❉ Mark Owen looks back on the ITV sitcom about three generations of women in one family, first shown on this day in 1988.
When TV sitcoms are being discussed, After Henry, first shown 30 years ago, is never mentioned in the same breath as say, Fawlty Towers or Blackadder. It’s a Lazenby of a sitcom; not totally forgotten but prompting a reaction of “Oh yeah – THAT one” when it crops up in conversation.
This is in spite of an excellent pedigree. It was created by Simon Brett, best known for his light-hearted murder mysteries, and who scripts all 38 episodes. It’s directed for three of four series by Peter Frazer-Jones, remembered for such perennials as George and Mildred and for the last one by Liddy (Drop The Dead Donkey) Oldroyd. Most impressive of all are the two leading cast members: Prunella Scales and Joan Sanderson have so many television comedy credits between them, it’s impossible to imagine the genre without them.
After Henry began life as a series on BBC Radio 4 in 1985 and quickly gained devoted listeners and rave reviews. Rather strangely, the Corporation passed up the opportunity to produce the TV version and it was instead awarded to the Thames franchise of ITV.
For a sitcom, the situation from which the comedy of After Henry arises, is startlingly melancholy. Our title character is dead. Doctor Henry France perished in a car crash some time before the story begins, leaving wife Sarah (Scales), mother-in-law Eleanor (Sanderson) and daughter Clare (Janine Wood) to cope without him. Each woman lives on a different floor of the family home, although Eleanor in particular has boundary issues.
We see this world mainly through Sarah’s point of view. Her sanctuary from her grief, her busybody mother and her precocious daughter is Bygone Books, the eccentric second-hand bookshop where she works. The owner Russell (Jonathan Newth) is Sarah’s confidant and agony uncle. Despite the closeness of their friendship Sarah and Russell’s relationship remains unbreakably platonic, as he’s happily partnered to a man named Bob. (Frequently mentioned but never seen, Bob occupies the panoply of the Great Comedy Unseen, alongside Mrs Mainwaring and Maris Crane.)
After Henry is also unapologetically middle-class, in a way that isn’t really depicted in modern TV. Bourgeois people are plentiful in current television (after all, who makes TV?) but these days there’s an expectation that middle-class characters should, if not exactly suffer for their comfy lives, at least be a little embarrassed by it. There’s none of that in After Henry. Henry may have gone, but he’s left his family well provided for. The house is large and comfortable. Money never seems to be an issue. Politics are never mentioned, but Sarah reads the then newly-launched Independent paper, and clearly disagrees with her snobbish mother on matters of class and social mobility.
The TV version of After Henry knocks off some of the harder, bleaker edges of the radio series. Clare and Russell are both recast for television and become noticeably warmer and less abrasive. A couple of radio episodes dealing with properly harsh aspects of death and bereavement weren’t adapted for the small screen.
After Henry was a hit, to an extent that surprised some. In 1989, the festive episode was given a slot in the ITV Christmas Day schedule. The highest recorded rating was 14 million viewers – acceptably very good in the days of four channels, staggeringly successful by today’s standards.
The programme also attracted some fine actors. Edward de Souza has a semi-regular role as Sam, Sarah’s very tentative love interest. Timothy ‘Mr Scales’ West hams it up delightfully as a local Am Dram director. Golden Age of British Cinema leading ladies Jean Kent and Phyllis Calvert turn up to play respectively, Eleanor’s social rival and sister. Among the younger members of the cast are some familiar faces too. The roll-call of Clare’s unsuitable boyfriends include Stephen Tompkinson and Mark Strong who both had great success lying ahead of them, and Dursley McLinden who died young just as his star was rising.
The pivotal performance though, comes from Prunella Scales. Light years from Sybil Fawlty, Sarah is depicted as a brilliantly ordinary and realistic person. It’s a performance of great quality, thought and subtlety.
The most striking thing of all about After Henry is how unassumingly ahead of its time it seems. Today, if ITV did a very cosy mainstream comedy in which the four main characters were three roundly-written women and a non-cliched, sympathetic gay man, it would be so ordinary it would hardly raise comment.
The fact that this kind of characterisation made it into a Thames Television production in the 1980s without apparent opposition, is remarkable. If there was any executive pushing for Clare to be a boy, or Russell to be a sexless old bachelor, their attempts were thwarted.
After Henry is available in its entirety on DVD and worth checking out if you’re an admirer of any of the contributors. 30 years on, of course it looks a little dated – particularly Clare’s fashions. However in a polite, gentle, well-spoken way, it’s a programme that challenges so subtly, that most of the audience barely noticed as preconceived ideas were toppled.
It may never sit at the top table of British sitcoms, but After Henry after three decades is very deserving of a new appreciation.
❉ Mark Trevor Owen is a writer with work published by BBC Isle of Man, Miwk Publishing and Chinbeard Books. He writes a regular newspaper column in the Isle of Man Examiner and tweets @MarkTrevorOwen
❉ Series 2 is currently being repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Fridays at 9:30am