Tuesday, 16 March 2021

L for Lester

The ordeal of learning to drive is a harrowing one for even the most confident individual. For a whole hour there’s the risk of slamming your foot on the wrong pedal and spinning out of control into a world of chaos and A&E wards. It’s rare this happens, but it’s a nicely dramatic way of making a point: driving lessons are unpredictable. These trials only last for an hour, though, so it’s not too bad for the pupil. But for the driving instructor it’s a literal non-stop rollercoaster of bangs, prangs, tempers and tears all day long. Accordingly, it takes a strong, calm and organised character to take on the role. And this is the complete opposite of what you’ll find in L for Lester.

Lester Small (Brian Murphy) is the owner of the Lester Small School of Motoring in a sleepy West Country town. Any sense of peace, however, is at risk of being shattered each time Lester takes to the roads. Blaming Lester alone for these disturbances, though, wouldn’t be entirely fair. Most of this chaos stems from the driving ‘skills’ of Mrs Davies (Hilda Braid) who tends to drive in to rivers, onto train tracks and through barn walls. This destruction would be enough to sink most businesses, but Lester is in luck. His bank manager is Mr Davies (Richard Vernon) who is only too happy to extend Lester’s overdraft rather than tackle teaching his wife to drive.

Matters are equally unfortunate for Lester off the highways. Lester’s home may boast a set of baby twins and a loving wife in the form of Sally (Amanda Barrie), but it’s seemingly the second residence of milkman Bert (Colin Spaull) – he even keeps his own teabags there. And when Lester isn’t keeping a suspicious eye on Bert he has plenty more to worry about. Chief Inspector Rodgers (James Cossins) has an axe to grind with Lester and local garage owner/East End villain Sid (Tony Millan) seems hellbent on selling four-wheeled death traps to Lester. In amongst all this Lester must help the town prepare for a royal visit, avoid a fight in the post office and somehow pay his long-suffering secretary Jenny (Linda Robson).

Dudley Long, who appears in the series as PC Bright, isn’t the most well-known television writer and this is on account of L for Lester being his only commissioned series. Nonetheless, in a move which 99.9% of the population can only dream of, he had a sitcom produced and televised with six episodes of L for Lester going out in late 1982 on BBC2. John B. Hobbs, fresh from directing series such as Butterflies and Terry and June, was drafted in as director and the peerless Ronnie Hazlehurst delivered yet another BBC comedy soundtrack. A repeat airing of the series followed in mid-1983 before L for Lester headed for the obscurity of a dusty shelf in the BBC archive.

The initial concept of L for Lester brings plenty of opportunity for comedic capers and the driving school situation is one that offers a revolving door for new characters each week. There’s also the Brian Murphy factor. A consummate performer, Murphy has a television career that spans 60 (no typo, that’s SIXTY) years. Comedy is his speciality and Dudley Long must have been delighted to get him on board. But do these foundations allow L for Lester to pass with flying colours or is it going to crash and burn with too many faults?

If we want to indulge in motoring puns a little further, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to diagnose L for Lester with a misfiring engine. The cast, as you would expect, are all on top form. Murphy is a given with his authoritative confidence given free rein whilst James Cossins and Tony Millan both shine with their character acting at full throttle. And Dudley Long crafts a healthy supply of gags alongside some hilarious set pieces involving Mrs Davies’s driving lessons such as flying over a humpback bridge and driving onto an army assault course. But it’s when L for Lester comes to the tricky manoeuvre of plots that it starts to stall.

The narratives for almost all of the episodes feel like rehashes of each other. Mrs Davies somehow destroys Lester’s car and there’s a mad scramble to gather some cash together before Mr Davies offers a helping hand with Lester’s overdraft. All of this takes place against a backdrop of Chief Inspector Rodgers shaking his fist at Lester in the distance. The one episode which stands head and shoulders above the rest is the royal visit as it’s plotted from a vastly different blueprint. A disastrous committee meeting packed full of social bickering and farcical happenings results in mammoth hangovers on the day of the royal visit. British comedy at its best.

With Brian Murphy on board, L for Lester is always, at the very least, worth a glance. And if you pick just one episode, and it’s the royal visit one, you will be left satisfied and the proud owner of a hearty grin. The rest is rather lightweight and feels sparsely drawn, although there’s still plenty to giggle about. If Dudley Long had been able to weave more magic into the plots then L for Lester could have run for a few extra miles, but there’s just not enough in the tank. A missed opportunity, but one that remains quaintly endearing.

***The new issue of the Curious British Telly fanzine is now available here***

2 comments:

  1. Would love to see L for Lester again. I only remember the driving onto the railway at a level crossing scene. For me it is one of many sitcoms from around this time that didn't last, see also Sharon and Elsie, The Front Line, Oh Happy Band etc.

    As a side note L for Lester won me a BBC Radio Goodie Bag at the Ideal Home Exhibition where I has called on stage and given a prop steering wheel and told to come up with as many programmes I could think of that would use such a thing.

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  2. Jonathan Hayward3 April 2021 at 04:51

    I remember when the show first came out in my youth, promoted as an 'action comedy', and indeed some of the driving stunt work was well staged, but it all seemed rather forced humour in the end, neither the best or worst BBC sitcom ever made, just middling at best, helped by an amiable and familiar cast of comic actors led by Brian Murphy, and some scattered funny scenes, but ultimately unremarkable with thin plots as indicated, and not enough material or elan to go beyond one series.

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