Monday, February 9, 2009

“Bloody Gandhi…he wouldn’t eat his dinner, they gave him India!”

There’s a listing over at Amazon.co.uk announcing the release of the third series of the Britcom In Sickness and In Health March 23rd to Region 2 DVD, which is refreshing news to hear as I spent most of Friday evening watching the last release, a collection of the comedy’s Christmas specials telecast from 1985-90 (there were five Yuletide-themed shows in all). I took a bit of time in ordering the Christmas collection (it was originally released back in November of last year) because I really am making an effort to cut back on DVD purchases—the only thing that prompted me to get a copy was learning that it was no longer being discounted at Amazon.co.uk but was available at a fairly affordable price at Sendit.com (plus, I was able to get the disc for 10% off).

I’ve talked about In Sickness at great length on the blog in the past, and to bring everyone up to speed I’ll fill in a little broadcast history—the show premiered September 1, 1985 on BBC-1 and was a sequel to the very popular Till Death Us Do Part sitcom which was a staple of the British television-viewing public from 1966-69 and again from 1972-75. (Till Death was, of course, the series that served as the inspiration for the ground-breaking All in the Family, telecast on CBS-TV from 1971-79.) In Sickness, the character of Alf Garrett (Warren Mitchell) is now an OAP (old age pensioner) who has taken to railing against society in all possible forms; he blames his troubles on blacks, unions, foreigners, the Labor Party, the current Thatcher government—he spares no single person or group from his strongly-voiced and bigoted rants. His long-suffering wife Elsie (or “Else,” as Alf calls her), played by Dandy Nichols, is confined to a wheelchair and though she’s unable to escape his wrath she’s always around to dispense an under-her-breath wisecrack or two. The other regulars on In Sickness include Alf’s drinking buddy Arthur (Arthur English); Else’s black caregiver Winston (Eamonn Walker)—whose flamboyant homosexuality has earned him the nickname “Marigold” from Alf; Alf’s upstairs neighbor Camille Hollingberry (Carmel McSharry), who would become Alf’s love interest once the Elsie character had passed on (actress Nichols died shortly after the completion of the first series); and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Johnson (Ken Campbell, Eileen Kennally/Tricia Kelly), Alf’s frequently exasperated neighbors.

The first of the five episodes on this DVD is the Christmas special from December 26, 1985 and is the last appearance that actress Nichols would make on the series (she passed away in February of 1986), which makes the episode a bit bittersweet. Alf gets an invite from the vicar to attend Christmas dinner (and since Alf won’t be going to the Pensioners feast he starts to take money out of the collection jar, with the reasoning that they shouldn’t spend that money if he’s going to be absent) and though he should be ecstatic about that, he’s ticked at daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) because she’ll be cutting her visit with him and Else short so that she can spend time with her husband in Liverpool. Alf resorts to devious means to selfishly get her to stay; he fakes a fall off a ladder while hanging up Christmas decorations and his physician talks a reluctant Rita into canceling her plans just on the off chance her father might be hurt. Walking into the vicarage on crutches, Alf is really giving quite a performance—but by the time dinner is over and the music starts, he forgets about his “infirmity” and kicks it up on the dance floor…a miraculous “healing” into which his daughter isn’t buying..

The second Christmas episode (12/23/86) is, I think the best of the bunch; it’s Alf’s first Christmas without his beloved Else, and even though Rita has agreed to keep Christmas with him she ends up going back on her word when she learns she’s won a holiday trip to Spain and informs her father that she’s taking husband Michael along in an attempt to patch up their contentious marriage. Alf’s Christmas slowly turns to merde: upstairs neighbor Mrs. Hollingberry decides to accept her sister’s invitation to spend Christmas (she had originally planned to celebrate with Alf and Rita) and his attempt to ingratiate himself with the Johnsons falls flat when he’s allowed no further than their front door to celebrate with a Christmas drink. (He even plans to commit suicide in full view of the Johnsons—until Fred Johnson closes the window shade of his dining room window.) Dissolute and driven to despair, Alf gets a reprieve with the sound of steel drums playing Jingle Bells; Winston brings some of his friends by to celebrate the Yuletide with music, drink and food—he plants a kiss on Alf’s cheek and shouts out: “Merry Christmas, bwana…who loves you, baby?!!!” It is a very touching scene (particularly since you can see Alf’s eyes well up with tears) and very bittersweet considering the love-hate relationship between the two men (unfortunately, the Winston character leaves the program after the third series).

In other episodes, Alf spends Christmases waiting for hip replacement surgery, conning the vicar out of a gi-normous Christmas dinner hamper (stocked with goodies) by telling him he needs it for a poor and elderly neighbor, and being abandoned at the altar when Mrs. Hollingberry refuses to utter the “obey” portion of the marriage oath (Mrs. H, a devout Catholic, is commanded by the parish priest to do suitable penance for leaving Alf in the lurch…and Alf takes advantage of her guilt by getting her to cook him any number of tasty breakfasts and dinners). A number of these shows feature familiar British comic personalities and performers: Allison Steadman is hysterically funny as a loopy Cockney mother who puts a little too much stock in the “Father Christmas” myth, getting into it with Alf when he plays part-time department store Santa…and Bill Maynard of Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt fame replaces series regular Arthur English in the story where Alf resorts to chicanery with the vicar and the Christmas goodie basket. Other familiar faces making appearances include Jo Kendall, John Bird, Norman Rossington, Pat Coombs and Hugh Lloyd.

In searching around for some photographs to complement this article, I stumbled onto a BBC News obituary that stated In Sickness regular Ken Campbell passed away in August of last year at the age of 66…needless to say, I was a bit saddened by this news; In Sickness was probably his best known television showcase—though he guested on other series as varied as Jake and the Fatman, Home to Roost and Fawlty Towers (he played “Roger” in the episode “The Anniversary,” the weakest of the Fawlty “Golden Dozen”). His association with John Cleese also landed him a part in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), though his film appearances were many: Poor Cow (1967), Breaking Glass (1980), A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), The Bride (1985), Scandal (1989), etc. Doctor Who aficionados might be interested to learn that Campbell was being seriously considered for the part of His Tardiship at one time, losing out to Sylvester McCoy only because the show’s producers thought Ken's interpretation was “too dark” for TV.

As Fred Johnson, Campbell was used to make Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett more sympathetic—because Johnson literally cornered the market on loutish obnoxiousness. In a bit of dialogue from the third Christmas special, Fred "helpfully" reassures Alf that his forthcoming hip replacement surgery will be a cakewalk:

JOHNSON: What they do…they slash the buttocks, and pull the whole lot away (Alf begins to turn pale) and then they dislocate it…
MRS. JOHNSON: Fred…
JOHNSON: And then they saw off the top of the thighbone…actually, the knuckle part of it…a lot of people ask for that afterwards, take it home with them…
WINSTON: What? For a souvenir?
JOHNSON: Yeah…
ARTHUR: Or the dog…
JOHNSON: Yeah, but that’s if you’re private…because if you’re on the National Health they keep hold of it and they sell it as fertilizer
ARTHUR: Or dog food…
JOHNSON: Yeah…then they take this metal spike, which is made of titanium…which is as strong as steel, but much lighter…it’s used in aircraft and spacecraft…and on the end is a ball, on the end, and that’s your new hip joint…then they whack that with a mallet (another ill reaction from Alf) right into the marrow at the tip of the thigh…now, they may find—when they start whacking at it—that they can’t get it in…if they can’t get it in, they get hold of a drill—it’s just an ordinary drill, like a regular Black & Decker—and then they ream out a decent hole…and then they pour in acrylic cement…that’s like glue, but it sets hard as a rock…but while it’s setting, it don’t half generate some heat… (Pause) You know…someone your age, they might not give you a general anesthetic…they may give you a spinal injection, which will merely paralyze you from the waist down…now that means you could watch it! You could sit there and watch it! Come on, do it! Go on! Go for watching it! I’d watch it! They might even let me watch it! (To his wife) I love watching operations, don’t I? I watch them on the television, don’t I?
MRS. JOHNSON: Oh, yes…he can sit and eat his dinner, watching…
JOHNSON: Oh, I like them! Yeah, I like to watch women having babies—I volunteered! I volunteered to watch it…but it’s only husbands

Johnson was so obnoxious that he went through two wives on In Sickness; the first actress, Eileen Kennally, was seen on the program in the first four series and was replaced by Tricia Kelly, who appeared in Series Five but did not return for the final series…so the writers had Johnson running off with another woman. A belated R.I.P. to a talented supporting actor…Ken Campbell will be missed.

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