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Butterflies

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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  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.

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