A highlight of this year’s Sport Relief show, to be aired on BBC1 tonight (Friday), will be the resurrection after some 38 years of television’s disaster-prone wimp Frank Spencer. Peter Robertson has sat down with the Island-born writer of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Raymond Allen, to get his thoughts and insight on the legendary sitcom.
Frank was the unlikely main character in the sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which ran for three series from 1973 to 1978 and garnered a remarkable peak audience of 26 million viewers. Donning Frank’s trademark tank-top, raincoat and beret again will be Michael Crawford. Michele Dotrice also returns as Frank’s long-suffering wife Betty.
But the 15-minute revival, which will feature Paul McCartney, Bradley Wiggins, Gemma Arterton and Jenson Button, has not been written by the original show’s creator and author, Raymond Allen – though he has been given some influence – and he is not expecting any new series to come as a result.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Some Mothers returning properly, but only this short episode is planned. Having been disappointed by the Dad’s Army film, I think it may be best not to do more than this. But I’m delighted it’s happening, and it’s for a good cause”.
Last weekend, Raymond visited the set in Watford and was reunited with Michael Crawford for the first time since 1978. Raymond commented:
“Michael is 74 now but still looks much the same, and as in the original he’s doing his own stunts”.
Ryde-born Raymond himself is now 75 and still living in the same house on the Isle Of Wight he’s had since Some Mothers ended with Frank trying, but predictably failing, to emigrate to Australia.
“I started writing for television when I was 15 and didn’t sell anything til I was 31, and that was Some Mothers.
“A lot of it was based on myself. I am accident-prone. I tend to drop trays and break things and I’m always walking into things that have just been painted. I passed my driving test in 1964 but never had car as I was so nervous. 12 years ago I took a refresher course of 8 lessons, and ended up putting the car in a ditch and a hedge. One week the young driving instructor didn’t turn up for our lesson, I rang the agency and was told he’d joined the paratroop regiment – he must have felt that was safer than teaching me to drive!
“At the time, I was working as a cinema cleaner, had very little money, my future didn’t look good and I was very depressed. I suddenly struck this character who was accident-prone but meant well, and it grew on me.
“When I’d clean the steps of Shanklin cinema, a strange little local man would point to a poster and say “What’s that film about…is there any violence in it?” I used his name Frank Spencer for the character, but I’ve never seen him since. Betty was based on my then girlfriend Betty, but she didn’t like the character or the sitcom. She didn’t think it was funny. But we didn’t stay together and she left the island.
“My plan was for Betty to be the main character, because I’d read an article stating there was a shortage of comedy for leading ladies. Betty was going to be the strong one, and Frank would trudge along behind her. But, once I started writing, Frank took over”.
Raymond’s working title was Have A Break Take A Husband – a reference to the slogan from the then Kit-Kat ads – and he doesn’t know who came up with Some Mother Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Neither did he have a say in the casting. Ronnie Barker, Jim Dale and Norman Wisdom were considered for Frank before Michael Crawford got the gig. Ray said:
“Norman Wisdom was initially offered the role, but turned it down because he didn’t find it funny. After he read the script, he said to me “Do you add the funny lines in later?” But I saw him years later, and he told me he regretted not taking the part.
“Michael was nothing like Frank in real life – he was actually quite business-like – whereas Michele was just like on-screen: warm and kind.
“Michael brought the mannerisms, facial expressions (which he got from his two daughters), phrases like “whoopsi”, and the tank-top!’ recalls Raymond, who personally inspired Frank’s raincoat when he wore one to rehearsals at the BBC. “I thought it made me look like Humphrey Bogart. But I heard the producer tell a wardrobe girl to kit Michael out with clothes from second-hand shops to wear as Frank. When she said she didn’t know where to start, he replied “Have you seen what Raymond’s wearing?” I thought they were joking, but they weren’t, they all laughed, so I took my raincoat off and never wore it again”.
Decades of Frank Spencer impersonators have had him saying “Oooh Betty!” but he only ever said it in episode 2 of series 2. Raymond, not to be confused with the late ventriloquist Ray Allen, says:
“When we started recording, Michael used to psych himself up waiting to go on by pacing up and down and muttering. He saw several workmen gawping at him, thinking he’d lost his marbles, and one said “Isn’t it tragic, he had such a promising future!”
“One time Frank was doing Scottish dancing and his kilt was supposed to fall off to reveal a pair of Union Jack underpants. At the last minute, Michael decided to not wear pants, and as the kilt fell there was a horrified reaction from the rest of the cast who were facing him. Michael grabbed a table-cloth and wrapped that round himself but, as the show was filmed in front of a live audience, they couldn’t re-do it.
“Amazingly, Michael always did his own stunts. Recently BBC’s The One Show reconstructed the roller-skating sequence, and apparently the professional stuntmen they used were very hesitant about doing it as it was so dangerous. I remember in one episode an actor had to take a daffodil from a vase and he accidentally stuck it in his eye, at which the director said “Michael can jump off a roof and you can’t even pick up a flower!” In a famous scene where Frank reverses his company car halfway over the edge of a cliff, Michele had to stand on the bonnet with just tape round her ankles and someone holding the other end. It was very dangerous, but there was no health’n’safety in those days”.
After three series and three Christmas Specials, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em ended on Christmas Day 1978.
“Everyone wanted it to stop while it was still successful, and anyway Michael had become incredibly busy by then’ says Raymond, who never got to see Crawford in his next most famous role as The Phantom Of The Opera.
“A few times, people have considered doing a stage version of Some Mothers, but the stunts put them off. Talk of a film also fell by the wayside. The Americans wanted to do their own version, but a writers’ strike put paid to that”.
Raymond admits he’s “had a good income” from the original run, repeats, sales to 60 countries, and video and DVD sales, but he insists he’s not a rich man.
“No, no, no. Although I also wrote sketches and stuff for comedians like Frankie Howerd, Dave Allen, Max Wall and Little & Large, I wasn’t able to follow Some Mothers. I sold a few one-off scripts but none that led to a series.
“My scripts would be rejected by people saying “It’s quite funny but it’s not as good as Some Mothers….” And often when I tried creating characters, they kept turning into Frank. I wish I could have gone on to do more things, but Some Mothers has been like a good pension.
“A lot of people say Mr Bean is reminiscent of Frank Spencer, but I think they’re very different”.
In 2004, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em came 22nd in a Britain’s Best Sitcom poll.
Raymond is currently writing his memoirs entitled I’ve Had A Bit Of Trouble after one of Frank’s catchphrases. He occasionally gives talks about his career including Some Mothers of which he says:
“I’ve long had a nightmare that the real Frank Spencer is going to turn up, but he was quite elderly back then so I doubt he’s still around!”
For a year now, Raymond has been engaged to Nancy Hayden, though no date has been set yet. They live in separate homes, as Raymond needs his space as a writer. Nancy does voluntary work at St Mary’s Hospital and runs a care group for people with learning difficulties.
“Nancy is 45 and, sometimes when we’re out together, people think she’s my daughter. Some people have even thought she’s my grand-daughter!”
“The Sports Relief episode is looking good, and hopefully that will be memorable also”.