The joy of The Brothers

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.”

“Ah.”

Welcome to The Brothers – a series that I have become gradually addicted to over the last few months:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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:

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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:


18 comments

  1. George

    Without the context, I’d take “truck haulage” to mean the retrieval of broken-down rigs. Over here, we speaking of trucking companies. They do seem to offer more opportunities for drama than one might think.

    An uncle by marriage, owner and manager of a trucking company, died suddenly in the early 1970s. This was western Pennsylvania, though, and a town small enough to have no secrets that amounted to much. Most of the drama that followed was in trying to keep the company running. My aunt was a pretty fair registered nurse, but the experience and personality that let her run a floor of a Veterans Administration hospital didn’t really carry over to management of a trucking company. Brothers and nephews helped with the books, another nephew tried to manage the day-to-day operations, the one son drove a rig. I suppose that they might have made a go of it but for the deregulation of trucking about then. As for smoking, my aunt had quit some years before, but the pressure of trying to run the business got her hooked again.

    My wife’s father spent his working life as a manager in a trucking company in the eastern half of Pennsylvania. There I believe the inheritance was simple, but fell to someone the BBC might have thought overdrawn, a man given to fraud and arson (to collect insurance).

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    • Steerforth

      In this series, the term road haulage just refers to the movement of goods and yes, it’s a surprisingly promising premise for a drama series, as your anecdote clearly shows.

      Interestingly, in The Brothers the business isn’t just a vague backdrop to a family drama, but often takes centre stage and the writers show an impressive grasp of the challenges faced by transport companies. In the episodes I’m watching at the moment, Hammond Brothers is trying to float as a public company and the whole process has been conveyed so effectively, it’s give me an insight into the difficulties my former employers faced when they did the same thing.

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  2. NPM

    It was always on on Sunday nights. About the only thing I remember was the union man (or was he a foreman?) who had been coopted onto the board – a great mechanism for social observation. It was to the 70s what Howards Way was to the 80s.

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    • Steerforth

      It was. His name was Bill Riley and there was a really well-observed scene when, at the end of his first board meeting, everyone broke off into groups, leaving Bill standing on his own, wondering if he’d made a big mistake.

      Howards Way was made by the same team behind The Brothers.

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  3. Annabel (gaskella)

    Oh what nostalgia. This was must-watch Sunday night TV for us in the pre-watershed slot. It was fairly tame, wasn’t it? My dad fancied Hilary Tindall (Brian’s wife Ann) though. I can’t remember anything about the business side of the series – just the family shenanigans with the Livia-like matriarch. Lovely post. I hope you’ll go on to watch Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Howard’s Way for us. 🙂

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    • Steerforth

      Yes, it’s pretty tame, which is a relief because I can watch it in front of my younger son without having to worry about sex scenes or swearing. He thinks I’m obsessed with old programmes, unaware that I partly pick them because they’re not suddenly going to drop an unsuitable story line in. I won’t be watching Bouquet of Barbed Wire with him though! I’ll watch that when he’s at school.

      Hilary Tindal was very popular with the men, but I’m rather taken with Jennifer – partly because she’s nearer my age. The men represent the sorts of people I thought I was going to grow up into and it was a great disappointment when I reached adulthood, only to find that the Jason King look was well out of date. What a pity.

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  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I *so* identify with what you mean about the look of things from that time. I grew up in the 1970s and I tend to wallow in nostalgia when I see the decor and fashions of the time. And I just love the fact things are done in real time. Have you noticed how long the takes are on these old shows? They’re more like plays. Brilliant stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      Yes, I love the long takes and it’s also just occured to me that there’s no background music, which helps. Even Panorama has it these days. It all feels far more authentic. The period details are the icing on the cake: Brian’s Morris Marnia, the Rileys’ hideous wallpaper and David’s flared trousers. It’s a visual feast.

      One of the things I liked about Breaking Bad was that it dared to be slow sometimes, treating its audience as intelligent individuals rather than people with the attention span of a goldfish.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lucille

    How have I missed this? Thank you.
    I will be particularly relieved not to have my emotions steered by background music. Someone must be making an easy fortune playing that mournful piano refrain which we call ‘dee doo dee doo dee doo’ as it requires only two notes and is suitable for almost any programme where you are supposed to be feeling a bit sorry for people.

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    • Steerforth

      I remember how we used to laugh at American documentary programmes that had cheesy music to tell the audience what they should be feeling. The BBC would never sink so low, would they? How wrong I was. Today, even a Panorama documentary about roundabouts will have a dramatic soundtrack to ‘sex it up’, as if the audience have become so dependent on hyperstimulation, we can trust them to watch five minutes of reportage without turning over.

      I love film music, but sometimes silence is more powerful.

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  6. Steerforth

    Mr Monteith is now 74 and according to the internet, he’s been keeping busy but hasn’t quite matched the glory days of his show. The Brothers was pre-Monteith and a couple of years after Gabrielle Drake appeared in UFO.

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  7. David

    I associate The Brothers with Sunday even ending and the smell of ironing and school tomorrow. I think I was too young to understand what was going on at the time. Thanks for sharing, it’s good to know after all these years what it was actually about!

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    • Steerforth

      I wish I knew why we didn’t watch it. We weren’t exactly spoiled for choice in those days and I can’t remember anything great on ITV at the same time. Perhaps my parents sent me to bed early and watched it in peace.

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