I return for this blog to the topic of neglected historical British television comedy. In my last post, my focus was on the significance of female performers to the genre, with a retrospective of the comedy career of actress Penelope Keith. This time I want to turn to one of London Weekend Television’s largely forgotten but once extremely popular situation comedies No – Honestly which ran for one series from late 1974 to 1975.
No Honestly was written by Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham and commissioned by the recently‑appointed deputy controller of LWT entertainment programmes Michael Grade. It featured real‑life couple John Alderton and Pauline Collins as actor Charles Danby (usually referred to in the programme as just CD) and children’s writer Clara, a prosperous and successful happily‑married couple who each week reminisced about the ups and downs of the first year of their married life in mid‑1960s London some ten years previously. Each episode began with Clara and CD seated on stools in front of a live studio audience chatting briefly to the audience and each other, usually about a comment or remark from Clara, before introducing a flashback to a significant event or incident remembered from the earliest days of their relationship. The flashbacks which formed the main part of the episode reflected the everyday struggles Clara and CD had had as young newlyweds. These usually involved dealing with daily domestic dramas and confusions around parents, friends, paying the bills or just getting used to living together. Sometimes, the subject was the problems they had making their way, at this point with limited success, in their chosen careers. At the end of episode the scene would return to Clara and C.D. who would offer some closing comments on what we and they had just seen, with CD urging Clara finally to say ‘Goodnight’.
No – Honestly is a rich text worthy, for a number of reasons, of reconsideration and reinstatement within histories of British television comedy, from the significance of the relationships of the cast and the writing team, to the series’ multi-layered intertextual televisual style. The combination of Collins and Alderton meant considerable television star power augmented by the dynamic and dramatic tension which their status as a real life couple lent to their portrayal of the fictional Danbys. Alderton already had a well-established comedy profile. In Please Sir! (LWT 1968) he played Bernard Hedges, the naïve, well-meaning young teacher at Fenn Street School who had difficulty keeping his class 5C in order.
Alderton starred with Hannah Gordon in My Wife next Door (BBC 1972) in which a recently divorced couple accidentally end up living next door to each other.
Collins had had a steady television career since the early 1960s, with parts in Emergency – Ward 10, Softly Softly, The Wednesday Play and the ongoing role of Samantha Briggs in Dr Who. She was also one of the original Liver Birds.
However it was their on‑screen relationship in the LWT hit series Upstairs Downstairs (1971), in which Alderton and Collins played chauffeur Thomas Watkins and housemaid Sarah Moffatt, that established their on‑screen chemistry and’ brand’. Indeed their relationship had started when they met working on the series. Grade was very enthusiastic about their professional partnership and in his 2011 radio 2 series On the Box which looked at the inside story of Britain’s television industry he explained that he saw No – Honestly as a chance to reunite them. They would continue to reprise this screen partnership in a 1979 sequel to Upstairs Downstairs, Thomas and Sarah which brought their characters back together.
Charlotte Bingham and Terence Brady had also written for Collins and Alderton in Upstairs Downstairs. They were themselves a married couple; their own experiences of early married life as recounted by novelist Bingham in her 1972 autobiography Coronet among the Grass formed the basis for their scripts for No – Honestly. Bingham – in fact the Hon. Charlotte Mary Thérèse Bingham – was the daughter of a baronet, and Brady was an Irish actor.
The contrast in their backgrounds made for the comic tension that Collins and Alderton in their dramatically heightened versions of Bingham and Brady brought to the small screen. Whilst CD is self-confessedly and very proudly from a working class background in the north of England, Clara is the daughter of an earl with the plummy received pronunciation of the court debutante she might well have been. The relationship is set up from the outset as a classic match where opposites attract. The connection of an ambitious working class actor and carefree society girl is redolent of the period and cultural context in which the series is set. Their first meeting which is the subject of episode one, is at a Hampstead party, redolent of the self professedly classless artistic milieu of the so-called swinging London of the mid 1960s; exactly the kind of place where it might be imagined that actors and posh girls might very well meet each other. At the same time the series implicitly and with the lightest of touches problematises assumptions about young people’s behaviour and relationships in what is popularly understood as a period of burgeoning permissive sexuality in a city then perceived as at the forefront of the newest and most fashionable behaviour. Clara and CD did not live together or have a sexual relationship before marriage. In episode 4 Just Cause or Impediment the comic centrepiece of the episode is Clara coming round just before the wedding to practise ‘living together’. This involves making a meal for CD but no actual ‘living together’ as Clara has it. Gender roles and expectations are very conservative. CD is assumed as main breadwinner, Clara’s writing seen as secondary.
Collins and Alderton’s portrayal of this odd couple combination of struggling actor and seemingly dizzy upper‑class society girl is on the surface a naturalistic warm and endearing one, yet in fact highly complex and sophisticated, negotiating the many different levels of audience address and performance style which the production demands, whilst at the same time playing with the nuances and multiple doublings of the relationships which a husband‑and‑wife team playing a fictionalised version of another husband‑and‑wife team written by this latter couple connotes. Seated side‑by‑side on their stools as they introduce the episode, Clara and CD are seemingly locked in highly personal conversation whilst simultaneously addressing the invisible studio audience who can be heard laughing at the couple, and to whom the couple are themselves reacting as a tight comedy double act would, their responses allowing a pause after a laugh or drawing it out further with a pause or a facial reaction as fitted best. At the same time they seem to be talking directly to the television audience visibly aware of and playing to the camera.
It is Clara who is the immediate focus of audience attention with her idiosyncratic and enthusiastically ingenious recounting not only of the topic in hand, but also through her nonsequitur asides and remarks related to the present days which are inevitably prompted by scene setting. If Clara is a childlike, spontaneous presence, CD is a drier, more circumspect foil, his silences and metaphorical winks to the audience acting to point up all the more the comedy and often illogicality of what Clara has just said. This is the pattern for each episode when Clara’s guileless misunderstanding of situations creates comedic chaos for her, CD, and everyone else involved. In this the comparisons to the US comedy double act of George Burns and Gracie Allen are evident, adding a further layer of intertextuality into the performances. Burns and Allen were also a married couple playing a married couple, with Burns the laconic straight man and Allen the logic‑defying eccentric comic turn. The comic tropes and style of their 1950s CBS series The Burns and Allen Show can be seen reworked in No ‑ Honestly. In On the Box, Grade and Alderton discussed the reworking of the Burns and Allen style in Clara and CD’s relationship with each other and the audience. The title of this blog is No ‑ Honestly’s version of Burns and Allen’s signature signoff , “Say goodnight Gracie”.
A final further layer of complexity is added by the way in which the series plays with time. It is nominally set in 1975, but the bulk of the action takes place in 1965 when the couple met. Alderton and Collins present two versions of Clara and CD. In the younger version CD’s northernness is more marked as are Clara’s upper‑class RP tones. The version which they present at the beginning and end of each episode – the 1970s version – is noticeably more relaxed and naturalistic, a consequence of a couple having spent ten years together and at the same time, although obviously acted, feeling closer to what might be imagined is something of the relationship between Collins and Alderton themselves. Also of interest is the series recreation of a 1970s shorthand version of the previous decade, from a swinging 60s boutique to a Hampstead drawing room. Both even at this stage draw on what will become stock images of the 1960s. The boutique, for example, is decorated with psychedelic posters (a little before their chronological time in the later 1960s) and racks of garish mini skirts and dresses. The Hampstead room is white and minimalist with pine furniture; a replica of the ‘Habitat ‘look so often associated with fashionable 1960s design.
Alderton and Collins decided not to continue with No – Honestly despite its popularity. Bingham and Brady extended the formula for a further successful series. In Yes – Honestly (1976-7), Donal Donnelly and Liza Goddard played another young married couple who as before reflected on their earlier relationship and life together. Yes – Honestly is yet another lost comedy series also worthy of further re-examination. No – Honestly has been forgotten presumably because it seems to be superficially yet another feather light 1970s sitcom about the low level triumphs and disasters of comfortably‑off middle‑class people. Such dismissal belies the intricate theatrical construction of No – Honestly which synthesises varying levels of performance from intimate naturalism to high artifice with an underlying knowing intertextual allusion to classic fifties US television comedy. No – Honestly also offers glimpses of something of the cultural climate of its metropolitan 1960s setting. In re-examining little remembered historical comedies such as No – Honestly what emerges is the individual style and footprint that such comedies could and did have and that they too have a contribution to make in creating comprehensive histories of British television comedy.
Mary Irwin is currently the postdoctoral research fellow on a three-year AHRC research project “A History of Television for Women in Britain 1947-89” run jointly by Warwick and De Montfort Universities. She has written and published on early women’s television and is currently researching women’s relationships with television romantic situation comedy. Mary also has research interests in television documentary and television drama. Most recently she has contributed to the first extended account of the BBC series Life on Mars – Life on Mars: From Manchester to New York (University of Wales Press, 2012).