Thursday, January 7, 2010

Comedy Playhouse - Are You Being Served? (BBC) 8th September 1972

"Comedy Playhouse" was a series of one off comedies. 120 of them were broadcast between 1961 and 1974 and featured the whole gamut of British comedy writers and talent. It was a most successful series that ended up spawning several series in their own right since some episodes would be so well received, the BBC would decide to commission a full series. The earliest success was the fourth episode transmitted on 5th January 1962 entitled "The Offer." Written by the legendary duo of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who wrote all 10 episodes of the first series) "The Offer" introduced a father and son pair of Rag and Bone men, Albert and Harold Steptoe which was quickly expanded upon to a series of their own - "Steptoe and Son." This became an instant favourite in Britain to the degree that in November 1963, a mini playlet was written and performed especially for that year's Royal Variety Performance... not to mention several record releases including a couple of infamous Harry H.Corbett solo discs sung in character as Harold!

Other series borne out of "Comedy Playhouse" included "All Gas and Gaiters", "The Liver Birds", "Till Death Us Do Part" and "Last Of The Summer Wine." The latter began in 1973 and runs to this day. Here, we are looking at the episode transmitted on 8th September 1972 which spawned a much loved series that unusually managed to find success in it's own right in America - "Are You Being Served?"

On 1st January 2010, BBC2 rescreened that very first episode which in effect became the pilot for ten series that was to follow. However, this was no ordinary repeat and we will focus on this particular facet in this piece since it demonstrates a fascinating development in digital restoration.

Originally broadcast in colour, the BBC went and wiped the original videotape shortly afterwards. Sadly, this happened very often since videotapes were prone to being reused. For many years, this pilot episode was missing from the archive but at some time, a black and white telerecording was found. The BBC repeated this episode for the first time since original transmission in the mid 90's as part of a series of "Comedy Playhouse" pilot repeats. It was very strange to see this show in scratchy black and white since we're so used to seeing it in colour... and it was a rather colourful show in it's own right what with Mrs Slocombe's hair being dyed different colours each week!

The film recording was not in great shape, suffering from much scratching, sparkles and hissy sound. When a film recording was made of a videotaped show you lost a lot of quality.Now, I'm not the best when it comes to describing highly technical details like I need to try and explain so all of it is best explained on this  wiki page.

To put it basically, when one made a telerecording of a videotape, the film recording lost out on interlaced frames. TV video interlaced signals are 25fps cum 50fpd which gives what we see that familiar smooth video motion and look. A telerecording could only capture half the frame rate which resulted in a flat film look. At least it enabled TV companies a method whereby they could preserve the show before wiping the tape. Telerecordings were done for two reasons - 1, for preservation purposes - film was cheaper and easier to edit and store than videotape. 2, for overseas sales. It was easier to copy a film than a videotape and all TV companies could play back a film recording much easier than a video tape since VT standards varied throughout the world.

In the early Noughties, a BBC engineer called Peter Finklestone developed a fascinating piece of software. Peter wondered if it would be possible to take a telerecording and restore the missing interlaced frame information. If one looked at the 25fps film stock frame by frame, one could see the motion jerked slightly. Peter's idea was to use digital technology to recreate the missing frames. So between frame 1 and 2 for example, a new frame would be created featuring elements of both surrounding frames. So, one would end up with 50 frames from 25 and if played back at 25fps, technically, it would restore the original interlaced video motion look. This software was christened VidFire.

VidFire was first put to use on a 4 part "Doctor Who" adventure from 1964 called "The Aztecs" which was then released on DVD. It gave a good demonstration, approximating how it would had originally looked like on it's original transmission back in 1964 when of course it was broadcast from a videotape. The results were deemed a success and VidFire was used to restore the black and white episodes of the much loved "Dad's Army" from 1968 and 1969. The success of the end result did depend on the quality of the original telerecording. For example, the first ever episode of "Dad's Army" is very grainy. VidFire cannot restore the original grain structure and despite a through frame by frame clean up, the end result was acceptable but didn't look like original video. The second episode by comparison was a much better detailed recording so the video effect was very impressive to the degree one could believe they were watching a video recording.

Finklestone's software has since been upgraded and though used too rarely, mostly on black and white DVD episodes of "Doctor Who", the results now look stunning. In America a similar piece of software has been developed enabling them to restore their kinescopes to something approximating original video and this was used on a DVD release of the handful of "Ed Sullivan Shows" that Elvis Presley appeared on in the mid 50's. So we can now take telerecordings and kinescopes and restore them back to a video look thanks to Finklestone's innovations.

As you can see from the screencaps here of the pilot episode of "Are You Being Served?" the 2010 transmission was in glorious colour. How was this possible? Colorisation? No. Colorisation was developed in the 1980's where various old black and white Hollywood movies were artificially coloured. The results left much to be desired - Woody Allen led a campaign to put a stop to these colorisations. It was not real colour, having to be done on a predictive basis. Worse, it had a horrible gaudy flat quality. Faces would be a single flat pink like colour. True colour of course reveals the face is made up of many different tones. So colorisation looked "wrong." Of course digital technology developments mean it can be done better, quicker and cheaper now but the end result is still "wrong." One is tampering with history. If it was made in black and white then leave it that way... fake colour does not "improve" it in any way.

Now we're gonna have to get a bit technical again I'm afraid and once again I'm gonna have to refer you to wiki for the finer details here... I am loathe to refer to wikipedia since it is notoriously prone to inaccuracies but the two pages I've linked to here are written by those in the know, who helped develop the techniques so
you can rest assured these are accurate.

So, we have a new technique known as "Colour Recovery." The bare basics are like this. When the BBC made many black and white telerecordings, they neglected to switch off a "carrier signal" which contained colour information. What happened was, this colour information ended up on the telerecording as a strange smear. When these recordings would be screened or released, standard practise was to simply greyscale the whole picture to remove the colour smears. However thanks to very complex mathematics and geometry, a way has been discovered to decode the colour information to restore the original colour picture! Of course it's not quite as simple as that and the result of a raw colour recovery is variable. But with additional tweaking one can now recreate original colour information. No colorisation is used because it is simply using the original colour information.

Again, "Doctor Who" and "Dad's Army" were the first to benefit from this colour recovery technique. Every colour episode of "Dad's Army" has survived in that form with one sole exception, a 1969 episode called "Room At The Bottom" which survived only as a 16mm black and white telerecording. In December 2008, the BBC broadcast it for the first time since a 1970 repeat in colour. They used both colour recovery and VidFire to make it look like it was from original colour videotape. The result was astonishing. It seemed absurd this could be done from a black and white telerecording!

This mixture of restoration then was next seen in late 2009 on a Doctor Who DVD when "Planet Of The Daleks" episode 3 from 1973 was restored to it's original format. Since all 5 other episodes were still extant in colour, it seemed strange to switch to black and white half way through for one episode to the degree that most overseas sales of it edited out that black and white episode for sake of consistent quality! Again, the result was stunning.

"Are You Being Served?" being a much loved show and a popular export had that one anomaly - that all important first episode in black and white. It was an obvious candidate for restoration once it was discovered it has the smeared colour information present on the telerecording and so it was on New Years Day, 2010 that BBC2 screened it for the first time in colour in 37 years. It was just like watching it from colour videotape. The clean up was stunning. I have the black and white print on DVD which suffers from the problems mentioned earlier. This episode was a stunning demonstration of what can be done with a whole load of colour shows in the BBC archive that only survive as black and white telerecordings.

It is a pity that three of it's stars - John Inman, Mollie Sugden and Wendy Richard have all died in the last 2 years so were never to see the results for themselves.

For a pilot episode, all the ingredients and formulae are virtually in place which was to contribute to the shows success. In fact, the only thing that seems to be missing is Mrs Slocombe's legendary pussy gag! Slocombe's lines about "my pussy" were always comical highlights! Also at this stage, Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) being new to the dreaded antiquated Grace Brothers had only been under their employment for one month. The plot simply centers on the ladies clothing department presided over by Betty Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) and Miss Shirley Brahms (Wendy Richard) being moved to the same department as the mens clothing, presided over by the ever grumpy Mr Grainger (Arthur Brough) and his camp assistant Wilberforce Claybourne Humphries (John Inman) and Dick Lucas. The ever present floorwalker, the stern and pompous Captain Stephen Peacock (Frank Thornton)would forever be caught up in the middle of the opposing departments forced to share the same resources. Peacock always favoured the mens which provided much conflict with Mrs Slocombe. And that was pretty much the formula that would be present throughout the show's history.

The style was very nudge nudge suggestive smut. Mr Lucas was forever taking pops at Mrs Slocombe's attractiveness and sexuality always undermining and antagonising her. So it is strange to see that Mr Lucas and Mrs Slocombe in this first episode are actually friendly. When Lucas accidentally feels Slocombe's legs instead of a dummy, Slocombe's reaction is one of surprise, suggesting to Miss Brahm's she actually enjoyed the experience saying that Lucas has "nice smooth hands!" It wouldn't last and very quickly they grew antagonistic.

The most memorable moment is a big hint as to the style of humour that was to come. Captain Peacock dresses down Mr Lucas about the hanky in his pocket, informing him that Grace Brothers has a certain way the hanky should be displayed. He demonstrates the method to Lucas during which the hanky ends up looking obviously phallic... which horrifies Lucas and gets Mr Humphries looking on in bemusement! This actually sets up a later gag since when Peacock removes his hanky, a membership card falls to the floor... it is for a Blue Cinema. Humphries and Lucas are fascinated to discover that Peacock dons a long mac and sits in a blue cinema, but how do they give the card back to him? They place it on the counter. Peacock sees it and tries to disguise it. So he again demonstrates the hanky business, ensuring he flops it over the card and grabs it under cover to shove back in his pocket!

The main friction occurs three quarters way through when Mrs Slocombe demands some display space which Mr Grainger refuses to grant since he has always displayed his trousers. Slocombe complains and it's to the head of the department, the hapless Mr Cuthbert Rumbold (Nicholas Smith) for a showdown in his office. Rumbold was always an idiot misunderstanding the situation and here we have him getting bewildered as to why Mrs Slocombe wants to remove Mr Grainger's trousers so she can display her underwear. These would become a regular scene in the show and Rumbold was forever coming up with absurd ideas to try and increase sales and keep the staff at peace.

Being a show with the heavy involvement of BBC producer David Croft, who cowrote the series with Jeremy Lloyd it displays many typical Croft hallmarks. Croft's productions always ended with the caption "You have been Watching..." leading into each actor posing for the camera as their name comes up onscreen. No other BBC producer used this technique. In fact it became such a trademark that Croft's autobiography was named after that onscreen caption.

Croft's production style also relied heavily on cutaways for facial reactions. We see it often now but back then, Croft made an art form out of it using the technique specifically for comic effect meaning the cast had to be kept on their toes to be ready to be positioned to the right camera at the right time. Croft also had his own unique repertory of actors whom he would use in most of his series and AYBS featured several Croft regulars like Wendy Richard, Arthur Brough, Frank Thornton, Larry Martyn, Michael Knowles, Jeffrey Holland and so on. This helped create a family atmosphere since the actors were used to working with one another and Croft knew their strengths.

So, the template was set in place. The BBC commissioned a series of "Are You Being Served?" for 1973 and before long the show was a firm family favourite with Mrs Slocombe, Mr Humphries and Miss Brahms effectively becoming cult figures in their own right. It guaranteed Mollie Sugden, John Inman and Wendy Richard TV immortality. When Wendy Richard sadly passed away in early 2009, people remembered her for one of 2 roles - Miss Brahms who in her day was regarded as a pin up or the downtrodden vindictive Pauline Fowler whom she played in "EastEnders" for 21 years. But it was Miss Brahms that finally brought her the fame she had long been seeking.

It remains an enjoyable series to this day. It does certainly look dated, but the cartoon like nature of the main characters ensures it remains popular with newer younger viewers. It had several cast changes along the way, and Inman's Mr Humphries became a more central character with each passing series. It did outstay it's welcome though. Later episodes when Trevor Bannister had quit (a row about money apparently) and replaced by Mike Berry playing Mr Spooner, the show seemed to get ever cruder to lesser effect. By the final series in 1985 it had gone as far as it possibly could with the format. The leading actors though enjoyed working together so much they begged David Croft to reconsider and it was a few years before he was able to think up a new format since he felt all gags had been exhausted so had them leaving Grace Brothers to take over a home in the country to run as a hotel business which resulted in two patchy series in the early 90's called "Grace and Favour" though in America it was called "Are You Being Served... Again?"

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