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NEL, London, 1980
(price: 80p; 176 pages)

The blurb on the back:

He's a highly-qualified, lightning-witted, ultra-bright freelance layabout.
His girlfriend Fran wants him to settle down to the pursuit of fame and fortune, but Shelley's too busy for that.
He's sending up the labour exchange, running rings round the bank manager, running an urban guerilla
[sic] war where his brains are a secret weapon...

opening lines:
The first thing I noticed about the waitress was her bosom. Come to think of it, that was all I noticed about her.

Coming on like a cross between Tony Hancock and Wolfie Smith, James Shelley was an unemployed, unemployable, over-qualified cynic whose greatest delight was mocking those too stupid to notice that they were being made the butt of his jokes. It's not necessarily the most promising set-up for a comedy, and there's no doubt that the series - which started in 1979 and was still being made in 1992 - massively outstayed its welcome, but at its best it was really quite good.

Two things redeemed it. First there was the writing. Created and originally scripted by Peter Tilbury, it had the hallmarks of authenticity - Tilbury had been unemployed, had lived in grotty bedsits in North London and knew whereof he wrote. And when he drifted off to work on other projects, Guy Jenkin and the very wonderful Andy Hamilton took over writing duties.

Secondly, there was the acting of Hywel Bennett.

Now this was not an obvious casting choice. Because Bennett was frankly too old for the role: Shelley was supposed to have been born in 1952, Bennett was actually born in 1944. And that makes quite a difference when you're talking about someone who's got a PhD but has never done a proper job in their life. But then on the other hand, you're talking about Hywel Bennett. And Hywel Bennett is one of the great joys of British screen acting. To be fair, he probably would have looked too old for the role at the age of 12 - you get the impression that he always looked that worn.

So what we had was a depiction of the voluntary underclass right at the start of Thatcher's reign. And, in a somehow symbolic kind of way, the very first season in that nasty summer of 1979 was disrupted by a TV technicians' strike. There was to be real suffering as a consequence of Thatcher's absurd political vision (and Geoffrey Howe's incompetent economics), but Shelley was never much about that stuff: Shelley was more like a hippy, or as close as we were likely to get in the immediate post-punk era. He wasn't exactly turned on, but he was tuned in and he'd definitely dropped out. And for a while, it was all very entertaining indeed.

This book, on the other hand, fails to capture the spirit of the show. It's part of the problem with novelizations of sitcoms that they inherently lack any kind of structure, but by trying to impose some sort of storyline on the thing, this misses the point of the show. Which was the travelling around in circles that couldn't decrease any more, achieving nothing, just marking out time.

Colin Bostock-Smith - who presumably did the writing here, based on Tilbury's scripts - went on to write some of the later TV episodes.

panda eyes
Josephine Tewson and Hywel Bennett


from the maker of:
The Odd Job
The Odd Job
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