If watching a scrawny, perpetually confused looking man blunder through life, continuously breaking things, getting stuck in various objects or starting a domino-chain of catastrophes is your bag, then you are probably a huge fan of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
To be fair to its lead actor, Michael Crawford was a superb physical comedian (I say was; he’s a pensioner now but I have no idea if he is still capable of hanging from his car’s exhaust over the edge of a cliff) and without his skill and impeccable timing the show wouldn’t have had half the appeal that it did.
An apt description of the main character Frank Spencer would be a childlike, slightly camp bundle of nervous energy who occasionally wore a beret. Accident-prone he may have been but he was at heart a lovely man. Kind and always eager to please, if you could have met him whilst he was tied down securely to his chair and therefore incapable of touching anything then you could have had a nice conversation with him and walk away afterwards, unharmed. Unfortunately this kind of restraint wasn’t imposed on Frank and therefore anybody who came into contact with him was constantly at risk.
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em ran for three series, with the central theme throughout being Frank’s inability to stay employed and the knack of being able to destroy his environment completely within five minutes of arriving in it. Betty Spencer (Michele Dotrice) was Frank’s wife – and one can only imagine Betty was doped up on some heavy duty tranquilisers throughout their marriage. Nice Frank may have been, but living with him and his constant sackings, not to mention his DIY disasters and ability to inadvertently ruffle the feathers of the most placid people, must have surely been enough to send most normal wives completely round the twist. Betty did generally appear to be perpetually on the edge of a panic attack because of her husband’s incompetence at any kind of socially interaction, but she would always stand by Frank when he was facing the repercussions of his actions.
Spencer infuriated neighbours, bosses, driving instructors, doctors, his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law and many more, but somehow the scripts ensured that the audience was always on his side, even when he was at his most hapless. This was emphasised throughout by his obvious love for Betty and his desperate intentions to do the right thing, but even more so at the end of the second series when Frank became a father – his adoration for daughter Jessica made his hopelessness at everything else fade into the background.
And so, the stunts. Obviously the most famous of them all is the roller skate fiasco, which sees Frank somehow manage to skate out of a rink (crashing through the closed doors of course) and then go on a non-stop, uncontrollable journey through the town, down a spiral staircase, hanging off the back of a bus, in and out of traffic, ending up head first in a cot after crashing through a baby shop. As well as this Frank was ejected through a church roof, catapulted in through an office window after being knocked off his motorbike by a car park barrier, and turned into a firework display at a holiday camp.
What made the stunts even more remarkable is that Crawford performed them all himself, so when you review his roller skating journey you look with fresh respect at the ‘down the hill and under the lorry’ part of it.
Interestingly the BBC originally wanted either Norman ‘Mr Grimsdale’ Wisdom or Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies, Open All Hours) to play Frank – Wisdom was unavailable, and despite Barker’s immense talent for comedy it’s hard to imagine him performing the physical aspects of the show in the same way as Crawford. Barker himself felt the same way, and turned the show down for that very reason. Crawford had been appearing in the stage show No Sex Please, We’re British, playing a chief cashier whose characteristics he later developed into Spencer. His performance in the play led the BBC to ask him to take the title role in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
His unique abilities soon made the role his own, and proved an absolute dream to variety show impressionists of the time. Spencer’s mannerisms and catchphrases (plus his trench coat and the aforementioned beret) were a staple of any impersonator’s act in the late 70s and 80s, although the saying that has come to represent him more than any other (‘Oooh Betty’) was only ever said in one episode. Far more common was the shakily said ‘Ooooh’, whilst holding a finger up to his mouth – which normally came as he surveyed the aftermath of the chaos he had just created – and him having ‘a bit of trouble’, which was obviously a frequent occurrence. ‘Ooooh’ also made an appearance whenever anybody said anything even vaguely suggestive; Frank’s wide-eyed naivety meant he was easily embarrassed.
The first series of seven episodes broadcast from 15 February until 29 March 1973, with the second set of six coming in November and December of the same year. 1974 and 75 saw two Christmas specials, with the first involving much hilarity as Frank involved himself in a local nativity play and the second featured a guest appearance from David Jacobs as a presenter of a DIY show, and Frank trying to pass his driving test (again) by careering into the sea. All good festive pandemonium.
Series three came along in the November of 1978, starting with the Spencer family moving to a new house, and ending in December with the prospect of them emigrating to Australia, to live on a farm with Frank’s grandfather (played by Australian actor and comedian Dick Bentley). A final Christmas special that year rounded off the show, featuring the frightening prospect of Frank taking flying lessons. Michael Crawford had by then decided that he wanted to move away from the character of Frank Spencer and whilst he then went on to the acrobatic delights of Barnum, and his award-studded role in The Phantom of the Opera, is there anybody who will remember him more fondly for anything other than the loveable child Frank Spencer?