To the majority of comedy fans, Derek Nimmo is best remembered for his endearingly sneering contributions to the classic radio panel game Just A Minute, one of the principal core panellists alongside Peter Jones, Clement Freud and Peter Jones at the height of the programme’s success. The superior sound of Nimmo was also well established on television as Reverend Mervyn Noote in five series of All Gas and Gaiters. However, in a rather curious move given that it ran at the same time as All Gas and Gaiters, Nimmo starred in another ecclesiastical comedy from 1968 to 1970 as the bumbling Brother Dominic in Oh, Brother!
Brother Dominic is far removed from Nimmo’s character in All Gas and Gaiters. Our introduction to Dominic is at a routine practice of the choir at the Mountacres Monastery. The choir has only one problem to overcome – Dominic. His gusto and enthusiasm cannot hope to conceal the shocking noise that comes from his mouth when contributing, described as his superiors as a sound ‘more indicative of pain, penance and purgatory.’ On top of that, Dominic is as clumsy as he is off key, meaning that pretty much every action he takes has a disastrous reaction for the other members of the cloth to deal with.
Trying to minimise the damage inadvertently dealt out by Dominic is Father Anselm, portrayed with an appropriate combination of horror and despair by Felix Aylmer, a fine Shakespearean actor in one of his last significant roles. In the opening episode, he is desperate to not only save the choir’s aching ears, but also to hide Dominic away into a behind the scenes role while Cardinal Minelli appears for an inspection of the monastery that could lead to a merger into a larger establishment. With more drastic measures such as sending Dominic to the Persian Gulf dismissed as excessive, attempts to keep him from ruining the visit fail. Dominic has a natural talent for disaster in the opinion of Master of the Novices Father Bernard (Colin Gordon) and so it follows that his voice is disastrous, but when His Eminence hears the cries that masquerade as singing The Cardinal is delighted given that his own voice is of equally painful pitch.
Subsequent episodes follow a similar path. Kindness, enthusiasm and dedication ooze from Brother Dominic, but so do accidents and misadventure. Imagine Frank Spencer joining the Brotherhood and you get a good idea of the troubles that follow Dominic and the pains the rest of the monastery have to endure.
Nimmo’s character in All Gas and Gaiters was a very upper class one, whereas Dominic is as down to earth as it gets. Raw and naïve, Nimmo offers a very slapstick portrayal of Dominic which is most endearing, perhaps more so than Noote in his more successful religious based comedy.
In addition to the slapstick nature, writers David Climie and Austin Steele offer some excellent dialogue which sits nicely with the serious performances of Aylmer and Gordon. “We’re shortly expecting a visit from a very important personage,” bemoans Father Anselm. “Oh no, not Malcolm Muggeridge I trust,” is the retort from Father Bernard. “No, but still as disturbing.”
The denomination in Oh, Brother! is the Catholic church, in contrast to the Church of England offered in All Gas and Gaiters, while Nimmo’s characters are at opposite ends of the class spectrum. Equally, All Gas and Gaiters offers a clumsy portrayal of the clergy, whereas Oh, Brother! focuses solely on the incompetence of Dominic. Nimmo is equally good in both, but somehow Dominic elicits the sympathy far more, which makes it all the more surprising that Oh, Brother! is the lesser referenced of the two comedies.
Perhaps the fact that All Gas and Gaiters arrived first and had established an audience already rather doomed Oh, Brother! from being more successful, or maybe it was just asking too much of audiences at the time to follow two men of the cloth played by the same actor but in totally separate characters and situation. One can’t help but feel that if Arthur Lowe, and not Windsor Davies, had portrayed the role of Sergeant Major Shut Up Williams in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum at the same time as the gentle incompetence of Captain Mainwaring it would have been to the detriment of both shows.
Oh, Brother! was successful enough to sustain three series and a subsequent spin-off, Oh, Father!, which sees Dominic becomes a priest. There’s no question that Oh, Brother! was a very funny show and only added stock to Nimmo’s reputation for comic performing, and perhaps if more than the eight remaining episodes had survived, it would be remembered with somewhat more deserving regularity.
About the writer of this article:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on March 31st, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.