Friday, 31 October 2014

Watching Watching

As a child growing up in Granadaland in the 80s and 90s, Watching, Granada's sweet sitcom about mismatched Merseyside couple Brenda and Malcolm was a big favourite in my house.

At the end of August I bought Network DVD's complete series boxset of Watching which features all 56 episodes that ran between 1987 and 1993; and though there are no extras on the DVD, this remains a real bargain at £20 for seven series in one set.

I developed a routine of watching an episode or two each night in bed before going to sleep and managed to finish all seven series (plus the Christmas and New Year's specials) off last weekend.

I'm missing my little trips down memory lane already!

Watching tells the story of Malcolm, a shy birdwatcher from over the water in Meols (played by Paul Bown) and his unlikely relationship with the sparky, quick witted scouser Brenda (Emma Wray) who is initially more interested in the sport of 'people watching'; making up outlandish stories about strangers her and her sister, Pamela (Liza Tarbuck in an early breakthrough role) see in their local pub. Opposites may well attract, but the path to true love never runs smooth and in the six years of the sitcom we, the audience, get to see their relationship and they as people adapt and mature. Its longevity makes you feel like you've really witnessed people's lives and you certainly get to know the characters and come to love them, especially with great actors like the aforementioned Bown, Wray and Tarbuck, but also John Bowler as Tarbuck's yuppie husband David, Patsy Byrne as Malcolm's pompous curtain twitching mother, Perry Fenwick (now famous for playing EastEnders' Billy Mitchell) as Malcolm's flash friend from Hemel Hempstead Terry, and Noreen Kershaw as Brenda and Pamela's scatty mother. Though there is one character you don't meet and indeed she's completely excised from continuity in later series, and that's Brenda and Pamela's other sister Sandra. When we do finally meet the rest of the Wilson family, it's stated quite clearly their mother has just three children; Pamela, Brenda and Gerald, a young boy she wishes would clear off and join the navy! No Sandra, whatsoever. Bit niggling that.

Every episode of the sitcom was penned by the Liverpudlian scriptwriter Jim Hitchmough, who sadly passed away in 1997. The initial premise of the awkward twitcher and the scouse pocket rocket originally started out life as a sketch developed in a drama workshop at Liverpool's famous and groundbreaking Everyman Theatre. Hitchmough went on to submit the sketch for the BBC series Not The Nine O'Clock News but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, he adapted it for the stage and in turn received a commission from Granada for a seven episode first series. 

Broadcast at 10pm Sunday nights in 1987, Watching became something of a success which saw it move to an earlier 7pm slot for its second series which it secured right up until the final episode, gaining viewing figures of over 17 million.

Watching Watching back, I found I could remember many episodes extremely well...some of them dating specifically around the 1990/1991 fact, I could even remember some of the gags word for word!

What this rewatch did bring to me though was a fresh appreciation of the characters and the beautiful writing on display. It's true to say Brenda Wilson is a very lippy young woman but the brittle vulnerability that Emma Wray teases out beneath that brash exterior may have initially been lost on my ten year old or so eyes. There's real depth of character here that most sitcoms, certainly ITV sitcoms, sadly lack.

Having lived and worked in and around the areas Watching is set too means there's an extra appeal to watching the show. And again, having more experience of the region now, makes sight seeing and comparing how the area has changed an extra pleasure. I find it very funny for example that two Christmas specials saw the cast descend on dizzying glamourous locales such as Delamere Forest, Frodsham and Pennington Flash just outside of Wigan! Curiously the final series saw Emma Wray and Liza Tarbuck (reunited with former cast member Perry Fenwick, who played Malcolm's friend Terry in the first few series and was Wray's boyfriend at the time, though he is now more famous for playing Billy in EastEnders) jet out to Israel for two episodes, which was somewhat unexpected.

It's fair to say that Watching is a little dated now - in this day and age Malcolm and Brenda would probably meet on, and keep in touch with, Facebook or a dating site as opposed to their chance encounters and hesitant first moves in pubs and out bird watching - with some truly irritating directorial choices such as drowning out dialogue with background music in pubs or party scenes, and some instances of dubious and naive humour; Malcolm does a now racist stereotypical Chinese impersonation in the first Xmas special, whilst Brenda gets one up on an obnoxious drunk by sending him off to work behind the wheel (!) in the knowledge that cops will pick him up for drink driving - but the late 80s and early 90s were different times I guess and much of the humour in Watching remains utterly charming and representative of quick and occasionally dry Northern humour. It also stands now as a document of its time now, with references to rising unemployment, privatisation, the rise of the upwardly mobile yuppie set and the Poll Tax. 

But always at its heart is the relationship between Brenda and Malcolm. It really draws you in as both characters are so believable and endearing. It's a sweet relationship though never traditional - indeed in one episode which sees them briefly reunited on a bird watching weekend after Malcolm had married someone else, its revealed that Brenda never had the courage to say she loved him throughout their first years together. Again such a reveal points to the insecurity inherent beneath Brenda's sharp tongued facade.

The show featured the lovely theme song What Does He See In Me? written by Charles Hart was performed by Emma Wray herself and has remained a personal favourite of mine all these years. Here's a video of the opening credits which plays a short version of it. 

Some episodes of Watching can be found on YouTube and for more info I can thoroughly recommend this lovely fan site Watching

1 comment:

  1. A full length version of the theme is on youtube,

    It's not the best in sound quality and it occasionally differs from the lyrics of the theme over the closing credits, but kudos to the uploader!

    I remember Emma Wray actually singing this live on some ITV Granada show, but I don't think it was ever released as a single. Missed a trick there. It's a shame Wray has retired from showbiz, I must add.