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Comedian Reg Varney left the long-running and incredibly popular British situation comedy On the Buses in 1973. Seeking a break from the sitcom format, Varney fronted his own eponymously titled television variety show for a couple of years before devising a new sitcom, Down the 'Gate, in 1975. A comedy detailing the misadventures of a group of porters working within London's busy Billingsgate Fish Market, Down the 'Gate evidently failed to fully excite Varney's legions of fans: the show only ran for two seasons with a total of just twelve nationally networked episodes being produced by the independent regional channel ATV.
Presumably deciding that there would be little call for repeat broadcasts, ATV elected to remove the series from their archives and all of the show's original video masters were duly wiped. Unfortunately, Down the 'Gate's indifferent reception effectively marked the end of Varney's television career too.
In the intervening years, a near constant stream of repeat runs of On the Buses ensured that that series and its stars endeared themselves to further successive generations of fans: those younger fans that wondered what Varney's second attempt at sitcom glory was all about simply had to accept that Down the 'Gate was lost forever. However, it seems that Varney himself made off-air recordings of six of the seven episodes that made up season two of the show and Network Distributing have just granted them a belated home video release.
On the strength of the six episodes presented here, it would seem that Down the 'Gate's producers were seeking to place Reg Varney in a situation comedy that shared some basic similarities with On the Buses. Both shows focus upon the concerns and cultural practices of distinctly working class characters while foregrounding the class-based antagonisms found in the British workplace and wider British society. And both shows share common recurring locations: the workplace, the workplace's canteen, the local pub and the main character's home.
At a glance, Varney's Reg Furnell could be On the Buses' Stan Butler operating under a different name but Furnell is a less sympathetic character. Both men pursue hare-brained schemes that are doomed to fail, resulting in scenes of giddy panic and the eating of much humble pie. But since Stan's involvement in such schemes was usually encouraged by his disingenuous workmate Jack or prompted by the desperate need to address a genuinely pressing problem, Varney was able to elicit an effective sense of comic pathos that usually cast Stan as a misguided victim. By contrast, Down the 'Gate's Furnell is foolish and pig-headed rather than misguided: overconfident, somewhat acquisitive and prone to displays of misplaced bravado, Furnell tends -- by and large -- to be the author of his own misfortunes.
While the show's scenarios involving antagonisms with a snobbish brother-in-law vaguely echo those encountered in On the Buses, one obvious change of dynamic here is Furnell's marital status: he's happily married to Dilys Laye's Irene. As such, the problems prompted by Furnell's penchant for experiencing episodes of extra-marital titillation via chance encounters with younger women become a recurring plot point: he voyeuristically observes his female neighbour undressing for bed while he gets ready for work, gets close to nightclub hostesses while drunk, has his injured neck sensuously massaged by a pretty nurse (Lois Baxter) and continually ogles and fires cheeky quips at the canteen's ample-breasted cook Rosie (Helen Keating).
Dilys Laye had previously appeared in a number of Carry On films and she's operating within familiar territory here: correlations can be drawn between Down the 'Gate's reliance on saucy double-entendres and its focus on upsets caused by extra-marital shenanigans and the content of the later Carry On films. Down the 'Gate also features some forthright representations of class antagonism. There's a clear inference that fish porter Reg has married above his station: his brother-in-law Clive dresses like a city gent, bowler hat and all, and clearly despises him.
And when Reg and Wol try to sell a valuable pearl that they find in an oyster purloined from Mr Preston's stock, an upper crust city jeweller is appalled by their mere presence in his showroom and rudely shoos them out when a wealthy Middle Eastern client calls by. In the same episode, when Irene demands that Reg turns the pearl over to Mr Preston, Reg angrily responds with a succinct but pointed rant-cum-history lesson that focuses on how the British upper classes first obtained their wealth and subsequently maintained their status.
It should be noted that the series generally features more than a smattering of the kind of politically incorrect humour that was regularly found in comedy shows produced for British television during the 1970s. Indeed most points on the spectrum of un-PC banter and inference are covered here in some way, shape or form. As is often the case with comedies from this period, there appears to be an element of satire at work here. However, the show remains very much a product of its time.
It seems that a number of cast changes occurred between season one and season two of Down the 'Gate, so the show's producers were clearly taking a proactive approach to the series' ongoing development. And the series' cast and crew featured some well-known and well-loved TV talent. But, on the strength of the six episodes presented here, it's fair to say that Down the 'Gate's approach to humour wasn't as successfully realised or as consistently presented as that of On the Buses. Things never fall flat and there are some genuinely funny, dialogue-driven laughs to be had here but -- by and large -- the show remains a tad over-reliant on farcical and slapstick set pieces that are only marginally funny.
Similarly, the show's characters are not as immediately likeable or as interesting as those found in Varney's earlier sitcom, though I appreciate that having access to all twelve episodes might have altered that perception. Varney's approach to physical humour is less consistent here too: a scene from episode four where he simultaneously tries to have a shave, put on his tie and drink from a bottle of milk because he's late for work is well executed but his lengthy drunken apology to Irene in episode one is overplayed and self-indulgent.
All of that said, the reappearance of these lost episodes is cause for celebration even if the material featured isn't Varney and company's absolute best. This remains an eagerly awaited release that will undoubtedly please fans of Reg Varney, lovers of British popular culture from the 1970s and scholars of British TV comedy more generally.
Given that this show was officially considered to be lost forever until Varney's off-air recordings turned up, getting overly concerned about picture and sound quality feels somewhat churlish. All of the episodes presented here feature a thin but noticeable line that runs across the very bottom of the frame (it's more like a line caused by a spot of dirt on the recording head of a VCR or a faulty tape as opposed to the kind of more major disturbance caused by a tracking issue).
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the episodes feature odd but not intrusive video dropouts from time to time. The first episode and portions of a couple of the others also feature a bit of colour banding in the very top portion of their frames. Sound wise, all of the episodes are pretty good: one or two feature odd sections where the audio dips slightly for a moment but this doesn't pose a problem. Varney must have lived pretty close to a local transmitter or had an expertly tuned TV aerial because the off air sound and images that he recorded are really impressive given that they date from 1976.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Down the 'Gate rates:
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