Review: Brian Slade
From her days working as a Northern comic and her catchphrase, ‘she knows, y’know,’ Hylda Baker had come a long way by the time she worked opposite Jimmy Jewel in her biggest success, Nearest and Dearest, in 1968. In 1972, the trend of taking successful sitcoms to the big screen continued courtesy of Hammer Films as they produced an adaptation of Baker’s sitcom classic about a pickle factory in Lancashire.
Even though Nearest and Dearest had gone through six series by the time the movie version was released, writers Roy Bottomley and Tom Brennand opted to retell the origins of Pledge’s Purer Pickles originally created by Vince Powell and Harry Driver. Nellie Pledge (Baker) has been caring for her ailing father as he lies on his deathbed. Her ne’er do well brother Eli (Jewell) has not been seen for 15 years, but at Mr Pledge’s request, Nellie placed an ad in the local paper urging her stayaway sibling to come home to say his farewells. Fortunately for the Pledges, Eli reads the ad on his fish and chip paper while entertaining a young lady, which at this point is his chief pastime.
Eli returns home just in time to see his father drawing his last breath as he bequeaths his teeth to Stan Hardman (they are nearly new after all) and his family business to his two offspring. The problem with that is that Eli and Nellie cannot get along. Eli has been swanning around leading the life of a playboy, while Nellie has been taking care of her father and working in the pickle factory…or in her famously inaccurate vernacular, she had been, ‘…stood standing in that factory pickling all day while he’s been lay lying up there dying.’
Eli being more interested in money and the opportunities it offers, he’s immediately keen to do as little work as possible but make changes to the factory that enable him to make as much money as possible for the minimum effort. ‘Over my dog’s body,’ says Nellie, and so she shuts the factory down for a summer holiday for all in Blackpool.
Blackpool offers a chance for Eli to flaunt his new company status at any stray pair of legs that walks his way, although he may have bitten off more than he can chew when he encounters the B&B owner, widow Mrs Rowbotham (Yootha Joyce). In a preview of what’s to come as Mrs Mildred Roper in Man About the House and George and Mildred, Joyce hams it up brilliantly as she makes a forceful play for Eli once she realises he is a single businessman.
Eli himself has other priorities. He is keen to farm Nellie off to an eligible bachelor and get her off his hands. To this end, he tries to set her up with Vernon Smallpiece (Norman Mitchell), himself a man in the pickling industry. Vernon (Vermin Codpiece to Nellie) finds Nellie a less than appealing prospect. He suggests that emigrating might be a better option and gets cold feet on many occasions, but Eli’s persuasive powers keep Vernon committed all the way to the altar – which is where everything comes unstuck, as the police arrive to arrest Vernon. It seemed that Eli’s persistence was not the only thing driving Vernon on to making Nellie his bride…he was also keen to take the money from the pickle factory business, having left a trail of financial destruction behind him.
The film ends with a still-single Nellie wandering away from the church exchanging barbed insults with her brother – ‘bow-legged brewer’s boil’, ‘knock-kneed knackered old nose bag’, ‘big flea’s armpit’ – these are the kind of exchanges commonplace throughout the series and wrap the movie version up appropriately.
Actress Jean Ferguson, who wrote a biography of Hylda Baker and starred in her own award-winning stage show about the comedian, interviewed Norman Mitchell and he gave an interesting insight into the challenges of the movie of Nearest and Dearest. It was already well known that Baker and Jewell were not fans of one another and though they denied they argued with one another, it was accepted that they never spoke off camera.
Mitchell told Ferguson that his first meeting with Baker began with, ‘Have you met him yet?’ When he said he had not, she was reported to have replied, ‘he’s mean that man – he earned a fiver in 1936 and he hasn’t broken into it yet!’
It was a similar opening when Mitchell did come to meet Jewell. ‘Have you met her?’ When Mitchell responded that they had already filmed a scene together, Jewell reportedly said, ‘Did she kill your laughs?’ Upon hearing the negative from Mitchell, he responded, ‘Well, she blooming well will do!’
It’s safe to say that the pair did not get along, and Mitchell told Ferguson that as the two stars spoke to one another only with acerbic criticism through the director/go-between, John Robins, he would retire to his dressing room for a nap until they had decided what they were going to do.
The film was not as successful as Hammer had hoped, and perhaps they had waited too late in the run of Nearest and Dearest’s television run to try and cash in. Baker was by now struggling with her lines and the movie was built around the issue, with Bottomley and Brennand trying to keep any scenes with Nellie to a short length.
Nearest and Dearest only had one more series to offer before Jewell headed off to appear in Spring and Autumn, while Baker’s career went into a terminal decline as she became a rather lonely and tragic figure. The movie isn’t the best of the TV show, but even if it doesn’t hit the same heights, it does show that at their best, though they may have hated each other off screen, Jewell and Baker had a spark on screen that still made them immensely enjoyable to watch.
Published on November 14th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.