TV: PLEASE SIR!

by PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #16, 1997)

pleasesirWhen London Weekend gained their ITV franchise in 1967, their Head Of Comedy, Frank Muir, commis­sioned a batch of sitcoms which went on to become classics. Doctor In The House centred on the pandemonium created by a handful of young medical students while On The Buses dealt with a group of older players (at work and in a family setting).

Completing the “big three” (and the first to make it to air) mixed young and old in a classroom environment.

Please Sir! was the brainchild of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey who exploited the generation-gap hostility between a rebellious gang of have-nots and their equally-frustrated teaching staff in a dismal backwater of the British education system. Into the fray comes Bernard Hedges, fresh from teacher’s col­lege and eager to inspire his charges with a word called “hope” . . . that knowledge and ambition will eventually allow them to escape their bleak predicament.

The key role of Hedges was a triumph for little-known John Alderton, who offered just the right amount of naiveté to act as a believable bridge between the two factions. His co­workers at Fenn Street School in London’s east-end were ineffectual headmaster Maurice Cromwell (played by Noel Howlett), his second-in-command (and the power behind the throne) Doris Ewell (Joan Sanderson), the doddery Mr. Smith (Erik Chitty) and jaded Welshman Mr. Price (Richard Davies). To complete the roster, and worm his way into the staffroom and the eternal respect of the headmaster, is school janitor and World War 2 legend-in-his-own-mind Norman Potter (a scene-stealing performance by ITMA-alumnus Deryck Guyler).

The mainstays of notorious class 5C were cockney bullyboy Eric Duffy (Peter Cleall), his girlfriend Sharon Eversly (Penny Spencer), sartorial second-in-command Peter Craven (Malcolm McFee), mummy’s boy and gangster wanna-be Frankie Abbott (David Barry), Maureen Bullock, who yearned to heal humanity medically or spiritually (Liz Gebhardt) and the intellectually-anorexic Dennis Dunstable (Peter Denyer).

Please Sir! premiered near the end of the black-and-white era in late 1968, and for some reason it was decided that epi­sodes would run in a 45-minute timeslot (instead of the usual half-hour). Possibly radical programming concepts were in keeping with the forward-thinking ideals of the new ITV com­panies, but it can’t have been easy for overseas buyers to adjust their schedules to accommodate the decision. Whatever the motivation, when the show returned for a second season a year later stories ran to the traditional 30-minute slot. And, by then, they were being taped in colour.

Having a regular cast of a dozen players gave scriptwriters Esmonde and Larbey plenty of avenues to pursue with all of the participants highlighted in at least one or two storylines. Along the way, several family members also appeared on an occasional basis … Dunstable’s crapulous father (Peter Bayliss) and Abbott’s domineering mother (Barbara Mitchell, previ­ously seen on The Larkins) made a number of visits.

By the third series (in late 1970) it was decided Hedges should have a love interest in the person of nurse Penny Wheeler (Jill Kerman) and sitcomland had another wedding at the end of the season. It was also felt SC had been in the classroom long enough and should end their schooldays in a poignant penultimate episode.

So popular had the programme become, Please Sir! was transferred to the movies soon after, with all the characters taking part in a storyline that saw 5C off to a riotous holiday at camp (and offered a alternative first-meeting of Bernard and his lady-love). The only cast change was in Carol Hawkins taking over the part of Sharon from Penny Spencer (who re­linquished the role from this point on). When it premiered in June 1972, the Rank studios found it had another small screen/big screen success.

Back at London Weekend, it was decided to continue with the original but also commission a spinoff series (titled The Fenn Street Gang) which would follow the lives of the 5C students as they make their way into the outside world. In order to ease Esmonde and Larbey’s workload (to come up with 42 stories), other writers were also engaged to supply scripts.

The only glitch in their plan of having two series which would run concurrently was that John Alderton was wary of becoming typecast in the role of the befuddled teacher and after nearly three dozen stories had decided to move on (to further successes with Upstairs Downstairs, No Honestly, My Wife Next Door and The Upchat Line). He agreed to allow his character to be eased out of the proceedings by ap­pearing in the first two Please Sir!s and three editions of the spinoff. The plot devised has Hedges taking up a university course, but having inadvertently resigned six weeks too soon, he is forced to raise cash by taking part-time work with vari­ous Fenn Street Gang members.

The basic premise behind the new series was to follow the various Gang members trying to find employment, and viewers continued to enjoy their interaction and sympathetic characters. (In addition to the Hawkins for Spencer swap in the Sharon role, Leon Vitali took over the Craven role from Malcolm McFee who was unable to appear in the show’s first series but who subsequently returned for the follow up seasons.)

Unfortunately back at Fenn Street School the teaching fra­ternity half of the cast (minus Alderton) was not enjoying similar success. No suitable replacements having been found for the 5C protagonists, writers concentrated on the staffroom, and the addition of David Ffitchett-Brown (Richard Warwick) and Mr. Dix (Glynn Edwards) (as a brain versus brawn struggle) failed to gel, and they were eventually replaced by the more phlegmatic Mr. Hurst (Bernard Holley) and Miss Petting (Vivienne Martin). The writing was on the wall (or blackboard), and Please Sir! concluded its run in early 1972.

The Fenn Street Gang however continued on for two more seasons, with Eric and Sharon finally making it to the altar and Maureen qualifying as a nurse. Both Gebhardt and Denyer were written out of the final eight-part run, which concentrated on the newlyweds and the Craven and Abbott characters.
 
Eventually, there was yet another spinoff (of sorts) with Craven’s shady employer of a handful of episodes Stanley Bowler (played by George Baker, a decade before becoming Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford), getting his own series. Bowler lasted just one batch of thirteen programmes.

EPISODE GUIDE

unless noted, all scripts by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey

Series I (black & white)
November 8 to December 20 1968 (7 x 45minute episodes)
The Welcome Mat
Bernard Hedges leaves teachers’ training college and is as-signed to tough East End school Fenn Street
A Picture Of Innocence
Bernard’s attempts to enrol his class in the various school societies leads to trouble
Maureen Bullock Loves Sir
Maureen’s adolescent crush on Hedges isn’t helped by the local gossip merchant, Potter
A Near Greek Tragedy
Bernard is at loggerheads with the headmaster over how to handle the return of a notorious troublemaker to 5C
Barbarian Librarian
5C is given permission to use the library after school but the aftermath is not a pretty sight
Student Princess
An attractive student teacher captivates everyone except Hedges and Miss Ewell
It’s The Thought That Counts
Hedges is in an awkward position when his predecessor is ready to resume after a broken leg

Series 2 (now colour)
September 20 to December 13 1969 (13 episodes)
They’re Off
Hedges tries to interest 5C in mathematics by giving examples in the form of horse race betting
Common Law
5C forms a posse when Sharon is confronted by a prowler as she walks home across the common
Panalal Passes By
Bernard decides to reactivate the Parent-Teacher nights but an Indian couple are the only ones to attend
4 The Sporting Life
In his new role as acting sports master, Hedges attempts to solve a problem concerning Duffy
5 Norman’s Conquest
A television wildlife programme inspires 5Cto adopt a jerboa (a desert rat) which they decide to name Norman
X Certificate
Hedges organizes 5C to make a film of the Fenn Street area to screen on Open Day
The Decent Thing
Bernard wakes up in the bedroom of Sharon’s mother after a riotous party the night before
The Generation Gap
5Ctakes part in a programme to help the elderly citizens of surrounding areas but one old man refuses any assistance
9 Life Without Doris
Relatives from Australia try to entice Doris to emigrate
10  School Captain
When Mr. Cromwell divides the school into four houses, Duffy rigs the voting for school prefects
11  Out Of The Frying Pan
Hedges arranges for the cook to be removed
12  Mixed Doubles
Frankie is in trouble with the police for wantonly breaking a shop window
13  Dress Circle
Accused of being scruffy, Hedges and 5C dress to the nines for the school’s theatrical performance

* a Please Sir! segment was featured on ITV’s All Star Comedy Carnival on December 25 1969

Series 3
September 20 to December 27 1970 (not Dec 20)(14 episodes)
Ag Bow Rumber
Bernard returns for the new term to an empty classroom with 5C nowhere in sight
Stitches And Hitches
Hedges is accused of improper behavior towards a nurse when he visits Frankie in hospital
Knick Knack, Taffy Whack!
Rumours abound as to why Price has been granted a week’s unofficial leave
Enter Mister Sibley
5C see no need for the advice of a visiting careers officer and are even less interested in Potter’s attempts at army recruitment
5 It’s A Saint Bernard’s Life
A visit to a convalescing Mr. Smith inspires Bernard and Penny to dream of their future
Two And Two Make Nun
Maureen decides if she can’t have Hedges she will enter a nunnery
7 The Honour Of The School
Hedges takes on the head of Weaver Street School in a golf match
Cromwell’s Last Stand
The headmaster decides to change his image in order to win the affections of Miss Ewell from Mr. Sibley
Catch A Falling Drop Out
Maureen’s rebellious new boyfriend encourages her to steal a silver cup from the local Conservatives
10  A Star Is Born
Potter has been asked to take part in a beer advertisement, but it could cost him his job
11  The Facts Of Life
It’s up to Price to tell 5C about the birds and the bees
12  Situations Vacant
With their school days about to end, all the 5C students have managed to line up employment except Dunstable
13  Peace In Our Time (b/w, owing to a technician’s strike)
Bernard resolves not to become emotional about his last day with 5C
14  And Everyone Came Too (b/w)
Bernard and Penny pretend they plan to honeymoon overseas

Series 4
September 18 1971 to February 13 1972 (not Dec 25) (21 episodes)
Identüwit
Bernard’s attempts to make sure a reluctant student arrives at school land him in hot water
The Pruning Of Hedges
Bernard decides to do a university course but finds it difficult to hand in his resignation
Vive La Revolution (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
The headmaster faces opposition to the school magazine from a shopkeeper and the alternative press
4 A Rather Nasty Outbreak (by Tony Bilbow)
The arrival of fitness fanatic Mr. Dix causes alarm for both pupils and staff members
5 David And Goliath
Fenn Street has a new long-haired form master named David Ffitchett-Brown
A. W. O.L. (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
David tries to liven up classes to entice Fenn Street truants back from the local billiard hall
What’s A Class Between Friends (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Cromwell becomes dictatorial when he launches a new system of administration
Our Mr. Price (by Tony Bilbow)
It appears Mr. Price has finally decided to leave
Black Power (by Tony Bilbow)
Potter is being shown up by the efficiency of his new assistant
10  False Alarm
Weaver Street school is closed and its pupils relocate to Fenn Street
11  Sibley, Mumsie, Dodo And Georgie (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Miss Ewell and Mr. Sibley are becoming romantically linked
12  Nemesis For Norman
Potter’s duties as standard bearer at his regimental reunion are disrupted by the arrival of an old army mate
13  United We Sit
The students revolt when Mr. Cromwell insists on shorter hair and longer dresses
14  Old Fennian’s Day (by Tony Bilbow)
The headmaster tries to start up a past pupils association

* a Please Sir! segment was featured in ITV’s All Star Com­edy Carnival on December 25 1971

15  What Are You Incinerating? (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
An explosion is imminent when Mr. Price’s chemicals are put in the school incinerator
16  The Ugly Duckling
Miss Petting and the headmaster discuss their disappointments, from dance classes to Gilbert and Sullivan
17  Cup Fever
Doris bans the school soccer champion from playing in an important match
18  Please Give Generously (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Stringer vows revenge after being forced to take part in a charity walk
19  Blodwyn All Over (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
The headmaster has hired a blonde secretary
20  The Price War (by Tony Bilbow)
Stringer makes life miserable for Price for helping send his father to prison
21  The Fixer
The Sibleys decide to honeymoon in Tunisia

PLEASE SIR! (movie version)
(Rank, 101 minutes) released in Britain on June 9 1972
starring John Alderton, Deryck Guyler, Noel Howlett, Joan Sanderson, Richard Davies, Erik Chitty, Peter Cleall, Carol Hawkins, Liz Gebhardt, David Barry, Peter Denyer, Malcolm McFee, Jill Kerman, Patsy Rowlands, Barbara Mitchell, Peter Bayliss, Norman Bird, Jack Smethurst


THE FENN STREET GANG

Series I
September 24 1971 to February 11 1972 (21 episodes)
Should Auld Acquaintance
Having left the classroom, the pupils of 5C agree to get together once a week
The Start Qf Something Big (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Abbott must shadow a man in Sharon’s boutique
Leave It To Me Darling
Having resigned six weeks too soon for university, Hedges helps Dennis prepare a brewery horse for a gymkhana
Horses For Courses (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Duffy and Abbott help Craven hide his damaged PMG cycle
5 Meet The Wizard (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Hedges gets a temporary job collecting debts with Abbott
6 Distant Horizons (by Tony Bilbow)
Duffy and Sharon’s quarrel leads to her seeing a young sci­ence student with an interest in the arts
Change Partners
Hedges gets a part-time job as an escort for a lonely German blonde with a jealous husband
The Thin Yellow Line
Frankie enlistment in the army isn’t made easy by the drill instructor and the constant visits of his mother
9 All Mod Cons (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Duffy lets Dennis stay in the empty flat he is redecorating
10  These Foolish Things
Abbott ends up in hospital after stabbing his foot with a bayo­net to get out of the army
11  Rough Justice (by Tony Bilbow)
Three youngsters con Dennis into taking the blame for their thefts
12  Who Was That Lady? (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Maureen causes trouble when she tries to help Eric and Sharon get back together
13  Kill Or Cure
With all the help in the world Maureen still can’t pass her exams
14  When Did You Last See Your Father? (by David Barry)
Abbott tries to find out what really happened to his father

* a Fenn Street Gang segment was featured on ITV’s All Star Comedy Carnival on December 25 1971

15 A Fair Swap (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Maureen is held hostage as part of a student stunt
16  The Clean Weekend
Sharon agrees to go to Brighton as Mrs. Duffy
17  Tally Ho! (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Dennis helps his father get work as a debt collector
18  Horse Of The Year
Dennis buys an old nag to save it from the glue factory
19  From Sudbury With Love (by Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
Abbott is seen as the ideal husband for an Italian girl
20  Who’s Minding The Shop?
When Eric’s van injures a man, the gang volunteer to run his dry-cleaning business until he’s out of hospital
21  The Great Frock Robbers
Abbott fails as the boutique’s store detective when the entire stock is stolen

Series 2
October 15 1972 to February 18 1973 (not Dec 24) (18 episodes)
The Crunch
Eric is forced to make budget cuts when he is left in charge of the decorating business
Smart Lad Wanted
Craven’s new job involves him in a thousand pound heist
The Woman For Dennis
Dunstable thinks he has found Miss Right at the local laundry but his friends aren’t so sure
Menagerie a Trois
Frankie’s mum falls for her new lodger
5 That Sort Of  Girl
Sharon enters a beauty contest in the hope the prizemoney will help Eric’s business
The Left Hand Path
Craven loses his boss’s money gambling at Henley Regatta
The Lady With The Lamp
Having passed her exam, Maureen is finally a nurse
The Loneliest Night Of The Week
Dennis and Frankie are having trouble chatting up the birds
Father’s Day
Dennis allows his father to move in after his mother can no longer put up with his drunken behavior
10  Low Noon
details unknown

* a Fenn Street Gang segment was featured on ITV’s All Star Comedy Carnival on December 25 1972

11  And Baby Makes Four
details unknown
12  Is That A Proposal, Eric?
details unknown
13  Private Eye And Public Nuisance
details unknown
14  Dipsomania On Sea
Dennis has to contend with his father on a seaside holiday
15 Is Anybody There?
Maureen has taken up spiritualism
16  How To Handle A Woman
Craven wants his father to be more assertive with his mother
17  Business Deficiency
To appear professional, Eric hires an office and a secretary
18  Absent Friends
Eric and Sharon throw a party to celebrate their engagement

Series 3
May 27 to July 15 1973 (8 episodes)
An Englishman’s Home
Eric and Sharon start looking for a home
Mother Knows Best
Frankie’s mum tells everyone he’s dying so his girlfriend will break up with him
Alone At Last
The newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Duffy spend a night in Lon­don before jetting off for a Majorca honeymoon
Making Whoopee
The Duffy’s honeymoon in the Mediterranean is proving to be unforgettable
5 After The Ball
Abbott causes Craven all manner of problems
The Ant And The Grasshopper
Craven is finding that working as Duffy’s assistant is putting their friendship to the test
Abbott Of Arabia
Celeste craves for a man like the hero of The Desert Song
Full Circle
Sharon has something important to tell Eric but they aren’t speaking to each other

BOWLER

July 29 to October 21 1973 (13 episodes)
The Ides Of March
Members Only
Come Round Any Old Time
They Never Come Back
Faithfully Yours
On The Fiddle
Monarch Of The Glen
Thou Shalt Not Grass
Sweet And Sour Charity
10  R.LP.
11  The Family Tree
12  Bowler’s Analysis
13  Without Let Or Hindrance

 

DVDs

Please Sir – series 1
Network DVD

Please Sir – series 2
Network 2-DVD

Please Sir – series 3
Network 2-DVD

Please Sir – series 4
Network 3-DVD

The Fenn Street Gang – series 1
Network 3-DVD

The Fenn Street Gang – series 2
Network 3-DVD

The Fenn Street Gang – series 3
Network DVD

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