Category: Mildly Amusing

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:


The Best of the Worst

It’s easy to view the period from the 1950s to the mid 1970s as a golden age of book illustration and graphic design. Think of all those wonderful Penguin covers, or children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

But it was also an age that saw some truly awful examples of cover art – far worse than anything today.

Here are a few of the shockers I found last week:

01This is a relatively minor offender. Some people might even like it as an example of early 1960s design, but I’m not a fan. First, I think it’s a mistake to have three different typefaces. Second, I don’t understand why the tree is far more abstract than the rest of the picture. Third, the boy looks as if he’s suffering from a rather debilitating case of jaundice.

Here’s another gem from the ‘Early Bird’ series:

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This looks as if it’s been produced in a particularly backward Warsaw Pact country during the 1950s. Perhaps it was. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been as a present.

Peter and the Picture Thief might be a cracking story, but the cover is as exciting as a school trip to a brass rubbing centre.

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This follows a similar, penny-piching approach by only employing three colours. As an illustration, it’s more accomplished, but the once again, the overall effect of the cover has that grim, Eastern Bloc feel about it, as if colour was somehow too decadent and bourgeois.

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This cover has the virtue of being in full colour, but features three children vomitting and writhing in agony while a giant rabbit looks on, passively. As a child, I would have preferred this cover to the other three, although I wasn’t keen on animal stories.

Moving on to books for adults:

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I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect too much from a publisher called Budget Books, but this is a particularly cheap and nasty cover. Even the title length appears to have been subject to budgetry constraints. And what sort of a name is Rice Cordell?

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This is the tenth novel in Vardis Fisher’s ‘Testament of Man’ series and the cover features a man in a loincloth running away from a brazen hussy. At least, that’s what it looks like. It’s better than many covers of the time, but the illustration is a bit slapdash.

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This almost works, but the addition of a giant woman’s head looks rather odd. I can see that the artist is trying to convey David’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but a more subtle illustration and a decent blurb on the back would have sufficed.

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This cover features a strange blend of colour and monochrome people, for no discernible reason. At first, I thought the woman was standing in front of a screen showing a black and white film, but no, they’re all in the same room. It’s very odd.

Hank Janson is also a strange case. A celebrated author of American pulp fiction, he was actually a work of fiction himself, created by an unassuming Englishman called Stephen Daniel Frances.

Several people wrote as Hank Janson and the titles include the following gems:

  • Baby, Don’t Squeal
  • A Nympho Named Silvia
  • Skirts Bring Me Sorrow
  • Jazz Jungle
  • Hotsy, You’ll Be Chilled
  • Wild Girl
  • Vagabond Vamp
  • Beauty and the Beat
  • Visit From a Broad
  • This Dame Dies Soon

Finally, my favourite:

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I have no idea what the groom is keeping in his pyjama pocket, but he has the countenance of a man walking to the scaffold. Perhaps he’s learned that the bride’s breasts are the product of gender reassignment surgery and that she used to be called Kenneth. She certainly has a knowing expression.

That concludes this selection. I’m sure there will be more to come.

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I recently found a batch of photographs from the 1950s, all of which feature theatrical performances. There’s very little information on the backs, but I’m almost certain that they show the work of an amateur dramatics group rather than a professional one.

The clues are as follows:

  • The photos were processed in the dreary London suburbs of Cheam and New Malden
  • There’s quite a lot of over overacting
  • The pictures look like the work of an enthusiastic amateur; many were very blurry

But I may be wrong. You decide:

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This photo was printed by Cole Studios (which is still going) in New Malden – a rather drab place between Kingston-upon-Thames and Raynes Park. It now has a large Korean community, for no discernible reason (unless it reminds them of North Korea).

The set looks quite spartan, but that isn’t the case in the next picture:

img_0008This is clearly a very emotional point in the play and everyone seems to be weeping. Perhaps this is in response to an earlier scene, in which things get rather heated:

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This is a little bit racy for 1950s am-dram. I don’t know what play it is, but it clearly isn’t ‘Charlie’s Aunt’. I think it was very brave of Miss Perkins in Accounts to agree to strip down to her underwear, but perhaps it was even more courageous of Brenda to wear those awful pyjamas.

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In the end, everything is resolved amicably. It turns out that Miss Perkins was simply modelling for an artist and the murder weapon was a telephone directory for New Malden and Cheam. Brenda is the murdereress and she switched to the terrible pyjamas because her dress had blood on it.

It is commendable that this company were prepared to tackle gritty dramas rather than just stick to the old favourites:

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Here we see a ‘kitchen sink’ drama, as evidenced by a kitchen sink and a packet of Fairy Snow. I presume that this is a challenging drama about race, as one of the cast appears to have ‘blacked-up’. I also see that the woman is wearing hair rollers to indicate that she is working class.

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This is from ‘Twelfth Night’. Today we would probably say that this was part of an ‘outreach programme’ that sought to ‘create links with the local community’ or even ‘communities’. In the 1950s, they just did an open air performance and hoped that it didn’t rain.

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This is from a production of ‘Call Me Madam’. I find the rictus grin of the man in the middle slightly offputting.

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I have no idea what this play is, but I don’t think it’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

However, this is:

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In this production, the weeping middle-aged man at the piano has been transformed into a sprightly young buck. I wonder if a stripey blazer would do the same for me?

I’m struck by how much hard work must have gone into the stage set and the costumes. I never used to notice these things until I met my wife’s family, who worked in the theatrical world. Her father was the lighting designer for the London Coliseum, but although he was highly regarded by his peers, his work was rarely mentioned in reviews.

Since then, I’ve always taken more interest in the details.

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Once again, I have no idea what this is. I can only tell you that it isn’t ‘Look Back in Anger’.

And now, the show is over and it’s time to take a curtain call:

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