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This is a British comedy show I remember fondly from my childhood. Charlie
Drake played a 'little man' character whose attempts to find an honest job
were always scuppered by fate. Henry McGee, best known today for his
appearances in The Benny Hill Show, was his long-suffering employment
I would very much like to see this series again, if only to see if it's as good as I remember, but despite the proliferation of channels these days it seems as if nobody wants to show black and white series anymore. ITV, the network that commissioned the series, never shows anything over ten years old nowadays, and I'm not even sure the recordings still exist. Because Britain never had syndication (at least not until satellite TV provided something similar) old shows just weren't seen as having any commercial value and often got wiped. But if people regard black and white films like Casablanca as all-time classics, why shouldn't black and white TV shows be treated with the same respect?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Astonished to find three episodes of this on an old videotape I bought
the other day. Even more astonished that the first one on the tape was
one that I actually remembered quite well from 1970. I wouldn't have
believed that I saw it later than 1967, but a reference to 'Midnight
Cowboy' places the recording date after 1969. I was a kid during this
series' run, and could never get enough of Charlie Drake. He was a
brilliant comic in both the physical and verbal sense, and I remember
once seeing him carrying on with the comedy while bleeding from the
head after jumping through a prop window (in an episode of this
series). Each episode of The Worker adhered to a formula: Charlie
strides into the Employment Exchange, makes a misery of the life of the
official (Henry McGee, playing Mr Pugh, or 'Mister Poo' as Drake's
character calls him), is sent to try out another job, fails with
varying degrees of hilarity (so my memory informs me), then returns,
apparently full of cheer that he is unemployable.
The stunts and slapstick seem eclipsed, at least in TV terms, by the later series 'Some Mothers do 'ave 'em', but it's fascinating to watch Drake and McGee performing their surreal double-headers. Drake is a species of his own, and the closest his character comes to anything resembling a human being, is a sort of overgrown mischievous baby, his brilliant blue eyes defying the monochrome medium. He has a language all his own, and it seems to have come more from a refusal to talk normally than an inability to do so (much more rebellious than the uniform slang used by teenagers).
I was hoping to show the tape to my 11-year-old stepson, who actually loves vintage comedy, but to be honest, there are many elements of the first episode that I found problematic. Charlie decides he wants a sex change - this is proposed from such an innocent angle ('cos I ain't done very well as a man!') that it's disarming, but a scene following an incident in which his clothes shrink in a car wash (causing him, for some reason, to be mistaken for a woman) is rather disturbing: he is waylaid by a gang of skinheads (who were, at that time, the emergent yob element - there had been a considerable lacuna since the decline of the teddyboy, and they had a lot of catching up to do), and it is quite clear ('just relax, darlin'') that their intention is rape. A farcical rescue has them each deposited in a dustbin, but the scene is much too menacing, and the intended juxtaposition of silly comedy doesn't cancel it out.
However, this is worth seeing, if you can track down the cassette (I don't know how many other episodes survived). Drake is supremely confident in his performance, and draws us onto his side to tease the long suffering Mr Pugh.
The closest talent I've seen to Drake in delivery and physicality in recent years is Lee Evans. Both stars are great when they're in the right setting, that is to say, contexts that use such tremendous energy to good effect. Anything else is a disaster.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Well, it's taken 37 years but this long-lost series has finally been
released on DVD (UK, region 2) where it will hopefully recapture some
of the recognition it deserves.
I must admit that not having seen the show since the callow days of my youth I wasn't sure it would hold up, but to my surprise and delight it's even funnier than I remember despite only being preserved on scratchy black and white 16mm telerecordings. The series is a curious mixture of stand-up, sitcom and surrealism, all held together by Drake's assured comic performances.
The basic format is simple enough. Charlie has been visiting his local Labour Exchange ever since the end of World War II, and in that time he's had over 900 jobs and lost every single one of them within days. At the start of each show his employment adviser (originally Mr. Whittaker, or as Charlie would have it "Whikatter", played by Percy Herbert; from season 2 onward Mr Pugh, or "Poo", played by Henry McGee) has to sit "patiently" through Charlie's unlikely tale of how he managed to get fired *this* time.
The rest of the show typically sees Charlie trying for yet another job and failing due to some bizarre combination of circumstances, returning to the Labour Exchange to harass his adviser once again. In later episodes the actual job-hunting theme was sometimes sidelined in favour of out-and-out surrealism, never more so than in the series 3 opener (and the only episode to survive in colour, albeit in a rough cut) "Hallo Cobbler", in which Charlie gets knocked on the head and has an increasingly strange set of hallucinations based on a story he told Mr. Pugh to explain a long absence. This culminates in a weird trial that turns into a musical number, in which Drake plays almost all the parts. The scene is every bit as funny and surreal as anything on Monty Python or The Goodies.
**Small spoiler warning**
When he wakes up Mr. Pugh tells Charlie how he came to be knocked out - his boomerang DID come back after all!
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