28 July 2013

"Language, Timothy!" "Sorry, Father!" - The Adventures Of Timothy Lumsden

Sorry! - the novel. Ronnie Corbett as hapless librarian Timothy Lumsden is the cover star. Timothy desperately wanted to leave home, and sought "full board without scotch eggs".

Towards the end of 1980, Ronnie Corbett, the little one of Two Ronnies fame, was recording the pilot of what he later described as an "everyday sitcom" at the BBC. Although the Two Ronnies was still up and running, Ronnies Barker and Corbett had an agreement with the BBC that individual projects would be provided for them as comedic actors in their own right.

 The "everyday sitcom" pilot in production in late 1980 would never see the light of day. It wasn't deemed good enough.

It was whilst recording this destined-for-the-dumper pilot, that Ronnie Corbett was introduced to a brand new character, written especially for him, by writers Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent.

Enter, Timothy Lumsden! Timothy Christopher Robin Lumsden, to be precise.

Ronnie was happy. The BBC was happy. The pilot of the other show disappeared, never to be seen on-screen. And Sorry! went straight into production - for a full seven episode series, no pilot needed!

Interior scenes were filmed at the BBC in London, and the exterior for the small town setting for Timothy's exploits was provided by Wallingford in Oxfordshire.

In March 1981, the series went on-air. 

 Timothy Lumsden was a very English little man, who would instinctively apologise if somebody bumped into him, trod on his toe, etc. And Ronnie Corbett, himself born in Scotland, made this character live and breathe.

It was a brilliant performance.

Of course, Ronnie Corbett was already famous, but Timothy looked a bit different early on. Slightly more hair. Slightly curlier. Ronnie later commented: "I wore a false piece on top of my hair to make me look a bit curlier, but I don't know why I bothered with that." For me, it was useful because I was already a Ronnie Corbett fan, and loved watching him (particularly his "sit down" act on The Two Ronnies!), but the hair served to set Timothy Lumsden slightly apart, and I found it useful in establishing the character as a separate entity from the Two Ronnies performer.

 What initially warmed me to this series was its excellently drawn characters and the writers' obvious knowledge of what makes people tick - the relationships between the Lumsden family members were brilliantly observed. 

 Detail from the opening titles of Sorry!

Librarian Timothy was not always good with words - he got tongue tied, rambling and flustered at the drop of a hat when in the presence of any woman he liked (his mother had kept him off school the day his class did page 44 in biology), but he was a witty and kind man nonetheless. He was also an Ovalteeny and something of an unlikely hero - saving his godson from a bully, reuniting a runaway daughter with her father, saving a circus troupe from the bailiffs, putting aside the fact that he was going on a date with the woman of his dreams in order to save an elderly neighbour's house from being burgled...

Timothy's big problem was his mother - Mrs Phyllis Lumsden. At the start of the series he was forty-one. But Mummykins still treated him as though he was about five. She cooed at him. She lambasted him, she was always telling him to "stop showing off!", and wasn't averse to clouting him on occasion. She kept asking him if he was constipated. She wanted to make sure he had clean "handy-pandies" before he ate his dinner. She sent him to bed if he misbehaved. She cut his porridge into soldiers for him.

"WHAT?!" you explode. Or perhaps yawn. I dunno what kind of mood you're in today, so I really can't say.

Well, yes, I reply,  I know that cutting bread or toast into soldiers is far more common. But then Mrs Lumsden's porridge was decidedly uncommon. Thank goodness. Which leads us neatly onto the subject of her cooking skills. Or rather lack of them. Mrs L was still living in the war and post-war years of rationing - she still had two boxes of powdered egg in the larder. "Waste not, want not!" was her motto, and leftovers were a speciality. Left over Twiglets and scotch eggs for breakfast? Why not? And what about last Tuesday's spotted dick?

Timothy couldn't break the ties of his mother's apron strings. Even when he seemed close to it, he sometimes scuppered his own efforts because the suffocating bonds were just too tight.

Mrs Lumsden clung on to the past (note the ancient cut-price tin of Zam-Buk in the bathroom) and tried to make sure her son Timothy never grew up. She was so out-of-touch that, when Timothy presented her with an elaborate wrought iron shoe scraper as a present, she tentatively asked: "Is it a video game?"

It seemed appropriate that one of Mrs Lumsden's relatives had invented flypaper. 

 Actress Barbara Lott found fame as monstrous mummy Mrs Lumsden in Sorry!

Mrs Lumsden's daughter, Muriel (Marguerite Hardiman), had broken free and married and Mrs L had never really forgiven her. And Muriel's husband, Kevin (Derek Fuke), well... his eyes were far too close together...

And we all know what that means (incidentally, did you know that eyebrows which meet in the middle are a sign of a "gold digger", and that small ear lobes are a sign of "not a very nice person"? Timothy did).

Whilst we're off on a tangent, was Mrs Nugent Is Coming To Tea a record by Soft Cell?

Muriel committed terrible crimes in her mother's kitchen - like throwing away the J-cloth (Mrs Lumsden believed this should be a yearly event) and descaling the kettle (Mrs L was convinced the tea would taste dreadful because of that). Muriel even threw away the wall calendar in 1981 - "It's not November 1980 anymore!" The photograph of helpless little puppy dogs  had caused Mrs Lumsden not to move beyond that month and year.  She loved helpless little puppy dogs, did Mrs L.

Muriel fell out with her mother regularly, but knew her well, in fact, had similar steel in her own personality. But she was very much in opposition and determined to get her brother out into the world if she possibly could. Far easier said than done!

Timothy's father, Sidney (William Moore), had long retired from the Water Board and even longer accepted his wife's rule. At first glance, he simply seemed to echo her authoritarian stance on occasion - "Language, Timothy!" he'd say, usually when Timothy had said something completely innocent, or, "Bolshie, Timothy!" when the little one was trying to assert himself. 

Mrs Lumsden berated her husband and sent him out to his shed or the garden (smoking was only allowed beyond the compost heap) and generally ruled him with a rod of iron. But we quickly learned that there was a warmer, kinder side to Mr L, and he was often an ally and confidante for Timothy.

Tim frequented the local pub, and often met his old pal, Frank Baker (Roy Holder), there. Frank was another ally, urging Tim to break away from his mother. Unlike Tim, Frank was just your average guy, unhampered by a monstrous mater. He married, started a family, and generally lived life as millions upon millions of men live it. Sometimes he grew frustrated with Tim, but he showed such patience and restraint it was obvious that he really cared.

Apart from that dreadful time in 1982 when he hit Tim with a shepherd's pie.

Frank provided a useful bit of grounding to the show, along with the local pub scenario, including Jean (Jennifer Franks) the barmaid, as Sorry! sometimes leapt away into the surreal. Did Timothy have a guardian angel (see the episode It's A Wonderful Life, Basically), for instance? Or was he simply going a bit strange and imagining things after all those lonely years of oppression?

Timothy had a few more near misses when it came to matrimony, but the closer he got to finding true love, the more desperate his mother became to thwart him. She wasn't above enlisting the aid of her friend Dulcie Barrable (Mavis Pugh) in her attempts to spoil her son's escape plans, and once even faked her own death. Some of the later episodes had a faintly sinister tinge, and the surreal aspects of the plot increased. But would good win through in the end? 

In 1988, now aged forty-eight,Timothy bought his house and met the woman of his dreams. "Snow White's Cottage", that's what his friends dubbed his quaint new home.Of course, Timothy declared he was a yuppie - moving into the property owners' class. And also an Oink (remember all those acronyms so beloved of the 1980s? Dinky, of course, stood for "dual income, no kids yet", but "Oink" was definitely Timothy - "one income, no kids"!).

But then Mother called at Snow White's cottage with a basket of apples...

And the thudding noises coming from upstairs that Frank Baker heard when calling on Mrs Lumsden at her house later, in search of a suddenly missing Timothy, were not, as Mrs L said, Muriel doing her aerobics with Jane Fonda...

I won't spoil the ending, but Sorry! was a brilliant sitcom, and a few visits to the 1980s Lumsden family are a must if imaginative, high quality TV comedy is something you enjoy. 

But remember - no elbows on the table and make sure your handie-pandies are absolutely spotless before venturing in!


Peter Gray said...

Loved this as a kid...also the its a wonderful life episode was so memorable and the best one..

It reminds me of Mummy's boy from Monster Fun and Buster a over powering mother keeping her 8 year old in baby clothes and in a pram remember that!!

Anonymous said...

Anybody know where in the UK this sitcom was located, or where the external scenes were shot?

Anonymous said...

Wallingford in Oxfordshire

Anonymous said...

If they read the article they'd know the answer

Unknown said...

Great post, thanks!

rnmchinnor said...

In the grounds of a house called 'Herries' on the Reading Road.