Thursday, 18 September 2014

One Or Two Hiccups

Four years before Ever Decreasing Circles first waltzed into living rooms in January 1984, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s stage play, Hiccups, opened at the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead. Set in the living room of a ground floor flat in London, it’s a one-day, two-act, three-wall farce: people come and go, there’s offstage action, and plenty of physical business. But there’s this.

CHARACTERS

In Order of Appearance

MARTIN
LIZ (Martin’s wife)
HOWARD
HILDA (Howard’s wife)
RUTH
PAUL

Hiccups is the prototype for Ever Decreasing Circles. It isn’t the TV show, but it contains much of the raw material. And it’s interesting not just for that reason, but because of the changes the writers made to their creation before it reached the TV screen.

Ever Decreasing Circles wasn’t the first sitcom to emerge from another medium. The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin started life as a (much darker) novel, The Death Of Reginald Perrin. Up Pompeii! grew out of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Billy Liar was a novel first, then a play, then (most famously) a film, then a sitcom, then a musical.

Martin and his wife Liz (who became Fran and, finally, Ann in Ever Decreasing Circles) are 35-40 years of age. Howard and Hilda are about five years older.  The four of them are friends with 30-year-old bag of nerves Ruth, whom they’re helping move in to her new London flat with her latest boyfriend, Paul. Ruth has been staying with Howard and Hilda, and they, like Martin and Liz, are pleased she’s on her way. That’s putting it nicely. (Just like the characters do. At first, anyway.)

MARTIN wears an arran sweater, corduroy slacks and desert boots. He carries a zip bag.

His bag contains a pair of orange, steel-toe-capped boots. Martin comes prepared. Liz is some way from Ann. Indeed, she has more than a whiff of Barbara Good.

LIZ wears flat shoes, denim dungarees, checked shirt and headscarf, and somehow looks smarter than such an ensemble entitles her to.

Martin’s best friend has come straight from silly mid off.

HOWARD wears stout shoes, wonderfully hairy trousers with large turn-ups, a plain shirt and a giant, mid-thigh cricket sweater.

‘Wonderfully hairy.’ Bag that.

Liz hates the place. It reminds her of somewhere Florence Nightingale might have haunted. Martin inspects the workmanship, testing the window frames for resilience and tapping the walls.

MARTIN: Is that a bit of dickey lathing?

Howard’s wife (who looks ‘like someone’s kindly aunt from the country’) is next on the scene, followed in short order by Ruth, whose flat this is to be. Hilda manages to cram in the news that Ruth has been crying en route before forcibly brightening up on her arrival. The friends shelve their doubts and lay the compliments on thickly.

MARTIN: Well, I’ve run my eye along all the walls here, Ruthie – and I can definitely say these places were built.

Martin has planned the move to the letter. It’s ‘Rolls-Roycey’. He was up until 2am preparing a colour-coded chart (attached to his clip-board) and has packed the van (not the Dormobile, but we can dream) accordingly. Ruth has moved frequently. Usually, it’s Keith in charge of her relocation, but he’s ‘hors de combat’ at the moment.

Martin doesn’t like Keith. Every mention of Keith brings out the worst in him: he’s ‘tight-lipped’ or ‘on edge’. Whoever Keith is (he remains offstage), he isn’t Martin.

MARTIN: I have never claimed to be a Keith in life.

It’s 9am, and Paul is supposed to be there – but isn’t. Liz is unimpressed. She already has her doubts about him. Ruth uses the payphone in the hall: Paul left slightly late and is on his way. She has had a series of unreliable boyfriends. Her friends fear the worst. Howard doesn’t really understand Ruth. He goes further with Hilda.

HOWARD: Don't ask me, dear. I don’t understand women. I only understand you.

They set to work unpacking Ruth’s belongings – but not to Martin’s liking.

MARTIN: I saw you take that – quite wilfully – from the front of the van. You know my plan is geared to unloading from the back.

In comes furniture. Hilda is looking forward to arranging the knick-knacks (as delegated by Martin), but they’re some way off. Howard and Martin bring in a wardrobe. It can only belong in the bedroom, but Martin insists (very Martin – boxes are there to be ticked) on checking the coloured tape denoting its destination. They can’t find it. So they tip the wardrobe over. The doors open and a pile of stuff falls out. But the good news is it’s blue tape: the bedroom. In righting the wardrobe, it traps Howard’s foot: the stuff of stage farce.

While everyone is out of the room, Ruth’s new boyfriend arrives.

PAUL is about thirty-five. He wears denim and his hair is that bit longer than the other men.

Denim? Long hair? This definitely isn’t Peter Egan’s Paul Ryman, unless he used to be in Status Quo and has been hushing it up. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin surveys his domain from the living room window and tells Ann, ‘It’s not The Close; it’s The Close’. This isn’t The Paul; it’s A Paul.

Paul is the joker in the pack. He has a stool and a lamp-shade with him: both his worldly goods. Standing on the stool, with the shade on his head, he declares he is the genie of the lamp.

PAUL: Give me a rub and your dreams will come true.

Everyone enters. The first they see of this man with whom their troubled friend will co-habit is his making a clown of himself on a stool. Things are, and will remain, frosty.

Ruth is packed off to work (in a bookshop) so her friends can prepare her flat. When she comes home, they reassure her, everything will be in its right place and there’ll be a fire in the grate.

More stuff arrives. Not to Martin’s plan, though. He snaps at Howard.

MARTIN: You will go for the obvious. You will jump to the conclusion that moving is simply about bringing things into the flat from the van.
HOWARD: Well, isn’t it?
MARTIN: If you want the ‘Z’ of your alphabet to stand for ‘Mayhem,’ yes.

Martin insults Howard, then back-pedals.

MARTIN: Look, Howard, I didn’t mean to call you General Patton.

Martin finds himself trapped as volley after volley of furniture comes in. Paul isn’t helping: he’s still arsing about. He pulls his stool up to the bedsprings, stood on their side, and pretends he’s playing the harp. Nobody laughs. They thought this chap went to university. He did, he tells them. Martin won’t be outrun.

MARTIN: I opted for Tech. College – circuitry, you know. Stayed in the field – kept abreast – hopped aboard the silicon chip when she made her appearance and am doing very nicely, thank you.

In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin Bryce is in valves, but otherwise this is him through and through: an affinity with things; reporting inanimate objects in the feminine (‘Put her on compo rubber and she won’t start vibrating’ is his washing machine advice to Paul Ryman in the first episode) and, above all, a lightly pompous self-satisfaction. Martin won’t be bested by a man who… what does he do, this graduate? He drives a mini-cab.

PAUL: I’m not a career sort of bloke. Any job where I’m happy, that’s me.

The friends are shocked at this. He may be a driver but Paul is a passenger. He likes to have a good time.

MARTIN: My dear fellow. Life isn’t about just having a good time.
LIZ: I can endorse that.

This is Liz’s most Ann line in the whole play.

Paul Hiccup is far more heartless than Paul Ryman. Of he and Ruth, he says, ‘We might not have a future’. He’s cavalier. He’s selfish. Ruth’s boyfriend is (and there’s a pun somewhere here I can’t put my finger on) ruthless. (Don’t underestimate Esmonde and Larbey’s fondness for a pun: Paul Ryman is a wry man; the loggerheaded characters in The Good Life are Tom and Jerry; Ever Decreasing Circles features ineffectual men called Howard Hughes and Tommy Cooper.)

PAUL: Well, my general attitude to life, Martin, is that I’m more interested in the beads than the necklace.

This isn’t Paul Ryman. He’s a smooth, charming hairdresser: a ladies’ man; a winner. This Paul is – let’s be honest – a shit.

There are, though, pre-echoes (that’s not a thing, I know) of Ever Decreasing Circles in the fine detail: Martin and Liz’s house is called Brooksmead, just as it is in the TV series. (Howard and Hilda’s is called Catkins, which didn't make it to screen.) Keith is married to the exotic-sounding Renata (Keith and Renata get a mention in the series, though as minor characters). And the relationship between Martin and Howard here is as well-bound as it is on the screen. ‘Howard and I have solved problems together. We’ve unblocked each other’s drains. We’re on the same wavelength,’ Martin Bryce tells Ann from the loft he’s trapped in, during one of the most memorable episodes of Ever Decreasing Circles. They’re on the same wavelength here in Hiccups, too, as the weather turns against them.

MARTIN: Making another cup of tea because it’s hailing isn’t going to advance our cause – squaring away what we’ve already brought in is.
HOWARD: Ah. You mean like putting two thirds of the bed in the bedroom?
MARTIN: Two thirds of a bed is better than none, Howard.
HOWARD: That’s true. Mind you, if we count the mattress, I suppose we could even be talking about three quarters.
MARTIN: Taking the mattress as a component part of the bed, Howard, I wouldn’t disagree.
LIZ: What silly chatter-boxes we woman are.

This is Esmonde and Larbey at their best. A pair of detail-leaden men undercut by a sharp female tongue. Not just a voice of reason (a crap cliché so often visited by male writers): not even a voice of reason. A funny voice, with reason. A distinction worth noting. The real fuel of comedy writing is advancing a point as a gag. (Here’s a terrific example from Cheers. A stranger wanders into the bar, and tells Sam he hasn’t been here for years, remarking on how much it’s changed. There used to be a long stretch of wood panelling. Where? asks Sam. Over there, says the stranger, just behind Norm.)

By this point, towards the end of act one, it’s clear that Paul is disliked by everyone – especially Liz.

LIZ: He seems obsessed with trying to prove how bloody different he is.

This isn’t Ann Bryce. It’s someone quite different. Paul tries to lighten the atmosphere with a bit of whimsy.

PAUL: Wouldn’t it be funny if everybody in Slough fell over at once?
MARTIN: Why would everybody in Slough fall over at once?
PAUL: They wouldn’t.
MARTIN: Well why say they would then?
PAUL: I didn’t say ‘would’. I said ‘if’. If they did, wouldn’t it be funny?
HOWARD: No. What about the old people? Brittle bones? Fractured hips?

In the hands of the TV show, this passage would have been a little gem. But with This Paul lacking Paul Ryman’s charm, it’s plain awkward. (It’s meant to be.) Martin says this isn’t funny. Jokes are funny. He tries to tell one. And Esmonde and Larbey offer a rare insight (they typically wrote very brief stage directions) into Martin’s character.

Like all bad joke tellers, Martin laughs before he starts.

He’s a bad teller of jokes. Yet he tries to tells a joke. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin Bryce never dared tell a joke. Is that because he knew he was rubbish at it? Was he more self-aware than he seemed? Did he know what an impossible man he was? Or was it that Esmonde and Larbey knew their man that much better four years after Hiccups?

Back in Ruth’s new flat, Keith rears his head again. He’d have organised this move perfectly. So where is he? Well, he’s injured. Ditto Renata. Broken collar bones. A ballroom dancing accident. They were fandangoing in an event at a boarded-over empty swimming pool, when some of the floor gave way and eighteen couples tumbled in. Poor Keith – his injury wasn’t even from the fall: it was from the band saxophonist ‘crashing on top of him, instrument first’. A lovely detail: very much with the writers’ names through it like a stick of rock.

Paul finds this hilarious. Martin, Liz, Howard and Hilda are insulted that he laughs at their friends’ misfortune. The temperature rises. Paul loses his temper.

PAUL: Stuff the lot of you!

Again, not Paul Ryman. Peter Egan delivering that line in Ever Decreasing Circles is unimaginable. One of the joys of the conflict in the TV series is that all the characters basically like each other. Even Martin knows Paul is a good egg. He saves The Close from losing Paul in the fourth series by persuading Mr Lazenby the ironmonger to sell him his premises for a health club. Esmonde and Larbey both commented on the turning point in writing The Good Life: middle-class suburb – muddy self sufficiency – the upper-middles next door hate their neighbours’ endeavour – but what if the couples like each other? If they do, it’s funnier. Here, in Hiccups, they don’t and it’s far more tense. And this sort of tension is the enemy of the laugh. Dennis Potter observed that an audience is a conspiracy. Here, the audience is being asked to conspire to dislike a character.

Martin and Paul try to bring a table through the door. It won’t fit.

PAUL: The door’s too narrow.
MARTIN: It will go through. I’ve measured up.
PAUL: Well, you’ve got it wrong – unless you think I’ve narrowed the door while you were out.
MARTIN: I wouldn’t put that past you.

Here are Martin Bryce and Paul Ryman in perfect prototype. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin thinks moles are picking on him by targeting his lawn and avoiding Paul’s. Martin here is entertaining the idea that Paul might have sabotaged a doorway to stop a table coming through, thereby ruining Martin’s carefully colour-coded and clip-boarded plan. That’s proper Martin: the world conspiring to defeat his foolproof plans. (‘I’ve never liked being bossed about by weather.’)

Paul and Martin get into a row. Paul throws Martin’s clip-board across the room. Liz rushes to her husband’s defence. She’s a lot more aggressive than Ann.

LIZ: I know Martin behaves like the Duke of Norfolk organizing a coronation, but at least he tries to organise something – instead of just turning up late and fooling about all day.

Everyone turns on Paul. He bites back, accusing them of already having made up their minds about him (that he’s not good enough for Ruth) before they met him. (He’s right.) Go on, he dares them, tell me you like me.

LIZ: I can’t stand the sight of you.

Liz, not Ann. Ann wouldn’t say that. And Paul – not Paul Ryman – answers back.

PAUL: You vicious cow!

At this point, moments before the close of act one, Hiccups is as far from Ever Decreasing Circles as it gets. It is nasty, personal, tense and partial. It’s the world versus Paul. In the TV series, it’s the world (bless it) versus Martin Bryce (bless him).

Paul and Martin nearly get into a fight (played for laughs – Martin flipping from orthodox to southpaw and back). Then Paul makes his greatest mistake: insulting Hilda.

PAUL: I assume you must have had a mind of your own at some stage, Hilda, but you’ve given it to Howard, haven’t you?

In Ever Decreasing Circles, Hilda is a cipher. She is her husband’s most loyal acolyte: almost a photocopy of him. Yet what could be dull and dopey is so loving and fragile and nuanced (and played so beautifully by Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman). Howard and Hilda would do anything for each other. And Howard is Hilda’s staunchest defender. (‘You’ll take that back,’ he tells Martin, sternly, in one episode.) Here he behaves very unHowardly, and throws a punch at Paul.

Paul goes tumbling, hits his head on the kerb of the fireplace – and goes limp. The friends think he’s joking. They pick up his head, and it lolls. He’s at least unconcious; possibly dead. Hilda faints.

End of act one.

*   *   *

Buy an ice-cream. Get a gin at the bar. You’re over halfway through the evening (on the 58th of 87 pages) and you deserve it.

Martin started life as a character portrait. Esmonde and Larbey watched an intolerably rule-bound berk refereeing a youth football match on Clapham Common, and thought he’d be fun to write. He was (see Lunch With Bob Larbey). Richard Briers brought a depth and brilliance to him that pumped so much charm into this terrible oaf that he is a near-perfect comic depiction of a type that might now be regarded as on the spectrum (see how he files!) but is (and was) a loveable twerp par excellence.

That Martin survived this play. This Martin tried to organise everything down to the last detail, like That Martin did with the snooker tournament and the weekend cottage and the fête and the Christmas rota and the Battle of Naseby. That Martin had his plans constantly defeated. This Martin is a demo of That Martin; less personable, more inflexible, but no less funny. Some of the best lines of Hiccups are his.

And yet, by pitching the stakes high, Martin seems to be under a heap of pressure. The joy of Martin Bryce is that he is the agency of his own pressure: he must organise the clubs, finish the model of the Gasthaus Glockenspiel, keep his spanners in the right order. Here, the pressure is imposed upon him. He has organised this move (to keep up with Keith, his true nemesis), but Ruth is such damaged goods: she stayed with Martin and Liz and caused them endless headaches; she stayed with Howard and Hilda and they found her ‘sad a lot of the time’ – she was on Valium and prone to bursting into tears.

Right. You’ve had your gin. Back to your seat with you.

*   *   *

Act two, scene one: two hours later. Paul has been taken by ambulance to hospital. Martin went with him. Howard is terrified he might have killed a man. Hilda is traumatised.

Martin returns, lacking information. He couldn’t get anything definitive out of the doctors, and lost his temper with a nurse. When he left the hospital, all he could see were Paul’s feet poking out from behind a curtain.

Liz is furious. How could he not find out about Paul’s condition? He left them this number, he says. What more could he do?

Howard, shattered with guilt, wants to go to the police. Until there’s a reason he needn’t, says Martin. Besides, it’s time to crack on. Martin and Howard walk a fridge/freezer into the room with difficulty. Keith would have had a trolley for this. Martin bristles. Keith Keith Keith.

Liz tries to ring Ruth at the bookshop, but her boss, Mr Moffat, let her go for the day because she was ‘too excited’ about her new pad. Hilda crumbles. ‘Excited?’

They all reflect on their time hosting Ruth – or ‘Ruthie,’ as she’s routinely called.

HILDA: We do our best to entertain her, but frankly she doesn’t like any of the things we like – ‘Halma,’ the greenhouse, Howard’s concertina.

Howard’s concertina! How can this have escaped the TV series? What a joyous image: Howard, cardigan turned up to eleven, grinning a hole in a squeeze-box. (Halma, by the way, is a board game, a bit like Chinese chequers.)

The phone in the hallway rings. ‘That’s the phone.’ ‘That’s the phone.’ ‘Somebody had better answer it.’ Liz does: it’s the hospital. They say five weeks. Paul’s got five weeks to live? asks Hilda. No, says Liz, he’s got a fractured skull and he’ll be in hospital for five weeks. (Paul, you’ll have worked out, is now off stage for good.)

Howard is worried Paul might press charges. Martin, more interested in the fridge/freezer, is unconcerned.

MARTIN: I can always bring Thurston, Thurston and Myers down on him like a ton of bricks.

Liz – who, remember, is far sourer than Ann Bryce – isn’t crossing any bridge until needs be. She calls Paul ‘a nothing’. (Ann would never call Paul Ryman a nothing. Ann would never call anyone ‘a nothing’.) But she’s angry. She loses her temper with Martin.

LIZ: You’ve just passed a First Class Honours in Selfish.

As Martin and Liz row, Howard is falling to pieces. He can’t take it any longer, and throws himself at the mercy of the (presumably confused) police.

HOWARD goes out of the door like Sydney Carton to the guillotine.

A lovely comic exit. Though it leaves Martin with a fridge/freezer he can’t move. Besides, he’s just remembered something.

MARTIN: Oh, Christ! I left my clip-board at the hospital!
LIZ: Good! We don’t need it!

This Martin hasn’t yet alighted on his trademark (and broadcast-friendly) ‘Hell’s Bells!’ He’s a lot more prosaic: ‘Christ!’ ‘Oh my God!’ Ever Decreasing Circles was, in the early scripts, called Hell’s Bells. (Other titles were considered, including Pillar Of The Community, The Proper Trousers, Yours In Haste, He Does Try, For The Love Of Martin and – steel yourself – Close Encounters. The final name was arrived at after someone in a frustrating meeting to decide the show’s name said, ‘we’re going round in ever decreasing circles…’)



Hilda, now without Howard, is in bits. They’re copies of each other and it’s easy to imagine that, separated, they’d be near suicidal.

HILDA: I can’t ever remember life without Howard. We were engaged when we were three years old.
LIZ: (Worried) No, Hilda – surely not?
HILDA: Oh, not formally. Howard took a piece of raffia that was holding up a tomato plant and wrapped it round my finger.

Another example of what Esmonde and Larbey did so well: romance. The finest descriptions of romance (and I’ll fight you for this) come down to details. Look at When Harry Met Sally… for the urtext: ‘I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts.’ Etc.

A piece of raffia. A tomato plant. Of such things is love made. Hilda calls Howard her ‘plough’.

HILDA: He’s the one that’s always ploughed our furrows in life. I don’t know what that makes me – the sod he turns over, perhaps.

That’s as good a line as you’ll find anywhere in Ever Decreasing Circles. (And the best lines in the TV series are among the best anywhere. ‘I’ve got a smile starting inside, Ann, but I’m not sure if I can make it come out of my face.’ ‘I’m sorry, Martin. I behaved like a skin head.’ ‘Nothing ‘French’ has happened to you, has it?’ ‘Don’t call Hilda a woman, please, Martin.’ ‘I do wish you wouldn’t interrupt me when I’m in the middle of my theory about restaurants.’ ‘Look, Ann. I don't need you to make me look like a fool.’ ‘I won’t come outside. I don’t like doing things on the pavement.’ ‘Howard, before I ask you something else, could I ask you something else?’ ‘I had a book on how to relax once. It drove me mad.’ ‘Don’t play about Ann, I’m ticking things here.’ ‘I wish you’d emigrate. I really do wish that a lot.’ ‘I'm not a mooning about sort of person, Howard. That was Gandhi's downfall.’ ‘In future I shall be oiling the bed before we get into it.’ ‘Can you get the fire brigade without Paul knowing?’ ‘I used to think that a jacuzzi was a little hopping animal, you know.’ ‘I’m not made of trousers, Martin.’)

Martin hasn’t left his clip-board at the hospital: it was in the van. He inadvertently winds Hilda up about how long Howard’s prison sentence might be (at best). Liz intervenes.

LIZ: Hilda! Hilda! Listen to me. Don’t listen to Martin. Martin is just a noise in the background.

Liz knows her husband too well. So does Ann: she just doesn’t voice it like this (and, for that reason among others, is a better written character).

Martin chimes in, wanting to make Hilda feel better. She hasn’t yet got to her precious knick-knacks, but her work has been invaluable.

MARTIN: I want to thank you, Hilda. Yours isn’t a big stop, I know, but thank you for pulling it out for me.

But Hilda is cracking up under the strain. Liz rings a doctor. Hilda finally gets her hands on the knick-knacks but, instead of dusting and arranging them, she starts throwing them into the fire, smashing them.

Curtain.

Segue scene two: an hour later.

Martin has procured a trolley (just as Keith would have) from a greengrocer over the road, and the recalcitrant fridge/freezer is finally on the move. But it won’t go through the kitchen door, despite Martin’s ramming the thing at the jamb. He tries the back door but it’s locked. So he forces it open (offstage), damaging it.

Hilda is in the bedroom, sedated. The doctor (who didn’t have a trolley, to Martin’s annoyance) has been and gone. As Martin fights a doorway that won’t admit a fridge/freezer, Liz accuses him of losing the plot.

LIZ: You have come unplugged. One of your silicon chips has fallen out. The world is collapsing about us and you are acting as though nothing has happened.

Martin carries on regardless. He must succeed, whatever the cost. He might need some bits from a DIY store to (a) mend the back door and (b) widen the kitchen doorway. Will he need a jack for that wall? Liz boils over.

LIZ: Ruthie is going to walk through that door and we are going to have to tell her that her boyfriend is in hospital with a fractured skull, one of her friends is at the Police Station because he did the fracturing, and his wife is floating about in a barbiturate haze because she has a nervous collapse! Now, you know Ruthie. Do you seriously imagine that she will be able to take all that and cope?

Martin is ever the deluded optimist.

MARTIN: (More in hope) You never know.

But he’s even more blindly upbeat than that.

MARTIN: A multiple crisis like this might be the making of her.

Liz explodes. She didn’t like Paul from the off – from before the off, in truth – and this whole endeavour has collapsed, thanks to him. We’re only eight pages from the final curtain now, and this is a farce, so the volcano is in full throat.

LIZ: He’s an irresponsible little yob!
MARTIN: I quite liked him.

But this is a lie. In no way did he like Paul. He thought he was a twat. But now he’s defending him.

Why?

Because Liz has decided that when Ruth sees the mess they’ve left her, she’s going to have to stay with her and Martin until Paul is discharged from hospital. And, more than anything else, Martin doesn’t want Ruth staying again.

And he’s never admitted this before.

He and Liz have been married five years, and in each of them Ruth has stayed over – during which time, Martin has felt like he doesn’t belong in his own home. He has had to tiptoe round her. He has had to avoid films he’d like to watch in case they upset her. He can’t remember the last time he had a steak.

MARTIN: My house and I’m watching a black and white portable in the garage!

Liz plants the final seed in Martin’s head: imagine how bad it would be having Ruth stay with them if they had a child.

Childlessness is the elephant in many of Esmonde and Larbey’s three-walled rooms. Tom and Barbara are childless. Jerry and Margo are childless. Howard and Hilda are childless. Martin and Ann are childless (until the final episode, when they – slightly unfeasibly, given their ages – find themselves pregnant).

And here’s where Martin Hiccup makes the biggest departure from Martin Bryce. The idea of pregnancy as a barrier to Ruth’s lodging with them in his head, he rips off his boiler suit (having trouble getting it over his steel-capped orange boots: biz) and chases his wife round the room and over the sofa, snagging her clothes.

Martin? Randy? Richard Briers would have had trouble making this convincing. And that’s no knock: he was a supremely finessed actor. This is a truly odd scene to contemplate.

Martin chases Liz off stage, into the bedroom. We hear their voices.

LIZ: (Off stage) Hilda’s on the bed!
MARTIN: (Off stage) I don’t care!

Enter, finally, with true farce timing, Ruth.

Given the day off by her boss, she went shopping, and is carrying two Habitat bags and a bottle of fizz. She hears ‘banging noises’ from the bedroom and assumes there’s work afoot. So she sets out six glasses and pours bubbly for her chums. Then she calls out. Martin emerges, dishevelled.

RUTH: Hello, Martin. Where is everybody?
MARTIN: Where? Oh… around.
RUTH: Yes, but where? Is everything all right?
MARTIN: Oh yes. Everything’s fine… except…

He puts his arm around her shoulder and walks her conversationally across the stage.

MARTIN: Except that, in all truth, Ruthie, I think it’s only fair to tell you that there have been one or two hiccups.

Behind them, LIZ, ravaged, appears in the doorway.

CURTAIN.

Hiccups is where Ever Decreasing Circles began. It doesn’t feature The Close (Martin refers to their rural home, next to a brook – so they’re not even from commuter suburbia, the usual home of sitcom) and, being a one-off, the characters don’t need to end back at square one, ready for next week’s episode.

Martin here is fully formed, as he’ll be in the TV series, but without his catchphrase and with a sex drive that seems unimaginable in Richard Briers’s trousers.

Liz is far from Ann: sharper, sourer, franker, less tolerant of her maddening husband and – crucially – in dungarees, not Laura Ashley. A spikier prospect all round, and less immediately loveable than Penelope Wilton’s perfect-pitch performance.

Howard and Hilda are largely the same, but pushed to extremes: Howard thinks he’s killed a man, and Hilda has a nervous breakdown without him. (This last note is quite credible. Hilda is nothing without Howard.)

The big difference is Paul. Paul Hiccups isn’t Paul Ryman at all. Only their frivolity and their names are common. They look nothing like each other, and only occasionally sound like each other. The refinement Esmonde and Larbey reached in Ever Decreasing Circles is that Paul Ryman is the Keith of Hiccups: someone louche (ballroom dancing), dotted with exoticism (wife called Renata), provably successful (his previous moves have gone ‘like clockwork’), the kind of man who’d have a trolley for the fridge/freezer – someone who wins. Paul Ryman seems to have emerged after Hiccups. And the TV series is the better for it: the confrontational Paul, while funny, is a character the writers were able to dispose of at the end of act one. Rightly so: in a comedy, why subject your audience to a shit for longer than necessary?

In Hiccups, Keith is Martin’s nemesis. Keith succeeds where Martin doesn’t. Martin is in the captain of this situation only because a saxophonist fell on Keith and broke his collar bone. Martin got lucky.

Ruth is uncharted territory: needy, broken, helpless – she’s far from an obvious comic character, and she is the pin around which Hiccups revolves. (As a side note, she does have some characteristics in common with the character of Jace in one of the writers’ last sitcoms, Hope It Rains (1991-1992), in which a young drifter played by Holly Aird goes to live with her tetchy godfather above the seaside waxworks museum he barely runs: it’s a bizarre, fiddly premise.)

Esmonde and Larbey (in particular, John Esmonde, according to accounts) were good at ‘dark,’ but Ruth is not necessary to a sitcom, because the form requires that its lead characters are trapped by circumstance, not held hostage by another character. Martin Bryce is Martin Bryce because of Martin Bryce. Ruth, if she were to exist at all in Ever Decreasing Circles (and she doesn’t), would be a voice in Martin’s head saying ‘GET THINGS DONE’. That voice does exist in the TV series – but it belongs to Martin himself.

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(Edit: I owe the most enormous pint to Justin Lewis, who has provided the following invaluable information: the cast of the original production of Hiccups was Sam Kelly (Martin), Susan Derrick (Liz), Peter Baldwin (Howard), Geraldine Newman (Hilda), Holly de Jong (Ruth) and Paul Blake (Paul). The play was directed by Mark Cullingham ‘in collaboration with the authors’. Peter Tatlow’s review in The Stage on 2nd October 1980 found ‘the early gags... rather flimsy... but comedy is working by about the sixth gag, and the play is well formed and cleverly written’. The production opened on 17th September 1980 and closed on 4th October.)

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. Fascinating.

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  2. Many thanks for this post. I have been looking for information on Hiccups for many years now without success. Do you have a script of it that you used for this article? Can it be purchased from anywhere? Thanks again,
    Don

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  3. The script is unpublished, but there is a copy in the British Library's manuscripts collection.

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  4. Ah of course. Thanks again. Not sure if you know about this but there is often talk of Ever Decreasing Circles at The Mausoleum Club. This link will take you to a current one. This led me to your blog:
    http://www.mausoleumclubforum.org.uk/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1752

    Don

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