Having played a multitude of policemen in earlier television programmes (Z-Cars, Redcap and of course, the iconic role of Jack Regan in The Sweeney) and a handful of generally serious roles on the stage and in television it came as quite a surprise that John Thaw was actually really good at playing comic roles as well. Before Home to Roost his only previous nods in that direction were a small part in comedy drama Budgie, and one of the three lead roles in little-remembered sitcom Thick as Thieves, alongside Bob Hoskins.
Home to Roost is a 1980s comedy (and at times pretty farcical) series made by Yorkshire Television. It revolves around the life of middle-aged and middle-class Henry Willows. A happy divorcee, his three children moved out with their mother when the couple split up, and Henry is quite at ease with this arrangement. Apart from a visit each day from his cleaner he enjoys the peace and quiet of his empty house. He has worked hard to create a comfortable, if not exciting lifestyle, and a night in listening to classical music (Morse would be proud) is his idea of extreme pleasure. All he wants is a quiet life, with some good food, some fine wine and a round or two at the Bowls Club.
What he doesn’t want is the return to the family home of his son Matthew (played by Reece Dinsdale. Dinsdale has a huge acting CV, but is known from roles in Haggard, the film I.D. and more recently Coronation Street). Teenage Matthew is at a loose end; his mother has chucked him out of her house after he took a rather too audible dislike to her new boyfriend. He has no real ambitions, no interest in continuing his schooling or finding a responsible job, and would rather spend his time ogling women and living off his dad. This obviously sits at odds with Henry’s straight-laced aspirations, and most of the show’s laughs come from the pair clashing over almost everything that they come up against. This includes Matthew’s education, his choice of girlfriends, vegetarianism, his unwillingness to pay his way and his pipedream career choices, their political views…the list goes on. On top of his father’s obvious disapproval of him, Matthew also has to contend with Henry’s adoration of his sister Julie (Rebecca Lacey, also known as dizzy Hilary from May to December) who normally has her daddy round her little finger in the episodes she appears in.
Henry doesn’t trust Matthew as far as he can throw him. On the odd occasion he puts his guard down and lets himself believe that Matthew has turned over a new leaf, his son usually turns out to not be as squeaky clean as he’d been making out. Henry feels this justifies himself using slightly sneaky methods to find out what Matthew is really up to, and to this end he has a willing accomplice in Enid, the world’s nosiest cleaning lady, who is always happy to ‘accidentally’ find incriminating evidence of wrongdoing in Matthew’s bedroom . Saying that, she doesn’t seem above snooping around Henry’s private life either if the situation calls for it.
Enid Thompson (played by Elizabeth Bennett) is a fun contrast to the two Willows men and she can always be relied on to side with one of them, leaving the other to fight his corner alone. She appears in the first two series only, and the search for her replacement is the subject of the first episode in series three. Obviously Henry and Matthew have vastly different ideas of who the ideal cleaning lady should be, but eventually Henry wins out and Fiona Fennell (Joan Blackham) gets the job. A much different character than Enid, Fiona is far more professional and far less interested in becoming involved in the personal life of the Willows.
Home to Roost ran for four series between 19 April 1985 and 19 January 1990 (Matthew’s hairstyles and clothing choices reflect this, whilst Henry’s middle-aged man outfits are timeless), with 29 episodes in all. There were a few stand-out episodes, including High Spirits from series three, where Matthew becomes obsessive about spooks and spectres, and the party episode, Open House, from series two. A Henry Willows rule is ‘no large social gatherings’ in his house, but he’s away for the weekend on business, and Matthew can’t resist the opportunity to throw the doors open wide and invite everybody he knows round for a wild time. Unfortunately (and you couldn’t see this coming, could you?) Henry returns home early, and walks right into the middle of it all. After calming his father’s fury Matthew somehow manages to persuade him to let the party continue, and Henry actually finds he quite enjoys himself, although that might have quite a lot to do with a vampy lady who entertains him in an airing cupboard.
It’s not a comedy classic, but it was funny and well-written. The lead actors had great chemistry and because of this what might have been yet another bland dysfunctional family sitcom became an extremely watchable series. Whilst Henry and Matthew obviously disagreed on their ideas of a perfect lifestyle and the humour came from their continued and cleverly-scripted clashes, Thaw and Dinsdale brought warmth to the roles and several episodes made clear the pair’s underlying father and son affection for each other.