Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Thick As Thieves (1974)

Thick as Thieves is a real rarity. For one, it only ever ran for one series of eight episodes in 1974 and was never, to my knowledge, repeated. And for another, it is a sitcom featuring both John Thaw and a relatively young Bob Hoskins - two actors more known for drama than comedy. Now available on DVD via Network, the show's premise concerns two small time crooks and best mates Dobbs (Hoskins) and Stan (Thaw). Dobbs has been inside for a stretch and, upon his release, finds his wife Annie played by Pat Ashton, living with Stan. Instead of meeting this revelation of adultery with outrage and anger, an uneasy and comedic alliance develops with the trio living together under one roof as man and man and wife! 

The blog seems to have a bit of a menage a trois theme today, what with the Wordless Wednesday post earlier of Jules Et Jim and now this review. Don't ever say I don't prepare my ramblings!

Thick as Thieves was written for LWT by comedy scriptwriting Gods Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Coming between both their previous well received effort Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads and the equally successful project that was Porridge to come (both BBC hits) it's little wonder then that this has been so overlooked. However its a clear through line between both greats; the relationship between Dobbs and Stan is very reminiscent of the chemistry between Bob and Terry of The Likely Lads, whilst the criminal world would be explored further with Fletch and friends in Porridge.

Thick as Thieves also shares a similar kind of opening credit vibe to Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads in that they both showed the conflict between old and news that was the landscape of the late 1960s/early 1970s; the demolition of slum areas (in the North East for WHTTLL and South London here for TaT) and the rise of the more impersonal tower blocks. Both programmes also feature a bittersweet theme tune sung by Mike Hugg from lyrics written by himself and La Frenais.  

There are also strong links to Porridge too as the duo are on record as claiming it was the writing of the pilot episode of the prison based sitcom Prisoner and Escort for Ronnie Barker's series Seven of One that spurred them to write this sitcom. Instead of just writing the pilot, they came up with the idea of someone being released from (rather than going into) prison. They had fifty pages of 'treatment' before they realised it was two separate entities, and concentrated on Fletch for Ronnie Barker, keeping Thick as Thieves separate. It's also worth pointing out that once Porridge ended, the sequel, Going Straight would mine similar material that had previously been explored here.

As with all Clement and La Frenais' work, TaT has a great air of realism, specifically in its ear for earthy dialogue. Dobbs and Stan are a hapless but believable pair, with Stan sharing many of Likely Lad Terry Collier's (and later Auf Weidersehen Pet's Oz) charmed but largely uneducated life - he's forever searching for the right word in conversation, leading to something of a catchphrase "Is that the word?" - whilst Dobbs is more long suffering and prone to the banana skins of life much like Bob Ferris. Together they make a perfect pair and there's a great chemistry between them helped immeasurably by Hoskins and Thaw's pally playing. They're an enjoyable presence onscreen and its easy to find yourself liking them, despite their nefarious activities.

Less likeable however is Annie played by Pat Ashton. The woman they both love, it's hard to get a handle on her and her attitude to both men as they strive for her affections. Occasionally characters from outside the domestic set up, ie supporting players, pass comment on the unusual relationship and consider her lucky, but she spends her time moaning about Dobbs and Stan more like an exasperated mother or big sister than someone who has the best of both worlds. What's more bewildering and infuriating is how quick she is to fly off the handle if there's a whiff or Stan or Dobbs seeking another woman, yet in one episode its perfectly acceptable for her to leave both men for yet another suitor!

Speaking of supporting characters, there are plenty of familiar faces that pass through the doors of Dobbs, Stan and Annie's home including On The Buses Michael Robbins as the local plainclothes copper keeping his beady eye on the newly released Dobbs, a young(ish) Trevor Peacock from The Vicar of Dibley as an escaped convict seeking sanctuary, and Johnny Briggs as another local chancer called Spiggy, before he went on to household name status as Coronation Street's Mike Baldwin.

Thick As Thieves may not be a comedy classic but it proves to be an enjoyable eight part series which is a cut above most ITV sitcoms of the era which traded on crudity and offensiveness to appeal to the lowest common denominator (the aforementioned On The Buses immediately springs to mind) It does show its age though, and not just in terms of the visible tape distortion and scratches seen on some episodes. There are plenty of odd camera angles and close ups as well as actors walking in front of one another which, along with fluffed lines, suggests neither proper or sufficient blocking or rehearsal occurred before shooting in front of the live studio audience on tape.  Equally the show does take a couple of episodes to find its feet, or maybe that's just me; as I say it's strange to see the likes of Hoskins and Thaw playing so clearly for laughs. But its not unwelcome, both show they have a real flair for it and Hoskins inimitable, diminutive but bulky physical presence is used to its full potential here for comedy just as much as he used it for drama.

I do think thought that the world of TaT may have been better served in the comedy drama genre rather than the straight sitcom with studio laughter format. I'm thinking of how successful and satisfying Adam Faith's series about an equally small time crook Budgie was. Played in the same vein, I really think TaT would have been more memorable and perhaps less of a curio and less dated as it is now too.

As I say, TaT is available to buy on DVD from Network. It's a good DVD but there are no extras or special features, just the episodes themselves.

And I can't get the Mike Hugg theme tune out of my head!

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