When 26-year-old physical education teacher Zoe Angell arrives at the offices of Semple, Callender and Henty to make arrangements for her divorce, she is received by one of the partners, Alec Callender, a 53-year-old solicitor, who although relatively successful, is still something of a dreamer whose greatest desire is to land a case worthy of his great hero, Perry Mason. He doesn't land the big case - but he does eventually land Zoe.
Scots born Paul A Mendelson trained to be a lawyer before turning his hand to TV comedy. Graduating from Cambridge in 1972 he first ran a family law department in a small legal practice. "Actually," he once said in an interview, "I was the family law department." Because of one particularly traumatic case, Mendelson left law and went into advertising. For eighteen years he wrote TV commercials for a number of major agencies. "I ended up - after the obligatory redundancy as the creative director of a medium size agency" he remembers. "But as I was approaching forty and everyone else was twelve, I thought it might be time to move on."
Paul had written a series of commercials for Heinz Spaghetti, the director for which was Nic Roeg, whose credits include the feature films 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'. Paul plucked up the courage to show him a short, unpublished novel he had written, concerning a family who move into a house haunted by a Jewish mother. Roeg in turn passed it to TV producer Verity Lambert who then asked Paul to turn it into a pilot episode. The finished script was submitted to the BBC Head of Comedy, who rejected it because it had, in his opinion, all the ingredients for a disaster; namely children, dogs, ethnic humour and special effects. Paul was told to go away and try again, which he did.
The result was May To December, which Paul claims to have written in his spare time on the train and in the lavatory. The BBC bought it straight off. "I was working full-time so I had to write about something that required very little research." Said Paul. "I had worked in a small legal practice, so I knew about divorce. My wife was a teacher, so I knew about schools. The female lead was named after my eldest daughter, so that didn't take much imagination, and the series was even set in my home town of Pinner!"
It was its generation gap romantic theme that set May To December apart from most comedies. "I love writing about relationships," said Paul, "and the special problems facing a couple of differing generations and values seemed ripe with possibilities." And those possibilities were explored to the full as Alec (Anton Rodgers) begins to date Zoe (Eve Matheson), much to the disapproval of Zoe's mum, Dot (Kate Williams) and her sister Debbie (Chrissie Cotterill). Equally horrified is Alec's prim and proper daughter, Simone (Carolyn Pickles). The road to true love doesn't run smooth at first and even Alec finds himself questioning the rationality of a relationship to a woman less than half his age. But in times of doubt Alec can at least turn to the picture of Perry Mason hanging in his office, and ask its advice. Alec does, of course have 'real-life' people on his side; his frequently visiting and constantly wisecracking son, Jamie (Paul Venables), and his two office staff; the prim and proper secretary Vera Flood (Frances White) and the empty headed cockney receptionist/typist Hilary (Rebecca Lacey - who would often steal some of the best lines in the show).
May To December was something of a gentle comedy, but one that proved a sure-fire hit with the viewers who certainly didn't disapprove of Alec and Zoe's relationship. Eventually, Alec managed to win over Zoe's family, and got on especially well with her parents -whom he had much in common with due to the fact that they were around the same age. As the relationship progressed and romance blossomed Alec popped 'the question' and the pair were soon joined together in matrimony.
Less than a year after series one finished, the BBC aired series two. At the end of the second series Eve Matheson was offered a world tour with the National Theatre, working with Ian McKellen in 'Richard III' and playing Cordelia in 'King Lear,' so when the series returned for a special on 31st December 1990 (and a seven-episode run from early January 1991), Zoe looked a little less like Eve Matheson and a little more like Lesley Dunlop.
By the time series six aired in 1994 there had been a number of other changes, too. Alec's son, James, had now become a partner in the law firm, replacing the retired Miles Henty (Clive Francis), Miss Flood had also found romance and married plasterer Gerald Tipple, and Hilary had made way for eccentric Scots lass Rosie MacConnachy (Ashley Jensen). The Callender family also had a new addition -Alec and Zoe's daughter, Fleur.
The success of May To December not only took the BBC by surprise but also Paul A Mendelson. "I was so thrilled to get my first series on BBC, I never even thought beyond it." He said. "When they asked for a second, all I could think was 'ohmygod', what do this couple do now? Eventually, of course, as the BBC kept asking for more, it became the natural progression of a relationship. I actually wanted to finish the series after four seasons, but - happily - I was persuaded to continue - hence baby Fleur, etc."
During the fourth season of the series writer Mendelson scored a hit with another sitcom called So Haunt Me. This concerned a family who move into a house haunted by a Jewish mother!
May To December made its final television bow on 27th May 1994, but it wasn't the last time that fans of the series were to enjoy the antics of the middle-aged solicitor and his younger wife. In 1998 six episodes were adapted for BBC Radio 2 and many of the cast, including Rodgers and Dunlop, returned to lend their voices to the characters. An unexpected hit, May To December enjoyed a long run on television thanks to some excellent scripts, fine acting and a plot that was a little different from the usual run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. It was an open and shut case of fun.
Published on January 3rd, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2003) for Television Heaven.