5 Brilliant Big Screen Versions Of The Great British Sitcom

How classics like Porridge, Steptoe And Son and On The Buses fared when they made the step up...
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How classics like Porridge, Steptoe And Son and On The Buses fared when they made the step up...

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After Borat, In The Loop and The Inbetweeners, big screen adaptations of TV projects are box office news once more after years in the doldrums. However, there’s still a fair way to go before we reach the heady days of the 1970s, when fleapits the length of the country rocked with indifference to the antics of much loved characters transported to the big screen embarking on a series of convoluted plotlines trying desperately to flesh out the uneasy transfer from half hour romp to full length feature.  In all, more than 30 sitcom spin offs were made in a period that started in 1969 with “Till Death us do Part”s Alf Garnett telling his life story ensconced in the khazi and ended with George Roper being mistaken for a gangster a good few years before Del Boy in 1980’s “George and Mildred”.  Some were good – see below.  Some were bad.  And some were downright shit.  Seriously, has any TV company ever had the temerity to broadcast 1972’s “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”?  It’s doubtful.

The reason for this proliferation was simple. Money. The British Film Industry was on its knees in the early 70s.  Most of the big American studios had pulled their UK operations and the 98% rate of tax wasn’t exactly bringing talent flocking to these shores. These spin offs were, at first, a sure fire bums on seats winner and propped up the likes of Hammer, British Lion and ITC till the end of the decade when, just like the plot in “The Likely Lads”, it all fizzled out a bit too soon.  So in homage to this often maligned genre, let’s take a look at my own personal favourites...

Holiday on the Buses : 1973

A series of mishaps involving bare breasts, wrecked buses and Mr Bronson from “Grange Hill” saw our intrepid trio Stan - a sex starved bachelor still living at home in his mid 50s – Jack - a buck toothed candy floss haired lothario and Blakey - a gurning authority figure with a Hitler tache -  decamp to Pontins in Prestatyn for the holiday season.  The rest of the family soon joined them for a free holiday which descended into a series of japes and pranks involving paint, toilets and dolly birds a good 25 years too young.  All played out to a soundtrack of swanee whistles and Jack and Stan laughing like drains at the slightest thing.  It’s a simple enough premise and the public lapped it up, albeit not quite as much as the original “On the Buses” which beat “Diamonds are Forever” as the highest grossing film of 1971.

Steptoe and Son Ride Again : 1973

I debated long and hard over this.  The original is much loved and was a source of great confusion the first time I saw it as a youngster due to a) feeling a bit “funny” down below during the stripper scene and b) Albert offering to buy Dame Hilda Bracket a port and lemon.  However, I reckon it’s a rare case of the sequel being superior to the original so this everyday tale of lame horses, visually impaired greyhounds and insurance scams set against a reassuringly squalid Shepherds Bush backdrop gets the nod.  Cameos by Milo O’Shea as the ratarsed quack, Henry Woolf as Harold Shand’esque Frankie Barrow and the cellulite addled Diana Dors – sadly more “Worm that Turned” than “Yield to the Night” – as the (very) recently widowed floozy raise it a couple of notches above more rank and file adaptations.  As does the killer line “a Bombay shitehawk would’ve left more on it than that...”

Porridge : 1979

Not content with writing it, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais also took up the roles of  Director and Producer on this one.  Filmed during a harsh winter – you can tell how cold it is by the green snorkel parkas zipped up all the way and cuffs pulled over hands on old fashioned long sleeved football shirts - at Chelmsford Prison, it’s visually reminiscent of “Scum” released the same year.  To the best of my knowledge though, Fletch never sodomized Godber in the potting shed.  They were far too busy for any of that nonsense, desperately trying to break back IN after a celebrity football match set up by genial Harry Grout that may or may not have involved “Diddy” David Hamilton and Rene from “Allo Allo” went wrong.  Sadly, Richard Beckinsdale died at the tragically young age of 31 shortly after filming finished.

Bless This House : 1972

Aka “Carry On Suburbia”.  Produced by Peter Rodgers and directed by Gerald Thomas it features Carry On regulars Sid James, Sally Geeson, Peter Butterworth, Terry Scott, June Whitfield, Robin Askwith, Carol Hawkins, Patsy Rowlands and Bill Maynard.  For what it’s worth, the premise revolves around Terry and June – yes, THE Terry and June - moving in next door to Sid and Jean Abbot in some kind of gloriously bizarre parallel “Stella Street” sitcom universe. Naturally, they don’t get along so it’s inevitable their offspring played by Carol Hawkins and Robin Askwith - remarkably managing to keep his trousers on for the majority of the film – fall in love and get married just after Peter Butterworth manages to blow up the rhubarb brandy that’s been distilling rather nicely in the garage.

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Are You Being Served : 1977

Controversial choice as virtually everyone that’s ever set eyes on the film adaptation of Britain’s 20th Best Sitcom has condemned it.  CriticMichael Stailey actually went as far as labelling  it "guilty of violating almost every law of comedy and film.”  Yet again, the whole crew contrive to go abroad together, ending up in the Costa Plonka in the throes of a guerrilla uprising.  Standard laboured sitcom farce ensues - notes passed to the wrong people, clandestine visitors ending up in the wrong tents etc.  However, despite its complete and utter shitness, it’s the presence of the magnificent Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries that makes it worth a watch.  Somehow, every contrived situation serves as a flimsily veiled excuse for him to sashay past a disparaging Captain Peacock in a variety of pastel safari suits before delivering a trademark catty putdown or declare his availability to take an inside leg measurement.  It shouldn’t be as funny as it is.