The movies based on British sit-coms of the 1970s are better than you might have been led to believe.
As the British film industry began to collapse in the 1970s, one of the go-to formats quickly became movies based on TV sit-coms, the idea being that the material had a ready-made audience who would be willing to shell out money to watch a big-screen version of the show they enjoyed for free. It certainly worked in the case of On the Buses, which raked in more money for Hammer Films than any of their recent horror productions had, and spawned two sequels. Just about every popular show – not to mention a few also-rans – rapidly were adapted into movie versions before even these films were considered too ambitious for a crumbling British film industry – the Seventies ended with depressingly limp versions of Rising Damp and George and Mildred, last gasp efforts at commercial mainstream cinema. Even the sex comedy, a huge money-maker just a few years earlier, coughed up its last at the start of the 1980s, and for the next decade, British cinema was dominated by publicly funded chin-stroking cinema, costume dramas and Ken Loach. It was a bad time.
It’s the perceived critical wisdom that the sit-com films were all completely awful, despite having (usually) the same cast and writers that made the TV version a hit. This perception is more to do with film critic snobbery than anything – the people who considered themselves above such trivial entertainment were never going to react well to having it forced in them when they could be enjoying a Merchant-Ivory production or slice of kitchen sink miserabilism. Film critics have traditionally considered themselves above trivial pleasures of television, and all too often filmmakers have pandered to them – just look at how the movie versions of major TV franchises like Star Trek or The X-Files have been expected to somehow reinvent themselves for the handful of people (i.e. film critics) who have never seen them before, with complaints that “this won’t make any sense to people unfamiliar with the show“, as if the bulk of people who will pay to see such a movie won’t be completely familiar with the television version. Film critics are archetypal bubble-livers, constantly baffled that not everyone hangs on their every word, and in the 1970s, the snobbery levels and cultural divide were much bigger – many film critics genuinely believed that populist entertainment – especially television – was entirely beneath them. That they did this at a time when television was at something of a creative height (in the UK at least) is splendidly ironic.
Certainly, not all of the sit-com adaptations have not stood the test of time. The On The Buses franchise works as a sub-Carry On series, and there’s a lot of innocent charm to Bless This House, Man About the House and Please Sir!. Less effective are the film versions of Love Thy Neighbour, which even the most non-PC viewer might find a touch racially insensitive (the TV show was, ironically, much more nuanced than its reputation suggests), and Are You Being Served?, which fails by trying to extend the story too far beyond the familiar confines of Grace Brothers department store. Dad’s Army also somehow fails to capture the pleasures of the series, despite appearing at the peak of the show’s popularity.
At the height of the boom, sit-coms that were not even very popular seemed to be adapted, with mixed results – Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, It’s Your Funeral, Nearest and Dearest and For the Love of Ada were barely remembered as TV shows even by the end of the decade, and the film versions seemed a touch premature.
But a surprising number of the films are great – the movie versions of Till Death Us Do Part, Up Pompeii, Porridge, Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads stand among the best of British comedy, smartly expanding their source material rather than simply remaking it, but without losing sight of what made it great – The Likely Lads, coming a couple of years after the series had ended, feels like a much-needed closing chapter, and Porridge is one of the best British comedy films ever, bringing a welcome grittiness to the story.
The Lovers!, made in 1973 and somehow gaining an unnecessary exclamation mark on the move from small to big screen, might not be the best adaptation, but it’s certainly entertaining enough. I haven’t seen enough of the original show to compare it, which might be the best way to actually judge it as a movie – on its own merits. And as a gentle, 1970s working-class comedy film, aimed more at chuckles than belly laughs, it has a lot of worth.
Set in Manchester, the film follows the on-off relationship between Geoffrey Scrimshaw (Richard Beckinsale) and Beryl Battersby (Paula Wilcox), who meet on a lunch break one day, take rather too much of dislike to each other and then slowly end up getting together… and breaking up… and getting together again. As their friends progress through their relationships – from first date to pregnancy to marriage – Geoffrey and Beryl have a more tempestuous time of it, thanks mostly to his determination to enjoy what is left of the Permissive Society and her equal determination to avoid what is curiously described as ‘percy filth’.
Retelling the TV series rather than expand it, The Lovers! does feel rather episodic – there are neatly segmented chunks of relationship breakups and revivals; Geoffrey occasionally trying (unsuccessfully) to get off with other girls; both of them pouting and arguing, desperately attempting to seem worldly-wise and cool (forced hipster speak and trendy parties leave them out of their depth). This episodic structure doesn’t actually harm the film. The central story is so slight (and I don’t mean that as an insult) that to try to have a single, ongoing narrative would be silly. As a collection of moments from the lives of two young people, though, it’s thoroughly entertaining. It might seem odd to younger readers to discover that once upon a time, TV comedies sometimes featured characters who were charming, sweet and relatable, rather than gurning caricatures and cynically unpleasant leads.
Jack Rosenthal’s screenplay is witty without going for huge laughs – there’s no slapstick here and the humour really comes out of the all too real characters and their frustrations. It’s true to say that the late Sixties and early Seventies were not the sexual free-for-all that they are both praised and condemned as, and the film perfectly captures what the lives of most people actually were like at the time – told they were in the middle of a sexual revolution but generally still bound by the same social conventions that had always been around. There’s fun to be had watching Geoffrey’s dad (John Comer) trying to use ‘hip’ language in order to relate to his son, and amusement to be found in the hopeless attempts by Beryl and Geoffrey to be part of a world that was little more than an urban myth.
The film is helped by the fact that the two leads are a couple of the best-loved performers of the decade. It’s impossible not to like Beckinsale and Wilcox, who make a genuinely cute couple. Time has also given the film a period charm, especially if you are familiar with Manchester, and a scene where the pair look through racks of paperbacks is fantastic for pulp fiction lovers, with The Exorcist and Chariots of the Gods sitting alongside bonkbusters and Sven Hassel war novels.
The Lovers! Is perhaps a bit too lightweight to ever be reassessed as a lost classic, but there’s a lot to admire here. As much a slice of light-hearted social realism as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it stands up surprisingly well. If ever a film deserved to be called ‘charming’ then this is it.
Ironically, for a genre that is apparently widely hated, the British sit-com-to-movie concept is more popular than ever now, even though the sit-coms are increasingly bloody awful, and frequently elevated to the big screen without ever finding an audience – was anyone really asking for a film version of shitty BBC Three atrocity Bad Education?. Amusingly, many critics – now as desperate to seem in touch with popular tastes as their predecessors were determined to reject them – will fawn over dismally indulgent adaptations of detritus like Absolutely Fabulous and The Inbetweeners as if they were works of profound genius. Only the bottom of the barrel tat like Mrs Brown’s Boys and Keith Lemon – The Film – both decidedly downmarket affairs – was too much for the critics to swallow, showing that, while basic comedy aimed at the great unwashed is now as rare as Received Pronunciation on TV, the chin-stroking critics will still react with absolute horror when confronted with it.