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Classic TV Revisited: The Liver Birds

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Classic TV Revisited: The Liver Birds

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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