‘O wad power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithrs see us.’ These were the Robert Burns words Richard O’Sullivan’s character Paul quoted to his wife Faye in the glorious one-off Channel 4 farce of 1988, The Giftie.
The premise of The Giftie is simple. Paul and his near-neighbour and best friend Frank (the incomparable John Wells) are returning home from the office with a story of inglorious failure to share with their wives. It is in Paul’s home that the majority of the action takes place, as he regales the story to his wife of this incredible new invention that he and Frank have been testing. It was, ‘a walking, talking three-dimensional photocopier – and it’s brilliant.’ Except it would be if it worked, which they believe it doesn’t. Keep in mind this was New Year’s Day 1988 so the idea of such a machine was far more absurd than it might sound to a 2020 audience.
Having established that the new machine didn’t work – it was described as a walk-in wardrobe which was supposed to spit out its copy at the other end after successful copying – Paul and Frank joked that if the contraption had worked, they thought it would have been funny if they made a copy of themselves to send home to the wives, while they spent a night on the town. No danger in that they thought, especially having tested it first on the office cat, Tiddles.
Faye, played with stern consternation throughout by Joanna Van Gyseghem, is less than impressed with Paul’s flippant attitude, and leaves him in no doubt as to her opinion of the intended prank as Paul heads upstairs for a bath. The chaotic events of the day begin to come to a head however while Paul is singing away in his suds…as Paul also walks through the front door to greet his wife, apologising for being late and wondering what is for dinner. As Faye become even more annoyed with what she sees as an ongoing mean practical joke, she attempts to call Paul’s bluff by calling ‘the little tape recorder’ down from the bathroom to meet newly arrived Paul. It’s when the two Pauls meet on the stairs that she promptly faints to the floor.
The farcical element ramps up as both Pauls claim to be the original, not the copy. After much one-upmanship the first Paul calls the first Frank and they agree to go to the pub. Dismissing initial thoughts on murdering their copies, Paul and Frank establish that there is a problem with the copies – they are unstable and after a certain amount of time, implode. Their time at the pub is cut short when their other selves arrive as well, causing the landlord to reach for his shotgun!
Back at home, the first pair return to meet their wives. Frank’s wife, Margaret, upon hearing that one of the Pauls and one of the Franks will at some point burst, decides that they should pour a sherry and commence a game of bridge. Since both sets of Pauls and Franks believe they are the original, there is nothing more they can do other than wait it out, and so they deal the cards. Frank gets the most outrageous hand, bidding a grand slam all on his own, but his joy is short-lived as he starts to become transparent, a sure sign that he will shortly implode. As he turns to say goodbye to Margaret, a loud pop signals his demise and his cards fall to the table. Paul shortly suffers the same fate.
A few minutes later, the remaining Paul and Frank return to try and warn their other selves, but burst into celebration when they realise that the implosions have already taken place, dancing a jig of ‘we are the real ones.’ But their joy too is short lived as they also go transparent and burst, leaving distraught wives with nobody. When Faye suggests they call the police, Margaret bemoans, ‘what can we possibly tell them? Both our sets of husbands exploded before our eyes when it should only have been one of them?’
As they ponder life without Paul and Frank, a familiar pair of somewhat intoxicated voices come stumbling into the lounge – Paul and Frank, the third set! ‘Did our copy arrive safely?’ they proclaim, barely able to conceal their childish excitement. When challenged as to why they had to be so mean as to send two copies home, not just one, the pair are bemused until they realise what has happened. The copies must have gone back into the cabinet and tried again, thinking it hadn’t worked.
As we leave the now seemingly relieved couples, we are treated to one final drunken noise off screen – another set of drunken Paul and Franks arriving home!
The Giftie may have only been a one-off Channel Four programme, but it was farce at its greatest. Van Gyseghem and Janet Key are perfectly indignant at their husbands’ behaviour. John Wells hams it up wonderfully as Frank, battling for supremacy over the one pair of slippers and bemoaning that with a seven no-trump hand, one could almost die happy. But at the head of the cast, Richard O’Sullivan has never been better. When drunken Paul number three confesses to their devilish scheme to send home a copy of the wife, his demonic laughter is glorious, and it makes you realise what a gaping hole in television comedy was created by his early retirement.
The Giftie is at once playful and dark, even sending itself up as the Paul and Frank characters go through the credits four times each. Writer Wally K Daly largely wrote dramas, so to pen a piece of such hysterical nonsense is a great credit to his talents. It’s rarely been seen since its original screening, which is a shame, because The Giftie achieves a rare feat – genuine comedy farce that works perfectly on the small screen.
About Brian Slade
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian 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 April 10th, 2020. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.