Bottle Boys

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[This is part two of my Shitcoms series. Click here for the previous entry.]

The very concept of a milkman is one of those indicators of being old as shit, as nobody under the age of twenty has any idea what you’re talking about. But more than the outdated job of delivering milk to your doorstep at 5am, the strength of the milkman archetype was their other reputation. Roughly half of all jokes in the 1970s were based on someone resembling the milkman, and until the industry was destroyed by supermarkets, according to British lore, a nation of cuckolded fathers unknowingly raised children that were actually the milkman’s, while all housewives were constantly up for it, hornily waiting for a knock on the door, so’s to ravage a passing tradesman. In modern parlance — Milkmen? They fuck. Now they aren’t a thing, there’s no equivalent to the travelling salesman shagger cliché. Amazon drivers don’t drop their trousers unless they’re shitting in your driveway, because they don’t have time for toilet breaks, much less to entertain lonely housewives with a next-day dildo inside a cardboard box the size of an elephant’s coffin.

Perfect then, that the role of a milkman in ITV’s mid-80’s sitcom, Bottle Boys, would go to Robin Askwith, who’d spent a decade with his trousers round his ankles in cinematic sex comedies, featuring the kind of inherently British sex that could only ever be referred to as ‘bonking’, ‘rumpy pumpy’, or ‘a bit of how’s your father?’ Bottle Boys is one of the great pieces of almost-casting, like Bill Murray as Tim Burton’s Batman, or Jeff Goldblum as Kramer, although the latter happened only in my mind. The role of Askwith’s randy milkman was originally written for Jim Davidson. On the surface, particularly in comparison to the likeable screen presence of Askwith, it seems an odd fit, however, in watching the show, it’s clear that Jim would have been perfect, because the character is a massive wanker, and Bottle Boys is shit.

01

Created by Vince Powell, who also brought the world such timeless classics as Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour, Bottle Boys‘ reputation is of one of the worst sitcoms ever put to screen. But as with other infamous stinkers, like Curry and Chips, or Heil Honey I’m Home, it’s only ever seen on talking head shows, where Paul Ross or Hi-Vis off Big Brother describe the 10 second clip we’re watching, that they themselves have only just seen on a monitor. I needed to find out for myself if it was bad as everyone says; if its reputation as a sexist dinosaur was unfair. I begun by watching the earliest surviving episode, entitled Danger, Women at Work. Oh.

Under a football chant theme, composed by Denis King, who scored Holiday on the Buses, and sung by a chorus of cockneys, (“milk, eggs and buttah…”), an animated title sequence shows Askwith on his rounds, “making sure each customer is satisfied.” He winks to camera, suggestive of “sexually satisfied, that is; in their fannies!” as bottles excitedly jump up and down on a doorstep, filled with some unnamed white liquid that’s most likely cum. Maybe that’s the plot, with Askwith clocking in to fuck bottles down at the factory. “Pick up the pace, you slacker!” “I’m shaggin’ as fast as I can! Me old ballbag’s dry as the Sahara!”

02

The opening scene is a perfect encapsulation of the bygone world half of us were happy to see consigned to the toilet, while the other half spend their days lionising its penny sweets and casual racism in nostalgic Facebook posts. A bimbo secretary in leopard print adjusts her stockings, responding to concerns her short skirt might inflame the lads with a randy “Ooh, I hope so!” Then, a phonecall from an irate customer. “What’s she complaining about now?” asks Askwith. “Her tits!” replies his boss. I’d wager Vince Powell’s lightbulb moment of creating the show was realising the blue tits that peck at milk bottles, and tits that you find on a lady, are the same word, treating us to a mime of Askwith dipping his imaginary boobs into some milk.

It’s certainly a diverse workplace at Dawson’s Dairies. First, there’s Joe, a black bloke as written by a white man, whose every action serves to highlight his race. When they bring booze to a stag do, he’s got Trinidadian rum; when he talks about his mate, it’s “Clyde from the Caribbean Club”; as they scoff their lunchboxes on break, he’s got got curried salt-fish sandwiches. There’s also a thick one who’s a sort-of teddy boy; a nondescript fella; and Stan, the Welsh boss played by Please Sir‘s Richard Davies, who calls everyone “boyo” and uses “Llangollen!” as a swear. Most egregious of all is the Scots character called — with incredible invention — Jock. The comedy drunk is not a new stereotype, but never before or since has it been played so ruthlessly. Permanently paralytic, he’s either slumped or staggering, forever on the verge of a vomit, with every line of dialogue a slurred and desperate demand for more booze. In comparison, Russ Abbot’s violent ginger CU Jimmy seems a sensitive, rounded portrayal of the modern Scot.

03

If the intention was to create a sitcom that replicated the unfunny, boorish banter of the workplace, then in that respect alone, Bottle Boys is a success. Much of its ‘action’ takes place in the break room, where pornography is taped to the outside of their lockers, in scenes of bants entirely unrelated to the plot. One long, jokeless section exists solely as a mouthpiece for the writer’s politics, in a series of digs at Labour politician, Tony Benn, who at the time was being maligned in The Sun for his support of the Miner’s Strike. They bemoan how much money he’s got, the silver spoon in his mouth, and how much of a leftie he is. “Left of centre? He’s left of left!” rages Askwith. Benn used to be right honourable, but “you ask me, he’s a right berk!” later adding, “he’s bloody barmy!” What a shock to realise the brain behind Mind Your Language is a Tory.

The story proper gets underway with Welsh Stan complaining that he had to advertise for a “milkperson” at the job centre, and only had one applicant. Will he be starting tomorrow? “No, but she will!” Shock horror, the thought of a milko with milkers has the lads fuming, with Askwith delivering the kind of scathing rebuke you see from people who spend their days signing online petitions to have all the black people removed from Star Wars. “Why don’t they call Manchester ‘Personchester’?” or the song “My Old Person’s a Dustperson!” or in a joke which doesn’t land at all, and is really reaching “listening to the singing strings of Person-tovany!” We’re clearly supposed to be on his side, as he rants on the madness of “emancipation gone mad! Or should I say, eperson-cipation!

04

It would be unfair of me to mark all the women of Bottle Boys as giggling dollybirds, as Askwith finds out when he queue-jumps at the pub, apologising with a “sorry, love,” and getting “I’m not your love” in return, from a stern, bespectacled feminist, played by a young Pat Butcher. Existing as an analogue for the writer’s obvious feelings about bra-burning lesbians who don’t let you call them ‘love’ (“a four letter word, apparently”), she tells him he’s a chauvinist before storming out with a “Men!” Incidentally, this scene contains the rare appearance of an actual joke. “What’s the difference between an egg and a bit of nookie? You can’t beat a bit of nookie!” Great.

The next day, the new milkperson arrives, and shock of shocks, it’s Pat Butcher. Though not their superior, she lays down the law, which is “no smoking, no drinking, no swearing or filthy talk, and no sexist posters!” and tearing down the porn. She changes the break room into a cosy space, with floral furniture, matching curtains and carpet, and pink scatter cushions. The old mugs are binned, replaced with dainty bone china cups and saucers, and the men have to take their shoes off. “What’d you think this is,” fumes Askwith, “a mosque?!

Desperate to get rid, they formulate a plan utilising the dairy’s policy banning husbands and wives from working together. Drawing the short straw, Askwith has to propose marriage (it’s assumed she’ll happily accept), and once she’s gotten the boot, he’ll break off the engagement. Of course, as a dullard chauvinist’s idea of what a feminist is, all her spirited self-reliance and empowered ideals are just the symptom of needing a ruddy good seeing to. At the slightest interest from a man, Pat becomes overtaken with lust, taking off her glasses and pawing at his “young and vital” body. She immediately accepts his proposal, before pinning him down for the big, laugh-getting kiss. Now engaged, Askwith breaks the news to Welsh Stan, who first checks the lad hasn’t “gone all funny” and proposed to another fella, before firing him instead — “she’s not going, boyo, you are!

05

Drowning his sorrows at the pub, the jubilant lads all show up, with the great news that Pat’s quit. Once Askwith got fired, they told her the truth, “and she said she wouldn’t work where she wasn’t wanted.” There’s a huge cheer at his reinstatement, and thankfully, nobody who mattered (a man) got hurt in the process. Though she does get a modicum of payback, re-entering as the flinty feminist to call him a “despicable little man,” and pour a pint on his head, in the only time-accepted way for women to ever get revenge on a bloke. “Have one on me!” Classic Pat!

A mere three episodes later, series one closer, Here Comes The Groom, again revolves around Askwith’s sudden engagement, this time to dairy secretary Sharon. With no suggestion of romantic feeling up to this point, the pair suddenly decide they’re in love, to be married on the morrow. This manifests in that awful sitcom way, all sickly hand-clutching and staring into each other’s eyes, with faux-Shakespearean declarations of love and babyish pet names. Promising he wouldn’t drink on his stag night, Askwith gets bantered into it by the lads, and ends up hungover in Luton, having to race back to London on a stolen postperson’s bike, in hopes of making it to the registry office.

06

Here Comes the Groom does at least introduce more female characters, like Sharon’s mum, watching Corrie with her hair in curlers, and leaving the front door wide open in the hopes of being sexually assaulted by passing rapists. No, really. Sharon’s best mate shows up too, played by former page 3 girl Candy Davis, who starred in various comedies of the time as a big-knockered dollybird. He makes it to the wedding in the nick of time, but stinking of booze, so Sharon hits him with flowers and calls it off. But he doesn’t want to let let a good honeymoon go to waste, taking Sharon’s mate instead, for a weekend of the old nookie.

But lads are not made by shagging alone, and we must also consider the importance of footie. Bottle Boys‘ final episode, series two’s The Milk Cup Runneth Over, is an attempt at one of those ticking-clock farces, like John Cleese’s Clockwise, or that — absolutely genuine — episode of Eastenders where Shane Richie’s running around trying to buy condoms before a horny Kat changes her mind. Here, it’s a ticket for the Milk Cup clash between Chelsea and Arsenal that’s forever just out of reach, in ways I can’t be bothered to explain, but which takes in hooligans, scalpers, not wanting to sit next to his black friend (for some reason), and an actual use of the phrase “you’re asking for a knuckle sandwich, my son!

07

Each episode is astonishingly unfunny, at a subterranean level quite unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. “I had so much ham, it’s a wonder I didn’t start to look like a pig!” is an actual joke on television, with a pause for audience laughter and everything. In another, Askwith treads on Stan’s pen, breaking it. “I’ve had that pen for years” — “Lucky it wasn’t a new one!” Though there are precious few pop culture references, such as comparing the black guy to Sidney Poitier, there’s a pandering mention of Return of the Jedi, where Askwith strained his groin at the sight of Princess Leia, though a line about “Jabba the Hutt’s knee” suggests the writer hasn’t seen it. Biggest audience reaction, by a mile, comes with Askwith trying to finish his round early, cuing footage of a milk float driving in double-quick Benny Hill time, to shrieks of laughter so wild, they almost blew out my speakers.

In place of jokes, there’s an end-of-the-pier Tarantino feel, with long scenes of unrelated group chit-chat, but writer Vince Powell has all the ear for dialogue of the cop from Reservoir Dogs. While it’s certainly not a funny show, it is an oddly realistic portrayal of the male workplace. I love the Carry Ons, and their constant double-entendres with linguistic utility player ‘it‘, but in Bottle Boys‘ sex-obsessed world, literally everything anyone says is immediately taken to mean something dirty, and an elderly man can’t even sit on a stool without Askwith loudly announcing “he’s gonna get his leg over!” These are men who’ve worn their dicks down to nothing, constantly wanking, thrusting, and pumping away, obsessed with bums and boobies and willies, and having it off with a nice piece of crumpet. Unsurprisingly, Powell’s CV contains the providing of jokes to Carry On Emmannuelle.

08

Though I’m sure he was just aiming for laughs, the portrayal of women is a brutal snapshot of 80’s male attitudes to gender dynamics. Askwith’s groin strain goes untreated when his regular doctor’s off, and he has to see his partner. “What did he say?” Enquires his colleague, who’s firmly corrected by Askwith — “It. It was a she.” It. Not just a way to infer intercourse, but a descriptor of women too; barely human beings. When his mate’s preparing for a big date, Askwith says “so it’ll be that big fat bird down the fish shop then?” and in describing Pat Butcher, “I wouldn’t say she was pretty and I wouldn’t say she was ugly. I’d say she was pretty ugly.” The only female regular, Eve Ferret’s Sharon the secretary, is a sex-starved airhead, typing slowly with a single finger, and doing stretching exercises into camera to “improve my bust.” Now that’s a real woman, right lads?

Obviously when you’re revisiting old shows like this, you have to look at things in the context of the time. Comedy evolves along with everything else, and all the ‘problematic’ stuff stands out as more jarring in hindsight than it would have when it was first shown. Feigning shock at old comedy which turned out to be a bit sexist is not particularly insightful. However, one thing that’s truly shocking is that Bottle Boys isn’t the 70’s comedy it seems, with its first episode airing some months after The Young Ones had already shown its last, in 1984. There’s a feel that it’s a show both kicking against the wave of alternative comedy and “eperson-cipation,” while simultaneously aware it was being helplessly swept underneath. That said, Vince Powell did go onto create Never The Twain, giving the world the finest character name ever conceived; and great fun to sing in the tune of Eleanor Rigby; Oliver Smallbridge.

09

Incredibly, Bottle Boys is far worse than Richard Blackwood will tell you, after he’s seen five seconds of it on C5’s Britain’s Most Manky Old Telly. More than just the outdated sexism, racism, and frankly preposterous level of unfunniness, the performances are truly dreadful. I do consider Robin Askwith a national treasure, but he’s lumbered with a turd of a script, and lengthy takes that leave everyone pausing to remember lines, or stumbling through mistakes to avoid another run-through. The main indicator of its chronic badness is just how easy it is to picture Jim Davidson slotted into the role instead.

With these things, I always ask myself if it raised a genuine laugh. Yes, it did. A hearty one, thanks to the almost-too-on-the-nose continuity announcement over the end credits, informing viewers that Robin Askwith is currently appearing in Run For Your Wife at the Criterion Theatre in London. But as we learned with the Grumbleweeds, no matter how dreadful a thing, or how many years have passed since it was relevant, there’ll always be an audience. Those asking “who would laugh at this?” need only look at the comment sections on Youtube. While Bottle Boys has sparse views, a couple of people have taken time out to share their thoughts on one cast member.

Eve Ferret’s bra cups runneth over…

Eve Ferrett had a great 44 inch set.

But I’ll leave you with the most confusing comment I’ve ever seen, regarding the cultural legacy of Bottle Boys.

not as good as Home James but better than The Young Ones etc

Jim? Is that you?

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on January 9, 2019.

3 Responses to “Bottle Boys”

  1. […] [This is Part 3 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two] […]

  2. […] is Part 4 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part […]

  3. […] is Part 5 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part […]

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