitcoms aren more light hearted drama nowdays. There's no room for the traditional take any more as they're loaded with realism. I was saying much the same thing about White Gold on BBC2 recently. Worth a watch, nice period detail, but not really funny. It felt to me like something that would have been out in the 80s (the time it was set in) but under the 'light' drama label, and running for 50 mins or an hour. Bit like Minder or Big Deal basically.

    1. I found Miranda to be a big, laugh out loud sitcom, but that was aping the old traditional sitcoms to the extreme. Mrs Brown's Boys too, or so I hear as I don't remember making it through many episodes. They're certainly in the minority though.

      I watched about three episodes of White Gold and it was, you know, okay, but my interest tailed off a bit. The main guy in it was great, but the Inbetweeners pair just felt like an 80s riff on their more famous roles.

  2. My favourite at the moment is Count Arthur Strong, that's in the real good old fashioned fun for all the family tradition. But yeah, they're few and far between. Miranda, Mrs Brown's Boys (can't stand it myself but there you go) and Citizen Khan are probably the only ones really.

    Absolutely, they were just playing the same roles really whilst Ed Westwick seemed to be channelling Ben Chaplin in Game On. He was, as you say, very good, but the character was deeply unlikeable and I think the morally grey area it operated in would have been better suited to a 50 minute drama, albeit one with laughs.

    Fun trivia: Westwick is from Stevenage, which is where an ex of mine hails from. They went to the same secondary school, albeit in different years (she was older than him) One day they both found they had booked the school hall for some extra curricular events. His was drama. He pleaded with her to let them have the hall, but she dug her heels in and pointed out she had booked it first. He got so upset, he burst into tears!

  3. Ah, I'd forgotten about Citizen Khan! I really liked the character when he was in Bellamy's People, but couldn't get on with the sitcom incarnation. I haven't got into Count Arthur Strong yet, I hear the radio version is superior to the TV version...

    And you're bang right about Westwick channeling Ben Chaplin! However, the fact that he once cried about a school hall means his cool rating has, for me, slid a little!

  4. They're both strong. The radio version's Arthur is a little more tetchy and mean spirited but the TV version has some sublime moments. Citizen Khan has kind of grown on me, I found it really naff when it started but if it's on and there's nothing else grabbing my attention I can pass an inoffensive half hour with it. And that's precisely why I've been keen to tell people about his tears - he can be as cool as he likes on TV, but I know better now haha

  5. I love Count Arthur Strong but much much prefer his radio shows to the TV version. I don't understand why take a very good comedy and then totally change the cast and surroundings that made the series funny in the first place. Maybe I am missing something in the TV version but I find it nowhere near as funny and I particularly find the canned laughter annoying and detracts from the comedy IMHO

  6. From what I can recall,'Wyatt's Watchdogs' was not particularly well received by critics at the time and faded away rather quietly,but seems to have worn quite well nearly three decades on.Odd to think that 8 million viewers or so was looked on as a failure in those days,where as a trashy show such as 'Love Island' getting 2 million viewers is regarded as a roaring success nowadays.How times have changed.

  7. Yes, I'd have thought 8 million viewers made for decent enough figures for a new sitcom written by a new writer, so seems a bit harsh. Maybe a DVD will emerge one day.

  8. I adored this series! It was in the best traditions of poking gentle fun at a British institution, with an excellent cast of characters who gelled really well, especially the pompous Major Wyatt and the lovable rogue Peter Pitt (a cross between Walker in Dad's Army and Arthur Daley), plus very funny situations and a cracking script. I can't believe that it never ran to a repeat showing or a second series - it was streets ahead (that word street again) of the competition. How could you, BBC? Assuming the recordings still exist, it\s not too late for a second airing, surely?

    1. I think the recordings still exist, but the chance of the BBC repeating them are very very slim. They're really only concerned with proven ratings winners, which means anything that is widely remembered with great commercial and critical acclaim can be repeated til the cows come home, anything else is abandoned. The only opportunity to get these rarities out there and rediscovered was the BBC Store but that didn't make the money the beeb had hoped and is being wrapped up in November. I spent eighteen months putting together a petition to ask the BBC to repeat Play For Today, The Wednesday Plays, Screen One and Screen Two drama, sent it off to them at the start of this year and got a very generic, couldn't care less reply, despite the hundreds of signatures.

  9. I presume you saw Ben Elton's Barker Lecture on traditional sitcoms. I agree it's so strange that this format has basically disappeared. For decades it gave us a succession of beloved characters and wonderful moments. Then 'The Royle Family' and 'The Office' came along and - boomph - we lost a televisual artform almost overnight. The flag has continued to be flown by Miranda Hart and Lee Mack amongst others, and I liked those shows but neither would have been acclaimed as the best of their kind in previous eras. Only Graham Linehan's perseverance with the format has matched the great works of the 20th century. Besides 'Black Books', 'IT Crowd' and so on, every great (new) sitcom since the millennium has been filmed without a live audience. (Don't get me started on that hideous term 'canned laughter' either.)

    I just can't find it in myself to hate 'Mrs. Brown's Boys', not like I used to despise 'My Family' and 'My Hero' anyway. Yes it's naff, but I can't help admiring its dedication and energy. I've also never seen anything in it that I would personally deem offensive. Like you I much preferred the 'Citizen Khan' character when he was part of the Paul Whitehouse/Charlie Higson stable, but that show is apparently hugely popular in Pakistan, so the BBC are understandably reluctant to ditch it while it brings in some decent dollar.

    From my observance, traditional sitcoms have been replaced by panel shows, and this is a process that's been gradually happening since the early 1990s. Harry Thompson, who brought HIGNFY to our screens, said he used to think of it as a sitcom with real people, and if you look carefully it does use many of the same hooks. It has regulars, semi-regular sidekicks, heroes, villains, the performances are audience-led, etc. Plus of course it's cheaper to make.

    And, just to get a little bit highfalutin for a second, it seems in tune with the wider landscape of modern media - in a world where a reality TV star can become President of the United States - that audiences now prefer shows where people are funny as themselves, rather than by assuming the role of another person. So-called 'authenticity' is the most prized commodity going right now. See also how the sketch show has been similarly edged out by the so-called 'stand-up comedy boom'.

    1. I only heard bits and pieces of the Ben Elton lecture, but I think there's definitely a need for sitcoms to be given a bit more room to breathe. Presently, if you're not a ratings winner from day one then your card is marked. And panel shows have been a huge death knell for sketch shows as, for example, Mock the Week relies on just one set whereas a sketch show needs endless sets being created or redressed - with money being spread so thinly over so many channels, it's not a surprise that comedy is becoming a homogenised mess.