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from the TV serial by Bob Larbey
A Fine Romance

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Arrow, London, 1983
price: 1.60; 208 pages

dedication: To Humphrey Barclay

The blurb on the back:

Adam and Eve ... Anthony and Cleopatra ... Romeo and Juliet ... Mike and Laura ... Mike and Laura?
She would rather have been home in bed with a cup of cocoa and a good book. He would rather have been home in bed with a tall redhead with flashing green eyes. She looked at him and instead of stars saw a monosyllabic dwarf with a fixed grin and an obsession with loos. He looked at her and instead of feeling weak in the knees he felt like a particularly innocent lamb being thrown to an especially middle-aged wolf. You would call it an auspicious beginning. But you could call it...
A Fine Romance

opening lines:
Laura Dalton's proudest boast was that, at thirty-nine, she was younger than Jane Fonda, but, although she said it as a joke, a quiet desperation was occasionally discernible in her voice.

The evolution of British sitcom tends to be a cyclical thing. The success of Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part apparently convinced TV executives that what we wanted was a whole host of working-class sitcoms. Unfortunately they failed to spot that quality was more important than situation, and the likes of On The Buses and Love Thy Neighbour were inexcusably bad, amongst the worst shows ever made for British TV - until, of course, Yus M'Dear and Oh No, It's Selwyn Froggitt demonstrated how much worse things could get.

But then the cyclical nature of the format reasserted itself. Coincidentally or otherwise, just as Thatcher was beginning to give trade unions a kicking from which they have yet to recover, so TV turned its back on the working-class and gave us instead the post-Good Life middle-class sitcoms of Butterflies and Agony. You could argue that the trajectory from Please Sir! to Ever Decreasing Circles in the space of half-a-generation is the story of the defeat of the '60s.

Except that it might be a tad simplistic. Those last two mentioned shows were from the writing partnership of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who also gave us The Good Life, Get Some In and Brush Strokes, amongst many others. Just in case he got bored, Bob Larbey knocked out a few series on his own as well, of which A Fine Romance is perhaps the most significant: a middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow sitcom so respectable that it got a pair of married thespians from the legitimate world of the theatre to slum it on ITV.

The fact that the series starred Judi Dench and Michael Williams ensured enormous critical praise, and one can hardly help but get irritated by the reverence with which they were treated: the inferiority complex displayed by British television when confronted with act-ors from the Royal Shakespeare Company is one of the reasons why it's difficult to take the medium seriously.

Having said which, Williams was very good indeed as the grumpy, insecure, socially inept landscape gardener who finds himself thrown semi-willing into a relationship with Dench. And, however much I dislike the way that the woman's been canonized by the Daily Mail in the years since, Dench here was perfectly adequate with her Purdey's-mum hairdo and her mannered irritability.

Even more impressive, this novelization is really rather good. It's not funny, but then nor was the series, not so as you'd notice. Instead it was that kind of gentle, genteel humour that translates quite easily to the page, and makes for an agreeable couple of hours' read. Better than I expected it to be.

modern love
clockwise from left: Richard Warwick, Judi Dench,
Michael Williams, Susan Penhaligon

  Just for the record, Judi Dench was born in 1934, three years before Jane Fonda.


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