“Language Timothy!” (The catchphrase of a generation)

In the late summer of 1993 I found myself on an Air India plane from New York after 10 weeks of working as a kitchen assistant at a summer camp in the humid heat of the Great Lakes of Michigan, having just completed the first year of a law & French degree at Queen’s University, Belfast a few months earlier.  Presumably the plane’s final destination was somewhere like Mumbai or Calcutta, but I was only going as far as Heathrow.  However I did get to experience some of the in-flight entertainment.  Included in the package was an old episode of the much-maligned 1980s BBC situation comedy Sorry! , starring Ronnie Corbett, the less talented half of the two Ronnies as a socially inept 40-something librarian still living with his parents, and somehow unable to flee the nest.

Now that’s the introduction out of the way, I’m pleased to welcome back the Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Phil Larkin (no relation the dead poet and librarian of the same name as he will be at great pains to point out), who after a long absence from this site pays tribute to Sorry!

LANGUAGE TIMOTHY!!: SORRY

Once again I find myself writing for the Dreaming Arm about comedy, and still feel like a fish out of water, or a dog trying walk on its hind legs, but it makes a change from political commentary!  I would like to write this article in praise of a now largely forgotten piece of British comedy celebrating middle-aged mother’s boys everywhere, Sorry!  Perhaps the term “forgotten” a misnomer, since the catchphrase “Language, Timothy!” will no doubt ring many bells for those of us over 30.  The series is now being repeated on UKTV Gold, and for me (despite the valid criticisms which can be made of the show) it still has a very endearing quality, with a strong message of hope buried within it.

The show itself concerns the life of Timothy Lumsden (Tim) a 40 year old senior librarian, played in a brilliantly zany manner by Ronnie Corbett. (CW and I have lampooned the two Ronnies, in the past by putting the “Two Ninnies” sketch (the Not the Nine O’Clock News parody) on the blog about a year ago, but it must be said that even if he was not the greatest creative talent, he certainly had a gift for comedy acting and delivery of witty dialogue). Timothy still lives at home with his ageing parents, in a middle-class, middle-England suburb, and despite his age, is still treated like a primary schoolboy by his overbearing and manipulative mother, Phyllis, an unsympathetic character whose central aim in life seems to be to keep her son at home and under her thumb in a state of permanent adolescence, in which she controls his every move, usually by means of bullying or emotional blackmail.  She is forever thwarting his prospective dates with girls, hectoring him to wear horribly drab clothes, and seems to dislike it if he even goes out to the pub or to his drama group.  During the various series of the show, she is largely responsible for the failure of his many attempts to escape the house. To crown all of this off, her cooking is awful and seems to be unchanged in variety since the “austerity menus” of the 1940s and early 1950s (during the war, she revealed in one episode, she was a WVS drill sergeant), and Tim is forced to eat as much of it as he cannot surreptitiously dispose of.  Under this domestic regime, Tim still acts like an adolescent by necessity, reading comics and papers by torchlight at night, and hiding smarties in his hot water bottle to conceal them from his mother.  He even must endure her cutting his bread into soldiers, like a mother would do for a toddler! Tim’s situation is not helped by his father Sidney, a deeply benign and civil soul and an ex-army officer but who is completely ineffectual, and bullied by his wife.  He and Tim sometimes form a fragile alliance against Phyllis, but more usually he succumbs to her bullying and retreats to his garage or garden.

Given this description of the central theme of the sitcom, one might very well think that the show was a depressant rather than a comedy!  But all is far from doom and gloom. In actual fact, much of the wry humour comes from the irrepressible cheeky backchat and wit which Corbett fires at his “mother” during her attempts to subdue him, to which she can never counterattack with sharp wit of her own.  She can only tell him not to be cheeky, or say “stop showing off”, while his father frequently interjects to Tim’s wit and double-entendres (which he usually misunderstands) with the one enduring catchphrase of the show: “Language Timothy!”, normally to demonstrate (however feebly) to his awful wife that he is capable of maintaining some control in his own home.  The show was largely a showcase for Corbett to demonstrate his skills as a comic actor: his small physical stature and wardrobe in the show are just perfect for the overgrown schoolboy/mummy’s boy which he plays, as is his cheeky demeanour. Despite all the setbacks which he faces in life, be it from untrustworthy work colleagues, potential girlfriends, and of course, the manipulation of his dreadful mother, he is essentially a decent fellow, who accepts his lot with cheerfulness and an unquenchable optimism which is infectious.  Although the despair of his circle of friends and married sister Muriel, Tim does manage to carve out a life for himself, and in the last series does succeed in “flying the nest” (literally, with his girlfriend in a hot-air balloon) although by that stage he is nearly 50!  Given the plot, the show could easily have lapsed into sentimentality or the depressing pathos which characterised Carla Lane’s Butterflies, but Corbett’s sympathetic portrayal of Tim prevents this.  No matter how many times Tim is knocked down by life, failure in love, and in career prospects, he gets to his feet and tries again.  Amazingly, despite the treatment he receives at the hands of his mother, he does genuinely seem to care about her and his father’s welfare, a trait which makes him all the more likeable.

There is, excepting Corbett’s character, perhaps a one-dimensional element about most of the characters in the show (his mother is so foul a person it is difficult sometimes to find her believable), which makes the humour somewhat predictable, formulaic, and sometimes corny, but to me this only serves to show up Corbett’s portrayal of Tim in sharper relief. Another criticism is that there is an almost surreal edge to the domestic situation and events in the show, probably unintentional, which makes it often slightly less than credible. I still like it, however.

Apart from the wit, the show has particular resonance for me at present.  While not wishing to labour the point, I myself have undergone life setbacks in 2008, and one thing that Sorry! has reminded me is that there is always hope in spite of what fortune throws at us, or despite our human mistakes and weakness.  Tim usually meets his misfortunes with a laugh of resignation and cheerful resilience, and I envy his character for that.  There is perhaps much to be learnt from him, at least by me anyway, about the resilience of the human spirit.

At a deeper level, it is possible that Sorry! characterises the yearning for freedom and creative independence from overweening authority that is experienced by almost all of us. This sentiment resonates in wider circles than those middle-aged bachelors who still live with their parents.  Sorry! ran throughout most of the 1980s, a decade in which many men and women found themselves, like Tim, thirsting for freedom from oppressive situations, be it within those communities suffering from the worst excesses of free market orthodoxy in the UK, or, more urgent still, among those peoples of Eastern Europe chafing under the Soviet yolk behind what was then the “Iron Curtain.”  It is easy to forget that the 1980s saw the momentous events which led to the end of the Cold War, and the freedom for those millions burning with desire express themselves openly without fear of recrimination and punishment by totalitarian governments. In a strange way, their story had parallels with that of Tim, who, like them, demonstrated that with patience, resilience, and perseverance, oppressive situations can be overcome.  Remaining with this theme, it is perhaps no accident that in Soviet-influenced Eastern European countries, dissident playwrights, film directors, and writers used the subtle device of humour to conceal criticism of authority.  It may also be significant that Ronald Reagan, the great Cold War warrior, frequently used the universal language of humour and jokes to “send up” communist orthodoxy and Soviet leaders, and thereby undermine totalitarianism.

Am I adopting too far fetched an analogy in this last paragraph and stretching credibility? Probably. Then again, maybe I’m not.  Enjoy Sorry! anyway.

PML

"Language, Timothy!"

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10 comments

  1. An interesting, thought-provoking piece as always, Phil. While Sorry will never be up there in the pantheon of sitcom classics alongside Fawlty Towers, Dad’s Army, Porridge or Father Ted, it strikes a chord with a particular generation.

    As you say, the characters do come across as one-dimensional cartoon caricatures rather than real people which stretches credibility somewhat. However, it was quite a funny show and like so many other comedies drew its humour from a depressing, seemingly hopeless situation. Think of The Office and its bleak portrayal of the drudgery of the modern workplace (accompanied by the mournful “Handbags and Gladrags” theme tune), Dad’s Army and the horrors of war, the portrayal of prison life in Porridge, the grim lot of a rag and bone man desperately trying to better himself in Steptoe and Son and the nostalgic lament of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – again as emphasised by the mournful “Oh What happened to you, whatever happened to me?” theme song.

    I never saw Sorry as an allegory of the Communist oppression in Eastern Europe, but now that you mention it, you could have a point there! Maybe it’s no accident that the show ended its run just shortly before the toppling of these regimes. So rather than Vaclav Havel, Lech Wałesa, Mikhail Gorbachev et al to thank for this, could it be all down to Timothy Lumsden?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ciaran. Yes, freedom in Eastern Europe is all down to the inspiration of Timothy Lumsden! Although a pompous claim, it is somewhat less arrogant than David Hasselhof’s statement (of “Knight Rider” fame), made on a 1980s nostalgia show one night that his dreadful pop song “I’ve been searching for freedom” was responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall!! What an ass!

    Seriously, though, what is shown on TV, as you know, can have a profound effect on how people think, and what they think. Referring back to Eastern Europe again, in the period before his unlamented demise, Nicolai Ceaucescu made the decision to screen “Dallas” on the one TV channel in Romania, with the express idea of demonstrating to his long-suffering people how corrupt capitalism, and in particular, American capitalism, is. This would thereby make them grateful for the great benefits and wonderful advances which his benign and civilized rule brought them. “Dallas” was duly screened. Having little else to entertain them in their drab existence, many Romanians tuned in to see it. I’m not entirely sure that they fully grasped the “corrupt capitalism” angle to the show, but what they did see were well fed and well dressed people, even servants, secretaries and workers, who drove cars, were able to see all types of movies, and go for a beer or a meal (or at least a burger) when they wanted to. Is it too big a stretch of the imagination to believe that at least some Romanians thought to themselves: “Hang on a minute, if our government is so bloody concerned for our welfare, why don’t we have any of these things…?” The rest, as they say, is history.

    All this talk has made me nostalgic for my pre-teenage and middle-teenage days when the great struggle of the Cold War was still unfinished, for the days of Solidarity and Havel, of Pope John Paul II, Reagan, and Gorbachev. The whole thing, in retrospect, seemed such a simple moral choice, between oppression and freedom, whereas now it appears to me that many of us in the West have given up on the idea that human rights and liberation from oppression, the free press, and freedom of expression are the birthright of all human beings, including the people of Iran. Surely it is our responsibilty to insist on this?

    Phil

  3. CW wrote: “An interesting, thought-provoking piece as always, Phil. While Sorry will never be up there in the pantheon of sitcom classics alongside Fawlty Towers, Dad’s Army, Porridge or Father Ted, it strikes a chord with a particular generation.”

    I have to say, I nevr join the herd in proclaiming sitcom classics – or any other classics, and Sorry! appealed to me rather more than any of the above “glories”. I found it sometimes darkly surreal – the episodes in which Mrs Lumsden told Timothy his father was dead, for instance, in order to keep him under her thumb, and always enjoyable. Perhaps not my favourite 1980s sitcom (that honour would have to go to “Only Fools…” or “Sorry, I’m A Stranger Here Myself” or “Dear John” – I can’t decide!), nevertheless Sorry! had nothing to be sorry for – in my humble opinon, of course!

    Were we oppressed by free market orthodoxy in the UK, Ciaran? So easy to slam the 1980s (and glorify the ’70s, of course!) but so much of what I read today leaves me highly puzzled…

    1. I do remember Sorry being a popular show from my teens. OK it never matched The Two Ronnies for the cleverness of the writing and isn’t as well remembered as sitcoms like Yes Minister from the same era, but I always found Sorry amusing and Ronnie Corbett took excellently to his role as the fortysomething who couldn’t escape from his oppressive and snobbish mother( his stature made it more convincing as well).
      Episodes I do remember is the one where he tries to escape from home and his parents chase him in a Morris Minor, one where his mother finds Tim’s final school report and berates him for his poor performance even though he left school 30 years earlier, and one where he gets his girlfriend mixed up with a female karate expert and she knocks him out in the street. While not a huge comedy great, Sorry always passed the time for me in the eighties and would watch repeats now.

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