Books: Glued to the Box : Bovis and Basil |
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Bovis and Basil

To follow up their monstrously successful Dad’s Army, Jimmy Perry and David Croft gave forth It Ain’t ’alf ’ot, Mum, which pulled just as big an audience minus one. But now they have followed up the follow-up with Hi-De-Hi! (BBC1) and have immediately climbed back up to their former viewing figures. The series is all about the great days at Butlins, here called Maplin’s for purposes of disguise. Simon Cadell plays Jeffrey Fairbrother, a don who shyly embraces a new life as Maplin’s entertainments manager. His character is a very useful structural device, because all the other people at the camp must perforce queue up and explain what their work involves.

But the massive, well-greased hub of the action is the master of ceremonies, Ted Bovis, brilliantly played by Paul Shane. The marvellous thing about him is that he could very well be a holiday camp comic, except that no holiday camp comic would have such resources as an actor. With his hair arranged in a messily glistening Tony Curtis cut that looks as if a duck has just taken off from an oil-slick, he fills the lower half of the close up with serried chins while his trained eyes search for campers who need jollifying and his mouth unreels an unbroken ticker-tape of triple-tested patter. Young would-be comedians are no doubt already tuned in and copy-catting furiously, but what they should watch out for is the ability to be outrageous with power in reserve.

The repeat run of Fawlty Towers (BBC2) drew bigger audiences than ever and deservedly so. Statistical surveys reveal that only the television critic of the Spectator is incapable of seeing the joke, which is that Basil Fawlty has the wrong temperament to be a hotel proprietor, just as some other people have the wrong temperament to be television critics. By putting the wrong man in the right spot, John Cleese and Connie Booth hit on the deep secret of successful farce. But of course it is not enough to hit on it: you have to work it up into a consistent script.

As you watched the episodes coming round again, the fact that you knew roughly what was going to happen gave you time to appreciate how the comic structure had been assembled. Basil didn’t just put his soot-covered hand on the Australian girl’s breast. He went up a staircase, along a corridor, into a cupboard, out through a window, up a ladder, back through another window, in and out of the same cupboard again, and then put his hand on the Australian girl’s breast, just in time for Mrs Fawlty to walk in and incinerate him with a look. The fearful symmetry of each episode’s grand design was reflected in the attention paid to the smallest detail, right down to Basil’s terrible tank-top with zip.

Any programme-controller would give his eye-teeth for a new series of Fawlty Towers every season. Unfortunately eye-teeth are not hard currency, and hard currency won’t do the trick either. There isn’t enough of it in the world to buy more inspiration than exists, and since Cleese and Booth have managed to create at least half a dozen farces each at least as funny as Hotel Paradiso it would be unreasonable to expect anything more from them along quite those lines in this lifetime.

There are just some things money can’t buy, although from the latest Man Alive (BBC2) you wouldn’t have thought so. Devoting itself to Britain’s rich, the programme pretended to be worried about how the rich get richer even during a recession. What it was really interested in, needless to say, was how they do it. Godfrey Bonsack gets rich by flogging gold bathrooms to people even richer. ‘What you do is enjoy yourself in my barse.’

A drone called Rupert Dean does it by checking up on his investments by telephone for twenty minutes each morning, before climbing into his barse as a preparation for lunch, which leads into an afternoon’s leisure during which he nerves himself up for a hard evening at Wedgie’s. ‘January I’m still shooting, basically, because it’s too cold to go skiing.’ The programme was deeply shocked by Rupert’s disinclination to do a hand’s turn, although how the economy might benefit from a less leisurely Rupert was not made clear.

8 March, 1981

[ The complete original version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]