Review: Casanova ’73

DVD. Acorn

This is a welcome release of a short-lived but notorious show from 1973 that is generally only spoken of today on cheap nostalgia shows, where some D-lister will trot out sneering, scripted crap about how dated and sexist it was – not having actually seen it, of course. Back in 1973, the show was greeted with howls of outrage from self-appointed, lunatic moral guardian Mary Whitehouse, and quickly booted out of its prime time slot into the late night schedules, where it completed its seven episode run before being buried away. This despite the fact that it was written by the powerhouse team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and starred the irrepressible Leslie Phillips.

Subtitled ‘the adventures of a 20th Century libertine’, the show was a modern-day pastiche of Casanova, who had recently been the subject of a BBC drama. Phillips is Henry Newhouse, a 44-year old serial womaniser (a ‘naughty boy’, as the charming Phillips describes him in the interview featurette included in this two-disc set) who finds his amorous adventures are getting out of control as he tries to fight off middle age. His wife (Jan Holden, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Margaret Thatcher) suspects his affairs but can’t quite prove them – and is, seemingly, not averse to playing away herself should the opportunity arise. Over the seven episodes, Henry’s misadventures invariably get him into more trouble than they are worth.

The first episode has him in a blind panic when a former conquest takes to sending him love-letters, forcing him to stay home from work to continually try to get the post before his wife does, and as the series progresses, we see him panicked after his business partner suspects his wife of being unfaithful and bugs their home (the recordings being certain to identify Henry as ‘the other man’); seducing a teacher that his son has photographed naked in order to prevent the boy from being expelled from public school; having his virginal goddaughter demand that he allows her to ‘practice’ with him before her wedding night (she’s played by Madeline Smith, so who could resist?); and dealing with a demanding German Beauty Queen. Perhaps not surprisingly, by the final episode, Henry is rendered impotent.

It’s easy to see why Whitehouse would be so shocked by this show (the BBFC consumer info, stating it ‘contains frequent crude sex references and innuendo” could have been written by her). While lecherous men were a comedy standard of the time – everyone from Sid James in the Carry On films to Bob and Stan in On the Buses were chasing crumpet left, right and centre – it was rare for them to actually succeed – and more or less unheard of if they were married. That Henry not only succeeds in bedding several women throughout the series but is also presented as someone we like and want to get away with it was just too much. What was lost on the critics is that his adventures are rarely without consequence for him – if the show is sending out a message about adultery, it’s that its bloody hard work, often for very little reward.

casanova73-2As for accusations of sexism – well, the leering opening titles aside, a feast of (clothed) boobs and bums, you’d have to be one of those humourless people who thinks the very idea of men finding women attractive is the height of misogyny to find anything to back up your claims here. Yes, Henry is a lecherous, horny man (“I can’t help it – I’m too sexy. It’s in my genes” he declares on a couple of occasions) but the women he meets are as wide a variety as you could hope for, from dolly birds to middle-aged man-eaters, and all points in-between – all more fully rounded than most sitcom characters of the time, and certainly not victims. These women give as good as they get, and the idea of female sexual desire – not always something expressed in Seventies TV shows – is very much the fore here.

Where the show is dated is in the references to/portrayals of gay men, which are very much in the ‘camp poof’ tradition of the time. Seen now, these are cringe worthy moments, but no worse than anything else from the period. The decidedly middle class lifestyle of the main characters, complete with son at boarding school, is also something you won’t see reflected in modern sitcoms.

As for the humour – it’s a strange hybrid of smart comedy, slightly reminiscent of Reggie Perrin (who also had middle-aged fantasies of adultery), and farce – at one point, Phillips actually has to hide in a wardrobe when a husband arrives home too early. I can’t say any of it is laugh-out-loud funny, and it doesn’t have the tragic-comedy elements of Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son – but as a satire on middle class values, hypocrisy and mid-life crises, it’s consistently amusing and sometime quick biting. And while none of the sexual humour would raise many eyebrows now (there is, needless to say, no actual nudity in the show), it is certainly more daring than you’d normally see in a Seventies sitcom – I can’t think of many other shows of the era that would discuss impotence so blatantly.

Anyone expecting something like a Benny Hill style show with Phillips chasing wide-eyed bimbos – very much the way this show has been hyped over the years – will be disappointed by Casanova ’73. But fans of vintage British sitcoms should find much to enjoy here, and I’m glad the show has finally been rescued from a very undeserved obscurity.