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70s Sitcom Dads: Bless This House and Father Dear Father on Blu-ray

  The sitcom dad is a staple that is not as prevalent as he once was, there was a time when he would be played by a middle-aged comic actor as the star of the show, but these days he is more relegated to the supporting role. Similarly, while the likes of Friday Night Dinner carried the flag for them in the new millennium, the tradition of the character was allowed to slip as the focus went to younger folks, and we were no longer expected to sympathise with the father of the house as a matter of course. But back in the nineteen-seventies, in the first half of that decade, there were two ITV sitcoms that contained quintessential examples of the form.

They were Sid James, playing, naturally, Sid, in Bless This House, and Patrick Cargill in Father Dear Father, at somewhat opposite ends of the class scale but nonetheless making up a full spectrum of the style between them. As the British film industry floundered at that point, television was looked upon as a chance to bolster the takings by creating big screen versions of small screen hits, and those two sitcoms were no exception. Bless This House was filmed in 1972, between its second and third series, for a plotline that largely was ignored by its parent show, and recast some of the regulars, though had the advantage of Sid tangling with another sitcom dad.

Terry Scott, for it was he, moved in next door to Sid and his wife Diana Coupland, with June Whitfield as his spouse. Those two would soon be starring in their own sitcom, Happily Ever After, for the BBC, which would develop into the near-identical, if far more eighties, sitcom plainly named Terry and June, complete with Terry's troubles in the opening credits with a tray of drinks and a sun lounger. By this time poor old Sid was long gone, but thanks to repeats on television of the Carry On movies he starred in, it was as if he had never been out of the British pop culture conversation for too great a time, and his distinctive laugh was sampled on a Number 1 hit in the nineties.

That was courtesy of The Shamen performing Ebeneezer Goode, but Sid evidently was very fond of Bless This House and recorded his own spin-off record of it titled Our House (not the Madness "middle of our street" hit) that actually stemmed from the stage show Carry On London but was rather apt in its lyrics to his popular TV role. The film version begins with a positively enormous cast list, and was produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas, so there was another Carry On connection - some call the project an unofficial Carry On, but that's stretching it somewhat, as the innuendo and seaside postcard humour was not really what was on offer here, jokes-wise.

It certainly entertained a sitcom plot, as Sid's son Robin Askwith falls for Terry's daughter Carol Hawkins (also both known for sitcom work) but have to keep the affair secret as their dads don't get on. There was more mess to be seen in the film, as Sid gets into a food fight at the local caff, they try the papering the parlour routine they used to do on Crackerjack every other week, and the rhubarb brandy Sid and other neighbour Peter Butterworth are cultivating becomes a fire hazard that threatens to disrupt the inevitable wedding. All this and a Morris Minor painted in psychedelic swirls, you could not get much more 1972 than the Bless This House movie, nor would you want to.

If there's one element Bless This House and Father Dear Father had in common, behind the scenes at least, it was William G. Stewart. Latterly well-known as a TV quiz show host on Fifteen to One, he spent most of his career producing and directing light entertainment, including the series of those two sitcoms, amounting to over a hundred episodes combined. Not only that, but when it came to adapting the Father Dear Father movie, he was at the helm of that too, deciding he was the man for the job when the Multivista technique was implemented to shoot it, this being a process similar to the three camera TV sitcom approach, all the better to capture the spirit of the source.

It also, perhaps coincidentally, rendered it closer to a play, for its star, Patrick Cargill, was renowned up and down the land as a farceur of legendary proficiency, and most of that talent was displayed on the theatrical stage. He played Patrick Glover, divorced dad to two girls played by Natasha Pyne and Ann Holloway as younger than the ages of the actresses performing them, but mature enough to worry him about their potential for jumping into the then-current sexual revolution. He frets they may be growing up too fast, but he may be right as the younger seventeen-year-old wants to get married to her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend, played by seventies sitcom icon Richard O'Sullivan.

He made his name in Man About the House (also filmed) and in the eighties became a sitcom dad himself in Me and My Girl (not the stage musical), but here was a ridiculously clumsy stooge for the all-conquering Cargill. In a busy plot, his ex (Ursula Howells) is splitting up with her new husband, and Patrick is considering marriage to his publisher (Jill Melford) to provide his daughters with a mother (what's wrong with the one they have?), plus Pyne is moving out of the family home, much to his heartbreak and so that Cargill could get into one of his patented mistaken circumstances and identity routines, though here it's because he believes she has now married Clifton Jones.

That Jones was a black actor (best known for Space: 1999) leads to gags that wouldn't fly now, but were actually fairly right-on back then. Better is the routine with cleaning lady Beryl Reid, who believes Patrick wishes to marry her, it's a pleasure to see these two old pros sparring verbally with humour. Where Bless This House adheres to the comedy trope that if you're a man working on a car engine, when a woman talks to you, you must bump your head on the bonnet, Father Dear Father misses that trick not once but three times, instead opting for a St Bernard called H.G. Wells drinking a glass of beer, women's underwear with the days of the week on them and milkman abuse. But it was a valuable record of Cargill's flair, getting laughs out of middling material through sheer ability: a master at work. He and Sid were miles apart in style, but equally effective when it came to delivering the jokes.

[Network release Bless This House and Father Dear Father on Blu-ray with trailers, image galleries, a Multivista featurette on the latter, and subtitles. You can also get the original sitcoms in two DVD box sets from Network.

Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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