Saturday, 28 November 2015

George & Mildred: a window on British history

They’re showing re-runs of George & Mildred on ITV3. For the uninitiated George & Mildred was a very popular sitcom that ran on British television between 1976 and 1979. I’m not heralding its return as a momentous cultural event. The first few episodes were quite funny and then it rather ran out of gas, in addition to spawning possibly the worst TV to film adaptation in history, George & Mildred: The Movie.

George & Mildred is not noteworthy for its vintage comedy but rather what it says about recent British history. Namely how it’s got a lot worse.

The scenario of George & Mildred is illuminating: the eponymous couple, George and Mildred Roper, receive a compulsory purchase order on their council house and move to … wait for it …. Hampton Wick in West London. Now, situation comedy is meant to stretch the bounds of believability, everything revolves around absurd coincidences, but it can’t stretch the bounds of believability too far without ceasing to work. In 1976, you could just about believe that a couple might move to Hampton Wick after being forced to leave their council house. In 2015, the average house price in Hampton Wick is £2.4 million and lawyers can’t afford to live there. As for council houses, more than 1.8 million families are on the social housing waiting list. But, remember, this was the benighted 1970s.

There’s more. George is on the dole! Despite being able to move to a semi-detached house in Hampton Wick, George doesn’t have a job (neither does Mildred), although I think he eventually becomes a traffic warden. And, what’s more, in stark contrast to his millennial descendants, he doesn’t possess a scintilla of shame about his unemployed status. He’s ‘working class and proud of it’, drinks brown ale and does ok on ‘social security’. That’s social security, not ‘welfare’. A lot of the comedy of George & Mildred ensues from the horror of George’s Conservative-supporting, estate agent, neighbour, Jeffrey Fourmile, that a socialist, working class lay-about has moved in next door, and is constantly infecting his seven year old son, Tristan with these dangerous ideas. It doesn’t work, sadly, he grows up to become Tristan Hunt.

If you wanted to update George & Mildred to contemporary Britain, George would undoubtedly have been sanctioned multiple times and the couple compelled to beg at food banks. But in those awful 1970s, despite not working for a living, George & Mildred are upwardly mobile. That’s the crux of the comedy. Mildred is ‘aspirational’, George isn’t, but they are constantly hitting against a middle class culture that doesn’t really want them there. In 2015, George and Mildred would live entirely segregated lives and be the object of scorn.

In the ensuing decades, Jeffrey Fourmile trampled all over George Roper. In fact, the trampling is still going on. But in the 1970s George Roper was evidently something of a threat. That’s why you constantly hear about how terrible the ‘70s were. They actually look quite fun.

*Yootha Joyce, the actress who played Mildred, subsequently became a bit of a cultural icon. She featured on a Smiths’ single cover. She actually first met Brian Murphy (‘George’) on the set of the Joan Littlewood directed 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing, which was supposed to be an accurate depiction of East London life at the time and was the first English language film to be subtitled in the US. There are quite a few Smiths’ links in comedies being repeated on ITV3. In On the Buses, the bus route of the two lead characters goes to the Cemetery Gates, another Smiths song title.

1 comment:

  1. One interesting undercurrent to George & Mildred is that Jeffrey Fourmile, the archetypal 1970s Conservative, likes the BBC and berates ITV for 'chasing the ratings'. I think this is meant to be ironic because the series first aired on ITV but it's nonetheless a fascinating contrast to now. He has a 'Reithian' view of the BBC as upholding intellectual values and not appealing to the lowest common denominator of taste. Since the 1980s the Conservatives have hated the BBC for its supposedly liberal and elitist values but in the 1970s, if this programme is to be believed, Conservatives liked the BBC for holding back cultural decline. The total opposite.