Thursday, 20 October 2011

Is It Ever A Good Idea to Bring Back A Successful Show?

As we head towards the end of October we get closer and closer to the return of one of the BBC's juggernaut comedies of the 90's - Absolutely Fabulous.

The original series began in 1992 and I seem to remember they had a 'last ever' episode before dusting it off and bring it back again. But is it a good idea to bring something back? Is it a great treat for fans or a cynical attempt to breathe life into a once great brand?

Isn't Ab Fab a child of the 90's?

Some years ago the BBC had a star studded bash to celebrate some anniversary or other and decided the best way to honour its entertainment output was to hold an awards shows. The Beeb handed out gongs to the best shows it had ever produced. It was a one off and kind of worked.

The winner of the Best Sitcom OF ALL TIME gong was.. go on guess...

Well, it wasn't Hancock, or Steptoe and Son, or Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads or Porridge or Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers or Till Death Us Do Part or Only Fools and Horses. It was...

Men Behaving Badly.

At the time this was the most popular show on the BBC. And what happens when you ask the public to tell you about their favourite show ever at any given point in time? They tell you about their current favourite. Even at the time the recipients seemed baffled.
Some shows are timeless, some work at a certain moment in time. I saw an episode of Men Behaving Badly recently and it meant almost nothing. And yet at the time I would have said it was  consistently funny. Viewed from a distance I see that it captured a mood, a moment brilliantly.

But that moment has past. Some shows have a finite shelf-life.

If you brought it back today - remember this is the show the PUBLIC voted the best BBC comedy OF ALL TIME it would look wrong. We remember those characters the way they were, we don't see them the way they are now.

Attitudes change, actors change. They take on different roles, we see them in a new light. Have we ever really accepted Nicholas Lynhurst, so wonderful as Rodney in Only Fools and Horses, in any of the other roles he's played?. Be honest, I'm not alone in thinking 'that posh voice is all wrong'! I agree,  I'm typecasting the poor chap and he's a fine comedic actor but I'm talking about what the public will accept.

There are exceptions to the 'never go back' rule. Til Death Us Do part became In Sickness and In Health after a long lay off. Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell had kept Alf Garenet going during the interim years in other shows - The Thoughts of Chairman Alf and guest appearances - so when they resurrected him in sitcom form he'd never really gone away. And Speight was clever enough to challenge the old goat. Garnett may have been racist by inclination but when faced with having a black, gay home help he had to confront his prejudices. And in this show they didn't bring the whole cast back. Yes, Una Stubbs popped up just occasionally as Alf's daughter, Rita and and almost unrecognisable Dandy Nicholls reprised the role of Else Alf's wife but she wasn't well and upon her death the series continued with Alf at its epicentre.
Garnett was a tool for satire. His bigoted views, his prejudice and ill-informed rants were the opposite of what writer Johnny Speight believed. Speight thought that showing people what an idiot Garnett was would make people question their own bigotry. Of course the danger with a character like that is that some people will nod and agree with him. But that's another story.

The return of Alf Garnett worked. As did the return of The Likely Lads. Moved on from the gentle black and white 1960's series the lads returned in full 1970's colour and scaled ever greater heights. The characters had grown as had writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. They chimed with the age but if you watch those show now there's still a lot of universal truth in there - and that's timeless.

The recent reincarnation of Reggie Perrin is another matter. Viewed as a comedy about a middle aged man in crisis it's fine. But why call it Reggin Perrin? Some characters are too closely associated with one actor - Steve Martin as Sgt Bilko anyone? - Leonard Rossiter was Reggie Perrin, Reggie Perrin was Leonard Rossiter. What's more the Perrin scripts were very stylised, there is a heightened realism about them, something that worked well in the 70's series that clangs in the recent resurrection. For me they should have kept the ghost of Reggie in the writer's room and called it something else.

In the US there have been any number of attempts to resurrect old shows with new actors - or spin off characters into their own shows. I should do a whole blog about Spin Offs, a fascinating area - compare Frasier with After Mash!

Which brings me full circle to Ab Fab. They've made three shows, specials to celebrate the 20th anniversary. The actors have all gone on to do other things in recent years. Julia Sawallah has had success with the BBC One costume drama series Lark Rise to Candleford.  Joanna Lumley
Lumley has been in the public eye politically with her campaign to help Gurkhas soldiers who retired before 1997 win the right to settle in the UK. Her acting career has seen her in shows like Jam and Jerusalem, Mistresses and Marple. 

Until recently the show's creator, writer and driving force, Jennifer Saunders, continued her partnership with Dawn French in their sketch shows. Recently she's been involved in the one-off return of the Comic Strip for Channel 4. 

Does any of that baggage clutter up the Ab Fab characters? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think seeing Julia Sawalha as Saff, all grown up, might be a stretch. But hey.

I have no idea whether it Ab Fab will work, I have my thoughts but the proof will be in the screening - and then we can all decide.

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