02 July 2014

Soap Opera Heroines Of The 1980s - 1: Miss Babs Of Acorn Antiques

The wonderful Miss Babs (Celia Imrie). Answering the phone in the family antiques business seemed to suit her...

Women who endure great hardship (usually foisted on them by men - what a grotty lot we're made out to be!) have always been an essential ingredient of English soap operas. Look at Angie Watts of EastEnders. Boy, did she suffer! And then there was Sheila Grant of Brookside. My gawd! And Jill Chance of Crossroads. Didn't that lass go through it? Of course, my wife says it's all very true to life and that real men are a bunch of louses, just like soap men (although I hope she has a twinkle in her eye when she says it!) but the soap opera heroine to top ALL soap opera heroines has to be Miss Babs, of the '80s spoof soap Acorn Antiques, broadcast as part of the very wonderful Victoria Wood - As Seen On TV series from 1985 to 1987.

What Miss Babs went through really doesn't bear thinking about, but we're going to think about it, just to illustrate our point about how wonderful soap women in the 1980s (forget Alexis Carrington and Angela Channing) were. Whatever life threw at her, Miss Babs carried on. And life threw a lot!

As the serial began, we found Miss Babs working in the family business, Acorn Antiques, on the outskirts of Manchesterford.

The return of her ex-love, Clifford, stunned her. He'd left her by the handbags in a well-known store. His unexpected return drew from her icy contempt: "Bored with Zurich? Or did Zurich get bored with you?" she asked. He declared his love for her, but she told him she'd changed - she had triplets now. Clifford had a startling confession to make - he went bell ringing on Wednesday nights.

Miss Babs's marriage to Mr Kenneth was unhappy. Who was the mysterious Rowena, who phoned from Kuwait? Why was he booking into the Formica Motel with Trixie ("Trixie Trouble they call me!") from the antique packing department? Trixie truly was trouble. She discovered that Miss Babs had booked into the Formica Motel nine months to the day before the triplets were born with Derek, the large, bumbling, handyman from Acorn Antiques. And then Trixie discovered some photographs, in a waterproof bag, tied to the lavatory ballcock, which revealed that she wasn't the only one with a birthmark shaped like a moped. Miss Babs was her mother.

Miss Babs kept her stiff upper lip and adjusted accordingly. Trixie stopped being Trixie Trouble and took holy orders, becoming a nun.

It seemed there HAD been some hanky-panky between Miss Babs and Derek - in one scene their passion seemed set to erupt anew. He told her he always thought of her when he was watching the show jumping or grilling a tomato. So, who WAS the father of the triplets? Or the mother, for that matter. As Miss Babs confided to her faithful char Mrs Overall, she didn't know if they were really hers - she'd only gone into hospital to have her ears pierced.

Kenneth caused further heartache for Miss Babs when he tried to commit suicide, attempting to slash his wrists with an electric razor, but Miss Babs was so used to (her) life's never ending shocks and surprises that she was completely unfazed when he phoned up, not dead at all, and told her to put the triplets in their body warmers - he was taking them to Manchesterford Zoo.

Miss Babs was a kind and considerate employer. When Mrs Overall's husband died and Mrs O asked for time off for the funeral, Miss Babs said, in a voice throbbing with sympathy: "Of course. Just pop back at five for the hoovering." So, it came as a terrible shock when Mrs Overall laced her coffee with poison in an attempt to kill her. Miss Babs bought Mrs O a new blouse, and the old charlady was soon back to her old devoted (in fact positively fawning) self.

Mr Kenneth ran off with a weird religious sect, and Miss Babs failed to get custody of the triplets - although she did get a deep fat fryer and a weekend for two in the Peak District.

Acorn Antiques appeared to have had its day when Miss Babs's wicked Spanish cousin Jerez turned up. He had been masquerading as the postman to intercept letters to Miss Babs about a new motorway which would mean curtains for the business. This did not go ahead (I forget why) but Jerez did turn out to have his uses. With Acorn Antiques facing bankruptcy and about to go up for sale, Jerez asked Miss Babs to marry him, but when Miss Babs said no (her first marriage had been nothing but trauma, from the moment two of the triplets had been born with dangerously straight hair and had to be whisked straight off to the hairdressers's), Jerez turned nasty. He stormed out of the shop, passing Clifford on the way in, who whisked the fat cheque intended to sweeten Miss Babs towards the prospect of marriage from Jerez's jacket pocket.

The show was updated during its run, with a lovely opening sequence of Miss Babs driving to Acorn Antiques and the title displayed on a set of vertical window blinds. Sounds familiar?  

Also like Crossroads in the mid-1980s, Acorn Antiques gained a new leisure centre - with sunbeds.

There was so much more the stately Miss Babs had to face - Miss Berta's marriage to Mr Clifford, for example (Miss Berta was suffering from amnesia at the time), and the death of Miss Berta's father, who got himself shot in Dakar, but was then spotted buying a padded envelope and a TV licence stamp in the local post office. And what about the time Mrs Overall was revealed as being the mother of Miss Berta and Derek the handyman, who were apparently twins? And what about the time Mr Clifford was killed by a faulty plug (never mind, he went nice and stiff and was propped up by the ironing board) and Mrs Overall choked to death on one of her own delicious homemade macaroons? Miss Babs murmured words of comfort to her faithful employee as she lay dying - assuring her that she was going to send the macaroon recipe to the Weekly News

Truly the soap heroine to top all soap heroines - not just of the 1980s, but of all time

Miss Babs, we salute you!

But don't eat any of Mrs Overall's macaroons, will you?

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