1987 - United Kingdom

“a hugely likeable and funny trip down memory lane”

Watching is reviewed by Brian Slade

The mis-matched couple with a disapproving parental figure is a scenario that has been tapped successfully for television on many occasions. Along that theme in 1987 Granada aired the first episode of a show that became a hugely likeable comedy for seven series as meek and mild birdwatcher Malcolm dates straight-shooting scouser Brenda in Jim Hitchmough’s successful sitcom, Watching.

Watching was first conceived as a simple comedy sketch but was picked up as a Radio 4 comedy play in 1985 starring Sue Jenkins and Bernard Latham, who both went on to soap opera stardom. The BBC brief was, ‘When Brenda tipped Malcolm’s drink over in the pub she was hoping to get a ride on his pillion to a biker bust-up in Rhyl. What she hadn’t bargained for was a trip in what she called a one-wheeled bidet to some marsh on the Wirral.’

Watching TV series

Although the BBC didn’t progress the show further, Granada did. They commissioned a series and changed the leads. Malcolm (Paul Bown) is a mothered birdwatcher who gets to all his birdwatching spots via his Norton motorbike and what just about passes as a sidecar. His biker leathers attract attention when he stops in at a pub in which two sisters are engaged in their favourite pastime of people watching. Brenda (Emma Wray) is a quickfire joke machine scouser. Along with her sister Pamela (Liza Tarbuck), they sup their drinks while attributing fictitious backstories to any new face that comes through the door, such as Sceptic Cedric, who becomes a regular at the pub even though we never discover his real name.

When Malcolm arrives, meekly waiting behind a queue of people at the bar, Brenda is intrigued and deliberately stands close enough behind Malcolm to ensure that he knocks her drink, thereby engineering an introduction. They strike up enough of a conversation to arrange to meet up the following Sunday, aided by the first of many of Brenda’s wind-ups – in this case, saying that she has come down from Scotland to assist her cousin, Kenny Dalglish, with some training.

Watching sitcom

Come the Sunday, Brenda is amazed to find that rather than riding pillion with a traditional biker, she will be sat almost on the road in the most cramped of sidecars with Malcolm’s equipment, although at that point she knows not what it is for. In her loud outfits and heavy make-up, Brenda is wisecracking her way through the journey about the lack of comfort (‘I’ve got a backside like a month-old Eccles cake’), with her only relief coming at a roadside café where she plonks her feet on Malcolm’s lap for a massage. Eventually they arrive on a hillside where it becomes clear that the biker gathering Brenda thought she was being taken to was actually a spot for Malcolm’s favourite pastime, birdwatching. She is horrified and bored, while Malcolm is left hurt and indignant at the stick Brenda gives him for his favourite pastime. They return home and on their next people watching session, Brenda admits to her sister that there was not the remotest chance of ever seeing ‘that fella’ again, whereby he appears to kindly return an earring she lost on their trip.

Despite their unsuccessful trip, Brenda is intrigued by Malcolm. He comes from the other side of the Wirral, Meols, and offers a gentle kindness that she doesn’t normally find in men. What’s more, he seems to like her despite her messing with him and joking at his expense on a regular basis. She deliberately tracks him down to his workplace to convince him they go out for a meal. Malcolm’s workplace is initially a men’s clothing store, where his main pal is Terry, played by Perry Fenwick, another future soap regular.

Watching 1987 series

With the unlikely couple dynamic established, we then meet the smothering mother and get some idea of how Malcolm has become as meek and mild as he is. Domineering Mrs Stoneway (Patsy Byrne) still brings Malcolm his breakfast, egg cosies and all, demands he attend to his ablutions appropriately and looks to him for support in her various community activities, all conducted in a very Hyacinth Bucket manner. She expects standards and therefore inevitably expects any potential partner for him to be of certain standing. Brenda plays a role when they first meet, adding a posh accent and pretending to be higher class, only to blow her cover when she thinks Mrs Stoneway is out of earshot by yelling ‘that bleeding cat’s peed in my ‘elmet.’

Watching - Granada sitcom

Throughout the first series the focus is mostly on Malcolm and Brenda acclimatising to one another’s different worlds and the jokes from Brenda run thick and fast, but there’s a gentler undercurrent of her feelings of insecurity, doubting she is good enough for Malcolm. We see more of Pamela in subsequent series as she moves from being the other woman in her boss’s life to marrying him and having children. But for Brenda, the path of love is not so smooth and she and Malcolm frequently part ways, even to the extent of Malcolm marrying another woman, Lucinda (Elizabeth Heery). But the end of the final series had to be a happy ever after situation.

Watching was a huge success for Granada, promoted from its late Sunday timeslot to primetime Friday evening after its first series. Bown plays his character with enough charm to avoid Malcolm being too dim or drippy to like and Wray delivers her jokes with the kind of superb timing one would expect to come from a more seasoned actor. Writer Hitchmough never got to repeat the success of the show, passing away in 1997.

There are many British comedies that make either uncomfortable viewing or offer disappointingly poor quality through modern eyes. Watching does neither. In an era where the BBC tended to dominate ratings and reviews, Watching was a triumph for commercial television, and it remains a hugely likeable and funny trip down memory lane.

Published on January 13th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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