gentle and comedy aren’t always the most memorable of bedfellows, but As Time Goes By satisfied its audiences greatly
Review: Brian Slade
Some comedy writers work best alone, others in pairs, but it’s unusual for one half of the most successful of comedy duos to strike out on their own with similar success. Someone who bucked that trend however was Bob Larbey, co-writer of The Good Life and Please Sir! with John Esmonde. In 1992 he delivered As Time Goes By to the BBC, a charming sitcom created by Colin Bosctock-Smith that spanned nine series across thirteen years, telling the story of a couple who find love in later life, decades after losing touch.
Leading the cast are two television stalwarts. Geoffrey Palmer’s hangdog expression was one of the most recognisable at the time of casting, most notably from his time as Ben in Butterflies, and he made the perfect leading man as Lionel Hardcastle, a man whose military obligations in Korea in 1953 caused him to lose touch with the love of his life. That love came in the form of nurse Jean Pargetter, played by Judi Dench, one of the few actresses so talented that they can mix primetime British sitcom with Hollywood blockbusters with ease.
Lionel and Jean had met in 1953 and were besotted by one another. The prospect of being mobilised to Korea hadn’t necessarily sounded the death knell for their relationship, but sadly the failed postal service did. His letter to Jean advising her of his whereabouts never reached her and they both assumed that the other had given up on the long distance relationship. Lionel relocated to Kenya after being demobbed while Jean remained in England. Both went on to marry, with differing levels of success. Jean had a daughter, Judith (Moira Brooker) while Lionel divorced his wife and eventually returned to the UK in order to publish his travel journal, My Life in Kenya.
Lionel and Jean’s lives reconnect in the unlikeliest of fashions 38 years on from their last meeting. Looking for a new direction after her husband’s death, Jean opened a secretarial agency, which included a role for Judith. It is Jean’s agency that Lionel has reached out to for typing services as he brings his book towards publication, unaware of Jean’s involvement. Indeed he is first drawn to Judith herself after the agency send her to apologise for the inefficiency of their first employee’s efforts on his manuscript. Somewhat taken with one another, they agree to meet for dinner…except Lionel gets the shock of his life when he collects Judith, living as she does with her mother.
Subsequently we discover that Jean was put out by the fact that Lionel never wrote as he had promised, while Lionel is equally perturbed that Jean never responded. When they finally meet and discuss the matter, they realise that the letter never reached its intended recipient. They agree that rather than it sitting on a compost heap somewhere, it would be rather nice if the letter had ended up as an artefact at the Imperial War Museum, its two lovers’ fate a mystery to the museum visitors. In actual fact, we discover several series later that this is exactly where the letter did materialise.
After balking somewhat at their ‘wrinklies reunion’ in the hotel lobby over a cider and a gin and tonic, the pair are still both somewhat irked by the lack of effort to reconnect. Jean could have gone through the foreign office to find Lionel’s location, while as Jean points out, Lionel, ‘didn’t bother to write a second bloody letter.’ They finish their discussion of youth, pride and stupidity and are left to consider what lives they might have led as they part company once more, seemingly content to have had closure on their relationship.
As Lionel prepares to leave the hotel, his publisher Alistair (Philip Bretherton) suggests that further edits be done on the manuscript, ensuring that Lionel remains in situ for a while longer. What follows is a tangled web of failed romantic advances…just not as the story might initially have been set up for. Having been somewhat cold at the thought of rekindling their relationship of the 1950s, Jean and Lionel now find themselves pursued by the younger generation. Judith is enamoured with Lionel, while Alistair tries one scheme after another to ingratiate himself with Jean. While both the leads enjoy the attentions of younger people, they don’t take too long to realise it’s really not what they are looking for at this stage of their life, and so they attempt to push Alistair and Judith into each other’s arms.
As the series progress we are introduced to a number of other characters. Lionel’s father, Rocky (Frank Middlemass) lives a life of luxury in a country house in Hampshire, where he has wooed Madge (Joan Sims) and soon marries. It is Rocky who suggests that Lionel should be settling down with Jean as the pair continue to grow closer. The country house set up is of course not complete without eccentric staff, here in the form of Lol Ferris (Tim Wylton) and Mrs Bale (Janet Henfrey).
Over the years, Lionel’s author career has its ups and downs, as does their relationship, but they do of course eventually join forces once again, as indeed do Judith and Alistair, albeit without some entertaining false starts with other relationships.
The real joy of As Time Goes By is that Bob Larbey knew exactly what the programme’s strength was and didn’t try to deviate. The show was never going to be a Fawlty Towers in terms of momentous comedy moments, but that was never the aim. It knows what it is – a gentle, nostalgic romantic comedy. There are still plenty of fine comedy moments, but the core of the programme is the touchingly nervous rebuilding of Jean and Lionel’s relationship so many years after destiny took them away from one another.
Dench and Palmer are as excellent as they ever were, but there are strong performances throughout, and of course any show that includes Joan Sims in its ranks as a pub-singing eccentric can only be a success. Indeed, As Time Goes By unexpectedly became a big hit Stateside, perhaps aided by a story arc in which Lionel is penning a traditional US mini-series for CBS.
Gentle and comedy aren’t always the most memorable of bedfellows, but As Time Goes By satisfied its audiences greatly and by the time it came to an end in 2005 it had garnered a loyal fan base who were left grateful for the 14 years of warmth given them. To paraphrase the famous song from which the show takes its name, we will indeed remember this…
Published on February 17th, 2022. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.