Christmas Day 1980 and, after lunch, the family settled down for the Queen's speech followed by an afternoon film. On ITV that day was the big screen adaptation of a beloved British comedy, George And Mildred, making its television debut. What was I usual about this occasion however was that the broadcast occurred just five months after its cinema release, something that was unheard of at the time: films normally taking four years or more from theatrical release to reach a small screen premiere.
Like many other 1970s sitcoms, George & Mildred, the smash hit spin-off from Man About The House, was adapted for the big screen. Released in cinemas in July 1980 it was not a great success critically or commercially. One critic even called it "one of the worst films ever made in Britain... so strikingly bad, it seems to have been assembled with a genuine contempt for its audience".
But was it really that terrible?
Certainly, the film was low-budget with very few studio sets used. Most of it was shot at the Elstree Film Studios complex (used for an underground car park and a restaurant); plus some on location, either in the streets near the studios, or at 'The London Hotel' (which was actually the Copthorne Tara off Wright's Lane in Kensington).
All the same cast from the TV series were there, along with some guest stars, but as often with film versions of sitcoms, the action takes the characters away from their usual, familiar places. In this case, most of the action centres on The London Hotel, where Mildred has insisted that she and George celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary in style and regardless of cost, much to George's displeasure.
George, typically, has forgotten the anniversary, only reminded when Tristram (Nicholas Bond-Owen) tells him after overhearing Mildred and his mum Anne (Sheila Fearn) talking. George pretends he's remembered and books the original restaurant where he proposed to Mildred, but it's since changed hands and turned into a greasy spoon attracting biker gangs. Dudley Sutton plays leather-clad biker leader Jacko, who takes a shine to Mildred and is challenged to a fight by George. Dudley was well-known to title stars Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce, as they had all been together in Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in the late 1950s.
Once Mildred twigs that George had really forgotten their anniversary and the restaurant was a very last minute solution, she books a weekend package at The London Hotel - but they only have single rooms with a connecting door available. This plot device is needed later but at the time seems a bit odd, especially as Mildred wants to treat the stay as a second honeymoon. Of course, George has no objections to this other than to the price!
After a bit of physical comedy business, climbing through car windows to get out of a tight parking space in an underground car park, the thrust of the plot begins, whereby George is mistaken for a hitman who's been hired by a London criminal gang currently residing at the hotel.
The mistaken identity ruse and the separate bedrooms mean that George and Mildred don't actually spend a great deal of the film together. This is one of its flaws and probably why the public didn't connect with it in the same way they did with the TV series. A huge part of the show's charm was the chemistry between the lead stars. Joyce and Murphy had known each other for years, both in those early Theatre Workshop days and then from years co-starring in Man About The House. They were great friends in real life and had toured a stage version of their sitcom in Australia and New Zealand, where it was a massive hit and they had many devoted fans. Having large parts of the film where George and Mildred weren't on screen together meant their effortless chemistry was missing and the comedy was lacking.
Taking the action away from their home also meant we lost the class war element of the sitcom and the delightful snobbish clashes between the Ropers and Fourmiles. Without their social climbing neighbours, particularly Jeffrey (played by Norman Eshley), the film lacked the usual comic push and pull of the Ropers' relationship. Yes, The London Hotel is posh and George is like a fish out of water, but that isn't really explored because of the mistaken identity plotline.
That's not to say there aren't laughs, because there are. Mildred talking about her honeymoon - "Two solid weeks of Monopoly! The only thrill of the fortnight was when he landed on my waterworks" - is a gloriously characterful piece of dialogue. Another enjoyable exchange comes in the café, when George tries to prove their wedding anniversary meant something to him by looking for their song on a jukebox:
GEORGE: They might have a punk version by the Sox Pistols.
MILDRED: The who?
GEORGE: Yeah, or even them.
As for guest actors, well they are plentiful. Stratford Johns gives a great comic turn as Harry Pinto, the gangland boss with a range of elaborate wigs, a put-on posh voice and a penchant for Marlene, played by Sue Bond, to dress up in naughty outfits.
David Barry is Pinto's nephew and sidekick, the hapless Elvis, who first mistakes George for a trained assassin and sets the whole chain of events going.
Kenneth Cope is Harvey, working for a rival gang, who takes out most of the hotel staff in the pursuit of George, running up and down stairs in a tearing hurry and nearly giving himself a hernia in the process.
Meanwhile, Bruce Montague is a Spanish businessman who takes a shine to Mildred, but in his quest to get her up to his room becomes bored with her constant talking about her husband, as she works her way through several gins...
A large section of the comic action in the film takes place between George and Mildred's separate rooms and the reason for this device becomes clear. George has been handed an envelope with all the details of the proposed 'hit' he is meant to do and when Pinto's gang realise they have made a mistake Marlene is sent to get it back. Meanwhile, Elvis, pretending to be French, goes to visit Mildred with flowers and champagne to make sure she doesn't find out what George is (or isn't) up to. Marlene strip-searches George but leaves empty-handed; Elvis gets champagne all over his clothes and Mildred has to lay him on the bed to release his shirt, which has got caught in his flies. It's all perfectly innocent and played for laughs but does keep the stars apart.
The film ends with a car chase, with George and Mildred utterly oblivious that both gangs are now in pursuit; they dismiss the errant driving behind them as typical road hogs and the gunshots as a backfiring exhaust! Both sets of villains crash their cars and the police pick them up, with the Ropers none the wiser to the chaos they've caused.
The script, meanwhile, was by Dick Sharples, who had written for Norman Wisdom and was mostly known for the sitcom In Loving Memory, with the credits noting it is 'based on the original idea by Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke', who created and wrote the sitcom. Towards the end of what was to become their last series of George & Mildred, both stars and the writers felt new ideas for situations were lacking and Yootha Joyce had said things were getting a little stale, so bringing Dick Sharples in was meant to inject a freshness - but instead it lost much of its sparkle.
Yootha's deteriorating health didn't help matters. The cast had begun rehearsing the film late in the autumn of 1979 after returning from a major Australian tour, with filming beginning early in 1980. By this point, Yootha's now well-documented alcoholism was taking its toll and she needed brandy to combat nerves, backache and heartache. During principal photography she was drinking at least half a bottle of brandy a day, with her dresser often dispatched to fetch it and hide it on set for her.
Actors Dudley Sutton and David Barry have both spoken about how Yootha was drunk on the set and although Sutton said it was sad to see her that way, Barry remarked that she was always professional even though she had clearly been drinking as early as 8 o'clock in the morning.
The last frame of the film shows Mildred climbing the stairs to bed after George has finally given her a little bit of hope for some romance. As 'The End' comes up on the screen it is closely followed by 'Or is it the beginning?' and Mildred winks at the camera. Unfortunately, this was the end for George and Mildred.
Yootha's health had been fading rapidly and she died on 24th August 1980, just a month after the film's release. It added more than a tinge of melancholy to proceedings: George and Mildred were always a pair, a double act, and now promoting the film just wasn't going to be possible - another reason for its lack of commercial success.
Brian Murphy was with Yootha at the end. He had gone to visit his mum in hospital so stopped in to see Yootha too. She slipped into a coma while he was there and died. It was a terrible shock for Brian but it seems fitting that the pair - husband and wife to millions of viewers across the world, and close friends in real life - were together at the end.
The George And Mildred film is probably not how either actor would like to be remembered. Certainly, there's greater quality and more laughs in the TV series, but it's not a bad watch and not as terrible as the critics at the time suggest. It will always remind me of Christmas Day in 1980, settling down after dinner to watch those well-loved, familiar characters and two great actors and friends making us laugh.
George and Mildred are the ultimate odd couple, the popular landlord and landlady from Man About The House who became household names with Thames Television in the 1970s. Mildred is vain, snobbish and domineering; George is shy, timid, frigid and henpecked. Together they make a great partnership!
In this movie outing Mildred is still trying to steer him towards romance; hopefully a holiday alone will restart their relationship.
First released: Monday 17th February 2003
Not in the UK?
If you are in the North America, look out for US/Canadian flag icons on popular product listings for direct links.
If you order from a UK store, please note that the UK is in Region 2 and B, respectively, for DVDs and Blu-rays - check your player's compatibility, or look for multi-region products if you are located in another region.
If you are in Australia or New Zealand (DVD Region 4), note that almost all DVDs distributed in the UK by the BBC and 2entertain are encoded for both Region 2 and Region 4. The UK and Australasia are in the same Blu-ray region (B).