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Classic TV Revisited: The Rag Trade

Miriam Karlin in The Rag Trade (1970's revivial)

Classic TV Revisited takes a look at sitcom The Rag Trade which was created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney

What was it all about?
A comedy of labour relations which developed into a battle of wills between two immovable forces — the workers, led by a militant shop steward, and the management. The series was quite a ground-breaker, giving the best lines to women in the hitherto male-dominated world of sit-com.

Where was it set?
The workshop of Fenner Fashions.

When was it on?
From 1961 to 1963 on BBC, a total of three series (37 episodes). A further 22 episodes were screened on ITV from 1977-78.

Who were the principal characters?
Harold Fenner, the permanently harassed boss of Fenner Fashions; his arch rival, shop steward Paddy, who, with a blast on her whistle, was only too happy to declare ‘Everybody Out!’; Fenner’s foreman Reg who was torn between the two camps; and workers Carole (tall and glamorous) and Lily (small and dotty). Carole and Lily left at the end of the second series and were replaced by a host of new workers, including Judy who became Reg’s bit of fluff. When the series was revived by ITV, only Fenner and Paddy of the original characters remained, Reg being substituted by the gullible Tony.

The main cast of the Rag Trade (1960's BBC version), Miriam Karlin, Peter Jones and Sheila Hancock.

The main cast of the Rag Trade (1960’s BBC version), Miriam Karlin, Peter Jones and Sheila Hancock.

The Rag Trade’s Catchphrase Everybody Out takes hold!

Who were the star turns?
Peter Jones played Fenner with Miriam Karlin as Paddy, Reg Varney as Reg, Sheila Hancock as Carole, Esma Cannon as Lily and Barbara Windsor as Judy. For the ITV run, Christopher Beeny played Tony and among the new girls was a young Gillian Taylforth as Lyn.

Who wrote it?
Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney who later created ‘On The Buses‘.

Any catchphrases?
Miriam Karlin’s strident ‘Everybody out!’ was heard on factory floors up and down the country.

Any real-life resonance?
Fashion bosses complained that the series gave a poor impression of the industry and of working relations. After 15 girls had been sacked at a Derbyshire electronics firm, the stewards ordered an all-out strike, prompting the firm’s boss to moan: ‘I think this is a case of the girls watching too much Rag Trade.’

The cast of the 1960's version of the Rag Trade including Miriam Karlin (second from right) Sheila Hancock (far right)

The cast of the 1960’s version of the Rag Trade including Miriam Karlin (second from right) Sheila Hancock (far right).

Wasn’t Sheila Hancock given a colourful remedy for stage fright?
In her book, Ramblings of an Actress, she recalled how she used to suffer badly from nerves before performances of The Rag Trade. She said that she and Miriam Karlin would ‘take one of those lovely purple heart-shaped pills a nice doctor gave us’ with a bath and a glass of champagne to help calm their nerves.

Who watched it?
The Rag Trade had most of Europe in stitches. There have been successful versions in Belgium and Portugal while the long-running Scandinavian spin-off, Fredericksson’s Fabriks, even spawned Fredericksson’s Fabriks – The Movie!

Any distant cousins?
Barbara Windsor starred in a 1968 BBC sit-com, Wild, Wild Women, also written by Wolfe and Chesney and set among a group of garment workers in a milliner’s shop in 1902. High on emancipation, low on laughs, the series nevertheless gave an early outing to Anna Karen who the following year would star in ‘On The Buses’.