The lost world of the British sitcom spin-off

Andrew looks back on the days when TV comedy was fit fare for the shrinking number of UK cinema screens...

Caravanning holidays in Britain of the 1970s were not for the weak or faint hearted – if a diet of Frey Bentos tinned pies and Goblin beef burgers did not finish you off, the evening’s entertainment would almost certainly provide the coup de grace. Inevitably, the camp cinema would be showing a “big screen version” of a sitcom that you hoped had been forgotten 5 years ago but here it was again to haunt you – and in colour as well.

Cinematic spin-offs of popular BBC wireless shows had appeared as early as the 1930s with big screen versions of Band Waggon but although Hammer adopted BBC TV’s 1953 classic The Quatermass Experiment for the cinema in 1953 the sitcom spin-off remained a rarity until the end of the 1960s. There were exceptions of course – there was a 1958 version of ITV’s The Army Game, The Larkins was filmed as Inn for Trouble in 1959 and Whack-O!, Muir & Norden’s BBC sitcom about a cane-obsessed headmaster was made into 1960’s Bottoms Up (no comment) but in the main it was vehicles for television comedians and comic actors that dominated this period. However, the commercial success of the two Doctor Who films of the mid-1960s alerted cinema producers to the fact that audiences were keen to watch their small screen heroes in colour, especially as full colour broadcasting would not commence in the UK until December 1969.

Furthermore, for the makers of the BBC’s groundbreaking Till Death Do Us Part, cinema would offer the chance for more ‘adult’ situations than the small screen would allow and so a film version of the adventures of Alf, Elsie and Rita (not to mention a future Prime Ministerial Father-in-Law & Randy Scouse Git) went in production in 1968. However, the film of Till Death was only moderately commercially successful and it took the withdrawal of virtually all American production companies at the end of the decade to really stimulate the growth of the genre. A cinema version of the sitcom was cheap to produce, had the virtues of familiarity to the audiences and would still be fresher than the standard comedies of the period – St. Trianians and Norman Wisdom films largely disappeared after 1966, the last Doctorfilm was made in 1969 and although the Carry On films continued they were starting to look rather shabby. Sitcom spin-offs may have been loathed by most (actually nearly all) film critics but at a time when picture house closures were reaching endemic levels, they kept many people in work.

In fact it was Hammer’s success with three spin-offs from London Weekend Television’s On the Buses that was the real stimuli, with 1971’s On the Buses – the film – being one of the top money earners of the 1972. Indeed, for the keen amateur television historian one of the main advantages of these low-budget epics is that they provide a record of once-popular British sitcoms that have either been wiped or stand as much chance of being repeated as this writer does of winning the next London Marathon. Of the 30-odd spin-offs made between 1969 and 1980, one or two were big-screen versions of dramas – Doomwatch, The Sweeney – a handful were of well-regarded shows such as The Likely Lads, Bless This House and Porridge but others were spun off from sitcoms that are now only recalled by true obsessives who may or may not favour anoraks. Does any reader recall Wilfrid Pickles and Irene Handl in a long-forgotten ITV show entitled For the Love of Ada or Raymond Huntley in a BBC sitcom That’s Your Funeral? If not, a film version still exists with which to jog your failing memory.

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The other fascination with this sub-genre is related to their (very) low budgets; nearly every spin-off shows an England of quite amazing dismalness with overcast skies, rusting Hillman Minxes on every street corner, bare light bulbs and kitchens that reek of congealed fat. In many of these films it is a standard plot device to send the central characters on holiday but after one glimpse of Pontins in Holiday on the Buses, the average cinema goer would more likely to start thinking of The Colditz Story and as for the film of Nearest & Dearest it is rumoured that it was shown for several years behind the Iron Curtain as a surefire discouragement for anyone considering defecting to the UK.

But just occasionally, the film added, rather than detracted from, its television original. The movie of Rising Damp may have suffered from a too-clean London location and the loss of Richard Beckinsdale but it boasted a deeply poignant performance from Francis De La Tour as ‘Miss Jones’ who is seen as far more vulnerable than in the Yorkshire TV show whilst the films of Porridge and The Likely Lads benefited enormously from excellent use of authentic locations. The 1971 film of Dad’s Army may have lacked the coziness of the BBC series but the penultimate scene of Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mannering facing down a German paratroop officer is as memorable as any moment in the TV series. Another advantage is that of pace – any younger reader happening upon a DVD of a 1970s sitcom might be struck by the slowness of production but films of Please Sir and Man About The House at least have the virtues of brevity.

By 1980 the genre was really on its last legs – colour television had finally gained ascendancy over black & white in 1977 and the domestic VCR was starting to gain a tow-hold in suburbia. After the films of Rising Damp and George & Mildred the great British sitcom spin-offs were no more, leaving audiences with memories of a young Mike Reid as a strip club compere in the first Steptoe & Son film, of Stephen ‘Blakey’ Lewis staring at Anna Karen’s bottom in Holiday on the Buses – “Like a moon coming over a mountain!” – and of Richard O’Sullivan’s sideburns in Man About The House. In fact whenever I feel the urge to re-visit the lost world of Are You Being Served – the film – I always detect the aroma of burnt beef burgers and stale, flat Cresta cherryade. It must be old age encroaching.