from the TV serial by Bob Larbey
A Fine Romance
Arrow, London, 1983
To Humphrey Barclay
dedication: To Humphrey Barclay
The blurb on the back:
Adam and Eve ... Anthony and Cleopatra ... Romeo and Juliet ... Mike and Laura ... Mike and Laura?
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.
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.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 1/5