THE LAST FAREWELL

One of the early TV shows that alerted me to HBO and its ability to craft grownup drama free from the formulaic was ‘Six Feet Under’. Originally running from 2001-05, this dark yet deliciously witty series had an undeniably intriguing premise, being a family saga based in the environs of a funeral home. Each episode opened with the death of an unfamiliar person unrelated to the regular cast, and their funeral would then form the backdrop to the instalment as the ongoing dramas taking place in the lives of the main characters continued. If that opening sounds a bit like the clichéd hallmark of the BBC’s ‘Casualty’ – whereby the viewer immediately meets someone they’ve never seen before and then tries to guess what horrific accident will imminently befall them – trust me, it’s not. ‘Six Feet Under’ was a special series in many ways, but on one level it worked so well because it normalised something we all have to deal with – namely, death.

It’s amazing how squeamish western society in general still is around death and the rituals associated with its resolution, even though funeral directors, along with those who sell food, are probably in one of the most secure professions we’ll ever have need of. We all gotta eat and we all gotta go. ‘Six Feet Under’ brilliantly humanised this otherwise mysterious world by going behind the scenes and showing that a profession which many don’t even like to think about was just another business. As with a coroner, corpses to the Fisher family had none of the morbid aura that those who never come into contact with the dead imbue them with. Whilst the burial ceremony is a staple scene of fiction – especially in TV soaps, where no character is ever cremated – ‘Six Feet Under’ dealt with the less familiar preparation that takes place beforehand; and it was this that gave the series such a novel quality.

At some point in our lives we will all attend at least one funeral, and if we somehow manage to avoid doing so whilst living, we won’t be able to avoid our own. The first I ever attended was my paternal grandmother’s when I was a young and extremely green teenager. I think I was a little overawed by the experience, with my only previous exposure to a funeral service coming from whatever I’d seen in movies and TV shows. I remember it was unsettling at that age seeing stoic grownups I’d known all my life in tears – and funerals back then were perhaps the only social scenario in which it was permissible to cry in public. It was equally eye-opening at my grandma’s house afterwards when the adults – and everyone else present was an adult – seamlessly clicked into a routine that they’d evidently been through many times before; I was the only one who didn’t know what you were supposed to do in that situation. Of course, I’ve been to a few since then and whilst they can rarely be viewed as enjoyable occasions, they’re never dull.

When it comes to family, funerals are often the only time I see various aunts, uncles, cousins and so on nowadays – though I’m hardly unique in that respect; and there’s no escaping the fact that some actually look forward to a funeral. There can be a degree of theatricality to the trimmings, none more so than if the star of the show arrives in a horse-drawn hearse. Whilst traditionally a speciality of decrepit East End villains, even this can have its poignancy; I remember once seeing both hearse and horses coloured white as the cortège drew to a halt outside a church I was passing and it did look rather lovely. Moreover, some women can appear inappropriately attractive in their funeral outfits. Many years ago, I lived opposite a middle-aged Italian couple; when the wife died, the female family members gathering outside the house before departing looked like they were lining-up for a Vogue shoot. Lots of sexy Italian ladies in black preparing to bury a loved one – yes, I felt very guilty.

One of the best episodes of ‘Steptoe and Son’ deals with the funeral of one of old Albert’s numerous elderly siblings. It perfectly captures just how such events bring out the worst in people and how they can highlight the sham of blood being thicker than water as the various interested parties greedily stake a claim on the possessions left behind by the recently deceased. This episode also serves as a wry comment on the way in which some try and claim ownership of the occasion, something I remember witnessing at the funeral of my maternal grandfather. The service inexplicably concluded with the unlistenable power-ballad that is Whitney Houston’s execrable rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ – a song that had no relevant association with my last grandparent but had been selected by relatives intent on stamping their own personal (lack of) taste on someone else’s send-off. If anything, this selfish action upset me more than the service itself. It was bad enough when the song was No.1 for what felt like six months, but I certainly didn’t want to hear it there and then.

A degree of sober solemnity has always characterised the Great British Funeral, particularly the austere C-of-E variety; other cultures often seem to do it in a manner that reflects the personality of the deceased rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all approach, celebrating the individual life as well as mourning the loss of it. I suppose the ultimate example that most will be familiar with is the jazzy ‘New Orleans funeral’, but there has been a tendency here in recent years – certainly as we morph into a more secular society – to bend the accepted rules a little; one innovation I was made aware of re the funeral of a friend of a friend was the wearing of bright colours as opposed to customary black in order to mirror the colourful character being buried. Ditto the move away from the more traditional hymns and similar religious dirges in favour of the deceased’s favourite pop songs – which is fine unless one of them happens to be ‘I Will Always Love You’, I guess.

Yet, for all this, death remains an unpleasant eventuality many pretend happens to other people somewhere else. Care homes, hospices and hospitals tend to be the locations we like to think of where people go to die, whilst the final resting place of the cemetery has a habit of being on the edge of town, far enough away for us not to have to look it in the eye. At one time, it was commonplace (whatever one’s denomination) to have the open coffin in the front parlour, where family, friends and neighbours would pop in to pay their respects as though ogling Lenin’s pickled cadaver. There was less squeamishness surrounding death because people were more accustomed to it, whether down to war, wider poverty, or diseases and ailments which have subsequently been rendered non-fatal due to advances in medical science; a century ago, larger families also meant many tended to lose some children or siblings at a criminally young age. Death was certainly a bigger part of life then – or seemed to be – whereas we have become more insulated from it now.

I think there is a certain dignity in the old way of saying goodbye, but there’s much to be said for giving such a ceremony the personal touch too. A marriage of both is probably the best way – especially if the dearly departed had the opportunity to specify what they wanted before they went. I know I’d hate for my own funeral to be along the lines of some of those I’ve attended, but I equally wouldn’t want it to resemble a fancy dress party in a tacky nightclub. I’m hopeful whichever friend is entrusted with the unenviable task of overseeing it knew me well enough to get it right; it’s just a pity I won’t be there to see it. Mind you, I remember Reggie Perrin managed to attend his own in the guise of ‘Martin Wellbourne’, so there’s always the possibility I might make it. Don’t say you haven’t fantasised about it; we all have.

© The Editor

SUMMER IN THE CITY

‘Forces of anarchy, wreckers of law and order: Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, neo-Trotskyists, crypto-Trotskyists, union leaders, Communist union leaders, atheists, agnostics, long-haired weirdos, short-haired weirdos, vandals, hooligans, football supporters, namby-pamby probation officers, rapists, papists, papist rapists, foreign surgeons, head-shrinkers – who ought to be locked-up; Wedgewood-Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue-sniffers, Play for Today, squatters, Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, up Jenkins, up everybody, Chinese restaurants…’

The famous rant from ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ by Reggie’s unhinged ex-army brother-in-law Jimmy (a man forever experiencing a ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’) is counteracted by Reggie himself, who points out the kind of people Jimmy’s proposed right-wing private army will attract – ‘Thugs, bully-boys, psychopaths, sacked policemen, security guards, sacked security guards, racialists, paki-bashers, queer-bashers, chink-bashers…rear-admirals, queer admirals, vice-admirals, fascists, neo-fascists, crypto-fascists, loyalists, neo-loyalists, crypto-loyalists.’

The figures of hate may have changed in forty years, but an equivalent rant could easily be penned today, whether one’s parting is on the left or on the right. The level of anger and awareness of his own impotence in changing the world for what he perceives to be the better that’s implicit in Jimmy’s rant forces him into contemplating a doomed military coup, albeit an unspecified idealistic one he knows hasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of success; but he’s willing to give it a go, anyway, because there’s nothing else keeping him alive but hatred. It’s the sole emotion that makes him feel anything anymore. He’s been laid off by the army, the only profession he ever knew; he’s redundant and looks around at a society he doesn’t recognise, and hatred is the one thing he’s got. That at least retains its relevance.

There are a good few people in society today whose passions are fuelled by hatred in the absence of anything else, propelled towards extreme actions by the media message (or holy book) they decide supports and validates their viewpoint. There are many more that mercifully baulk at extreme actions but nevertheless focus on what they regard as the source of their misery with an intensity that is as illogical as it is understandable. John Lennon’s bitter recollection of the petty arguments that marred the ‘Let it Be’ sessions – whereby a bum note by one Beatle is responsible for why another Beatle’s life is lousy – highlights a simplistic blame game that appears to be the default mindset of many right now. Angry people in North Kensington blame government; angry people in Birstall blame immigration; angry people on London Bridge blame western civilisation; angry people in Finsbury Park blame Allah.

The gloomy prognosis of Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation counter-extremism think-tank is that both far-right and Islamic extremists threaten a virtual civil war if events of the past month are allowed to escalate further. ISIS-inspired or sponsored attacks are designed to polarise and Nawaz predicts they’ll continue to do so unless certain fundamental issues are addressed; and if trying to address them is greeted with cries of racism or Islamophobia (usually from non-Muslims on the left for whom Muslims are their pet Victims) then we ain’t get gonna get anywhere. ‘The desire to impose Islam and the desire to ban Islam are simply two ends to a lit fuse that can only lead to chaos,’ says Nawaz.

It doesn’t help that it’s so bloody hot at the moment either. Excessively warm weather doesn’t itself provoke chaos, but it can exacerbate simmering tensions; it did in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, just as it did in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981; and, lest we’ve already forgotten, a host of cities across the country in 2011. All occurred during the uniquely claustrophobic cauldron of an urban English summer, when people are denied the need to breathe that the wide open spaces of rural areas afford their residents. The current heat-wave comes at an extremely perilous and unstable moment in this nation’s modern history.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the indecisive General Election result, the weekly terrorist atrocities, the Brexit negotiations, the perceived indifference to austerity by those untouched by it – all ingredients in a combustible recipe that has the potential to boil over; and bringing in COBRA to keep an eye on the kitchen won’t necessarily turn down the temperature. Let’s hope we’re in for a cold spell, then.

ISIS destroying ancient monuments in Syria and a Momentum stormtrooper burning two-dozen copies of the Sun on social media may be worlds apart, but both are demonstrations of the same self-righteous arrogance and forcible imposition of a belief system that criticism of is forbidden. After the last terrorist incident – though I am losing track of them now, to be honest – I wrote a post I opened with a quote from Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919): ‘Freedom is the freedom to think otherwise’. That quote should be scrawled on campus walls, inscribed on the first page of the Koran, and carved into the front door of 10 Downing Street. The majority of people in this country probably agree with the sentiment, but those that don’t have the loudest voices. And they’re angry.

BRIAN CANT (1933-2017)

Only three weeks ago I penned a post in tribute to childhood giant John Noakes and mentioned how Noakes’ memorable persona was in the ‘daft uncle’ tradition so prevalent on children’s television in the 1970s. A name that cropped up in this post was that of Brian Cant; and now Cant too has gone. He was the same age as Noakes – 83 – and was held in the same affectionate esteem by those of us who watched him as kids.

One of the longest-serving presenters of ‘Play School’ – for a staggering 21 years – Cant also starred in its more madcap Saturday afternoon incarnation, ‘Play Away’, for 13 years; but it was narrating Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy of ‘Camberwick Green’, ‘Trumpton’ and ‘Chigley’ that earned his reputation as the owner of golden vocal chords that remain music to the ears of anyone for whom those magical little shows were pivotal to the pre-school experience. Along with Oliver Postgate, Richard Baker, Arthur Lowe and Ray Brooks, the voice of Brian Cant is one guaranteed to instil serenity in a way few pharmaceutical indulgences can.

We need our daft uncles more than ever right now, and they’re leaving us. It’s shit growing-up.

© The Editor

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

reggie-perrinSince being recognised as a symptom, the mid-life crisis has manifested itself in different forms for each successive generation to reach the point at which there’s more of your life behind you than in front of you. In the mid-1970s, a time when the phrase ‘a job for life’ still applied to heavy industry, it was a truism also relevant for the white-collar worker, not just the blue one. Two concurrent BBC sitcoms of that era reflected this in contrasting ways. They present the conundrum from the male viewpoint because that was the viewpoint of the moment they were made, but their message is not ‘gender specific’.

‘The Good Life’, which debuted in 1975, focused on Tom Good, whose dissatisfaction with his materialistic lot fired his imagination when hitting his 40th birthday – which was then a significant marker for taking stock and judging whether one’s life could be filed under success or failure. Tom quit his office job and persuaded his wife Barbara they could carve out a self-sufficient lifestyle in Surbiton, much to the horror of neighbours Margot and Jerry. A year later saw another take on the mid-life crisis theme that was considerably more subversive, despite being cloaked in the deceptive dressing of the familiar suburban sitcom so commonplace on middle-class screens in the 70s, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’.

Adapted by experienced TV comedy writer David Nobbs from his earlier novel, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ dealt with the unexpected rebellion of the archetypal white-collar middle-management yes-man who had formed the backbone of the post-war British rat-race, commuting to work on the train from the suburbs clad with brolly, briefcase and the requisite copy of the Times. Reginald Perrin had a comfortable home, a dutiful wife, a couple of grown-up children, a secretary about whom he harboured unrealisable sexual fantasies, and a terrifying boss in the dreary business that had employed him for 25 years who he despised but was utterly subservient to.

Reggie was representative of millions of middle-aged men (as 46 was then regarded) across the country when the show first aired – too young to have participated in global conflict (which could at least be seen as a worthy contribution to something of value) and too old to have let their hair down with the rest of the 60s swingers. Instead, Reggie was the beneficiary of an acquisitive society that alienated rather than embraced him. He had every material benefit he had worked for at his fingertips, but it wasn’t enough.

On paper, it doesn’t sound remotely radical, yet the opening titles of the show didn’t highlight the domestic bliss prevalent in other sitcoms of the period. We saw a figure we presumed was Reggie strolling along the seashore before abruptly removing his clothes and heading for a watery grave – a poignant image just a couple of years after middle-aged Labour MP John Stonehouse had faked his suicide on a Miami beach, hoping to swim away from the criminal proceedings awaiting him. Viewers moderately disturbed by this beginning were lulled into a false sense of security as the programme unfolded and seemed to conform to standard sitcom fare – until they were allowed to eavesdrop upon Reggie’s thoughts and private opinions of the world he occupied and the people surrounding him. His contempt for them for eagerly leaping upon the same unfulfilling conveyor belt he himself was trapped on gradually saw him sabotage his security with masochistic relish.

After years as a busy character actor on stage, screen and television – he appeared in Nigel Kneale’s seminal TV play ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ in 1968 and in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the same year – Leonard Rossiter had finally become a household name in 1974 playing seedy landlord Rigsby in Yorkshire Television’s sitcom ‘Rising Damp’, but it was as Reggie Perrin that Rossiter gave perhaps his greatest performance, brilliantly portraying the meltdown of a man whose suppressed spirit was boxed-in by the comfy circumstances that had enslaved him since completing his National Service. A sitcom whose lead character regarded his enclosed world as one populated by pompous idiots and clueless crawlers as deluded and deceived by the system he had been deluded and deceived by wasn’t necessarily one that guaranteed success, yet it struck a chord with viewers and eventually spanned three series.

‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ was crammed with the kind of catchphrases that had become the hallmark of the renowned Perry & Croft sitcoms – ‘Great’, ‘Super’, ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, ‘I don’t like people; I’m not a people person’ – yet that too was part of its clever ruse to mask the message in accessible insignias. In an ongoing narrative unique to 70s sitcoms, we witness Reggie’s slow descent into madness, which climaxes with him ‘doing a Stonehouse’ and faking his suicide before re-emerging into the life he left behind disguised in a curly wig and facial hair, posing as an old friend of Reggie. After being offered a job at his old employers he comes clean and returns as Reggie, though the same problems resurface and his response to being sacked by Sunshine Desserts sees him start his own business.

A shrewd comment on consumerist gullibility, Reggie’s chain of ‘Grot’ shops – selling items that are of no use whatsoever, such as square hoops, square footballs, tennis racquets with no strings, eggcups too large to hold eggs, tins of melted snow, and his son-in-law Tom’s ghastly homemade wine – results in Reggie ascending to the status of a millionaire entrepreneur and enjoying the table-turning coup of employing his former boss, CJ; however, even this doesn’t give him the contentment he craves anymore than his old life did and he walks away from that as well. Reggie Perrin is a businessman allergic to business.

Watching ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ exactly forty years on, there’s no denying it exudes the same nostalgic period charm as other shows of its era, yet the underlying rage and determination of its hero to break free of a life cycle he had been led to believe would provide all the answers remains a relevant topic; Reggie’s own life cycle may today be one that belongs in another age altogether, but there are just as many (if not more) careering towards fifty in the twenty-first century who undergo the life-changing realisation that there’s more to living than making a living. And we all, in our own differing ways, have a little bit of Reggie in us.

© The Editor