Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

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It wasn't just Zammo...

“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent

Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.

It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.

One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.

I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.

One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.

The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.

Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.

It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.

It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.

However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.

One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.

He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.

Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.

Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.

At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…


Memoirs of an ageing schoolboy

About 4 years ago I started work on a comic memoir of my schooldays, mostly for my own amusement. I’ve recently returned to it and have decided to publish a short extract of it below to gauge the general reaction. Comments and criticisms (just don’t be too harsh!) would be welcome. If you went to a boys school in the 1980s and 1990s (especially if you’re from Omagh or the surrounding area) you’ll probably be able to relate to it fairly well.

Living in Interesting Times
By the dawn of the 1990s, the ridiculous ’80s schoolboy fashion of wearing black shoes (often slip-ons) and white socks was gone. Major sportswear labels like Nike and Adidas were still very much in vogue then as they are now. But little did we know we were unintentionally contributing to global capitalism and the exploitation of young children in Bangladeshi sweatshops getting paid 50p a day to make our cool t-shirts for the western world – even though we still wear the designer labels now. As a backlash against the ridiculous 1970s fashions of outrageously vomit-inducing flowery-patterned wide kipper ties and flared trousers the schoolboy fashions of the mid-80s were wafer thin ties and almost skintight trousers. The anorexic effect of the neck attire was achieved by tying one’s tie using the thin end as the longer part and stuffing the thicker end into one’s shirt. Looking back in hindsight it probably looked rather silly, but the folly of youth knows no bounds.

Gaining entry to a certificate 18 film while you were still only 17¾ was seen as something of a coup, but getting into licensed premises at this age was even more so. A summer’s afternoon off following an exam was happily passed in one of the town’s watering holes after you’d taken your school tie off in a pathetic attempt to disguise the fact that you were underage and the barman serving you was breaking the law. Before that the only option had been to go to the local park or the river bank with a bottle of cider shared between 10. The tallest boy in the group was assigned to go into the off-licence, having not shaved for a few days and put on a deep voice when ordering the offending liquor.

We were living in exciting times. Winds of change were blowing across Europe. And the German heavy metal band Scorpions (think mullet haircuts and handlebar moustaches) wrote a song about it. When I visited Prague for the first time about a dozen years later I couldn’t get the bloody song out of my head. I’d been in Vienna just a few days earlier and a certain Ultravox song had been going through my head almost incessantly.
The Berlin Wall had fallen and the old iron curtain was finally being pulled open. Ironically while borders across most of Europe were disappearing, new ones were about to spring up in what was then still Yugoslavia.
Nelson Mandela had recently become a free man and the cracks in apartheid were beginning to show. A few years later we would even be able to buy South African oranges in the supermarket without feeling guilty about it.

The Metal Years
Heavy metal, for years a rather marginal genre was now becoming mainstream. Bands like Guns & Roses, Def Leppard, Metallica and Poison were storming the charts.
Other successful acts of the day at the opposite end of the musical spectrum included Bros, Brother Beyond and New Kids On The Block (currently residing in the proverbial “Where-Are-They-Now?” File – otherwise known as the dole office), but no pupil at a boys’ school would ever have admitted to liking them.
I didn’t have the typical short-on-top-long-at-the-back haircut known as the mullet or go around wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off or a studded leather codpiece or any of that. I merely observed from a safe distance. Tattered copies of rock magazines like Metal Hammer and Kerraannggg would circulate around the classrooms smuggled inside copies of Macbeth or GCSE Biology. Sometimes the centrefold pages would feature scantily clad or topless young women invariably with their arms around the popular artists of the industry. These were usually heavily tattooed young men with bleached blonde shoulder length permed hair in sleeveless tops and ripped jeans (also bleached – for some strange reason discoloured jeans with holes in them were highly fashionable back then) clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels and exhaling cigarette smoke. With the type of stuff you can download nowadays at the simple click of a mouse, all this seems rather tame by today’s standards. But for a testosterone-fuelled 16-year old in the pre-internet era when real porn was hard to come by, especially in a smallish provincial town in a very socially conservative society where newsagents generally didn’t sell top shelf material – or if they did it tended to be kept under the counter (allegedly). Although more racy material did occasionally circulate around the classrooms. One particular individual who shall remain strictly nameless had a bit of a reputation as a purveyor and would bring his “wares” into school for his mates to gawp at wide-eyed and open-mouthed with their tongues almost touching the floor. This was until (or so the story goes) the incriminating publications were found by his mother under his bed while she was cleaning his room. Perhaps an all too familiar story for ageing schoolboys of a certain generation. As a result of this “unfortunate” discovery he was apparently put under virtual house arrest for the next 6 years until his 21st birthday and banned from going out in the evenings. Although the details of this story may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.
In the spirit of the times a plethora of teenage heavy metal bands with names like Psychosis, Savages and Sanatorium suddenly sprang up in the town. But there was no danger of them upstaging the town’s best known musician, an alcoholic busker known as Arty G. Arty G with his unmistakeable afro hair and bulging eyes had a regular patch on the high street where he would play the guitar, usually with a few strings missing, and sing badly in a slurred voice, a bottle of extra strong cider and a small dog always by his side. Although he cut something of a pathetic figure he was generally liked by the townsfolk as a local institution. Various urban myths about his colourful past abounded – that he had once been a successful musician and had toured alongside the likes of the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in his youth. After Arty passed away in 2007 he received apparently one of the biggest funerals the town had ever seen.
In a sad pathetic attempt to get in with the metal crowd I even bought a ticket for the Anthrax gig in the rather incongruous setting of Omagh GAA club. Even now the idea of an internationally famous rock act like Anthrax playing in a place like Omagh – and at the local GAA club of all places – seems nothing short of surreal.
When I arrived at the venue I decided I didn’t really want to go, so decided to cut my losses and sell the ticket for £11 – £3 more than its face value. It was my first and to date only experience of ticket touting. I suppose to a 15 year old in those days £3.00 would have been considered a not unreasonable sum – it would have bought you half a cassette tape album or two Viz comics.
Apparently Anthrax complained about being spat on by the audience and vowed never to play in Ireland again. At the time this practice known as “gobbing” I believe was a common occurrence at heavy metal gigs at the time – but have no idea why. It seems that Anthrax’s loss was Ireland’s gain.

The Scarlet Beehive – A Return to the 1980s?

Plus ça change plus c'est la meme chose

Another election over.  It was the result I had predicted (see previous blog post “Never a frown with Gordon Brown), although not the one I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, as the Ant and Dec of politics begin their historic coalition government we can rest assured that interesting times lie ahead.

As regular readers of this blog (both of them in fact) will know I tend to find myself stuck in a time warp from the 1980s recalling the heady days of my youth.  Back then the Conservative Party led by a certain M. Thatcher (but albeit without the help of the Lib Dems) was in power.  Thatcher’s iron-fisted rule led to a certain discontentment among a section of society resulting in a flurry of creative activity within the fields of art, literature, comedy, cinema and music.  With retro-nostalgia back in vogue one wonders if we’re in for something of an artistic renaissance.

Thanks to modern technology (Youtube take a bow) I’m able to recreate the memories of my youth.

Thanks to the said site I was able to find two songs from late 1980s which I hadn’t heard for over 20 years.

One is I walk the earth – the official anthem of the Rambler Association (not really, but it would be a good idea) by the “Anglo-American college rock/alternative band” (Wikipedia’s description, not mine) Voice of the Beehive, who had a string of hits at this time, but son faded back into obscurity.  Which is a shame as they did make some decent tunes.

The other song is a one hit wonder (and a rather good one at that), Scarlet Fantastic’s No Memory – the official anthem of the Amnesiacs Association (very bad taste I know).  No doubt complaints will flood in – that is if anyone actually reads this blog!  Big hair and cleavage were the order of the day in this video.

It’s funny how listening to a certain pierce of music can trigger off memories in the subconscious. 

 Think inner city riots, anti-apartheid demonstrations, boycotting South African fruit in the supermarkets, skeletal bearded men wrapped in blankets in filthy shit-smeared prison cells, running battles between police and striking miners, Russian tanks rolling over Afghanistan, Americans in Grenada, warfare amidst the penguins and sheep on wind-swept South Atlantic islands, loud-mouthed Dubliners ranting about famine in Ethiopia, the Chernobyl disaster, statues of communist dictators being toppled, BMX bikes, footballers in tight shorts with bubble perms and moustaches, Joan Collins in shoulder pads, Rubiks cubes, grotesque rubber puppets imitating the politicians and celebrities of the day…I could go on all day.

The Doctor Who does this woman’s work

 1981_farewell-tomThanks to “SillySteve2006” for coming up with the ingenious idea of posting this rather moving clip on Youtube.  It’s the last moments of Tom Baker as Doctor Who accompanied by the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work“.   

Picture the scene – it’s 1981 and the tall curly haired goggle-eyed, toothy-grinned man, who a generation of children has come to know as the hero of Saturday evening TV has just plunged to his imminent death from a radio telescope in the process of saving the universe yet again. 

And now he’s about to morph into that vet from “All Creatures Great & Small”. 

OK, so at the end of the day in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal.  All that’s happened is that the lead actor in a children’s TV show is being replaced by another actor.  But when seen in conjunction with the song, which is poignant and moving enough in its own right, it stirs certain emotions in the listener/viewer.  We get the apocalyptic sense that this is truly the end of an era.  The song is actually about pregnancy and childbirth and the traumas and emotional pain involved, a theme which fits in nicely with the regeneration of a dying Time Lord and the beginning of a new life.   The Doctor’s battered body lies prostrate on the ground as he sees flashbacks of old friends calling out his name while Kate mournfully wails about all the things she should have said but didn’t say and urges him not to die, citing “I know you have a lot of strength left, I know you have a little life left in you” – brilliant:

No doubt something similar will occur when David Tennant, probably the most popular Tardis pilot since Tom Baker morphs into the controversially chosen Matt Smith.  But it just won’t be the same.

But this blog posting isn’t really about Dr Who or Kate Bush, but about how childhood memories, certain powerful and evocative pieces of music or film can trigger off strong emotions in the human mind.  The real video for the song, featuring Kate herself alongside Tim “Percy/Captain Darling from Blackadder” McInnerney can be viewed here.   I would defy anyone to play  it without being moved in some way.

But then maybe it just affects 36-year old batchelors with too much time on their hands.  “Batchelor?” I hear you cry in amazement.  Well, I write a blog and I like Dr Who.  Go figure as the Americans would say.

Will the Real Kate Bush please stand up?


I’ve referred to the early 1980s BBC comedy sketch show Not the 9 o’clock News on this site before (cf “Nice Video Shame About the Song” and the Two Ninnies “We like birds” song).    Here’s another sketch of note.  Pamela Stephenson, now trading as the psychologist Dr Pamela “married to a rather well known hirsute Scottish comedian, who this blogger has been known to do drunken impressions of at 60th birthday parties in Belgian restaurants” Stephenson does a passable parody of Kate Bush.

The sketch is a satire of the song Them Heavy People, (which is also linked here for comparative purposes), a cautionary tale warning people about the dangers of obesity.  Although Kate’s one of those people along with Enya and the French actress Irène Jacob of Three Colours Red and La Double Vie de Véronique fame that I won’t have a bad word about, it’s probably fair to say that some of her songs do slightly border on the pretentious or too- clever-by-half category with their pseudo-intellectual references to deep philosophical concepts and spirituality.  Who else could get away with a song containing references to whirling dervishes and lines like:

“They open doorways that I thought were shut for good.
They read me Gurdjieff and Jesu”

And no I didn’t know who Gurdjieff was either before I looked him up on Wikipedia.

Although she doesn’t succeed in looking like Kate, Pamela gets the voice uncannily accurate.  And I’m sure being a good sport and of fairly broad-minded principles Kate saw the funny side.  Hopefully so will you.

The “Nice video, shame about the song” effect

Nice video - shame about the song

Nice video - shame about the song

In the early 1980s the popular BBC comedy show Not the Nine O’Clock News mocked the pretensions of the contemporary pop video phenomenon in the famous sketch “Nice Video Shame About the Song” (avaialble on Youtube if you’re interested).  It was a magnificent piece of satire, highlighting the fact that pop videos had become over-elaborate and relied heavily on the state of the art special effects of the time like Quantel and Paintbox, as if in an attempt to make up for the crapness of the song.  Bands like the Human League, Duran Duran and Visage were particularly guilty of this.

I was reminded of this recently when on a Ryanair flight which arrived at its destination ahead of schedule.  To celebrate this momentous event a trumpet fanfare was played and an American voice announced over the tannoy how great Ryanair was. I’ve been a regular flyer with Ryanair for the best part of a decade now. To be fair, I’ve only had two bad experiences with them, one of which was mostly my own fault for being late. So, in principle I’ve got no problem in flying with Ryanair, but I can’t say I care much for the airline’s chief executive, the publicity-seeking, money-grabbing Michael O’Leary as I’ve made clear in a previous post.

Essentially what I’m getting at here is the fact that it is quite possible to admire great works of art, literature and music without liking their creator.

U2 are without doubt a fine bunch of musicians, but their lead singer is equally without doubt a egomaniacal, sanctimonious, self-righteous irritating little tosser – as I’ve made clear in a previous piece.  Another loud-mouthed Dubliner, not quite as nauseating, but almost as sanctimonious was a fine musician and songwriter in his day. I don’t like Mondays, Rat Trap and Banana Republic are among the greatest songs of the 1970s, but the man who wrote them is an arrogant tosser.

Also, take Andrew Lloyd-Webber for instance.  Cats, Evita and Phantom of the Opera are all outstanding works of musical theatre, even though their creator is an obnoxious trout-faced, medieval-haired twat.

An obnoxious trout-faced medieval-haired twat

An obnoxious trout-faced medieval-haired twat

Blackadder is in my view one of the greatest comedy shows ever – but I don’t care much for its co-writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis and their smug, self-righteous “oh look how great we are” demeanours.

So when you bring Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd-Webber together (a match made in Hell if ever there was one) as was the case for The Beautiful Game, a musical about a Belfast youth soccer club amidst the backdrop of the violence which enguled the city in the early days of the troubles, the result is an abomination.  Two rich middle class prats from the English Home Counties lecturing people on how bad it all was in Belfast back then.  It’s almost as bad as mega-rich rock musicians from Dublin lecturing the world on how bad things are in Africa.  If they really feel that strongly about it they should go and live in Africa.

At this point I will grudgingly admit that I was a teenage U2 fan during my younger and more foolish days.  Then I gradually saw the error of my ways.

Nice songs,  shame about the singer, etc.




On Extinct Tropical-themed confectionery products

It was while driving to work one morning last week when it occurred to me for some bizarre inexplicable reason that the canned fizzy drink Lilt was no longer on the market.   Or at least not in cans anyway.  If I remember correctly it was a mixture of pineapple, grapefruit and various other tropical fruit flavours, topped up wiht citirc acid, tartrazine and assorted crap that would now probably be banned by the EU. The TV ad featured shots of an idyllic tropical island with thejingle sung in a strong Caribbean accent “Lilt – with a totally tropical tee-yast”.

Around about the same time (ie early ‘80s) I recall there was a coconut and cherry flavoured chocolate bar called Cabana, which disappeared without a trace soon afterwards. Then not so long after this came out a disgusting bright red drink purporting to be a mixture of various tropical fruit juices called Um Bongo. The song featured in the TV ad (sung – I believe, but can’t be 100% sure – by the comedian Lenny Henry) was along the lines of an African tribal chant accompanied by a jungle drum beat with the chorus line “Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo”. It’s unlikely that this sort of thing would be broadcast nowadays in the age of rampant political correctness. But it’s probably purely coincidental that roughly around the same time the Tory MP Alan Clarke called for black immigrants to be sent back to BongoBongoland.

It’s not so much the politically incorrect nature of the ad, nor its stereotyping, but more the gross factual inaccuracy that bothers me. I’m sure if you were to ask Fergal Keane or Orla Guerin fresh from a reporting assignment in the corrupt, war-ravaged, mineral-rich central African state (that’s assuming the song refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than Congo-Brazzaville, although the former was at the time still known as Zaire (but before that the Belgian Congo at the time when waffle-eating Sprouts had an empire), so it’s debatable) if they saw anyone sipping Um Bongo out of a straw from a garishly-coloured cardboard carton, I’m sure the answer would be an emphatic “no”.

A cursory glance at Wikipedia proves my point:

It is particularly famous for its long running (sung) slogan of “They Drink It In The Congo“, used with the accompanying animated television advert since the 1980s. However, Um Bongo is not marketed in either the Republic of the Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And just to be clear I don’t miss Lilt, Um Bongo, Cabana or any other e-number, artificial-flavouring-infested tropical-themed confectionery product of the 1980s (nor for that matter do I miss that particular decade), but I do toss and turn in bed at night wondering whatever became of them. I assume they went the way of the yuppy, the spangly flecked suit, black slip-ons and white socks, the bubble perm and matching moustache as sported by stock stage Liverpudlians in period comedy sketches, the wafer thin leather tie, the skintight pair of bleached jeans and the mullet haircut. And good riddance to them all.

Nostalgia’s just not what it used to be.

“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!


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.


"Language, Timothy!"