In November 1988 a new comedy series started on BBC Radio 4. Second Thoughts was the brainchild of journalists Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie, who had embarked on their journey into a second marriage together after meeting when they both worked for She magazine. The show went on to have four series on BBC Radio 4 and five series on LWT, with the last series especially written for television and not adapted from the original radio series.
Second Thoughts tells the story of Faith and Bill, two middle-aged divorcees trying to make a relationship work the second time around. It had a stellar cast, with Lynda Bellingham, James Bolam, Belinda Lang and Julia Sawalha amongst those involved. On TV, it was a more traditional studio sitcom but with quick-fire, sparkling, witty dialogue in real-life situations.
From the beginning, the writers believed that real life is funnier than anything you can invent, and the dialogue had to reflect that. They loved the shorthand that couples use when they have been together a long time and how real conversations in families can be genuinely funny without having to signpost 'jokes' throughout the script. Neither had been great fans of alternative comedy and thought that most of the stuff they saw in the 1980s was terrible. Surely they could do better than this? And when they heard a BBC commissioning editor say "I'm going to sound the death knell to 'net curtain comedy', no couches, no French windows..." it was a red rag to a bull and they were determined to prove him wrong.
"Some of the best comedy that has ever been is what you would call 'middle-class comedy'." said Jan. "Shows like Ever Decreasing Circles and The Good Life, establish families and characters that people know. So we shamelessly wrote pre-watershed comedy with no swearing that everybody could watch."
Jan had written a piece for The Times about second marriages and she and Gavin thought there could be something in that, as an idea for a sitcom. Gavin was, in Jan's words, a 'sophisticated bachelor', whereas Jan had teenage children and dogs to look after. Gavin had never had to deal with the trials of family life so they said 'let's write about what's happening to us', and based Second Thoughts on their relationship.
The first thing to do was get a leading lady on board, so they took Lynda Bellingham out to lunch and told her they'd written something for her. They had seen her as the mum in the OXO commercials and had never before felt that heady mixture of 'earth mother and vamp' in an actor. They knew her natural comic timing was perfect for the role and Lynda loved the scripts.
After winning a Radio Times 'Sounds Funny' competition in 1987 with a script called Two For The Show, which had been judged by Victoria Wood, Prunella Scales and Douglas Adams, they came to the attention of radio producer Pete Atkin. With Lynda on board, they sent him the Second Thoughts scripts and he liked them better than Two For The Show, so commissioned a series. Jan noted he had an amazing knack for making you feel like you were the greatest scriptwriters in the world and it was only when they got home they realised he'd asked them to restructure the whole thing and introduce a new character - Bill's ex-wife, played by Belinda Lang (who they had seen in some Noel Coward plays and thought her grand and glamorous persona would be ideal for the part of Liza).
Three more successful radio series followed and just before the run finished on radio the idea of transferring Second Thoughts to TV was muted. The BBC head of comedy at the time, Gareth Gwenlan, loved the radio series but believed that was where it belonged, on radio, and he didn't want to adapt it for television. Gavin was the features editor at TV Times magazine and Jan was a freelance writer for them so they were often invited to ITV press launch evenings. It was at one of these evenings LWT's Director of Programmes Greg Dyke approached the couple and told them he'd been listening to the Radio 4 series. 'Send me the tapes of the shows' he said 'so I can have another listen', and he commissioned a series of six there and then.
This Radio 4 to ITV commissioning path was not as unusual as it sounds. Up The Garden Path and After Henry were amongst the other Radio 4 series taken up by ITV in the early to mid-1990s to develop into TV sitcoms.
In 1991 the first TV version of Second Thoughts came to our screens bringing the original cast members with it, including Julia Sawalha as Faith's daughter Hannah, which she played on the radio version but was previously played by Kelda Holmes and Emma Gregory.
Jan and Gavin were always present at rehearsals and recordings, considering it a bonus to be there, and a reward for all their hard work. They also confessed to being absolute control freaks too, so being on hand as their scripts were being played out suited them. But moving to television meant that fewer words were needed. Now they could show us, not just tell us, what was happening and they could adapt some situations to be more visual to bring out the comedy.
Jan described Lynda Bellingham as a natural clown who didn't mind what they did to her, including falling backwards over sofas, hiding in cupboards dressed as a French maid or kicking James Bolam in the shins as they fought to answer the door to dinner party guests. Some scenes just didn't transfer though. In the Radio 4 series Bill proposes to Faith whilst they are in the bath together, and although Jan and Gavin were sure Lynda would have been game, the scene was deemed too risky for television and had to be changed.
It's interesting to think about setting the show in context. Even for the late 80s and early 90s it was considered 'racy' for the time. In the radio series, there was a scene with Bill and Faith talking about having sex and, at this point in the story, they weren't married to each other. A woman wrote a letter of complaint to Radio 4 saying that she 'didn't want sex on my radio at 6.30 in the evening'. It was all Jan could do to stop Lynda from replying to the disgruntled listener asking her exactly what time she would like sex on the radio!
Much of the show's success was down to its realism, with Bill and Faith grappling with life's everyday demands and being honest about trying to have a sex life when there are teenagers in the house and the dog won't get off the bed.
The dog was a star in his own right and got more fan mail than any other cast member. Defor the dog was played by Jan and Gavin's own English Setter, Levi. Originally the part was going to be played by Lynda Bellingham's dog but he was too intelligent for the part, barking at sound effects like doorbells and fetching things rather than lying around in the way.
Levi, as Defor, caused some of the funniest moments on set, off camera. When he was lounging on the bed with his tail wagging under the covers, it made it look extremely rude, and when the camera crew had to recoil from a close-up shot because he'd broken wind. One of Jan's favourites was when James Bolam and Levi had a scene at the top of the stairs, after - once again - the dog's presence on the bed was hampering romance. James had the line 'I know she's your mistress but she's my mistress too and I'd like to spend a quiet evening with her'. Levi yawned at this right on cue, which resulted in James Bolam corpsing and them having to shoot the scene again.
Second Thoughts was a show full of warmth and charm, which not only came from the writing but also from the lead actors. Lynda Bellingham was, as Jan and Gavin had identified, very much an earth mother and on the first day of recording the radio series in 1988, Lynda, who had recently had a baby, arrived with her infant son on her hip and croissants and coffee for everyone. James Bolam said he couldn't believe she'd brought food for everyone and was even more in awe when she proceeded to put the baby down for a nap and deliver a fantastic performance. This was a mark of the genuine affection there was between the cast, but also admiration too, with Bolam saying he'd never had to work so hard to keep up with a co-star as he had with Lynda.
A favourite scene that displays that warmth but also Lynda's willingness to put herself physically in any situation is when Bill arrives home, having had a lift from ex-wife Liza who invites herself in to meet Faith. Faith and Bill are now married yet his now wife and ex-wife have still never met. The house seems empty and Bill, eventually, carefully manoeuvres Liza out of the house but not before she has criticised the decor, their lifestyle and Faith's illustrations. Once Liza leaves, Faith bursts from the downstairs cupboard dressed in an archetypal French maid outfit, carrying a tray of champagne and brandishing a feather duster. She then proceeds to indignantly strut into the lounge and lose her temper after what she's heard whilst hiding away in the cupboard. It's a masterpiece of comedy both physical and verbal with Bill's reaction of falling about laughing in direct contrast to Faith's anger, leading her to exclaim 'What the hell are you laughing at?'. The audience loved it too, with Faith's entrance in the outfit getting a huge laugh. It's witty yet silly and incredibly funny.
Another brilliant scene that demonstrates the physicality of the comedy, and reportedly a favourite of the great Denis Norden, is when Faith and Bill fight to open the door to dinner party guests after a hot saucepan has been dropped on the kitchen floor, and the meal is ruined. The ensuing petulant fight through the hallway with feet being stamped on and insults traded is a chaotic cacophony of shouting, doorbells ringing and other members of the household chipping in their thoughts. The overly cheery 'hello' when the door is finally opened with sickly smiles gets the biggest roar from the audience.
This is family life, warts and all, and the course of true love runs anything but smoothly. By the time we reach Series 5, Bill and Faith have married, split up and got back together again. The series ends on a dramatic cliffhanger with Liza having given birth to a baby and unwilling to disclose who the father is. Faith and Liza have finally met and the last line belongs to Faith who says how much the baby resembles Bill.
Second Thoughts will be remembered primarily as a comedy tour-de-force for Lynda Bellingham in a role especially crafted for her but also as an ensemble piece with a fantastic cast who all went on to achieve more comedy success in their careers. It was also a shining example of a studio sitcom that not only worked well but was rooted in the truth of the ups and downs of relationships and family life, whilst being quick-witted, sharp and funny.
Did Jan and Gavin succeed in proving that BBC executive wrong who said the sitting room sitcom was dead? We very much think they did.
Where to start?
Series 2, Episode 11 - Come As You Were
Bill and Faith have been invited to a fancy dress party at the office but disaster looms when Faith and Bill's ex wife Liza are wearing the same outfit.
Although this is not the start of a series, what it does show is the great chemistry between Lynda Bellingham and James Bolam as well as that witty quick-fire dialogue from supporting cast Belinda Lang and Geoffrey Whitehead. It's a great example of the humour throughout the series and gives you a real flavour of the show.
Starring Lynda Bellingham and James Bolam, Second Thoughts explores love and marriage the second time around, and reveals that falling in love in middle age is not the easiest of experiences when interfering teenagers, exes and mortgage payments all have a way of killing romance!
Winning a Silver Medal at New York's International Film and TV Festival and running for five successful series, this bittersweet sitcom (based on the original BBC Radio 4 series) was inspired by the marriage of the series writers, Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie.
When divorcees Faith and Bill move in together, they hope to find love and companionship the second time around, and across the course of five series their relationship blossoms. But things are frequently complicated by Faith's children, Joe and Hannah, and by Bill's scheming ex-wife, Liza.
First released: Monday 8th December 2014
- Distributor: Network
- Region: 2
- Discs: 7
- Catalogue: 7954297
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