With its unique brand of humour, Liverpool is a renowned bedrock of comedy.
Consequently, it has been the setting for some memorable sitcoms, some more successful in capturing the Scouse spirit than others…
The Wackers (1975)
Produced by London based Thames Television and written by Mancunian Vince Powell, The Wackers set out to be the ultimate scouse comedy. It turned out the ultimate stereotype.
Billy and Mary Clarkson (Ken Jones and Sheila Fay) are a couple of Merseyside mixed marriage. Not only half catholic and half protestant, but half Everton supporters and half Liverpool.
Having come out of a stretch in prison, Billy has to adjust to a changed family. His eldest son Tony (David Casey) speaks in an Oxbridge acquired accent his father detests. Daughter Bernadette (Alison Steadman) is a flirtatious, self-styled “Sex symbol of Scouse land” who – in one controversial scene – is eyed up by her own grandad (Joe Gladwin).
The Clarksons live in an outside lavvie terrace where Billy struggles to stay out of prison, while his Mary Ellen wife is rarely out of hair curlers. Mounting complaints about the show’s exaggerated portrayal of Liverpudlians led to it being pulled just short of its final episode and never seen again.
Or perhaps the problem lay with the conceit. A Liverpool family half catholic, half protestant? Well, maybe. But half Everton, half Liverpool supporters? Oh, go ‘ed!
Three unemployed 19 year olds are willing to help anyone who offers work. Tex (Stephen McGann), forever optimist, Lenny (David Albany) philosopher and poet with his Grade 4 CSE English Literature, and Davva (Jake Abraham) rumoured to be Merseyside’s first brain-transplant donor.
Each episode opened with the trio meeting in a park shelter to make plans for the day, then closed at the same location with the boys reflecting on the day’s achievements… which were usually nothing. But that did not deter their next venture.
The series was recorded in Birmingham, with various locations across the country standing in for Liverpool. Writer Joe Boyle deliberately portrayed an upbeat view of life on the dole, commenting “there are a lot of people in Liverpool like these three, but they are never seen on television”.
Popular enough out the time, similarities to a certain Carla Lane comedy overtaking in the ratings ensured its demise. Which leads nicely to…
Meet the Boswell family. Mother Nellie (Jean Boht), eldest son Joey (Peter Howitt), younger brothers Jack, Adrian and Billy (Victor McGuire, Jonathan Morris and Nick Conway) and sister Aveline (Gilly Coleman), who dreams of modelling in the glossies but ends up a vicar’s wife.
The series charts how the siblings negotiate their way through unemployment in 1980s Britain, particularly hustler and chief bread winner Joey, who plays the welfare system like a Stradivarius.
While the Boswell’s little triumphs may be over idealised, Bread became a smash hit, partly due to its innovative use of soap style cliffhangers that kept the viewer hooked.
As usually the case with long running sitcoms, cast members departed along the way. When Gilly Coleman and Peter Howitt left after series five, their parts were recast. Melanie Hill seamlessly stepped into Aveline’s shoes, though Graham Bickley’s Joey seemed to lack the authority and command of his predecessor.
Nevertheless, Bread soldiered on for another three years before concluding in 1991. But if there is one observation to be made, it is this. If the Boswell brothers were really Liverpool lads, how come we never saw them down the pub or at the match?
The Liver Birds (1969-79, 1996)
The Liver Birds was created by Carla Lane and Myra Taylor, and originally featured Dawn (Pauline Collins) and Beryl Hennessy (Polly James) sharing a bedsit on Liverpool’s Huskisson Street. Collins left after the first series and was replaced by Nerys Hughes as Sandra, whose middle class background and snooty mother (Mollie Sugden) contrasted Beryl’s working class Scouse mam (Sheila Fay).
When Myra Taylor bowed out as co-writer, Carla Lane moved the pair into a spacious flat, allowing a wider canvas for other regulars. Two of these were John Nettles as Sandra’s boyfriend, Paul, and Jonathan Lynn as Beryl’s significant other.
When Polly James decided to leave, she was replaced by Carol Boswell (Elizabeth Estensen) and her extended family including rabbit obsessed brother Lucien (Michael Angelis) and their God fearing mother, Mrs. Boswell (Carmel McSharry).
The show ended 1979, but in 1996 Beryl and Sandra were reunited for a new version as middle aged divorcees. For some reason, Carla Lane mashed up the show’s own history by reassigning Carmel McSharry as Beryl’s mother, Mrs. Hennessy, and Lucien as her brother. This air brushing out of Sheila Fay and Elizabeth Estensen did not go down with long standing fans and it was cancelled after seven episodes.
Mischievous Livertpool teenager Francis Scully began life as a series of short stories by Alan Bleasdale, subsequently broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside in 1971. Books and plays followed before the character’s first TV appearance in a 1978 BBC Play for Today, Scully’s New Year’s Eve where he was played by Andrew Schofield with Ray Kingsley as his pal, Mooey.
In 1979, Schofield and Kingsley were asked to recreate the characters for the Granada TV Saturday morning show, The Mersey Pirate, which cemented their actor ownership of the parts.
Five years later, Channel 4 reunited the two actors for a seven episode series which revolved around Scully making trouble for his teachers, who have promised to get him a trial with Liverpool FC if he appears in the school panto.
Shot entirely on film, the series is arguably more quirky drama with comedy than traditional sitcom. Scully’s Billy Liar type daydreams, usually involving Liverpool FC players, lends a comically surreal touch, and the use of genuine Merseyside locations adds an authentic texture.
Elvis Costello, who sings the show’s theme, Turning the Town Red, also appears as Scully’s brother.
It was during a drama workshop at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre that Jim Hitchmough originally conceived the idea for Watching. After developing it into a successful stage play, he was commissioned by Granada Television to make a series.
Malcolm Stoneway (Paul Brown) and Brenda Wilson (Emma Wray) are a seemingly mismatched couple, she being a gobby working class Liverpool lass, he a quiet birdwatcher from middle class Wirral who lives with an aspiring but dominating mother (Patsy Byrne).
The title not only refers to Malcom’s pastime, but also to Brenda’s habit of people watching with her sister Pamela (Lisa Tarbuck). She is initially bored with his birdwatching and riding in the sidecar of a Norton motorbike, while his mother disapproves of a girl from the wrong side of the Mersey.
Hitchmough’s gentle humour and sparkling dialogue ensured it became a much loved show, viewers faithfully following the couple’s trials and tribulations – including Malcolm’s short lived marriage to the humourless Lucinda (Elizabeth Morton) during a period of separation from Brenda.
The pair finally tied the knot in 1993, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.