Come Back Mrs Noah

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[This is Part 7 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six]

Another of those series perennially sat on the worst-of lists, Come Back Mrs. Noah was a Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft joint; the pairing that brought us Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo. Airing in the gap between series 5 and 6 of Are You Being Served, it was a vehicle for Served‘s Mollie Sugden, taking a well-earned break from harping on about how soaked she is down there. In all of recorded entertainment, has anything aged worse than Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy jokes? It’s not even a double-entendre nowadays, just a woman plainly violating workplace sexual harassment laws to give colleagues daily updates on how she had to air out her vagina with a hair dryer, or got terrible cramp because she was rubbing herself all weekend. Disgusting.

The pilot aired on BBC1 in December of 1977, some 7 months before the remaining 5 episodes of its lone season. Each were directed by Bob Spiers, who’s got one of the most fascinating CVs ever, taking in this shit, plus episodes of Fawlty Towers, Bottom, Absolutely Fabulous, and the Spice Girls movie. In stark contrast to the usual factories and living rooms of 70’s scripted comedy, Come Back Mrs. Noah is that rarity of a sci-fi sitcom. Well, kind of. Set in the future of 2050, it does the SpaceCamp deal of accidentally launching a civilian into the stars; a civilian occupying the role considered comedic gold at the time; that of a housewife.

01

The fun of future-set pieces is seeing what they do with it. What are the fashions? What kind of world is this? Utopian? Dystopian? Most of our info comes from Nationwide parody, Far and Wide, an in-show BBC current affairs program hosted by Gorden ‘Rene off ‘Allo ‘Allo‘ Kaye, falling over his lines. The recurring snippets of news help build a picture of Mrs. Noah‘s future-world, with talk of melting ice-caps and rising sea levels. There’s a statue of Thatcher in Red Square, and British Leyland have a robot factory. They don’t say who’s in power, but there’s a joint Labour-Conservative opposition, while measurements have been reclassified as new-miles and new-feet. The space-wheel Britannia 7’s been funded by Britain’s surplus cash from North Sea oil, which seems to have burst and drowned half of Europe, as when the crew eventually gaze down on Earth, England’s described as “just above Africa, surrounded by the oil slick.” There’s also a joke about graffiti in the Channel Tunnel, which was still a mad dream back in 1977.

Britannia 7’s housed at the Pontefract International Space Complex, whose abbreviation, PISC, sounds a bit like piss, in a joke that’s milked until its teats are bleeding. It’s at PISC that Gertrude Noah, winner of Modern Housewife magazine’s cooking competition, gets a tour of the ship. From the opening scene, it’s clear there’s nothing the people of the 1970s loved more than when something was a little bit like sex or genitals. Just the sight of an automatic camera with a flap that opens and closes evokes huge audience laughter — “eee, lad, it’s like the flaps of yer mam’s fanny, is that!” All comedy of this era seems rooted in a schoolboy attitude to sex, with middle-aged audiences falling out of their seats at melons being squeezed or cylindrical objects tilting upwards with a slide-whistle noise, suggesting that nobody in Britain had actually had sex until about 1982, which is what really sparked the rise of Alternative Comedy.

02

This is not the show I imagined in my head all those years, picturing a lone Sugden spinning deep into space, meeting wacky robots and aliens, and eventually turning into a giant Mollie Sugden fetus. Instead, it’s an ensemble piece like Are You Being Served? with a crew of Britannia 7’s janitor, a pair of mathematicians (one called Carstairs; a classic 70’s sitcom posho name), and a TV reporter played by Ian Lavender from Dad’s Army. The ship itself does have a pleasing low-tech design, like Silent Running meets Crossroads, with wobbly walls adorned with CRT screens, blinking lights, and huge reel-to-reel tapes. Lavender’s got a talking watch, which is meant to be futuristic, except I had one in 1992 from Chichester market, and spent most of that term with kids bundling me to the floor or leaning over desks during quiet lessons to set it off.

Mrs. Noah begins as it means to go on; with a litany of unfunny scenes built around cheap props. There’s a replicator that farts every time it delivers an object — get used to that — a “pleasure-hat”, i.e. a bike helmet with glued-on knobs, and a dream stimulator; a hotbox with a horrible obsidian face the user climbs inside to get pre-programmed dreams pumped directly into their brain. They open it to find the janitor, contorted in pleasure, mid-dream about 2049 Miss Universe winner, Booby LeFan. Remarkably, this is even less funny than it sounds, with everything bogged down in dry technobabble. The five-minute farting replicator scene mostly consists of someone typing into a beeping keyboard, and even when the accidental launch happens, it’s not the result of someone sitting on a big red button or tripping over a wire, but a load of guff about “neutrinos exploding.”

03

The bulk of Mrs. Noah‘s humour derives from teasing the audience with the chance of seeing Mollie Sugden’s knickers. It’s that “my, how undignified!” vein of humour, where haughty middle-aged women are reduced to public spectacles, like when Hyacinth Bucket falls in a muddy puddle at the mayor’s BBQ. Almost all the futuristic props exist purely as a means to get Sugden in positions where her legs are up over her head, with the live crowd lapping it up like dying dogs. The pilot sees her tipped down a chute with her ankles poking out, with everyone haemorrhaging from laughter as Lavender wrestles with her feet. When they blast into space and her seat suddenly tips back, you’d think Del Boy had fallen through a black hole. If the upskirt ban had been around in ’78, this would’ve been classed as obscene material.

03b

Episode one’s ending uses leg-based hilarity to its fullest, with a zero gravity gag which is more trouble than it’s worth, comprised of an obvious body double swinging on a wire, close-ups of Sugden clearly just laying on the edge of a table, and a bad greenscreen of her flying above their heads like Superman’s nan. They use a face pinching effect to simulate g-force, but it’s all a bit Event Horizon (“Where we’re going, we don’t need eyes to see… up your skirt where your genitals live!”). We end on them orbiting 350 miles above the Earth, and the weekly closing credits, where the space-suited Sugden and Lavender dance on the exterior of the ship, miming to its 1920’s ragtime jazz theme – “…that’s what friends are fo-ho-hor, come back Mrs. No-ho-oah!

04

Episode two continues a weird preoccupation with Sugden needing a piss, I assume because full bladders are meant to be unladylike? Half her dialogue so far’s been about “the little girl’s room,” and by now, she must be filled to the brim, half a drop from from having to let loose into an empty biscuit tin. When they finally get her to a toilet, it’s comically revealed to be stuck near the ceiling at a 45 degree angle, requiring the use of magnetic boots (in a surely-unconscious nod to the zero-gravity toilet background gag in Kubrick’s 2001). You know that thing people do when posting a meme — “I’m screaming!” — though they’re clearly just propped up in bed, sour-faced? Well, someone in the audience really is screaming, as Sugden squats down to switch on the boots. Just imagine; a woman, squatting! She does a funny ‘magnet boots walk’ into the bogs, for what one assumes, is an enormous slash that’ll go everywhere, and though we hear her walking up the walls, thankfully they spare us the sounds of an old lady taking a great big horse-piss.

The rest of the episode’s more prolonged prop comedy, like that round in Whose Line is it Anyway? where Tony Slattery pretended everything was a penis. There’s a robot chicken that shoots eggs out of its arse, and Ian Lavender gets his trousers sucked off by a chute; but the biggest laughs are for Sugden’s turn down the tubes, when you see her bloomers. Despite it all, Mrs. Noah holds steadfast throughout, the only one gamely soldiering on, amid the group of bickering, panicking men. Lastly, there’s the truly endless physical yuks of Sugden and Lavender clambering inside rubber decontamination bags, to writhe around like giant glans forever. It’s a genuinely weird visual, like something from a Jodorowsky film, with the camera lingering for a long take, until the ‘venting system’ shoots farty puffs of smoke out of their arses.

05

Meanwhile, the stranded folks of Britannia 7 are national news, as the 2050 equivalent of the Chilean miners, with the rescue mission forming each episode’s b-plot. The recovery team consist of middle-aged pilot, Garfield Hawk, and his young assistant Scarth Dare (a post-Star Wars spoonerism of Darth Scare), played by Ann Michelle, sister of ‘Allo ‘Allo‘s Vicky (who also auditioned for the role), and star of British horror b-classics Virgin Witch and Psychomania. Because it’s seventies telly, she’s inexplicably in lust with the old fella, and the pair spent their time pawing each other and practically fucking on the desk. However, as a silly woman, she wrecks the rescue by flooding the rocket’s engine. In a similar theme, having been stranded a mere 24 hours, Mrs. Noah gets a video message from her husband, who’s having it away with the young, busty widow from next door. Goddamn, if it wasn’t ever the decade of the dirty old man.

But just imagine the fun you could have doing a show set 80 years in the future, with its fashions, language and technology, and yet not even bother to dress them in tinfoil. The costumes could be from any contemporary show, with the technology consisting of buttons that make fart noises. Ship communication takes place over 70’s corded telephones, and when the news visits the Noah household, it’s a normal living room, with no robot butlers or hover-chairs. At least stick a fishbowl on his head, or give the young widow three big knockers. Put some effort in!

06

One thing they did get right about the future is how society never evolved into a Star Trek utopia, but slides further into the fascist hellscape with each passing year. There are numerous prods at the notion of a growing multicultural society, with talking lifts using a cod-Jamaican accent to warn “mind de doors, mon!” because they’re made in Notting Hill Gate, and Britain’s heavyweight boxing champion named as “Ram-Jam Patel,” which gets an enormous laugh, as does his Italian opponent “Ping-Dong Schlossmann.” In a proto-VR trip to a greenscreened golf course, they complain of a curry stink wafting in from the kitchens, with a plaintive “times have changed rather a lot…” suggesting in the hedonistic cesspool of 2050, brown people are allowed to play golf.

Third episode, To the Rescue, takes place on day three. The fact it’s all a continuous narrative means some sick fuck could edit it all together into a movie. Prop laffs include automatic dressing cubicles comprised of gropey robot hands, which hilariously put Lavender and Sugden in each other’s clothes, and a demonstration of the docking procedure, using various food items as planets and ships. This ends on a laugh that brings down the fucking house, when a sausage thrusts into a loaf of bread, right next to Mollie Sugden’s face, holding a wide-eyed expression of “hang on; that’s a bit like a willy going in a minge!” We finish with the gang trying to seal the airlock by spraying cannisters of white foam everywhere, like when the Ghostbusters took down Vigo the Carpathian.

07

At this point, I skip forwards to the final episode, where they’re preparing for a last-ditch rescue. Immediately, we’re mired in more prop shit, with a jam dispenser that makes fart noises before comically squirting out jam with the woeful thrust of an old man’s final ejaculation, before firing it violently over the opposite wall, like when you’ve been holding off a week after going camping with your family and turn on the telly only to see Julia Bradbury getting a mud massage. The rescue involves strapping them in a Heli-Glider and free-falling to Earth, as demonstrated with an Action Man doll whose trousers fall down.

The following section, one assumes, must’ve been the worst filming day of Mollie Sugden’s life, as she’s strapped into the Flight Escape Re-entry Trainer, “otherwise known as FERT!” Huge laugh for this, because that sounds a bit like fart, doesn’t it?! Like farts what comes out of your dirty anus?! She’s dressed up like the Rocketeer, in a ludicrous contraption with 8-feet wings and a helicopter backpack, jumping on a trampoline while being blown about by a wind machine and yanked in the air by a harness. Warned she’ll experience “a burst of wind” (like farts!), she has to start the motor by repeatedly pulling (like wanking!) a chord which hangs between her legs (like dicks do!) as a blizzard of simulated snow gets chucked in her face (spunk, I guess? I dunno).

08

Needless to say, they don’t get home, as horny old Garfield Hawk is so busy kissing his child bride that he pushes the wrong button, condemning the crew of Britannia 7 to drift into the infinite blackness of space making jokes about guffs until they die. As truly dreadful as Mrs. Noah is, one thing you can’t say is that the audience weren’t enjoying it. This is decidedly not the stilted reaction of a Big Top; they’re fucking howling at everything, though there’s little-to-no actual gag-gags, and it’s mostly just fart sounds, or Mollie Sugden bending over as the nose of a rocket goes right up her arse. The rest of the time, in lieu of a structured joke, just say something that sounds like it might be rude, such as a rocket that’s about to “blow off,” or something that’s located “up your exhaust pipe!

09

In writing the Shitcoms series, I’ve yet to be (pleasantly) surprised by any of the historically accepted bad’uns, with each reviled show thoroughly deserving of its place on the shitlist. Come Back Mrs. Noah is no different, aiming to paint a portrait of the future, but instead giving a pretty damning one of the past; a landscape where one can easily destroy an audience simply by doing a parp, or by touching something that’s a tiny bit penis-like. I’m not pretending to have a super sophisticated sense of humour, because Christ knows, few love a good dick-joke as much as me, but Mrs. Noah makes me genuinely grateful that our poisoned planet will have boiled before 2050 comes to pass.

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.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

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~ by Stuart on July 6, 2019.

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