A less-incident-filled setting you’d be hard pushed to find than this small grocer’s shop in Yorkshire – but the lack of action is what helped make BBC’s Open All Hours as amusing as it was. Apart from the eccentric customers who came into the store, the wonderfully written verbal sparring between Albert E. Arkwright (the incomparable Ronnie Barker) and his down-trodden nephew Granville (a youthful and talented David Jason) was the real heart of the show.
Created by Roy Clarke, it contained the same gentle brand of humour that he was already known for with Last of the Summer Wine, albeit far funnier and with fewer old men in out of control bath tubs careering down hills and falling into hedges. Which was a good thing obviously. Clarke had once been employed in a corner shop, and soon realised the untapped possibilities for comedy that it contained. The original pilot was part of Barker’s series Seven of One in 1973, and from there developed into four series, with the first shown on BBC2 in 1976 before transferring to BBC1 from 1981 to 1985. Whilst Clarke wrote the scripts however, the character of Arkwright was firmly Barker’s, including his famous st-st-stutter.
In the hands of less talented performers the stutter could have been seen as a way of getting cheap laughs – using a disability that causes people real distress to make people laugh – but Barker was such a brilliant performer, and the speech impediment was used cleverly and with excellent gags to back it up that there was never really a chance that it would cause offence to anybody.
And it was also Barker’s immeasurable talents which stopped Open All Hours failing on two points. Firstly, Barker was incredibly well-known in the UK at this time for his portrayal of Stanley Fletcher, the loveable rogue in prison sit-com Porridge. As many actors who’ve played big parts in popular programmes know, it can be hard to break away from a cherished character – but his convincing transformation into a miserly Yorkshire shopkeeper all but wiped out memories of Fletch whilst you were watching him here. Secondly, on paper Arkwright was a truly unsympathetic fellow; tight-fisted and crafty, a slave-driver boss to his own nephew and an almost stalker to a certain nurse across the street – but Barker brought a human, affable side to him that meant you although you may dislike his ways, you couldn’t actually dislike him.
After losing his mother at a very early age, Granville was brought up by his uncle Albert (this wouldn’t be the last time that Jason would experience that fictional uncle – roll on Only Fools and Horses!) and as such worked in the shop to earn his keep. The two actors first demonstrated their chemistry during Jason’s brief spell in Porridge, and it was their considerable acting skills that allowed you to see the underlying affection between the characters - otherwise Arkwright’s outward attitude towards his nephew would have made you wonder why on earth Granville put up with it. Referring to his over-worked assistant as an ‘errand boy’ Arkwright made frequent disparaging references to Granville’s mother’s somewhat lively love life (also inferring for reasons not quite clear that his father may have been Hungarian), made him work long hours and also made him do the shop’s deliveries on a precarious push bike. Unwilling to spend more money than was absolutely necessary, Arkwright paid him a pittance but constantly reminded Granville that one day the shop would be passed on to him, something that Granville never looked that enthusiastic about. Occasionally it looked as though Granville was being given a treat when Arkwright offered him something tempting from the shelves, only to find that he was then expected to pay for it.
Granville was a dreamer; a romantic at heart he could often be found physically present in the shop but mentally miles away. He longed for love, both the love he missed out on by losing his mother so early whilst never knowing his father and also the romantic kind that might allow him to escape the drudgery of life in the shop. Being tied to the counter from dawn until dusk gave him no real chance of having any real social experiences; his only opportunity for any kind of dalliance was a snatched flirtation with the local milkwoman (played by Barbara Flynn from A Very Peculiar Practice and later on Cracker). Granville had a quick tongue however, and what probably saved him from going insane was his ability to direct witty retorts at his uncle when he needed to. Alongside making money Arkwright’s other great love was Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron); a buxom district nurse who lived across the road from him, and whose bedroom window he would often be found trying to peep into. Gladys affectionately rebuffed his proposals; but by saying that she wouldn’t get married until her elderly mother died rather than a direct ‘no’, which gave Arkwright enough hope to persevere with her. Arkwright made frequent hopeful references to the day of the old lady’s expiration. Gladys was exasperated by Arkwright’s tightfistedness and his treatment of Granville, and was always happy to comfort the younger man by gathering him up into her bosom; something that irked Arkwright considerably. Knowing this, Granville took full advantage of it. If you asked people what was the one thing they remembered best about Open All Hours there’s a good chance that it would be the shop’s cantankerous till. The money drawer was loaded with a spring mechanism strong enough to break your fingers and there was no guessing when it might suddenly decide to close. Most people wouldn’t risk losing a hand every time they needed to use the till, but Arkwright refused to pay out for the cost of a replacement. He also claimed that keeping it was a good deterrent for anybody who attempted to steal the shop’s takings.
There was always a stream of Arkwright’s regular customers into the shop who brought additional humour with them: among them was indecisive Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw); fault-finding Mrs Blewett (Kathy Staff of Last of the Summer Wine fame) and ‘the Black Widow’ Mrs Featherstone (Stephanie Cole: Tenko, Waiting for God) who was a cheerless woman who found Arkwright attractive because she too had miserly tendencies. Arkwright often hid when she arrived at the shop. None of the customers appeared to be overly-bright, which meant bored Granville could happily take the mickey out of them without them realising. Arkwright would be busy trying to dupe them into buying more than they needed.
Having been painted as an unsentimental man (only showing real emotion for money, Nurse Emmanuel and on occasion Granville) with no obvious signs of a religious belief, a previously unseen side of Arkwright was unveiled at the end of his working day. When the last customer had left, and the profits had been counted, Arkwright would step out onto the pavement and we would hear an internal reflective monologue between him and his maker, beginning ‘It’s been a funny old day…’
Open All Hours came in at number 8 in 2004’s ‘Britain’s Best Sitcom’ poll, and it certainly deserved its high-up place on the list. Whilst not as stomach-achingly hilarious as Fawlty Towers or Only Fools, in the hands of a master of comedy such as either Barker or Jason the beautifully crafted scripts were still capable of delivering a sharply funny line.
And to prove it, I’ll leave you with two of my favourite lines.
Granville: Look at the time! Quarter to nine and I’m held here in the clutches of my wicked uncle. Arkwright: Your uncle is going to be wicked across the road, clutching something else entirely.