If one had to single out an off-screen sitcom relationship as the most strained and bitter of them all, then it would not be that between the usual culprits: other uneasy unions certainly had their big and bleak moments of conflict and crisis, but they still pale in comparison to the chronic negativity of the partnership that was, and will probably always remain, the most toxic in the whole of British sitcom history: that between Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel in Nearest And Dearest.
The story of this most fierce of feuds goes back to 1968, when Baker and Jewel were brought together for a new ITV sitcom set in Colne, Lancashire, about two squabbling middle-aged siblings, Eli and Nellie Pledge, who between them have been left to run their late father's small pickle business, Pledge's Purer Pickles. Much of the on-screen comic tension would come from the fact that, while Eli is an irresponsible and unreliable layabout who is only really interested in drinking and chasing women, Nellie is a conscientious and hard-working fusspot who struggles to keep the business afloat more or less singlehandedly.
The sitcom, which was made by Granada TV and recorded in Manchester, was originally conceived by the writers, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, as a starring vehicle for their good friend Jewel, whom they had known since the 1950s.
Yorkshire-born Jewel, an intelligent and technically gifted comedian, had been in show business since 1925, first as a solo act in the music halls mainly playing baggy-panted fools, then as part of a thirty-two-year partnership with his cousin Ben Warriss (preceding Morecambe & Wise as the first major northern double act to get their own series on British radio and television), and then, more recently, as a lugubrious character actor in dramas as well as comedies.
Lancashire-born Baker, whose role in the sitcom was initially written merely as a supporting character, had been performing since she was ten, and had gradually made her name in the north for her inspired persona of a small but spirited woman (prone to such malapropisms as 'I've had lessons in electrocution, you know' and 'I can say this without fear of contraception'). She would usually appear on stage dwarfed alongside a tall, silent, blank-faced companion called 'Big Cynthia' (actually a man in drag) to whom she would bid to communicate via such one-sided conversations as: 'Where were you, eh? I bet you were sat sitting somewhere, supping! What did I tell you this morning? I told you to be soon, didn't I? Be sooooon, I said! Be sooooooon!'
True to sitcom tradition, in terms of their personalities, these actors were very different characters. Jewel was a tall and skinny man, with a near-constant rheumy-eyed hangdog expression, who was so notorious for looking miserable that even Tony Hancock once told him to cheer up. A down-to-earth and somewhat cautious person, haunted by the memory of past financial and professional setbacks, he was usually quite calm and reserved, but, when provoked, had an explosive temper: it once caused him to hold a knife to the throat of Irish tenor Josef Locke and threaten to cut his head off unless the singer stopped hitting other members of a Blackpool summer show.
The four-foot ten inch Baker, on the other hand, 'stood standing' in tiny size 2 shoes, was a genuine eccentric: a smart, bubbly but rather lonely and insecure woman who loved to adorn herself in expensive furs; be transported in huge chauffeur-driven cars; host large and noisy parties in her Cleveleys home; and have affairs with much younger men (some of whom, apart from accepting these so-called 'extra duties', worked with her as her 'Cynthia'). She liked to relax by playing billiards and golf, and for many years travelled everywhere with a malodorous pair of pet Brazilian capuchin monkeys called Mickey and Co-Co, whom she dressed in matching jackets, described as her 'little men', and allowed to wreak havoc behind the scenes whenever she left them alone to go on stage.
Having suffered two ectopic pregnancies in her twenties, she had been desperate to adopt children, but - mainly because of her peripatetic profession - had to settle for her monkeys, two Chihuahuas called Cha-Cha and Bella, and a dachshund named Shitsie Mitzi. She was also deeply superstitious, and, like many performers of her generation, considered the colour green to be such bad luck ('Never wear green,' she would always say. 'After green comes black') that she could not even bear to have a green-coloured prop on a set.
When Jewel and Baker first met, knowing all about each other's long careers, there was a good measure of mutual respect. Baker, at this time, was sixty-three, and Jewel fifty-nine, and both of them had experienced enough lows, as well as highs, in their lives to see this sitcom, with its potential to provide them with a long period of financial security, as something to embrace. They therefore began the read-through of the first script in very positive and pleasant moods, laughing at each other's lines and generally appearing relaxed and happy in each other's company. That, however, would be one of the last times that it happened.
It was mid-way through the rehearsal of the third episode when their relationship suddenly, and irretrievably, collapsed. They were working on a scene in which Nellie was busy with stock-taking in the pickle factory, while the workshy Eli stayed in bed pretending to be ill. Set in his bedroom, Nellie would keep coming in to check on him, narrowly missing him sneaking a puff on his cigarette or a swig from his drink, and then rush back out again. As a sharp-eyed comic performer, however, she realised that Jewel would be on camera far more often than she would, free to indulge in all sorts of visual comic business and thus get most of the laughs, so she stopped halfway through the session and complained: 'Just a minute, I'm in and out of this scene like a fart in a colander!'
Jewel was furious. This was just one scene, he thought, and a rare chance for him to shine on his own, and now she was demanding that it be altered so that she could take some of the laughs away from him. From that moment on, Jimmy Jewel hated Hylda Baker.
Things went from bad to worse during the first studio recording, in front of an audience, when, in the final scene, Baker suddenly realised that the final tag line was Jewel's, and as a result he would get the glory of the last laugh of the night. She responded by stepping up to the cameras, raising her hand, and, ignoring both Jewel and the puzzled studio audience, summoned the writers backstage with her. She did not re-emerge until they had re-written the end so that she shared the pay-off with her co-star.
It was actually one of the few things that they had in common that helped drive them so quickly apart. Both of them had worked hard to establish themselves as solo stars after struggling to shake off their past associations with partners - Baker with her long succession of 'Cynthia's, and Jewel with Ben Warriss - and yet here they were, in the process of being 'demoted' back to being part of a double act, and they would always resent it. Jewel, in particular, could not quite believe how swiftly his so-called starring vehicle had been transformed by this small ball of self-belief into a sitcom made for two.
It also did not help that the two of them together, by disposition, seemed to embody their very own War of the Roses. Baker was a typical Lancastrian in that she was an outgoing, engaging, quick-witted presence who was accustomed to using humour as a kind of handshake. Jewel, in contrast, was a stereotypical Yorkshireman in the sense that he was an introverted, somewhat aloof, slow-burningly droll character who treated humour more as a weapon or a shield to keep outsiders at bay. As they battled for dominance in each episode, therefore, their attitudes only exacerbated their alienation from each other.
It was fortunate for the sitcom that their on-screen relationship, while never as bad as it was behind the scenes, involved plenty of bickering, so the antipathy between the actors simply spread organically to the characters. Nellie would regularly dismiss Eli as a 'big girl's blouse', while he would frequently call her a 'knock-kneed knackered old nosebag', and every episode drew them into plenty of spiteful dialogue, usually at close quarters, face to face, with looks of contempt sliding back and forth like a hot fritter on a greasy skillet.
With the battle lines now drawn on and off the screen, there was a grim inevitability about how each day would unfold. Rehearsals started out as tetchy affairs, and then became progressively more unpleasant as Baker attempted to weave aspects of her old stage act into certain scenes, and encourage the writers to make her trademark catchphrases (such as 'Oooh, I must get a little hand put on this watch!') and malapropisms (such as 'I'm not menthol, and I am not suffering from illuminations!') a far more prominent part of her character, while Jewel repeatedly exploded in anger at the many liberties he felt she was taking.
Studio recordings, meanwhile, grew more and more competitive, with each actor trying every little trick to undermine the other and win some extra laughs at their expense. Baker, for example, would cope with finding herself on the periphery of a shot by inventing bits of visual comic business to distract the viewer and steal the scene. 'Has that woman been at it behind my back again?' Jewel would ask once he realised that there had been unexpected laughs.
Jewel would respond in kind. On one such occasion, there was a scene in which Eli was supposed to come in with two portions of fish and chips (wrapped-up separately in newspaper) and Nellie had to say some lines that contained so many complicated malapropisms that they had needed to be written out for Baker on the inside of her chip paper. When Jewel did come in, however, he smacked down her package as planned, only for Baker to open it and find that the lines were no longer there. Jewel, sitting down with the package he had switched, then simply stared at her gleefully and watched the mixture of anger and panic rise up in her eyes. She reacted by marching over to his side of the table, smacking down her package hard on the table in front of him, grabbing his package, and then shouted: 'Wrong fish and chips!' It made no sense to the audience, but it (sort of) saved the scene, and raised the stakes even higher as the private war between them raged on.
The growing success of the show, perversely, served only to crank up this conflict with the commissioning of each subsequent series. As a regular ratings winner, ITV kept bringing the sitcom back, and in doing so kept plunging Baker and Jewel into increasingly bitter reunions.
The opportunities for unfriendly fire between the two of them were further multiplied when, somewhat recklessly, the decision was made to produce a stage version of the sitcom for a summer season in Blackpool. Even though the idea of trapping the two stars together, in the same place and stage for one entire summer, must have struck those who knew them as a recipe for disaster, the sheer commercial appeal of the show somehow managed to make the producers think that the gamble was worth the risk.
Booked to begin shortly after the fourth series had aired in 1970, the Nearest And Dearest stage show commenced with a try-out week in Bristol before transferring to Blackpool to start the season proper. Eager to check on the progress of the preparations, one of the writers, Vince Powell, drove down to Bristol on the day before the opening night to visit the team at the theatre. When he arrived, he was startled to find Hylda Baker outside on the pavement by the stage door, perched precariously on a chair with a measuring tape in her hand, assessing whether the 'H' in 'Hylda' was a fraction higher or lower than the 'J' in 'Jimmy'. Noticing Powell's presence, she shouted down at him, 'I'm making sure my billing's right!' The writer, with a shiver of trepidation, nodded politely and then ventured inside.
A little later, the show's director took him to one side and broached the thorny subject of who, in keeping with tradition, should give the speech on behalf of the company at the curtain call. Between them, they decided that the best way to keep the internal politics 'pacific' would be for Jimmy Jewel to start the speech and then Hylda Baker to finish it. They then realised, with a heavy sigh, that they would have to get both stars to agree to this proposal.
Visiting Baker first in her dressing room, the two men entered all smiles and then said brightly, 'Now, about the curtain speech...' Baker's ears pricked up: 'Yes?' she said warily. 'Well, we thought Jimmy should start it...' Before they could say anything more, Baker jumped up and snapped: 'This is not a blooming double act! I do the curtain speech. I am the star of the show!' The director and writer backed hurriedly out of her dressing-room as if they had suddenly spotted a live tiger lurking under the make-up table.
Jewel's dressing-room, unfortunately for them, was directly next door, and, as the walls were so thin, he had, 'sat sitting there', overheard every word. As soon as they opened the door, therefore, he got up and barked at them: 'If she does the curtain speech, I'm on the next train back to London!' Once again, the hapless duo backed quickly out of the doorway as if they had been strapped to a piece of elastic.
Huddled together in the comparative security of the director's office, they had a stiff drink to steady their nerves and then discussed what they should do next. After a few minutes of talking and twitching, they concluded, in cowardly fashion, to leave the two stars to it and simply see what happened.
The following night, the show opened, received plenty of laughs, and, at the end, much to the team's surprise and relief, Jewel began the curtain speech, saying kind words about Baker, and then Baker concluded it, saying kind words about Jewel. As if this was not astonishing enough, Jewel then sought out Baker after the show and said, 'Look, Hylda, we've got twenty-six weeks ahead of us in Blackpool, we should try to be friends. We're working twice nightly.' Baker, equally incredibly, responded in the same spirit: 'Oh, well, I'm willing if you are. Would you like to come and have supper with me tonight at my hotel? In fact, everybody is invited.'
It seemed as though peace, at long last, had broken out between them, but, alas, it proved to be painfully short-lived. As everyone sat around the large dinner table, the party was going well until Baker's agent opined: 'Do you know, Hylda, this play is going to be a very big hit.' An already somewhat tipsy Baker replied tactlessly: 'Yes, well, it's all due to me re-writing most of it, isn't it?' Jewel, his face suddenly flushed red with anger, looked over to her and snarled, 'You wicked bitch!' - to which she responded by throwing a bread roll at his face. Jewel promptly leapt up from the table, shouting, 'I am not staying in the company of this woman', and stormed out of the room, with Baker hurling several more bread rolls, along with quite a few swear words, at his back.
The war was back on, and, from this moment on, it would never end.
The first shots after the resumption of hostilities were fired by Baker. Making sure that she was the first to arrive in Blackpool, she marched up to the Grand Theatre in Church Street, where the summer season was going to be based, and promptly 'bagged' the number one 'star' dressing room. Then Jewel turned up, discovered what had happened, and protested furiously that he was as much the star of the show as she was, and therefore he deserved the number one dressing room just as much as she did. There was, of course, no possibility of them sharing it, and so this initial skirmish was only resolved when the entertainments manager came up with the bright idea of creating two identical 'number one' dressing rooms so that neither of them could complain.
Nothing could be done, however, to mend the co-stars' broken bond. They never looked at, let alone spoke to, each other during rehearsals; they ate in separate canteens; they shunned any other cast members whom they suspected of siding with the other; and they became obsessed with trying to sabotage each other's performances.
Jewel, it has to be said, was now even worse-behaved than Baker was when they were together on stage. While she resorted to her usual scene-stealing tricks, he became far crueller in his cunning. He would, for example, take a step back behind her when she was speaking and start doing old music hall tricks with his cigarette to spark the audience laughing and thus drown out her dialogue. On those occasions when she forgot or fluffed a line, instead of ignoring it and carrying on, he would stop, walk forward to the footlights, and say triumphantly to the audience, 'She's forgotten her lines again, she can't remember anything, this woman!' and then walk back and pick up on where he left off.
It was a brutal experience from start to finish, with the pair of them wasting their inventiveness on attacking each other instead of using it to improve their play. As the Blackpool season continued, the pettiness of their behaviour grew worse, with both of them introducing unexpected lines and physical bits of business to baffle, anger and unnerve each other, sometimes to the extent that whole scenes collapsed in chaos. So intense was the mutual hatred by this stage that, on one occasion, Baker furtively kicked Jewel hard on the shin after he had attempted yet again to openly mock her, and on another night she even spat in his face.
In spite of it all, the summer season (dubbed a 'box-office bulldozer' for its record-breaking ticket sales) actually attracted very warm and positive reviews, with many of their on-stage pranks and attacks on each other simply being accepted as part of the script. The actors thus emerged at the end of it battered and bruised but now obliged to go straight back into the studio to film yet another series for television.
If the atmosphere had been chilly before, it was now positively arctic. They would flatly refuse to look at or speak to each other except while recording a scene, and would only deign to communicate with each other if it was absolutely necessary, and even then only via a third party ('Will you tell Miss Baker...'; 'You can tell Mr Jewel...').
Every day in rehearsal was almost unbearably miserable for the rest of the cast and the crew, who not only had to stand around and witness the deeply unprofessional behaviour but also take great care not to be seen to be taking sides and thus risk provoking one of them to walk out. Hiding just enough of their mutual hatred to keep the comedy coming, the co-stars made it through to the last episode, and then rushed on with relief to other projects - which included playing a summer season in Blackpool again, but this time, mercifully, in separate shows at separate theatres.
When Granada announced plans for a sixth series, however, it unwittingly pushed the off-screen problems out into the public realm, because both stars reacted with such horror to the prospect of another enforced reunion that they started speaking out about their long-running antipathy towards each other. The Sunday Express, for example, not only reported the news that Baker was in the process of urging the producers to replace Jewel with the more avuncular comic actor Ken Platt, but also quoted her as saying, 'In my opinion Jimmy Jewel never co-starred with me in the series. He has been second feature always. I would not like to say whether I would do another series with him or not. I am the star. [...] Ken Platt is in the stage show with me at the moment because I refused to play with Mr Jewel. I was unhappy, and I just want to be happy in my work. Mr Platt is very good in the part and I would be happy to make a series with him.'
Jewel, however, knew that he needed to make the next series because he was again struggling financially, and so, fighting hard against the temptation to reply in kind, he lied through his gritted teeth to reporters, saying of Baker only one polite sentence: 'I got on well with her.'
By January 1972, however, Granada made it clear to Baker that she would have no choice but to act again with Jewel if she wanted the sitcom to continue, and so, with huge reluctance, she agreed to the reunion. It would turn out to be, to no one's surprise, an even more torrid experience than before.
There was one added - or at least greatly exacerbated - problem this time around. Baker's struggle to remember her lines had grown significantly worse. It may have been, in fact, an early symptom of the gradual mental decline that, about ten years later, would be formally diagnosed as a form of dementia, but she was definitely finding it depressingly difficult now to commit any portion of a script to memory.
The consequence was that, as Jewel raged at the slow pace of rehearsals and the frequent need for re-shoots in the studio, the director decided to help Baker by scattering cue cards all over the set just out of shot. When they needed to film the exterior scenes out on location, more ingenious means were required, and her lines were duly reproduced in huge letters on billboards, hung on hedges and even stuck on the side of a furniture van parked on the other side of the street.
Jewel, deeply embittered to still be entrenched in such an environment, would quietly seethe as, in spite of these clandestine cues, she continued to 'dry' on some occasions or else mix up the order of her words (as well as continue with all of the old scene-stealing strategies). Apoplectic after each shambolic studio session, Jewel, his face looking like thunder, would storm off the set, slamming doors and swearing profusely about how intolerable it was to have to keep working with such an 'unprofessional', 'self-centred' and 'mad' comic actor. Baker, in turn, would look around at the crew, mutter 'Oh, that man!' and pretend to be blissfully ignorant of the reason for his rants.
The sitcom, none the less, was still regularly topping the ratings for ITV with around 7-8m viewers each week, and so, once the series was over, it was decided (tapping into the trend for transferring TV hits to the cinema) to make a movie version of the show. Dazzled by the inflated fees and the perceived higher status of the big screen format, neither Baker nor Jewel, in spite of their hatred of each other, hesitated to sign up.
The stocky, straight-faced, veal-cheeked actor Norman Mitchell was cast in the improbable role of Nellie's lover, Vernon Smallpiece, and it was only seconds after he stepped on to the set that he realised how tense the shoot was going to be. 'Hello, Miss Baker,' he said, 'it's lovely to meet you.' She wrinkled her nose, looked up at him quizzically, and replied, 'Have you met him?' Mitchell asked who she meant. 'Jimmy flaming Jewel!' she shouted. He said that he had not yet had the pleasure. 'Well,' she snarled, 'you've got a big treat coming,' and marched off.
He soon did meet Jewel, only to have a depressingly similar conversation. 'Have you met her?' muttered the actor. 'Yes,' said Mitchell, 'we did a scene together this morning'. Jewel stared at him glumly. 'Did she kill your laughs?' Mitchell replied in the negative. 'Well,' said Jewel, almost looking disappointed, 'she blooming well will do!' and then he, too, marched off.
Mitchell, in fact, was sufficiently diplomatic to get on well with both stars, and as a result he played a pivotal part in keeping the production stable and on schedule, even though he and the rest of the supporting cast still had to endure the endless awkward exchanges between the stars that had to be relayed via the director, John Robins: 'John, will you tell Miss Hylda Baker it's time she learnt her flaming lines?' 'You tell Mr smart-arse Jimmy Jewel to get on with his own dialogue, and I'll get on with mine in my own way!'
For once the production company, Hammer, hid the horror, and, when the movie was released, it was received (at least by some critics) like an agreeably cheeky seaside postcard. Judged 'hilarious' and 'great fun' by its most enthusiastic followers, it would do reasonably good business at the box office, and showed that, even now, the 'brand' was fairly buoyant.
Granada then announced plans for a seventh series, set to start its run at the end of the year, but added that this one would be the last. Jewel had agreed a deal that would take him to Thames TV once it was over, where he had been promised several opportunities in dramatic productions, as well as his own sitcom - and absolutely no contact with Hylda Baker. Baker, in turn, had been contacted by producers at London Weekend Television, who had plans to develop a new sitcom for her called Not On Your Nellie. The poisonous relationship was almost at end. The longed-for divorce was finally in sight.
Both of them, therefore, braced themselves and began the seventh round of their now not-so-secret war of wills, battling against each other just as bitterly as before, from the first episode to the last. Once it was all done, with the final show screened on 7 February 1973, Baker threw an end-of-series party at Manchester's Midland Hotel, but hardly anyone came; the strain of it all had left the whole of the cast and crew feeling too drained to even celebrate the fact that it had finished.
Both of the co-stars then spoke to the press, each in their own inimitably 'diplomatic' way, to underline the fact that it really was now over. 'Nobody is indispensable,' said Jewel, dripping with sarcasm, 'and they could still continue the series without me if they wanted. After all, they have Hylda Baker, and she's a funny woman...a very funny woman'. Baker replied in kind, saying: 'Jimmy and I have never had a row, we never even had a quarrel, because he just didn't speak to me!'
Jimmy Jewel's wife, Belle, however, proved rather more candid, remarking to reporters about his new deal: 'I can't begin to tell you how relieved and happy we are about it all. Working on Nearest And Dearest was turning Jimmy into a nervous wreck.'
Now that all of Baker and Jewel's shared obligations were well and truly over, they walked away from each other without uttering a single word, and never saw or spoke to each other ever again. British sitcom's most wretched relationship - after five long and painful years, seven series, a feature film and a stage production - was finally finished.