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Fresh Fields: Happy 30th Birthday

 

This week marks 30 years since Fresh Fields first hit our screens and I’ve just spent a fantastic few weeks watching all four series of the 1980s classic. As with Dear John and Streets Apart, it was a very nostalgic trip down memory lane to eighties bliss! I was very young when Fresh Fields was first shown on our screens, so even though I remember the British sit-com which ran from 1984 to 1989, I couldn’t remember very much about the show other than the fact that it starred the late Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie. In fact I remember it’s sequel French Fields much better – probably because I was a little older when it was broadcast.

Written by John Chapman, the show centres around William and Hester Fields, played by Rodgers and McKenzie; a devoted, middle-aged, married couple who live something of an idyllic life in Barnes, South-West London. They’ve been married for twenty years and have two adult children who have left home. William works hard as an accountant in the city in order to provide a good life for the two of them, while Hester is a housewife and looks after the home – and William! They share their beautiful home with Hester’s mother Nancy (played by Fanny Rowe) who lives in the granny flat at the bottom of the garden.

Much of the humour in the show comes from Hester’s non-stop methods of improving her life with a multitude of hobbies and interests in order to keep things ‘fresh’ and interesting and to fill the void that comes with empty-nest syndrome. Pottery, cooking courses fencing, keep-fit, painting, DIY… you name it, Hester’s tried it, although not always culminating in great results! She also throws herself into ventures such as delivering meals to the elderly and cooking in a restaurant. The opening credits set the tonefor the show: Hester and William are shown in silhouette form, with Hester being super active and on the go, trying out different activities while William is content just to sit and read the paper.

The other source of humour is Hester’s neighbour and best friend, Sonia (played by Ann Beach) who lets herself into the Fields’ home, especially at inconvenient times with her catchphrase ‘It’s only Sonia’ and is forever ‘borrowing’ things from the Fields with the intention of returning them but of course it never happens. Sonia grates on William to great comic effect but Hester is very fond of her and finds it hard to turn down any of her requests. Despite my initial reservations that Sonia was taking advantage of Hester’s generous nature, it gradually becomes evident that the two women do indeed share a strong bond.

I also loved the sub-plot between Hester’s estranged parents Nancy and Guy (played by Fawlty Towers’ Ballard Berkeley) who divorced forty years earlier after Guy ran off with and eventually married another woman while Hester was a very young child. After all these years. Guy now plans to win Nancy back but Nancy is a very strong-willed, no-nonsense, straight-talking lady who claims that she has no interest in Guy but over the course of several episodes, viewers start to see her soften towards her errant ex-husband…

Although the Field’s have two children, Tom and Emma, they never appear in the show, although Emma often phones her parents and can be heard to be rattling off a message at three hundred words per second! She eventually marries her live-in boyfriend Peter and the couple have a little boy named Guy after his great-grandfather. William and Hester’s son-in-law and baby grandson do make a few appearances – but without Emma.

My memories of Fresh Fields when I was a child are very vague because growing up I only ever caught glimpses of the show. The only episode that rang any bells was the one where William had to rid the house of a spider as Hester was terrified of spiders. Comedies were a big deal in our household as my parents, especially my father, were huge fans of the genre but I don’t recall them talking about Fresh Fields as often as they talked about the other sit-coms of that time. But I’m glad that I got reacquainted with the show in adulthood because I think it’s a fantastic sit-com and now that I’m older, I can appreciate it more.

There was so much I liked about the show that I don’t know where to begin. I loved the feel-good theme tune by Harry Stoneham. I also loved the chemistry between Rodgers and McKenzie. It was an amazing bit of casting as the two work very well together as a credible, married couple. I also adored their home in Barnes. By today’s standards it may appear dated but I could so see myself living in a place like that. And I thought it was sweet that Hester had such a close bond with her mother that she wanted her living with them. How many people could tolerate having their mother live with them? The supporting characters, which included Sonia’s husband John and William’s trusted secretary, Miss Denham played by Daphne Oxenford, were all a little eccentric in some way and they worked brilliantly together. Sonia proved to be extremely popular and in one episode, the studio audience even gave her a round of applause when she appeared.

 

But the show was also something of a shock to the system as it highlighted just how much times and society have changed in the last thirty years – which for me seems like only yesterday! I absolutely loved the Fields’ house but how many of us can afford a house like that today, complete with a granny flat for our dear old mum? How many of us even know who our neighbours are let alone socialise with them? A great fuss is made about the fact that William and Hester’s daughter is ‘living in sin’ with her boyfriend and gets pregnant before getting married but of course in the twenty first century, nobody would bat an eyelid. And Hester’s excitement when she gets a new cordless phone delivered had me in stitches! She and Sonia reminded me of a couple of kids who’d stumbled across a great source of magic. Goodness knows what they’d have made of the state-of-the-art mobile phones we can’t live without today. To be honest it’s a bigger surprise for me knowing that someone actually has a landline! Furthermore it’s refreshing to see a TV show with a happily married couple and no trace of infidelity – a rarity nowadays!

Strange as this may sound but Hester’s use of the word ‘housecoat’ took me back to my very early childhood when Mum had a black and white floral housecoat with bell sleeves and was very pretty. I don’t think anyone uses the word housecoat today as it would most definitely be a dressing gown or a robe. And incidentally the housecoat Hester wore was stunning – a beautiful blue number with angel sleeves I would love to get hold of for myself. Who said the eighties was the time that style forgot?

 

I’ve read reviews in which the show has been labelled ‘middle-of-the-road’ and a ‘good schedule filler’. Well I don’t know any schedule fillers which lasted for four series, won an international Emmy award and where the lead actress won the TV Times award for best female comedy performance for five consecutive years. Not bad for a ‘middle-of-the-road’ sit-com! Most of the show’s fans found Fresh Fields to be humorous and entertaining however, I do understand that during the early eighties, there was the emergence of an alternative brand of humour with shows such as The Young Ones and Not The Nine O’ Clock News which I think the younger generation of the time would have been more geared towards.

But there’s no denying that Fresh Fields was great family entertainment. Some of the highlights for me were Hester having to change literally en route to her daughter’s wedding; Sonia hosting a wine-tasting event at the Fields’ home where Hester runs into her glamorous blonde rival; William helping Hester with the catering at an event and having to hide from his clients; Hester’s run-ins with the law while delivering meals-on-wheels, and the final episode where Hester celebrated her forty-fifth birthday. And the episode where Emma’s parents-in-law invite themselves to stay over at the Fields’ actually made me cry – with laughter! I’m just sorry there weren’t more series of Fresh Fields. I’m even more sorrier that thirty years later it’s not mentioned as often as some of its contemporaries here in the UK as it’s such a brilliant bit of comedy. But I know it’s still remembered quite fondly in Australia and the United States.

 

But now that I’ve rediscovered it, I will most definitely watch it again. Boxed DVD set, here I come! And Happy thirtieth to you, Fresh Fields!

 

 
 

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Dear John: Unforgettable… But Sadly Forgotten!

If ever there was a prize for the most underrated TV sitcom of all time, never mind gold, Dear John, would win platinum every time! Despite being the brainchild of the legendary John Sullivan, Dear John is something of a forgotten gem. Today, Dear John conjures up images of Channing Tatum’s bare torso but back in 1986 before anyone had even glimpsed such delights, it was compulsive Sunday evening viewing with a catchy, bittersweet theme tune.

 

The show’s title refers to break-up letters sent by girls to their soon-to-.be ex-boyfriends – although for years, I thought ‘Dear John’ letters got their name from the show! Middle aged and recently divorced school teacher, John Lacey, is the show’s reluctant hero forced to start his life over again after his wife runs off with his best friend. With his love rival taking residence in the former marital home with his family, John is forced to find lodgings in a dingy bedsit, where his encounters with his eccentric, elderly landlady, Mrs. Lemenski lead to moments of great hilarity.

However John’s unlikely saviour arrives in the form of a group for the divorced and separated: The 1-2-1 Club. Chaired by the overbearing Louise “Were there ever any sexual problems?” Williams, the club consists of a group of unhappy, lonely misfits: The frosty, thrice married Kate; geeky Ralph with the runaway wife; insecure Eric /Kirk St. Moritz; Sylvia with the irritating laugh and transvestite ex husband and quiet, dowdy Mrs. Arnott.

It’s understandable why viewers warmed to this comedy masterpiece from it’s very first episode. Sullivan incorporated the themes of loss, heartbreak and middle aged loneliness with great sensitivity and humour. There are many touching and poignant moments where we see the characters evolve and bond, being supportive of one another despite their flaws and differences. Ralph Bates was outstanding in his realistic portrayal as the too-damn-nice yet downtrodden John. There was something about his hangdog expression that made viewers feel genuine sympathy for his character’s plight. Viewers lived in hope of John overcoming his adversities and adversaries but sadly it was not to be as the sitcom was cancelled after two series due to Bates’ untimely death – although the American version endured a lot longer.

Watching episodes of the show in my adulthood has brought back a barrage of great memories and has been a real revelation of how great this sitcom is. Fashion aside, there is nothing dated about this show: the jokes are still funny; the characters are believable and the sensitive social issues are still in existence today. This comedy is proof of what great writing can achieve. Such a shame they don’t make sitcoms like this any more.

And yes, I will be splashing out on the DVD collection!

 

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Comedy Shows

 

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Return to Walton’s Mountain

The never changing penultimate signature scene gets me every time because I know another fantastic episode has come to an end and I will have to wait an entire week to get my fix: through the branches of the trees in rural Virginia, the two storey family home, complete with porch emerges, enveloped by the night sky. Voices can be heard coming from inside the house as the family muse over recent happenings. There is total darkness except for the lights in a couple of the bedrooms, which are all eventually turned off as the family bid each good night before the soft strains of the feel-good theme tune can be heard.

 

“Goodnight Mama.”

“Goodnight John Boy.”

“Goodnight Mary Ellen.”

That’s right; it could only be the formidable Walton family. If that glorious theme tune could be on the soundtrack to my childhood, then the show itself must be part of the footage. When I was a kid it was compelling Sunday afternoon viewing that my family and I used to watch after Sunday mass. Back then I didn’t know anyone who didn’t watch The Waltons. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like The Waltons. Sadly, at the time, I was too young to appreciate what fine quality viewing the show was and probably thought that television would always be that way. It was sensitively written; beautifully acted, and contained scenes of the breathtaking Virginian countryside. There was usually a moral in every episode, along with depictions of hard work; family values; helping the community and genuine religious reverence.  However, I am now old enough to realise that they don’t make them like that any more. The constant stream of mindless drivel on television these days (Dear Lord, not another daft reality TV show) explains why I hardly ever watch television nowadays. I’m almost certain that the world would be a better place if we had more shows like this. Writers and producers, take note!

And of course, a TV series based on nostalgic reminiscings – from the narrations of a middle aged John-Boy Walton during the opening and closing scenes of every episode – can only be a good thing for a sentimental old fool like myself. Incidentally, John-Boy was a character I could identify with as, like me, he was the eldest; he took care of his younger siblings, and he had a deep desire to write. He ended up achieving his goal. Good for you John -Boy!

Clearly, I’m not the only one for whom the show brings back fond memories. The recent reunion of  the cast of The Waltons brought hoardes of the shows fans to the streets of Los Angeles proving that Walton-mania is still very much alive and kicking thirty one years after the last episode was broadcast. The reunion was to celebrate the show’s fortieth anniversary – although many of the cast do not look old enough to be celebrating such a milestone! Unfortunately Richard Thomas (the well loved John Boy) and Michael Learned were notably absent due to prior commitments but fans were ecstatic to see the rest of the cast.

 

Oh how I would love to return to Walton’s Mountain; a world where children looked and behaved like children; elders were respected and cared for; family members looked out for each other; people in the community helped each other out; kindness was shown to strangers and religion was not a dirty word. And not a bare bum in sight! Who said you shouldn’t pay attention to everything you see on TV?

Goodnight everybody.

 

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in TV Shows

 

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