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Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (BBC-1 1973-1978, Michael Crawford, Michele Dotrice)



In Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em Frank Spencer is well-meaning, naïve and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, he’s also incompetent and disaster prone – if he doesn’t create an accident, then the accident just seems to search him out! Frank’s long-suffering and ever-understanding wife Betty tries to protect Frank from himself and daughter Jessica from him.

Some Mothers came along just when Michael Crawford needed it. He had just split from his wife and needed a lift. It came when he received a script written by a young man called Raymond Allen. Crawford described Allen as a “kind, very gentle person, the innocent, baby-faced boy next door,” which could also describe the main character he had created for Some Mothers. Those weren’t the only similarities. In fact, story has it that Allen unknowingly showed up at the first rehearsals wearing almost the same raincoat that Crawford had chosen as one of Frank’s trademark fashion looks.

The show was rejected by ITV and soon came to the attention of Michael Mills, who was at that time Head of Comedy for the BBC. He saw the potential in the series, became its producer/director, and got the ball rolling.

Crawford was the third choice to play Frank. The role was offered to popular comic Norman Wisdom and then to Ronnie Barker, the star of Porridge and Open All Hours. When both declined, Crawford, who by this time was already well known, was cast as the lead.

Allen, Mills and Crawford then got together to flesh out the character. Crawford had a lot of input, bringing in facets of a character he had played in the long-running farce No Sex Please, We’re British.

One thing he felt strongly about was that Frank should be married. Of course, only in the fantasy world of television would someone like him end up with a beautiful, loyal, understanding and patient wife. Betty Spencer (played by Michele Dotrice) is another in a long line of Britcom spouses that make you scratch your head and say, “Why does she put up with him?”

The BBC committed at first to only seven episodes, but it was immediately apparent that they had a hit on their hands. Audiences especially delighted in the amazing stunts that were almost always done by Crawford himself. Rarely in the history of show business has someone put himself through so much to get a laugh. Crawford literally risked life and limb almost every episode to perform a number of jaw-dropping stunts.

In one incredible segment Crawford roller skates between two oncoming cars and under a truck before finally crashing through the window of a maternity shop where he does a back flip (still on skates, mind you) into a baby crib.

In another episode Frank dangles perilously over a cliff holding onto nothing but the exhaust pipe of a small car. As if that weren’t enough, he also manages to get himself covered with manure in the process.

It might have been insane for the BBC to let their star do such dangerous feats, but Crawford was more than game and relied on careful preparation to see that things were done with minimum risk. Ever the perfectionist, he worked tirelessly with a group of coordinators to plan the stunts so as to ensure his safety.

However, not everything went as planned. While doing a scene in which Frank is washing windows, Crawford and stuntman Derek Ware were left dangling on the outside of a window washing “cradle” for over twenty minutes due to a mechanical malfunction. They were two hundred feet above ground and for part of that time Ware was on top of Crawford’s shoulders. Eventually another stuntman helped them back into the cradle, but it was still a very close call.

This is not to say that Some Mothers is purely physical comedy. Even when not performing stunts, Crawford’s brilliance shines through in Frank’s nasal voice, bewildered expressions and perfectly nuanced body language.

In fact, a lot of the show’s humour is derived from how others react to Frank. For example, all it takes is a simple look from him to cause a shopkeeper’s assistant to fall over and totally destroy the window display he’s working on.

That’s a normal reaction. Anyone in Spencer’s presence becomes so annoyed with his obtuseness that they are either reduced to tears or on the verge of a nervous breakdown in ten minutes or less. In the episode The Psychiatrist, Frank even puts a professional to the test. The psychiatrist, attempting to figure out why Frank is so depressed, keeps trying to get basic information out of him – like where he was born. However, by the end of the session the psychiatrist is so frustrated at Frank’s inability to answer a simple question that he gives up completely and declares that Frank is indeed a failure.

At the end of season two, Betty Spencer gives birth to a daughter named Jessica. A couple of Christmas specials and an appearance at a Royal Variety Performance followed, but then Crawford decided that he’d had enough. He was fearful of becoming typecast. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Every actor dreams of creating a character as substantial as Frank Spencer, but with that comes the nightmare of “How do I get rid of him?”

He didn’t…at least for a while. Three years later Crawford was persuaded to don the raincoat and beret once again for another season. This time Frank has changed a little. Perhaps Jessica’s birth has caused him to grow up some. In fact, Frank is made even more “forgivable” for all his incompetence because of the touching way he relates to his daughter and reads her stories.

Still, Frank never gets anything quite right. He becomes a master of the malapropism (at one point saying that he’d been “ejaculated” from his previous home) and assumes a rather faux-posh attitude. Whenever someone says his name he replies with an imperious “I am he.”

The final season starts with the Spencers having to move house since Frank’s attempts to make simple repairs have left the one they’re living in trashed. The true extent of the damage he’s done is revealed moments after the Spencers leave for good and the entire home collapses brick by brick.

This sets up the introduction of two new characters – Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, who have the unfortunate luck of living next door to Frank and Betty. Frank meets Mrs. Lewis when he crashes through her bedroom ceiling holding his cat.

The final episode has Frank taking flying lessons as he prepares to move to Australia to work on his grandfather’s sheep farm. In hindsight, it’s an odd end to the series, but the BBC didn’t want a final episode per se because they were hoping to persuade Crawford to sign on for another season. But he had other projects he wanted to do and held firm to his decision not to return.

Some Mothers was relatively short lived, but Frank Spencer remains one of the most beloved – and frequently imitated – Britcom characters of all time. Lenny Henry got his first major career boost when he won a talent show doing an impersonation of Frank Spencer.

The character owes a lot to one of Crawford’s heroes, Stan Laurel, and also to such characters as Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Frank is also cited as predecessor to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean. They are innocents struggling in a cruel, unforgiving world, and even though in a sense they are losers, we still root for them.

Cast: Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer; Michele Dotrice as Betty Spencer; Glynn Edwards as Mr Lewis (1978)

Writers: Raymond Allen / Producers: Michael Mills, Sydney Lotterby

UK / BBC One / 19×30 minute episodes 3×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 15 February 1973 – 25 December 1978 3 Seasons + 3 specials