Ask somebody to link comedy writing royalty David Croft with national treasure Mollie Sugden and the vast majority of people would understandably come up with Are You Being Served? The success of the show set in the Grace Brothers department store escalated Sugden to a household name and continued to enhance Croft’s reputation as the go-to man for penning top-rated comedies.
What people won’t necessarily know is that Croft considered a one-series flop as some of he and Jeremy Lloyd’s funniest work, ahead of Are You Being Served? Or ‘Allo ‘Allo. Nor will they realise that Mollie Sugden starred as more than one Croft creation, beyond the world famous Mrs Slocombe.
In 1977, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd were looking to capitalise on the ongoing success of Are You Being Served?. Croft had just returned from a fruitless spell in America, where he had witnessed the failed attempt to recast Dad’s Army for an American audience.
Croft had a history of producing well-observed comedy based on his own life experiences, most successfully Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and subsequently Hi-de-hi!. What he presented to the BBC powers in 1977 was a complete departure, so much so that Croft was not prepared to reveal the content of his hoped for new production for fear of his idea being poached. BBC Head of Comedy Jimmy Gilbert, aware of the immense success the pen of Croft normally produced, approved a pilot with no knowledge of what would be forthcoming.
Come Back Mrs Noah starred Mollie Sugden as Gertrude Noah, whose Bakewell Tarts have made her Modern Housewife Cookery Competition Winner of the year 2050. Her prize was somewhat unusual – a tour of a spaceship, the Britannia Seven, that the UK had established at a base in Pontefract. While enjoying her tour, the ship is mistakenly propelled into orbit.
The plot was undoubtedly uncharted territory for both Croft and the BBC, but the ingredients should have been there for a success. Croft assembled a collection of actors that had either already achieved or would subsequently achieve great things bringing Croft characters to life. Aside from the remarkable talents of Sugden herself, Gorden Kaye and Vicki Michelle would appear, alongside Dad’s Army favourite Ian Lavendar and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum officers Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles.
Much of the comedy was visual, with the BBC special effects crew working overtime to satisfy the demands of the scripts, wanting unusual inventions that would fail dismally due to the early departure of the UK’s flagship spacecraft. Down on earth, Kaye would host news specials a la seventies magazine programme Nationwide with updates on the ongoing attempts to bring back Mrs Noah and the unfortunate rabble of a crew.
The pilot was successful enough for a full series to be commissioned. With Sugden’s army of fans and Croft and Lloyd’s golden touch, it seemed a sure-fire hit. Quite why it never turned out that way can only be theorised. Sugden was of course adored, and Are You Being Served? was at the peak of its powers. Maybe audiences couldn’t handle the idea of seeing the blue hair of Mrs Slocombe in alternative surroundings, with no inappropriate mention of her oft talked about feline companion.
Croft postulated that scheduling was an issue, going up as it was against the rebellious chaos of the Kenny Everett Show. Or it may simply be that even the best efforts of the BBC’s special effects department couldn’t persuade the 1970s viewing public that they were ready for a gravity-free Mollie Sugden in a 2050 inaugural space journey.
The programme disappeared and has rarely been seen since, much to the chagrin of the late David Croft, who felt the programme to be amongst his funniest work. The show’s script is actually consistent with the Croft/Perry/Lloyd juggernaut that was in full flow at the time. Double entendres abound and combined with special effects it does offer an element of charm, albeit Sugden’s talents do seem underused. With no official DVD release however, it leaves a sad gap in the library of the great comedy writing of Croft and Lloyd and the much-loved, much-missed talents of the effervescent Sugden.
Published on May 30th, 2019. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.