It has to be admitted that nice comments about Come Back Mrs. Noah – Lloyd and Croft’s 70s sitcom about a spacebound housewife – are rather thin on the ground. Having just watched the pilot episode on YouTube, I honestly don’t think it’s quite as bad as its reputation, although doing a racist joke about Notting Hill six minutes into the episode does push your goodwill rather. And the less said about the tea maker gag the better.
But enough about that. I want to highlight something interesting about that pilot, which is an effects technique I’ve never seen before. It takes place in Mission Control, where the ground crew are trying to sort out the fault with the spacecraft. And we get these two consecutive shots of the monitoring equipment they’re using to troubleshoot the fault:
Clearly, there was only one source available for the yellow overlay oscilloscope effect, but they wanted to show it from two separate angles. The solution? They designed things so the same overlay effect would work for each shot, despite the two shots being entirely different!
You can see it in action here:
It may look a little odd to modern eyes, but it’s a really clever, thinking-outside-the-box solution. You can’t do two different effects? Then make sure your single effect works from two angles.
Today, I want to talk about It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Not the sad death of Windsor Davies, or whether the programme is racist1. This is Dirty Feed, and I have higher things in mind.
The show premiered in January 1974 on BBC1 with a first series of eight episodes.2 The first episode, however, was a true pilot, recorded a full year before air, and separately from the other seven episodes. David Croft’s autobiography, You Have Been Watching…, p. 196:
“The first pilot programme in January 1973 went very well with the studio audience and featured probably the smallest riot ever experienced by the British in India. There was no room in the studio for a proper full-scale riot mob, and we couldn’t afford one anyway. I made do with about ten shadowy figures in the foreground, but the result didn’t bear examination.3 I was present at the odd riot in India and they are extremely frightening affairs. Police and troops are usually heavily outnumbered and very scared, so ghastly mistakes can easily happen. The remainder of the show was a good pilot and served to introduce the characters and the general thrust of the plots, as any pilot should.”
Despite being shot at a different time to the rest of the series, there really are very few differences between that pilot episode Meet the Gang, and the rest of Series 1. But there is one major change: the closing titles. In the pilot, the gang song is all shot on VT in the studio. For the rest of Series 1, it was completely remounted on film.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.
TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.
There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?
Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.
With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4
But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.
Admittedly, comedy in general has it better than game shows, or entertainment shows in general. Duncan Norvelle’s pilot edition of Blind Date is the stuff of legend, and we’ve never seen so much as a field of it. UPDATE: Thanks to Ben Baker, who points out that parts of this pilot were seen in the documentary Who Killed Saturday Night TV? Now I’ve just got to pluck up the courage to watch it. ↩
To be honest, it shuffles round the net so often like the proverbial video ghost that you’d think whoever it is might as well just throw up their hands, give in, and accept a few pennies out of it. ↩
“Our biggest struggle after filming the pilot was cutting it down to time. We were something like six minutes long, which is a lot. We cut and cut and cut some more. We cut things we liked and we cut things we loved. Still, after 6 or 7 passes at the show we were still a minute long. We felt we had cut it to the bare bones. Any more cuts could damage the show so we went to Paramount with our dilemma. Thankfully, they agreed with us and asked NBC to give us some extra time. After viewing what we hoped would be our final cut, NBC agreed to give us that extra minute which was a very big favor. So, how do they come up with that extra minute of programming time for us? Don’t think that all they have to do is cut a commercial or two. Are you crazy? That’s money. No, to give us that extra minute, they asked the three other comedies and one drama on that Thursday night to each cut 15 seconds out of their programs. It’s not something that’s done very often and it’s not something the network likes to do, but for that pilot of Frasier they felt it was worth it.”
Six minutes, cut out of one of the best sitcom pilots ever made? Oh, man, wouldn’t it be amazing to see what was cut? But I guess we’ll never find out, unless there happens to be a script of the pilot hanging around online anywhere…
…oh, hello. Marked “REVISED FINAL DRAFT”, and dated April 29th 1993. Let’s dig right in.
Material which is only in the script is indicated like this; material which is only in the episode as broadcast is indicated like this. I won’t detail every single difference in phrasing between the script and the final show, minor trims to dialogue, or every change in staging, but all major differences will be noted.1
The first episode of Hi-de-Hi! is one of my favourite sitcom pilots of all time.1 And for at least the next four series, Hi-de-Hi! is one of my favourite sitcoms of all time. This is for so many reasons, all of which is worth an article in itself, but put simply: my favourite thing about the show is that it’s the perfect mix of everything. Every single kind of comedy I love is embedded into its soul. A show that doesn’t sneer at broad comedy, yet includes moments of amazing subtlety. It knows the magic is in the blend of the two.
Recently, BBC Two have started another repeat run of the show in their Afternoon Classics slot. I’ve long meant to do a full comparison of these broadcast versions of the show compared to my DVD copy – which fully admits on the back that “for contractual reasons certain edits have been made”. I was mainly expecting just the odd music change – but actually, the changes have ended up being rather more interesting than I ever imagined, and for the the pilot at least, actually ask rather more questions of the broadcast repeat than of the DVD.
Let’s take a look, shall we? Just to clarify, the two versions we are comparing are:
Neither of these versions, you will note, is what was actually transmitted originally on the 1st January 1980. So, which version is closest to that original edit? We can perhaps make an educated guess about that later.
All times given are for the DVD version of the episode, so even if you didn’t record the repeat broadcast version, you can skip to see exactly where the changes are. Cut dialogue in the repeat broadcast version is like this.
19th September 1975, 9pm, BBC2, and the first programme of a little series called Fawlty Towers is broadcast. And whilst most of that first series of Fawlty Towers was shot in the summer of 1975, the very first episode – A Touch of Class – was recorded eight months earlier, in December 1974. The reason for this is simple: that first programme was a pilot. Unlike some programmes, which are re-recorded entirely for their first episode1, most of that pilot made it to air more or less in its original form. For instance, the opening sign is a different design in the pilot episode compared to every single other programme in the first series, and the theme music is also a different recording. Indeed, you wonder why, when it came to broadcast, they didn’t at least change the opening titles to be consistent with the other episodes, but I digress.
Opening titles from A Touch of Class
Opening titles from The Builders
One detail, however, was changed between the initial pilot recording, and its broadcast. Polly was originally meant to be a philosophy student – and that’s what she was in that pilot episode. For the series, they decided to change her to being an art student – and so they reshot parts of the pilot to incorporate the change. To quote John Cleese, in an interview on the 2001 DVD release:
CLEESE: She in the pilot episode was a philosophy student, and we didn’t feel that worked as well as art student, so we re-recorded just a little – maybe four or five minutes – and cut that into the first episode before it was transmitted to the general public.
The obvious question to ask, then – at least, if you’re me – is: which parts of the transmitted episode were reshot? And was it really four or five minutes of material? But whilst you could easily guess about one section which was reshot, for years that was all the information we really had about the change.
Citizen Smith is a good example of a show which had a pilot, and then was completely reshot for its first episode broadcast six months later – both are on the DVD, and it’s fascinating to compare them. ↩