Families at War

Chris Diamond on Never The Twain

First published May 2004

Not too long ago a fashionable columnist in The Sunday Times suggested, or to be more precise, asserted that all the best situation comedies were a product of the 1970s and that there were none of any comparable quality from the 1980s, a decade which the metropolitan cultural Gestapo might prefer to erase from our collective memories.

This is, needless to say, cant of the most extreme order since it was the ’80s which brought forth the likes of Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Yes Prime Minister, Ever Decreasing Circles, Sorry!, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Hi-De-Hi! and many more of the very cream of that genre. Such modish drivel as that columnist poured forth does however point to one interesting truth, that being the inability of the majority of the population to call to mind more than a scant handful of sitcoms which they nevertheless clearly watched in huge numbers at the time of their original broadcast but to which they have failed to assign any retrospective merit (some – although by no means all – of the aforementioned programmes being amongst those still easily brought to mind by the man in the street). Of these vague shows usually consigned to a netherworld of half-remembered pub-based reminiscence, one of the very best is the tremendous Never The Twain, starring the dream ticket of Windsor Davies and Donald Sinden.

In truth how anyone can forget a show like Never The Twain seems incredible. Not only was the pairing of Sir Donald (as he has latterly become) and Windsor (as he has remained) one of the most memorable in all television comedy but there are other powerful factors that should mitigate against the marginalisation of such a great show.

First is the sheer longevity of a programme which ran for 11 series encompassing 67 half-hour episodes and a further Christmas special. The second most important consideration is the fame of its two main protagonists. At the time of the screening of the first episode of Never The Twain on Monday 7 September 1981, Windsor Davies – the Welsh working class Oliver Smallbridge – had only just bid farewell to his hugely popular character of the Sergeant Major in the BBC’s It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and to its loyal, appreciative and sizeable audience on only the previous Thursday. Donald Sinden meanwhile – the fussy, upper middle class Simon Peel – had had a huge success on television a few years earlier as the butler to Elaine Stritch’s feisty employer in the hit LWT sitcom Two’s Company, which had run from 1975 – 1979. So both Davies and Sinden were well known, popular and practiced sitcom hands, although of the two Davies was certainly the more famous (at least in televisual terms) at that time. So the programme arrived with a brace of genuine sitcom stars at the helm to provide a significant boost to the new project.

In the third instance, and aside from the stars, the show had a more than competent creator and writer in Johnnie Mortimer (not to be confused with Rumpole‘s John Mortimer) who had steered several memorable series to success during his already, by the time of the launch of Never The Twain, accomplished career. Mortimer’s first achievement was as the writer behind Ronnie Barker’s first foray into sitcom, Foreign Affairs in 1966. Significant contributions to several other major hits followed including Father, Dear Father, Bless This House, Love Thy Neighbour, Man About the House, George and Mildred and Robin’s Nest; an impressive pedigree. Although Mortimer wasn’t to remain the principle writer on the programme he was the driving force behind its first three series and the show is very much his.

Yet, despite all these distinct and considerable advantages, Never The Twain seems to remain just one of those “other” comedies that populate the hinterland of programmes which dwell beneath the more established “classics”. But a close examination of the show bears out the belief that it is one of the very best sitcoms to have sprung not just from the 1980′s but from any period.

Proof of the effectiveness of the programme comes even from the very outset of proceedings, namely the titles. Was there ever another title sequence that conveyed so perfectly the forthcoming content than those jolly animated antics created for Never The Twain? From the first 30 seconds or so we can easily deduce that the show concerns two characters with a connection to antiques shops, one of whom is posh and the other of whom is slightly common. Both regard each other with disdain and, we can also garner from the title, are at least nominally irreconcilable. In case that gives an image that might be too bitter or uncomfortable the music is especially jaunty (not to say infuriatingly memorable and, in fact, of all the aspects of the show it is probably the music which sparks more recollections than any other single component) to signal as powerfully as Portland Bill that this is a comedy. Probably only Porridge, Only Fools and Horses and Hi-De-Hi! have opening sequences that are similarly descriptive although they all rely on actual pictorial evidence and not the likes of the caricatures of Grecian statue and Toby Jug employed by Never The Twain to denote its two main players.

Having got past the titles though it is easy to discern the two features that made the show what it was, those being Donald Sinden and Windsor Davies. Their performances could never be described as subtle nor can their style be portrayed as a masterpiece of The Method. Both play their respective characters, Peel and Smallbridge, with gusto: Sinden rumbling and rolling his consonants with glee, eyebrow arched and gaze piercing; Davies booming and gurning, grimacing and stifling his amusement at his own pranks, thinly disguising his disgust at his neighbour and his Anglo-Saxon Philistinism, a combination of nationalities designed to appall the Celt in him.

Of course, despite their occupation of opposite ends of the social strata they are essentially entirely alike. Both are pompous, juvenile, stubborn, small-minded zealots whose shared passionate dislike of each other is only the beginning of their similarities. Both are of course antique dealers (a profession neither pretends to be anything other than hideously dishonest), both are single (Peel is divorced, Smallbridge widowed) and both own shops and live next door to one another.

In the course of the first series we even learn that, on top of their bred-in antipathy, Smallbridge had an affair with Peel’s wife (although he wasn’t, apparently, the only one and they hated each other anyway having fallen out after having been former – if unlikely – business partners). They both have late-teenage children who want to marry. Worse is that they want to marry each other! It is this which provides the essential plot for the first series of the show. Surprisingly for those who may remember Never The Twain from its later series which relied almost entirely on the comings and goings of Peel’s and Smallbridge’s shops, those establishments do not appear in series one until episode four, “A Matched Pair”, and are hardly even referred to in the first three parts (although Simon and Oliver are seen at an auction relatively early on). The engagement of David Peel and Lyn Smallbridge is very much the business of the six episodes of the first series and provide the story arc that takes us from the tentative announcement of the engagement in episode one, “Families At War”, to the wedding in episode six, “Father of the Groom”.

Naturally this is not quite enough to sustain approximately three hours of first rate comedy so there are ample diversions which provide the comedic meat on the bone of the children’s marriage plans. In introducing these devices of character, plot and so forth Never The Twain gives a pleasing impression of a show that is under constant review and which seeks to adjust itself to accommodate those parts that work well and to abandon fairly quickly those which do not. For example, in episode one much is made of the two pets which Peel and Smallbridge own. Simon Peel, being the more effete of the two has a cat whereas Smallbridge has a suitably proletarian dog. However, once again the strictures of sitcom dictate that this is not quite enough so the cat is called Lucifer and is apparently a satanic monster of uncommon strength which chases the dog, a huge shaggy pile called Bruno, up trees. Bruno is, of course, a coward. Having featured prominently in this episode Lucifer and Bruno rather quickly are relegated to the status of props as the other characters leave them behind. It is as if the creative masterminds of the show, Johnnie Mortimer and Director/Producer Peter Frazer-Jones, have recognised this entire feature of the story, which they have after all already taken pains to introduce, as being just a little too hackneyed and sought to resolve the problem mid-series. Similarly, another example concerns a wheeze of Smallbridge’s to steal away Peel’s daily cleaner Mrs Grieves. She turns out to be a harridan and more trouble than she is worth, an own goal by Smallbridge in fact. However, even though she features heavily in episode three “A Night at the Opera” – even providing the tag at the dénouement – she is never seen again for the rest of the series.

Beyond the considerable talents of Sinden and Davies, and in keeping with the aforementioned policy of introducing significant sub-plots to the story arc, there are several other excellent performances in the first series of the programme. Probably the least important at the time was that of Derek Deadman who played Smallbridge’s chronically stupid and hopelessly childish assistant Ringo. Ringo may only have featured in one episode of series one (“A Matched Pair”) but so popular was the character that by the time the show hit its stride Deadman had became a regular and valued addition to the cast and one of the principal components of the show in lending to it great scope for such classic devices as slapstick and malapropisms but also the decided (and decidedly advantageous) atmosphere of a family comedy, since Ringo was hugely popular with children. Even when David and Lyn Peel (as they became) had cleared off to Canada only to return sporadically Ringo was still there, week-in, week-out, a definite and valued fixture.

A more sober – and defter – presence was leant to the show’s first series by Honor Blackman who presaged her long-running glamorous granny turn in future hit The Upper Hand as Veronica Barton, the widowed vet introduced in episode two, “Of Meissen Men” and she remained until the climactic wedding and into series two providing the greater part of the two lads’ rivalries and scheming in the intervening episodes. Lastly is the character whose introduction proved to be a stroke of genius on the writer’s part: Teddy Turner as Banks, Simon Peel’s au pair. His gruff northern arrival explained by the new anti-discriminatory legislation passed by parliament (“They had this sex act,” Banks says, “Did they? I didn’t hear about that!” growls Peel who has been expecting, of course, a leggy Swede and not a craggy turnip). Banks is a masterstroke. Allowed to stay on the agreement that Peel can call him his butler, he tries to act the part (“Oh pray madam, park yourself!”) and introduces to the formerly slightly too gruff and smug Peel household some earthy comic relief blowing away the entirely sherry and olives image and doing for Peel what Ringo does for Smallbridge, albeit rather more effectively. Turner was in the series as Banks for an incredible seven series but latterly found further fame in All Creatures Great and Small where he managed to successfully reduce the number of syllables in “veterinary” to three.

There were other subsidiary characters introduced over the years: Maria Charles played Mrs Sadler in series two to seven and the formidable Zara Nutley sailed galleon-like through the last four as Aunt Eleanor. But Ringo and (especially) Banks are the characters without whose support the whole might never have reached the heights that it did. Like Colonel Hall in The Phil Silvers Show, Peggy in Hi-De-Hi!, the Coach in Cheers or Sid James in Hancock, an episode without them lacked something and their inclusion made the show greater than the sum of its parts raising everyone’s game.

Ironically the least strong of all the supporting players in series one are the ostensibly two next important characters, David Peel and Lyn Smallbridge played by Robin Kermode and Julia Watson. Largely blameless for their own part (what lines and scenes they do have they play well) their inherent problem is that our interest is with Peel and Smallbridge pére and their jousts and squires, not their children. As viewers we suffer the plot of the wedding but only as a means to aggravate Simon and Oliver or give them a new platform to be brutally mean-spirited toward one another, we certainly have only marginal interest in the event and participants themselves.

It is telling that the far greater part of the remaining ten series revolved solely around Peel and Smallbridge and their adjoining businesses than anything else and simply because that is what we wanted to see; that was where the action was. Once the show settled down into the format of japes being introduced through the shops, then it becomes more recognisable as the long-running success it became. After the initial first three series Johnnie Mortimer’s shoes were filled by Vince Powell, an experienced writer with an equally substantial track record as Mortimer having been involved with the likes of George and the Dragon, Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, Nearest and Dearest (Granada’s most successful ever sitcom), Mind Your Language (which also featured Zara Nutley) and who had also worked with Mortimer on the aforementioned Love Thy Neighbour as well as having also shared duties on shows such as Billy Dainty Esq (other writers such as Morecambe and Wise’s old compatriot Dick Hills were used sporadically but the vast majority of post-Mortimer scripts were by Powell).

By later series the emphasis, as mentioned above, shifted entirely to Peel and Smallbridge and their massed ranks of idiots as they sought to score points off one another, and one of the tricks integral to these later more exaggerated shows as opposed to the more subtle, human comedy of the first series were the sequences used in the final shots immediately prior to the credits where one piece of slapstick business would be piled on top of another. For example, Peel has his leg (due to a lengthy chain of unfortunate circumstance for which Smallbridge is responsible) in plaster by the end of an episode and in the final shot he has this kicked from under him by Smallbridge, who is then dropped to the floor when Peel swipes away his chair but who then suffers in turn as Smallbridge’s tea is dropped on the bad leg and so on. These sequences could encompass a great run of such physical gags which left the studio audience breathless and always finished an episode on a strong laugh. This method involved a technique at which both Davies and Sinden were expert. If the secret of comedy is reaction then these two are surely amongst the very best of their profession. Donald Sinden, for all his legitimate theatrical demeanour, could execute a pratfall with a deft skill rarely seen outside of silent comedy and Windsor Davies, despite his imposing bluster, could imbue the slightest change of facial expression with a resolute force that conveyed pages of material and achieved the sort of results in character interpretation that nowadays has David Jason struggling to find space for his awards.

To return to an earlier point, it is difficult to envisage any real reason why the show should have lasted so long and climbed to such great success without these two sublime performances. Because, if truth be told, Never The Twain is a very ordinary, formulaic, by-the-numbers situation comedy. At least it was at the time of its inception since, as mentioned above, when it later determined the best course to exploit the talents of its main players it became something entirely different. But series one remains in essence a very ordinary (in plotting terms) sitcom based on a fairly typical combination of generous measures of coincidence, wordplay, slapstick, misunderstanding and so forth and, being a comedy, the hatred of the two main characters is manifested in taunts and jibes wittily executed and not the vitriol that might characterise a real-life feud of similar proportions. It was only the quality of Sinden and Davies and the acute sense of Mortimer of where the weaknesses and strengths of his scripts lay that pushed it in the direction of greatness.

And Never The Twain is a very great comedy indeed. For 10 years two characters, with only limited help from supporting characters, interacted in a way that produced enough put-downs, one-liners, falls, calls, slaps and tickles to make for approximately 34 hours of brilliant situation comedy. The fact that it is not better remembered now is less to do with its failings and more to do with our appreciation of quality in our oh-so-sophisticated modern world of entertainment.