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Normally the words "ITV sit-com" are enough to strike fear into viewers.
However in the past ITV did produce some good comedies and this is one of
them. It is not a great one but it was very entertaining and deserves more
It is one of very few sit-coms to have been set in a school. Like all sit-coms though, the situation isn't that important - the humour comes from the characters and their relationships, although the school setting provides a nice variation from the usual domestic comedies. It follows the travails of a group of extremely mature-looking fifth-formers and their hard-pressed teachers.
The pupils are a motley bunch: the dominant Eric Duffy; tarty Sharon; slow-witted but endearing Dennis; cocky Peter Craven; god-fearing Maureen who has a crush on the teacher; and fantasist Frankie Abbott. They are the nucleus of the "class from Hell" 5C - most of whom silently sit in the background. However they all have hearts of gold and their behaviour is surprisingly good - certainly comparing well to what many real students and teachers experience. They are lovable rogues. All work well from a comic viewpoint with the exception, I feel, of Dennis where the humour seems to rest almost entirely on his stupidity. All the actors are clearly well beyond school age, and could easily have been playing teachers!
Much of the success of the series lies with the staff characters. John Alderton played the central character of Bernard Hedges, teacher of 5C. While apparently mild-mannered, he actually has few problems managing his class and has a good relationship with them. However his indecisiveness and determination to stick up for his pupils often leads him into humorous scrapes.
He has often fractious relationships with the Head Mr. Cromwell (Noel Howlett) and Deputy Doris Ewell (Joan Sanderson). These are tremendous characters and splendidly played. The Head is quite out-of-touch, a misguided liberal, pretentious but capable of engaging in quite juvenile behaviour. Miss Yuell is a haughty disciplinarian whose harsh exterior only relents in the presence of the Head, with whom she is infatuated. Joan Sanderson often played such roles, and always to perfection.
Price (Richard Davies) is another superb figure - a cynical, sarcastic professional Welshman with little affection for teaching but great affection for beer. Again a great acting performance. Finally there is the doddering, ancient Mr. Smith, devoted to his wife and again capable of some very juvenile behaviour, usually in his conflicts with the Head. The interplay between all these is very funny.
However for many viewers the favourite staff member was Mr. Potter, the caretaker (Deryck Guyler). Potter was an ex-soldier, obsessed with the war, with ideas above his station. He as constantly at odds with everyone in the school except the Head. He received his deserved come-uppance regularly in the series.
Obviously the show is of its time, and not just in the fashions such as the remarkably short skirts. Some of the humour might be seen as very innocent in today's more cynical age. The language used was quite strong for its time, but still acceptable to a family audience. It would seem very tame by today's standards. There are some occasions when the show borders on the politically incorrect. However the show stands up much better than many others from that period and the 1970s. For example in one episode an Indian student joins the class. Typically for the time he is played by a white actor and wears stereotypical Indian dress. However he is shown to be intelligent, polite and articulate, with committed parents. His classmates avoid the prejudice of their parents. Liberal ideas generally are given a sympathetic airing, particularly by Hedges. They are though less effectively expressed by the bumbling Head. "I would rather resign than be forceful," is one example.
The show avoided becoming a one-joke, innuendo-laden affair unlike many others. The humour chiefly comes from defective people, defective relationships and defective situations, as most comedy does. The show still lives on, in video format and also on satellite channels. It is well-worth checking out, whether you remember it originally or, like me, are of a younger but curious generation. I feel you will be pleasantly surprised, and satisfactorily entertained.
My positive comments above only refer to the first two series. Having
seen episodes from the final two series, I'm afraid to say that they are
hugely disappointing. This is largely down to cast- changes, particularly
among the pupils but also the teachers. The new characters are
with the exception of the aggressive PE teacher Mr. Dix, played by Glynn
Edwards, who shows some style.
Maybe the writers were also running short of ideas by this stage, with many of the stories and scenarios becoming stale and silly. There are still occasional flashes of form, but the impression has to be that the show should have quit with its stock high after the first two fine series. These are still worth checking-out.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1967 film 'To Sir With Love' starred Sidney Poitier as an American
teacher attempting to educate unruly children in a rough East End
London school. It may be coincidental, but the following year 'Please
Sir!' appeared on I.T.V. John Esmonde and Bob Larbey originally took
the idea to the B.B.C., but as the character of 'Dennis Dunstable' was
educationally subnormal, they turned it down. The writers then
approached the fledgling 'London Weekend Television'. Head of comedy
Frank Muir also expressed reservations, but trusted the writers when
they claimed Dennis would not be used as a figure of fun. Indeed he was
not. Anyone trying to belittle Dennis would have to contend with the
class' No.1 hard man - 'Eric Duffy'.
John Alderton was cast as the idealistic schoolteacher 'Bernard Hedges' ( known as 'Privet' by his class ). Long before 'Basil Fawlty', Hedges had "Right!" as a catchphrase. The actor's best known television role up to that point was 'Dr.Richard Boone' in the A.T.V. soap 'Emergency Ward 10'. Deryck Guyler was originally supposed to play 'Mr.Cromwell' the dithering headmaster, but on finding it hard to cast the role of 'Potter' the caretaker, producer Mark Stuart suggested that Guyler be given the role. It worked out for the best; the pompous, war-obsessed 'Potter', forever grovelling in Cromwell's presence, proved to be one of the show's most popular characters.
One fair criticism was that the actors playing the pupils looked too old. Peter Cleall, a.k.a. 'Duffy' was five years younger than Alderton! One should remember that there were strict Equity rules regarding the use of child actors at that time and besides, you could say the same about the cast of the film 'Grease'!
The first episode opened with Hedges' first day at Fenn St. School. He finds the teachers incompetent and the children, particularly Class 5C, out of control. It sounds like the premise of a hard-hitting social drama, but Esmonde and Larbey were able to mine a rich vein of comedy. As well as Dunstable and Duffy, the pupils included flash Peter Craven, sexy Sharon Eversleigh, overwrought Maureen Bullock, and ( my favourite ) Frankie Abbott, a would-be hard case who turns into a mummy's boy when threatened ( the inspiration for 'Ralph Tanner' in Esmonde and Larbey's later sitcom 'The Other One', possibly? ). 'Mr.Cromwell' presided over a crack teaching force consisting of cynical Welshman 'Mr.Price', frosty 'Miss Ewell' ( she and the headmaster had a thing going in the first two series ), and the long overdue for retirement 'Mr.Smith'.
Hedges commanded respect from 5C, and he in turn often got them out of trouble. In a funny sort of way, he became a father figure. This was most apparent in the episode 'Situations Vacant', when he stood up to Dennis' drunken, violent father ( the excellent Peter Bayliss ).
'Please Sir' was a big hit for I.T.V., ( unsurprisingly, its biggest fans were children ) alongside other L.W.T. shows such as 'On The Buses' and 'Doctor In The House'. The first series boasted forty minute long episodes, in common with other L.W.T. sitcoms of the time, but subsequent seasons adopted the standard twenty-five minute length. In 1971, the inevitable feature film spin-off appeared - one of the better ones, it has to be said.
After three seasons, Hedges married the lovely Penny ( Jill Kerman ) and resigned from Fenn St. School. In his place came 'David Ffitchett-Brown' played by the late Richard Warwick, an altogether trendier ( and less likable ) character. The pupils changed too, for the worse. The dim-witted 'Gobber Gibbons' ( Charles Bolton ) made 'Abbott' seem like Professor Stephen Hawking. The ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled. However, the old Fenn Street gang made a welcome reappearance in one of the last episodes ( 'Old Fennians Day' ). Eventually, they got their own show, which ran to three seasons.
'Please Sir' was of its time, when school milk was free, pupils could not rely on parents to drive them to and from school, and the cane frequently used to punish bad behaviour. It should be seen not as a social document, however, but a comedy show and a good one at that.
For the first three seasons, this show was very good. It is the story of an idealistic teacher played by John Alderton who becomes the teacher for the unruly students of class 5C. The students (some of whom looked older than their school ages) aren't bad kids, but they are from a working class background, kind of a rough upbringing. They are naturally not trusting of authority, and Alderton does a good job as the teacher that they actually, if not love, at least respect. There are other characters, like Norman (Deryck Guyler), who is the comic foil most often, the somewhat doddering Headmaster (Mr. Howlett) and the tough as nails Doris (Joan Sanderson), but the show is best when it revolves around 5C. After three seasons the kids of 5C were no longer in the series, neither was Alderton. The show went on for another season, but the momentum was lost. Not a laugh riot, it is better than most school comedies. Its more realistic than Welcome Back Kotter, which I like mostly for nostalgic reasons. I recommend this, you don't have to be British to like it. The movie of "Please Sir" is also recommended, it is fun.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
How today's teachers must look back at programmes like this and lament
the passing of innocence and discipline.
This series introduced a young John Alderton as Fresh-faced Mr Hedges taking on the tyrants of class 5C. A motley working-class crew of young and not-so-young actors and actresses replicated an adolescent version of the 'Bash Street Kids' at some deprived inner-city school. It was a sitcom version of 'To Sir, With Love'.
Extremely popular in its time. There were great performances from a number of TV familiars, not least of which was old stalwart Derek Guyler, as the cantankerous janitor.
Later series declined as a consequence of actor changes. The format had probably run its course anyway.
The early series are the best, and still worth a watch for the sake of nostalgia. You couldn't make a sitcom out of inner-city school-life today. Its routine of violence, foul-language, and feral indiscipline is now just a terrifying tragedy.
As an exemplar of ensemble sitcom Please,Sir! would be very hard to beat. The first two series certainly contained both scripts and performances that would put much else to shame.Anyone who has been through the English state school system in the last 50 years would recognise most of the character types and this realism certainly added to the charm. John Alderton was well cast as the young idealist but arguably overshadowed by the simply peerless Joan Sanderson as frosty deputy head Miss Ewell and the great Derek Guyler as the war obsessed caretaker,and every school that I ever attended had a miserable physics teacher , pens in breast pocket, who openly hated teaching as presented here by Richard Price. The pupils were an almost equally solid troupe- although quite visibly 10 years too old for the roles - and over all it just worked superbly well. Sadly , like most sitcoms, it outstayed it's welcome and by the final series was almost unrecognisable with a changed cast and weaker, sometimes repeating, scripts but for the first two series this was as good as it got and even stands up well to nostalgic viewing nearly fifty years later. Great stuff
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