Not so much comedy, as time travel | Stephen Rhys Gage on the delights of the Seventies sitcom movie

Not so much comedy, as time travel

Stephen Rhys Gage on the delights of the Seventies sitcom movie

Britain in the seventies was a gruesome looking place. Even through the lens of rose-tinted irony it’s hard to tell how the human race managed to survive when the average male judged his attractiveness by the length of his sideburns, the success of his comb-over, and the width of his brown nylon flares.

This then was the time of the innuendo, the ‘dolly bird’, and ‘the dirty old man’. It was a time when cinemas across Britain reverberated to the laughter of audiences enthralled by cheap comedies derived directly from television sitcoms. Although much derided now, at the time they were a phenomenon. The 1971 film, On The Buses (a prime example of the genre) was actually Britain’s top grossing film of that year, beating Diamonds Are Forever into second place. Although not derived from a TV show, the similarly crass Confessions Of A Taxi Driver, made more money on its release than Martin Scorsese’s less confessional, Taxi Driver. Britain knew what it liked, and liked what it got.

There had been earlier examples of TV series making the leap to cinema (The Army Game and The Larkins being just two examples), however the trend really kicked off in the late Sixties with movie versions of hit series such as ‘Til Death Us Do Part, and continued into the Seventies with The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, On The Buses, Love Thy Neighbour and Bless This House – among many others.

This was a boom time when small-scale comedies and dramas benefitted from the Eady Levy, a tariff which ploughed a fixed percentage of all box office takings directly back into production, helping to keep the British film industry alive. Studios such as Hammer, British Lion and Cinema Arts International, made tidy profits from small-scale movies made specifically for British audiences.

Because of the reliance on the popular sitcom, most of the plots would be set in or around the streets and houses of suburban cities, helping to keep productions easy to film and very cheap to make. With little consideration given to lighting, quick-cut editing, or anything other than generic camera angles, the streets of Seventies suburbia were shot without flair, giving them a naturally, grimy glory. They show the streets and houses of Britain as they really were; a culturally relevant snapshot of a world that disappeared in a blaze of modernisation.

From this distance in time, it’s hard to appreciate the climate and atmosphere in which these films were made. Most of the British Isles were struggling through a decade of strikes, blackouts and social unrest, still trying to shrug off the economic and social impacts of the Second World War.

Obviously, recent revelations about the conduct of some of the biggest players in Seventies entertainment will have an impact on how we view these films, we may squirm at their inherent racism, sexism and homophobia, but they have much more to offer us than toe-curling double entendres, and archaic social attitudes. They show us a world that no longer exists.

For all of their ludicrous storylines and pitiful production values the majority of these films showed the streets of Britain as they really were. The London suburbs of On The Buses and Bless This House, the youth clubs and classrooms of Please Sir, even the junk filled yard in Steptoe And Son (these days, the idea that a pair of rag and bone men would be able to afford such a property in Shepherds Bush is quite laughable in itself), all show us the detail of a time that was bulldozed and re-designed long ago.

Most of the interiors of these films were shot in studios, but the exteriors came from such exotic places as Maida Vale, Borehamwood and Elstree. In fact, the house of Stan Butler in On The Buses actually backed on to the car park at Elstree Studios, allowing some of the power to the cameras to be brought in by extension cable over the garden wall.

Another On The Buses feature, Holiday On The Buses was shot further afield at Pontins, Prestatyn, and shows the kind of holiday chalet that no longer exists on these shores. The well documented advent of cheaper foreign holidays and the aspirations of the Eighties consumer forced the camps to upgrade. Out went the communal toilet blocks, ice-cold outdoor pools and the legendary Knobbly Knees competition and in came en suites, luxury bathing areas, and entertainment extravaganzas (albeit with long past their sell-by-date C-list celebrities playing to a pretty much captive audience).

Perhaps it is best that the grim architecture and repellant attitudes of the Seventies are left in the past, but as technology pushes our society to advance faster than at any other time in human history, the vision of Britain that these films leave behind becomes more important with every passing year. London roads empty of cars, red telephone boxes, people smoking in pubs, offices and on buses, bri-nylon dresses, Brylcreemed combovers, advertising hoardings for long-disappeared brands (Watneys’ Red Barrel anyone?), all of these images are enough to make these productions culturally relevant in a way far removed from how they are usually perceived.

So the next time you stumble across a British stcom movie (usually nestling somewhere on the hinterlands of ITV3), spare your derision. If you can’t abide the comedy then enjoy the scenery. In the words of the immortal Sidney James, just lie back, and think of England.

Published: 25 Jun 2013

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