The Upper Hand

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[This is Part 10 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart Nine]

If you’ve been reading my work regularly over the last few years, you’ll recall I’ve a specific bar for things which ran a really long time while simultaneously leaving no cultural mark. Remember 90’s ITV sitcom The Upper Hand? You should, having racked up 94 episodes. Go on, quote a line. A scene. Give me anything beyond humming a few bars of the dreadful theme tune. You absolutely can’t. Nobody can. There are other examples — the similarly unquotable Birds of a Feather with an astonishing 128 episodes — but The Upper Hand is the benchmark for racking up copious airtime yet leaving millions of viewers with absolutely no specific memories whatsoever.

Try and picture it; 94 episodes. 94 times a script was written, rehearsed, and performed in front of hundreds of people who got specially dressed, piled into their cars or the train, for a specific journey to a TV studio to spend an evening watching it being recorded. 94 times a continuity announcer said “and coming up after the break…” And in its wake, not a goddamn bean. It’s truly remarkable. To put 94 episodes in perspective for a British sitcom, Fawlty Towers is always held up as the perfect ‘two and done’, with a pair of 6-episode series, while longer-running shows fully ingrained in the national psyche barely compare. At the lower end, there’s The Vicar of Dibley (20 episodes), Porridge (21), Open All Hours (26), and The Good Life (30) — all at less than a third of our tally. Even distance runners like One Foot in the Grave (42), Only Fools and Horses (64), and Dad’s Army, topping off with 80 episodes, trail by some distance. But each of these are highly quotable, with scenes that most Brits of a certain age can repeat verbatim.

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Clearly, The Upper Hand‘s wonk-ass ratio of airtime to cultural impact is extraordinary, but surely the sheer amount is suggestive of massive success? Not so much. A big part of the prolific output comes from its status as an American import. As a remake of ABC’s Who’s The Boss?, which began six years earlier, ITV had a stack of pre-existing scripts at their disposal, with most of the episodes straight adaptations, allowing them to be pumped out at a much faster rate. As a result, they could bypass the British system, usually stuck on blocks of 6, and air the show in yearly batches of anywhere between 7-19 half-hours, cramming all 94 shows into just 7 series.

Now, when I say nobody remembers The Upper Hand, I’m talking about specifics. Most who lived through it can recall its existence, but all will draw a blank when asked to call upon a line or a moment. This is a world where social vernacular is comprised of pop-culture references, and people communicate almost entirely in gifs or quotes from The Simpsons, Father Ted and Alan Partridge. Did this show truly leave nothing behind? I recently tweeted about the Upper Hand cultural vacuum, and got replies with vague memories of having watched, but nothing anyone could nail down, with repressed images coming in flashes, like alien abductees wincing at the sight of a speculum.

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One viewer recalled a joke about recognising a belt-buckle through a letterbox; another repeated a gag about a purse, but with no further information online, it’s impossible to verify. Someone remembered nothing beyond a single line from the theme tune. Sadly, I had to inform them The Upper Hand‘s theme was instrumental, and the quoted lyrics actually came from Dennis Waterman sitcom On The Up. I was sent a link to an Upper Hand fan account. Registered five years ago, it has yet to make a single tweet. Everyone seemed to agree that Honor Blackman’s granny character liked sex.

Part of the reason I’ve been so fascinated with the 47 hours of ‘scene missing’ is that I’m in the exact same boat. I’d have been ten when The Upper Hand began, which was right in that period when televised comedy mostly consisted of MOR sitcoms about middle-aged tribulations, which, back in four-channel analogue Hell, us late-80’s/early-90’s kids were weirdly entertained by. As a boy, along with the shows we’d be quoting in the playground the next day, like ‘Allo ‘Allo or the stuff in my Past Laugh Regression series, I spent my evenings watching weekly instalments of Fresh Fields, After Henry, Up The Garden Path, and Surgical Spirit — the slow romancing of a ‘feisty’ surgeon and her shy anaesthetist. I’ve a vivid memory of my cousin coming over to play and both of us excitedly sitting down in front of May to December, where widowed solicitor Anton Rogers had taken up a relationship with a younger woman. There’s 39 episodes of that, by the way. The Upper Hand is the epitome of these sitcoms that solely existed within their own time, and like all the other trash on here, the only way to understand it is to watch.

03

Episode one, Just the Job, opens with a piano rendition of the theme that’s so slow and sickly, i’m half-expecting a child’s coffin to be wheeled past my desk. But our tragedy is merely that sad-sack Charlie Burrows is moving house. Charlie’s played by one of the McGanns (specifically Joe); a kind of British Baldwins, as four distressingly similar-looking scouse brothers who all act and sing. One went onto be Doctor Who. Googling the lads, I came upon a DeviantArt account filled with images of them lovingly rendered as individual Ken dolls, including a delightful picture of the four wrapped in each other’s skinny plastic arms, titled ‘McGann brothers cuddle puddle.’ As the father to — future wife of Danny Dyer in Eastenders — Kellie Bright’s Joanna, Charlie’s an ITV DILF; something for the mams in his brown leather jacket and bum-chin. He’s packing up the van to leave the rough streets of London; as evidenced by Joanna’s black eye; taking them off to a fresh start in the country where a new job awaits.

Into the opening credits, Charlie’s grotty green van with a TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR decal on the windscreen drives out of the city and into the sticks, all under the appalling theme, mild variations of which are the sole musical score for the series. With the dreary melancholic of early-90’s sitcom woodwind, it’s a tune to perfectly soundtrack the watching of a distant plume of smoke rising from your uninsured family business, or opening a letter from the hospital and seeing the word ‘malignant’. Charlie arrives at the massive country home of Diana Weston’s Caroline and her young son, Tom, and the split-second she opens the door, in hair-rollers and a bathrobe, it’s clear this is your ‘posho falls for dirty-boy bit of rough’ opposites attract deal; six seasons of will-they/won’t-they? erotic bickering followed by a wedding.

04

The gag here, and the premise for the whole show, is that he’s the new housekeeper. A man! Keeping house! Caroline cannot believe her ears; “you’re the wrong sex!” She’s right, men can’t cook or clean. He’ll probably try to roast a football for Sunday dinner, won’t he?! Hoovering the poos out of the toilet and whatnot. Horny nan Honor Blackman tries to sell him to Caroline, giving the tragic backstory; he’s an ex-first-division footballer who got injured, and then his wife died; plus the kids he coaches at the youth centre worship him. “Mother, on Christmas Island, they worship coconuts!” [citation needed] Of course, she relents, as little Tom (not for the last time) can be seen looking straight down the camera.

The main plot is Caroline’s affair with her boss and upcoming mucky weekend, right when there’s a promotion in the offing. Charlie advises against going, as she’ll never know if she got the job through merit or for being a good ride. In the end, she passes on it, and gets the job anyway, but not before various mix-ups, including Charlie coming at the boss with a cricket bat when confusing him for a burglar/rapist, and the pair getting off with each other on the kitchen floor so roughly, it elicits genuine gasps of excited shock from the audience. In the midst of this, I’m finally able to give the world an actual confirmed joke from The Upper Hand, which we can all quote with our friends tomorrow. Picture the scene; she’s offering her boss some food from the fridge. Are you ready?

     Caroline: “How about a green salad?

     Boss: “This is potato salad?

     Caroline “True, but it is green!

Truly worth the wait. That’ll be a Steamed Hams by next week, mark my words. In a couple of quick notes, a scene where Charlie’s flirting with Caroline’s secretary over the phone gets no laughs, presumably pissing off an audience who already want to see C&C together; and each week’s closing credits show the four main characters playing football in the garden, in a way that makes it clear none have ever even seen a football before, or been on grass, or worn shoes. From here, we skip forwards, past episode two, which is the old ‘whoops, Charlie accidentally saw Caroline’s boobs’ story, all the way to episode five; Caroline’s First Fight.

05

This is a straight adaptation of a Who’s The Boss? episode — Angela’s First Fight — with a find/replace for any Anglo-centric references. The American writers do a bang-up job with Charlie’s realistic ‘watching footie on TV’ dialogue, with shouts of “come on, ref, he was offside!” and the like. The kids (and Honor Blackman) have gotten in a fistfight with a neighbourhood boy, and the resulting argument sees Joanne run back home to London, with Tom in tow, having been enamoured by her tales of rats and people sleeping on the streets — “you can put spiders on them and they won’t even wake up!

The London scenes really establish this isn’t just a sitcom aimed at the middle classes, but produced by them too, with the capital portrayed as a Mad Max warzone. As Charlie and Caroline pull up outside his old flat, she’s in fear for her life. There’s boarded up windows and a trio of actual skinheads bouncing up and down on a car bonnet, running off to shove each other into an old shopping trolley as they spray graffiti on some corrugated iron nailed over the front of a house. “Alright, Charlie?” says one, all matey. Note that Charlie himself is really well-spoken, and not even a Jim Davidson ‘stone the bleedin’ crows!’ type cockney, but everyone here is straight out of a 70’s pulp novel where people have been eating their own nans to survive, or just for a laugh.

06

A load of kids come bombing out of an alley and one turns out to be Tom; face dirty, clothes ripped. “Mummy, my cockroach won the race!” he says, excitedly holding it aloft. Did they run all the way back to Victorian times?! Joanna also looks like she’s been up a chimney, and to complete the cliché, their old Jamaican neighbour invites them to stay for a tea of chicken and rice. Charlie takes Caroline to his old local, a graffiti strewn piss-pit called The Windsor Castle, where the regulars mock him for being a poofy housekeeper — “whatcha gonna do, plump my pillows?” — culminating in Caroline pouring a pint over a brassy barmaid (and Charlie’s former lover), and getting into one of those sitcom fights where they just push and pull each other’s shoulders. Of course, the kids show up just in time to see it, and when they get home, where she’s somehow got a black eye, everyone hugs and bonds across the class divide over their shared inability to not throw dem hands at the first opportunity.

Just a couple of episodes in, it’s clear up why nobody remembers any jokes. It’s because there aren’t any. It’s one of those shows where everyone talks in ‘humorous’ repartee, with every character that annoying prick you know who’d shrug and say “I knew that!” when corrected on something. To quote any actual gags, I’d have to transcribe entire conversations, but as an example, at one point Caroline storms out of the room with “inflexible? I have never been inflexible. If there’s one thing I cannot tolerate, it’s inflexibility!” and God, the 11-year-old me must’ve been rolling on the floor at that one. By now, on Covid lockdown in a little flat on my actual birthday, I’m finding the expansive country house hugely depressing, but must soldier on for one final episode.

07

Against my better judgement, I randomly skip all the way past a two-parter with the synopsis “Caroline’s estranged husband (played by Nicky Henson) returns from his jungle explorations” to episode 13, the final in the first series, entitled Requiem. Compounding the sickly feeling, it’s a Christmas special, which I’m watching in May. They don’t even garnish that fucking theme tune with sleigh bells, as we open on Honor Blackman sat at a typewriter surrounded by scrunched up paper, having decided to be a writer, and spending the whole episode speaking only in trashy opening paragraphs. Charlie’s acting weird; rushed off his feet, forgetful, acting all nervy, and unable to stay for dinner. “The mysterious housekeeper disappears into the night,” says Blackman; “oh, why would anyone want to be a writer?” I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

It turns out he’s been moonlighting at a pizza place, and they speculate he’s in debt to the mob, so Blackman tails him, in full detective mode, dressed like when The Thing or the Ninja Turtles disguise themselves out in public. The flashbacks are in black and white with noir sax and Blackman doing a surprisingly awful 1940’s American detective accent. Sorry, I can’t keep saying Blackman; it sounds like I’m talking about a black man. Honor follows him to a block of flats where a woman invites him inside, and a fuming Caroline’s response is that classic bad sitcom mistake of believing something’s funny just because it’s alliterative — “so you can sneak down some back alley to a torrid tryst with a Neapolitan nymphet!” Eff right off.

08

Shock of shocks, it’s not what it looks like, and he’s merely paying the rent on his dead dad’s flat, because he can’t face clearing it out. What a joyous Christmas special, watching Charlie mope about the dismal living room, as him and Caroline connect over his dad’s old tat; Glenn Miller LPs and a football signed by the ’66 World Cup squad. Charlie regales her with the story of his first division debut, in another clearly American-penned monologue — “I beat the full back, I passed the keeper…” The episode ends on Christmas morning and the disgusting opulence of the rich, surrounded by torn wrapping paper and capitalist merchandise. “Gosh,” says Joanna, “how did Father Christmas know I wanted the new Madonna Album?” Charlie replies “well, Santa’s a pretty funky guy!” There you go, another joke. Merry Christmas. Then they all dance around to Glenn Miller, as I celebrate leaving the other 91 episodes unwatched.

In scanning through the rest of the synopses, more often than not, they curiously take the titles of other TV shows or films. A selection from series 6 includes Home Improvement, Quantum Leap, Second Thoughts, and Moonlighting. One year, there’s a load of game shows; Wheel of Fortune, Full House and The Price is Right, but also Misery and Cheers. If they’d gotten another few series out of it, they’d have been stuck writing plots that thematically tied in with Cannibal Holocaust or Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Presumably an in-joke to keep the crew sane, it’s dropped by series 7, barring a single episode entitled Friends, which had been airing for two years by that point, in one of those weird historical crossovers, like finding out Rasputin lived at the same time as Darren Day.

09

In hindsight, it’s obvious why The Upper Hand ran so long while leaving no comedic trace. While it’s technically a sitcom, that’s not why people were tuning in, and like To The Manor Born — a similarly unquotable comedy, but with an unbelievable ratings peak of 24m — it was sold on its slow-burn love story. As predicted, it built towards a wedding episode, which I planned on watching before realising it was an hour-long special, so the synopsis will have to do — “It’s Charlie and Caroline’s wedding day and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.” Standard.

While it’s been utterly forgotten in all but the most general sense, it does have its fanbase, as evidenced by a popular Youtube account filled with loving tribute montages of the two leads falling for each other, cut together with the full, three-minute version of the theme, should you ever need musical accompaniment to thumbing at tattered pictures of your kids that no longer speak to you while teetering on the edge of a motorway bridge. Critically, it’s been forgotten too, though when McGann joined Hollyoaks, he was described in the press as “sitcom legend.” But now, let this document lay proof that The Upper Hand did exist, it had scenes and lines, and (repeats not included) appeared on millions of televisions 94 times. It just wasn’t funny.

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, early access to my podcast, 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.

~ by Stuart on August 5, 2020.

3 Responses to “The Upper Hand”

  1. […] cover, very little footage has survived. In this case, that’s not surprising, given even even The Upper Hand would slink off defeated at Wacaday‘s genuinely incredible tally of 455 episodes. Barring all […]

  2. […] impressions of Roy Hattersley. Despite its awfulness — I’ve been putting off doing a Shitcoms of it for ages because I can’t face it — Bread‘s ratings peak was 21 million […]

  3. […] [This is Part 11 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part Seven — Part Eight — Part Nine — Part Ten] […]

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