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The Great British Sitcom: The Fenn Street Gang

Discussion in 'Notable TV' started by Mel O'Drama, Sep 17, 2016.

  1. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Working the phrase "my Fanny" into a sentence for a guaranteed laugh sounds cheap. And it probably is. But there's no denying it's effective. Sid's concern over his beloved Friesian gave many such moments in the final episode of Series One in which Sid faced the prospect of his Fanny being made into rissoles. The good news is that Fanny was saved. The not so great news is that Vic sold Sid's gorgeous Morris Minor Tourer to pay for Fanny's return.

    Attitudes of the time are coming through. There's been a little casual homophobia, which is perhaps to be expected (a little strange to see, considering Victor Spinetti is himself gay). But the acknowledgement that "queer" people exist is, if anything, a hint of the more liberal attitudes of the late Sixties. I'd find it hard to believe such an acknowledgement would have made it into a light entertainment programme a couple of years earlier. And I can't think of many in the years to follow it either. So perhaps underneath it all is progress.

    Sid James's familiar presence has helped. One doesn't even need to see a frame of the series. You know what you're going to be getting. He's as reliable as ever here and game too. One episode even ended with him running starkers across a genuine field on a cold looking day. And then there are the animals. Chickens, cows, goats and more. Both actors seem to be able not only to carry on with all the flapping, squawking and mooing going on, but they seem to use the animals to enhance and bring spontaneity to their scenes. Perhaps more so than in films, these television shows give a taste of Sid as a pro.

    Fewer familiar faces than I might have expected. Perhaps the most notable is Bill Pertwee who's had a recurring role as the village constable.

    The series broke the fourth wall of pop culture references when, the morning after a big night out, Sid commented that he had "a bigger hangover than Barbara Windsor's bra".

    With Series One over, I have the colour episodes of Series Two still to come. And I'm very much looking forward to them.
     
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  2. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    The second series - in colour if you please - was as enjoyable as the first and for all the same reasons.

    One peculiarity was Victor Spinetti's absence in one episode, where he was replaced by his brother or cousin played by Richard Davies. It wasn't jarring, but I did spend most of the episode thinking it was deliberately plotted this way and Vic was going to walk in halfway through the episode and have to clear up the mess made by his relative and Sid.

    The series was left open ended. Reading a little more about the series it seems it was popular but Sid James put the kibosh on further episodes, with the official line being that he was concerned about overexposure if he did an ongoing TV series in addition to his film and stage careers. The following year he began Bless This House for Thames. An ongoing TV programme in which he was front and centre for six series over five years.
     
  3. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    For the best part of a week now, I've been getting stuck into my next Britcom box set. I'm already midway through the second series.

    [​IMG]





    I remember thoroughly enjoying Waiting For God when it first aired. That seems no time at all, so it's a little unnerving to think that we're nine months short of the thirtieth anniversary.

    At the time I thought of it as One Foot In The Grave set in a retirement home. Pensioners who are refreshingly forthright and occasionally course making qualified criticisms of the system and the world in general. This remains true. Having watched the earlier You're Only Young Twice for the first time on page one of this very thread, the similarities in premise - if not execution - are very much there, as expected.

    With Bayview being a business run by a stingy incompetent who can barely stomach his residents, there's also a touch of the Fawlty Towers. There's a suggestion of this in the theme music. The Nash Ensemble's arrangement of Schubert's Trout Quintet has a similarly jaunty vibe to Dennis Wilson's Fawlty Towers. There's also a hint of Keeping Up Appearances to it, as the segment used creates a sense of crossing the "t's" and dotting the "i's" with flourish. Though in the case of Waiting For God, this is an allusion to the perfection ironically proffered in Bayview's brochure. And perhaps to the verbal coups de grâce regularly delivered by Tom and Diana.

    Michael Aitkens's writing is nicely balanced. The frequently bile spewed by lead characters is softened by more traditionally fluffy sitcom characters like Jane. Janine "I've got very beautiful lips"

    Duvitski seems to have made a career out of playing these whimsical, slightly dopey optimists who are dominated - and often bullied - by more aggressive characters. And not surprisingly. She does it well, and I've yet to see her in something where she doesn't immediately win me over, like the people equivalent of a sad-faced, enthusiastic puppy. I wish I had a better memory for dialogue* because Diana summed Jane up perfectly in a line I can't quite remember. It was something along the lines of Jane's "gooey rice pudding niceness oozing all over the floor". While each time I watch Harvey I can't help thinking that he's exactly what you'd get if Simon Cowell and David Griffin had a love child.

    Stephanie Cole is a delight, of course. Diana is my strongest memory of watching all those years ago and she's as relevant and memorable as ever. At the back of my mind during her scenes is a little guilt that I have still to watch Tenko in full, despite owning the DVD box set for the best part of two years.

    For whatever reason I barely remember Graham Crowden at all, and was a little surprised to see him get first billing here. His character, Tom, has the capacity many eccentrics have to be obscenely rude to someone's face while smiling in such a way that it seems almost innocuous (or at least preemptively negates any potential response). That toothy grin and booming voice combined with pure eccentricity make me think of Tom Baker, and I've learnt just today that Crowden was indeed first choice to play the Fourth Doctor.

    I'm not sure how much I'll have to say about the series as I go along, simply because the greatness is in the wonderful writing and I fear I'd end up simply gushing or quoting lines verbatim. But I couldn't not touch upon it here as I'm enjoying it so very much.


    *Speaking of quotes, there are a few here which give a taste of the winning combination of existentially profound meets joyously anarchic.
     
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  4. Avery Merry Christmas

    Avery Merry Christmas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I have to say, this is one of my all-time favorites. Every character is well-drawn, and even as we were supposed to dislike some of them (The Idiot Bains, of course, as well as Tom's bitchy daughter-in-law whose name escapes me at the moment), I looked forward to hearing from them every episode. Diana of course was a force of nature and I liked how Tom used the "doddering old man" persona to keep others around him off-balance. He learned a lot during all that time he spent with Clint Eastwood and Jane Russell, I guess.

    Years ago I read that some Hollywood folks had plans to make an Americanized version. I thought it was a great idea, since the series had a lot of "American sitcom" touches already and would not have needed too many alterations. Richard Mulligan and Olympia Dukakis were said to be the chosen leads, but they never got the chance to film a pilot because Mulligan died unexpectedly and the backers lost interest.
     
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  5. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Oh good. I seem to remember you've mentioned it before. Maybe back when I was watching You're Only Young Twice.


    Oh yes, Marion. Another character I have no memory of from watching before. She's great, and I thoroughly enjoy her sparring with both Tom and Diana. Even though she's ostensibly an antagonist, she's been at the centre of some of Tom's softer moments. A nice example being during the episode in which Tom had decided everyone should be honest all the time, and was hurt when Marion "honestly" wished him dead (despite the fact she does this all the time anyway).

    Yesterday I watched a Series Two episode which had Marion thoroughly miserable running a business (very badly) as a beauty therapist. After Tom had found a way for her to walk away from the business, he opens his arms to her and she looks as though she's about to hug him, then kind of wavers. Of course, you think she's going to find one of her usual reasons to avoid contact and get the hell out of there. But she does give him a hug and it's a really sweet moment because it's so unexpected.

    Diana's had some nice moments with her as well. Last night I watched the glamorous granny episode where it was Diana's turn to be nice to everyone and she smilingly commented that Marion's pink gin matched the colour of her eyes.


    Yes, I could see it working. Richard Mulligan has the right kind of qualities for Tom, I think. Though I must confess to being very cynical about remakes and can't help wondering why not simply air (or repeat) the original.
     
  6. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Series Three of Waiting For God has pushed the boundaries a little more. The jury is out on whether this is good for the series or not. Perhaps time will tell.

    Some things have disturbed me slightly, but possibly not the things you'd think. I'm absolutely fine with Tom and Diana crossing the line into having sex, for instance. But I had an issue with Harvey hiding behind the filing cabinet in order to prevent Jane from fiddling with his letter to the dating agency.

    The reason, I suppose, is that Tom and Diana's dynamic, whether their relationship is platonic or romantic, remains essentially the same. Whereas the joy of Jane's attraction towards Harvey for me lay in his apparent obliviousness to it and to her, barring the odd "Jane, you're touching me". Even though he's apparently repelled by Jane it's quite a contrast that he's now aware of her. And that's thrown off the status quo.

    Jane and Marion have also experienced personality transformations. Thinking about it, it's almost a swap. Jane, on her faux engagement to Harvey, became a little power drunk and bossy. While Marion's been freaking everyone out by offering peace and love in her New Age persona. Again, I have mixed feelings. Jane's new personality didn't work for me at all (thankfully, it was only temporary) while Marion's did. Even though I love drunken bitter Marion, the New Age version gave some great reactions from people and continues to do so. We now seem to be back to some middle ground, with New Age Marion still having a fondness for the booze.

    Sitcom worlds have collided, with Diana hijacking Age Concern and doling out advice to Nanny from Father, Dear Father. Be still my heart.
     
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  7. Avery Merry Christmas

    Avery Merry Christmas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Has Geoffrey had his 'personality transformation' yet? Makes Jane's and Marion's look positively tame in comparison.

    I always thought they threw away a perfectly good (that is, "tidy") ending scenario when they paired Jane with Geoffrey, and Marion with Harvey. I mean, talk about two sides of the same coin! But when they quickly put a stop to that, I assumed it was because they felt the four characters would become boring if paired with "perfect" mates. Tom and Diana were of course the stars of this piece, but the supporting characters also lent a lot to the show's enjoyment. Even the "extreme supporting" characters like Basil the Sex Machine (is this what became of Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton's 'outside man' Ned?) and Antonio the gardener lent a lot to the series.
     
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  8. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    It certainly is extreme. I've been watching it over the last couple of evenings. It seems to be a conscious change for Series Five in order to make the new pairings pay off. But the actors look like they're having fun with it and it must have been quite liberating for Andrew Tourell after years of playing uptight Geoffrey.

    Jane's also had another bout of personality change this year. There's no way the Jane of Series Four would have said "no" to Harvey's proposal, however it was made. I suppose you can only push a girl so far.

    I am missing "Geoffrey" as he's one of my favourite characterisations on the series. I could watch the small details in Andrew Tourell's delivery all day long. But I have a feeling he'll be back soon.

    I've just realised that Andrew Tourell was one of the actors I also greatly enjoyed in It Takes A Worried Man recently. And he reminds me a lot of George Waring who I was watching just before that in Mixed Blessings.





    Ah Ned. That's how he's most familiar to me. Among many other things in which I've seen him, according to IMDb.

    Basil has been missing Series Five, replaced by Paddy Ward as Geraldine's grandfather. He's sorely missed. It appears Michael Bilton died in 1993, before the final series.

    More curious absences for Series Five are Antonio and Mr Kwok. There was a different actor playing Mr Kwok during Harvey's proposal scene, and I think I also spotted a stand in for Antonio in the background, but I can't help wondering why they didn't return.


    Deddie Davies as Sister Sheila is a nice addition. She's got such a great character look, even without the penguin suit. I was trying to place how she's best known to me. After looking at IMDb I think it must be from That's My Boy.




    Just two episodes remaining now, which I hope to watch this evening. The organic changes over the years - particularly in the relationship between Tom and Diana and their changing living arrangements - have given the series a sense of journey. I'm looking forward to seeing it come to fruition, Bayview style.
     
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  9. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I found the ending of Waiting For God to be a satisfying one. It was great to see Geoffrey back, even if not unexpected. And the series had its cake and ate it with the double wedding scenario and taking them in different directions. Although there'd been doubt in my mind that Diana would actually commit to an institution she no doubt views as archaic and patriarchal, by the time we got to the actual ceremony I thought it was going to press ahead. The twist was more enjoyable because I'd missed it coming.
     
  10. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Go on then. Let's see if we can stoke those fires with my next boxset:

    [​IMG]

    First impressions - three episodes' worth - are good. It's edgier than I'd thought, with the "kids" feeling mostly authentically rough round the edges (I was half expecting RADA Cockney to be prevalent), some suggestive sauciness (I can't help feeling they'd never get away with a naked self portrait of a schoolgirl nowadays) and the language not as twee as I'd expected (Doris, for example, has been referred to as an old bitch a couple of times).

    Joan Sanderson was the big draw for me, of course. She gives great dragon lady.

    John Alderton is another familiar face, but I don't think I've watched him in anything. Apart from the Maxwell House adverts with his wife Pauline Collins (Fireman Sam was after my time, sadly). Deryck Guyler, too, is very familiar and I'm sure I've seen him in many things. I suspect I've watched his brief appearance in Carry On Doctor more than anything else in which he's appeared. David Barry felt instantly familiar, but I'm not sure why.

    Noel Howlett is new to me, I think. And I like him lots already.

    Of the kids, Sharon and Maureen are the most familiar. I had my doubts about spending so much time in a classroom with them being unruly, but they're all starting to separate into distinct characters. Naturally, I have to suspend disbelief a little with most being played by people who look to be in their mid to late twenties. But that's all good.

    40 minute episodes is quite unusual. Wikipedia tells me they were to fit into a 45 minute timeslot, which goes to show how advertising has taken over. Nowadays a one hour episode would end up around the same length. Apparently most were butchered down to 25 minutes for repeats. The mind boggles at the very idea.
     
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  11. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Imagine my delight on Saturday evening to discover I'd just watched Series Two's X Certificate exactly half a century after its original air day.

    Please Sir! is proving to be an absolute gem. I'm getting to know all the teachers who, as I'd expected, are proving great characters. Joan Sanderson, of course, always gives great value for money, while Erik Chitty is proving something of a scene-stealer as bumbling Smitty.

    A bigger surprise for me is the children. My initial fear of them being a homogenous mass, one indistinguishable from the next, has been well and truly allayed. Each brings something special and there's not one I don't enjoy, though I was rather surprised to see David Barry as the first billed of the children as I couldn't place him at all. He seems to disappear among the throng most of the time. My goodness, some of the "young" people look even older in colour than they did before. Peter Cleall in particular looks as though he could be one of the parents.

    The gritty side of the series is still appealing. It seems to delight in rebelling against what we now know as political correctness. It's there overtly, such as the head's sharp intakes of breath when a teacher uses a dated term to describe someone of a minority faith or ethnicity, but also feels written into the fabric of the series. It's been a treat to see a Sixties sitcom that's dropped the word "bastard" into the mix every once in a while, and included a sustained shot of a naked bum.

    I'd adjusted to the 40 minute running time, but the more standard length for the second series feels punchier and even more easy to devour.
     
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  12. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    The Third Series had one of the most perfect sitcom endings. I appreciated especially the use of silence: that beautiful moment where Bernard walked round his empty classroom brought a lump to my throat. After all the noise and boisterousness, I joined him in quiet reflection. It had the best of both worlds: a sense of closure with the assurance that life would go on.

    The Christmas special with Bernard's wedding was the icing on the cake. Even with Bernard engaged, the last regular episode had given such closure that the wedding didn't feel absolutely necessary. But it was a nice little Christmas bonus.

    Knowing (up to a point) what's coming regarding the format of the series, the special also showed that the characters work outside of the classroom environment. Increasingly as the series went on we'd seen snippets of home life. Particularly Bernard's, but we've been home to meet Sharon's Mum and Dennis's Dad. All the same, I'm curious to see how I'll feel about the spinoff and the retooled original series. The ending of Series Three suggested new beginnings as much as endings. But it's one thing to see the promise of new beginnings in a winking kind of way as part of an ending. It's quite another to pick up that wink and run with it as the main event. Will it muddy the waters? We'll see.

    Only one thing is certain: I've had to create a spreadsheet to follow the viewing order for the new term.
     
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  13. James from London

    James from London Soap Chat Mega Star

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    I haven't seen the series since I was a kid but I have very fond, if vague memories of it. I'm so pleased to hear it still holds up.
     
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  14. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    A very pleasant surprise has been the edge the series has. Because it doesn't feel very watered down there's the impression that it captures the tone of its era more truthfully than a lot of its contemporaries.
     
  15. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Seventeen episodes into the new term, and things have become quite expansive.

    5C have all left Fenn Street followed, a couple of episodes into the new series of Please Sir! by Bernard himself. And all the above have ended up in new spin-off The Fenn Street Gang, where they maintain contact with one another in various combinations and try their hands at the working world (or, in Bernard's case, adjust to not working).


    [​IMG]

    Meanwhile, in the parent series another avant gard young teacher has taken on another boisterous - albeit somewhat forgettable - class.

    All of which means a change of focus and tone. Please Sir!'s new class seems a lot younger than 5C. Rather than twentysomethings, we seem to have mostly genuine kids. Which isn't, as it turns out, a move for the better (one of the only memorable kids is future Ender Shirley Cheriton, doing a Cockney accent). Wisely, we're now spending more time in the staff room, watching the various disagreements that take place there. Richard Warwick as new teacher David Ffitchett-Brown is watchable enough. He's more "out there" than was Bernard Hedges, and works fine at this point.

    The Fenn Street Gang's recasts are tolerable. New Sharon, Carol Hawkins is a familiar face from some Carry Ons and various similar projects of the same era. I find her likeable enough to pull off the change, even though I miss the original. Leon Vitali's Craven is very different to Malcolm McFee's. And worse still, he's nowhere near as easy on the eye.

    Fenn Street's trademark seems to be throwing it and seeing what sticks. Two consecutive episodes may be very different in tone. Take the last three episodes I watched: one featured only Bernard and his new bride, wrapping up their story without any of the regular players appearing (it could just as easily have been a Please Sir! episode, and indeed, one wonders why it wasn't since that's where Bernard spent most of his time); the next was a Carry On Sergeant affair in which Frankie Abbot signed up for the army. And the third had two sitcom staple - leaving the parental home and needing to find temporary accommodation, paired with Marx Brothers type decorating disasters. I'm growing to appreciate the unpredictability.

    I'm watching the episodes in original transmission order, which mostly means alternating between Please Sir! and Fenn Street. It paid off nicely when Bernard walked out of one series for good and then guest-starred in the other in the next episode viewed. I'd like to see a little more continuity, but I suspect things will become more tenuous as the year goes on.
     
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  16. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I'm beginning to understand why the fourth series of Please Sir! is the final one.

    With Bernard and the original class just a memory (or a spinoff), the series seems to be struggling to find its voice. Bernard was originally replaced by the even younger, even cuter, even more unorthodox David Ffitchett-Brown and his class of forgettable, homogenous teens. I've grown to really enjoy Richard Warwick's presence even if the same cannot be said for the kids.

    But now, halfway through this extended series (21 episodes, or technically 42 since I'm alternating with the equally long first series of The Fenn Street Gang), he seems to have been written out along with most of the kids. Replacing Ffitchett-Brown are two new teachers: Bernard Holley - the future D.I. Mike Turnbull - as Mr Hurst, and Vivienne Martin as the flighty, sickly, Miss Petting (she has a very familar face. She has an air of the early Carry On women to her). Oh - and another one who is a love interest for Doris.

    We've finally gone home to meet Doris's mother and the dynamic is uncannily similar to that in After Henry, but this time with Joan Sanderson playing the younger of the two women, resentful of her interfering mother ruining her sex life. Fascinating.

    As Grange Hill would later do in the mid-Eighties, Fenn Street School has undergone an amalgamation with another school. In come the new gang from Weaver Street. Five or six kids who, in the spirit of The (original) Fenn Street Gang are now played by people who appear to be in their twenties. So far, so terrible. The two girls are tolerable (even though the girl who is said to be "Indian" appears to be white and wearing body make up). But the three main lads are just dire. There's Annoying Guitar Kid who plays guitar and sings badly while screaming in between lines. Hilarity ensues. Then there's Annoying Hard Kid who leads the gang just as Duffy did the originals. He's the least annoying of the three, but that's nothing to write home about. Finally, there's Annoying Thick Kid who makes some of Bernard Bresslaw's dumb sidekicks seem awash with subtleties. Not one of them has done or said a single thing that's funny yet. And the bad news is the the powers that be seem to think the new, new kids are watchable enough to go back to the original premise of the classroom. I'm really hoping this is rectified and we play it safe in the staff room, because thankfully the entire teaching team are the glue holding what's left of this series together. With aplomb.

    The spinoff is trundling along fine. It's not showstopping, but it's perfectly enjoyable. Though with just a dozen episodes behind me and thirty five still to come I'm starting to feel slightly Fenned Off.


    Familiar faces on both series this year have included Carmen Munroe (last seen quite recently in Mixed Blessings), Mollie Sugden, Robin Askwith, Sally Thomset (with a broad Scottish accent!), Christopher Biggins and Derek Griffiths.
     
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  17. Mel O'Drama

    Mel O'Drama Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Please Sir! is now behind me. The latter episodes were a little tedious at times (those being when the focus was on the kids), but still enjoyably watchable at others thanks to decent writing and a wonderful older cast. Curiously, the final episode began with Miss Ewell now Mrs Sibley, with no sign of an on-screen wedding. I actually began to wonder if I'd missed a key episode.

    Meanwhile, The Fenn Street Gang has entered its second series with a jaunty new theme and opening credits and some revamped sets. And the return of Malcolm McFee as Craven. An interesting case of replacing his replacement. Other than this it's business as usual. But the joy of this series is that there isn't a "usual" as such. The tone of the series varies from episode to episode, depending on whom it focusses and what the subject it turning their hand to this week.

    While I've never seen Fenn Street before, I am aware that there's a spinoff, Bowler, and so have been watching the episodes featuring George Baker's Mr Bowler with interest. The news is good, I think. He's a great character, one whose scenes I've thoroughly enjoyed.

    Around two thirds through the entire series, it's still very enjoyable and the characters very likeable. It's even more watchable now I'm not alternating it with Please Sir! I honestly don't know if this is because the second series is better or because I'm spending more time with these characters.
     
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