Simon Brett

Situation Tragedy

“TELEVISION: a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well done.”

Ernie Kovacs


The cast didn’t see the opening titles for West End Television’s new situation comedy until just before the Dress Run on the day of the pilot recording in January. Even the Director and Producer hadn’t seen the final version till then. The titles were animated and, as every television Cost Planner in the world insists on saying lugubriously at every budget meeting he attends, animation is expensive and takes time. (From the point of view of the cast, the animated titles were a strong encouragement. A pilot show of uncertain future would often be prefaced by a cheap mock-up from Graphics, played over music from disc. The fact that West End Television had invested in animation and had commissioned a special signature tune by none other than Carl Anthony, composer of Lumpkin! and other hit musicals, suggested more than tentative confidence in the new project.)

The animation showed cartoon figures of a tweeded Colonel and wispy wife on a golf course. The flags in the holes of the distant greens were Union Jacks. The tweeded Colonel thrashed and puffed bad-temperedly at the ball, while his wispy wife carried his clubs and seemed sweetly to offer unwelcome advice. Carl Anthony’s music, though played on steel guitars and synthesisers, had the blimpish overtones of military marches.

Over this pleasing charade, the following words appeared, in varied sizes of type (which had been the subject of earnest discussion between the agents of the various artists involved and the Casting Director who negotiated their contracts):

Aurelia Howarth

George Birkitt


The Strutters


Rod Tisdale


Bernard Walton

Nick Coxhill and Debbi Hartley

These last two, likely to play regular parts in any ensuing series of The Strutters, had shrewd agents, who had insisted on their clients being billed at the beginning of the show.

Charles Paris, who would play the regular part of Reg, the golf club barman. in any ensuing series of The Strutters, had as his agent one Maurice Skellern, who was so surprised at the prospect of his client being in potentially regular and lucrative employment that he hadn’t thought to ask about billing.

Most of the cast were clustered in the audience seats of Studio A at W.E.T. House, watching the titles on the large eidophor screen suspended above them. As the music faded and the screen went blank, Bernard Walton rose to his feet. ‘I see,’ he commented shortly. ‘If I’m wanted, I’ll be in my so-called dressing room, Number Three.’

‘What’s got up his nose?’ Charles Paris asked George Birkitt, who was sitting beside him.

‘Doesn’t like the billing, I imagine.’

‘Why? What’s wrong with it? He can’t surely expect to be above you and Aurelia. It’s your show, after all.’

‘No, he wouldn’t want that. He just probably thinks he should be above the title or have a ‘Special Guest Appearance’ tag. No doubt he thinks the word “with” is demeaning for someone of his stature.’

‘God, it must be awful to have to worry about things like that.’

‘Ah well, when you’re a Star, it’s important. You can’t afford to let your status slip.’

‘Hmm. I don’t think I’ll ever have that problem,’ said Charles Paris, with his customary accurate assessment of his own position in the theatrical hierarchy. He felt mellow. The price of alcohol was pleasingly subsidised in the West End Television bar. Four glasses of red wine, and a couple of large Bell’s to settle them, had slipped down very comfortably. Have to have a pee before the Dress Run starts, he thought lazily.

Once you got used to the pace of television, he found, it was quite pleasant. Once you realised it was just unremittingly slow and that there was lots of hanging around. Of course, it’d be different if you had a big part, if you had to stand around in character all the time they rearranged their cameras, repositioned their sound-booms, and titivated set and costumes. Then you might be affected by the pervading atmosphere of bad temper and barely suppressed panic characteristic of television studios. But when you were playing Reg, the golf club barman, when you had mastered your fourteen lines and two moves during a lazy week of morning rehearsals, and when you had got four glasses of red wine and two large Bell’s inside you, you could drift serenely through, unaffected by your environment.

George Birkitt, considering he was about to record his first starring television performance, also seemed commendably relaxed and sensible. He picked up Charles’s remark. ‘No, heaven forbid. All that star business is just not worth the aggravation.’

‘Will you say the same when The Strutters is top of the ratings and you can’t go into a pub without people saying, “Ooh, look, it’s Colonel Strutter”?’

‘I’ll face that problem when I come to it,’ said George with a grin. ‘Anyway, there’s many a slip, and all that. I’ve been in too many shows that were going to change the course of theatrical history and then closed after one night, to get too excited about this.’

‘Oh, come on, you must have got a frisson when you saw those titles, your name at the top with Aurelia. Must mean something.’

‘Not a lot. “Men are led by toys” — I think Napoleon said that.’ George Birkitt shrugged non-committally, but there was a gleam of childlike excitement in his eye. Afraid it was too transparent, he changed the subject. ‘Perhaps you ought to go and calm Bernard down. He’s your friend, isn’t he?’

‘Hardly,’ said Charles, though it was a difficult question to answer. He had known Bernard Walton quite well when the young man had started his theatrical career, and indeed in a production of She Stoops to Conquer in Cardiff (‘Somewhat leaden-footed’ — Western Mail) Charles had been the first director to make a feature of the natural stammer which was now such a popular butt of impressionists. But as Bernard Walton’s career had shot upwards, he had moved into a rather different league from his former mentor. Charles was quite content that this should be so, since he had never felt a great affinity for the young man, and certainly no affinity for the glamorous, social side of showbusiness in which he now moved. Bernard, however, would occasionally swoop down on Charles with embarrassingly patronising invitations or offers. Charles usually avoided the invitations, feeling, not without justification, that he would only be paraded as evidence of the star’s common touch and proof of how loyal he remained to old friends. The moment Charles dreaded was the inevitable one when Bernard became the subject of This Is Your Life, and once again wheeled out the old chum from Cardiff to testify to his genuine, unspoiled nature. Gestures like keeping Charles in tow, the charity work he did with handicapped children, fund-raising for the Variety Club and Lords’ Taverners (all discreetly leaked to the press by his Publicity Manager), together with comments in the Sun about the return of the mini-skirt and descriptions of his favourite pudding in the

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