Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em at 50: How the sitcom became an enduring classic
As Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em reaches its 50th anniversary, Radio Times magazine looked back at the sitcom's history and its ongoing influence.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Fifty years after he first stumbled onto our television screens, Frank Spencer remains a distinctive and instantly recognisable figure. Adopt a bewildered slouch, put one finger to your mouth and utter “Ooh, Betty!”, and the vast majority of people over 45 will know exactly who you are emulating.
A simple, likeable idiot who unwittingly and apologetically left a trail of devastation in his wake, Spencer’s ineptitude and determination to try everything led to many unforgettable moments of comedy. There was his awkward attempt at roller-skating, ultimately exiting the skating rink, skimming under a passing lorry and muttering, “Betty, I’ve been articulated!”
Or that moment when the couple enjoy a day trip to the seaside and Frank hangs off the boot of the car… over a cliff. There was Frank’s departure from his old home only for the abode to slowly fall down, brick by brick, into a pile of rubble.
Frank fared no better in the new house, struggling with the water pipe, attempting loft repairs, until his leg appeared through the ceiling. Then there was the Christmas special when, dressed as a knock-kneed angel, Frank single-handedly wrecked the church Nativity play.
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Half a century after his debut, Frank Spencer is still one of the most beloved situation comedy characters of all time. Just before his death last October, series creator Raymond Allen readily admitted that it was the only hit of his writing career – but what a hit. At its peak, Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em enjoyed audience figures of 25 million viewers.
By 1974, the show had become so popular that the seasonal special went out on Christmas Day itself, and ratings-winning episodes followed on Christmas Day 1975 and Christmas Day 1978. It was a treat to be looked forward to, a jewel in the BBC crown, and it proved a hugely popular part of the schedules for years. And it isn’t just Britain that took Frank to its heart; he has been sold across some 60 countries.
Still, the road to Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em was not a smooth one. Originally entitled Have a Break, Take a Husband, Raymond Allen’s pilot script saw the newly married Frank and Betty Spencer enduring a mayhem-packed honeymoon. The then BBC head of comedy, Michael Mills, liked the writing but didn’t like the title, and felt the characters needed more breathing space before taking them off on a hotel misadventure.
That premise was instead held back until the fourth episode for a second honeymoon, while the all-important title became a phrase long in popular use, particularly in Lancashire. Diminutive comedian Jimmy Clitheroe had adopted it as a catchphrase in reference to his mischievous schoolboy the Clitheroe Kid. At every scrape in which the lad found himself, someone was bound to say: “Don’t some mothers ’ave ’em!?”
With plenty of crazy mishaps and eye-rolling reactions – and that very hummable theme tune, composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and spelling out the title in Morse code, played by a couple of piccolos - the key factor to its success was in the casting of Frank Spencer.
Early front-runner Ronnie Barker had always been happier in wordplay than slapstick. Besides, 1973 saw the pilots for both Porridge and Open All Hours secure his sitcom future. Another actor in the frame was long-time Ronnie Barker support player David Jason. At that time, however, the BBC powers that be thought he lacked the star quality to carry his own series. Mange tout!
After another favourite, Norman Wisdom, turned it down, producers decided the role needed a younger man, and cast an actor who had previously played clumsy and gauche in '60s cinema, notably swinging sex comedy The Knack… and How to Get It, and Hollywood musical Hello, Dolly!. They settled on Michael Crawford, a decision that proved to be inspired.
With his beret at a jaunty angle, a home-knitted tank top and beige raincoat, Frank Spencer remains comic shorthand for a walking disaster, someone to be relied upon to get everything wrong. That he had a long-suffering but ever-loving wife may seem to stretch believability, but Frank was, fundamentally, a good man, with the best of intentions.
Moreover, the patient, pitch-perfect playing of Michele Dotrice provided the cosy, reassuring sounding board in the relationship – particularly when baby Jessica came along, and Frank’s man-child had a real child to contend with. He was a natural, caring, affectionate dad, and, of course, childlike. The “ahh” factor went through the roof.
Here was a sitcom character that battled with his bosses, with inanimate objects, even with his total inability to function in the real world. The audience loved his infantile awkwardness; his helpless attempts to make right on his mistakes; his total innocence. He was a fool, but he was our fool.
Whereas other sitcom leads like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Terry Fletcher in Happy Ever After blamed everybody but themselves for their own mistakes, Frank took full responsibility for his actions. This one-man wrecking ball had integrity, and audiences adored him, shaking their heads all the while.
When the programme came back for a third and final series in 1978, Frank became more assertive, even aggressive at times, but it was all too late to halt countless impersonators using his abstract mannerisms for instant recognition, and instant applause. For Mike Yarwood, the character was a godsend. It was a staple part of Lenny Henry’s fledgeling variety act. And for a young impressionist like Steve Coogan, Frank was someone that could be taken off effortlessly.
Inevitably, Crawford had to fight to escape the typecasting of a bumbling buffoon, and a return to musical theatre proved the answer. In June 1981 Crawford took on the lead role in Barnum for its West End run, then, in 1986, he created the forever template for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. It was as far away from Frank Spencer as he could possibly get.
Still, despite a relatively small batch of just 22 episodes, Some Mothers’ shadow was still long and lingering. Frank certainly cast inspiration over the clumsy embarrassment comedy of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, as well as the slow-witted warmth of Ricky Gervais in Derek.
Ponderous and proudly daft, Craig Cash’s Dave in The Royle Family was cut from the same cloth, and there is a lot of Frank Spencer in Charlie Cooper’s naive but upbeat character of “Kurtan” in This Country.
It is a trick that sitcom writers should always try to deploy: include a daft-as-a-brush character who can act as a figure of fun within your series, but also make sure the character is played with great sensitivity and kindness.
Bravely but brilliantly, comedian Joe Pasquale took on Frank Spencer for a smash-hit nationwide tour of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em from 2018, a juggernaut of stage madness that only COVID could scupper.
That was “a bit of trouble” even our lovable lunatic couldn’t conquer, but the show and its leading character remain indelible, a symbol for everything that is wonderful, annoying and just plain inevitable about the human condition. Long may he crash through our comic consciousness.