This Could Be the Last Time

Jack Kibble-White and Ian Jones presents OTT’s guide to ending it all

First published December 2001

They may not be the happiest years of your life but they’re unarguably the most formative. When a teacher at primary school, having scrutinised your latest piece of creative writing, hands it back to you and offers just one solitary, weary remark – “Well, bit of a baked bean ending there” – how can you ever treat the conclusion of anything, be it a book, film or especially a TV programme, with the same unquestioning innocence again? Once introduced to such a phrase, it can only become force of habit to apply the label “baked bean” to whatever kind of anti-climatic, unsatisfying or preposterous ending that comes your way.

Thanks to its meaninglessness – since you were never that bold to ask the teacher what exactly he was going on about – the law of the “baked bean” serves up never-diminishing returns. After all, it’s catchall criticism, signifying everything … and, well, nothing. So OTT considered it fine time to unpick the conventions of the curtain call and set down the 10 textbook turns of the screw and twists of the knife. Finally laying the mystery of the baked bean aside, what follows is a definitive guide to understanding the laws of the TV ending. And any additional pieces of childhood creative writing that may be to hand.

1. We know we’re not coming back

Definition: It’s just a TV series, so bring on the end-of-term revelry, and to hell with credibility!

Key example: Queer as Folk 2

If you’ve spent months, perhaps years, developing a distinctive and often realistic world in which your fictional characters can inhabit, why blow it all in the final episode? For programmes taken off the air against their will perhaps this is a last act of defiance (“You don’t care about my programme so why should I?”); maybe even an opportunity to communicate some darkly critical message directed at the “powers that be” (David Frost: “That was That Was The Week That Was … that was.”) Most of the time, however, your typical “what the hell” approach to endings seems largely attributable to a dearth of ideas that has forced the series to face its demise in the first place.

Acknowledging the fourth wall is a favourite. The last episode of Z Cars hinted at it, whilst Patrick Newell in the last ever episode of The Avengers made great play of reassuring viewers that “they’ll be back”. Then there have been those shows content to bow out to the chink of glasses, proposing a toast not just to the characters but – together with a knowing turn to camera – the “show” itself (Howard Cunningham asking us to drink “to happy days”, while the Goods and Leadbetters joined in saluting “the good life.”) At the end of each successive series of The Mark Thomas Product its host made great play of moaning how “we probably won’t be coming back,” until repeated re-appearances rendered his badmouthing foolish. Perhaps the most notable example of a TV programme going loco in its final episode is Gangsters. The signs were certainly there earlier in the series, but nothing could have prepared us for the final dénouement in which the characters end up stumbling upon none other than the show’s writer Philip Martin who is in the middle of writing that very episode.

The surprising success of Queer as Folk ensured much deliberation between series one and two as to what should happen next to both the programme’s format and characters. Initially Davies intended to write a full second series; then he considered developing the format as an ongoing soap opera; next he announced he didn’t want to bring it back at all; then he mooted a spin off concentrating solely on some of the supporting characters; and finally – influenced by pressures from both Channel 4 and Red Productions – determined that just two final episodes would be enough to contain all he had left to say.

There is clear evidence that, prior to demands for more, Davies had not considered his characters beyond the confines of that first series. It was actually whilst the programme was off air that their most significant development. Through the fevered public reaction to the first series, Stuart, Nathan and Vince ended up becoming archetypes signifying far more than Davies had originally intended. Series two acknowledged this transformation, instilling deeper meaning into the meetings of the three but in the process stripping away much of the reality. It soon felt that Davies’ characters had begun to grow bored of him, forcing the writer into contriving ever-wilder scenarios to maintain their interest.

The final episode sought only to gratify the audience in the easiest manner possible. So in something of an acknowledgement that the characters were now far beyond the original parameters of the series, Davies gave up trying to rein them in and went all out for giddy triumphalism instead. It’s a classic “what the hell” ending that gave the viewer everything that Moonlighting or Just Good Friends could have done had they been a little less self-disciplined. It’s possible to view the last episode of Queer as Folk as the history of Coronation Street in super fast-forward, moving from being grounded in reality to ending up with any old silly piece of business that will titillate the viewer. Vince and Stuart’s roar off into the sunset was even capped with corny “What happened next” captions à la A Fish Called Wanda. Perhaps such hedonistic storytelling was meant to symbolise the lifestyles the programme sought to explore, personifying the characters’ feelings of endless possibility when they are out for a night on the town. Yet as always with such daydreams, as pleasant as they are to the daydreamer they can only appear feeble and rather pathetic when recounted to somebody else.

2. Old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends

Definition: With the hour of passing at hand, characters look back wistfully and reflect upon what they, and us, have learnt

Key example: Porridge

Upon embarking upon a final episode the emotions of both viewer and programme maker are more than a little heightened. After all, this will be the last time that the two shall meet. So as with any farewell there is a tendency for all and sundry to look back and try one last time to rekindle the very essence that gave the relationship its precious longevity. In many instances this makes for a final episode that consciously recalls its first and seeks to explicitly state – and restate – the programme’s central concept.

The last episode of Porridge was subtler than many in pulling this off, with the threat to Godber’s parole allowing writers Clement and La Frenais to look again at the programme’s enduring central relationship. The final scene with Mackay advising Fletcher that he is to be given the opportunity to mould a new young cellmate in the way he had done with Godber assured the viewer that whilst our visit to Slade Prison might be coming to an end, the characters were to continue in their own universe – but also that their central struggle remained fundamentally unchanged: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” was the most important lesson to be learnt from Porridge concluded Fletcher.

Pursuing this theme of full circle is something that can be achieved in a more literal context by a drama that includes time travel as a viable concept – or in the case Blake’s 7 simply bringing back the long since discarded title character (thereby neutering one of Terry “Where’s Blake?” Wogan’s favourite gags). “All Good Things”, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, was a last hurrah of the most explicit kind. The story involved the character of Picard becoming caught up in a spatial anomaly called “anti-time” that transported him back and forth through time – a concept that helpfully allowed the programme to refer back directly to its first episode “Encounter at Farpoint”, as well as postulate on what might eventually become of the show’s central characters. But whilst such an obvious device enabled the programme to craft easy symmetries, one of the series’ other recurring motifs (that of the crew engaging in a game of cards) was also reused to subtle yet pleasing effect. After seven series of abstention, Picard finally joined his crew for a hand. Electing to deal, his comment that “the sky’s the limit”, accompanied with a fade away from an overhead shot of the circular poker table to that of a geometrically similar one of the Enterprise itself, imbued the occasion with a thematic restatement of that which had always been central to the show: comradeship and endeavour. And of course, that big “pull back” shot is always an ace way to end a series.

3. Don’t you see? It’s never been about just you and me!

Definition: It’s the last chance to make a difference, which means it’s time for some patently obvious home-truths

Key example: Boys From the Blackstuff

Sometimes a programme seems to spend its time just skirting around an issue, hinting at a greater truth while remaining unwilling to grapple it head on in case it gets accused of being too obviously polemic. When time has almost run out, however, there exists that incredible temptation to make sure that your audience have really “got” what all those allusions, references and underhand comments have been about. For example the final episode of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell, Amen”, ensured that if we didn’t get the point over the preceding 11 years a full two and a half hour dénouement couldn’t possibly leave us in any doubt as to the futility of war. In “George’s Last Ride”, the last episode of Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Bleasdale used a dying man’s speech to render explicit all the themes he believed underpinned the entire series. Viewed in isolation, this stark but perhaps overlong treatise on the death of hope in 1980s working class Britain is both powerful and truthful; yet in the context of the series as a whole seems perhaps somewhat redundant – for Bleasdale has already shown us his message; there is no need to then tell us it as well.

4. Chance would be a fine thing

Definition: Loose ends are tied up in a desperate attempt to make the pieces fit

Key example: The Prisoner

Only Fools and Horses holds the honour for being the most obvious example of a programme finding a conclusion through a startling piece of contrivance. Yet somehow it’s forgivable. Some series utilise a nice piece of coincidence to extricate themselves from a tangled plotline, yet clearly this is not the case for Del and Rodney. Coming perilously close to being filed under category number one, Sullivan’s comedy escapes harsher judgement primarily due to the affection in which the its main characters are held. Additionally the last Only Fools … went out at Christmas – a time when an addled audience seems all to willing to overlook all manner of plot contrivances.

Twin Peaks is a different matter. For many, the series’ appeal began to wane as soon as it became apparent that Lynch, Frost and co. were making it up as they went along. Such a realisation can only undermine faith in a programme, leaving you feeling slightly cheated. Indeed, Lynch’s later admission that the character of Bob only came about due to a camera shot in an early episode mistakenly including one of the crew demonstrates an ability to improvise, but also compounds the feeling that the mysteries presented in the programme were of no real inherent value as they meant nothing until Lynch thought up their significance later.

Concluding a series that lays out as many mysteries as Twin Peaks is always going to be difficult, particularly when the creators themselves don’t actually know what is going on but maybe more so if external forces make the decision bring the programme to an early close. The fact that both factors applied in the case of The Prisoner ensured that its final episode “Fall Out” could never hope to provide any sort of adequate common sense finale, and as such its creator and star Patrick McGoohan, perhaps wisely, opted for an allegorical ending instead. Whether this entirely worked remains a matter of personal taste. The show certainly ended with its enigmatic core intact while obvious successors such as Twin Peaks and Nowhere Man seemed unable to retain a similar lustre, though this is maybe less to do with the quality of each respective episode and more the fact that The Prisoner did it first.

5. One for the road

Definition: A bumper send-off finally delivers the goods for a previously unimpressive show

Key example: Eldorado

Sometimes all you really need from a series is its last episode. Everything that was great about it is summed up right there in one helping. But there are some programmes which actually only seem to get it right come the very end. Over the course of its 150 episodes Eldorado was dogged with poor actors, lame scripts and a concept that neither managed to reflect the life of its viewers nor provide sufficient escapism from it – surely the only two successful “types” of soap opera. Yet its explosive finale plus the collapse of six months worth of plot into a final four weeks gave the soap an edge and a sense of pace that it had never really possessed before.

Finales to long running magazine shows tend to attract a substantial audience of viewers who’d previously barely shown much interest in the show at all. The endless “goodbyes” on This Morning (when Richard and Judy left the Albert Dock, and then again when they left the programme for good), or the numerous farewells on Live & Kicking (Andi and Emma, Jamie and Zoë) always delivered on their promise of a glut of fascinating clips and surprise appearances of loved ones or outrageous comedy guests. In such cases the final episode is a visible loosening of the tie, particularly when the broadcast is live and emotions run high. Set your videos now for the last Big Breakfast.

Finally there are those last episodes that, although perhaps not better than the rest of the series, are at least markedly different in tone. “Quo Vadis, Pet” brought the curtain down on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in thrilling style with the boys hot footing it on a speedboat in a bid to escape the Spanish authorities. Similarly, the final One Foot in the Grave moved beyond the series’ usual remit to provide us with a conclusion that encompassed Jonathan Creek style plotting and a lush pastoral pull away shot bringing the show to a memorable if indeterminate conclusion.

6. P45

Definition: A series ends thanks to a sudden termination of employment, or the central premise rendered redundant

Key example: To the Manor Born

Whilst some farewell episodes attempt to celebrate the perpetual eternity of a programme’s central characters or concepts, others seek to bring down the final curtain through the dissolution of the predicament that underpinned the whole series. We’ve already observed the final escape of both Godber in Porridge and Del and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses, but there are countless others. One favourite is the “Haven’t you heard? The war’s over!” hook, neatly resolving an entire canon of classics – M*A*S*H, Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Colditz among others. That Tenko actually passed up this opportunity is perhaps to its eternal detriment. Also of note is the resignation of Jack Regan at the conclusion of The Sweeney, as well as the multiple farewells from Jim Bergerac to accompany that series’ endless “last episodes”.

The conclusion of To The Manor Born worked hard to completely resolve the programme’s initial premise of the removal of the “rightful owner” from her property by a foreign usurper. Judging by comments made by Penelope Keith, the decision to bring the series to a close with the marriage of Fforbes-Hamilton and De Vere was one the writers were unsure of but which Keith insisted upon. Unfortunately, the result of this diktat is an extremely unsatisfactory final episode.

There are two principal moments. The first is well realised, with the cigar toting Brabinger bidding successfully for the house using funds that he claims have come from personal savings (but are later to be revealed as Audrey’s). The second is anticipated far more keenly by the viewers, but realised far less successfully: De Vere is confronted during the wedding by an old money type (Nouveau Pauvre) who is lifting cigars, justifying his actions by decrying “that the idiot whose wedding it was can afford it, upstart foreigner that he is”. Audrey sidles up and confirms that the “idiot” is in fact her husband and sends the toff packing. What we wanted was for Audrey to stand up for her man, arguing that regardless of where he came from he was the man for her and she didn’t care that he was a grocer, or a “foreigner”; what we got was an explanation of how, now she had her money back, she’d made a “decent gentleman” of him. The episode’s crescendo, meanwhile, happens halfway through, at the point where De Vere is almost completely destitute but is saved by Audrey and her newly found funds). It was here, with the tables turned, that the series’ original predicament had finally been resolved and therefore perhaps where the final ending should have come.

7. The fans will understand

Definition: A self-indulgent allegory of what’s happening to the programme or its creator in real life

Key example: Cold Lazarus

Dennis Potter’s final work for television, Cold Lazarus, gained in stature as it became more and more inextricably linked with its author. For the most part a pretty poor series, the final moments of the last episode – with the author prefiguring his own impending death – are so extraordinary as to be without precedent in British television.

Conversely, the Doctor Who serial “The Trial of a Time Lord” was believed by its makers to be the likely last appearance of the time-travelling hero, and so became a grand statement on the way the show had supposedly been stabbed in the back by Michael Grade. The Doctor was put “on trial” in a clunking attempt at irony to answer for his supposed “past crimes”, but the script soon became highly confusing and its premise rendered hollow when Grade did recommission another series (albeit with a new actor in the lead role).

8. I’ve just had an idea…

Definition: Events come to a head via a perilous cliffhanger

Key example: Blake’s 7

The dramatic shoot-out between characters past and present made for a memorable conclusion to Blake’s 7, compounded by the calculating manner in which Avon dispatched the eponymous hero before finding the guns being turned on himself. Alternatively Edge of Darkness relied to an extent on intimation: the fact that Craven, though technically free at the series’ end, had only a matter of days to live thanks to radiation poisoning, and in the closing shot may or may not have shot himself, or drowned, or simply vanished amidst the Scottish moorland. Less satisfactory was the conclusion to the otherwise superb Between the Lines which saw our heroes apparently being blown up on a sailing boat in the culmination of a garbled storyline involving terrorism and corruption. What was officially the conclusion of Yes Minister – the one-off special “Party Games” – moved towards an exciting and clever dénouement thanks to much-knowing suggestion concerning Jim Hacker’s possible promotion: an act not confirmed until the very last line of the whole programme. Steven Moffat meanwhile demonstrated a fine understanding of the cliffhanger in numerous closing episodes of Press Gang, often constructing neat parallels between the fate of the Junior Gazette and that of the chief protagonists Linda and Spike.

9. Was that it?

Definition: By accident or design, a defiantly everyday, run-of-the-mill episode represents the final bow for an all-time classic

Key example: Fawlty Towers

Does a fictional television programme need a “last” episode anyway? Shows like Open All Hours and indeed Yes, Prime Minister were designed to be perpetual formats with very little having changed come the end of each instalment. Such programmes pursued a pattern that, once established, was never to be broken and as such it is perhaps better to think of some of our most beloved characters still ploughing their singular course through life, whether or not we are there accompanying them from our front rooms.

Part of the appeal of Fawlty Towers remains its unerring consistency: the same degree of slapstick, verbal humour and character comedy prevails in all the 12 shows. To refer to specific episodes usually involves relying on minutiae of the plot as opposed to qualitative or thematic descriptions such as “the sad one”, “an early one”, “Manuel’s episode” – all labels which imply a difference in tone or structure. Consequently it is inconceivable to imagine a proper final episode to Fawlty Towers. Certainly writers John Cleese and Connie Booth were never truly interested in anything beyond the situation that the characters found themselves in; and to have a final episode in which Basil lost the hotel or Manuel departed would have forced Cleese and Booth to include a level of character self analysis that would have seemed contrary to the style of the series. So because each episode was such a perfect evocation of the spirit of “Fawlty Towers“, there was simply nothing to gain by attempting to create a final episode that sought to change or even to reaffirm the characters.

10. “A fine company, a very fine company.”

Definition: Tears and laughter as time comes for the TV companies themselves to switch off their set

Key example: Southern Television (1981)

Last of all we must pay tribute to those moments when the industry itself has to bring its own curtain down. Here we turn to the legendary farewell of Southern Television, the ITV regional company that had broadcast to the South Eastern corner of Britain since 1958, as a classic example. Feeling cheated and betrayed by the IBA in losing their franchise to TVS, Southern opted to mark their passing by treating viewers in their region to a protracted display of spite and arrogance, and all on New Year’s Eve 1981 – traditionally a time for cheer and celebration. Those who tuned in to And It’s Goodbye From Us were presented with an assortment of long, dull clips from the Southern archives taken mostly from snooty operas or performances of classical music, as if to cement an impression of the channel as having always been resolutely highbrow and refined. But later came the real nadir: footage taken from the last ever Southern staff dinner, where company chairman Charles Wilson delivered a somewhat incoherent, supremely smug and rambling attack on the IBA and anyone in particular who didn’t like him or his organisation. His epic, charmless monologue ended with his call for a toast, “to Southern Television: a fine company, a very fine company.” The entertainment concluded with Richard Stilgoe showing up to perform a typically winsome tune called Portakabin TV, referring to how TVS had been forced to use temporary accommodation in Southern’s carpark in the run up to their launch. All in all a very unhappy new year for viewers in the South East.

A far more restrained and commendable farewell was offered up by Richard Dunn, chairman of Thames Television, on New Year’s Eve 1992. Thames had also lost their licence in a ITV franchise round, this time to Carlton. Earlier that same day yet another company had shut its doors, but in a completely different manner. TV-am, its slot snatched by GMTV, went out with its tacky, gaudy credentials proudly on display via an excruciating montage of former faces and guests set to the tune Simply The Best. The screen then somewhat oddly faded to black and white over a picture of the whole TV-am “family” waving goodbye. When L!ve TV had to pull the plug, however, the significance of the occasion was simply marked with a symbolic slaughter of the station’s notorious icon, News Bunny.