By the end of the 1980s, it seemed Dennis Waterman could do no wrong. He’d played the hard man in The Sweeney and Minder to much acclaim and would soon achieve cosy sitcom success in On The Up! Somewhere between the defined lines of sitcom and drama, Waterman managed to squeeze in Stay Lucky, a comedy drama that saw him star as a cheeky Londoner dodging his dubious past with uptight and well-to-do Yorkshire lady Sally Hardcastle.
Waterman played Thomas Gynn. His first appearance sets the tone for the entire series. He’s caught by an angry husband in bed with his wife, and with his flat trashed he decides that this is the final straw for his life in the capital and he heads off to start a new life in Leeds…but inevitably, the path to a new start does not run smoothly. His decision to hitch-hike with just one tired leather case to call his own proves unwise when he becomes the object of unwanted amorous intentions of a passing lorry driver, and he swiftly bails out in a layby rather than acquiesce to the driver’s intentions. Coincidentally, at that same layby somebody else is having a bad day.
Recently widowed by her cheating husband, Sally Hardcastle (Jan Francis) drives a vintage Jaguar…or she did until it packed up on her way back to Yorkshire. Given that Thomas left the lorry in a state of semi-undress, she considers this stranger suddenly thrown into her path of dubious character and wants nothing to do with him, although eventually when faced with little option, she allows him to fix the Jag and gives him a lift on his quest further north.
The pair do not hit it off and Sally dumps Thomas 40 miles short of his intended destination. His lack of travel nous doesn’t register that he is nowhere near Leeds until he tries to get a cab to the pub he was destined for, and instead his journey is completed the next day in a three wheeler driven by an aging juggler seemingly on a death wish.
The tone of the comedy and drama balance now set in the opening exchanges, we realise that Sally’s recently deceased husband was not a one-woman man. Nor indeed was he a two-woman man, leaving the ‘other woman’ equally distressed at the mess Stephen Hardcastle has left behind him. Sally’s luxurious canal boat is swiftly turned over by associates of her lost husband as they come looking for the key to a fortune that Stephen discovered just hours before his death.
Through a number of coincidences, Thomas has now arrived in Leeds and he and Sally’s paths intertwine in unlikely manners as their dislike of one another fails to separate them as both are drawn into Stephen’s past wrongdoings.
From here on in, the scene is set for the ultimate in unlikely bedfellows stories. Thomas is unable to permanently shake the shiftier elements of his past in London, with Del-boy style deals and dubious business ideas frequently coming back to bite him. For Sally, attempts to rebuild her own life after her husband’s cheating and departure by starting a canal boat rental service also fail to run smoothly. Bring in constant reminders of both of their pasts, potential inheritances and their innate love/hate attitude to one another and the show treads a nice balance between the comedy and drama.
Francis and Waterman were popular faces on 1980s television, with Francis having tasted huge success opposite Paul Nicholas in Just Good Friends, but Stay Lucky is a very different variation on the unlikely couple theme. The comedy is less safe than Just Good Friends, with the dramatic element far grittier, but there’s no denying that the on-screen chemistry between the two is a huge part of the show’s success.
There’s an element of a British Moonlighting about Stay Lucky. The gruff, streetwise man developing an unlikely relationship with the sneering and seemingly more refined lady. The drama is frequent, with the pair constantly on the move trying to dodge their latest troubles, with violent crooks and mysterious associates frequently wanting to take the two down. The extremes of the comedy moments are on a similar path too, never more so than in the opening episode when Sally runs over Thomas in her Jag and Thomas then gets involved in a fight with Sally’s over-protective friend, where the weapons of choice are the fish from the days catch and Thomas’s fake plaster cast for his badly bruised foot. The banter between the two doesn’t have the same zaniness as its distant American equivalent, but there is nonetheless a certain charm about Stay Lucky, primarily because as individuals, neither lead character is particularly appealing, but as a relationship they provide great entertainment.
For three series the show was a high viewing earner for ITV, but for the fourth series, Francis departed. On screen, Sally had by now found another man and was expecting a child while Thomas was spending time in jail. That final series lacked the spark between the pair, despite noble attempts by Susan George and Leslie Ash to give it fresh impetus. The storyline follows the well-trodden path of Thomas getting into trouble at each and every turn as he attempts to carve out yet another new life for himself, but the rebuilding of the show’s premise leaves it short of the first three series.
With Francis gone, perhaps the fourth series was a step too far, but for Waterman it represents another significant success in what was a golden time for his career. There are some dubious moments of dialogue that are merely reflective of the years the show was on screen, but it’s harsh to judge it on those. The first three series in particular are captivating, run along at a refreshingly good pace and have some excellent comedic moments, making Stay Lucky well worth another look.
Review by Brian Slade:
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'.
Published on May 25th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.