Dying can sometimes be a funny business as television has discovered to its advantage. Writer Dick Sharples began to consider the possibilities after overhearing a conversation in a pub between two undertakers. However, in 1969 there were still some taboos that had not been tackled by the laughter makers and getting a chuckle out of someone else's bereavement was one of them.
Undeterred, Sharples wrote a single pilot episode for Thames Television in which Marjorie Rhodes starred as Ivy Unsworth, the wife of an undertaker who dies in the opening scene, leaving her to run the business with her hapless nephew, Harold (Harold Goodwin). The setting was the fictitious Lancashire town of Oldshaw and the time period was deliberately chosen by Sharples as 1929, a period when funeral parlours were switching from horse-drawn carriages to motorised vehicles, the idea being that the undertaking firm would have to face the problems of modernisation as well as the usual day-to-day situations and mishaps. The programme went out on 4th November 1969 and topped the ratings for that week. Sharples waited for Thames to commission a full series. They didn't.
In fact, it was ten years before anyone showed any further interest in making a series of In Loving Memory and by that time the BBC had covered similar ground with That's Your Funeral (starring Bill Fraser). But in 1979 Yorkshire TV ordered a full series of seven episodes starting with a remake of the pilot.
The story was based solely on the incident that Sharples had overheard in the pub in which a hearse, on the way to a funeral, hits a pothole and sheds its coffin, which then shoots down a hill and ends up in a canal. In the TV version the mourners gather around the floating casket throwing their wreaths after it like a burial at sea. To play the part of Ivy Unsworth in the series Dick Sharples and producer Ronnie Baxter approached one of Britain's treasures; Thora Hird. 'I did worry a lot about hurting people's feelings and upsetting anyone who may have been bereaved.' She said. 'But the fan letters came flooding in and so many people said how nice it was to have a bit of a laugh over a subject which we can be so straight-laced about.' The public continued to have 'a bit of a laugh' for five series of In Loving Memory. Her nephew, now named Billy, was played by former child star Christopher Beeny (The Grove Family and Upstairs Downstairs). During that time the series moved on to the 1930s and the accident prone Billy married Mary Braithwaite (Sherrie Hewson). In true sitcom style, Ivy accompanied them on their honeymoon.
In Loving Memory managed to tread the fine line between comedy and tragedy and was seen by many as a light relief from the stark reality of death. It seems everyone has a funny funeral story. One woman wrote to Thora Hird and told her how an uncle of hers had always expressed a wish to be cremated but his widow insisted he be buried. Naturally, the widow had the last word. But on the way to the funeral the hearse caught fire. 'My uncle almost got his wish' she wrote. Funny business, indeed.
Published on December 22nd, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.