|Jack Rosenthal is one of the great writers in television, with an ability to observe slice of life situations with humour and sympathy, and his forays in small screen comedy range from the satirical to the sitcom. One of his most successful sitcoms, and the one that really put him on the map, was a two-series gem called The Lovers, starting in 1970, where the joke was that the couple it depicted were anything but. Perhaps recognising that a sitcom showing its characters being sexually successful in the post-hippy era would basically be On the Buses, he opted for something gentler and character based.
Rosenthal already had enjoyed a hit with his working class sitcom The Dustbinmen, but if anything, The Lovers lingered longer in the collective memory, since although not everyone watching would admit it, there was much to relate to here with the main characters Geoffrey Scrimgeor and Beryl Battersby. It was no coincidence that the writer had cut his teeth on Coronation Street scripts, and that grasp of Northern English milieu was very much in evidence here, but what really succeeded was the casting: it made stars of Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox and they fully inhabited their roles with a genuine understanding.
The premise was that Geoffrey and Beryl did indeed love each other, and we could see they were right for one another, but their hang-ups kept getting in the way of a happy relationship. Beryl refers to sex as "Percy Filth" and that's about her level of attitude towards the subject, she is immature in that respect but worldly wise enough to know what men are after, and she won't be a pushover for any of them, not even the man she has affection for. The hapless Geoffrey meanwhile sees sex everywhere in the permissive society of the early seventies, merely serving to underline the fact he personally isn't getting any.
That was the big joke, that despite what the media were telling Britain, its citizens were a lot more repressed than they would like to believe, and plenty of them were exactly as repressed as they would like to believe, thank you very much. This was so well conveyed, and indeed sustained, since all Rosenthal needed to do was to script a sex scene that would have been the story kaput, that The Lovers was a real talking point across the generations, for the title characters' parents were shown too, and as baffled by the new freedoms as their offspring were. But another aspect of the decade was about to affect them all.
Which was that every hit sitcom (well, a lot of them anyway) would be awarded its own silver screen spin-off, though The Lovers! (note the exclamation mark) was rare in being the kind of film you could imagine its protagonists actually going to see, a distinguishing feature of many of these televisual entertainments. It had been two years since the series had ended, but Wilcox and Beckinsale were sufficiently youthful to mean the passage of time didn't really matter, though 1973 was the year Wilcox hit the big time with another classic ITV sitcom, Man About the House, again playing a character confronted by the new mores, but not so unsteady in her reaction to them.
Beckinsale was about to have a very good 1974, as he started Rising Damp on ITV and Porridge on the BBC, both considered two of the greatest British sitcoms of the seventies, a golden era of the form. But for The Lovers!, he returned to his former role, and as with Wilcox it was as if he had never been away, despite some upgrades Rosenthal had added to his humour - or downgrades, you might be tempted to observe. As was the case with many a sitcom movie, the jokes were able to strive for a tone you could not get away with on television at a family friendly hour, which meant, crudely, exactly the sort of thing Beryl would have aptly described as Percy Filth was frequently popping up in them.
The plot was episodic, as reflecting the source, so their on/off relationship that was able to luxuriate in thirteen instalments back in 1970 and 71 was somewhat compressed into ninety minutes, though the sense of place that the Manchester location shooting afforded director Herbert Wise was a real boon to the mood, which alternated between pragmatic and ridiculous. Many shots of the city graced the film, even more than in the television version, one of the benefits of a larger budget. But at the heart of it were Geoffrey (renamed Scrimshaw) and Beryl, the former trying to keep up with the pace of life now everything is supposed to be fab and groovy, and the latter digging her heels in as her hormones tell her she should be seizing the day. The results are one of the better sitcom movies, you're still probably best to watch the TV incarnation, but these were excellent characters worth returning to one last time. You can imagine it would have been good to catch up with them in a few decades' time, but sadly, with Beckinsale's premature death, it was not to be.
[Network release The Lovers! on Blu-ray with two interviews, trailers and an image galllery as extras. Click here to buy from the Network website.]