Television

A JOKE THAT SEEMS TO TRAVEL WELL

RON BASE March 8 1976
Television

A JOKE THAT SEEMS TO TRAVEL WELL

RON BASE March 8 1976

A JOKE THAT SEEMS TO TRAVEL WELL

Television

RON BASE

When British comedian Frankie Howerd arrived in Canada two years ago, one of the first calls he made was on Thom Benson, then head of CBC-TV’s entertainment programming. Howerd has just finished starring in a hit BBC-TV series, Up Pompeii, and he announced imperiously to Benson that he now planned to do a Canadian TV series. Benson didn’t bother telling him that Up Pompeii was less than a runaway hit in Canada, but the message got through loud and clear when he turned Howerd over to Jim Guthro, the variety department’s director of planning and production. Guthro had to confess that he didn’t even know who Howerd was. Howerd was outraged. “Why, in England,” he barked, “I am a legend.”

It’s doubtful that Howerd will ever become a legend here but, if nothing else, he’s proved that arrogance pays off: Guthro was intrigued enough to call in a former Tommy Hunter writer, Bill Lynn, to rework an old script he had written to fit Howerd’s leering, eyeball popping style. The result is The Frankie Howerd Show (which began February 26), a 13-week sitcom featuring the 55-year-old comedian as a ne’er-do-well British immigrant trying to adjust to the vagaries of Canadian life in a Toronto boarding house. Life apparently imitates art because Howerd has had to do a little adjusting himself. He had, for example, some difficulty in understanding that Lynn and Jerry O’Flanagan (who cowrote the series with Lynn) wanted a weekly situation comedy and not a oneman show. As a result, both producers and cast have had to make concessions to Howerd’s temperamental demands and reticence about giving up funny lines to others.

But the concessions have been worth the effort. Howerd is no Noel Coward but

somehow his broad, baby-blue humor is as infectious as a case of measles. The show is an intriguing mixture of American situation comedy, English toilet humor, and Canadian gags. It’s spiced with a vulgar sense of fun the American sit-coms don’t share and which the drama department’s King Of Kensington avoided. (King wasn’t nearly as funny as Howard, although it cost more to produce.) In this crass show Howerd will do anything to get a laugh short of sitting on a poopie cushion. He literally babbles bosom jokes each time one of the boarders, Denise (Peggy Mahon), makes an entrance (“She has two redeeming features and you’re seeing both of them,” Howerd leers as the camera dollies in on Ms. Mahon’s ample breasts).

That kind of tomfoolery can badly misfire—or worse, become tiresome quickly— but so far it works, thanks to Howerd’s supreme sense of timing. He has a lot of help, though. Lynn and O’Flanagan’s scripts are airtight (no matter how it looks, nothing in the series is ad-libbed). And Norman Campbell’s direction is superb. Campbell, who had directed episodes of Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family, keeps a restraining hand on Howerd so that his performances are not nearly as loud and overblown as in Up Pompeii.

With all Howerd’s initial success here, however, the CBC is not a network given to creating legends—or even allowing them to hang around for very long. Already, Howerd’s brand of lowdown farce seems to have set the corporation on edge and insiders don’t give his show much of a chance of being renewed. No matter how legendary he becomes. RON BASE