TV: THE RAG TRADE

by Peter Tatchell (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #9, 1994)

ragtradeBy the start of the 1960s television had overtaken radio as Britain’s most popular home entertainment medium. Old favourites like Take It From Here, The Goon Show, Educating Archie, Life With The Lyons and Ray’s A Laugh would all conclude within a short period of time as broadcasting budgets dwindled and writing and performing talents added vision to their offerings.

The BBC’s top two television comedies of the fifties Hancock’s Half Hour and Whack-O! had also reached the end of their runs at the start of the new decade. In place of formats centring on star comedians like Tony Hancock or Jimmy Edwards the Light Entertainment Department opted instead for an ensemble piece with several lesser names from the theatrical and movie world in lead roles.

Scripted by Educating Archie alumni Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, The Rag Trade dealt with labour relations at a small London clothing factory, Fenner Fashions. Proprietor Harold Fenner (played by Peter Jones) is constantly at loggerheads with the shop steward of his lady machinists, Paddy (Miriam Karlin), ever anxious to blow her whistle and call “everybody out!” at the merest hint of labour dissent.

Caught in the middle of this tug-of-war between productivity and remuneration is garment cutter Reg (Reg Varney) who is anxious to appease both sides, and invariably ends up the unwilling helpmate in Paddy’s extra-curricular money making chicanery.

Also participating in the fray are sailor-chasing blonde and the firm’s occasional model, Carole (Sheila Hancock), and the dithery, almost elfin buttonholer Lily (Esma Cannon).

The Rag Trade‘s first season screened at the end of 1961 and was enormously popular with viewers who quickly warmed to the farcical situations and endearing mix of characterization. For ten weeks Fenner unearthed a variety of under-the-counter wedding dresses, stuffed dolls and any number of other work-related perks, not to mention the disruptive appearance of sailors on shore leave, romantic Mediterranean designers and chicken legs in the pockets of his proudest creations.

Public response was so great a second series of thirteen programmes was rushed into production and went out a short four months later.

By the end of 1962, the popularity of the show inspired a theatrical spin-off at the Piccadilly Theatre featuring all the principals (except Sheila Hancock), and E.M.I. records got into the act by releasing an LP of highlights.

Soon after, a third series was back on the B.B.C., but Sheila Hancock and Esma Cannon had now left the cast. In the role of the “dumb” blonde came Barbara Windsor as the buxom Judy, whom storylines decreed would act as a love interest for Reg (Windsor had in fact appeared in a minor role in the show’s first season, but had few lines).

Three episodes into the run the marvelous Irene Handl also became a regular, playing Reg’s chattery mum who is hired as Fenner’s book-keeper. However, despite the addition of such fine actresses, the shift in emphasis to Reg and Judy threw the format off-centre and at the conclusion of thirteen programmes it was decided to conclude the show’s run. But The Rag Trade wasn’t quite finished as it happened.

Fourteen years later, commercial television’s London Weekend decided to revive the series and brought back Jones and Karlin to recreate their roles in a new batch of fifteen episodes, now set in the late 1970s.

In place of Reg Varney, ex-Upstairs, Downstairs actor Christopher Beeny was signed to play Tony, the “man-in-the-middle” in the workroom. Anna Karen moved her character of Olive (from On The Buses, also scripted by Wolfe and Chesney) to Fenner Fashions, and Diane Langton (who had taken over the Barbara Windsor role in a recent Carry On) appeared as the Windsoresque Kathy. More prominent in these new editions was the role of Mrs. Fenner (played by Rowena Cooper, and later Joy Stewart).

The new venture initially reworked a number of the original plotlines, but by the time of a follow-up season (a year later) new stories were created. And a decade and a half after its premiere, The Rag Trade delighted a whole new generation of viewers.

The following episode guide has been compiled through reference to The Radio Times, the original scripts at the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham, listings of Australian television screenings and the recent commercial DVD releases (of seasons 1 and 2). No titles were listed in the Radio Times for original transmissions of series 1 and 2 (though six were given titles during a short repeat season). In addition, the scripts for a handful of series 2 programmes bear titles.

Series 1: BBCTV October 6 to December 8 1961 (10 x 30 min)
starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Reg Varney, Sheila Hancock, Esma Cannon.
1 The Baby
When Fenner finds one of the girls has brought her baby to work, the resultant fracas between management and staff threatens production of a line of polka dot gowns.
2 Getting Married
Paddy promises Carole the girls will be able to make her a wedding dress with material left over from an order for Arcadia Gowns
3 Early Start
Fenner installs a time clock to help gain a contract with chain store Parks & Spicer and the resultant docking of wages leaves the girls with no money to bet on a sure thing at the races
4 French Fashions
Fenner arranges for Carole to model a pair of slacks at the Ritz Plaza to help secure an American order
5 The Sample
Paddy allows Carole to wear a sample dress to lunch with her sailor boyfriend and a resultant mishap jeopardizes a 3:30 viewing by a prospective buyer.
6 Unhappy Customer
Fenner is determined to enforce a ban on eating in the workroom when an angry customer returns items of food in his garments
7. (title unknown)
Fenner Fashions has been awarded a contract to supply Wren uniforms to the Admiralty by inadvertently tendering bankruptingly low prices so the girls have to show their workmanship is shoddy to save the situation.
8. Doctor’s Orders
Fenner is laid low with a heavy cold at the very moment he has to produce a gown which is to be worn on television by an international singing star and lead to numerous orders.
9. The Italian Designer
The arrival of Roberto, an Italian beachwear designer, causes strained relations among the girls in the workroom.
10. The Golliwogs
To make a bit of pocket money for the Festive season, Paddy and the girls produce 300 golliwog dolls, unbeknownst to Fenner.

Series 2: BBCTV April 6 to June 29 1962 (13 x 30 min)
starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Reg Varney. Sheila Hancock. Esma Cannon
1. (title unknown)
When the one-aimed bandit in the. restroom has taken all the girls’ money. Paddy wants to make use of the 15 pounds Reg has been given to pay the electricity bill.
2. (title unknown)
Lily’s dog has ruined one of Fenner’s upmarket creations so the girls set up a temporary salon to try and market it themselves.
3. (title unknown)
Reg finds himself trapped in the ladies’ rest room without his trousers on the day a factory inspector visits.
4. (title unknown)
Fenner arranges for Reg to paint his flat whilst he is away in Amsterdam but Paddy sees it as the perfect venue for her birthday party.
5 (title unknown) BELIEVED LOST
Paddy and Carole take the day off and use Fenner’s new buttonhole machine to make four bridesmaid’s dresses hut problems occur when it breaks down.
6. (title unknown)
Having tricked Fenner into a generous rate for a line of satin dresses, the girls make far more than he can sell and have to help him entice a prospective client with a special lunch.
7. Stay-In Strike
Paddy and the girls are unhappy with Fenner’s new secretary and decide the only way to have her removed is to take industrial action.
8. The Fish And Chip Shop BELIEVED LOST
Despite having to complete a rush order for Fenner, Reg and the girls agree to mind the local fish shop when the owner’s wife has a baby.
9. Safety Precaution
When Paddy’s excessive safety precautions cause some dress prices to skyrocket, the only way Fenner can sell them is to convince the client they are the work of a French designer.
10. Stainproofer
Owing to a mixup with stainproofer, the girls end up ruining Fenner’s coat and try to get his measurements to make a replacement without his knowing.
11. Doctor
The arrival of handsome Dr. Blake leads to so many of the girls requiring his treatment that a factory inspector thinks they’re employed in an unsafe workplace.
12. Barber’s Shop
When Fenner refuses the girls a raise, they set up a sideline as a Chinese laundry in conjunction with the local barber shop.
13. (title unknown)
Having been left with a surplus of Baby Doll nighties, Fenner tries to get an overdraft but must agree to an inspection visit by the bank manager.

** CHRISTMAS NIGHT WITH THE STARS: BBCTV December 25 1962 LOST
featured a Rag Trade sketch

a stage production of The Rag Trade premiered at London’s Piccadilly Theatre on December 19th 1962. Scripted by Wolfe and Chesney, it starred Jones, Varney, Karlin and Cannon and ran for 77 performances.

Series 3
BBC January 5 to March 30 1963 (13 episodes)
ALL 13 EDITIONS ARE BELIEVED LOST
starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Reg Varney, Barbara Windsor, Irene Handl
1. The Australian
Reg considers emigrating “down under” so Fenner and Paddy try to line up a romantic interest for him with one of the new girls.
2. Triplets
Having Judy help him fill out his tax form results in Reg receiving a large refund because it’s believed he has a wife, three children and a grandmother to support.
3. The Budgie
Fenner employs Reg’s mother as book-keeper and she insists on bringing her talking budgerigar Bertie to work with her.
4. The Baby Sitter
Reg’s mother keeps interrupting the girls’ card game so they relocate to the Fenner’s where one of their fellow-workers is babysitting.
5. Second Mrs. Fenner
Owing to Reg’s motor scooter accident, the girls are not ready with a sample coat, so Paddy suggests Fenner delay the Australian client with a home-cooked meal but Mrs. Fenner was planning on celebrating their anniversary by dining out.
6. Chef’s Special
To entice Reg into becoming engaged, Paddy suggests Judy prepare him a succulent meal.
7. The Italian Bit
Reg has an argument with Judy and wants to invite an Italian girl named Maria home for a meal if her brothers agree.
8. Baby Dolls
When Reg and the girls bet Fenner’s money on a losing greyhound they use army surplus parachute silk to make an order of nighties.
9. After The Ball
Paddy pretends Judy is Fenner’s daughter at the annual Fashion World ball to impress a chain-store heir and the deception could lead to them placing a large order for polka dot dresses.
10. The Engagement Ring
Engagement celebrations at the local pub are disrupted when the pearl disappears from Judy’s ring.
11. Crocodile Tears
The shoe is on the other foot when Fenner needs cash to pay for some crocodile belts at a time when the girls have won 80 pounds on the pools.
12. National Productivity Year
Fenner Fashions attempt at a productivity drive are thwarted by Paddy’s “Everybody out!” whistle.
13. The American Buyer
When an efficiency-minded prospective buyer looks like taking over the business, Paddy and Judy decide to get new jobs but their first approach is to the very man they are hoping to avoid.

Series 4
London Weekend September 11 to December 18 1977 (not on Dec 4) and December 24 1977 (15 episodes)
starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Christopher Beeny, Anna Karen, Diane Langton, Rowena Cooper
1. Stay-In Strike
Fenner’s ideas for improving output result in an industrial revolt in the workroom.
2. The Sample
Paddy allows Kathy to wear Fenner’s sample dress on a date with her new boyfriend.
3. Fixing The Rate
To increase efficiency, Fenner uses a stop-watch to time production in the workroom.
4. The Lunch Problem
Mr. Fenner refuses to set up a staff canteen so the girls decide to do the cooking themselves.
5. The Export Order
Fenner Fashions have received an order from New York but Kathy’s birthday celebrations threaten to delay things.
6. The Italian Line
Fenner hires an Italian designer and the girls aren’t happy when Paddy falls for him.
7. Olive’s Baby
The girls go on strike when Fenner won’t allow Olive’s baby in the workroom.
8. The Wedding Dress
The Fenners arrive at the factory for some Saturday morning stocktaking just when Paddy and the girls are secretly making Kathy’s wedding dress.
9. The Sideline
Paddy’s latest infatuation leads to the setting up of an undercover industry in the workroom.
10. The Guv’nor’s Wife
Mrs. Fenner is to attend a rally featuring Margaret Thatcher but Paddy’s sentiments are with the Labour Party.
11. The New Girl
The staff at Fenner Fashions aren’t pleased when their employer hires a personal assistant straight from college.
12. The Bet
The girls feel a horse called “Paddy” running in the 2:30 is too good an omen to pass up.
13. The Accident
Paddy tries to get compensation for Kathy by way of an arranged industrial accident.
14. The New Brother
When Fenner employs an Indian girl to do the embroidery, the girls aren’t thrilled about her efficient methods.
15. Christmas Rush
Fenner urges the girls to complete an order of dresses before the holidays then has to get them to alter his wife’s cocktail frock.

Series 5
London Weekend September 8 to October 20 1978 (7 episodes)
starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Christopher Beeny, Anna Karen, Diane Langton, Joy Stewart
1. The Annual Ball
The girls are asked to make a special dress for Mrs. Fenner to wear to the Gown Makers’ Ball.
2. The Leather Line
When Fenner decides to introduce leatherwear into the workroom, Paddy sees it as an excuse for a new set of negotiations.
3. Stress
Fenner has to undergo a life insurance medical examination before the hank will agree to another loan.
4. A Bad Patch
Fenner Fashions reputation for poor service has resulted in a lack of orders and with no bonuses the girls organize a few money-making schemes.
5, Come Back Paddy
Paddy refuses an offer from a rival firm until Mrs. Fenner gets involved.
6. Self-Defence
A spate of attacks in the area prompts Paddy to insist Fenner organize self-defence lessons.
7. Fenner’s Folly
Fenner is trying to arrange a large order with a Chelsea boutique and has to negotiate with a very attractive buyer.

 

Record

The Rag Trade
(Parlophone LP PMC 1188)
features soundtrack extracts from series 1 and 2:
A Letter From Bill
Tea Break At Fenner’s
A Cold Cure For Fenner
A Baby In The Works

 

Book

The Rag Trade
by Peter Buchanan
(W.H. Allen/Star paperback, 1977)

 

DVD

THE RAG TRADE – series 1 “Everybody Out!”
DD Home Entertainment 2DVD DD 22011 (2006)
The French Fashions
Christmas Box (originally titled The Golliwogs)
The Baby
Getting Married
Early Start
Unhappy Customer
Doctor’s Orders
The Sample
(episodes 7 and 9 not included)

THE RAG TRADE – series 2
BBC 2DVD BO1639-9 (2009)
(episodes 5 and 8 not included)

THE RAG TRADE – LWT series 1
Network 2DVD

THE RAG TRADE – LWT series 2
Network DVD

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