TV Cream

TV: B is for...


Wendy and co prepare to tuck into another course of comically distasteful middle class guilt and gainsayingTHE PHRASE “BITTERSWEET COMEDY” used to turn up in listings mags and continuity announcements with alarming regularity, usually accompanied by a presidential motorcade of bad vibes. It’s one of those phrases where two words are unceremoniously lumped together, cancelling each other out completely in the process, like coupling “meal” with “deal”, or “special” with “bus service”. Any billings in Radio Times commencing with an excitable “8.30 NEW SERIES” had only to be scanned for the presence of such words as “housewife”, “solicitor”, “separated”, “single”, “Home Counties”, or the dread phrases “making a fresh start” and “coming to terms with”, for the reader’s ears to instinctively tune to the seductive call of DUTY FREE on the other side.

BUTTERFLIES was the exception that proved the chintzy home rule. WENDY CRAIG was the stockbroker belt everywoman Ria, failing to cook, failing to laugh, and failing to drop it all and have an affair with semi-loveable rogue BRUCE MONTAGUE despite regular abortive trysts in the park (chauffeured by the inimitable MICHAEL RIPPER). Failing to care, or indeed notice, were sarky teenage sons NICHOLAS LYNDHURST and ANDREW HALL, and eternally oblivious dentist hubby GEOFFREY PALMER, an amateur lepidopterist (hence the title) operating a permanent system of emotional half-day closing.

High octane wisecracks there were not, and for that reason the show has been ill served by the clip-show junta, reduced to ten seconds of pimply youths in camo jackets sniggering at blackened saucepans. But those round-table rounds of mirthless intergenerational banter were exceedingly well judged: a stream of underpowered snipes uttered at the far wall in lieu of proper conversation, perfectly capturing the communicative no-man’s land of familial last orders. This was something new and perceptive. (By the time MY FAMILY latched on to it, it had long become something old and bollocks.)

No subsequent sitcom introduced as “bittersweet” by the gentle-voiced man with the big blue globe for a head came close, and that goes double for anything else writer CARLA LANE came up with, which all falls neatly into two categories: volume knob-cracking regional stereotypes on benefits, and the stuff that lies at the very bottom of the bittersweet cracker barrel, wherein Felicity Kendall mopes wistfully around Hyde Park at sunset for all eternity.



  1. SundayGirl

    January 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Having just purchased the DVD’s recently my favourite game is to count how many times Adam and Russell say “Sunshine” in each episode……….

  2. Brian Rowland

    January 13, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Hands up who spent their formative years and beyond thinking that Wendy Craig herself sang the title song. I certainly did. But no, twas none other than Clare Torry (The Great Gig in the Sky and, erm, The War Song).

    I seem to remember this was seen as quite a racy sitcom at the time. Just the very idea of a woman having an affair (without acting on such a thing) had the whiff of controversy. It’s certainly the last thing Carla Lane wrote that I could tolerate.

  3. David Smith

    January 13, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    As I recall, the opening episode boasts some exemplary ’70s jarring switches between video and film as Ria looks in the window of the bistro… (See also Frank and Betty looking into Jessica’s pram in Some Mothers)

  4. Matthew Rudd

    January 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Terrific stuff. I do think Andrew Hall was the better actor of the two sons, even though we barely heard from him again while Nicholas Lyndhurst went on to this enchanted career. However, the scene when Lyndhurst’s character overheard his mum talking to Leonard about their stop-start relationship on the phone – and approved – was sublime.

    I loved the union flag Mini. There’s one in Hull somewhere.

  5. Chris Jones

    January 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    ‘Life is like a butterfly.’

    ‘No…what you’ve done there is that you’ve confused life…with a moth, haven’t you?’

    ‘Yes, you’re right I have…’

    ‘A moth is like a butterfly…’

  6. David Smith

    January 13, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Andrew Hall is still acting on the stage. I most recently noticed he was one of the three male leads in Mamma Mia! in the West End.

  7. Alan bourke

    January 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    My great-uncle Patrick McAlinney from Omagh was the tramp in the park in Butterflies. He was also a photographer in The Omen, was in Bless Me Father, A Night To Remember and a bunch of post-war British films.

  8. Richard Davies

    February 2, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    This was one of the many sitcoms dug out of the BBC vaults in the late 1980s – early 90s, I guess as a dummy run for UK Gold.

    I thought it was fairly funny, especially the antics when reversing all 3 cars off the drive haphazardly.

  9. Glenn A

    July 17, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    The Liver Birds had reached its natural conclusion by 1978, so the BBC wanted a successor from Carla Lane. Butterflies was actually quite good in a gentle way and was very popular with middle aged women. Also, unlike the later series of the Liver Birds, vegetarianism and animal welfare were conspicuous by their absence and running for four series( Birds ran for nine and Bread for seven), the quality didn’t fall off. Butterflies is worthy of a re run, I think, with the recent death of Carla Lane.

  10. Glenn Aylett

    August 17, 2018 at 6:50 pm

    Might this have floundered without the presence of Geoffrey Palmer doing what he always does best, playing upper middle class professional men with a conservative outlook on life. Butterflies was one of Carla Lane’s better shows, made memorable not only by Geoffrey Palmer, but by Adam Hall and Nick Lyndhurst as his two slacker sons who seem unable to settle down and become like their father, while their mother can’t cook for toffee( the most memorable part of the show to many people). However, it did set the tone for a couple of tedious Carla Lane sitcoms featuring middle aged women who want to have affairs.

  11. Richardpd

    December 31, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    With this Carla Lane showed she could write a decent sitcom without setting it in Liverpool.

    Somehow it managed to stand out from the usual chinzy 1970s sitcom trappings of being set in middle class home counties & having a fluty theme arranged by Ronnie Hazelhurst. A few other sitcoms had the Mum’s bad cooking as a running joke.

    One area of criticism was how Adam & Russell seemed to be stuck in 1973 stylewise.

    Carla Lane rehashed the idea of extra marital affairs to far less effect in The Mistress & Screaming, & probably in at least one of her other short lived series that even the Wikipedia doesn’t mention much about.

  12. Droogie

    December 31, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    I recall one episode where Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character makes a rebellious statement against his dad’s wishes by getting a perm. ( cue Lyndhurst wearing awful unconvincing curly gig .) Bearing in mind this was made well after punk rock was established made you wonder what planet Carla Lane was living on to think having a perm was a shocking youthful rebellious action.

    • Glenn Aylett

      December 31, 2021 at 8:15 pm

      @ Droogie, maybe he liked The Professionals and wanted to look like Martin Shaw. Also punk rock had mostly fizzled out by 1979 and maybe the Nicholas Lyndhurst character never liked it. Locally, the fifties revival, disco and heavy metal were a bigger deal in 1977/78, the peak years for punk.

  13. Droogie

    December 31, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    Nah. Comedy punk rocker characters were a main stay of lazy sitcoms way into the 80’s, especially middle aged people dressing up as punks for a cheap laugh – like June Whitfield in Terry & June or Alfie Bass in AYBS.

    • Glenn Aylett

      January 1, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      @ Droogie, comedy seemed fixated on punk well after it went out of fashion. June Whitfield becoming a punk in 1985 was about as relevant as Harold Steptoe becoming a teddy boy in 1964, and there was a sitcom set in a tower block in 1984 on Channel 4 where the two main characters were punks. By then, for all you saw the occasional punk, fashion had really moved on and Del Boy’s yuppie pretensions were more relevant by the mid eighties and far more amusing than someone middle aged wearing a Sex Pistols T shirt.

      • THX 1139

        January 1, 2022 at 1:35 pm

        There were still Teddy Boys around in the 1970s and 80s, they used to beat up the punks. Though they were more Teddy Men, I suppose.

        • THX 1139

          January 1, 2022 at 1:43 pm

          In fact, I’ve just remembered a film called Blue Suede Shoes which features crowds of Teddy Boys at a concert at Great Yarmouth in 1980.

  14. Richardpd

    January 1, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    Even Vyvian from the Young Ones seemed to blend punk & heavy metal fashions.

    Other Johnny come lately punks include Kenny Everett’s Gizzard Puke & Keith Harris’s little remembered Punk Skunk in the mid 1980s when he expanded his range of puppets beyond Orville & Cuddles to fill a half hour show.

    I used to see a few punks in the mid 1980s, but often the fashions were more like members of Sigue Sigue Sputnik than the sort of stuff Johnny Rotten & such were wearing a decade earlier.

  15. Droogie

    January 1, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    I always thought Gizzard Puke was a poor character- he was basically Sid Snot but in a different outfit.
    Has anyone seen the excellent Inside No 9 episode Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room? It’s about a Naff 80’s double act called Cheese and Crackers who reform for a one-off gig . One of them is wondering about doing his comedy punk character again and asks the other if he thinks it’s dated, who replies “ it was dated then!”

  16. Glenn Aylett

    January 1, 2022 at 2:01 pm

    Gizzard Puke was a poor replacement for Sid Snot and gives some credence to the argument Kenny Everett wasn’t as good on BBC One as he was on Thames. Perhaps a pretentious New Romantic character would have been more original for 1982 than a punk. Also at the time, I loved Not The Nine O Clock News’s digs at the early eighties New Romantic scene with a group on a spoof of a youth show called Lufthansa Terminal and a song called Nice Video, Shame About The Song.

    • THX 1139

      January 1, 2022 at 2:06 pm

      You mean Marcel Wave wasn’t a New Romantic?!

      • Glenn Aylett

        January 1, 2022 at 3:00 pm

        An Old Romantic possibly lol.

  17. Richardpd

    January 1, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    From what I remember Gizzard Puke came about because Kenny couldn’t bring over his Thames characters to the BBC at first.

    There were a few 1950-60s revivals around the same time, with Teddy Boy, Mod & Ska becoming popular at the end of the 1970s & into the early 80s. Some originals dug out their drapes & such to join in.

    In the 1990s flower power / glam rock had a brief revival.

    • Glenn Aylett

      January 1, 2022 at 5:00 pm

      Captain Kremmen never appeared on the BBC, but I wonder as well if it was too costly, being an animation in an otherwise studio bound show. Sid Snot did make a comeback in the 1983 series and was the subject of a Top Ten hit at the time.

      • Richardpd

        January 1, 2022 at 9:50 pm

        I imagine it was costs, the Cosgrove Hall was quite closely linked with ITV by the early 1980s.

        • Glenn Aylett

          January 2, 2022 at 12:14 pm

          @Richardpd, the BBC would have to pay a fair amount to Cosgrove Hall to produce Captain Kremmen, but it was a big loss to the Kenny Everett Show, along with Hot Gossip( again costs of having a set of dancers in each show). However, Cupid Stunt, Marcel Wave and Cleo Rocos gaining a bigger role kept the show amusing, just not quite up to the Thames years for laughs.

          • Richardpd

            January 2, 2022 at 1:55 pm

            Also Reg Prescott the Handyman was added to Kenny’s characters during the BBC years.

            The later shows were quite tame from what I remember, with most of the more obnoxious characters dropped.

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