The real joy of this episode is that Crawford gets to really expose the decency of Frank
Article by Brian Slade
For many fans of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, their most vivid memories of the unfortunate Frank Spencer are of the spectacular stunts that Michael Crawford threw himself into, along with a host of wannabe impersonators donning mackintosh and hat while bemoaning how the cat had done a whoopsie in his beret. In reality, a number of episodes delved deeper into the psychology of Frank, but there was one episode that encapsulated the whole world of Mr Spencer…the physical comedy, the facial expressions, the everlasting search to be a better person and of course, the utter chaos that seemed to follow Frank wherever he went. That episode was The Public Relations Course.
Some Mothers… only gave us three series, plus Christmas specials, despite the many moments of comedy gold to have surfaced from the pen of creator Raymond Allen. By the middle of the second series, the stunts were expanding. Crawford had already dangled from the rear of his car over a cliff edge, and by the end of the series he would be getting articulated under a large lorry as his roller skates took him on an unexpectedly precarious journey.
By the same stage, we had learned some of the seeds from which Frank’s permanently harassed state had grown. He had spent time with a psychiatrist, convincing his shrink that everybody dislikes him and he really is a failure. And early in the second series, we had seen a bemused Fulton Mackay getting evermore exasperated with Frank during an aptitude test he was giving for the RAF. When describing the thoughts of a painting entitled When Did You Last See Your Father? Frank has revealed that his last vision of his father was on Paddington Station when he was 18 months old, wearing a dress as a gypsy fortune teller had told his mother she was having a girl!
By episode three, Frank and bemused wife Betty (Michele Dotrice) are discussing potential career options. He had seemingly exhausted them all, right down to being a prison guard – a job which ended when Frank allowed 47 inmates to escape under the pretence of wanting to get their ball back! ‘I’ve brought you nothing but unhappiness…your mother said I would!’ bemoans Frank, but Betty won’t give up on her man and suggests that he enrol in a public relations course advertised in the paper.
Frank takes himself off, away from home for the first time to better himself and give him the best opportunity to be a success and support his family. A five-day course at The Watson School of Friendly Persuasion is what’s needed…according to Betty, someone in public relations gets on with people and doesn’t annoy anyone. What could possibly go wrong?
All seems well at the pre-course drinks evening, but there’s already rebellion in the air. While Frank is sharing his mother’s positive approach to life, with her favourite saying of, ‘every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,’ another attendee, Mr Lang (Mark Griffith) is trying to explain the reality of a PR officer – a parasite prostituting his talents to hoodwink the public.
An unfortunate incident with a state-of-the-art cafeteria machine, where Frank destroys the machine by trying to put back his beans (‘can’t have beans – gives me trouble’) is as close as we get to the more physical comedy Crawford became famous for. It also echoes Frank’s tale of woe he told in the drinks party – that his mother tried to make rhubarb wine once, but she made 27 pints with only four bottles. So they kept it in the bath tub until the cat fell in. They didn’t fancy it much after that.
Frank’s distance from home shows the childlike side to him. Feeling alone, he attempts to write a letter to Betty, and then takes a phone call from her. Unfortunately, he once again causes havoc after a case of mistaken identity involving a leaky hot water bottle ends with a mass brawl of all attendees…aside from the meek and mild Frank.
When the course finally begins, Crawford’s ability to do as much comedy with his face as he can with his stunts really comes to the fore. As Mr Watson (James Cossins) attempts to involve the group, he encourages them to come up with what a Public Relations Officer does that begins with P. Frank, ever the innocent, is at first horrified, then mystified, before finally offering his answer – perspire!
Where the course goes horribly wrong is when Watson, fearing the rebellious Lang, chooses Frank to portray an unhappy customer in a role-playing game. Watson encourages Frank to be rude to him about a holiday that fell below standard. Crawford contorts his face and plays every pause in the audience’s hysteria before apologetically offering, ‘you…devil.’ And then at that point, his memory kicks in from Lang’s influence. ‘Hypocritical, sycophantic charlatan. Obsequious reprobate. Educational hoodwinker.’ It’s the most articulate Frank would ever be.
When Frank gets his turn as the PR representative in the game, he merely agrees with the complainant. Finally, Watson’s resistance breaks as he tells the delegates, ‘he’s not supposed to help you, he’s a public relations officer.’ Lang is thrown out for his applause, now heavily on Frank’s side, and everybody follows ahead of Frank, who is literally chased out down the street and across fields during the end credits in a finish Benny Hill would have been proud of.
The real joy of this episode is that Crawford gets to really expose the decency of Frank. The reality is that while Watson is trying to run a course related to the Public Relations industry, Frank, who is only trying to better himself, has shown his moral compass to be an immovable object. In the explosive final piece of role-playing, he has turned his back on PR spin because he genuinely believes that the customer has had an awful holiday. (‘My mother had the same trouble in Bournemouth – harassed from room to room, abused in strange places.’)
Frank is in reality one of life’s failures. But the reason we side with him isn’t because he’s funny, or because we like the underdog. Deep down, he is a decent human being who just happens to suffer countless mishaps, and so we want him to do well. Cossins, who would also appeal to audiences as one of the businessmen that Basil mistakes for a hotel inspector in Fawlty Towers, is superb as he travels from pompous PR man to the edge of a breakdown. It’s the perfect mirror to how Frank’s mild demeanour gradually gained confidence as Watson’s life went down the pan. Comedy performer and straight man at their absolute best, and evidence that Crawford didn’t have to be hanging off a helicopter dressed as an angel to be funny.
Published on February 6th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.