21 October 2009

Thora Hird - The 1980s: Never Too Late, Praise Be! A Cream Cracker Under The Settee, Hallelujah!

It wasn't alternative, but it was realistic and optimistic - it was Never Too Late, a 1980-1981 BBC Radio 4 comedy by Terry Gregson, starring the brilliant English character actors Thora Hird, Megs Jenkins, Avis Bunnage and Joe Gladwin.

Thora, who was a member of my own wonderful grandmother's generation and shared many of her qualities, played the highly capable Hilda Springett - a pensioner organising a holiday for her friends and neighbours, including man-mad Mildred Emmett, played by Avis Bunnage. Of Mildred, Hilda said: "Anybody who thinks promiscuity started in the 'sixties should have known Mildred in her twenties!"

Megs Jenkins was feather-headed Emily Holroyd (Mildred: "Remember when they dropped that bomb on the gasworks?" Emily: "That'd be during the war.")

Joe Gladwin was the oft morose Tommy Preston, who discovered that even the marmalade wasn't as good as it was when he was a lad.

Oddly enough, the show had the same theme tune as Terry & June!

A second series followed late in 1981, running into 1982, with Hilda and her pals raising funds to keep the local day centre for the elderly open.

Never Too Late = fondly remembered.

Thora Hird kept a very special appointment in 1983 - to collect her OBE. In the early 1990s, she became a Dame of the British Empire. We were pleased for her, my family, friends and I, but she was always just "Thora" to us. Not that we'd ever met her, but we felt as if we had. Thora had such a natural way about her on-screen, she seemed like one of us.

My gran never referred to Thora's Sunday evening hymn request show by its titles; when it began in 1977 it was a studio-based show called Your Songs of Praise Choice. In 1984 it became Praise Be! But Gran simply called the show "Thora":

"Thora's on tonight, so we'll make a cuppa beforehand, and then we can settle down."

I often used to visit Gran on Sundays (I was usually nursing a hangover!), so often saw Thora then. In the '80s there was some wonderful location filming with ducks, dogs and glorious countryside.

In 1983, Thora starred in the Dick Sharples telly comedy Hallelujah!

She was, of course, already appearing in Mr Sharples' other telly comedy, In Loving Memory, which had premiered (with a different cast) in 1969 and became a series from 1979 to 1986.

In Hallelujah! Thora played disaster-prone Captain Emily Ridley of the Salvation Army, trying to make a success of running a citadel in a small northern town, and avoid being put out to grass. She was assisted by her widowed niece Alice Meredith (Patsy Rowlands), who would much rather have found a nice man and settled down again.

A serial bigamist, who had only done it because he couldn't face "living in sin", formed one of the storylines in the first series. A young Richard Whiteley turned up, playing himself, in another episode in which Captain Emily nearly fell off the roof at Yorkshire Television, trying to prevent a stoat keeper from committing suicide!

A second series followed in 1984.

The 1980s were truly a wondrous time for Thora fans. Remember her in Last Of The Summer Wine, and Alan Bennett's absolutely brilliant Talking Heads instalment A Cream Cracker Under The Settee?

No offence meant, but I was never a great fan of Last Of The Summer Wine. However, when Thora Hird arrived as Edie Pegden (she joined the cast in 1985, and made her screen debut on New Year's Day, 1986, in an episode entitled Uncle Of The Bride), I had a lot more time for the show - even began to enjoy it. The character, complete with Thora's tried and trusted "phone voice" routine ("Hoh how har you?"), was a delight, bolstering the monstrous regiment of women with her coffee mornings - and balancing out the men (with their long-running juvenile antics) a little more.

1980s newcomer Edie Pegden (Thora Hird) with Last Of The Summer Wine stalwarts Nora Batty (Kathy Staff) and Ivy (Jane Freeman).

Thora wasn't only like a favourite relative or good friend visiting us via the telly screen - she was an absolutely top-notch actress.

And that didn't just mean comedy, either.

1987's A Cream Cracker Under The Settee was a tremendous revelation to me - it was the first time a performance by Thora ever made me cry. I was working as a care assistant at a Social Services home for the elderly at the time, so thought that the show would be of interest. But I was completely bowled over. I wept, and wept - and wept some more. And thoughts of the show kept me awake well into the early hours.

I don't ever recall reacting to a dramatic performance like that - before or since.

And at other times during this era, when Thora was making me laugh and making me cry as various fictitious characters, I was glad to see her, via the tube, popping in for a natter as herself.

There was a wonderful simplicity and integrity about "our Thora".

She was utterly convincing when acting a role. And always seemed utterly genuine when appearing as herself.

In fact, she was a bit of a one-off.

And she's sadly missed.

In 1987, Doris took a tumble and discovered that Zulema had left a cream cracker under the settee. Thora Hird's portrayal of Doris earned her a BAFTA award for best actress.

1 comment:

Paul Wells said...

"Never Too Late" gets repeated on Radio 4 Extra now and again.