Carla Lane’s best work captured the essence of an era and featured many of Merseybeat’s finest, writes Neil Cooper
June 14, 2016
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Last week’s sad passing of TV sit-com writer Carla Lane aged 87 marks another nail in the coffin of a golden era of TV comedy. It was a time rooted in overly-bright living room sets where everyday plays for today were acted out in front of a live audience in a way that happens differently today. If Lane had been starting out now, chances are that the middlebrow melancholy of Butterflies, in which over four series between 1978 and 1983, Wendy Craig’s suburban housewife Ria flirted with the idea of committing adultery with successful businessman Leonard, would have been filmed without a laughter track and billed as a dramady. Lane’s finest half-hour highlighted a confused, quietly desperate and utterly British response to the new freedoms afforded women over the previous decade as they trickled down the class system in the most genteel of ways. This may have been drawn from Lane’s own not-quite free-spirited quest for adventure as she moved through her own potential mid-life crisis around the time Butterflies first aired.
If Butterflies seemed to catch the reflection of Lane’s Me-Generation ennui, it was made especially poignant by using as its theme song a version of Dolly Parton’s Love is Like A Butterfly. The Butterflies version was sung by Clare Torry, who had previously provided the wordless vocal on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky, on The Dark Side of the Moon.
If that all sounds a little uncharacteristically rock and roll for an Alan Ayckbournesque sit-com, what about the night Lane brought counter-cultural performance poetry and anti-racist activism into several million viewers’ homes? It was the programme that she first made her name with, after all, that captured a sense of youthful restlessness which Lane too might have felt as she moved through writers groups in her home town of Liverpool at a time when the Beatles had made the city the centre of the universe.
The Liver Birds piloted in 1969, and originally starred Pauline Collins and Polly James as Dawn and Beryl, two twenty-something women sharing a flat in Huskisson Street, a then run down area of Liverpool 8 where novelist Beryl Bainbridge had once lived. After the 1981 inner-city riots, Liverpool 8 became better known as Toxteth, and today Huskisson Street forms part of the area’s cleaned up Georgian Quarter. More recently, Huskisson Street’s lingering bohemian psycho-geography has been immortalised in Catharine and Huskisson, a world-weary morning after the night before song released in 2015 by former member of Scouse Scallydelicists, The Coral, Bill Ryder-Jones.
The Liver Birds was the creation of Lane and Myra Taylor, who met at a writers group, and were encouraged to write a flat-share comedy by BBC producers after their first efforts were rejected.
By the time a full series had been commissioned, Collins had departed to play a maid in class-based proto-Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Taking her place was Rhyl-born Nerys Hughes, who, as snooty but sexy Sandra Hutchinson, would stay with the programme as a foil for Beryl, and later Elizabeth Estensen as Carol, for its full ten season run until it ended in 1979, before being briefly revived in 1996.
The female flat-share idea wasn’t a new one. Writers Charlotte Bingham and Terence Brady had premiered the first of two series of Take Three Girls the same year The Liver Birds first aired. As the title suggested, the programme followed the fortunes of three very different young women sharing a flat in Kensington – the London, district, not the Liverpool one. Bingham and Brady would go on to write for Upstairs Downstairs and No Honestly, which would see Collins playing the lead opposite her husband and Upstairs Downstairs co-star, John Alderton,
Four years earlier, pulp film-maker Gerry O’Hara cast a young Francesca Annis as a would-be model who moves to London and falls prey to the swinging scene. In 1967, Scouse surrealist and jazz singer George Melly scripted Smashing Time, a musical comedy about two naïve northern girls who hoped to do something similar. The female leads were played by Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham. Liverpool-born Tushingham, who came from Hunt’s Cross, where The Liver Birds’ Sandra was from, would go on to play the female lead opposite Keith Barron in Lane’s short-lived 1974 sit-com, No Strings.
The first two series of The Liver Birds were written by Lane and Taylor together, with Lane dropping her real name – Roma Barrack – out of shyness, so people wouldn’t know she had written the show. Most episodes followed Beryl and Sandra’s emancipated adventures in bed-sit land in terms of chasing fellas or else warding them off, looking for or losing jobs and dealing with itinerant family members. Beryl and Sandra wanted to be groovy, but in the grubby Liverpool back-streets, they couldn’t quite make the scene.
At the end of series two, Taylor left the programme, so Lane was flying solo. Or she would have been if concerned BBC producers who thought she didn’t have it in her hadn’t imposed two male writers to share script-writing chores. Their six episodes from series three stand out for tapping into a form of everyday sexism that may have been in keeping with the times, but which was the antithesis of everything The Liver Birds was about. By series four, Lane really was writing all the scripts by herself.
Given what had happened in the Lane-scripted opening episode of series three, this was arguably something of a risk. First screened in February 1972, One’s A Crowd starts innocuously enough, with Beryl and Sandra moving into a new, plusher pad, in Beach View, a block in an un-named street with trees outside that was seemingly worlds away from the grotty Huskisson Street bed-sit.
They can’t have gone too far, however, as several minutes into the episode’s first half Beryl suggests the pair go for a pie and a pint at a pub called O’Connor’s. It’s poetry night, Beryl explains, and Sandra and her intellectual pretensions would like that. Inbetween assorted comedy argy-bargy, Sandra remembers that a poet called Neville Cain – “he makes me forget everything”, simpers Sandra – is appearing.
In a rare moment of outdoor filming, we see a night-time view of the front of O’Connor’s Tavern, a white stone building on a corner next to some shops with two large arched windows either side of an arched door. This was the real life O’Connor’s, a former nineteenth century synagogue turned Christadelphean Meeting Room built with a curved roof on the corner of Hardman Street and Pilgrim Street. This is a stone’s throw from Liverpool College of Art and the Everyman Theatre on Hope Street, and close to Beryl and Sandra’s former domicile in Huskisson Street. With a cathedral at either end of Hope Street to throw shadows over sinners of every persuasion, the neighborhood had become the epicentre of Liverpool bohemia.
With a large upstairs room going spare, O’Connor’s had become a crucial hang-out for the lesser and greater known Liverpool poets and their arty entourages. This is highlighted on the cover of Adrian Henri and The Liverpool Scene’s 1968 LP, The Amazing Adventures of The Liverpool Scene. This featured a cover image of O’Connor’s regulars gathered outside on what looked like an afternoon session to end them all. If you can find a copy, check out the album’s original gatefold sleeve for full effect.
A few short years later, O’Connor’s would become a crucial venue for a musical explosion spearheaded by a bunch of art students from down the road.
Deaf School were a pre-punk art-pop sensation who livened up Liverpool’s grey 1970s post-Merseybeat era by mixing up glam cabaret theatrics with swinging pop licks and a musical largesse performed with gusto by a disparate set of characters who gave themselves cartoon-style noms-de-plume.
After forming for the Liverpool Art School Christmas ball, according to the All Time Gig List on the band’s website, Deaf School played their second, third and fourth gigs at O’Connor’s in 1974, and four times again the following year before moving onto bigger things.
By the time the 1980s came round, O’Connor’s had become Chaucer’s, where the upstairs room became the first venue for a new venture called Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre, which presented one-act plays including Ball Boys by David Edgar and Tissue by Louise Page, in a speak-easy cabaret environment. As the company grew it moved up the road to the Unity Theatre on Hope Place, where it evolved into LLT, and then The New Works company. Until 2015, the synagogue that was O’Connor’s, Chaucer’s and many other things besides is known to have been a fancy dress shop.
Meanwhile, back in The Liver Birds’ version of O’Connor’s, the camera cuts to a studio set, presumably meant to be inside O’Connor’s. It focuses on a large poster advertising a ‘Poetry Nite’, and the audience applauds. This probably isn’t because of the name of the fictional Neville Cain, who is second on the bill, but to the headliner, Roger McGough.
McGough was and still is an internationally renowned poet, who had come up in the 1960s on a wave of pop culture alongside his Liverpool contemporaries, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and many others. Early work by McGough, Henri and Patten had been compiled in The Mersey Sound, a volume first published in 1967, and which remains one of the biggest selling poetry books ever.
Both McGough and Henri had moved into music, Henri with The Liverpool Scene, and McGough with The Scaffold. Both acts mixed poetry, music and sketches on a circuit that included visits to the early incarnation of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh during the 1960s with the Scaffold’s 1964 revue Birds, Marriages and Deaths. Later, assorted members of both acts would combine with various strays from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, including Monty Python associate Neil Innes, to become Grimms. Innes would go on to co-create Beatles pastiche documentary, The Rutles – All You Need is Cash, which featured a cameo from McGough.
While over four albums, The Liverpool Scene remained largely underground, The Scaffold became a novelty pop act. Made up of McGough, Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McCartney (who took the name McGear as a jokey way to dissociate himself from his Beatle brother), and future TISWAS co-host John Gorman, The Scaffold applied a more comic, music hall style to their single releases, including Lily The Pink, which became Christmas number 1 in the UK at the end of 1968.
Lily The Pink had been adapted by The Scaffold from an American folk song, The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham, and featured a future all-star chorus of backing vocalists, including Graham Nash, who was about to leave Manchester Beat group The Hollies to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nash and the Scaffold were accompanied by a young songwriter called Reg Dwight, who would shortly morph into Elton John, and lyricist Tim Rice, then an assistant to producer Norrie Paramor. Jack Bruce of Cream played bass on the record, while Jimi Hendrix would also play sessions for The Scaffold.
McGough had already fictionalised the ridiculous of the pop world in his poetic novel, Frinck, published the same year as The Mersey Sound. How autobiographical Frinck’s yarn about a boozy poet with a penchant for art school girls who hits the big time remains unknown, though the Scaffold do get an honourable if knowing mention.
That may have been before before The Scaffold had composed and sung The Liver Birds’ sea-shantyish theme song, but with McGough and The Scaffold’s household name status on the back of it, applause, even that encouraged by TV studio floor managers, was perhaps understandable.
The camera then cuts to a not terribly convincing studio mock-up of O’Connor’s, where Beryl and Sandra are applauding Roger McGough, who has presumably just performed his work alongside two musicians on a small stage at the end of the room. While Sandra is enthusiastic, Beryl is clearly smitten with McGough. Next we see McGough holding a copy of his book, After The Merrymaking, which had been published in 1971. McGough then introduces his next poem, and, backed by the two musicians – John Megginson on piano and Alan Peters on guitar and trumpet – reads a poem he introduces as being about a character called P.C. Plod. In fact, the poem is one of a sequence of eleven that make up the third and final part of After The Merrymaking, called The Amazing Adventures of P.C. Plod. The poem that McGough reads is the penultimate one in the sequence, titled P.C. Plod versus the Youth International Party.
The Youth International Party, was a radical anti-war group co-founded by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others, which was born out of hippy culture and was in part a response to the Vietnam War. Poet Allen Ginsberg, who read in Liverpool alongside Adrian Henri, became involved with the group, who offered an absurdist alternative to authoritarian party politics and whose members styled themselves as Yippies.
In the spirit of this, P.C. Plod versus the Youth International Party found McGough’s eponymous policeman lost after leaving Yates Wine Lodge on Dale Street. On stopping a passer-by to ask directions, P.C. Plod is confronted by a Yippie, who calls Plod a pig and attacks him with a water-pistol. Plod retaliates with a sawn-off spud gun, before moving on to replenish himself with supplies of potatoes.
McGough reads the poem, which Beryl declares “smashing,” in full before reading another work from After The Merrymaking, the far more melancholy Gift For A Lonely Girl. Megginson and Peters’ low-key underscore allows Sandra to go to the bar where she has spotted her idol, Neville Cain. Sandra rather giddily introduces herself to Cain, who is black, or “coloured” as described later in the episode. Cain buys Sandra a drink, and the camera cuts to McGough in time for his poem’s last line, “May Tomorrow You Find Love and Have Many Sons”.
As Beryl seems to swoon in her seat, McGough goes over to a hip-looking blonde woman sitting on her own beside her. “That was lovely, Roger, coos the devoted blonde. “I knew they’d like it.” McGough grabs her arm, and, with the famous last words, “Let’s get smashed,” the poetic pair exit the scene.
McGough himself had lived on Huskisson Street with his first wife, Thelma Monaghan, an artist who he met at a Liverpool College of Art dance, and who had previously dated both John Lennon and Paul McCartney. McGough based his extended sequence, Summer With Monika about his relationship with Thelma, and it was published in a twin volume with Frinck.
In 1981, Monaghan’s son from a previous marriage, Nathan, would go on to found a post-punk multi-media club called Plato’s Ballroom in an old chicken-in-a-basket dive called Mr Pickwick’s. Plato’s Ballroom featured headlining bands such as New Order, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire, Jah Wobble and Orange Juice. Also on the bill were avant-garde films, performance artists, and of course poets. Nathan McGough would go on to manage Happy Mondays.
There were even more musical connections with McGough’s Liver Birds performance. While they stayed resolutely in the background, both John Megginson and Alan Peters had their own stories to tell. Megginson played with The Liverpool Scene, and would go on to produce the Scaffold’s fourth album, Sold Out, in 1975. Peters, meanwhile, already had a similarly impressive musical pedigree.
As one of The Almost Blues, and very much on the scene, Peters has supported Stevie Wonder and a host blues legends at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, and worked with Henri on his blues-inspired work. Peters went on to front 29th & Dearborn and played with Supercharge in the 1970s. He worked with the late Roger Eagle, who co-founded Eric’s Club, and fronted a band called The Lawnmower, that featured a young Mick Hucknall on vocals. Peters worked some more with Henri, as well as a new young Liverpool poet going by the name of Craig Charles.
Back in The Liver Birds, meanwhile, it’s the morning after the night before, and while Beryl sings the New Seekers soft-drink anthem, I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, and Jesus Christ Superstar in the shower, the girls’ busybody new neighbour, Mrs Knowsley, pays them a visit. She has a petition, she says, on behalf of other Beach View residents who wish to get the tenant in Flat Five evicted, and she’d like Beryl and Sandra to sign.
The tenant, according to Mrs Knowsley, is an “undesirable character” who talks to himself and has a stream of “dubious visitors” who Mrs Knowsley says indulge in “orgies.” Despite Sandra’s enthusiasm for the latter, she signs the petition for both flatmates. Over cornflakes and coffee, Beryl takes umbrage with Sandra, and says she’d rather not sign the petition.
When she ventures into the hall to check out the object of Mrs Knowsley’s ire, she hears a voice from inside Flat Five, and when she rings the bell is greeted by the tenant, who turns out to be Neville Cain.
Neville Cain was played by Jamaican-born Neville Aurelius, who the same year as his Liver Birds guest spot, appeared in two episodes of the second series of Take Three Girls. In The Liver Birds, Cain’s colour is clearly the cause of Mrs Knowsley’s petition. Sandra is horrified by such a notion, though a more street-smart Beryl sets her straight by telling her that it’s Neville’s colour that “makes him different, and oldies don’t like anything that’s different.”
The girls invite Neville and some of his friends back to their flat, with Neville and co arriving in an open-top sports car much to Mrs Knowsley’s chagrin. With Beryl and Sandra sitting at Neville’s feet and his friends drinking on the sofa, Neville strums an acoustic guitar as he recites a poem that sounds like a mash-up of Leonard Cohen and The Last Poets, and which could be a forerunner of Levi Tafari, who was born in Liverpool to Jamaican parents, and first came to prominence in the 1980s. When Beryl and Sandra refuse to stop the party, Mrs Knowsley calls the landlord, and it looks like Beryl and Sandra will be evicted, their impromptu housewarming set to be their last stand. When the landlord turns up, however, he too is black, much to Mrs Knowsley’s embarrassment. The last scene sees the landlord inviting Mrs Knowles into Beryl and Sandra’s flat where Neville and his friends are still partying, albeit as quiet as a sit-com can be. What shenanigans they get up to after that is anybody’s guess, but what happens in The Liver Birds, stays in The Liver Birds.
While Neville’s white fur coat, flowered shirts and living room recitation is a BBC production designer’s take on the counter-culture, as is the possibly not terribly accurate mock-up of O’Connors, here was a prime time mainstream comedy looking at racism against a backdrop of performance poetry. Not only that, it featured real life players from the Liverpool scene, whose musical and literary tentacles reached out across the city’s underground. In the context of Liverpool making its fortune on the back of slavery, this was a remarkable thing to be aired.
This wasn’t the last time Lane introduced non-actors to her shows. In her post Butterflies hit, Bread, which focused on the largely unemployed Boswell family in a Liverpool a long way from Beach View, Lane’s fellow animal rights activist and photographer, the late Linda McCartney, had a walk-on. As for McGough’s material in One’s A Crowd, John Gorman would go on to revive P.C. Plod, a character who later made it into a play performed by The Scaffold, on TISWAS. Gorman would also bring the anarchy of fringe theatre to TISWAS by way of The Masked Poet, a character originally created for Grimms.
In it’s very gentle way, The Liver Birds and everything it touched is a time capsule of a particular time and place – full of prejudice as much as innocence and idealism – that’s unrecognisable now. Carla Lane brought it into our three channel living rooms in a way that young women on the cusp of an awfully big adventure could both relate to and disparage.
In these days of low-lit, slow-paced dramadies trading on awkward silences as much as one-liners, Carla Lane’s roll call of funny, sad, sometimes angry women can be seen as quiet pioneers of everyday tragi-comedy who captured the spirit of the times Lane lived through with wit, intelligence and an irresistible sense of romance.