TV for the Haves and Have-Nots

August 26, 2022

By George Bass (Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist)

It isn’t just Del, Rodney or Steptoe and Son who are caught in the TV poverty trap: for decades, comedies have shown us how people on the bottom rung rarely get higher. But are the loveable losers we tune into as powerless as they first seem? Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster may have been the entitled playboy, but it was his valet Jeeves (Stephen Fry) who picked out his master’s wardrobe, and rescued him from the engagements he’d be bullied into each week. With economic conditions today far tougher than they were for our favourite TV chancers, here are the titles that show how quickly the haves would fall apart without the have-nots…

Upstairs Downstairs [1971]

A ratings smash for LWT despite little initial promotion, this drama about life at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, followed the daily engagements of Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurnley), her politician husband Richard (David Langton), and the “help” who keep their stately household ticking over. Covering the late Edwardian period up until the fallout of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the show’s popularity didn’t prevent it from confronting thorny issues of the early 20th Century: homosexuality, shell shock, and that mainstay of period dramas, the damage caused by the class system.

The Dustbinmen [1968]

Four years before the Wombles got the job of keeping London tidy, cleaning the streets fell to the Dustbinmen: a motley crew of refuse collectors who rode around in dust cart Thunderbird 3, and spent each episode caught between authoritarian management, unstable members of the public, and – in the case of dashing dustman Heavy Breathing (Trevor Bannister) – amorous housewives. The show’s them-and-us outlook remains sadly undated, and while its earthy humour might feel comparatively tame, The Dustbinmen incensed moral standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse (who presumably took her own bin to the tip herself).

Mapp & Lucia [1985]

Life at the greener end of the economy isn’t without its niggles, as this BAFTA-nominated adaption of E.F. Benson’s novel shows. Mapp & Lucia is set in fictional village Tilling (based on Rye, East Sussex): a place whose two most prominent residents – Fawlty Towers’ Prunella Scales and future Miss Marple Geraldine McEwan – are competing to be crowned queen bee. Nigel Hawthorne of Yes Minister and Demolition Man is Lucia’s sidekick Georgie; together, the trio show that, even if money is something too vulgar to discuss, it often creates more problems than it solves.

Please Sir! [1968]

This light-hearted school drama followed idealistic teacher Bernie Hedges (John Alderton) as he takes up a post at Fenn Street Secondary Modern. He quickly finds himself in a Mexican stand-off with pupils who feel the system has given up on them and teachers ground down by a lack of resources and agency. Will “Privet” Hedges prevail, or will he too have his spirit broken by the petty vandalism, institutional racism, and old flames getting a job at the school and crowding him out of his one remaining safe space (the staff room)?

The Upper Hand [1990]

Many British sitcoms have crossed the Atlantic to be remade in America; this prime-time ITV serial is one of the few that survived the return journey. Based on scripts for Who’s the Boss from US network ABC, The Upper Hand sees London widower Charlie Burrows (Joe McGann) get a job as live-in housekeeper to wealthy executive Caroline Wheatley (Diana Weston). A more light-hearted look at life in service, Caroline and Charlie’s dependence on each other and the will-they-won’t-they angle made The Upper Hand a hit, as well as surprisingly progressive for a mainstream sitcom: Charlie is content in his role as a professional house-husband.

William Tell [1958]

Anyone who thinks merry men were unique to Nottingham, will enjoy this adventure series about the iconic Swiss freedom fighter. Starring Conrad Phillips as the archer who shot an apple off his son’s head (and, perhaps less famously, helped overthrow the German occupancy of 14th Century Switzerland), William Tell was a launchpad for countless future stars: Michael Caine, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance and even Jaws’ Robert Shaw among them. It also had a streak of grit that the Robin Hood adaptions of the time shied away from: Phillips’ Tell is a brawler who never breaks into song, and thinks nothing of dispatching King Albert I’s henchmen with crossbow bolts or clifftop death punches.

The Riff-Raff Element [1993]

In The Upper Hand, there was respect between both sides of the household. Debbie Horsfield’s 1993 comedy-drama did away with the pleasantries, and imagined two families – the rural Tundishes and the Belchers of Salford – sharing a mansion when punkette Pat Belcher (Mossie Smith) lands a job as a cook. Treavor Peacock (best known as bumbling Jim from The Vicar of Dibley) is hilarious as the first of Pat’s gatecrashing relatives: an injured abattoir worker who now burgles local houses, and drives his family around in a purloined double decker. The laughs are offset by stories involving murder and doomed relationships.

Press Gang [1989]

In the ‘80s, there were two ways to break into Fleet Street. One was to get your father to phone an old school chum and arrange a column for you at one of the broadsheets. The other was to fight tooth and nail to be taken seriously as a reporter: something Julia Sawalha’s gang of comp school teens attempt when they set up the Junior Gazette. An early project of Sherlock and Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat (also a former teacher), Press Gang is one of the most critically acclaimed and fondly remembered shows to air on CITV.

Sword of Freedom [1958]

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but how do you fight back when stationery stores haven’t yet been invented? If you’re dashing artist Marco del Monte (Edmund Purdom), you put down your paintbrush, pick up a cloak and a zweihänder blade, and fight against the tyrannical Duke de Medici (Martin Benson), who’s attempting to become the absolute ruler of Renaissance Florence. With guest appearances from Geoffrey Bayldon, Patrick Troughton and John Le Mesurier across its 39 episodes, Sword of Freedom delivers a lesson to underdogs everywhere: that being underestimated is also what makes you dangerous.

Order Upstairs Downstairs (1971)  

Order The Dustbinmen (1968)

Order Mapp & Lucia (1985)

Order Please Sir! (1968)

Order The Upper Hand (1990)

Order William Tell (1958)

Order The Riff Raff Element (1993)

Order Press Gang (1989)

Order Sword of Freedom (1958) 

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