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Classic TV Revisited: The Liver Birds

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Created by Carla Lane and Myra Taylor

What was it all about?
Two young girls in Liverpool shared a flat and an almost unhealthy interest in the opposite sex. It was The Likely Lads in hot pants.

When was it on?
There were nine series on BBC1 from 1969 to 1979 – 75 episodes plus three specials. The Liver Birds were revived briefly in 1996.

Where was it set?
Very much in Liverpool, the title taking its name from the two sculpted birds on top of the city’s Royal Liver Building. The girls started out in a tatty bedsit in Huskisson Street but moved to a smarter flat for series three.

Who were the principal characters?
For the pilot episode and the first series of four episodes, scatty, wise-cracking Beryl shared with prissy Dawn. Then Dawn moved out and Beryl was joined by the more sensible Sandra who was the Ernie Wise to Beryl’s Eric Morecambe.

At the end of the fourth series Beryl got married and was replaced by Carol whose clothes were so loud they could be heard on the Wirral. The 1996 series reunited Beryl and Sandra…definitely older and a little bit wiser.

Polly James and Nerys Hughes

Polly James and Nerys Hughes

Who were the star turns?
Polly James played Beryl with Pauline Collins as Dawn, Nerys Hughes as Sandra and Elizabeth Estensen as Carol. Mollie Sugden appeared as Sandra’s snobby, overbearing mother Mrs. Hutchinson while there were three different Mr. Hutchinsons – Ivan Beavis, John McKelvey and William Moore, the last-named being Mollie Sugden’s real-life husband.

Sheila Fay initially played Beryl’s mother, Mrs. Hennessey, Michael Angelis was Carol’s rabbit-loving brother Lucien and Carol’s mother, Mrs. Boswell, was played first by Eileen Kennally and then by Carmel McSharry. Just to confuse things further, when The Liver Birds came back in 1996, Lucien became Beryl’s brother and Carmel McSharry, who had played Carol’s mother, was now cast as Beryl’s mother!

One other name worth mentioning: John Nettles played Sandra’s boyfriend Paul nearly ten years before he began single-handedly fighting crime on Jersey as Jim Bergerac.

Who wrote it?
The Liver Birds marked the TV debut of Romana Barrack who had started writing at the age of seven, one of her poems winning a Liverpool Echo prize. Changing her name to Carla Lane because she thought it had a gypsy ring to it and because she preferred to write under an assumed name, she created The Liver Birds with fellow Liverpool housewife Myra Taylor, the pair basing the stories on some of their own experiences.

The BBC teamed the two young hopefuls with sit-com veteran Lew Schwarz. He departed during the second series and shortly afterwards Taylor left too, leaving Lane as sole writer. Under her control, the comedy became bleaker, deriving humour from what Lane called life’s ‘little tragedies’.

liver-birds-5

How did it come about?
Like so many of the BBC’s most successful series of the time, it started life as a Comedy Playhouse.

Who watched it?
Over 14 million in the early Seventies.

Any catchphrases?
Lucien’s ‘It’s me rabbits’ struck a chord with bunny-lovers everywhere.

Did the girls have any say in the casting?
Nerys Hughes spotted the relatively unknown Elizabeth Estensen on stage in John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert. The following night, she dragged producer Sydney Lotterby along and Estensen was picked to play Carol.

What about the theme song?
It was sung by the pop group Scaffold (of Lily the Pink fame) and featured this exchange between Roger McGough and Polly James: ‘You dancing?’ ‘You asking?’ ‘I’m asking’. ‘I’m dancing’. McGough made a guest appearance in the third series performing poetry at a club.

Any distant cousins?
Carla Lane took certain elements of the show into her later hit Bread, including the surname Boswell. But for flat-sharing sit-coms we have to look to the likes of Friends, Man About the House or, for the blue-rinse brigade, The Golden Girls. And we can’t forget Babes in the Wood…although therapy might help.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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