A joyous comedy by Peter Terson, and so much more. Three Leeds miners – Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) – roll up at the Whitby seaside for a weekend’s fishing. They order three teas from the quayside stallholder (John Comer) – ‘Pints or half pints?’ Art takes charge, ‘Half pints. Don‘t want to ‘ave you runnin’ water all afternoon.’ The Teaman points out the season’s over, which gets at the lads’ pride. ‘ He’s takin’ us for trippers! Are you takin’ us for trippers? He is, he’s takin’ us for trippers!’ ‘Well, you tripped ‘ere, you must be trippers!’ Art acts as avuncular peacemaker – ‘Aye aye aye! No truculence! We’re not funny ‘ats and kiss-me-quicks!’ before laying out his vision of the weekend. ‘I’m not goin’ back to my wife and saying I made a pig o’ myself!’ Art plans for a stay at a polite cliff-top guest house rather than the drinking spree the other two had envisaged. ‘If we’re offered a drink with meals, we have a drink with meals. A German dry hock!’ The others aren’t impressed. ‘Not me, we fought the Germans’ ‘And beat ‘em’ ‘Aye, and I put it down to them drinkin’ that there ‘Ock! You can’t beat a Brown Ale army!’ Art concedes, but is still adamant they don’t go Brown Aleing back to the guest house. ‘We act respectable, with respect to property and standards. We’ll show our wives we can be civilised without them!’ ‘No brown ale, no spewing over the wall?’ ‘A civilised weekend!’
Thus emboldened, they check with the teaman for a guest house. ‘Not too rough and ready. Bed and breakfast, sheets, that sort of thing.’ The teaman, though suspicious, recommends a few small hotels – ‘They should squeeze one or two autumnal in. If you’re wearing ties.’ The guest house they happen upon is run by snobbish, puritanical Audrey (Jane ‘Summer Wine’ Freeman) and feeble, henpecked Brian (Frank Moorey), who look forward to a winter of continual airing of sheets and hard boarding over oak panels. Audrey sees the place as on the up, buoyed by the high standards she insists of her guests, the less desirable of which she has ways of dealing with (‘That family with the kiddie crying all night… I sent meself an anonymous letter of complaint!’ ) ‘I intend to retire owning this place.’ avers Aud. ‘Then I’ll do a bit o’ fishin’!’ muses Brian, wistfully. When the fishing party turn up at the door, Audrey, putting on affected pronunciation, initially turns them away (‘I don’t cater for fishing parties… we’re a small hotel really’) before a great circular argument with Brian, and an eye for some out-of-season profit, produces the notion of charging them an extortionate four guineas each for the night. ‘Each?’ ‘Ah, but that’s inclusive!’ ‘Ah, well, if it’s inclusive…’
And so the lads bunk down to a room each, communicating with each other uneasily through the walls. Ern and Abe want a game of card, but Art disapproves of sharing single rooms. ‘It’s not done!’ Ern dissents. ‘I’ve seen it in the pictures. James Bond does it.’ Finally, at the promise of cards, he caves in. Settling in, they even offer the evidently lonely Brian a place on their fishing boat, but Audrey turns that down flat, not wanting him carousing with their type. ‘Can you visualise what their wives are doing back in Leeds? Because if you can’t, I can.’ The lads, meanwhile, are avidly discussing what classy delights await them at dinner. Art moots the idea of entrees. ‘What’s entrees?’ ‘You’ve seen it on the side of a meat sauce bottle label, ‘aven’t you?’ ‘I don’t read meat sauce bottle labels.’ ‘Well, you should start. Revelation, they are.’ Sadly, Audrey deems it not to be. Evening meal time proving ‘inflexible’, the party repairs to a quayside café for bawdy crosstalk with the waitress and ‘a good line of grease on the stomach’.
Here, in the more convivial setting, Art‘s determination for a civilised jaunt is gradually eroded. ‘We’d better take a little crate of beer on the boat with us, in case the pubs are shut when we get back.’ ‘Make it a big one.’ Finally they get out on their chartered boat, piloted by the strange, taciturn Fisherman (James ’When the Boat Comes In’ Garbutt) at the helm, staring out into the middle distance and warning them in stern tones of the inadvisability of mixing chips, ale and a swelling sea. Sure enough, the boys are already half-cut before they’re out of the harbour. By the time they reach the cod grounds, the boat’s rising with the swell, and the three are proper pissed, singing shanties and – in Pat’s case – quoting John Masefield. ‘Better than the ruddy canal, this is! And the pit pool!’
Even before they reach the grounds, Ern’s the first to succumb to sickness. ‘I wanna die, that’s all!’ Then, when the engines stop, Abe feel it. ‘You can’t curl up in the bottom!’ Art takes charge of all the lines. ‘Will you take a line, Fisherman?’ ‘Not me gave it up years ago.’ ‘A fisherman what doesn’t fish? That’s sad, that is!’ ‘I just use the boat to take trippers out.’ Art feels slighted, but still, he’s in his element – ‘We might be rough and ready fellers, but we’re staying at on of them hotels, y’know! I believe in the dignity of the working man, Fisherman!’ Only to be cut short when the Fisherman reels in a cod, and the sight of it sends Art to the bottom of the boat. Back at the guest house, Audrey and Brian worry about the continuing absence of the party. ‘They’ll be doing after-hours drinking in some backroom, smoking and playing cards and getting themselves excited.’ On the quayside, the three huddle together (‘I can’t remember nothing!’) with a brace of cod – all, presumably, caught by the Fisherman. ‘I wanna be in bed, warm and comfortable. And die.’
They finally repair to the guest house. In the process of getting the far-gone Abe to bed (with strategically placed chamber pot), the three end up sharing a bed through a mixture of illness and drunken delusion. ‘Any man needing the pot in the night give a call, and the other two must relinquish his hold on it forthwith!’ Still awake at four, Audrey won’t be beaten by the wayward trio. ‘I’m not letting them get at me through the Guild of Hoteliers! I’m serving three hardboiled eggs! If they’re not down by nine o’clock that cloth comes off!’ ‘We *are* the smiling service!’ observes Brian. On the dot of nine, they come down. ‘Is this fresh cream milk, straight from the cow?’ ‘It’s Co-op delivery.’ The boys’ dreams of smoked kippers are dashed. ‘Off, are they?’ ‘They were never on.’ Disappointed but still awed – ‘It’s an entrée dish, sausages, we’re in with the meat sauce!’ they only cool off when the tea fails to impress. ‘Maiden’s water!’ Homely pleasures finally win out over self-betterment, and they decide to repair to the seaside café for a pot of real tea and a bacon sandwich (’With one of the slices dipped’) and pausing only to leave a polite note on the back of a betting slip (‘Dear landlady, thank you for a pleasant evening and wonderful service, but you should serve *smoked* kippers for breakfast (over charcoal).’ they tiptoe out. Brian finds the note as Audrey suspiciously check the rooms (‘I wouldn’t put it past them if they had an orgy!’) and comes down with a farewell present, ‘the best of the catch’ wrapped in newspaper. ‘Are they being funny?’ ‘No love,’ replies Brian, ’but I think we are.’
Terson’s script, overflowing with brilliant observation and wonderfully circular, repetitive dialogue, is a joy from start to finish. In times when ‘naturalism’ in dialogue has been reduced to a mannered, sub-Pinter catalogue of pauses, ‘erm’s and floor-staring longeurs, it’s a tonic to see fluent, rolling speech rhythms and quickfire crosstalk that never sounds written. The character of Art, in particular, with his unflappable confidence, eternal quest for social betterment and sauce-bottle erudition, is a work of art. It’s tempting to see the genesis of a hundred ‘gentle’ comedies in this slice of amiable class divide humour, but the strength Play for Today should be most noted for – the proper, first-hand experience of the writers and their ability to transfer a whole section of society in miniature onto the screen – is supremely evident here. The performances, especially Glover’s, are similarly pitch-perfect.
Originally a radio play starring Wilfred Pickles, this understandably popular entry spawned with two further productions based on the same characters – Shakespeare or Bust (a working class take on Three Men In a Boat in Stratford-Upon-Avon, with the lads off on a barge to soak up some culture via the canal, and ending up in it) in 1973 and Three for the Fancy (where they plan to exhibit a rabbit, a mouse and a guinea pig at the Bradford Championship Show) in 1974. The stars were writers, too – Douglas Livingstone had already penned I Can’t See My Little Willie and Everybody Say Cheese for the strand, and Glover would later contribute Keep an Eye on Albert and Thicker than Water.