I was a TV writer and subeditor for British newspapers and magazines for more than a decade.
Six Northern Sitcoms
- Rising Damp
- The Gaffer
- Constant Hot Water
- You're Only Young Twice
- The Growing Pains of PC Penrose
These comedy series made in the North entertained Britons during the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, a lot of ITV comedies were produced to fill the 7:30 slot on Thursday and Friday. Since then, soap operas and game shows have taken over.
Thora Hird was the star of this series set in a Salvation Army Citadel in the fictional town of Brigthorpe, Yorkshire. She played Captain Emily Ridley, a stalwart member of the Salvation Army for 42 years, stationed to a new post where she is determined to flush out the sin of the populace, assisted by her non-too-bright niece Alice, played by Patsy Rowlands.
The series ran from April 29, 1983, to December 21, 1984, and was the second collaboration between Hird and writer Dick Sharples. They previously worked together on the comedy series, In Loving Memory.
2. Rising Damp
An excellent, character-driven comedy from the writer Eric Chappell, Rising Damp ran from September 2, 1974, to May 9, 1978. Leonard Rossiter plays Rigsby, the mean-spirited, miserly landlord of a run-down Victorian house in Leeds, Yorkshire (though this magically becomes London on the film version). Estranged from his wife, racist, ultra-conservative, self-regarding and snobbish, Rigsby is the butt of most of the jokes in the series. Most plots revolve around his fantasy idea of himself, or around his amorous desires for his tenant Miss Jones.
The tenants of his shabby bedsits include amiable medical student Alan Moore (played by Richard Beckinsale of The Lovers and Porridge), Ruth Jones (Frances de la Tour of Big School), a whimsical spinster and Phillip (Don Warrington of Murder in Paradise) who is - horror of horrors as far as Rigsby is concerned - black.
3. The Gaffer
From 1981 to 1983, Bill Maynard, who had found massive success as dim-witted Yorkshireman Selwyn Froggitt, changed tack completely in his comedy characterisations.
His new character Fred Moffatt was a clever and cunning - though not very successful - businessman, steering his struggling engineering firm through avoiding debtors, union action and trying to drum up customers. Hardly a moment goes by without reference to the poverty of the firm or a debt that's owed.
Russell Hunter played the Shop Steward who was intent on getting as much money as he could for his members. In the late seventies, this was a familiar stock comedy figure in northern England but Hunter is excellent as the sly negotiator.
Compared to Froggitt, which relied heavily on physical comedy and catchphrases, The Gaffer was densely plotted and cleverly scripted, with most of the Gaffer's lines bringing grim humour to comany's dire situation.
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4. Constant Hot Water
Little evidence still exists of this little-known sitcom broadcast in six episodes in January 1986, but it need a special mention for two reasons. Firstly, it is undoubtedly northern, set in the seaside town of Bridlington. Secondly, it was once voted the sixth worst sitcom in the 2003 Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy.
It starred former Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix as Phyllis Nugent, the owner of a boarding house, whose comfortable business is suddenly threatened when another woman, Miranda Thorpe (Prunella Gee) opens a rival bed & breakfast establishment next door.
Glamorous Miranda attracts the attention of all the men, while Phyllis looks on disapprovingly, suggesting Miranda is ruining the neighbourhood and "running a brothel".
The single most notable thing about this programme is the catchy, irritating theme tune by comedy musical cabaret group, Instant Sunshine. This tune is the only trace of the show left in the public domain, recorded off someone's TV onto a cassette recorder, then uploaded onto YouTube. It was never released onto DVD. This is no tragedy.
5. You're Only Young Twice
Years before Waiting For God, was this sitcom set in the old people's home Paradise Lodge, starring Pat Combs and Peggy Mount.
The show ran for four years, 1977 to 1981. There were 31 episodes in total. Usually the action centred on Flora (Peggy Mount) and her attempts to get the better of the staff and the centre's manager, Miss Milton (Charmian May). Flora was assisted by her sidekick, the drippy Cissy Lupin (Pat Combs). Other characters included former theatrical artiste Dolly Love (Lally Bowers) and the haughty Mildred Fanshaw (Diana King).
Peggy Mount already had a long career paying tyrannical matriarchs, beginning with a celebrated stage production of Sailor Beware in the 1950s. Her two previous sitcom hits had been The Larkins where she played a domineering wife and George and the Dragon, with Carry On star Sid James and Dad's Army stalwart John Le Mesurier. After You're Only Young Twice, Mount joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made a new career as a classical character actor.
Pat Combs was similarly playing to type, having made a career of playing dominated women, starting with the dim daughter of Irene Handle's character in the Arthur Askey radio show, Hello Playmates.
6. The Growing Pains of PC Penrose
One of the most Northern sitcoms you can imagine. Written by Roy Clarke, filmed in the South Yorkshire village of New Rossington and Hatfield Colliery, with a brass band soundtrack.
Growing Pains tells the story of a young, naive man who has left home to join the police force. PC Penrose (Paul Greeenwood) finds himself in the village of Slagcaster, where the experienced Sergeant Flagg (Brian Pringle) takes him under his wing and teaches him his unconventional approach to policing. Meanwhile, in the style of seventies sitcoms, the Inspector is pursuing an affair with a woman police constable and one of the other constables has a girl on every street.
Brian Pringle previously found fame as Cheese 'n' Egg in The Dustbinmen and had a very memorable supporting role as Frank Spencer's neighbour on classic sitcom Some Mothers So 'Ave 'Em.
The Growing Pains of PC Penrose only lasted for one season (seven episodes total), but it was later rebooted as Rosie, with a new setting and mainly new characters.
© 2018 Neil B Roberts