Last Night's TV - The Betty Driver Story, ITV1; A Farmer's Life for Me, BBC2
Still on the sunny side of the street
Wednesday 02 February 2011
They'll have to shoot me to get rid of me," said the subject of
The Betty Driver Story, ITV's tribute to television's longest-serving barmaid. It isn't the kind of phrase many soap stars would use casually, given the genre's addiction to ratings-boosting catastrophe, but Betty Driver probably feels relatively safe. She's a national treasure, for one thing, and the producers have promised her that she can go at a time and in a manner of her choosing. And since she concluded the programme by assuring us that she wants "to die working", I suppose there's an outside chance that retirement and plot bombshell might still coincide. This account of her life – which seemed to have about two-and-a-half times the quantity of career than most lives can absorb – at times veered strangely close to a benign episode of Acorn Antiques, with Ian McKellen's gentle voiceover delivering lines that could easily have been a cue for a tart joke about Mrs Overall ("As a senior member of the cast, Betty is happy to share the tricks of the trade with her younger colleagues"). But the affection was genuine and the story fascinating.
Driver began her career in sepia (as "Manchester's star juvenile... a Cute and Clever kiddie in an Irresistibly Attractive Act") developed it in black and white, in British films and the early days of Coronation Street, and is still going strong in high definition. You wouldn't bet against her carrying on until they're routinely broadcasting the soap in 3D, though one of the secrets of her longevity as a performer may lie in the fact that she's always been brilliantly two-dimensional, a presence with an outline you can read from miles away. They talked here of how she'd nearly made it into a George Formby film once, until Formby's wife spotted the risk of being upstaged and had her dropped from the cast, but the little clips they showed of her starring roles in Penny Paradise and Let's Be Famous alerted you to something distinctively Thirties in her acting style. No method or psychological grandstanding, just a bright, crisp delineation of sturdy character.
She was absolutely perfect for a soap like Coronation Street, which prefers its characters like extra-strong mints, but one of the touching things about ITV's film was that Coronation Street turned out to be perfect for Betty Driver too, a place of professional contentment and friendship after a life of serial personal disappointment. Daughter of an emotionally cold, exploitative mother ("Aahh... there's a shilling or two to be made out of this one," was how she characterised her mother's realisation that she had talent), she lost her first fortune to her father's drinking and her second to a South African actor called Wally Peterson, who looked as if he'd been delivered from central casting at Elstree for the role of "gold-digging cad". Despite these setbacks, Driver was a star several times over, on screen, radio and television, where she even had her own variety show (she had the kind of voice that could cut through radio static and primitive microphone technology). But after injuring her back doing a bit of sitcom slapstick with Arthur Lowe in a Sixties sitcom called Pardon the Expression (itself a Coronation Street spin-off), she decided to retire from showbiz, opening a pub with her adored younger sister, Freda. Which is when career number two... or possibly three... began, after a Coronation Street producer persuaded her to return to acting and pull fictional pints rather than real ones. Her colleagues spoke of her as if she was a Northern version of the Queen Mother, and you couldn't help but hope that she too will make past 100 and still be on screen when she does.
In A Farmer's Life for Me, Jimmy Doherty presides over nine couples who are hoping to replicate his own move from nine-to-five wage slavery to the gruelling five-to-nine day of the average farmer. "It's such a wholesome existence," said one hopeful at the beginning, neatly encapsulating the fantasy that having cow or pig shit on your boots will somehow root you more satisfyingly in the world. As in The Restaurant, there's only one dream (25 acres of Suffolk and a cash subsidy for a year) available to fulfil 18 fantasies and the couples will have to compete for it by undergoing a kind of agricultural assault course, with the weakest pair getting cropped each week.
Their first test was to turn a small plot of land into a mini-farm, preparing the soil for sowing and deciding exactly how they were going to extract money from it. Ed and Ali, who recently spent a year in the Pyrenees, had come up with an idea for serviced allotments and cannily decided to buy in some pigs to manure the land for them first. Linda and Michaela intended to sell vegetable and meat kits from their smallholding, a business plan that looked as if it would be undermined by Linda's tendency to flinch whenever a sheep looked at her. And Mike and Angela, who intended to produce mutton sausages, went at the task as if they were applying to join the SAS. "We've done the hardest labour of anyone here... I don't care what anyone says or thinks," said a sweat-drenched Mike proudly, apparently not having grasped that calorific output wasn't going to be the final measure of success. After the obligatory will they/won't they moment over task completion Jimmy sent Linda and Michaela packing, rightly concluding that they were much better at bickering than husbandry.
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