Conceived by two veteran Coronation Street writers, John Stevenson and Julian Roach, Brass was a sitcom unlike any other. Set in the fictional Northern town of Utterly in the 1930s and based around the ruthless, money-hungry mill owner Bradley Hardacre, the series debuted on ITV in February 1983, lasting two seasons, before being resurrected by Channel Four in 1990 for one final series. Yet, despite its prominence in the schedules, Brass has never drawn the kind of critical applause it’s deserved. Here are five reasons then why Brass is possibly ITV’s greatest sitcom…
It’s the British Dallas (only with added flatcaps)
Though it’s still roaringly funny in 2018, 1983 audiences would have been far more attuned to to the kind of TV Brass was sending up so savagely. There’s as much parody of the high-gloss, hyperbolic super-soaps such as Dallas (which, in 1983, was one of the top-rated shows in the UK) and Dynasty as there is the gritty and dour trouble-at-mill dramas like When The Boat Comes In (which ran from 1976 to 1981). It’s not hard to see an echo of Dallas’ Ewing-Barnes rivalry in the intertwined lives of the moneyed Hardacres and the down-at-heel Fairchilds. And any keen ITV viewer will have recognised Cambridge undergraduate Morris and his teddy bear Hesketh as an affectionate steal from the then-recent ratings smash Brideshead Revisited.
It cribs from real life too
Brass drew its inspiration not just from the era’s most popular TV shows, but also from the news headlines of the time. It can’t have been a coincidence that the uber-militant miner working for Bradley Hardacre has the name Scargill (the then-President of the National Union of Mineworkers Arthur Scargill was a semi-permanent face on news bulletins in 1983), or that another character is named Heseltine (after then-Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine) and another Hattersley (after Labour’s then-Deputy Leader Roy). And those with longer memories will certainly have clocked the reference to Morris’ chums from Cambridge – Kim, Guy and Donald (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were three of the so-termed Cambridge Five, a ring of spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II).
Bradley Hardacre – sitcom’s greatest monster
Sitcom-land is littered with raging snobs, egotists and reprobates, but few come as close to all-out monster as Bradley Hardacre. Self-made and owner of the village mine, mill and munitions factory, Hardacre is a man for whom profit is everything, even if it means a few human casualties along the way. He despises one son (the priggish, delicate Morris), tries to kill another (the diabolically ambitious Austin), cheats on his wife and loathes the working class with a vengeance (even though his oikish roots bleed through though, as with his favoured grub of lobster and chips). And all played with a relishable venality by the peerless Timothy West.
Ahead of its time
In 1983 there were few situation comedies, if any, that were recorded without a studio audience. It was also remarkably uncommon for them to have a continuing narrative. Sitcoms, like most dramas, were defiantly, stubbornly episodic, hitting the reset button at the end of each instalment, so that any episode could be re-screened, out of order if necessary. But not Brass, which is storylined very much like a contemporary, serialised show. The episodes all climax on preposterous, giddily hammy cliffhangers (often with the same verbal exchange of “You mean…?” “Yes, that’s EXACTLY what I mean!”) and featured running jokes that rewarded loyal, week-in-week-out viewing. And its lack of a laugh-track is years ahead of its time. Even then, the few sitcoms that did without the studio audience guffawing their way through the half hour tended to be more comedy-dramas, and on film. But Brass is, in every other production way, a traditional, multi-camera, 25-minute sitcom. That it went audience-free and was serialised like a soap opera made it about as unique as sitcoms got in the 1980s.
It has lines you’ll want to quote
It boggles the brain why Brass’ two writers never again dipped their toes into comedy waters. The series positively crackles with cherishable, quotable lines, such as Lady Patience Hardacre’s “That pierced the hippopotamus hide of your complacency, didn’t it?” to the innocent Charlotte’s innuendo-strewn farewell to Matthew Fairchild (“I shall always wonder how many poems the lead in your pencil would have been good for!”) to the boy’s own crummy, Shakespeare-pilfering rhymes (“Thou are more lovely and more interesting/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, but that’s quite another thing”). If Brass were being made now, its lines would make it onto T-shirts.