When You Rang, M’Lord? came to a close after four series, writer David Croft had severed his ties with the BBC. Frustrated that comedy people had fallen by the wayside at the corporation and that his show had seen almost no repeats, he felt that the BBC were no longer interested in gentle family comedy. That Croft had filmed a pilot over at ITV, Which Way to the War?, raised eyebrows and so in 1995 Croft was invited to lunch with Will Wyatt and David Liddiment of the BBC.
Having worked his magic on the two executives, Croft emerged with agreement to produce a pilot for a show based on the attempts of a small railway station to survive the drastic cuts imposed on the railway network off the back of the Beeching Report of 1963.
Unusually, Croft found a new writing partner instead of his trusted regulars Jeremy Lloyd and Jimmy Perry. Feeding him reliable information on the railways was Richard Spendlove, who had himself spent more than 30 years working on the railways before moving into the world of radio chat shows. Spendlove wasn’t by nature a comedy writer and had approached Croft several times with his idea before getting his support.
Filmed at a small station in the Severn Valley, the involvement of Croft meant that he could reunite one more time with the core of his Hi-de-hi! cast. In a change from form however, Jeffrey Holland took the ranking role of Cecil Parkin, the new stationmaster battling to ensure the survival of the station. Beneath him is Paul Shane playing the station’s unambitious porter, Jack Skinner, who dislikes his superior intently, while Su Pollard is once again cast in the role of a somewhat hare-brained junior member of staff in the form of ticket seller Ethel.
As usual with the stable of ‘You Have Been Watching…’ comedies on the BBC, cameos from the Croft/Perry/Lloyd pool were frequent, with the likes of Windsor Davies, Felix Bowness and Perry Benson involved at various times. The stories themselves were all primarily based on Spendlove’s experiences and offered gentle humour with a slightly naughty glint, especially with Pollard’s role and her amorous advances to station guard Percy.
Oh, Dr Beeching! was a hit with its pilot show, its viewing figures unrivalled for a new comedy for some years afterwards. Unfortunately, due to the expense of its location shooting, it was somewhat over budget at a time when the BBC purse strings were largely welded shut. Furthermore, under the John Birt revolution, BBC’s executives were experiencing a significant turnover as they became heads of department in little more than title only.
After its successful pilot, Croft’s new show had to wait nearly a full year before a full series reached the screen, courtesy of the BBC’s internal politics. It returned fairly healthy viewing figures, doubtless helped by the familiarity of its leading cast members, and the show undoubtedly carries a quaint charm about it. Unfortunately, most of Croft’s allies at the corporation were gone by the time the second series was being filmed. It rarely held a consistent place in the schedules and just as had been the case with You Rang, M’Lord?, Oh, Dr Beeching! received no repeats of series one ahead of the appearance of series two, something Croft always felt was imperative when trying to build an audience.
After 19 episodes, Oh! Dr Beeching was axed. It had undoubtedly been quite an ambitious effort from David Croft to battle against the penny-pinching the BBC were now employing, along with the focus on edgier comedy, but its speedy exit from the schedules was a rather unceremonious end to Croft’s time at the BBC and without doubt the show and its creator deserved better treatment.
Published on June 2nd, 2019. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.