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After Henry

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Viking, Harmondsworth, 1987
(price: 10.95; 214 pages)

dedication: To Pete Atkins, who got the whole thing started, with thanks

The blurb on the back:

The BBC radio series After Henry, starring Prunella Scales and Joan Sanderson, received an extraordinarily enthusiastic listener response when it was first broadcast in 1985. Since then a second and third series have built for it a huge following, and a transfer to television is now planned.
Bestselling novelist Simon Brett, who created the series and wrote all the scripts, has now written a novel that explores and develops his characters. The book follows the comfortable, middle-class lives of three women - except that, for one of them, life isn't all that comfortable. Sarah has been left pretty well provided for by her late husband, a doctor called Henry. Unfortunately, she has also been left with a demanding mother, living upstairs, whom she doesn't get on with, and an adolescent daughter, living downstairs, who craves independence - as long as mother is there to clear up the mess.
All in all Sarah considers herself rather put-upon, but she shoulders the burden with only occasional complaints and the odd heart-searching session with her enormously sympathetic boss. It is he particularly who has to pick up the pieces whenever Sarah's self-confidence starts to nosedive ... after a particularly disconcerting experience with the local rather handsome tennis coach, for example.
Full of the subtle humour and acutely observed minutiae of family relationships that have made the series so popular, Simon Brett's book will appeal not only to devotees of the radio series but also to all who enjoy a well-crafted, satisfying novel.

Unless you get your comedy from Radio 4 (which you really should), you're probably most familiar with After Henry as that rarest of beasts: a literate sitcom on ITV. Come to think of it, it may well have been the last ever such creation, with the possible exception of Simon Nye's work. The fact that it was also genuinely popular - at its peak it attracted upwards of 14 million viewers - is little short of miraculous.

Before all that, however, there had been 26 episodes on the radio, and that's where the real gold was: marketed as a comedy drama, and thus unencumbered by the baggage that follows the TV sitcom, it was one of the great triumphs of Radio 4 in the 1980s, with a beautifully understated script by Simon Brett and star performances by Prunella Scales and Joan Sanderson. The central premise was that three single women of different generations shared a house, living on different floors of a house - Henry's 42-year-old widow, Sarah, together with her mother and her daughter. It's so simple that's it's brilliant, and the echoes across the generations are lovely: the worst insult Sarah can throw at her daughter is to suggest a familial resemblance, just as it's the worst insult Sarah can have thrown at her by her mother: 'There's a lot of me in you'. It was good stuff, even if it did run down a little before the end.

So we come to the novel, and let's start with the positive. There are some beautiful low-key gags here, many of them revolving around Sarah and Russell, the owner of the second-hand bookshop she works in. He's the only major male character in the set-up and slips in by virtue of being unthreatening since he's (a) in his fifties, and (b) gay in a non-camp way. He also has a fondness for arranged the stock in his shop into helpful if unorthodox categories: Good Old-Fashioned Detective Stories in which No One Really Gets Hurt, say, or Thrillers with Swastikas on the Front, or Fantasy Literature That Avoids Being Twee, or even Left-Wing Books That Are Actually Interesting. He also likes his metaphors and encourages Sarah in the same trait. Here they are, for example, discussing her attempt to revisit the haunts of her youth, phrased in the terminology of the local government reforms of the 1970s:

'I went off today looking for Rutland and Radnorshire and Cumberland and Kirkcudbrightshire ...'
'And what did you find?'
Sarah grinned. 'Oh, you know ... Humberside ... Avon ... Cleveland ... Tyne and Wear ... Gwent ...' (p.86)

I love all that.† And the discussions between the three women work well just as well on paper as they do on TV (if not quite the radio). Where it falls down is the episodic nature of the structure. By definition, a series like this is open-ended - a sequence of incidents that makes perfect sense in half-hour chunks but doesn't really hang together as a novel. Because it isn't a novel. The over-arching structure and linear development that you have every right to expect from a novel are absent, and the result is inevitably a tad formless and unsatisfactory.

Having said that, the book is still a fine way to spend three or four hours of your life. I'd recommend it for when you're in bed with a cold.

For more lost British place names, try The Best of Peter Simple.


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