I hadn’t actually seen Watching since it aired back in the late 80s/early 90s, but making my way through the first series on DVD, I was struck by how relevant it is to my own current interests and writing.
For those who don’t know, this post-watershed ITV sitcom starred Emma Wray as ‘Brenda Wilson’, a young Liverpudlian lass with a smart-mouth, and a habit of making up silly lies to amuse herself and confuse friends and enemies alike. She lives with her older sister ‘Pamela’ (Liza Tarbuck), and seems quite happy to spend her evenings down the pub with “Our Pam”… until she begins a torturously protracted on/off relationship with ‘Malcolm Stoneway’ (Paul Bown), a wimpy birdwatcher from the posh side of town, who she mistakes for a “biker” when he wanders into their local wearing his leathers. Technically, he does indeed ride a motorcycle… but it’s an antiquated relic with a sidecar attached, which he uses to transport his hide when he goes out twitching. Understandably, Brenda is disappointed when she realises the truth about Malcolm, but as an inveterate gobshite her dating options are rather limited, so she eventually comes to appreciate his company. Apparently their star-crossed romance played out over 56 episodes, and a span of six years, drawing in audiences of over 17 million viewers… which is pretty impressive, considering the whole thing started off as a (rejected) sketch idea, that series creator Jim Hitchmough dreamt up for Not the Nine O’Clock News!
Although the geographical in-jokes are completely lost on me, and a lot of the humour has dated quite badly*, what still shines through is the spirit and strength of the two leading ladies. They have the sharpest tongues and the quickest wits, and always get the lion’s share of the dialogue… there’s even a running joke about how unfunny Malcolm is, with the other characters frequently telling him not to bother with his feeble bon mots. But they don’t just dominate the show verbally, they dominate it physically too! Pamela has a tendency to lunge and snarl at anyone who riles her, and isn’t shy about shoving men out of her way either! This was Tarbuck’s big break as an actress, and it’s a joy to see her throwing her weight around… even if the hideous hair-dos and unflattering 80s outfits do undercut her sex-appeal a tad. Of course, having seen her more recent work as a presenter and quiz-show panellist, we all know that in real life she’s an incredibly warm and jovial woman… which makes her aggressive performance here all the more impressive. Despite Pamela’s fierceness (and obvious height advantage), Brenda can’t resist taking the mickey out her at every available opportunity… which could be quite annoying for us as an audience, having to put up with a character who is constantly cracking wise, but Wray is also very good at showing Brenda’s sweeter side, and the frustration that her own oral incontinence (ew!) causes her. And, to the show’s credit, the other characters don’t simply shrug off her jabs and fibs as soon as the studio audience has finished laughing… Brenda’s big mouth is shown to be a serious liability, which almost gets her chucked out of Pamela’s flat in one episode, and frequently causes rifts between her and Malcolm. I still can’t help thinking she’s too good for him though! She’s such a firecracker, and he’s such a wet blanket! Ah well, maybe the other 48 episodes will help change my mind… assuming I ever see them, of course…
Oh, I should also mention that Malcolm’s Mum (aka ‘Mrs Marjorie Stoneway’) is played by Patsy Byrne… who is probably better known for her role as the simple-minded ‘Nursie’ in series two of Blackadder, but she does a very good study of suburban snobbery here.
* The Xmas special ends with Malcolm doing an offensive impersonation of a “Chinese” man, which is frozen onscreen as the credits roll… and also pictured in a still on the back of the DVD case, for some godforsaken reason!