If there is one thing that we fail to acknowledge in this country is our proud heritage. I understand the usefulness and even the advantages to having a castle at every turn, a dysfunctional Royal Family, a series of losing sports teams and a prolific ability to cast aside some of the greatest entertainers who have ever graced our screens, to the other side of the planet. Yet there is a certain breed of Englishman who entertains us each week who goes silently unnoticed. Every week in many circumstances – they make us laugh, cry, think about ourselves and even be moved when we witness their craft.
It has occurred to me that there is something gravely wrong in the things that we appreciate. Whilst I have been keen to keep abreast with the ins and outs of comedy over the last forty years in some, socially staved, hobby of mine, it has come to my notice in my findings that there are some greats in the world of showbiz who are, or have, gone right passed us without as much as a mere thank you from us, let alone a knighthood. I immediately think of Eric Sykes, who back in the late Fifties shared a cramped office somewhere in a corner of Shepherds Bush with the manic and fairly unknown, Spike Milligan. A picture forms in my head of these two young, yet to be found geniuses with sleeves rolled up, frantically scribbling away on tiny desks, banging out silly skits to make a few quid. This romantic notion has stayed with me and forever haunts me to the point that I feel these heroes will continue to die off without, what I consider, a decent enough tribute. Dare I say it, we will lose the last one of that particular partnership without so much as a touch of the Queen’s sword on his shoulders if we are not too careful.
So what is it that makes, as a country, so unreflecting to acknowledge the hard working, sweating, sore fingered writers who have given us such classic comedy over the years, yet we are quick to celebrate their accomplishments, but not the source from whence they came? We are fond of remarking on some wonderful lollipop lady who regularly saves the lives of thousands of squashed hedgehogs all over Derbyshire, or the small child who miraculously put out the blazing inferno that would have perished his school had he not been the only one to be quick thinking. These beings all show courage in the face of something along the lines of adversity but not one note of recognition twice a year goes to the last remaining few of a generation now fading away. The people who make us laugh. I apologise for not acknowledging Midge Ure for another accolade in the fight against Developing World poverty, but enough is enough. Sir Geldof only ever had one hit record…
Onward I travel and delve into the pits of comedy to find out who was really behind arching sides, chesty coughs and stamping of feet., (well, that’s what I do when I laugh,) and mark a small tribute of my own…
The situation comedy writer weaves a tangled web of laughter, tears and observation beyond our own daily troubles. We may not even like what we see, even avoid it or watch something else, but that’s the chance they take. The writer may care not to employ his mind with equal attention as the director or the producer may, for it is the job of the script writer to cast the magic and let us in to a family or a situation in which we, sometimes feel at home. We befriend their characters who we either adore or dislike. We sympathize with them, agree or disagree with them – either way, we may delight in their company, secure in the knowledge that they will, if anything, simply make us smile. I will guarantee we have all, at some point in our lives tuned in to little half and hour programme each week to be eagerly entertained by a series of fictional characters in their hilarious situations. We are keen to indulge in a dribble more of their misfortunes or their daily tasks peppered with unusual pitfalls. Yet what is the appeal of the average situation comedy? One point that seems stronger than the rest is the realisation that these programmes reflect, very deeply, our own lives.
A certain young jobbing actor came onto the scene through the stage striding school of RADA, hoping for a life treading the boards or tripping over the camera wires. Back in the heady days of the Sixties, actors found a niche on television where they could, if they managed it, kept employment by hopping in and out of one serial to another. The world of the BBC was full of serials, be them straight or funny. A multitude of ‘family’ based sit coms were taking shape, thus keeping a vast majority of general actors in food and warmth. Many stayed quite happy in the their minor roles, not wanting to go any further out into the gloom. Others struck gold in what the old darlings term as ‘big break.’ Here, we find actors who then turn into stars, and possibly find grasping the reins even more exciting than just sitting on the horse.
One of these particular up and coming actors was George Layton. Yorkshire born, he had a twinkling smile and a charming tone. With these attributes at his disposal, he quickly found himself in the first knicker wetting series full of all the best twinkling smiles on TV – ‘Doctor In The House.’ Layton fitted in well along side other TV hopefuls, Richard O’Sullivan, Barry Evans and Robin Nedwell. All enjoying good, regular comedies throughout the Seventies. It appeared that this show, however, was somewhat cursed. Two of the afore mentioned actors died under tragic circumstances whilst Mr O’Sullivan now spends his life in a retirement home. Sometimes the life of the comedy actor, is the one that contains the least amount of laughs.
Stepping away from the limelight to a point, Layton went about writing some of the scripts for the show. Daring to break the unwritten law of ‘decide which end of the camera you want son, and stick to it,’ Layton couldn’t bare to make a choice. Getting around this he started writing episodes for ‘Doctor In The House’ under a different name. By this, he found yet another string to his bow, and serials quickly followed whilst acting, or in-between parts. Yet the pan stick was to call for full time commitment again. Jimmy Perry saw Layton as the Army Concert Party producer that he too, once was hence the role of ‘Bombardier ‘Solly’ Solomons in ‘It Ain’t ‘Arf Hot Mum,’ went to the perfectly experienced George.
Leaving after the second series, he had already started work on another comedy show. Throughout his career he had set up on and off writing residence in the company of fellow actor, writer and old Cambridge Footlights member, Jonathan Lynn. Following in parallels with the legendary Croft and Perry, the pair produced minor comedies, but not as exceptionally acknowledged as the Croft/Perry collaborations. Notably, it was Lynn who went on to write and direct the extraordinary ‘Clue,’ with Tim Curry and the humorous film comedy ‘Nun’s On The Run,’ with Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane. Like his counterpart Layton, Lynn dared never to sit down and kept following his own path from one talent to another.
The Seventies was a time when once your face fitted amongst the mixed veg and the pastries in the BBC canteen, you were able to spread yourself around the writing round table. Many actors and budding script writers lent a hand, credited or otherwise, in a whole host of other shows. Perhaps it can be said that the Pythons were the biggest contenders for such scribbling antics that people followed suit. Messer’s Idle and Cleese were among the professionals already trying their hand at radio as well as TV.
In a game where everyone had once worked with everyone else, the doors were open to try a hand at a bit here and a bit there. Layton found himself brushing comical shoulders with the best writers of the time, one of which, he was growing rapidly into. His credits featured, ‘On The Buses,’ and ‘Robin’s Nest,’ naming the most memorable two. Yet his real success came with the back breaking 39 episodes of the medical comedy, ‘Don’t Wait Up.’ Enlisting film actor, Nigel Havers and veteran comedy father figure, ‘Tony Britten,’ the show as a warming relationship between father , son and viewers. Showing us a situation that could well be familiar with it’s audience, Layton touched on the highs and lows of a family thrown together and at the same time, thrown apart, trying to get back together. The two Latimer Doctors, father and son (one private, one NHS respectively) find themselves in a flat together after both getting divorced. The running theme of this wonderful series was the conflicting relationship between the two generations both practising what the other objects to. Full of pathos, emotion and traditional farcical British humour, it was an immediate hit appealing to both classes. One admiring the similarities in their fellow members, the other, poking fun at the higher classes.
Towards the end of it’s run which found both doctors finding themselves in happier relationships, Layton was already working his next project. In his usual style, he has worked on two at a time over lapping, in remarkable continuity, two completely different scripts at the same time. This time, what little he had to spare, was moved into the direction of high flying ITV sit-com, ‘Executive Stress,’ an enjoyable scenario of a successful couple finding themselves working together after years of supporting their own careers starring Penelope Keith and Geoffrey Palmer (series one) and Peter Bowles (series 2 onwards.) Keith and Bowles, already had shared great credibility from ‘To The Manor Born.’
If none of this had been enough to be credited as one of the most favoured, all round actors of both stage, film and television and one of the best known British comedy writers, then it was also not surprising that George Layton has managed to fit in theatre direction across the country onto his c.v as well as author of two well received novels of growing up in post war Northern Britain. Are their no ends to these talents?
His theatre credits have included Fagin in ‘Oliver!’ at the London Palladium and Felix in ‘The Odd Couple,’ at the Theatre Royal in Windsor – two characters of extreme qualities that couldn’t be any further apart in regard to acting requirements. Just these two roles themselves, can conjure up a picture of an actor who is more than capable of realising real acting identities within himself. London’s West End, has naturally not been the only boards he has treaded. Australia and New York as well, of course! Well, what did you expect? Many strings to the bow plus a non avoidance to air travel would have to be all part of the course if one wanted to follow in his shoes. For any young, enthusiastic script writer, he is not only a squint making dot in the sky, but a life that very few would consider trying to match…
So what next for the restless career of this man who is only a young and sprightly 64 this year? He has recently written another book (with the working title of ‘The Promise And Other Stories,’) and a comedy drama series for television called, ‘The Boys.’ It would seem that we are yet to still enjoy the work of George Layton – the man who can’t sit still.
As all the best writers and performers are irritatingly the least smug and the most modest and George Layton is no exception. Still regarded as a nice guy, although too hard working, he sits back comfortably and is mildly contented with his work so far. It would seem all the best writers follow this rule, (sweat like a dog over the typewriter, just don’t tell everyone about it).
Recently for the BBC 1 series, ‘Comedy Connections,’ featuring ‘Don’t Wait Up,’ he beamed when he said ‘No one admires my work more than I do!’ Yes, this statement does flow with the milk of human smugness, but if anyone deserves to be, it is writers like George Layton. The people who refuse to retire. (If only Des O’ Connor would….)
The list of his achievements to date, is far too long to print here. (George Layton that is, not Des O’Connor…)
Happy Birthday Mr Layton for March the 2nd.
‘Don’t Wait Up,’ can be found on DVD from Amazon.com (series I and II) for £10.97
Also at Sendit.com for £11.98 and HMV I, II and III for £11.99 delivered.
‘Doctor In The House’ series I and II together on Amazon.com for £29.98
HMV for £16.99 (I and II)
©Michelle Duffy (sam1942 on dooyoo) 2007
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