Some stories have dirty great holes in them. David Rodinsky, the enigmatic Jewish philosopher and translator, walked out of the flat he took above an East London synagogue one day in the 1960s and simply vanished. On 28th February 1975, a tube train ran at full pelt into Moorgate station and crashed into the wall at the end of the tunnel, taking 43 lives with it; no-one has established why. The Italian Job, a fantastically successful film and about as much fun as was ever committed to celluloid, doesn’t have an ending. The writer, Troy Kennedy Martin, tried several, none to his satisfaction. The all too literal cliffhanger finale was dreamed up by producer Michael Deeley, and filmed by the second unit because director Peter Collinson refused to shoot what he regarded as a total cop-out.
This story, too, has no ending. At least, for now.
For many years, British television series were produced in runs of six, seven or thirteen weekly episodes. There was a good reason for this: a 52-week year divides nicely into thirteens, and thirteens split into sixes and sevens. Often, that seventh episode was a bonus – say, a Christmas special. Currently, series length is more fluid: fours are common, and there have been some very good (and shout-about funny) series that have only run for three episodes: Cowards, for instance, the first series of Getting On, and the first two series of The Thick Of It.
Series one of Ever Decreasing Circles (1984) has five episodes. That’s odd. (And not just literally.) It’s one short. The second series has eight. That’s one over (even with its bonus Christmas episode). Was one programme lost from the first series and cashed in on re-commission to make up the shortfall? And if so, why?
While it later became properly episodic (in other words, each show was a self-contained story), the first series of Ever Decreasing Circles has a single arc. Paul moves in next door to Martin and wife Ann, immediately annoys Martin and flatters Ann, and Martin disappears down a Martin-hole, Roneoing fixture lists, ferrying pensioners to and fro and reading DIY Answers magazine, while – when Martin falls asleep on the sofa one Saturday evening with the book Lamp-Posts Through The Ages on his lap (very much the measure of the man) – dashing boulevardier Paul takes a thoroughly frustrated Ann to a Vladimir Ashkenazy recital at the Royal Festival Hall.
Ann had turned Paul’s invitation down. She mentioned the concert to Martin, who enthusiastically told her to book the tickets, which she did. Then Martin, back in superplanner mode, clumsily overlooks it, (‘How many bloody Saturdays do you think there are in a week?’) and Ann impulsively takes Paul up on his invitation – and, what’s more, she lies to Martin about her companion for the evening (‘I’ll find someone else to go with.’) She says it’s Maureen Jameson, an old school friend. She admits as much to Paul. The two of them are now in league with the same cover story – the same lie. The story seems to be heading in a very clear direction.
On the DVD commentary Peter Egan mentions that, at one point, Paul and Ann were to fall into each other’s arms.
Wasn't that something that was written, in the first series? And did you not say, Richard, that if they did elope together, there wouldn't be another series? Am I imagining that?
He elaborates further in the BBC programme Comedy Connections (2006).
I seem to remember somewhere in the first series there was a final episode where Paul and Ann actually eloped together. And, of course, by the time we got to the fourth episode of that series [the writers] realised that would be a total disaster, so it was never made.
This is exactly where the first series is pointing – but better sense prevailed, and the idea was abandoned.
But how far did the idea progress?
In a most unprepossessing bungalow in Berkshire is an astonishing and underlauded national resource: the BBC Written Archives Centre. Staffed by a modest team brimming with dedication, it contains mountains of microfiched paperwork dating back to 1922. A great many academics and historians (as well as oiks like me) have spent hours there, sifting through memos, scripts, contracts and correspondence. Want to know what the Head of Light Entertainment thought of Bob Monkhouse or find out what that music is in Abigail’s Party or which quiz question Captain Sensible read out on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop? The WAC has the skinny.
All the studio scripts for Ever Decreasing Circles are there. And they throw up some questions. But none of the production paperwork exists (producers weren’t obliged to keep it), which means that those questions aren’t easily answered.
The title page of a BBC script typically contains the show’s name, authors and episode number (or title, or both) along with the recording date and location (if studio), transmission date (if known), and a programme number. These numbers, assigned well before filming, lock the show to the commission. They are jargon to lay eyes, but they contain some coded information like whether the programme was national or regional, and which department was making it.
Episode three of the first series (in which Martin, blithely overlooking Ann’s date, and finding a topless woman in Paul’s garden, about whom Ann is tellingly curious – and which ends with Martin telling Ann that ‘Mr clever-dicking, Hillview-burning, rare blood group-ing Ryman’ is flirting with Hilda) was recorded two days before Christmas 1983 in TC8 [studio eight, Television Centre] and due for transmission at 7.15pm on BBC1 on Sunday, 12th February, 1984. The programme number is 50/LLC F423K.
I promise this gets more interesting. I promise. Bear with me.
The next episode in the series (in which plans are laid for the annual holiday to the Gasthaus Glockenspiel for the eighth year running, and Martin puts the finishing touches to his wonderfully unnecessary plywood model of it) would have been recorded after the Christmas break, and transmitted a week after episode three, on 19th February, 1984. And it would have been called Episode Four or, as the script would have it, ‘No.4’.
Except it doesn’t.
It’s ‘No.5’ and the title page has been amended by hand: ‘TX [transmitted] as No.4’. And what had a transmission date of 26th February (where episode five would have been) has been given episode four’s broadcast slot. Similarly, script No.6 has been amended to be No.5. This suggests that a fourth script existed, with a programme number assigned (the missing 424K) and a recording date booked, and that its place was taken by bringing the previous episode forward a week.
Before it arrived at its splendid moniker, the series wormed through the circular corridors of the BBC under the rather Rixier title Hell’s Bells. Some script pages still bear that header. In the running order for ‘No.5’ (i.e. the fourth episode), the first scene has been amended. And in the script, it’s clear that it was rewritten: it’s at least one generation of photocopy younger. Was a gap being bridged? Was there a fourth script, in which Ann and Paul perhaps followed the logic of the storyline and made the beast with two backs, to their mutual chagrin?
One of the engines of the series is that Paul, who is a peripatetic charm-spreader, could sweep Ann away at any minute, but he doesn’t. She doesn’t let him. This is crucial to maintaining the situation (and this is a situation comedy, after all: the writer changes the situation at their own peril – see The Legacy Of Reginald Perrin for an example of how that can come tumbling down). If Ann and Paul had disappeared down Affair Street together, what would have become of Ever Decreasing Circles? The lead character’s heart would have been not so much broken as irreparably smashed to bits. (This all but happens in the penultimate episode of the last series, when Martin thinks Ann and Paul have hooked up: he walks out, his suitcase packed, posting the front door key through the letter-box behind him, and leaving Ann a note gallantly and sincerely wishing her and Paul ‘every happiness – I cannot bring myself to write “with Paul”.’) Hilda and Howard would have disowned Ann as a scarlet woman. Paul and Ann would have had to move away in disgrace. As cute as the possibility is that the better-matched pair might have tangled limbs, its consequences don’t have Series Two written all over it. But it did cross the writers’ minds.
This is, plainly, speculation. And yet…
The arc of the story between the third and fourth episodes doesn’t elide neatly. The last we see of Martin in episode three is his bristling distrust of Paul’s intentions. When we next find him, he’s planning a holiday. The scripts have been altered and re-typed. The programme number, script number and series length suggest an episode was skipped. So what happened?
The answer is: I don’t know. And I don’t know who does.
I approached Peter Egan (Paul) with the question. He remembered the intention for Ann and Paul to couple up, but suggested a recording could have been skipped due to illness. That’s a more prosaic and much more likely answer, in all truth – but it wouldn’t explain the renumbering of the scripts. Producer and director Sydney Lotterby couldn’t recall anything about a dropped script, though he arrived after the scripts were finalised; equally, he remembered nothing about a week missed due to illness. Esmonde and Larbey are no longer with us, so they can’t be asked. And Bob Larbey didn’t keep his manuscripts or typescripts, so if the answer exists, it might well have long since been recycled as any number of egg cartons or rolls of sustainable tissue.
There seems little doubt that something happened. What and why isn’t clear. Perhaps there was a fourth episode in which an infidelity took place, to be paid off by Paul and Ann running away together in the last episode (which is exactly how Esmonde and Larbey’s previous BBC sitcom, The Other One, concludes). Perhaps the folly of this was caught in time, the bunk-up storyline dropped, the ending of the series rewritten, and the episode shortfall made up during the second series.
In the first series finale, there is a very telling moment when Ann and Paul dance together in the church hall, on their own, and seem to come very close to a kiss, before being interrupted by Howard and springing apart guiltily.
SINGING ‘DANCING IN THE DARK’ LOUDLY, PAUL WHISKS HER INTO A DELIBERATELY FLASHY DANCE. ‘DANCING IN THE DARK’ ARE THE ONLY ACTUAL LYRICS HE KNOWS, SO HE ‘DAH-DAHS’ THE REST. THIS MAKES ANN LAUGH AND SHE JOINS IN.
THE DANCE MOVES FROM ENERGETIC TO SLOW AND THEIR SINGING MOVES TO HUMMING SOFTLY TO EACH OTHER. THEY BEGIN TO ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE AND THE DANCE GETS SLOWER AND CLOSER.
Could this be left over from an earlier draft that saw them disappear together?
If the answer’s out there – maybe Penelope Wilton (Ann) or Geraldine Newman (Hilda) or one of the production team or the writers’ families can help – it may surface. Until then, this full stop remains a question mark.
Some stories have holes in them. For now, this is one.
Three Party Sevens of Watney’s to producer Ed Morrish, director Roy Gould and historian Louis Barfe for their help parsing programme numbers, which were (perhaps mercifully) a closed book to me. If you give a shit about TV – and I’m sure you do – buy one or all of Louis’s books. They’re very good.