The Liver Birds (BBC Sitcom, Nerys Hughes, Polly James)

In well remembered sitcom The Liver Birds two young Liverpudlian girls share a flat. The girls changed over the years with Dawn (Pauline Collins) being replaced by Sandra (Nerys Hughes) at the start of season two, then Beryl (Polly James) leaving at the end of season four being replaced by Carol (Elizabeth Estensen), when Carol arrived much play was made of the comic antics of various members of her family.

The Comedy Playhouse pilot was considered strong enough for the BBC to commission a full series even before the pilot aired. William Marshall looked at the genesis of the concept in the Daily Mirror of Monday 14 April 1969: Two middle – aged mums (series creators Myra Taylor and Carla Lane) met every day over a pot of tea in a plush Liverpool hotel to natter over the previous night’s TV programmes. Then one day, over the tinkle of teacups, they came up with an idea for a TV comedy show — so they wrote it.

Myra Taylor: We set about writing the TV show because we refused to allow ourselves to be tied down by all the usual household chores wives have to put up with.

Marshall continued; Carla and Myra, who were both members of a writing club, wrote the script of their show during their teatime chats. Although tonight’s show is a single episode. Carla and Myra have been commissioned to write a full series of six shows.

The first two Liver Birds were Pauline Collins and Polly James. By series four both original cast members were no longer in the show.

Season one though actually only consisted of only four episodes and the uncredited script editor was Eric Idle. Reviewing the original Comedy Playhouse in the Liverpool Echo (15 Apr 1969) R.W.W. remarked that “whatever it lacked in plot, in sophistication, there was plenty of bubbling life in the production. Launched to a title sequence of Liverpool views and a Scaffold theme tune, the 30 minute show never paused in its welter of local allusions. The dialogue had a distinct flavour that could be the making of these female equivalents of The Likely Lads. On the evidence of this brief episode the two authoresses should have a fair chance of being asked to expand the girls misadventures into a series.”

When season 4 began on 2 Jan 1974 Carla Lane had taken on writing duties for all episodes. Lane spoke to the Liverpool Echo also on 2 Jan 1974: I’ll be watching tonight’s, because it is the first time I have done the whole 13 episodes on my own. It’s different now the girls have grown up and it’s more about life than silly situations. But there’s still a lot of me in both of them. Sandra, the pretentious one and music lover is part of me, and Beryl, who is the devil and has some pretty disgusting habits —that’s also part of me.

There was also talk about whether the series had reached a finishing point: I think really the Liver Birds is only Just beginning for me, but the girls themselves may have had enough. What the BBC thinks I don’t know — the ratings are high. I feel enough is enough and I think that when you are riding high you ought to stop. But when someone says ‘its super,’ you get all soft about it and start all over again.

In August 1974, the Winter Gardens in Blackpool staged a summer season production based on the show. The script was by Carla Lane and series script editor John Chapman who also directed. Many of the series regular cast (including Sheila Fay and Mollie Sugden) appeared – missing though was Nerys Hughes who was taking time out to start a family. Rachel Davies took the role of Sandra. The play became something of a staple through the 1970’s and 1980’s with regular revivals across the country.

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The Liverpool Echo Friday 16 Jan 1976 featured the arrival of the cast and crew to the city to begin location filming for season 7: The cast is to spend 11 days on location in Liverpool to film the outdoor sequences for the new series, to be screened later this year. Nerys Hughes and Elizabeth Estensen are due to book into a Liverpool hotel on Monday night with other members of the cast and crew joining them there, filming begins the next day – at a house in the Dingle, ”home” of Carol’s (Miss Estensen’s) family. During the rest of their stay, the crew and cast will film at Sefton Park, Walton, Widnes, Moseley Hill, Garston and Toxteth. A BBC spokesman said “The schedule is a bit flexible – it depends on how the weather goes.”

Linton Mitchell, reviewing the premiere of the eighth season in the Reading Evening Post on 23 September 1977 still found much to enjoy in the series: The Liver Birds is one of my favourite situation comedy series. Both girls are extremely funny, and Nerys Hughes, I find extremely attractive. Writer Carla Lane had a winner from the start and never let go. But at the same time I cannot help wondering just how much longer the BBC plan to keep the series going. l am reflecting, rather than complaining. I suppose if we take it to its logical conclusion, two widowed or divorced grandmothers sharing a flat and comparing notes on boyfriends would be quite amusing.

Nerys Hughes and Elizabeth Estensen.

The Reading Evening Post, Friday 24 November 1978 offered up a preview of the 9th season which premiered that evening: Derek (Tom Chadbon) and Sandra (Nerys Hughes) are now married, and have moved to their new home when yet another series of The Liver Birds opens on BBC-1, tonight, at 8.30 pm. Sandra, a fastidious person, is having great problems matching curtains and wallpaper. She is also finding it hard managing on a small budget – as the clinic is not doing very well. Her former flatmate Carol (Elizabeth Estensen), who has moved back with her parents, suggests that they let a room to help with the finances Derek is not very keen on the idea. And there are no prizes for guessing who is likely to end up as Derek and Sandra’s lodger.

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1996 saw a surprise revival of the series, after a gap of 17 years, with Beryl and Sandra finding themselves living together once more and refusing to admit that they are now middle aged. This series for some reason didn’t quite carry on with the continuity of the previous show with some members of Carol Boswell’s family turning up in this as relatives of Beryl.

The Liverpool Echo of 25 March 1996 covered the start of filming of the new series.

Nerys Hughes: We’re not liver birds any more. We’re liver hens.

Meanwhile Sandra’s marriage to her dream vet at the end of the last series has folded and she now leads a quiet life with her nightmare mother, Mrs Hutchinson, played by Mollie Sugden. Beryl has had more of a “bash at life”, but she swops men to move in with Sandra and her dominating mother.

The same paper also reviewed the reboot when it returned, critic Peter Grant said: The main characters Beryl (Polly James) and Sandra (Nerys Hughes) do not seem to have altered that much, except the once carefree girls are now women in a mid-life crisis. Following very slick ‘9os-style opening credits, it seemed as though there was still a scouse spark here as the Scaffold’s up-dated theme song accompanied scenes of our waterfront which is actually looking even better with time. The script is earthier, but Carla’s characters still talk as though they are studying for a philosophy exam. The only real comic touches came from Lucien (Michael Angelis) who, seen without his rabbits, now runs a team of gormless removal men. But then, just as there seemed to be light at the end of the Mersey tunnel, Carla threw in the towel. She cannot resist bringing the emphasis down with misery. Beryl has a son in a young offenders’ home. He is a mindless, ugly head-case — the type we see too frequently on the streets of any inner-city. He had all the charm of a football hooligan. We last see stressed-out Sandra sobbing in a flat rented from her pal. I’m afraid it’s all going to end in tears.

On Friday 1 August 2008 BBC One broadcast (at 11.05pm) a half hour documentary about the series as part of their Comedy Connections strand.

Cast: PAULINE COLLINS as Dawn(Season 1) / POLLY JAMES as Beryl Hennessey (Seasons 1-4) / NERYS HUGHES as Sandra Hutchinson (Seasons 2-9) / ELIZABETH ESTENSEN as Carol Boswell (Seasons 5-9) / EILEEN KENNALLY as Mrs Boswell / MOLLIE SUGDEN as Mrs Hutchinson / SHEILA FAY as Mrs Hennessey / JOHN NETTLES as Paul (Seasons 3-6) / MICHAEL ANGELIS as Lucien Boswell (Seasons 5-9)

Creators: Carla Lane, Myra Taylor, Lew Schwarz / Theme Music: The Scaffold

UK / BBC1 / 76×30 minutes 3×40 minutes 1×35 minutes / Broadcast 14 April 1969 – 5 January 1979 and also 1996

Daily Mirror – Monday 14 April 1969
Liverpool Echo – Tuesday 15 April 1969
Liverpool Echo – Wednesday 2 January 1974
The Stage – Thursday 15 August 1974
Reading Evening Post – Friday 24 November 1978
Liverpool Echo – Monday 25 March 1996
Liverpool Echo – Tuesday 7 May 1996

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.