Tuesday, June 17, 2008

“I’m H-A-P-P-Y…”

Back in September 2003, BFS Entertainment released two volumes of a 1970s Britcom broadcast on ITV as Only When I Laugh. The series—which starred James Bolam (The Likely Lads, Second Thoughts), Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born, The Bounder) and Christopher Strauli (Raffles) as a trio of layabout hospital patients—was created by writer Eric Chappell and from 1979-82 was one of Britain’s most popular sitcoms. The BFS sets contained six episodes each from the first two series of Laugh…and alas, are now out-of-print. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since BFS left off two episodes (the first two series had a total of fourteen episodes, seven per series) on the sets—but Network DVD has also released the first and second series to disc, rectifying the error. (Be forewarned, of course, that these are Region 2 releases and will require a region-free DVD player to view them.)

I sat down and watched both of these DVDs a while back and thoroughly enjoyed what was then and continues to be an engaging little comedy series; it has no lofty ambitions other than to make its audience laugh. I’m not so certain that you could duplicate this kind of sitcom here in the States today (though there have been college tries, like Temperatures Rising, House Calls and the 1984-85 E/R…the one with Elliott Gould)…mainly because there’s no way in H-E-double toothpicks three malingering patients could afford a lengthy stay under our current healthcare system. The patients in Laugh, however, are there under the auspices of the National Health Service…demonstrating that if we had a single-payer healthcare system in this country, our sitcoms just might be funnier.

Although Only When I Laugh is an ensemble comedy, actor James Bolam is the real standout here as Roy “X-Ray” Figgis, a working-class stiff who is usually the instigator of the trouble and mayhem that occurs in each episode. (I’ve become a big fan of his from watching both The Likely Lads and Whatever Became of the Likely Lads?, perhaps his best-known sitcom showcases.) Figgis’ lengthy stay “in hospital” stems from the ill-effects resulting from a delicate operation to…well, to put it in Pythonesque terms, his “naughty bits.” But Bolam is capably supported by Peter Bowles in a change-of-pace role as hypochondriac Archie Glover, an aging Lothario whose upbringing of wealth and privilege (read: Tory) frequently conflicts with Figgis’ socialist-tinged background (read: Labour). Strauli, as Norman Binns, usually ends up playing Larry Fine to his two co-stars, but he occasionally gets a chance to shine in outings like “Last Tango,” in which an after-hours party finds Norman “drunk” on vodka (which is actually plain, ordinary tap water).

The other main characters in Laugh are male nurse Gupte (Derrick Branche), whose Indian ethnicity is (as you might expect) played for politically incorrect laughs, and Dr. Gordon Thorpe, the no-nonsense administrator assigned to keep Figgis, Glover and Binns in line (with very little success). Thorpe is played by Richard Wilson, who would later achieve Britcom immortality as the much-put-upon Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, one of the funniest sitcoms to ever cross the Atlantic. (I got a tremendous kick out of seeing Wilson play an authority figure…with hair, yet!)

The first episode, “A Bed With a View,” sets the stage for the episodes to follow in the series: young Norman is being hospitalized for an appendectomy and he’s assigned to a bed near the window. Both Roy and Archie have designs on the same bed, and each continue to con Norman into letting them have it…but because of the constant bed hopping, it’s Archie who’s wheeled into the OR for the appendix removal, not Norman. Other standout episodes include “Let Them Eat Cake” (our heroic trio decides to boycott the hospital food, which snowballs into a workers’ strike), “Is There a Doctor in the House?” (Figgis disguises himself as a doctor to get away from the ward for a while and hilarity ensues), “The Visitors” (Norman’s overbearing mother drops by, and does not improve of her son’s new girlfriend) and “The Lost Sheep”—which finds atheist Figgis “seeing the light.”

Writer Chappell started out in his career as a playwright with very little experience in television—and yet by 1974, found himself the toast of British television comedy with two sitcom hits: The Squirrels (a sitcom about a wacky “accounts staff”) and Rising Damp (which was adapted from his play The Banana Box), a cult comedy starring actor Leonard Rossiter as the manager of a seedy boarding house (this engaging sitcom appeared on the A&E cable channel during the 1980s). His other triumphs include The Bounder (also seen on public television in America), Duty Free, Home to Roost, Singles, Haggard and Fiddlers Three (a reworking of The Squirrels starring TDOY fave Paula Wilcox). Both The Bounder and Duty Free are available on Region 2 DVD from Network, as well as Home to Roost—a series that might be familiar to viewers across the pond in its American television incarnation, You Again? (1986-87), starring Jack Klugman and John Stamos.

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