Thursday 27 August 2020

Sausages, A Lawn Mower and the Dwarf in Shakespeare

If I were asked to list my favourite radio comedies that list would include the largely-forgotten, and not heard since 1981, Radio 3 series set in the world of academe, Patterson.

Patterson (think Lucky Jim meets The History Man) was written by Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby. It's Radio 3's only out and out sitcom, and that's more by chance than design. The series was originally commissioned for Radio 4 but at some point during its production they decided they didn't want it and Radio 3 controller Ian McIntrye picked it up. The series also enjoys the further distinction of being a the only Radio 3 series to get a repeat on Radio 2, and within months of its first transmission.

The central character is struggling English Literature lecturer Andrew Patterson, played by Lewis Fiander. His career is in the doldrums and so is his marriage to the long-suffering Jane, played by Judy Parfitt. In episode one he's interviewed for and obtains a job at some unspecified rundown Northern redbrick university. "Isn't that Henry Moore?" "Oh no sir, that's  Fred the cleaner  dusting a great hunk of metal".

During the interview we first meet two characters that will appear during the series, as well as two, Professor Amis and Professor Murdoch, that don't. The Vice-Chancellor is played in true CJ style (memories of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) by John Barron. "Hmm, Dr Patterson. In my experience, which is wide, women are not usually fellows called George". Richard Vernon puts in a superb comic performance as the absent-minded head of faculty Professor Misty. "Dreaming spires, appalling traffic, tea and crumpets, AJP wotsit."

Arriving for his new job Patterson finds his old friend from college Victor Evans (Hugh Thomas) is already in post. "I thought you were at Hull?" "I couldn't stand it, buses, people on the streets, living people walking about everywhere, giving me headaches..."

Victor introduces Patterson to the rest of the faculty: departmental secretary Mary played by Frances Jeator. "there's a letter for you already, an invitation from the Vice-Chancellor. Dinner next Monday night, 7 for 7.30, dinner jacket, RSVP, carriages at 11.30. I didn't like to open it". Then there's Amy Spade (Maggie Steed) prone to spying on her colleagues and then sending anonymous letters using newspaper clippings signed "the Holy Scout." And finally Melissa Murgatroyd "honeypot of the senior common room" vampishly played by Maureen Lipman - and showing just what a star cast Patterson enjoyed.

Other members of the cast during the eight episodes include Richard O' Callaghan the librarian on the issue desk Spencer Cuthbertson who comes round offering "bloody helpful herbs", university porter Probity played by Jack May (Nelson Gabriel from The Archers), Irene Prador as Mrs Vice-Chancellor ("Ach, to be Jung in Vienna"), Tariq Yunis as Victor Bannerji and Leueen Willoughby as Valerie Candle. Also appearing are Lisa Hayden, Philip Davis, David Tate, Patrick Barr and Patricia Hayes.    

Patterson was produced by Geoffrey Perkins, at the time co-starring in and co-writing Radio Active but already an experienced producer with Week Ending, Hitch-Hikers and ISIHAC under his belt. When the series first aired on Radio 3 (February to April 1981) it, in true Radio 3 form, over-ran its supposed half-hour timeslot by two or three minutes. By the time of its Radio 2 repeat (June to August 1981) some of the dialogue had been trimmed but at the same time some musical stings had been added. Unfortunately the BBC only kept the edited repeats, though off-air recordings of the originals do exist. For years I'd wondered what the theme music was called and the answer came to just a couple of years ago when quite by chance I was listening to an old In Concert featuring guitarist Gordon Giltrap. The theme is Jester's Jig and both it and The Tyger were used to provide the stings between scenes for the revised repeats.      

Here's an example of one of the edits between the Radio 3 original and the Radio 2 repeat. From the opening of episode one Patterson's monologue goes completely. Generally lines are cut rather than whole scenes going often in the longer domestic scenes with Patterson and Jane. I've left in the original Radio 2 continuity with announcer Liz Allen.  

Malcolm Bradbury had written The History Man some five years before Patterson came along but surely the character of Flora Beniform, with whom Howard Kirk shares many "desultory interludes", is a forerunner of Melissa Murgatroyd. "Flora is formidable, and she likes going to bed with men who have troubled marriages; they have so much more to talk about, hot as they are from the intricate politics of families which are Flora's specialist field of study."

Bradbury co-wrote Patterson with his friend and University of East Anglia colleague Christopher Bigsby. In fact they had already collaborated on a 1975 Play for Today titled The After Dinner Game. It too was set on in a university and there amongst the dramatis personae are 'Flora Beniform' and an idealistic young lecturer called 'Andrew Patterson'.       

Sharon Acker, Ian Carmichael (as Jim Dixon) and Terry-Thomas in the 1957 Boulting Brothers
film adaptation of Lucky Jim. A 2003 film featured Stephen Tompkinson in the main role. 

The parallels between Patterson and the Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim can easily be found. The first major post-war campus-based novel, Lucky Jim is set in some non-descript university, perhaps inspired by Amis's own teaching experience in Swansea or maybe his visit to see Philip Larkin in Leicester. (The novel is dedicated to Larkin). Like Patterson, Jim Dixon, a young history lecturer, has to deal with an absent-minded professor, Professor Welch,  whose sentences just ...err... trail off... Welch, like Misty, addresses Dixon by his predecessor's name of Faulkner, just as Misty confuses Patterson as Thistleberry. There's a lecture for which each of the main protagonists is ill-prepared: Dixon's on 'Merrie England', Patterson's on Milton's Lycidas. Whilst Dixon sets fire to the bed sheets, Patterson manages to set his jacket alight. "This man is on fire. Pour champagne on him Probity." Dixon, a bachelor, spends most of the novel failing to get off with Christine and instead returns to the dull but dependable Margaret. Patterson, after various sexual dalliances, returns home to Jane and the kids.

I said "not heard since 1981" but that's about to change. My tapes of Patterson (since digitised) were beginning to wear out so I'm delighted to say that a new audience can finally appreciate this comedy when, after a 39-year wait, it gets a repeat next month on BBC Radio 4 Extra (weekly on Friday from the 4th).

You can read more about Radio 3's comedy output in my 2016 blog post The Intelligent Chuckle and in Tim Worthington's book The LarksAscending.  

March 2021 postscript: It seems that Patterson did have at least one repeat after its initial Radio 3/Radio 2 airings and that was for overseas listeners to the BBC World Service. An edition of London Calling for August 1986 lists the programme amongst the drama offerings for that month. 

Sunday 2 August 2020

Directed by John Tydeman

The credit 'directed by John Tydeman' was always an assurance of quality. Sometimes challenging. Often quirky. Always interesting.

John  Tydeman, who joined the BBC in 1959, was a drama producer for the best part of four decades, becoming the department's head before retiring in 1994 and continuing as an independent producer.

Early assignments for Tydeman included the usual run of Afternoon Theatre productions and even the daily serial The Dales. Under incoming head of drama Martin Esslin (replacing Val Gielgud) he worked with upcoming writers such as Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. He directed Orton's The Ruffian on the Stair for the Third Programme in 1964 (available here). Tydeman was shown the script for Orton's stage play Entertaining Mr Sloane and passed it on to agent Peggy Ramsey and it soon became a West End hit. Tydeman said: "I would always encourage them to write for the theatre-rather than TV, which seemed to do them less good on the whole".

For Stoppard he directed the short play M is for Moon Among Other Things (a 1990 remake is here) and If You're Glad I'll Be Frank.  Later there was Where Are They Now?, Artist Descending a Staircase, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Dog It Was That Died, the award-winning In the Native State and The Invention of Love.  In the Native State was repeated earlier this year with an introduction by Tom Stoppard. The cast includes Felicity Kendall (who'd first worked with Stoppard in 1981 in On the Razzle and whose casting for this radio play bagged a rare Radio 3-related Radio Times cover), Saeed Jaffrey, and, in her final role, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. The piece is set in India in 1930 and London in 1990.         

Tydeman was also closely associated with the works of Rhys Adrian, producing 27 of his plays including Passing Through, Buffet starring Richard Briers and Outpatient (available here).

In 1981 Tydeman was sent a script by a new writer called Sue Townsend about a character called Nigel Mole. The script was accepted and The Diary of Nigel Mole, Aged 13¾ was broadcast in January 1982. This directly led to a book commission, but with the diarist renamed Adrian Mole, and several volumes and subsequent radio adaptations followed with Tydeman himself making cameo appearances in the stories.

'Tydey', as he was known to colleagues, died earlier this year. Over the summer BBC Radio 4 Extra have been digging deep into the archive and have found two series that he directed that haven't been repeated in decades.  Just concluded is the 1970 Radio 2 thriller series The Joke About Hilary Spite. Written by Christopher Bidmead, later a script editor on Doctor Who, it tells the story of a young woman, a mesmerising performance from Angela Pleasance, who gets embroiled in the world of the secret service, computer hacking and double-cross. The cast includes Dinsdale Landen and three Tydeman cast regulars Andrew Sachs (this time playing an Italian coffee shop owner), Nigel Anthony and Rolf Lefebvre.     

Coming up in mid-August is a 1966 sci-fi story by Victor Pemberton called The Slide involving the threat of a sinister mudslide on the New Town of Redlow. Pemberton had originally written it as a Doctor Who story but it was rejected; in time he'd would write for the TV show and become a script editor. David Spenser is in the cast as well as Maurice Denham, a very early role for  Miriam Margolyes and Roger Delgado (again providing another Doctor Who link as he played The Master in the 1970s). The series was released by BBC Audio in 2007 but this is it's first radio repeat. 

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