Happy Families was Ben Elton's second sitcom for the Beeb (the first was The Young Ones) and marked his first solo scriptwriting effort. It was broadcast on BBC1 in October and November 1985, repeated a bit later, but has since disappeared.
Back in 1985, The Radio Times was of course plugging this as a follow-up to The Young Ones (hoorah!) but most of the cast from that sitcom only appear once. It's far more a party for the lovely Jennifer Saunders and her future spouse Ade Edmondson.
Ade plays Guy Fuddle, a clumsy oik whose only merit is to make Father Ted's Dougal look like Einstein. It does makes a nice change from his usual vodka-swilling-axe-wielding maniac persona, though he does fluff it a bit by blue-printing Rik Mayall right down to the mispronounced 'r's. More impressive is Saunders, playing Grandma Fuddle - a total and utter cow - and her four - yes four - grandchildren (i.e. Guy's long-lost sisters).
So what's it about? Well it's a kind of sarcastic, witty parody of Kind Hearts And Coronets... without the coronets. In the first episode Grandma realises she's about to pop her proverbial cork and while nobody except Guy's gonna be too upset about this, it does move her to demand that Guy reunites her four grand daughters (there's a more fundamental, more wicked reason, but I don't wanna spoil it for you).
In the meantime, we are introduced to a dazzling an array of characters as you could ever hope to find in a sitcom... Fry & Laurie as two incompetent doctors completely baffled by the fair sex (Laurie: "I said Funbundle your mother can tell you more about your body's wonderful secrets than I. She became hysterical and blamed everything on her periods..." Fry: "Her what? Must've missed that out when I was at medical college"). Dawn French as a lusty rustic maid somewhat akin to the character she'd later play in sketches with Jennifer. And Helen Lederer as the shy gushy maid who goes all goose-pimply whenever she sees Guy...
Looking back on The Young Ones and Happy Families and even Filthy Rich & Catflap, it's amazing how many comedians the production team managed to involve. The cast reads like a "Who's Who" of eighties' comedy; from established names like Terry Jones and Mel Smith through the entire gamut of the alternative circuit, right up to up-and-comers like David Baddiel. Bottom is more like watching sixth-form revue.
Anyway, one of the many cool things about Happy Families is how the tone of each episode shifts to fit the subject matter. Guy's first stop is the US to find soap star Cassie, and this episode - the second - has all the glitz and razzamataz and phoniness of Dallas. So as well as laughs galore, we get a snide pisstake of the Yankee star system: a wig that has to be lowered by industrial crane; a poncey gay make-up artist (Red Dwarf's Chris Barrie) before this became a comedy cliché; a never-really-has-been actor who once did an insurance ad and still thinks he's Laurence Olivier; Even the lesser known one from The Young Ones (Chris Ryan) does a decent job as the bastard producer who fawns on Jen then dumps her as soon as the ratings fall.
The next episode is in France and it's a belter. A real kick in the jacksie for all those pretentious art house aficionados. Sister Madeleine is in the clutches of a poet pervert surrounded by girlies, partly because they believe he's the voice of a generation, partly because he wants to sell dirty pix of them. He finally gets burnt at the stake by the village residents (including Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer) because they consider him degenerate. Plus they're jealous. Just watch as they describe his antics with the ladies and pretend not to get turned on...
Classic Comedy Moment: They try to execute him by hanging piano wire across his path. Unfortunately they forget to take it out of the piano first. "Piano, piano wire, what's the difference?" curses his gay ex: "Words, words, you poets play with words."
Then we're into Jolly Hockey Sticks country because sister Joyce is a nun, complete with guitar and enthusiasm and He's Got The Whole World In His Hands. Her mentors are Nice (Una Stubbs, having forgiven The Young Ones' Summer Holiday piss-take) and Nasty who's not into it for the religion, she's into it for the blood and the guts and the sacrifice. Everyone hates Joyce and plans to murder her until Guy whisks her off to a chorus of Hallelujah!...
Classic Comedy Moment: Guy goes to the corner shop for a box of fireworks and two bottles of meths. The attendant thinks he wants a naughty mag really so she eggs him on: "Come on, we've got some lovely vintage behind the counter..." In the end Guy loses his rag, she hands him the box of fireworks and two bottles of meths she just happens to have ready, he pays up and leaves; then pops back for a couple of Razzles.
The last sister is jailbird Roxanne. This episode is not only a swipe at the British legal system (someone gets attacked by a judge then imprisoned for deformation of character) but also a piss-take of fly-on-the-wall documentaries. Like Roxanne's getting bitter... Then we see she's being filmed by an idiot: "Could we have that 'Shit' again please? - a bit harder this time - maybe kick the bed... Let's forget the kick." They say the only way to leave this prison is if you get carried out in a box, so Guy smuggles a box in...
And we're into the final episode, back to Grandma Fuddle's domain and the mock-idyllic strains of where we started. Thanks to snazzy camera work we get to see Jennifer Saunders five times in the same shot. There are a couple of caustic twists here, but I won't ruin them by telling you... Incidentally, that's the major difference between The Young Ones and Happy Families: we get more plot and less slapstick violence. What you prefer is up to you of course, I'm just pointing it out.
So, any gripes?... Well yes, aren't there always? I do get the impression Mr Elton's muse fizzles out a little half-way. The Joyce and Roxanne episodes aren't quite so chock-a-block with laughs as the first two. And maybe the last show doesn't harvest the comedy inherent in the first one. Like the bantering between Guy and the doctor could've become a set piece, all that breezy "How are we Guy, tickery-poo or not so pucker," followed by a wheezy "Not so pucker I'm afraid..."
Still, these are minor points. The main thing is, this is a really brilliant series and one can only hope that it will arrive one day on DVD!
Published: Friday 1st January 2010