Saturday, 17 November 2007

Doctor in the House Revisited

I’ve been watching old episodes (the only type) of the LWT comedy series Doctor in the House. I have a soft spot for this series as it was one of the few English programmes I could see when I was growing up in the States, shown usually near midnight on the little watched public broadcast channel, PBS. That was in the early 80s and even then, this 70s programme looked severely dated, perhaps because of the huge gap in fashions, haircuts and film between the two decades, particularly as the sitcom was staged at the beginning of the 70s with many lingering 60s fashions, including distinctly dodgy sideburns.

I made a great choice when using a recent perfect gift of an Amazon gift certificate to get the DVD of the second series as it’s a nostalgic joy. Mind you, my expectations were low; I hadn’t remembered it as being so funny. But then, I was surprised to find that this series was written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, later of the Goodies and even later of great Radio 4 panel programmes and Spring/Autumnwatch, respectively. Some episodes in the first series, which I can’t wait to delve into, were written by later Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Although I had always enjoyed the programme, I hadn’t expected anyone with such impressive comic pedigrees to have been involved. ….I also found that the nearly omnipresent David Jason is even in this, playing an old Yugoslavian patient.

As a young American, I did wonder how these doctors got so many girls, as I also wondered about womanising Jacko of Brush Strokes, but then our cultures had different tastes. Robin Nedwell, who played Duncan Waring, was fairly cute if you could cut his hair, shave the sideburns and get him better clothes (specifically looser trousers), but I never fancied the lead character, Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans), though I naturally admired his honest character.

A particularly sad fact is that, despite his success in this programme and its spin-off, Doctor at Large, Barry Evans’ career never amounted to much more, and his life is a bit of a sad story so I would have wished better for him. He grew up in an orphanage but got his chance by winning a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama. He ironically—given his final career--starred in the 1976 sex farce Adventures of a Taxi Driver, as well as the awful series Mind Your Language, where he played an Upton type of teacher of English as a foreign language to a room full of nearly racist stereotypes, and sadly seems to have done little else as an actor. He ended his life as a taxi driver in his birthplace, Melton Mowbray, where he died in 1997 at the age of 53 in mysterious circumstances. The coroner recorded an open verdict on his death apparently by alcohol poisoning; he had been found dead in his bungalow with bottles of whiskey and aspirins nearby. A youth was charged with his murder, but acquitted on lack of evidence.

Robin Nedwell, who played Upton’s (cute) best friend Duncan Waring, also died at an early age, just two years later. He fell from a ladder, visited hospital where he got stitches, then returned home. After feeling unwell for a couple of days after that, he saw his GP and whilst at the surgery, suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 52.

The sad tale of Barry Evans reminds me of Bob Crane, who once enjoyed enormous success as the loveable Hogan in the American comedy about inmates in a German World War II prisoner of war camp, Hogan's Heroes. He also later experienced a bit of a work drought, although when he was 49, he bought the rights to the play Beginner’s Luck, which he directed and starred in, touring small town America. In 1978, when the play reached Scottsdale, Arizona, he was found in his rented room beaten to death with a video camera tripod and strangled with the camera’s cord, apparently while he slept. Terribly sad. Crane’s widow, whom he had been divorcing at the time, was the actress Sigrid Valdis, who played Hilda in Hogan’s Heroes, and they had they married on the set eight years before.

But I have digressed into gloom when I began to talk about how much I enjoyed watching these old episodes of Doctor in the House. And its other alumni were busy successes. George Layton, who played Paul Collier, is still going strong and has enjoyed enormous success as a writer as well as actor. He was probably equally as well known for his role in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and was even a regular in the corny series Sunburn in 2000.

Jonathan Lynn, who played the extremely irritating Irish rugger player Danny Hooley in series 2, has also fared well as half of the writing team of the astounding Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister and a director of acclaimed films My Cousin Vinny and less acclaimed but popular ones like Nuns on the Run.

On the set of the Doctor series at all times was the president of Equity, the actor’s union. Not because of any statutory requirement, but because it was Ernest Clark, who played the wonderful but feared Professor Loftus. Clark died in 1994 at the age of 82, and his widow Julia is the daughter of film star Margaret Lockwood.

Many of the Doctor alumni regrouped for a brief revival in 1991, Doctor at the Top, obviously without poor Bob Evans. Sadly, no matter how much we think we’d like them or how much the telly folk think they need to force them on us, revivals don’t generally work, do they--especially without the lead character (see Reggie Perrin) or when the novelty has passed (see Absolutely Fabulous).

Anyway, I highly recommend revisiting Doctor in the House, or generally enjoying the enormous pleasure of locking oneself away for a weekend and delving into a nostalgic box set of DVDs. It can sometimes feel like a quick ride in a time machine, taking you back to the emotional bookmark in your life when you first saw those programmes, and to memories of the person with whom you enjoyed them. When the old London Weekend Television logo appeared and the theme tune kicked in over a shot of the fictional St Swithin's Hospital (the old Wanstead Hospital in E11, now the residential Clock Court), my heart nearly fluttered. Reliving the first series of Watching had a similar remarkable effect on me not too long ago, but that’s another story. Turning back time in this way makes life seem so much simpler than it is, just for a while. It is pure, fine escapism that most of us could really use in these chaotic days of stress and deadlines. Just don’t be tempted to grow any dodgy sideburns in tribute.

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