Fremantle Media has released Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series, a two-disc, 13-episode collection of the first two series ("series" equals "season" in Brit TV lingo) of the beloved, hugely successful Thames Television sitcom from 1973. Here in the states, hard-core fans of the equally popular ABC sitcom Three's Company no doubt recognize the name Man About the House as the inspiration for the John Ritter/Suzanne Somers/Joyce DeWitt megahit, but I suspect most Americans have never seen the original. Pity, too, because Man About the House is a delightfully cheeky, risque (for the times) sitcom that holds up quite well today, due to the fun, light performances by Richard O'Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett.
Man About the House's premise is exactly the same as Three's Company. Chrissy (Paula Wilcox) and Jo (Sally Thomsett) are two independent London bachelorettes in desperate need of another roommate for their flat. Their previous roommate left to have a baby, and soon, Chrissy and Jo are wondering how they're going to pay the rent. After a party, they find their answer. Passed out in their tub is Robin Tripp (Richard O'Sullivan), a "friend of a friend of a gate crasher," who is also looking for a place to stay. The girls, charmed by Robin's playful, bantering nature, are still hesitant to entertain the then-controversial notion of single men and women living together as roommates (particularly the leery Chrissy, who's much more suspicious - and on the ball - than slightly spacey Jo). But when Robin cooks them a fantastic breakfast (Jo's specialty is burnt anything), they agree to let him stay.
There's only one catch: the girls' nosey landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Roper (Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce). Pallid, boring, bumbling Mr. Roper would never allow such a set-up - if he thought Robin was straight. So the girls tell him that Robin is gay ("We told him you were a poof!"), and everything is squared away. Sexually frustrated Mrs. Roper, who constantly nags her disinterested husband for sex, is more than happy to have the charming, cute Robin upstairs, especially when she finds out he's not really gay, providing plenty of opportunities for her to hit on Robin.
After decades of seemingly unending reruns of Three's Company, it's next to impossible for an American viewer not to judge Man About the House in comparison to its later American incarnation. Watching Man About the House, what immediately struck me is how innocent Three's Company truly was, even though you'd never know it if you grew up during its run. Vilified by the press and TV critics who decried the arrival of "jiggle TV," Three's Company by comparison to Man About the House is decidedly tame stuff.
That's not to say, though, that Man About the House has nudity or vulgar words (it most assuredly doesn't). But its constant streams of double entendres definitely mark this series as British, and not an American network product from the 1970s. As most American TV viewers discovered (to their unending delight) when shows like Monty Python or The Benny Hill Show came overseas, the British TV bar for sexually suggestive comedy was considerably higher than the relatively prudish American standard. Of course, heard now, the jokes on Man About the House wouldn't raise an eyebrow in the increasingly coarse American sitcom environment, but in comparison to its supposedly controversial American cousin Three's Company, Man About the House is determinedly more risque.
And while the humor in Man About the House is fairly obvious, it's much more dependent on a slyer, more witty delivery, rather than the broader, farcical, slapstick nature of Three's Company. It's a cliche to Americans to say that anything sounds classy if it's said with a British accent, but like many cliches, it got that way because there's a great deal of truth to it. When O'Sullivan and Wilcox (who are delightful together, by the way) banter and spar, with Robin usually saying something mildly dirty about what he'd like to do with Chrissy, it sounds classier, for some reason. What always came off cheap and dirty and puerile on Three's Company, comes off wittier somehow on Man About the House - even though the humor is still resolutely low-brow.
The dynamics of Man About the House are a little different, as well, in comparison to Three's Company. In Man About the House, Robin makes no mistake about the fact that he'd like to sleep with Chrissy (in the opening episode of Series 2, While the Cat's Away, Robin comes this close to sealing the deal with her, only to have fate scotch that plan). And Chrissy (although she shares the same character name as Somers' role, she's really the DeWitt character) makes no bones about being attracted to Robin. But she's fully aware of his commitment-shy, rogue's lifestyle, and she's having none of it. Still, through the excellent chemistry of Wilcox and O'Sullivan, there's much more a feeling of suppressed romance between the two flatmates - something that never showed up on Three's Company.
As well, a major comedy linchpin of the early Three's Company episodes - Jack pretending to be gay to throw repressed Mr. Roper off the scent - is almost immediately abandoned in Man About the House. Mrs. Roper immediately spots Robin for straight, and he fesses up. And although it's never really addressed again (at least in the 13 episodes presented here), Mr. Roper apparently knows Robin is straight, as well. In fact, the Mr. Roper character here in Man About the House is much more kind than the Three's Company's Norman Fell version. More apt to be a the butt of the joke, and used for endless spoofs on the mundane English "everyman," Mr. Roper here isn't constantly trying to get Robin out of the girls' apartment, or lecherously spying on them, like Fell's Mr. Roper.
In Three's Company, the Somers' character rapidly become something of a mental defective, played so broadly as to go past spoof into the cartoonish. Her counterpart in Man About the House, Jo, never goes that far, always coming off as more in her own world, rather than actively dumb (a tough tone to maintain, that Thomsett pulls off quite well). Chrissy (the DeWitt character here), carries more of the story load, and Wilcox is absolutely adorable as the wary, enthusiastic, sexy brunette. And O'Sullivan approaches Robin in a decidedly more laid-back manner than the peripatetic John Ritter. Robin is much more likely to be found lying around on the couch, or cuddling up close to Chrissy, smoking and drinking (never seen on Three's Company), trying it on with her through quiet words (and potentially filthy double entendres). With masterful timing and vocal delivery, O'Sullivan really squeezes a lot of humor out of the script piffles he's given (O'Sullivan had a highly successful spin-off of Man About the House called Robin's Nest, just as Murphy and Joyce succeeded with their spin-off of the Ropers, George and Mildred). All together, these five actors give Man About the House a witty, innocently naughty air of "sophisticated near-smut" that's deliciously funny to this day.
Here are the 13, one-half hour episodes of Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series, as described on the DVD episode guide:
Three's a Crowd
When the new girl sharing Chrissy and Jo's apartment turns out to be a guy, the landlords are not amused. But maybe Robin has something to offer them all!
And Mother Makes Four
Today Robin moves in with the girls, but when Chrissy's mother comes to spend the night unexpectedly, Robin is pushed around until Chrissy's mother catches up. Will Chrissy's Mum be keen on the idea of having a 'man about the house' remains to be seen.
Some Enchanted Evening
How does a girl find out she's sexy? Chrissy thinks Robin might help, but he isn't keen...he gets enough of that sort of thing. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but Jo takes the wrong turn.
And Then There Were Two
Chrissy is an attractive girl and Robin has all the normal passions. Still, she's perfectly safe with Jo to act as a chaperone...or is she? Alone at last, the beast comes out in Robin.
It's Only Money
The month's rent has disappeared. Jo may have to sell the one thing she was hoping to keep until she got married. It's that, or an overdraft at the bank.
Match of the Day
The college rugby team has a vacancy, Robin is in, if he can fight off his flu. Chrissy recommends that the best way is to go straight to bed and to use Old Mother mystical remedies that are guaranteed to take the hairs off your chest.
No Children, No Dogs
Robin is lumbering with a pup...but Chrissy dislikes them because she was once bitten by a kennel owner. Besides, their lease forbids a number of things, including keeping a dog.
While the Cat's Away
The sex war meets the generation gap aided and abetted by the housing shortage.
Colour Me Yellow
There comes a time when a man has to stand up to see how tall he is. Robin finds himself several inches shorter than Big Mick and sits down again. Chrissy and Jo try to head off the showdown at the Mucky Duck Saloon.
In Praise of Older Men
When Chrissy starts to get serious about an older man, Robin and Jo play gooseberry. He is just the sort of man Robin cannot stand -- good looking, well off, successful. When he learns what's afoot, Robin decides to take a stand.
Did You Ever Meet Rommel?
A cosy little dinner for six means trouble for Robin, Chrissy and Jo. The 2nd World War has a new lease on life when Mr. Roper meets Franz Wasserman -- he has never forgiven Hitler for blowing him out of his bath with a buzz bomb.
Two Foot Two, Eyes of Blue
It's Leeds United versus Lechery when Robin and Chrissy go babysitting at a house with a colour television. But how can you score at either activity when the baby in question won't stop crying and the key to the drink cabinet is locked away?
Carry Me Back to Old Southampton
Robin fails his catering examination and it looks as if he'll be leaving London to become a part of "Tripp's Extruding Tubings, Southampton Limited." Larry, his friend, more than fancies the idea of moving in with Chrissy and Jo, but the girls need to know a few facts about him first.
Originally shot on video, the full frame transfer for Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series looks okay, even though the colors tend to be a bit faded and drab, along with the usual vintage video look of hot spots and occasionally soft image.
The English mono sound mix accurately reflects the original broadcast presentation. All the dialogue is clearly heard, but close-captioning or subtitles would have been nice for the occasional unfamiliar British word or expression that slips by.
There are no extras for Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series.
Naughtier than Three's Company, its American adaptation, Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series is also a bit wittier in its execution, with the three leads perfectly in-tune with their roles. Certainly tame by today's standards, classical farce is timeless, and Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series definitely falls under that category. Lovers of vintage British TV will find this an absolute must; I highly recommend Man About the House: The Complete First and Second Series.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.