Watching things on DVD has an odd habit of hiding patterns in TV shows, as well as showing them. For all that watching classic Doctor Who exposes the runaround nature of some of the middle episodes in a serial, if you’re watching the show out of order, the links between serials go awry. Even if you decide to watch a programme like, say, George & Mildred completely in order, the fact that the show had a Christmas episode each year between 1977 and 1979 is easy to go unnoticed.
Let’s take some notice, shall we?
Mind you, the first two of those episodes are pretty standard George & Mildred fare. (As in: extremely good half hours of sitcom, but not stand-out compared to some of the magical episodes the series produced.) In No Business Like Show Business (TX: 26/12/77), it’s pantomime season; guess who’s playing the ugly sister. (Answer: Mildred, George and Mr. Fourmile, because why not squeeze as much comedy as possible out of characters wearing a silly dress?) The most notable thing about the episode is an extremely unusual fantasy sequence, where George imagines himself as a Hollywood star (“Los Angeles Times: ROPERMANIA SWEEPS COUNTRY!”), which leaves me wishing the series had indulged George in his flights of fancy more often.
On the Second Day of Christmas (TX: 21/12/78) is more straightforward, though that’s not a criticism: it’s George and Mildred bored at home, having a miserable Christmas. (Oddly, it feels like it should have been the first Christmas episode.) The episode dedicates a little too much time to George losing at Pong – though this does win points for a Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night reference – but the series is at its best when Mildred’s sister comes round. Her description of their extensive Christmas lights display is a typical exchange between her and Mildred. “I believe half of Oxshott went dim.” “Well, dim lighting’s always suited you, dear…”
Both of these episodes are fun enough. The third, however, is something special. For the past 37 episodes, the series has largely avoided examining George’s feelings towards Mildred directly. Of course, the whole series is really about their relationship, and occasional episodes poke more deeply. But The Twenty-Six Year Itch (TX: 25/12/79) poses a real question. And it’s a question which is akin to performing open-heart surgery on the entire premise of the show.
That question is: if George met someone he truly loved, would he actually be happier? And what exactly would happen with his marriage to Mildred?
That someone is Beryl.1 Fittingly for George, he meets her down the pub. Witness George Roper’s superb chat-up technique:
BERYL: My name’s Beryl.
GEORGE: Oh, that’s a nice name. I knew a Beryl once during the blitz. She had her leg blown off.
They get talking. And it’s not long before we get the most shocking moment in the entire run of the show.2
GEORGE: You, erm… you live on your own?
BERYL: I’m a widow.
GEORGE: Oh really? Oh, that’s a coincidence. So am I.
Beryl is everything to George that Mildred is not. She’ll listen to his boring stories. She thinks he’s “quite a philosopher”. She’s even interested in his scrapbooks. And best of all, considering George’s famed antipathy towards sex, there’s this exchange sparked off by a mention of Beryl’s husband:
BERYL: I mean, he was a good man of course, but… he only had one thing on his mind, you know. It.
GEORGE: What, you mean doing things?
BERYL: I’m not against it… in moderation.
GEORGE: Oh, no. But it can be overdone.
BERYL: Course, I think companionship is more important.
GEORGE: (in wonder) I agree.
For all that George Roper is an absolute bellend throughout the series, it’s difficult not to feel a certain something during the above exchange. Two people growing closer due to their entire lack of interest in sex. George perhaps doesn’t deserve happiness – but there’s a glimmer of two people who are perfect for each other here, and it’s difficult not to root for them. Even when George arranges for them to meet again, well away from the pub… and well away from Mildred.
Mildred, meanwhile, is attempting to have fun elsewhere – attending the Young Conservatives dinner dance with a certain Mr. Jeffrey Fourmile. If only she would meet a handsome stranger who would sweep her off her feet. Sadly, it starts off badly – curtsying at the doorman was not a great idea – and as usual, she entirely fails to fit in at all. The evening ends barely as it’s begun, with her scurrying home when someone points out there’s a price ticket hanging off the back of her dress.
We end up with an amusing piece of farce: when Mildred gets home early, George quickly shifts his date with Beryl next door to the Fourmiles’, and ends up doing the whole “rushing between two houses” shtick. Eventually, Mildred forces George to sit down… and asks him to show her his scrapbook. Some good old-fashioned guilt hits George, and he goes to tell Beryl the truth.
And yet the show doesn’t make it easy for us. This is not a happy ending. George doesn’t have a big revelation that he loves Mildred. It’s altogether more problematic.
BERYL: Your marriage… is it a happy one?
GEORGE: Not often. But sometimes it’s all you can expect, innit?
And when we get to that final scene with George and Mildred in bed:
MILDRED: I dunno, George. We’ve had our ups and our downs, haven’t we? More downs than ups. But I’ll tell you one thing, George. In spite of it all, and underneath it all… I love you, George.
GEORGE: Oh, yeah. I love you too, Beryl.
And that’s the beautiful thing about this episode: the show finally calls its own bluff. Does George actually love Mildred, or not? For years we’ve dodged round the issue. And now we finally discover… no. George really doesn’t love Mildred. He cares about her perhaps, in his own useless way. But there’s no love there. There is no happy ending.
Because the happy ending here wouldn’t be George and Mildred realising they truly love each other. That would be at best trite, and at worst entirely unbelievable. The happy ending would be George getting together with Beryl, and Mildred meeting someone at the dance and being swept off her feet. This is not a marriage which needs to be saved. It’s a marriage where – financial issues aside – divorce would be the best solution.
All of which makes it all the more fitting that this ended up being the last episode of George & Mildred.3 Yes, there was going to be a sixth series in 1980, which never happened due to the death of Yootha Joyce. This was never intended to be the final episode. But for all that, it works absolutely superbly as one. What better way to end a series than by finally opening it up and seeing how it really ticks?
And so Christmas Day 1979 on ITV at 6:15pm saw a heartrending portrayal of an irreparably broken marriage. And there’s no sign that things will ever get better. We don’t get George and Mildred gazing lovingly at each other. We get Mildred desperately trying to save their marriage… and George Roper just doesn’t give a flying one. It is utterly bleak as hell.
Played by Patsy Rowlands, who often gets such thankless roles. Not so here – and she’s absolutely superb. ↩
Incidentally, this moment is right before the ad break, providing the perfect cliffhanger. If a 1979 Thames sitcom knows enough about structure to do this, there is little excuse for where some programmes in 2016 decide to place their ad breaks. But I digress. ↩
Ignoring the film, of course. Which you’re probably best off doing anyway, even if I have a soft spot for it. ↩