School’s Out!

TJ Worthington looks back at Hardwicke House

First published December 2006

As part of a review of BBC2′s I Love 1987, OTT’s Ian Tomkinson mused on what the year in question had “meant” to him. In among various news events were listed Rick Astley, starting at secondary school, and Hardwicke House. While most people will have their own memories of progressing up the academic ladder, and it’s a fair bet Ricky Astley’s singles are as well remembered as any big hits of the 1980s, how many people have actually even heard of Hardwicke House, let alone remember it in such specific terms?

An anarchic sitcom leaning very heavily in the direction of “alternative” comedy, the show generated a storm of public outrage and was pulled from broadcast before the series had finished airing. There were of course a great many other sitcoms that roughly fitted this description around in the mid-1980s, and a handful even suffered the indignity of being yanked from their intended broadcast slot, before being sneaked out in the late-night schedules for the remainder of their run. However, Hardwicke House is distinguished from its peers by three major factors – it was transmitted in a primetime viewing slot on ITV; the furore around the show lasted only seven days; and most significantly, no late-night rescheduling awaited it. As such, the five unseen episodes remain that way from that day to this.

Written by Richard Hall and Simon Wright and made by Central Television, Hardwicke House was set in a run-down comprehensive school and was to some extent an attempt to marry the wild comic approach of shows like The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents … and Saturday Live with a more traditional sitcom structure. Simon Wright, who had previously worked on The Comic Strip Presents …, and producer John Stroud, whose credits include KYTV, Chelmsford 123, The Last Laugh Before TV-am, Who Dares Wins, The National Theatre of Brent Presents … and Spitting Image were well accustomed to this style of comedy. Producer Paula Burdon, on the other hand, was more normally to be found in the credits of more conventional sitcom fare, her most recent project before Hardwicke House being Central’s poorly-received Pat Phoenix vehicle Constant Hot Water.

More influential on Hardwicke House than any of these, however, was a fondly-remembered ITV children’s sitcom that Stroud had directed a couple of years earlier, Educating Marmalade. Chronicling the troubled schooldays of “The Worst Girl in the World”, the show was enormously popular with its target audience, but had also drawn much criticism for its anarchic stylings and irreverent view of authority.

Originally known by the equally innuendo-laden name of “Ratchet Lane”, Hardwicke House was set in a lawless and hopeless comprehensive school in an unspecified inner city. Headmaster RG Wickham (Roy Kinnear), who refused to ever divulge the names behind his initials to anyone, had long since given up hope of either reforming or even escaping the place, trying to ignore the chaos around him while swigging liberally and nervously from a bottle of whiskey.

Deputy Head Paul Mackintosh (Roger Sloman) had achieved his position by cunning rather than any qualification or aptitude for the job, struggling to comprehend his monthly meetings with education inspectors and preferring to spend his time enthusiastically supporting the sixth form girls’ gymnastics team and offering extra “biology lessons” to the younger boys.

French mistress Cynthia Crabbe (Pam Ferris) – a diehard radical feminist, anti-nuclear campaigner, supporter of left-wing ideals, self-appointed union rep, founder of the school Robespierre Appreciation Society and suspected lesbian who lived on a strict diet of nuts and berries – constantly abused her position in the hope of recruiting her charges to her numerous causes, instructing them in politically loaded phrases (“Ou est le Cruise?” – “Le Cruise est dans la silo a Greenham Common”) and keeping a selection of ready-made placards and banners to hand in her classroom.

Gruff, incomprehensible PE master Harry “Nutter” Savage (Tony Haygarth) had started his working life as a professional footballer with Barnsley and Darlington, before his promising career was tragically cut short by a lifetime ban from the FA. He had gone on to do much the same for Hardwicke House’s aspiring footballers, who looked forward to a possible re-admittance to the London Schools League in 1993.

The appropriately-named former bookmaker and second-hand car dealer Harry Flashman (Gavin Richards) ran the History department, in between conducting dodgy deals and finding ever more inventive ways of getting out of marking work, and shared his Deputy Head’s enthusiasm for the sixth-form girls, if not for the younger boys.

Icelandic Maths teacher Erik “Moose” Magnusson (Duncan Preston) had wound up at Hardwicke House after being picked up in the North Sea by a British gunboat crew at the height of the Cod War, and a diplomatic row erupted over attempts to return him to his home country. Eventually the hapless raw fish-guzzling academic was sent to work at the school on a free exchange, while the Iceland government actively investigated options for preventing his return.

Hardwicke House’s latest recruit, the ineffectual Geography master Peter Philpott (Nick Wilton), was simply the wrong teacher at the wrong school; newly qualified and full of enthusiasm, not to mention fond of such esoteric pursuits as origami and Morris dancing, he could only stand by – when not floored by flying footballs – and watch as roller-skating derbies were held in his classroom.

Philpott aside, the staff of Hardwicke House were much feared by their pupils, but even they paled into insignificance next to the dreaded Head of English Herbert Fowl (Granville Saxton). A strict disciplinarian who delighted in dreaming up new methods of corporal punishment, Fowl was widely believed to have twice murdered during his meteoric climb of the career ladder, with one of his previous superiors mysteriously vanishing without trace and another falling to his death while helping Mr Fowl close some windows. Also to be found lurking around the corridors were the surly caretaker Ernie (Micky O’Donoughue) and the world-weary and put-upon school secretary Agnes (Liz Fraser).

Just as important in the school hierarchy as the staff was Slasher Bates (Kevin Allen), a devious leather-jacketed tearaway who held considerable influence over pupils and masters alike. When the series begins he is in the process of assembling a new gang to replace previous cohorts Masher and Basher, who have left school to join the police force. Eventually he decides on laid-back wheeler-dealer Leroy (Mark Monero), feral Junior (Chris Pitt) and the hilariously unmenacing John (Paul Darlow). Head Boy Spotty (Paul Spurrier) was an oily creep who would happily align himself to anyone in a slightly senior position, while Head Girl Donna (Cindy Day) hardly displayed much aptitude for the honour, although the fact that she was constantly showered with fetishistic gifts by both Mackintosh and Flashman suggested that she might have succeeded on the basis of altogether different talents.

The remainder of the (largely unnamed) pupils – among them future television regulars Karen Murden, Pui Fan Lee, Simon Schatzberger, Alison Hammond, Steven Ryde and Ian Kirkby – were drawn from the Central Junior Television Workshop, of whom Nick Wilton remarks, “They were all excellent”. Established as a means of encouraging young talent to become involved with the medium, the Workshop’s most famous and well-known project was the children’s comedy sketch show Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It. With no small irony, one of the series’ regular sketch items was set in an anarchic school, Palace Hill, which went on to become an award-winning series in its own right.

Although many of them had yet to make their mark with a wider audience, Hardwicke House boasted a strong cast with equally strong comic credentials. Kinnear and Haygarth were already veterans of many sitcoms and comic dramas, Preston had recently met with considerable popularity through his regular appearances in Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, Wilton was well-known to radio audiences from a string of vaguely “alternative” sketch shows with cult followings including Son of Cliché (which would eventually spawn the television sitcom Red Dwarf, for which he had in fact recently auditioned for the role of Arnold Rimmer – while his In One Ear co-star Clive Mantle was briefly considered for the role of Moose Magnusson) and the highly-regarded In One Ear, and Allen had followed in his elder brother Keith’s footsteps with a series of impressive turns in The Comic Strip Presents …

All of the cast were brilliantly suited to their roles, and recently described by John Stroud as, “Amazing … real comedy gold”, it is the relative newcomers that particularly impress in the transmitted episodes of Hardwicke House. Pam Ferris manages to make Crabbe both an embittered overly-politicised monster and yet vaguely sympathetic. Kevin Allen plays Slasher with an expertly-judged combination of cunning, stupidity and menace. And the show is unarguably stolen by Granville Saxton, whose grotesque, physically contorted and sinisterly camp portrayal of Mr Fowl positively oozes Dickensian cruelty.

Hardwicke House was recorded during August 1986, mainly on location at St Bernadette’s Secondary Modern in Sneinton Dale, Nottingham, which had closed its doors for the summer holidays only weeks beforehand. Also used were some nearby locations and buildings, such as the gardens of neighbouring houses seen in the first episode as local residents flee in panic (including one man who opts to discard his crutches in the hope of making a quicker escape) when the school bell rings and the pupils spill out.

Scheduled for broadcast between February and April the following year, the series was completed well ahead of its transmission schedule, which throws some degree of confusion over certain decisions that were taken during the intervening months.

From the outset, Central had envisaged Hardwicke House as their own counterpart to the likes of The Young Ones and The Black Adder – something that was arguably made explicit by Peter Brewis’ raucous and anarchic theme music – and the show had always been intended for ITV’s established late-night Sunday slot for edgy comedy series. There it would have been in such suitable company as Spitting Image, Hot Metal, Hale and Pace and The New Statesman, and would have found an appreciative audience while remaining comfortably out of reach of the easily offended. However, it ended up being allocated a primetime slot at 8.30pm on Wednesdays, where it sat uneasily alongside the likes of Duty Free, Home to Roost and, perhaps most incongruously, the notoriously bland Full House. The reasons for this scheduling are mysterious to say the least – it is possible that the ITV network could have been hoping to recapture the success of Girls on Top, a recent Central offering in a very similar vein which had gone out in the same timeslot and attracted few complaints. However, it is more likely the decision on the timeslot was made before anyone had really checked the suitability of the series; certainly, the first the production team knew of it was when they saw the show listed in TV Times.

Despite the reservations of some involved, the double-length first episode of Hardwicke House was set to go out between 8 and 9pm on Tuesday 24 February 1987, with the second episode to follow the next day in what would become its regular Wednesday 8.30pm slot. Again there is some confusion over this, with some sources speculating that the network might have realised their error and were trying to get the series out of the way as quickly as possible – although this idea is refuted by some of the production team and it seems likely ITV were simply hoping to create a hit comedy with a big launch. Similarly confident of success were Central themselves, who even went as far as to plug the series pre-broadcast with an item on Central News, featuring interviews with some of the cast and a feature on St Bernadette’s.

In keeping with this Hardwicke House gained the rare distinction of a mention on the front cover of TV Times to promote its debut, although contrary to popular belief the cover photo honours went to Nick Owen, dressed in a bizarre mish-mash of sporting equipment as a plug for the new series of the game show Sporting Triangles, rather than Wickham and his staff. The fact it appeared here alongside not only the ever-grinning TV-am anchor but also, “Helen Mirren on her new sexy image”, “Richard Briers in the kitchen” and a feature on the imported police drama Hill Street Blues seems in retrospect like an early warning that Hardwicke House was being pushed towards an audience that would not appreciate it one bit.

Inside, a two-page feature introduced readers to the school and its staff, describing it as “an academic backwater that makes Charles Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall look like a Swiss finishing school”. Although it also pointed out that “instead of offering their written qualifications, staff members have been known to ask for previous convictions to be taken into consideration”, the magazine generally gave a false impression that viewers could expect nothing stronger than the sort of classroom hi-jinks associated with such comic strip characters as Winker Watson and The Bash Street Kids.

Opening with an off-screen reading of a touching poem about schooldays, more reminiscent of Goodbye Mr Chips than provocative comedy – until it is interrupted with mocking laughter over the word “manure” – the first episode, “The Visit”, begins with Mr Fowl holding one of his regular uniform checks. This was an event so feared even Slasher was moved to “borrow” a kit (leaving a half-naked boy running around the school) – although not so terrifying that Mr Philpott couldn’t cause it to degenerate into farce, somehow inadvertently sparking off a straw poll on whether Mr Fowl smells or not.

This inspection is taking place in anticipation of a visit to the school by prospective pupil Smutts van der Git (Courtney Roper-Knight, who had recently appeared with Tony Haygarth in the BBC children’s drama The December Rose), a weedy and ineffectual swot who also happened to be the son of the South African ambassador. While his parents struggle to endure a protest by Ms Crabbe and a demonstration maths lesson from Moose Magnusson before getting locked in a stock cupboard with Wickham, Smutts himself is mercilessly shunted around the school, eventually called into service as a human goalpost in a typically brutal game of football.

By the standards of the day, “The Visit” was as wild as the above description sounds, shot through with deliberately unsubtle political satire on the South African situation and a large helping of violent slapstick (including a great sight gag when Slasher, startled by Wickham, accidentally drops another pupil down a stairwell). This sort of humour was never likely to be to everyone’s tastes, and while the episode was certainly the talk of the real-life playground the next day, Martin Cropper also savaged it in a review for The Times in which he lambasted the “woeful poverty” of the script and the “frenzied mugging” of the cast, before suggesting the show would have worked better with audience laughter and a more conventional “comedy” directing style. However, some of his comments also suggested he was jaded with such high-profile launches, and was possibly writing off the series in reaction to that.

Elsewhere in his review, he raised the important point that the style of humour seen in Hardwicke House represented “a degeneration of the academic misrule of the St Trinian’s films”, and that this was “a noble tradition that needs very careful handling”.

The reaction of many other viewers to the show suggests that, at least from a scheduling perspective, it had not been handled very carefully at all. With the possible exception of Happy Families, a Ben Elton sitcom that had been broadcast by the BBC in 1985, Hardwicke House was by far the strongest comedy series that had ever been seen pre-watershed on either ITV or the BBC. It was hardly what could be classed as comfortable family viewing, and John Stroud suggests the intentional lack of a laughter track would only have further alienated the unsuspecting mainstream viewers. “The Visit” generated a high volume of complaints, with the tabloid press soon joining in the fray, and from the latter’s coverage it seems viewers were most upset by the stairwell gag, a sequence in which Smutts was hidden inside a chimney stack, and Mr Mackintosh’s “affection” towards his charges.

In retrospect it is difficult to see why these particular incidents caused the greatest upset – the offending gags were mostly only a slight step up from what could be seen in the average episode of Grange Hill, let alone some children’s comedy shows, and Mackintosh’s dubious leanings are far less graphically depicted than those of his close contemporary “Uncle Mike Stand” from Radio 4′s long-running comedy show Radio Active (which went out in an even earlier timeslot) – but it is fair to say that it was probably the relentless onslaught of the programme as a whole that made these seem all the more offensive.

The morning after transmission, with some tabloid newspapers already expressing distaste for the series, the writers and Roy Kinnear appeared on Open Air. Perhaps inevitably, daring or provocative comedy shows would regularly come in for a hammering from outraged members of the public, often dealt with in live and barely controllable debates that were also very much one-sided, not helped by the fact that many of those who would have spoken up for such programmes were generally either in work, in bed or in school. While it would often run interesting behind-the-scenes items on the targets of these outpourings of ire, Open Air was also a place where Hale and Pace could be branded “despicable” for using a sex toy as a prop in an Antiques Roadshow parody, or the cast of Red Dwarf could be admonished for their liberal use of fictitious profanities, and where the telephone lines regularly reverberated with suggestions that “as the people who make Spitting Image are clearly very talented, maybe they could use those talents to make something nice instead of this horrid programme”.

Thus it was that the newly-launched Hardwicke House became the subject of what almost verged on a shouting match, with viewers – many of whom seemed to be under the misapprehension the series was intended for children, and who proceeded to ignore any corrections on this point – rather unfairly berating the programme’s representatives for putting this filth on at a time when innocent viewers could be watching. The participants, and Kinnear in particular, seemed taken aback by the ferocity of some of the reactions, responding to repeated comparisons between the series and Grange Hill by branding it an “antidote” to the long-running drama series.

This was not a particularly hospitable atmosphere for the second episode of the series to air in, but the broadcast of “First Day of Term” went ahead on Wednesday 25 February 1987 regardless. Some regions, notably TVS, had taken note of reactions to the first episode and shunted it into a late-night slot, but most others simply went ahead with the 8.30pm showing as planned.

The episode opens with a team of security men (pioneering standup “alternative” comedians Jim Barclay and Phil Nice) attempting to deliver the stocks of stationery for the new term, and after running the gauntlet of unruly pupils they discover that while they have managed to make the delivery, they have lost their security dog, replaced by a snarling schoolboy on a leash. Numerous other parties including Slasher (who is disgusted by the thought of “everyone spoiling it all by using it to write with”) are keen to get their hands on the newly-delivered supplies, but supervision of the stationery cupboard has been entrusted to Mr Fowl and Spotty, who takes the precaution of electrifying its contents – a security method which they gleefully test on an unsuspecting new girl.

After testing the mettle of his new recruits by forcing them to eat raw liver in the toilets – Leroy has trouble keeping it down, John can barely be persuaded in the first place (“T’int even cooked!”), but Junior has to be physically restrained from wolfing down the whole lot in one go – Slasher orchestrates an elaborate scheme involving the kidnapped dog and liver-smeared trousers to put Mr Fowl out of action, only to find that Flashman has been observing the entire plot from the sidelines all along, and steps in at the last minute to pocket the stationery cupboard key.

The complaints over “The Visit” could probably have been deflected with a few well-placed statements about “challenging” humour that “is not for everyone”, but the far greater outcry over “First Day of Term” – an IBA report in July 1987 indicated more than 50 complaints had been received – could not be ignored so easily. The offending scene this time was the cupboard security test, which in all fairness was rather graphic – the girl’s charred and blackened arm seen feebly waving in the bottom of the frame, followed by a shot of Spotty carrying her under his arm in the direction of the school doctor. Nick Wilton for one was not at all surprised that the show met with such a volume of complaints, remembering that “I thought the reaction was inevitable given the scheduling; the show should have gone out after 10pm”.

ITV and Central’s response to this somewhat over-the-top outcry was to withdraw the series from transmission indefinitely, replacing it with a repeat run of the somewhat safer (though itself hardly conventional) sitcom Chance in a Million, and while announcers in some regions hinted that Hardwicke House would be back “later in the year”, it never was.

Central, who had envisaged a lengthy run, were left with no option but to cancel work on projected future installments. As the writers and the cast had all already been contracted for a second set of episodes, at the advice of Roy Kinnear who had prophetically advised signing straight away to ensure that they would still get paid even if it was pulled, this decision ended up costing the company a good deal of money; something that one person who worked on the series would later describe as “the price of not having a backbone”. For some cast members, though, the financial benefits were outweighed by the impact that it had on their careers; Nick Wilton had turned down several promising offers of work for the three months when the second set of episodes were scheduled to be recorded, and his burgeoning television career stalled slightly as a result.

It is in fact quite unusual for a television series to meet with such a total and decisive “banning”, and more controversial and less popular efforts than Hardwicke House have managed to more or less stay the course, despite vociferous campaigns to have them removed from the air. However, broadcasters were under an unusual amount of pressure at that particular point in time, and it is worth considering the fate of the series in that context.

A couple of weeks after the cancellation, Channel 4 announced they were dropping their notorious “Red Triangle”, a symbol displayed in the corner of the screen to signify the broadcast of contentious material which had attracted a fair amount of criticism despite its use to accompany politically and artistically “subversive” works as well as the expected sex and violence. Shortly after that, the BBC – who had recently felt the wrath of the establishment over the controversial historical drama The Monocled Mutineer and an episode of the documentary series Secret Society investigating the Zircon satellite project – bowed to political pressure and cancelled a proposed drama about the Profumo affair, while Channel 4 suffered a storm of political protest and tabloid rabble-rousing over their broadcast of V, a film based on Tony Harrison’s acclaimed poem about discovering football-related graffiti on his parents’ gravestone. ITV, too, would endure their own equivalent of the Secret Society saga with the broadcast of the This Week documentary “Death on the Rock”.

As a backdrop to all of this, the White Paper that would decide the future of the broadcast industry was in the offing, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been particularly vocal about her displeasure at its current excesses. Television companies were having to tread very carefully, their position threatened by a force more powerful and influential than Mary Whitehouse’s “Clean Up TV”, and in this climate it is perhaps no surprise that a troublesome sitcom should be dropped so decisively and with such haste.

Nonetheless, ITV may have had more personal reasons for taking the decision to abandon the series. From accounts given by various parties, it seems that nobody bothered to check the suitability of the series for its timeslot until it was too late, which considering that it had been completed more than four months prior to broadcast, and the scripts had been available for inspection for some time before that, suggests a major administrative blunder rather than any kind of mitigating ignorance borne out of pressures of timescale. This is said to have caused enormous embarrassment within the channel, and the risk that even greater upset might result if the true story got out would have been more than enough reason for them to permanently shelve the show in the hope the furore would simply fade away.

In addition to this, there was also the theoretical risk that if it was to go out in a more suitable timeslot and meet with some acclaim, they could come in for criticism for having bowed to the complainants and the tabloids.

However, other parties have suggested that an altogether different kind of politics may have played its part in influencing the early demise of Hardwicke House. Certainly, some MPs wasted no time in condemning the series, although in time-honoured tradition the various quotes that made it into newspapers hardly suggested any of them had actually seen it themselves, and more cynical observers might well suggest they were possibly more motivated by the series’ implicit suggestion of failings and shortcomings of the then-current education system than by any issues of taste and decency.

Even today, little is known about the contents of the five unshown episodes. “Interview Day”, which guest-starred John Fortune as a psychologist and Robert Dorning as one of the school’s governors, saw a senior position up for grabs and the staff room becoming a battleground with Moose, Crabbe and Fowl determined to scupper each other’s chances of success, while Slasher has his own ideas about who should get the post. “Prize Giving” charted the chaos that ensued when Hardwicke House opened its doors to the public for the annual Prize Day ceremony, and boasted an impressive roster of guest-stars including Bryan Pringle as a councilor, Daniel Peacock and Stephen Marcus as local hoodlums, and regular Whose Line is it Anyway? contestants Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen as a mechanic and a heckler respectively.

Another infamously introduced Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson as two highly dangerous former pupils recently released from Borstal and with a penchant for dressing as undertakers, returning to Hardwicke House with the intention of usurping Slasher and reasserting their former position as official school bullies. The episode opened with them driving a car haphazardly around the playground, and continued in their familiar violent slapstick style as they ran up against their old academic nemeses.

Several characters would have enjoyed a more prominent role in the untransmitted episodes, particularly Mr Philpott who formed an unlikely double-act with Mr Fowl after the latter uncharacteristically took him under his wing. Philpott’s lessons would also have degenerated further and further into the realms of anarchy as the series progressed, moving from failing to break up an indoor game of football (“Alright, one more goal and that’s it!”) to ending up suspended from a blackboard by his Y-fronts.

The final episode of Hardwicke House, which would have gone out on 1 April 1987, featured the staff trying to cover up the death of a vicar, struck by a falling crucifix (bearing Mr Fowl as a very unlikely Jesus, constantly shouting at Judas and threatening to bang the disciples’ heads together) during the school’s Easter service. While it’s likely the comic content was little stronger than that of the Fawlty Towers episode “The Kipper and the Corpse”, the subversive nature of the storyline would cause consternation in a late-night slot even now, and it is this fact more than any other that underlines the severe lack of judgment in ITV’s scheduling decisions.

Hardwicke House was pulled at such short notice there wasn’t even time to remove the show from the next two weeks’ editions of TV Times, not to mention a page of school dinner-themed recipes “endorsed” by Kinnear, and the third and fourth episodes “Interview Day” and “Prize Giving” were duly listed in their intended slot. The following week the listings reverted to Chance in a Million, and somewhat suspiciously there was never even a single mention of the series in the magazine’s letters page; no criticism, and not even anyone asking why a programme that had been so prominently billed had not been broadcast.

Some disgruntled viewers did, however, take the effort to contact Channel 4′s Right to Reply, which ran a feature on the controversy and cancellation, and reportedly broadcast a brief clip from one of the unseen episodes. A proposed home video release, which had reached the stage of being listed in distributors’ catalogues, was quickly dropped, although it has been plausibly reported that at least one tape found its way into a public library. Similarly abandoned was a tie-in novelisation by Hall and Wright, scheduled for release by Arrow Books, which was pulled at the last minute despite apparently being ready to go on sale. Whether or not any copies ever made it into circulation is not clear.

After this, Hardwicke House was pretty much forgotten. The incident was unsurprisingly conspicuous by its absence from the IBA Yearbook for 1987, and more surprisingly was not even mentioned in passing in Roger Wilmut’s exhaustive history of alternative comedy, Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law?, published barely 18 months later. The show was not covered during BBC2′s TV Hell night, which took a reasonably academic look at several similarly controversial archive programmes, and other than the odd lazy journalist including it in their chart of “The Worst Ever TV Shows” for no clear reason, the only high profile referencing of the programme in recent years has been, rather oddly, a casual mention in passing in part of the publicity material produced to accompany ITV’s 50th birthday celebrations.

There was, however, one further significant mention of the series in the press. Shortly after the cancellation, it was widely reported the master tapes of Hardwicke House had been erased. Although it is tempting to write this off as tabloid exaggeration, more credence is lent to the story by the fact it was first revealed in the trade magazine Broadcast, and that many of the cast and crew believed it to be true. Roy Kinnear responded furiously to the announcement at the time, and it has been suggested the absence of Hardwicke House material from the otherwise exhaustive Mayall and Edmondson DVD compilation 25 Years of Mindless Violence was due to their being under the impression nothing of the show had survived.

However, it transpires that while the upper echelons of Central’s management had discussed the possibility that the series should be erased – whether out of fear that it was genuinely unfit for human consumption and might one day resurface to cause them further headaches, or as a face-saving measure designed to placate the tabloids and repair whatever damage had been done to their reputation – no direct order to do so was ever issued. And yet, the rumour quickly spread around the building, and after receiving a tip-off the VT department, who happened to be huge fans of the show, concealed the master tapes until they were certain the coast was clear.

Also preserved at the same time was a brief outtake from the series featuring Allen, Mayall and Edmondson, which was included in the VT department’s 1987 Christmas Tape alongside similar clips from Auf Weidersehen, Pet, Girls on Top and Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It. From there, it has found its way onto numerous editions of ITV’s TV’s Naughtiest Blunders, which have never acknowledged its origins. Effectively, this has taken Hardwicke House right back to where it was so unequivocally banished from in the first place.

Some home video bootlegs of Hardwicke House are known to have escaped at the time and briefly circulated among collectors, reportedly even being advertised for sale in music press personal columns at one point. However, like the compilation of outtakes from The Young Ones that is also known to have been around at the same time, all of these tapes seem to have since mysteriously vanished. More perplexing still are convincing reports of a late-night showing of the full series in the late 1980s, possibly in the Central region only and perhaps even unlisted. This was even reported as fact in The Guinness Book of Sitcoms in 1994. No concrete evidence has emerged to support this, though, and for his part, John Stroud doubts that any such showing ever took place, pointing out that “I think I’d have heard about it!”.

Even vaguer are reports the series did air in full in some other countries including Canada and France. Again there is no concrete evidence to confirm this, although Central did offer the series for overseas sale for several years so it is certainly possible that it happened.

Elusive videotapes and possible late-night screenings aside, it has been possible for curious viewers to see an episode of Hardwicke House for several years now. “TV Heaven”, the viewing facility that forms part of the Bradford Museum of Film, Photography and Television, holds a copy of “First Day of Term” among many other rarely-seen archive comedy programmes, which is available for viewing with an accompanying fact sheet giving a broad outline of the programme’s controversial history. The TV Heaven staff did in fact try to secure a copy of one of the unbroadcast episodes, but were informed at the time Central still felt unhappy with this idea and were reluctant to comply with their wishes. It was presumably for the same reason that the series was never subsequently picked up for broadcast by Channel 4, where it would have found a far more suitable home.

From the perspective of the cast of crew, it must surely have been a blessing in disguise that the controversy over Hardwicke House came and went so quickly and totally that it could have no adverse affects on their careers. Simon Wright, John Stroud and Paula Burdon continue to appear in the credits of all manner of films and television programmes, ranging from The Freddie Starr Show to The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook. Tony Haygarth, Duncan Preston, Nick Wilton, Roger Sloman, Pam Ferris, Liz Frazer, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Kevin Allen remain hugely popular actors, while Mark Monero, Chris Pitt and Cindy Day (who also enjoyed a lengthy stint as hostess of The Price is Right) still make the occasional appearance on television, and Paul Spurrier has forged a successful career behind the camera, although Paul Darlow and Courtney Roper-Knight appear to have given up acting not long afterwards.

Others were less fortunate and the series did not provide the career break perhaps it ought to have done in different circumstances. Several members of the cast and crew have said that they felt particularly sorry for Granville Saxton when the series was pulled, as it had been generally assumed that Hardwicke House would provide his “big break” and make him into a huge television star. Saxton has spent much of his subsequent career working in films and the theatre, where he has regularly received outstanding reviews, although his performance as Mr Fowl did lead to one significant television comedy role. Remembering him from Hardwicke House, Mayall and Edmondson cast him as an underworld henchman in Mr Jolly Lives Next Door later that year.

There is, of course, one notable omission from this list. Less than a year after the cancellation of Hardwicke House, Roy Kinnear died in an on-set accident while filming in Spain. He was a fine actor, and deserved better for his final television project – a show he had truly believed in and defended at every turn.

In the issue of the BBC’s highbrow arts review magazine The Listener which hit the newsstands in the week Hardwicke House made its debut, David Housham pondered, while reviewing Filthy, Rich and Catflap, if “comedians who release a record with Cliff Richard [can] be described as ‘alternative’”. It’s fair to say that his question was answered in spectacular fashion by the controversy over Hardwicke House. While not as extreme as some of its contemporaries, it did nonetheless prove “alternative” comedy is described as such for a reason.

Whether it would provoke the same sort of reaction should it resurface today is debatable, as is evidenced by two remarkably similar series that have aired in more recent times. In the late 1990s, the BBC ran two series of Stephen Moffat’s underrated Chalk (albeit in a late night slot) without drawing much criticism, while Granada’s The Grimleys – which if anything was more graphic in its violent slapstick and explicit in its sexual humour – was not only a huge ratings success but also despite its similarly late-night timeslot found itself promoted and accepted as some sort of “family favourite”.

While it’s unlikely ITV1 in its current incarnation will ever see fit to resume showing Hardwicke House, there are other ways in which it could finally reach an appreciative audience.

As Central was subsumed by Carlton as long ago as 1999, their nervousness over the series should hopefully no longer be an issue. There is every chance the series could be shown on one of ITV’s repeat channels or released in full on DVD. Indeed, some of the cast and crew are actively keen on this idea – and it could even prove to be a strong seller if the lure of unseen Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson material is given sufficient promotion. A great many fans of the duo, and of comedy in general, would welcome the chance to see it, as would those who missed it at the time and have since always wondered what all the fuss was about. Then of course there are those who were lucky enough to catch it at the time, and have spent two decades wondering why Moose Magnusson was looking so despondent in the photo TV Times used to illustrate the abandoned broadcast of “Interview Day”.

With the 20th anniversary of the show that was not so much a six-week wonder as a two-day one just around the corner, it’s time the series that is still described as “a very funny show to work on” by its prolific director was finally allowed out of detention.