WHISKY-FUELLED familial haulage business melodrama which took the Sunday evening post-SONGS OF PRAISE ‘cosy drama’ slot and played merry hell with it. Taking their cue from ITV’s ground-and-ball-breaking PATRICK WYMARK desk thumper THE POWER GAME, originators GERALD GLAISTER and NJ CRISP took the workplace intrigue serial and melded it with the family shenanigans of THE FORSTYE SAGA, serving up a tempting blend of boardroom confrontation and drawing room meltdown to which the British public took like catnip, filing into front rooms by the million every Sunday evening to take their seats for another round of managerial machinations as the stately po-po-pom-poms of the English Heritage theme tune swelled majestically over excitingly grainy footage of motorway freight in full trundle.
The set-up: old Robert Hammond, chairman of Hammond Transport, has died. A post-funeral reading of the will leaves control of the trucking firm in the hands of his three very temperamentally different sons, with a bonus seat on the board for his secretary. Cue a growing spiral of siblings at loggerheads, collapsing relationships, underhand wheeler-dealings and the grand tragedy of men who contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, played out among the finest cravats and crystal decanters known to the props man.
Eldest son and self-appointed rightful inheritor was bluff chip-off-the-old-block Edward (“Fourteen. Leave school. Pound a week. Think yourself lucky.”) initially played by GLYN OWEN, whose gruff, slovenly consonants gave the air of a permanently pissed-off Tony Blackburn, forever convening “emergency board meedings” as his three piece suit strained under the pressure. When the series took off, Owen, demanding more cash than the Beeb could muster, walked, paving the way for British TV’s first ‘replace one actor with another one who’s nothing like him and pretend nothing’s happened’ substitution, as PATRICK O’CONNELL provided a more conventionally middle-class Ted, a sort of Mac Fisheries James Mason.
Against Ted’s no-nonsense work ethic, the younger brothers offered varying brands of wetness. Ace accountant and top Leslie Crowther lookalike Brian (RICHARD EASTON) spent most of his time being kind and patient in his swooning voice while suffering the slings and arrows of his bitchy, increasingly estranged wife Ann (HILARY TINDALL). Spoilt gadabout arts graduate and “second class honours, first class layabout” David (ROBIN CHADWICK), meanwhile, was forever on the verge of giving up his stake in the company for a life of international hedonism with girlfriend Jill (GABRIELLE DRAKE). “Sounds like a raving bore to me!”
Cuckoo in the inheritance nest was Jennifer Kinglsey (JENNIFER WILSON), the company secretary who, it transpired over the will reading, had been at it with the old chairman for years at a rented cottage near Maidstone, and had borne him a daughter Barbara (JULIA GOODMAN) who didn’t take the paternal revelations too well (“He was an old man!” “HE WAS A MAN!!”) but soon grew to accept her status as flibbertigibbet corporate heiress.
Robert’s widow Mary (JEAN ANDERSON) wafted about the margins as a malevolent spectre, stoically manipulative (“You will hear what I have to say!”), and permanently stricken by woe or ill health. (“Oh come on, mother! You’ll live forever!” “No. Shan’t.”) Lower down the pecking order were taciturn foreman Bill Riley (“When I started fer yer father, you were just a snotty nosed kid!”) and ditzy, put-upon comic relief secretary Marion. A couple of years in, Crisp and Glaister stoked a potentially ailing format with the introduction of ruthless merchant banker Paul Merroney (COLIN BAKER) and his opposite number Jane Maxwell (KATE O’MARA), head of brilliantly-named air transport company Flair Freight and all-round man-baiting “very tough lady”. (“Get your backsides out of here before I call the police!”)
There may have been a smattering of permissive society horseplay, but the meat of the series was defiantly old school ‘family firm’ rivalry: long, silent scowls across highly polished board tables, people dramatically excusing themselves at points of high drama, high-powered man-to-man negotiations round the billiard table etc. An episode without a tough talking board meeting (“It’s about time that damn warehouse started paying its way!”) was a rare beast indeed. Sexual conquests were primarily David’s domain. (“Where have you been all my life?” “Locked in a tower!” “By your wicked uncle?” “WITH my wicked uncle!”) Parties were arranged and attended (“I’m not that keen on bourgeois cocktail parties!” “You can bring a nest full of birds if you want!”) primarily for the dropping of Earth-shattering, series-climaxing revelations.
Your typical episode followed a familiar template. A seemingly minor corporate kerfuffle built up over the first half until passions started flying across the boardroom. (“I put my life into this business!”) The booze intake rocketed in direct proportion to the emotional tension. (“One more won’t help any more than the rest have done!”) Money was a perennial worry. (“Can you afford it?” “I’ll manage somehow.”) The various family members’ terse exchanges ended either with the parties making it up to each other with offers of a slap-up dinner (“Somewhere nice. Champagne, the lot.”) or an awkward see-my-self-out exit. (“I… shouldn’t have come.”) Above the episode pattern, each series obeyed a rigid formula – start with a wedding or a big business opportunity, end with a death or a nervous breakdown.
In short, they settled their fraternal differences, fell out over other differences, survived a takeover bid from hostile Australian Harry Carter (who “runs some tin-pot express parcel distribution firm in Southwark”), expanded into Europe, floated on the stock market, and moved into planes and the Middle East respectively. Mary had a heart attack, Ted quit and came back, Jill died in a car crash and didn’t come back, David marked the show’s low tide mark with a half-arsed stint as a racing driver, Brian had a breakdown and got better after growing a moustache, Ted and Jenny married, adopted a West Indian baby and then had to give it back, Paul became chairman and started courting Lebanese sheikhs, and Marion got shouted at for mislaying some tenders.
The Brothers had something for everyone. As producer Ken Riddington put it: “Women are interested in the clothes, while accountants get intrigued with business points.” The show’s popularity started high and soon went through the roof, tickling the fancies of both Clive James and the genuinely mad, who thought Mary and Paul were real people. Most, though, had half a brain, and were alert to the dramatic subtexts. (“When Ann demanded a deep freeze, she was really begging for attention.”)
In the show’s final year, Merroney married bankers’ daughter April Winter (LIZA GODDARD) (“Why do I like you?” “Because you’re rather nice!”), Brian grudgingly reunited with Ann, Jenny fucked off to Canada, and Mary finally started going spare. The stage was set for further logistical hijinks, but high-minded incoming Director General Ian Trethowan pulled the plug, to mass protest. The canny Glaister, however, took a leaf out of his characters’ book, and played the waiting game, biding his time until Trethowan was replaced with a less stuffy bird, and then unleashing HOWARDS’ WAY on those loyal Sabbath viewers, which was exactly the same thing again, but damp.