❉ We revisit ‘Solo’, Carla Lane’s feminist sitcom starring Felicity Kendal.
By the end of its fourth and final season in 1978, ‘The Good Life’ had established itself as one of the nation’s most loved and popular sitcoms of all time, so it was hardly the brainwave of the century when BBC Head of Comedy, John Howard Davies, commissioned star vehicles for the cast who’d all been catapulted to the A-list on the back of the series’ success.
Margo and Jerry, aka Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington, relocated from Surbiton to the landed gentry and the corridors of Whitehall respectively, while a few years later Briers found himself back in suburbia, with an even more tolerant spouse, in ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’, a deceptively subversive take on the sitcom genre that anticipated ‘One Foot In The Grave’s portrayal of the suburbs as one of the inner circles of Hell.
All three vehicles gave their stars prolonged success and established themselves as comedy classics in their own right; in the case of ‘To The Manor Born’ and ‘Yes Minister’ (and its successor ‘Yes, Prime Minister’) eclipsing that of ‘The Good Life’, complete with record viewing figures.
On the other hand, Felicity ‘Treacle’ Kendal’s first centre-stage role, the appropriately titled ‘Solo’, racked up respectable viewing figures at the time but hasn’t found itself in the pantheon of well-remembered sitcoms of yesteryear, more of a a mild curiosity only recalled should one happen upon a random repeat on GOLD or Yesterday one hungover Sunday morning, until ‘Solo’ series one and two was released on DVD by Acorn Media in May 2012.
There are a number of reasons why this is so. Kendal’s peers’ star vehicles had more sitcom-friendly themes to mine for big laughs, such as social aspiration and satirical farce, whereas ‘Solo’ owes more to the observations of scriptwriter Carla Lane’s previous hit, the sublime Butterflies. Both shows feature as their central character a woman at a crossroads in life, struggling to define her own identity outside of the ones prescribed by social convention in a male-dominated world. Kendal plays Gemma Palmer, a newly single woman just turned thirty, having left her boyfriend Danny (Stephen Moore) to the uncomprehending consternation of her mother, Elizabeth (Elspet Gret), who informs Gemma, “A woman without a man is like a bird of prey with a squint”.
“A woman without a man is like a bird of prey with a squint”
‘Solo’ must have confounded many viewers’ expectations – not least from the more sweaty-palmed members of the male audience – Kendal having become the nation’s sweetheart and a kind of fantasy spouse as the cute, devoted, tolerant, and tomboyish Barbara.
For all that, Barbara had a steely resolve that made her no pushover, and it’s this side of her most iconic role that Kendal channels here as Gemma, more likely to be found with a frustrated frown than a perky smile. Although the stigma of being a single, thirtysomething woman is arguably not as it was four decades ago, Gemma’s insecurities are still relateable – put into the programme’s proper context, a lot of women of Gemma’s generation found themselves in their thirties, with the feminist revolution having ground to a halt, wondering, ‘What next?’
“I think the series is interesting, in a way, because it is, in a sense, dated.” Felicity Kendal reflected in 2012. “When you see something that’s happened before and made several years ago, they either have to be, because it really is exactly the same now, it’s contemporary, it works now, or it has to be because it’s not exactly a relic, but it really does show you where we are now, compared to where we there then.”
Lane and ‘Butterflies’ director Gareth Gwenlan employ a lot of familiar tropes from that show – arch, waspish voiceover monologues (“Shouldn’t I be plodding round the shop with an assortment of kids and a basket on wheels, boiling cabbage in the kitchen and doing interesting things with cheese?”) and moody shots of our angst-ridden heroine wandering wistfully around parks and fields accompanied by reflective classical music.
“Shouldn’t I be plodding round the shop with an assortment of kids and a basket on wheels, boiling cabbage in the kitchen and doing interesting things with cheese?”
The first series is all about Gemma trying to find a role in life – leaving her secretarial job to become a social worker, which features enjoyable appearances by Roger Brierley and John Abineri – and her on-off relationship with Danny, which plays like a home counties version of Annie Hall, as they separate, then get together one last ill-fated time before realising that when something’s finished, it should stay finished. You can’t not love Stephen Moore and his dour demeanour – even though Danny foolishly lost Gemma after a one night stand with her best friend Josie, his earnest attempts at reconciliation and Moore’s defeated, weary countenance evoke the same hangdog pathos as in his memorable roles in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ as Marvin and reluctant divorcee George in ‘The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole’.
Series two sees a shift in quality, with certain episodes capturing the bittersweet, melancholic humour of ‘Butterflies’ at its finest. A particular highlight is the first episode, involving a brief, unconsummated fling with nineteen year old student Rafe, played by a young Peter Howitt, who briefly acquired TV pinup status as Joey Boswell in Carla Lane’s ‘Bread’ and later directed films such as ‘Sliding Doors’, ‘Antitrust’, ‘Johnny English’ and ‘Laws of Attraction’.
The ever-dependable Milton Johns makes a characteristic appearance in one episode at his world-weary, morose best. Elspet Grey’s own character arc is given more room to breathe, as she continues to pursue a relationship with the unseen Howard, a man thirty years her junior, which provides a different perspective on the dating game from a woman facing thirty from the other side. This is worth dwelling upon – a relationship between a senior citizen and a younger man would be grist to the mill in most sitcom fare, but here it’s handled sensitively and beautifully.
The second series also moves away from the strictly singular perspective of series one, as Gemma enjoys a mostly platonic relationship with the lodger upstairs, self-styled lothario Sebastian (Michael Howe); unbeknown to Gemma, Sebastian has a one-night stand with a gorgeous blonde, Rosie (Belinda Mayne), for whom he develops more serious feelings, despite it going against his vain self-image as a commitment-free lone wolf. Sebastian gets his own soliloquies – characters in Carla Lane sitcoms always get soliloquies, it’s in the rules – that, to be fair to Lane, are pretty representative of a certain stripe of manhood in all its ego and insecurity.
Solo ran for two seasons, an optimum lifespan for a sitcom to bow out gracefully, before its potential is exhausted and the inevitable repetition sets in. A sitcom focusing on relationship issues outside of stable partnerships can never reach a satisfactory resolve, other than marrying off the two leads in clichéd fashion, and Solo ends on a more realistic but somewhat cynical note, with footloose Sebastian having succumbed to commitment with the weary nobility of a man facing the gallows’ pole and Gemma’s own current relationship, with the sketchily-portrayed Rex (David Rintoul), left on an ambiguous note, with Gemma clearly pondering if she’s left with any more answers than when she started.
As such, ‘Solo’ is a sitcom of some integrity, albeit not many big laughs; a mature and thoughtful slow-burner before Lane’s sitcoms became a miasma of battle-of-the-sexes bitterness and hysterical caricatures, and is an interesting addition to the specifically English, middle class genre of the ‘sadcom’ where the mass of men – and women – lead lives of quiet desperation…
❉ Carla Lane died on 31 May, 2016. Solo series one and two was released on DVD by Acorn Media in May 2012.