The Cult of Sunday, BBC4
Timewatch: Ten Pound Poms, BBC2
Vets didn't make me squeal with delight
Monday 04 February 2008
"It's cup-of-cocoa drama," said one of the contributors to The Cult of Sunday's opening episode about All Creatures Great and Small. "It's warm and simple and nice and lovely and it's not going to frighten the horses." He didn't add that it also has the capacity to drop a shire horse where it stands, such is its sedative potency, but then that's the point, I guess. Sunday-night drama is supposed to aneasthetise the process of work re-entry, to send the audience to bed soporific and soothed. Hence, programmes such as Wild at Heart, which gives the vet a twist of safari exoticism, and Lark Rise to Candleford, television's equivalent of a Lilliput Lane cottage collectible.
Robert Hardy apparently advised the BBC against making the James Herriot books into a series. "It will bore the townspeople and annoy the country people," he said. Perhaps that's why he signed up for the first series, imagining that he could pocket the fee and pass on his way relatively unscarred. But he paid for his error of judgement by finding himself trapped in a seven-series hit, which bricked him into a corner as the irascible Siegfried. He got so fed up with having to lose his temper on screen that he started losing it off screen, too, stomping off set when the scripts didn't meet his exacting tantrum standards. And he wasn't in repentant mood here. "It needs steel and a stone to make a spark," he said, though he unhelpfully didn't reveal in which of the 90 episodes the spark had occurred.
Still if the drama itself was resistant to anything more elaborately plotted than a pub anecdote things did happen off screen. Christopher Timothy, who'd been plucked from obscurity to take the lead role, stepped in front of a car after just six episodes had been filmed (it's possible it was a cry for help). But after being pinned and plated he staggered back in front of the cameras nine weeks later. Presumably an explanatory plot-turn was pinned into place as well, to account for the Long John Silver lurch that now accompanied his every movement, but perhaps, Acorn Antiques-style, they just hoped the viewers wouldn't notice. He also had an affair with his screen wife, Carol Drinkwater, which excited the tabloids at the time. You hope for her sake that he washed his hands well because he seemed to spend more time than was strictly necessary with his arm up the back passage of a cow, a sequence the BBC, with an admirable commitment to authenticity, insisted on filming without stunt-doubles, human or bovine. And, judging from the clips shown here, when he wasn't doing that he was falling face first into a pile of manure, a trope that the series clearly regarded as inexhaustible in its hilarity. Timothy, too, paid for his success, climbing the stairs to his agent's office years after the series had ended to hear the man bellowing in rage down the phone. "He's not a vet! He's a bloody actor!"
If production companies are running short of Fifties and Sixties settings for unchallenging dramas of family life they could do worse than check out the documentary Timewatch: Ten Pound Poms, which looked back at the assisted-passage scheme set up just after the war. The subject offers everything – perfect co-production opportunities, culture shock, tales of aspiration and set-back and even, should you really feel the need, the possibility of ailing farm animals and poorly koalas. On the other hand, they'd have to tone down the disillusionment and bitterness that many of those who took up the offer of a new life eventually came to feel.
On the face of it, it was a terrific deal. For just £10, the price of a one- way passage, you could leave behind rationing, and bomb damage and record-breaking winters for the sunshine of Australia. When emigrants reached Australia, though, some of them discovered that its charms had been oversold by the Australian government information films. One women decided to walk into Perth one day to do a bit of window-shopping and walked straight through and out the other side without noticing, so undeveloped was it at the time. Others found themselves in cockroad-infested shacks out in the bush, thinking longingly of England.
But for every disappointment there seemed to be a matching delight. "How much can I have?" asked one woman, faced with the astonishing spectacle of an overflowing meat counter. "You can have the whole ruddy shop if you want," the butcher replied, magic words for anyone who'd measured meat out in ounces. John and Sylvia, admirably can-do East Enders, transformed their lives, taking advantage of local-education schemes to qualify as a psychologist and psychotherapist. And John Howell, a young boy who'd hoped only for a horse and dog with sticky-up ears, ended up with millions, building on a little block of coastal paradise that he'd bought with money saved from weekend work. They'd gone voluntarily but you could say they were transported, too.
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