With its slightly claustrophobic feel, the BBC2 sitcom Butterflies was faintly reminiscent of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in that both central characters felt trapped in their lives and yearned for something more, although neither seemed to know exactly what that was.
Ria (Wendy Craig) is a mother of two teenage boys; a stay-at-home housewife typical of the era the show begins in (the late 1970s). Whilst on the surface her 19 year-old marriage to reserved dentist Ben (the wonderful Geoffrey Palmer, who also starred in the aforementioned Reggie Perrin as Jimmy; the doctor who had to deal with both the kippers and the corpse in Fawlty Towers and as gentle Lionel in As Time Goes By) is a happy one, Ria is increasingly fidgety in her role as domestic drudge, and begins to wonder what else life could have in store for her.
Ben is a very traditional, middle-class father and husband who loves his wife, but is largely blind to her restlessness. He has particularly conservative views when it comes to a woman’s place, and he immediately dismisses Ria’s thoughts about getting herself a job. Ben is an avid butterfly collector, to the point that most other things in life take second place to his obsessive hobby. This points towards the show’s title – with another analogy being that Rita herself is a butterfly; longing to be free to fly, but actually has had her wings pinned by her family, leaving her trapped. A further reference comes from a conversation Ria has with her ‘other man’, Leonard, of which more in a minute.
Ben, along with the couple’s two sons, takes her for granted on a daily basis; she holds the family together but gets no thanks for it; something which may ring true with many a homemaker. They’re not ungrateful, they just don’t make an effort to thank or appreciate for what she does. A running joke of the programme is Ria’s appalling cooking; all three males mock her for it, but still none leap up and offer to help instead.
Russell (Andrew Hall) and Adam (Only Fools and Horses’ Nicholas Lyndhurst) fight and josh with each other on a constant basis. Their laidback attitudes towards work (or lack of it, both are unemployed) and their liberal outlook don’t sit easily with their father, to the point that when we first meet the family Ben and Russell haven’t spoken for the best part of a year.
Ria spends a lot of time daydreaming; her mid-life crisis of sorts making her continually wonder if what she has is actually all there is, or whether if she reached out, she would find fulfilment elsewhere. And as Leonard Rossiter perfectly captured the frustrated world of Reggie Perrin, so Craig, with her huge eyes and innocent expressions, is perfect as the slightly lost-her-way Ria.
On a visit to a café one day Ria meets Leonard; a recently divorced, and wealthy, businessman. He falls for Ria immediately, and she feels a strong attraction to him. She can see a whole host of possibilities if she left her family to begin a new life with him but her deep sense of loyalty to Ben and her children means that the affair (she continues to meet up with Leonard throughout the show’s run) is left unconsummated. She feels a massive amount of guilt for her deception, even if she is not unfaithful in its most accepted sense, but can’t quite let go of her excitingly secret new adventure.
On that first meeting Ria says to Leonard, ‘We are all kids chasing butterflies. You see it, you want it, you grab it, and there it is, all squashed in your hand. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a pleasant house, a pleasant man and two pleasant sons. My butterfly didn’t get squashed.’ We know however that she is thinking that whilst her butterfly is physically unharmed, emotionally it is gasping for life.
Butterflies worked so well because of the great casting and the sympathetic nature of all the characters involved. There were no villains; despite Ben’s lack of romance towards his wife it was clear that he was devoted to her, he just didn’t know how to show it. And whilst we knew Ria was in the wrong for sneaking around behind Ben’s back, she held herself back from a full blown affair even through it would have been easy to throw herself into Leonard’s arms and probably get away with it. And as for Leonard himself, we didn’t resent him for trying to prise Ria away from her family – he was gentle and respectful of her situation, and we knew that he really wanted her, he wasn’t just on the hunt for a quick fling.
In fact Leonard put up with a lot of mixed messages from Ria, as she flitted between wanting to see him and then pushing him away as she tried to reconnect with her family. Although to be fair, at the end of series two Leonard says goodbye to Ria and goes back to his wife, then splits up with her again at the beginning of the next series and rings Ria to arrange another meeting. So maybe they were both as confused as each other.
In truth Ria’s near romance, whilst not physically fulfilling, actually helped her a great deal. It gave her someone to talk to who actually understood her emotions and allowed her to see that she was still attractive as a woman. Coming so close to breaking her marriage vows made her see what she would actually be leaving behind; a loving - if not in an overly demonstrative way – and more importantly real family.
Written by the prolific Carla Lane (The Liver Birds, Bread) the show began in 1978 and ran for four series, finishing in October 1983. The penultimate episode sees Ria breaking up with Leonard and then walking out on Ben after an argument in the final show. She then meets Leonard in a park and he pleads with her not to leave him, but she eventually walks away from him and returns to Ben. It seemed that perhaps this butterfly was happy with her ‘trapped’ life after all.
The theme song to Butterflies was originally a Dolly Parton number, although for the series ‘Love Is Like a Butterfly’ was recorded and then released as a single by Clare Torry (who is most well-known for performing on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’). The song was played by a band conducted by Ronnie Hazlehurst, who I think was under contract to have a hand in every piece of music that came anywhere near the BBC in the 1970s and 80s.
A special short episode of Butterflies was made in 2000 for Children in Need. It reunited the entire cast (except for Leonard’s chauffeur Thomas as the actor who played him, Michael Ripper, had passed away) on the premise that Ria was celebrating her 60th, but we saw that her life had not moved on at all. She was still with Ben, still unhappy with her marriage, and still meeting up with Leonard in secret.
Less of a butterfly and more of a moth to a flame perhaps?