Whilst enjoying his role in Dad's Army, John Le Mesurier was given leave from the Home Guard to star in a rare fully networked sitcom from Harlech Television. With no surviving episodes available it's hard to judge the quality of A Class By Himself, except to note that it went out in all ITV regions on a Wednesday night at 11pm. And only one series was made.
The series was written by and starred Richard Stilgoe who later reflected: "(It) ran for six not-very-well-written episodes. Hardly anyone saw it, luckily, but it enabled me to write a part in episode five for a young opera singer I fancied, and to whom I have now been married for 43 years."
Le Mesurier starred as Lord Bleasham (pronounced Blessem) an eccentric peer who resides in the pecuniary straits of his family seat in Somerset, which is called Bleasham Hall (what else?). Despite his salubrious surroundings not all is as it appears and what money his Lordship has is all going into the upkeep of his estate. The biggest problem he is facing is that his daughter, Joanna (Seretta Wilson) is approaching her 18th birthday and due to receive her inheritance. An inheritance that her father can no longer afford.
In the first episode, Bleasham is returning home to his ancestral pile in his Rolls, driven by his butler-cum-chauffeur, Clutton (Peter Butterworth) having just collected Joanna from Cambridge, where she has recently graduated, when their journey is interrupted by a curiously dressed student who says he is “interested in the possibilities of a lift…”
The student turns out to be another Cambridge graduate, Barnaby Locke (Stilgoe), who has hopes of becoming Lord Bleasham’s secretary and is soon taken on to rescue the family fortune but with the proviso that his lordship’s financial situation is kept from Joanna. And so the lord and his secretary and his somewhat sinister chauffeur embark on a number of money-making schemes, none of which, you’ll be surprised to learn, turn out to be very successful.
The first scheme is to open the stately home to members of the public whilst hiding the fact from Joanna that the people trooping around her home are paying members of the public and that the necessary redecorating is in honour of her birthday. But when the public don't turn up in sufficient numbers to rectify the financial situation, another plan is put into operation: "Take dinner with a Peer of the Realm in his ancestral home. £15 a head." The next scheme fares no better even with the promise of a concert featuring the famous opera singer Maria Callas.
Finally, in desperation, Locke suggests a visit to "the Bath chap" at Longleat to purchase one of his lions. So Bleasham goes off to seek the advice of the Marquess of Bath who is played in the episode by --- the Marquess of Bath. Of his performance, Lord Bath, interviewed for the TV Times whilst making the episode, said: "I'd go in front of the camaras, someone would say 'Cut' and explain that a camera was facing the wrong way. Can't fool me. Bound to be my fault. New to the game, you see. Then I'd have a drink...and then too much to drink...and God knows what the scene will look like..."
The six episode series of ‘A Class By Himself’ was developed from a single one-off episode titled ‘The Thumb of Barnaby Locke’ which was shown only in the HTV region in January 1971. In this version Stilgoe played a hitchhiker who was picked up by Le Mesurier (who at this time was called Lord Shepton) and his chauffeur who was played by Victor Madden. The original story was re-worked into the first episode of the series. Unfortunately, in spite of an accomplished group of actors, and the appearance of Mollie Sugden in the ‘dinner’ episode, Bleasham Hall could not be saved for a second series.
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Published on September 27th, 2020. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.