Keep Your Sunny Side Up!

Chris Diamond on Clarence

First published April 2004

With recognition over the past few years (including a Heroes of Comedy tribute and dedicated nights on Channel 4 and BBC2), programmes still regularly scheduled in primetime and two shows featured in BBC2′s Britain’s Best Sitcom – not to mention an eagerly anticipated comeback in the works – Ronnie Barker’s stock has never seemed so high.

The Two Ronnies, Open All Hours and above all Porridge are generally regarded to be amongst the best of their respective genre and the plaudits lavished upon the retired comedy actor seem set to continue. Therefore It would be easy to imagine that everything Barker has touched has turned to gold; however the difficulty with this lionisation of Barker, and of what is after all a rather narrow portion of his career, is that it has become extremely troublesome to appraise his other television work. While it would be unfair to insist that all Barker’s work must reach the same giddy heights attained by his most famous television outings, it would also be quite disingenuous to assume that it has all met that gold standard when it quite clearly has not.

Fame has added to the lustre of shows like Porridge and almost constant repeats of both it and Open All Hours have lead to a kind of ubiquity for Barker that implies a constant diet of success. Other lesser known shows also contribute towards this, particularly the splendid His Lordship Entertains in 1972. Barker’s hit-rate is unarguably well above par but on the other hand vehicles such as the disappointing sequel to Porridge, Going Straight, from 1978, The Magnificent Evans from 1984 and Barker’s last outing in sitcom – and indeed on television prior to his retirement – Clarence from 1988, rather tarnish the image of invulnerability.

In itself Clarence is at best a fairly run of the mill situation-comedy and it is only the association with Barker that makes it worth considering at all closely. Broadcast over January and February of 1988 the six-part series saw the reprise of a character first seen in one of the episodes of Barker’s six part playhouse series for LWT, Six Dates With Barker. Clarence Sale, the series’ eponymous short-sighted central character, had originally been known only as Fred in an episode entitled simply “The Removals Person” written by Hugh Leonard for the ITV series in 1971. When Barker returned to the concept for his ’88 series, not only had the name of the principal character changed, but Barker himself had taken on the writing duties. Under his alias Bob Ferris (no reference to the Likely Lad apparently intended) Barker composed a six part story arc that involved Clarence meeting, falling in love with, moving in with and finally marrying his lady friend Jane Travers played by Josephine Tewson. Tewson had already worked with Barker on several occasions, not least on Hark at Barker for ITV and His Lordship Entertains for the BBC. Both those series featured the tremendous Barker character of Lord Rustless, the Fred Emney-like aristocratic old buffer who struggled with his estate, his staff and his diminishing situation. In fact, the Rustless vehicles formed rather a template for the production of Clarence in that it was another concept that had its roots in ITV before being transferred by Barker to the BBC, whereupon he took control of the writing (for His Lordship Entertains under the name of Jonathan Cobbald). Unfortunately His Lordship Entertains has been erased by the brighter minds at the BBC and little is ever seen of Hark at Barker, although the few clips that have been shown on occasion bear up comparatively well.

Also significant is that Clarence was first aired the week after Barker had made the announcement that he was to retire, making this series his last for television. Whether or not it made for a suitable close to a hugely successful career is a matter for serious conjecture.

The sort of series that Clarence was to be is fairly apparent even from the very outset. The first scenes of the opening episode, after Clarence has arrived in the apartment of the toffs whose furniture he has been engaged to remove, play more like a repertory stage comedy than anything else. Much coming and going is done from the central location of the drawing room; Clarence bumping into and damaging fixtures and fittings in what is a fairly ordinary and predictable manner. Meanwhile Josephine Tewson as the maid Travers follows him about moving things out of harm’s way and looking suitably horrified, mystified and perplexed in turn. The only other characters in evidence at this point are Clarence’s mate who disappears before even entering the apartment, the extraordinarily snobbish upper-class owner of the apartment (played by Phyllida Law) who stays only long enough to demonstrate her extreme bias against anyone not in possession of a dukedom (she even finds the impending Coronation of George VI tasteless) and her fey daughter who, rather disconcertingly, spends her time on screen attempting to commit suicide. Tewson and Barker interact sufficiently to move the plot along but we have very little insight into these characters who are, after all, practically engaged by the end of the scene.

What troubles most is the apparent lack of motive for their involvement beyond Clarence (not an attractive figure by any means) telling Travers that she is “all right.” At first one suspects that he will prove to be the working class rock upon which the charmless and bullying Law will dash against, and thereby provide some sort of sympathy between the two characters. But Clarence dumbfounds this by declaring that he is all for the upper classes: “Got to keep them right, backbone of the country they are.”

Over the course of the rest of the episode we discover that Clarence lives alone, Travers is out of work – her employers having gone to Rangoon – and over a fish supper in his flat they decide to go and live in Travers’ late aunt’s house in the country surviving on her legacy until work comes in. In one last plot turn which sets up the remainder of the series Travers then insists upon the remarkably enlightened course of co-habitation prior to possible marriage, “a trial period” as she says. By the end of the episode the two have decanted to the corrugated iron cottage in the country and been forced to share the same bedroom although there is avowedly, “no hanky panky” on her insistence.

Taken in full the shortcomings of this first installment might be laid at the door of expediency, since the characters, plot and so forth have to be introduced to the audience which might understandably stall the flow of hilarity prior to the series hitting its stride. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that even at this early stage things are not hanging together well and that the preliminary scenes, which were obviously constructed to get the characters into the house in the country together as quickly as possible, are just too obviously intended for that purpose and do not create the credible situation that all such comedies require. Barker may be blameless on this count, however, since the first episode of Clarence is a near-perfect reproduction of “The Removals Person”, with even the accompanying personnel of Tewson and Law recreating their roles. The rest of the series of course, is firmly his responsibility.

In form what distinguishes Clarence from other better known sitcoms of its time are that it is determinedly old fashioned and non-contemporary in its execution as well as its subject matter. While ‘Allo ‘Allo and Hi-De-Hi! were set in the past this did not filter into their integral presentation (at any rate beyond their title sequences) and in this way Clarence is more reminiscent of Dad’s Army, especially in its employment of art-deco graphics between scenes and incidental music from the inter-war years. The titles are equally archaic with the quaint signature tune Keep Your Sunny Side Up and further use of very ’30s graphic art. Another fairly individual trait, and in sympathy with its definite story arc, is the use of a narrative recap at the outset of each episode with scenes from the previous show commented on by Tewson’s character to keep viewers abreast of the plot.

Subsequent episodes deal with the burgeoning relationship between Clarence and Travers, their attempts to find employment, work their land, keep livestock and other homely activities. We also learn a little more about Clarence but, strangely, none of it seems terribly positive. We are told he lived with a woman (which in the context of the setting – mid ’30s – can hardly be construed as a virtue), that he fought in the World War I, that he consorted with prostitutes during that conflict and that he went through a heavy drinking period – none of which enhances our appreciation of the character, and it is only really the natural empathy with Barker that keeps our interest. By contrast, Tewson’s character develops in no real way at all. We glean minimal further information about her during the entire series but she remains the far more agreeable of the two. An accomplished character actress, Josephine Tewson – the British Imogene Coca – turns in an excellent performance with a character who might easily have come across as overly simple or plain but who instead appears a relatively strong and competent buttress against her counterpart’s ineptitude.

The main thrust of the storylines throughout the series remain resolutely within the confines of the overall plot; that being the steady movement towards the inevitable wedding of Clarence and Travers. The domestic situation however doesn’t seem to yield the necessary situations to sustain an entire series and several interludes seem overly forced and brought into existence only to fill out each episode. What is more unfortunate is that these tend to be fairly ordinary and pedestrian, such as the myopic Clarence’s attempts to water the vegetable patch with a sieve, his planting jet beads instead of seeds, getting a job at a sewer works and journeying home smelling overtly foul (which seems very reminiscent of a sequence from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and an entire stretch of the penultimate episode that required Travers and Clarence to take care of an elderly lady which is as pointless as it is wan. Tellingly by the final segment things settle down to a purpose again as the long-promised wedding comes round and we (and Barker) have something to work towards.

Ultimately, then, the greatest disappointment with Clarence is that it doesn’t seem to be about anything. This is not to suggest that the programme is not watchable, since the quality of the players ensures that what is on offer is well acted, and the production is particularly fine with excellent period detail. So Clarence is good to look at but is that enough to justify it as a project? I think not. As mentioned before there is an added dimension, and that is the awareness that this is to be Barker’s final comedy appearance (officially, anyway). Not only will there quite plainly be no second series, but it is reasonable for the audience to assume that this last outing will be something special. As a result the show is perhaps judged by a higher standard than most would expect, however even on an elevated scale Clarence does not score very highly. It is in fact difficult to know what Barker was trying to achieve with his last outing.

As mentioned above, the show is resolutely old fashioned in form and demeanour and it is also particularly traditional in itself. The subject matter is homely to say the least and the humour is gentle slapstick and slight physical comedy (centred largely around Clarence’s short-sightedness) with congenial humour based largely on tried and tested devices such as coincidence, misunderstanding and Barker’s favourite: Wordplay. Rather clever one-liners (“I left that job on account of something the foreman said to me … you’re sacked, get out”) sit uneasily alongside Clarence mistakenly putting a china egg on to boil. Clarence may be short sighted but we can see the tags for these situations coming a mile off. There are also some extraordinarily dated moments, such as the dénouement for the episode following Clarence’s taking his job at the sewage works. He has left the job at the insistence of Travers who scrubbed him down with Paris toilet water. Having handed in his notice he waits for a bus and finds himself standing next to an effete stereotype holding a bunch of flowers who Clarence mistakes for a woman. Later he explains that this man offered him a job as a window dresser detailing this revelation with a limp-wristed gesture that seems amazingly anachronistic for 1988 at what was close to the high tide of political correctness.

Are we to conclude, then, that Barker’s last show is to be a demonstration of his traditional, non-PC, old fashioned entertainment credentials and one in the eye for the perpetrators of The Young Ones, Girls on Top et al? It would be difficult to conclude that Barker would be so blatant and that this was a point that required making at that time. For all of the brashness of alternative comedy, traditional entertainers still held prime time in their sway throughout much of the ’80s (through vehicles such as his own The Two Ronnies, which had only finished the year before) and it is hard to see how Barker would have wanted to make such a demonstration. Alas, it is more reasonable to deduce that Barker was just falling out of step with popular trends, and this counted against him and his last series which was not the success that everyone expected. The public were well aware that this was to be his last show but sentiment is no bulwark against a disappointed audience, and the viewing public remained indifferent.

In its way Clarence was rather a brave move that ultimately failed. Other than the odd interloper into their domestic situation, only Barker and Tewson are on screen and the show is very much centred around them. It’s brave because there is nowhere – no other characters, no other locations – behind which to hide. But it’s ultimately a failure because the situation just does not sustain them both over six episodes. This seems to be a danger with the adaptation of a playhouse segment into a series. The likes of Open All Hours and Porridge (both of which were founded from such beginnings) succeeded because their situations were broad enough to justify many editions, but others like The Magnificent Evans (which was made into a series for Barker by Roy Clarke) and Clarence are not set upon platforms that are wide and strong enough to hold them up for any length of time. In this Clarence only helps to demonstrate that even a great comedian or comic actor can only provide one half of the equation required for a successful situation comedy. For without a useful, expansive and fertile situation the project cannot work; the comedy will have no grounding to root the audience.

Unfortunately Clarence has little of one and less of the other and, despite being helped up by two fine actors, it remains a rather rough stone on Ronnie Barker’s otherwise jewelled comedy crown.