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The British Sit-Com Spin-Off Film
Julian Upton
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Posted by: David, on 05/02/2008, in category "Film & TV"
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Abstract: The sitcom spin-off, a peculiarly British trend that lasted, in its first run, from 1968 to 1980. BY JULIAN UPTON

Image: Bless This HouseTHE BRITISH SIT-COM SPIN-OFF FILM

A peculiarly British trend

By Julian Upton

 

You might be forgiven for thinking that the police apprehended the person responsible for making British sitcom spin-off films at the end of the seventies and locked him up for life. And whoever he was, this maniac, he got what he deserved.

 

He’d struck time and time again, throughout the decade, sometimes three or four times a year. And each year, with the odd exception, he left a worse mess than before. By the time George and Mildred hit the cinema screens in 1980, he was probably the most wanted man in Britain.

But, of course, you’d be wrong. The sitcom spin-off craze, a peculiarly British trend that lasted, in its first run, from 1968 to 1980, was not the work of one offender. Everyone was on the bandwagon: TV writers from Galton and Simpson to Vince Powell and Harry Driver; homegrown talent from Spike Milligan to Stratford Johns; production companies from Hammer Films to British Lion. Elstree Studios was saved from bankruptcy by slapdash adaptations of TV sitcoms such as On the Buses (1971), Man About the House (1974) and Please, Sir (1971). And it was thankful. Crippling taxation, under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, had driven most of the superstar talent out of the UK by 1975. The occasional Hollywood blockbuster utilised its stages, but no-one wanted to make serious films here any more. Nobody could afford to. Fortunately, for Elstree, Reg Varney wasn’t in the Super Tax bracket. So the spin-offs kept coming off the production line, and the punters kept going to see them.

Depending on your point of view, it was either a healthy pragmatism or a monumental lack of imagination that drove British film producers, in this newly ‘permissive’ era, to the country’s most conservative television culture — the half-hour sitcom — for material. But in the1970s the sitcom, inexpensive and traditionalist, was proving itself to be the consistent ratings pinnacle of light entertainment programming and, having been deterred from exploiting more dangerous material by the consistently over zealous British film censor, it was clear that your average, enterprising low budget film producer was eyeing this success with some envy. Of course, at the time, Britain’s domestic film industry, more than ever, needed this huge, conservative TV audience to stay alive. It made perfect sense, financially. If twelve million people tuned in, week after week, to watch Bless This House on television, then you only needed a fraction of that audience to pay to see the theatrical version to have a huge moneyspinner on your hands. And, initially, it worked. Although they were critically dismissed, these films were considerable crowd pleasers — in fact, the sitcom spin-off was the only domestic cinematic trend to see the decade through.

Between 1968 and 1980, more than thirty British films were adapted from successful television shows. Not even the Carry On series had matched this concentrated prolificacy. From 1972, Carry On films had begun to peter out, from two a year to one a year, and in 1977 the Carry On backer, Rank, decided to focus on distributing Xerox machines instead of films. Similarly, the defiantly unerotic and peculiarly British exploitation comedies of the time, such as the Confessions series, were all but finished by 1977, after a very short burst of suburban success.

It is with the later Carry Ons, however, that the majority of the sitcom spin-offs of the seventies are most comparable. Childishly smutty, relentlessly single-minded and lavatorially crude, many of them have nonetheless been imbued with an aura of nostalgic affection that cannot be easily explained intellectually. Like endearing but mischievous children, films like On the Buses and Bless This House (1972), like their TV sources, now seem refreshingly free from worthiness, irony and political correctness, and do not attempt to work on more than one level. On the other hand, spin-offs such as The Lovers (1972) and Porridge (1979) stand up more convincingly to modern scrutiny.

TILL DEATH US DO PART

British radio and TV comedy had dabbled with the big screen before the sixties. Vehicles for radio comedians such as Arthur Askey were fashioned in the thirties and forties, and, later, some radio and television shows led to some tenuously connected features. The Goons, for example, appeared in Down Among the Z Men (1951) and Penny Points to Paradise (1952). I Only Arsked (1958) was a truer spin-off (in the sense of this article), in that it focused Bernard Bresslaw’s character (Sgt ‘Popeye’) from the ITV series The Army Game (1957–61). But it wasn’t until the late sixties that the film industry in Britain really caught the spin-off bug.

The first spin-off of this era was Till Death Us Do Part (1968). Focusing on the weekly rantings of Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), the TV series of Till Death Us Do Part (BBC 1965-75) was rarely out of the controversy spotlight, bearing up to frequent attacks from the ‘Clean Up TV’ campaign for its aggressiveness and bad language. The film version, then, distributed by British Lion, offered a broader and less censorious forum for the show’s writer, Johnny Speight, to indulge Garnett’s loudmouth politics and bigotry without being accountable to puritanical harridans in fluffy hats. Speight also used the film as an ‘opening out’ of the confined sitcom, a noble intention given the slack padding of later spin-offs, and followed Garnett’s life from the thirties to the sixties, giving him ample opportunities to rant about major political events as they unfolded. However, much of the astute rawness of the series was lost in the process, and lavatorial humour, literally, crept into the proceedings: Garnett spends a fair portion of the film sitting on the bog, conversing loudly with his neighbour in the adjoining lavvy. Perhaps this was a warning of what was to come.

ON THE BUSES

Till Death was a success at the box office, but it did not set the trend. (It did, however, lead to a sequel — The Alf Garnett Saga — in 1972.) What kicked the genre off properly was the release of On the Buses. If Till Death Us Do Part had been filmed for vaguely ‘artistic’ reasons, then On the Buses was the opposite side of the coin. The series was a tasteless and somewhat juvenile antithesis to the abrasive realism of Till Death, and it was equally as popular in the ratings. This fact did not go unnoticed by Hammer films, which was now under the control of Michael Carreras who was keen to turn reverse its ailing horror fortunes. A deal was made, and On the Buses was brought to the screen by Hammer in a film that, instead of attempting to broaden and strengthen its TV source, merely inflated and further vulgarized it.

Coarse and anachronistic, the film version of On the Buses sees the ageing, bryl-creemed, bus driving lothario Stan and his buck-toothed runtball colleague Jack (Bob Grant) scheming to ‘put a stop’ to a liberal company policy that allows the employment of female bus drivers. Although pretty excruciating to sit through today, the film’s cheerful zest was, at the time, quite infectious. And it grossed over £1 million in domestic rentals in its first six months of release — an outrageous sum for a low budget British production at the time. On the Buses soon became the most financially successful 1971 release at the British box office, outgrossing even Diamonds Are Forever. This may say a lot more about British society than it does about the merits of the picture, but the returns could not be argued with. By 1973, On the Buses had generated two theatrical sequels: Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973). Arguments about taste and decency were futile — the sitcom spin-off had arrived.

Over the next nine years, Hammer and other companies such as EMI, Associated London and British Lion dipped continually into the TV pot for ideas. Among their output were sequels to spin-offs (as with On the Buses, the film versions of Steptoe and Son, Up Pompeii and Till Death Us Do Part all generated further theatrical episodes) and a handful of films adapted from popular crime or drama series, such as The Sweeney (1976), Callan (1974), Man at the Top (1973) and Doomwatch (1972).

DAD’S ARMY

Initially, the films were as lively as most of the other low budget British fodder of the time. Dad’s Army (1971) retained some of the spark of its original series (BBC 1968–77), and saw its ensemble cast on good form; The Lovers was as good as any contemporary sex comedy; and Please, Sir was one of the earliest spin-offs to focus on a comic situation (a school vacation) that was satisfyingly beyond the scope of a twenty-five minute TV episode.

But the problems of ‘opening out’ a videotaped, studio-based sitcom were also immediately apparent. The school trip in Please, Sir set a precedent for all spin-offs that followed. The premise of sending the characters on holiday, it later seemed, was enough to justify an entire film, regardless of script. Consequently, the staff of Grace Brothers (in Are You Being Served? [1977]) and Steptoe and Son went to Spain (well, at least to an overlit corner of the Pinewood backlot), and George and Mildred (1980) celebrated their anniversary with a romantic weekend away (in Shepperton or somewhere — very handy). Very soon, the ‘trip out’ was the whole raison d’etre of the sitcom spin-off, and it is a device that is still being trundled out for the modern small screen equivalents: Victor Meldrew in the Algarve; Delboy in Miami, etc. In fact, years later, when Hollywood produced a big screen spin-off from The X Files, I half-expected the action to find Mulder and Scully on a package tour to Loret de Mar.

An early success, Dad’s Army also reflected a number of other problems that were to dog the sitcom spin-off genre. To justify the cinematic version of the show, Columbia attempted to broaden its scope, routinely utilizing outdoor locations and bringing in characters only referred to in the series. But this achieved little except to destroy the cosy surrealism of the television format. And, quite bizarrely, some supporting parts were recast — another wacky practice that permeated the spin-off genre. In the film version of Dad’s Army, reliable Liz Frazer stood in for regular, Janet Davies; in Bless This House, laid-back Robin Stewart was replaced by cheeky Robin Askwith. Weirdest of all, in The Alf Garnett Saga, Una Stubbs’ and Tony Booth’s somewhat significant roles were filled by Adrienne Posta and Michael Angelis. Contractual and commercial reasons dictated these recasting decisions, but they can’t have sat easily with fans of the shows.

Nevertheless, the trend continued apace. Before long, companies were funding film versions of sitcoms that one might generously describe as pedestrian (Love Thy Neighbour [1973]; Father Dear Father [1973]), as well as those that have since sank into complete obscurity (Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width [1972]; That’s Your Funeral [1972]; For the Love of Ada [1973]).

By the mid seventies, spin-offs seemed to be content to coast along on sub-Carry On sexual innuendo, unwashed cameos by fading variety stars and perfunctory plot entanglements. Man About the House, Hammer’s final foray into the genre, sadly wasted an opportunity to flesh out the characters of a decent, fairly daring sitcom (ITV 1973–76) and the aforementioned Are You Being Served? was a truly desperate attempt to stretch a mildly amusing half-hour into ninety grueling minutes.

THE LIKELY LADS

Two later films did stand out from their contemporaries, though. The Likely Lads (1976) and Porridge (1979), both written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, attempted to avoid the obvious pitfalls of the sitcom spin-off by actually developing and furthering the original material. Of the two, The Likely Lads is the more flawed film, centering as it does around a rather inane caravan episode, not unlike the lethargic escapades of a later Carry On or the obligatory trips of other spin-offs. But The Likely Lads kept the essence of the original series (BBC 1964–66 and 1973–74), which followed Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) as they grew from adolescence to maturity, from cheerful optimism to resignation and disillusionment. Focusing on sexual escapades, boozing, factory work and the draw of marriage and class conformity, the series had been the sitcom counterpoint to the groundbreaking British movie Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). The film, to its credit, drew on and expanded the tragicomic sense of loss and change that dominated the series’ later episodes. The boy’s favourite drinking haunt, The Fat Ox, is finally demolished; Terry is pushed to more desperate forms of employment in a recession-hit Britain; and Bob and Thelma’s marriage sinks further into lower middle class apathy. The latter is conveyed in one of the funniest moments in any sitcom spin-off. Bob, waiting gloomily for Thelma to choose clothes in a fashionable boutique, is diverted by casually watching nubile young women undress in the changing booths. Pushed by Thelma for a reaction to her choice of dress, Bob stares wearily ahead and sighs: “I couldn’t give a shit.”

PORRIDGE

Porridge is a better movie, perhaps because La Frenais and Clement themselves took over the producer and director roles respectively. It even gained a US release, under the title Doing Time. The great strength of the original series (BBC 1974–77) was the abundance of well-drawn characters, many of whom could be featured in the more leisurely pace of a feature film. This, fortunately, eliminated the need for the sudden appearance of a busybody neighbour, predatory property developer or unhinged doppelgänger to add comic conflict. In Porridge, the two hero convicts, Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) and Godber (Richard Beckinsale), unwittingly find themselves part of an elaborate escape plan, and have to break back into prison in order to serve the remainder of their time quietly. On film, the prison setting looks far more harsh and brutal than the cozier, studio-set TV series, but the warmth of the characterizations still comes through and the film evinces a sense of realism lacking from other sitcom spin-offs.

Despite this, the following year saw the abrupt end of sitcom spin-off. The two final films of this era were Rising Damp (1980) and George and Mildred. Rising Damp took the safe option and simply reworked scenes that had already established the series (ITV 1974–78) as a classic, weaving them loosely into a feature narrative. Because of this, a lot of it works. But Richard Beckinsale was conspicuous by his absence from the film. He had opted out of the final series a couple of years earlier, but his death in 1979 (at age thirty-one) was a blow to British comedy and, somehow, any attempt to revive Rising Damp without him seemed in poor taste. Even so, the film is watchable, which cannot be said for George and Mildred. That anybody thought George and Mildred was fit for theatrical release is almost beyond reason. It is undoubtedly one of the worst films ever made in Britain. It might be the worst film ever made anywhere. It makes The Ups and Downs of a Handyman look like Scenes from a Marriage. The source series (ITV 1976–79) — tired marriage, lazy good-for-nothing husband, frustrated wife — was itself no milestone of TV comedy, but the film version is so strikingly bad, it seems to have been assembled with a genuine contempt for its audience. It is the archetypal example of why a sitcom should never be made into a film. Technically, it is woefully inept — it appears to have been photographed through a damp pair of Mildred’s tights. To add insult to injury, George and Mildred was released just after the death of one of its stars, Yootha Joyce.

The double tragedy of the early deaths of Beckinsale and Joyce not only added an unintentional tone of melancholia to the films, but also seemed portentous of the fate of the genre itself. However, by this time the spin-off had played itself out and was not generating the kind of pocket-money profit the early seventies had seen. By 1980, Hammer and British Lion were all but defunct as filmmaking operations; EMI was limping along with some ill-advised US co-productions. Even Lord Grade’s ITC, which was responsible for Porridge, Rising Damp and George and Mildred, was about to go down with the catastrophic Raise the Titanic (1981).

Further, the home video boom was closing cinemas up and down the country. 1981 saw UK feature film production at an all-time low of twenty-four films, compared to ninety-six in 1971. Similarly, admissions had dropped by roughly half in the same period.

So the critics took a relaxing breath. The future — with Channel 4 on the horizon — looked to be sparse but worthy, intense and artistic. There wasn’t much danger of Channel 4 funding a big screen version of That’s My Boy alongside Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. So the puerile sitcom spin-off, for years the scourge of sensible, middlebrow opinion, was dead. But few critics cared or even noticed that the spin-off’s demise also signalled the final nail in the coffin of British popular cinema — lowbrow, cheerful and broad in appeal.

All was not lost, of course. The sitcom spin-offs of the seventies went on to prove that they had an enduring appeal almost as strong as the Carry Ons. How many months go by without the film versions of Up Pompeii or Bless This House or Rising Damp being aired? Not many. Sure, they are relegated to day time or post-midnight viewing more often than not, but then again so is a lot of stuff that is half decent. That the spin-off has reigned on television for so long is proof positive that its demise left a gaping hole in the lowbrow entertainment market. It took almost twenty years before the British film industry had the guts to greenlight shameless crap like Guest House Paradiso and Kevin and Perry Go Large. Whether this will signal a true spin-off revival is open to question, although it’s unlikely. Bean made about thirty billion dollars worldwide, but that was six years ago and subsequent British TV comedy spin-offs can still be counted on one hand. They weren’t the same, anyway.

Never mind — we can at least be confident, that, come Christmas, we can put our feet up after the pub and catch the umpteenth broadcast of Steptoe and Son Ride Again on BBC1. The days of traipsing to the local Odeon to catch oversized, overstretched travesties of our favourite sitcoms may be long gone, but, back on TV, where they really belong, they will probably live forever.

[This article originally appeared in Headpress 24]

 

User Feedback
Comment posted by elvisdinner on 23 January 2008 16:39
this is not as interesting as it could be. i love spin off revivals and i am looking forward to spinning off another revival of spinning. i shall spin.

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