Eric Sykes and Yorkshire Television revived Brandon Thomas's famous farce for the festive season in 1977 with a seventy-five-minute adaptation of the play which, after it opened in London in 1892, set a record for the number of performances for that century; 1,466 across four years. In making the one-off play for television, Sykes was reunited with Jimmy Edwards with whom he'd previously had a huge stage success in the late 1960s much ad-libbed production of Big Bad Mouse.
The fun starts when Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez (Barbara Murray) fails to arrive to act as chaperon to the two young women (Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue played by Louise Hall-Taylor and Judi Maynard) that Jack Chesney (Osmund Bullock) and Charley Wykeham (Alun Lewis) are trying to woo, and they have to find a substitute in a hurry.
In the original, Jack and Charley persuade Oxford undergraduate Lord Fancourt Babberley to impersonate Charley's Aunt, but with Sykes clearly beyond the age where he could pass as a student, even in this farcical situation ("I'm too old to play an under-graduate, even if I knew how - which I don't" - he told the press), his character, the manservant Brassett becomes the main character who ‘drags up’.
When Jack's father, Sir Francis Chesney (Gerald Flood) arrives and reveals that he has inherited debts that have wiped out his family fortune, Jack suggests that Sir Francis should marry Donna Lucia who is a widow and a millionairess. Mr Spettigue (Jimmy Edwards), the penniless father of Amy also turns up and is furious that the boys are lunching with the girls without permission. But, upon hearing of the celebrated millionairess he decides to stay for lunch in an attempt to win her over for himself.
Meanwhile, the real Donna Lucia, who turns out to be an attractive middle-aged woman, arrives at Oxford with her adopted niece, Miss Ela Delahay (Yvonne Nicholson), who, it transpires, is also a lady of wealthy means.
Syke's script stayed moderately close to the original, although the reviewer Ken Burgess wrote that 'The Eric Sykes version of "Charley's Aunt" should have been presented with apologies to the author, Brandon Thomas.
Not only was there licence with the Thomas lines but there were liberties even with the adaptation, and Sykes and Jimmy Edwards (running true to their track records) ad-libbed and improvised. The rest of the cast, too, spluttered, thundered, simpered and clowned their way through a tale which was not so much farce as burlesque.
Purists may protest...it doesn't really matter. Why should "Charley's Aunt” be sacrosanct?
Call it farce, burlesque, slapstick, music-hall humour or whatever you will. It was fun.'
Published on April 10th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.