Picture the scene: it’s the early 70s and two respected television screenwriters have arrived for a morning meeting with some BBC executives to discuss their idea for a new drama series:
“Hello Gerry. Hello Norman. Sherry? Righty ho. Glenda, would you bring two sherries in for Mr Glaister and Mr Crisp. Thank you. Now, what have you chaps got for us?”
“Well, NJ and I think we’ve struck gold. It’s about three brothers and an inheritance. Now I know that an awful lot of stories begin with a will, but we’ve found an angle that nobody has ever explored before.”
“I’m intrigued gentlemen. What is it?”
“It’s going to be set in the world of road haulage.”
Welcome to The Brothers – a series that I have become gradually addicted to over the last few months:
The brothers are, from left to right, Brian, Edward and David Hammond and during the programme’s seven series run, they can usually be seen either drinking or arguing:
Edward Hammond is the eldest brother and left school at 14 to help his father build up the family’s road haulage business, while Brian and David have enjoyed the benefits of an extended education. Inexplicably, they don’t share Ted’s interest in lorries and weight restrictions.
The series begins with the death of their father, Robert Hammond, and the reading of a will that everyone assumes will be a mere formality. But when the Hammond family arrive at the solicitor’s office, they are surprised to find that Robert’s secretary has also been invited.
What is Jennifer Kingsley doing there? Perhaps the old boy has left her a few quid.
The whole drama is defined by the 10-minute scene in which the will is read and the Hammond family learn that:
1. Jennifer Kingsley was Robert’s mistress for 20 years
2. They had a ‘love child’ together who is now 17
3. This child will inherit a large chunk of the family fortune when Robert’s wife dies
4. Edward Hammond will not have sole control of Hammond Transport
5. He will have a quarter share. The remaining 75% will go to his brothers and Jennifer
Nobody is happy. Jennifer Kingsley’s secret has been exposed and she is now a pariah. Brian and David are going to have to work in a business they have no interest in and Edward, who has helped to build the company, has been effectively snubbed by his father.
Robert’s wife Mary isn’t particularly amused either.
The strength of the drama is the way it depicts the struggles of the three Hammond brothers and Jennifer Kingsley to overcome this unpromising start and pool their talents to build an even more successful business.
It’s not easy persuading Edward to work with his brothers. Neither Brian or David know the first thing about their father’s business, as shouty Edward likes to remind them:
“Damn it! I was helping Dad to do the Southampton run when you two were in short trousers. You were more interested in lollies than lorries!” (this isn’t an actual line, but it could have been).
Edward Hammond does a lot of shouting.
For me, perhaps the ultimate attraction of The Brothers is the period detail, evoking a world I grew up in, but was too young to participate in. I love the fashions, the interior design and the blasé attitude towards drinking and smoking.
In The Brothers, everyone drinks. If it’s 11.00 in the morning, it’s time for a sherry (there’s always a decanter in the boardroom cupboard). If it’s lunchtime, it’s time for a beer. Just home from work? Let’s have a bottle before we drive out to that new Greek restaurant (followed by another bottle with the meal and a nightcap back home).
Of course, the Hammonds are very cautious about drink-driving and usually stop just after the third double whisky. Can’t be too careful.
Given today’s climate, in which even the faintest whiff of a chocolate liquer can make a nervous employer instigate disciplinary action, the casual attitude towards alcohol seems extraordinary.
And everyone smokes, everywhere. Ted has big Cuban cigars, while the others work their way through 20 B&H during the course of the day. They would have probably thought that ‘passive smoking’ had something to do with enjoying a pipe.
In addition to smoking and drinking, The Brothers also has plenty of that other staple vice of 1970s drama: adultery.
Femme fatale Anne Hammond, the wife of accountant Brian, constantly berates her placid husband for being more interested in the company’s figures than hers, reminding him that “I’m a woman, Brian”. Sadly, Brian doesn’t heed the warning signs, even when he sees her snuggling up to a creep called Nicholas Fox:
The constant drinking, smoking and flirting seems absurd. Was anyone really like this? Well, anyone who has met my mother-in-law and her friends knows the answer to that. When my wife watched Anne cancel a visit to her children at boarding school so that she could spend quality time with her lover, she praised the series for its social realism.
However, the social realism isn’t just limited to the sexual mores of post-swinging London. The Brothers also documents the industrial strife and class antagonism that blighted many workplaces in the 1970s and if you feel a warm glow of nostalgia when you hear the phrases work to rule, picket line and union conveynor, this is the programme for you.
But the ultimate mark of realism is the telephone. When a character makes a call, they use the full seven numbers and we wait with them, as the dial slowly churns back to the beginning. Marvellous.
I am now working my way to the end of the fourth series and although I find the period aspects amusing, I’m also impressed by the quality of the writing and acting. Beneath the soap opera-like veneer of a family melodrama, The Brothers has some remarkably insightful moments that make it as compelling today as it was over four decades ago.
Anyone who wants to understand something about British society in the early 70s should watch The Brothers. It’s all there: the industrial strife, concerns about joining the EU (or ‘Common Market’ as it was then known), the attitudes towards drinking and smoking and the changing gender relationships. And unlike some of the more worthy efforts from the BBC drama department, it’s fun.
The series isn’t without its quirks. The actor playing Edward Hammond inexplicably changes between the first and second series – I wonder if the BBC used to regard roles like theatrical parts that could be played by any actor, rather than being intrinsically linked to a particular person. I also noticed that in the second series, there was virtually no location filming. And I’d really like to know why their odd but fascinating secretary suddenly disappears, halfway through the second season, never to be seen again.
There are three more series left. Apparently, the BBC suddenly decided to stop making it, with no warning to the cast. The story was left hanging in the air.
I’d like to think there’s a pub somewhere, with three old men sipping whiskies, moaning about how health and safety has ruined the world of road haulage:
“And as for the young, they don’t know how to drink. Too busy on their phones. I’m just popping out for a smoke. Anyone coming?”
The Brothers is available on DVD: