Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chance would be a fine thing

I've just finished a review for the Oldie of the soon-come DVD of Chance in a Million series 1. For the uninitiated, it was a sublime yet subtle send-up of sitcom conventions, starring the splendid Simon Callow as a man plagued by coincidences and Brenda Blethyn as his loyal librarian girlfriend. Subtle? Yes, for all of its satirical intent, it could also just about be taken on face value as a pure sitcom, and probably was by many viewers when ITV repeated it a few months after it had premiered on Channel 4. At one point in the first series, it was 4's 4th most popular programme, its 3.1 million viewers putting it just behind International Snooker and the two mid-week editions of Brookside. My 11-year-old self adored it from the first bar of the theme tune, a Ronnie 'Two Pianos' Aldrich arrangement of 'Taking a Chance On Love', and my 36-year-old self adores it no less. I'm still trying to work out which I love more out of Ms Blethyn or the character she plays, an outwardly timorous yet seethingly passionate specimen of womanhood. When I first met young Masterton in a radio dungeon beneath the Psychology department at Lancaster nearly 20 years ago, a shared love of the series was one of the things that sealed our friendship. Anyway, it's great to have it on a shiny disc (to say nothing of the untransmitted pilot version of episode 1 'Plumstones'), even if the ad break captions are missing. It's a small point, but the jump cuts from part 1 to part 2 really jar with me. Even though I've watched it all many times, one line still made me guffaw earlier. Playing a paratrooper on a treasure hunt, the late Jeremy Sinden remarks on the extreme unlikelihood of finding the requested nude picture of Shirley Williams that "I know one of the lads is prepared to give it a go with chloroform and a Polaroid". Maybe it's the rhythm, maybe it's the choice of words (hats off to Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen for the gleeful scripts), maybe it's the image. Maybe it's all of the above. Certainly it's funny.


JM said...

It is also an amazingly subtle joke that the audience can "get" in two different ways according to their knowledge of the situation.

On the one hand it is a ludicrous construct, the mere thought that a naked picture of a then high ranking politician would be something a soldier would stumble across on a treasure hunt and the fact that his colleagues are actively putting their minds to how they might obtain one is amusing to the casual audience.

However Norris and Fegen are assuming that a portion of the audience will know the fun trivia fact that Shirley Williams was Vera Brittain's daughter and that she does indeed appear naked as a tiny baby in the photographic leaves of 'Testament of Experience'. It is entirely in keeping with Tom Chance's character that he happens to own a copy for exactly the moment when it is needed the most.

JM said...

Or maybe to overthink it some more, consider the worrying clash of cultures that has resulted from the treasure hunt. The authors of the exercise have inserted that particular task to require the participants to use some lateral thinking and visit their local library. Instead with one throwaway line we conjure up the image of the soldiers moving along the path of kidnap and assault as an apparently legitimate method of completing the task.

Louis Barfe said...

That's the joy of this series. It works as a straight sitcom, but also works on so many other levels as well, some of them quite possibly unintended by Norriss and Fegen. By jingo I'm looking forward to seeing series 2 and 3 again without having to squint through the multi-gen VHS artifacts and several layers of digital recompression.

Matthew Rudd said...

My favourite episode involved Tom Chance winning every prize in a raffle, and looking ever slightly more sheepish and embarrassed as he declared his ownership of each ticket.