Published on October 15th, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
My Wife Next Door – DVD First Look
My Wife Next Door is fondly remembered by those few who do remember it (yours truly included), but for everybody else I’d best fill in some blanks. The 1970s is considered by many to be the golden age of the BBC sitcom. There was The Good Life, Porridge, Open All Hours and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to name but four. But before those there were others that paved the way, exploring the comedic value of subjects that would now be considered taboo. Thames Television’s Love thy Neighbour, probably never to be repeated (thankfully), thought blatant racism was a jolly wheeze. In the same year (1972), the BBC broadcast My Wife Next Door, which went in search of the funny side of divorce. I suspect it’s best not to dwell on the state of British society in the early-to-mid seventies that two men engaged in racist name-calling managed 54 episodes across seven series whereas divorce was only funny for 13 episodes of a single series. Because the basic plot revolved around antagonistic neighbours, My Wife Next Door has been described as Love Thy Neighbour without the racism, but in the final analysis nearly all sitcoms base their comedy on the conflict between opposing viewpoints, with The Good Life and To The Manor Born being two of the finest examples. Taken to its ultimate extreme you get Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part, who opposes every rational point of view.
The Plot of My Wife Next Door.
George and Suzy Basset are newly divorced. Ostensibly the ultimate cause of the split was George’s fondness for a stuffed moose head, though there are references in the series to Suzy’s disapproval of George’s drinking. There is a lot of drinking in My Wife Next Door so a DVD release creates potential for a cracking student drinking game of the ‘when George or Suzy has a drink…’ variety.
Suzy and George’s split is portrayed as less than amicable though far from venomous, but our two protagonists both decide, independently, that the healing process would be helped along by a change of scene and a move to the country. They inadvertently purchase adjoining cottages and neither is prepared to move, and so our scene is set…
The Cast and other Credits.
George was played by John Alderton, a regular on television since the early 1960s and an established TV comedy actor after his spell on Please Sir! and its short lived sequel The Fenn Street Gang. For the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s, John Alderton appeared in every episode of everything made for British television (well, over 200 episodes of various series in his career to date anyway, including Upstairs, Downstairs and its spin-off series Thomas and Sarah, playing alongside his real-life wife Pauline Collins in both) and made his best known big screen outings as James Herriot in It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet (1977) and also made memorable appearances in John Boorman’s classic Zardoz (1974) and Nigel Cole’s Calendar Girls (2003). Suzy was played by Hannah Gordon, another British TV regular since the mid-sixties, though when My Wife Next Door aired she was still to make her most memorable screen appearances in Upstairs, Downstairs (not at the same time as Alderton), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), and a classic Morecambe and Wise musical skit wot Ernie wrote for the 1973 Christmas Special. Hannah Gordon is currently back on our TV screens in the six-part crime drama Unforgotten.
Apart from George and Suzy, only 6 other characters appear more than once in the series, and none of them in more than 5 episodes (the 5 episode honour goes to Tim Barret as George’s friend Henry). The press release for the DVD of My Wife Next Door describes the guest appearance roster as ‘star studded’. There are some familiar faces in there – Diana King as Suzy’s mother, Mollie Sugden as George’s mother. William Franklyn (perhaps best remembered for a long-running Schweppes ad campaign from the 1960s and 70s), James Beck (Private Walker from Dad’s Army), Lyn Ashley (the then Mrs. Eric Idle), Valerie Leon, Neil McCarthy (Zulu, Where Eagles Dare) and Margaret Nolan (Dink from Goldfinger) – but ‘star-studded’ is a bit of a stretch.
Writing credits for My Wife Next Door go to Richard Waring, who was a regular writer for TV and penned several ‘almost hit’ sitcoms including Marriage Lines (1963-1966) and the string of Wendy Craig ‘And Mother Makes…’ and Patrick Cargill ‘Father Dear Father’ series of the mid and late seventies. Waring also gets a co-creation credit on My Wife Next Door with Brian Clemens (who sadly passed away in January 2015), who apparently came up with the original idea for the series. Television action/adventure fans will be familiar with Mr. Clemens’ work on Danger Man, The Avengers, The Persuaders, The Protectors, The New Avengers and The Professionals to name but a few, so a credit on a sitcom looks more than slightly anomalous on his CV.
Another pedigree name on the credits is composer Dennis Wilson. The instrumental theme tune for My Wife Next Door is simple and catchy in best sitcom fashion (Wilson had already composed music for more than a dozen series prior to My Wife Next Door including Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son) and he went on to compose the music for over a dozen more including Rising Damp and Fawlty Towers.
My Wife Next Door has no director credit, as was usually the case with sitcoms. Rather, overall creative control rested with the producer, and in the case of My Wife Next Door that credit went to Graeme Muir, who was a regular TV producer from the 1950s through to the mid 1980s.
‘Bittersweet’ is the word used to describe My Wife Next Door in the press material for the DVD release, but changing attitudes towards relationship and divorce over the last forty years have turned some of the comedy meat into cheese. The writing isn’t as funny or consistent as The Good Life, and there are no big surprises in the episode plots, some of which seem very familiar (‘pretending to still be a couple for the sake of a rich relative’, for instance). There’s also a repetition of the ‘starting to reconcile but ending up at each other’s throats again’ theme to the episodes, but playing the comedic value of a will-they won’t-they reconciliation for all it was worth was inevitable.
Then there’s the issue of George’s ‘Jack the lad’ sensibilities with regard to needing to ‘conquer’ his wife or any other female character he happens across. Those semi-misogynistic attitudes would have been nothing unusual for a seventies audience, but forty years on they grate badly. For George, the ultimate goal seems to be to get Suzy back into his bed, and if he can’t do that then any other woman will do, if for no reason other than to spite Suzy.
For a BBC sitcom, My Wife Next Door doesn’t display the high production values evident in the corporation’s later comedy output. The early episodes in particular look cheaply made – in episode one the shadow of both the boom mic and the sound technician holding it are visible on the wall, and the countryside outside the cottage windows and the views of London from George’s office window are impressionistic daubs on badly creased backdrops.
It’s not all bad though. The writing may not be top-drawer, but both Alderton and Gordon do a fine job with it, and Gordon’s Suzy gives as good as she gets. That, at least, goes some way to offsetting George’s objectionable behaviour and it’s refreshing to see a strong(ish) female character in a sitcom from this period. She’s George’s equal, often his superior, in pretty much all respects, including career. Both Suzy and George work in advertising doing similar jobs, but as this is 1972 we can assume that George earns twice as much for doing it. Not that George actually does any work when he’s at his office – those scenes are specifically to allow some banter with his long-suffering secretary Liz (played by Paddy Frost), the only eligible female character in the series that George isn’t trying to sleep with. Females in sitcoms were usually battleaxe mothers-in-law, housewives, secretaries, or a passing excuse for salacious leering, so Suzy was a novelty (and there was always The Benny Hill Show if you still preferred your blondes dumb and bikini-clad). Another unusual feature for a sitcom is that from around episode four onward the story becomes continuous, with each episode picking up where the previous one left off. It has to be said that it works well, and also suggests that a decision had already been made to make the first series the only series and give it a coherent middle and conclusive end.
Seventies sensibilities aside, whatever you may thing about George and Suzy as characters they’re portrayed by two actors at the top of their comedic game. That might explain why My Wife Next Door was a ratings success and beat Dad’s Army and Till Death Us Do Part for the 1973 BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy Series. When the series was re-run in its entirety in 1979 it got better viewing figures than its 1973 run, but as the 1979 run coincided with the huge ITV strike that year the only alternative viewing was BBC2 (yes folks, in 1979 there really were only three channels).
Simply Media describe their DVD release of My Wife Next Door as ‘a stunning two-disc set’. Personally I have to say I was totally underwhelmed by it. The two discs are in a standard cheap plastic DVD case (the type where at least one of the plastic centre mounts breaks off in the post and you can hear a disc rattling around loose inside the sealed case, which is what happened to my review copy). There are no insert booklets. No out-takes. No commentaries. In fact there are no extras at all. The disc menus are as basic as they possibly could be (episode selection, each episode broken into three chapters with no pictures to help identify where in the episode that chapter sits, subtitles on/off), There has been no remastering, and there’s a disappointing disclaimer at the beginning of the discs explaining that the DVD imperfections are a reflection of the quality and age of the source material and as such are inevitable. That’s particularly evident in the first episode which seems to have suffered from a ropy video transfer, but generally the rest aren’t bad for their age and perfectly watchable, though HD they are certainly not.
The success of a DVD release of a series like My Wife Next Door relies heavily on the nostalgia factor. The series has never been available in its entirety in any format since it was first broadcast (there was a limited three episode VHS video release in the 1980s) and websites and forums dedicated to British TV regularly lament the fact that My Wife Next Door has vanished without trace. For that reason alone this Simply Media DVD release will probably do well. Actually, if it does do well it will be for only that reason because it has nothing else to commend it. There was a chance here for a genuinely ‘stunning two-disc set’, with cast interviews, perhaps a commentary or two, and some tidying-up of the transfer from the original source material. For the £24.99 RRP there really should have been something other than the chance to watch a series we fondly remember – though probably don’t remember that well in truth – and be both embarrassed and amused by how we dressed in the early 1970s.
The question becomes is this dose of no-frills nostalgia worth £24.99? For many it will be, which is ironic when we’re talking about a series made in 1972, when beer was 15p a pint and a first-class stamp was 3p. 1972 was the year that the miner’s strike resulted in three weeks of scheduled power-cuts, and it was the year that marriage rates peaked in the UK. Perhaps the decline in marriage as a choice from that year onward was a response to the rising divorce rate that prompted the creation of My Wife Next Door in the first place.
1972 was also the last year a man walked on the moon, but I don’t think we can blame George and Suzy for that.
My Wife Next Door has actually stood up pretty well to forty years of progress and delivers the nostalgia hit that those of us who remember it from the first time around would have hoped for. Watching it now though it’s more apparent that it was something of a one-trick pony, and 13 episodes was about right before putting that pony out to pasture rather than flogging it into the knacker’s yard.
Simply Media’s two-disc set of My Wife Next Door is released on 19th October 2015.
Running Time 377 mins approx. RRP £24.99