"Ground floor: Linseed Oil,
Bowling machines and batting gloves,
Practice balls and indoor nets,
Rubber grips and pads ...
Are You Being Bowled was a situation comedy that was screened on BBC1 during June and July 1975. After its initial run of 6 episodes, and a rather desultory Christmas special, it disappeared from view and was never shown again.
|The cast of Are You Being Bowled, l-r: Wendy Pilchards, Billy Mince, Nora Gusset and Frank Piles.|
If this was a golden era for British television comedy - Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son were all recorded during this time - there were also plenty of shows that failed to capture the public imagination. And Are You Being Bowled was most definitely one of those.
The show is now largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated TV comedy aficionados but, although short lived, it can still claim to be the best of the small bunch of sit-coms made on the subject of cricket.
TV historian Ray Cathode feels the show was very much under appreciated: "The BBC and ITV had for years both tried to get cricket related comedies onto the screen. The problem was most of it was pretty dire. Commercial television had On The Team Buses which ran for a few seasons but the basic premise of a couple of jack the lads driving Middlesex to away games soon got tiresome. Later examples such as One Foot In The Crease were also doomed to failure.
"Even in the late 90s the Beeb was still trying to find a light entertainment format for the sport. After Ronnie Barker retired they tried to team Ronnie Corbett up with Ronnie Irani to see if the could recreate the magic formula. Anyone who saw their 'Four Handles;' sketch will know how bad an idea it was."
|Corbett and Irani: "Bat handles. Handles for bats!"|
Are You Being Bowled entered the schedules on 9th June 1975 on the eve of the opening Ashes test at Edgbaston.
The BBC had unchallenged cricket coverage at the time. It was common for them to tie in their popular programmes with major test matches.
Ray Cathode remembers how the corporation tried to plug its sporting output as part of its top rated broadcasts. "There was the notorious Black and White Minstrel Show, on the eve of the England versus the West Indies series in 1976, where Tony Grieg guested. Who can forget the controversial scene where he made the minstrels get on their hands and knees to grovel in front of him before launching into a version of Mammy in which the lyrics had been changed to 'Knotty'?
I'd walk a million miles to see you stop byes, my Knotty.
"It wasn't just the Minstrels who got the cricket treatment", recalls Ray Cathode, "there was an edition of Parkinson where his guests were Mohammed Ali, Billy Connolly and Chris Balderstone - with Baldy getting top billing. Graham Roope presented Top Of The Pops. Cricketers were suddenly everywhere."
But Are You Being Bowled was the first fictional series that had a fully cricket based setting.
|The Black and White Minstrel Show attempted to reach a new audience with its 1977 Punk Rock Special.|
The show was set in the indoor cricket school of an unnamed test ground (widely assumed to be Lord's) and concerned the antics of the group of staff who had been given the task of running the facilities. The BBC had high hopes for the show; which had been commissioned especially to cash in on the Ashes series. Its camp and breezy humour owed something to the saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill combined with the essence of the later Carry Ons.
The indoor school was named after WG Grace and his slightly less well-known brothers Edward and Fred. In fact a distant relation of WG - the 86-year-old 'Young' Mr. Grace - was the token figurehead of the entire operation and regularly made quick visits to encourage staff by telling them "you've all bowled very well". The general manager was jug-eared jobsworth Mr. Runbold; a man easily confused but an early exponent of the quick single. In charge of the day-to-day running was Captain Pocock; a pompous former offspinner with a dubious military history. His regular clashes with cheeky menials: the camp Mr. Imfree and predatory Mr. Lewd were a highlight of the show.
Mr. Imfree in particular proved to be a popular figure with viewers with his effeminate mannerisms and ready catchphrase: "I'm out!"
Female staff were represented by the feisty pink-haired tea lady Mrs. Slowbowler and her more glamorous young assistant Miss Boobs.
The frumpy Mrs. Slowbowler made no secret of her ambition to be allowed into the pavilion in order to bag a rich husband. "If only I could get in there and get my hands on a nice member", she stated early in episode one.
|Mr. Imfree gets the measure of a couple of bouncers whilst Mrs. Slowbowler looks on.|
And then there was Mrs. Slowbowler's errant sister Fanny, with whom she shared a bungalow. Although Mrs. Slowbowler's sister was never actually seen on screen she remained a considerable presence throughout, as this exchange from episode three shows:
Captain Pocock (tersely): You are ten minutes late Mrs. Slowbowler.
Mrs. Slowbowler: I'm awfully sorry Captain Pocock. My Fanny has been giving me terrible trouble. I had to get the doctor out. Anyway he said he didn't mind. He said "I always look forward to coming round and giving your Fanny an injection".
Mr. Lewd: He better be careful. He'll get struck off.
Mr. Imfree: I'm out!
|Captain Pocock to the rescue. Tea lady Mrs. Slowbowler is another victim of Mr. Harmison's rogue bowling machine.|
Completing the line up was Mr. Harmison, played by veteran comic Arthur Pencil. Harmison was a cheeky spiv caretaker who was also in charge of installing and maintaining the school's misfiring range of equipment. One minute he was wheeling in a new - but inevitably soon to malfunction - bowling machine, the next he was sniffing around Mrs. Slowburner's tea urn eyeing up her fondant fancies.
Despite its slapstick cricketing humour the show was really a parody of the British class system whereby people were referred to only by their last names and working class personnel such as Mr. Harmison were treated with outright contempt.
The plots revolved around the staff's interactions with each other rather than any particular cricketing action. Players drifted in and out the nets without distracting the cast's endless bickering and plotting. Mr. Imfree seemed more interested in measuring batsmen up for thigh guards than working on anyone's technique whilst Mr. Lewd showed little or no interest in anything other than chasing East End temptress Miss Boobs around the slip cradle.
Although largely antagonistic towards each other the team readily engaged in after curricular activities to promote the business when necessary. In episode five the entire cast donned fancy dress for a sales drive which involved Mr. Imfree bowling in lederhosen and Mrs. Slowbowler serving tea dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein, causing her to remark: "If I go home dressed like this my Fanny will be traumatised and I don't want my Fanny's hair standing on end all night."
The series was written by veteran comic scriptwriter Sid Gags who had already enjoyed some success with his long running sitcom about a Lancastrian publican: Mine's A Small One, and its less successful spin off Half A Shandy, Mother.
|On the carpet: Mr. Harmison faces the music once again after his newly installed Speak-Your-Weight machine tells Mrs. Slowbowler: "no coach parties, please".|
PDCC: Hello Sid. So how did Are You Being Bowled come about?
Sid Gags: I was at Lord's sometime in 1974 and I bumped into Bill Cotton who was then the Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC. Bill Cotton thought that the future of television comedy was in double acts: Little and Large, Mike and Bernie Winters etc etc. He had his eyes on Middlesex's spin duo Emburey and Edmonds as a potential comedy partnership. They had some material written for them by Mike Brearley but it turned out to be so filthy that it was unusable.
I got talking to Cotton and he asked me if I had anything that might interest him. I didn't but I wasn't going to let him know that. The Lord's indoor school had just opened and off the top of my head I said to him that I was writing a sitcom based there. He asked me for a sample script and the rest is history.
PDCC: How easy was it to get the cast together?
Sid Gags: Pretty easy. I didn't really want actors who knew a lot about cricket because I thought it would be funnier if they were a bit clueless. The one exception was Billy Mince who played Mr. Imfree. He had actually played for Lancashire seconds a few times before concentrating on his acting career.
I'd worked with some of the cast before. Nora Gusset had been in an earlier sitcom of mine Drop Your Drawers about an accident-prone removals firm. Wendy Pilchards had been in a Beatles film but she ended up on the cutting room floor. She was a terrible drunk.
PDCC: Was there ever any discussion about a second series?
Sid Gags: Not really. The ratings were poor but probably because they scheduled it opposite Coronation Street which was the most watched show at the time. Ironically some of the Coronation Street cast loved the show especially the bloke who played Len Fairclough. He was a local league umpire in Manchester. He once said to me that he liked nothing better on a weekend than putting his finger up.
PDCC: The Christmas special didn't really have the support of the BBC did it? It was only shown the following March.
Sid Gags: Yes, they didn't care for it much. It's a busy time in the schedules and we jut got elbowed out. They eventually put it on the next Easter by which time most of the jokes had lost their seasonality. I mean, Mrs. Slowbowler's speech about how Santa had come down the chimney and emptied his sack all over her Fanny was wasted. You can't really make the same joke about the resurrection of Christ. A lot of thought goes into writing this stuff.