❉ “And now, live from the studios of Southern TV, Together.” Si Hart revisits the world of Rutherford Court…
Largely forgotten for many years, Southern TV’s daytime soap opera, Together, has been dragged from the archives and found a new fanbase thanks to Talking Pictures TV and Renown DVD.
Before 2016, Southern TV’s foray into the world of soap opera really was one of those TV shows that slipped from the consciousness of everyone. There were few mentions of it anywhere and those that were around widely derided it as a poor production, made live and full of fluffs and the notorious wobbly sets that apparently litter old TV. The message was clear; there are some shows that deserve to be forgotten and this was one of them.
Therefore, it came as something of a surprise when Talking Pictures pulled Together from the Southern TV archive for an airing. I was one of the many viewers who set it to record, expecting to be watching something of a train wreck, only to find that not only was it more than competent, it was actually pretty good. I didn’t expect to find that it was actually ground-breaking in a couple of ways. I fell in love with the show, and eagerly looked forward to my daily visit to Rutherford Court each day. I was hooked!
ITV in the late 1970s was a made up of a group of franchises covering various regions across the UK, all of which were always looking for new ways to make headways into the schedules. The bigger companies such as Thames and Granada would often take a major share of the prime-time programming, leaving perhaps fewer opportunities for the smaller franchises to find a niche in the schedules. When the daytime schedules were being overhauled for 1980, the opportunity came for new soap operas to form part of the programming and this was where Southern were able to make a contribution as one of three new soaps created at the time.
Together was developed with a unique setting for a soap, a modern block of warden controlled sheltered accommodation for people of all ages. Rutherford Court was based on Jubilee Court in Bracknell, which at the time was a rather new development in housing. Built in 1977, Jubilee Court was a four-storey block of flats that offered accommodation to adults of all ages and backgrounds with facilities on site including a cafeteria, social areas for residents and a variety of other social and community activities (and by co-incidence, right opposite the secondary school I went to!) This setting could offer many opportunities for stories around the characters who lived in the flats.
Viewers were introduced to Together and the residents of Rutherford Court when the show debuted on ITV on 24th January 1980. The opening music was twinkly but a little sinister and the titles were very Protect and Survive, leading some people to comment when it was shown again in 2016, to say it all felt very post-apocalyptic!
The first episode focusses on a recently bereaved Derek Harding who has been forced to downsize and move to Rutherford Court in a flat next to newlyweds Richard and Julie. This was a good way to introduce viewers to life in the flats, slowly introducing characters as Derek got to meet them. Many of these characters were played by familiar faces such as No Hiding Place’s Raymond Francis, Victor Maddern and Margareta Scott were joined by newer faces such as a pre-Blue Peter Sarah Greene, Stephen Churchett and later, future Coronation Street resident Gina Maher. Julie and Richard were even played by actors who were married at the time, Gillian Bailey and Richard Everett.
The main character of the show was Warden of the Flats, Lynne Webber, played by Sheila Fay. Lynne is very much cast from the same mould as many other ‘70s soap matriarchs, such as Crossroads’ Meg Richardson, being ultra-organised, a friend to everyone and a gruff exterior hiding a heart of gold and a softer inside. There’s a classic example of this in the second series, where getting a rare moment to herself she breaks down and sobs as the troubles in her marriage to workshy handyman Duggie finally overwhelm her, but the moment someone comes into her office, she’s wiping away her tears and is back to doing her job looking after her residents. Strong and resolute she may be, but Sheila Fay imbues her with a very Liverpudlian sense of humour and warmth that shines through her performance even when the character is in a bad mood.
The show’s strongest asset was its writers. Like the cast, the writers of Together were a mix of TV veterans such as John Hawkesworth, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Adele Rose who had all written for Upstairs, Downstairs and up and coming writers like Phil Redmond (who spoke warmly of the show in his autobiography). Between them they would craft stories that dealt with a mix of the lives of the characters and up to the minute issues such as abortion, marital difficulties, mental health issues, alcoholism and in a first for a UK soap opera, a homosexual couple. This aspect of the show had been overlooked for years, with EastEnders now often taking the claim for the first gay couple in a UK soap, but Together beat them by years.
While the show was criticised for its mundanity by critics, with one newspaper at the time for instance making a point about the banality of the residents clubbing together to buy a chest freezer, Gay News were rightly effusive about the depiction of gay life in the show. Trev and Pete’s relationship was praised in Gay News issue 188 for being “One of the most down to earth, unselfconscious male gay relationship yet presented on mainstream TV.” The two were very much portrayed like any other couple in the show which for the time was really ground-breaking. Even the episodes were the residents debate having a gay couple living in the flats were handled sensitively, with some of the more intransigent characters like Harry Klein being won over during a residents meeting.
Together was considered enough of a success, despite the comments from the critics, to be granted a second series, starting in January 1981. This gave the creators a chance to revamp the show a little, so the show gained a new set of titles and a new theme composed by the legendary Johnny Dankworth and sung beautifully by his wife Cleo Laine, which instantly gave the show a warmer feel. It’s a gorgeous song, with some beautiful lyrics.
Sadly though, not all of the cast stayed after the first series and some new characters were introduced in their place. The Kleins were replaced by The Suttons and Carol Hawkins joined to add some glamour as Susi Powell. Sarah Greene departed for Blue Peter and so the Webbers gained a niece played by Gina Maher, who caused them even more trouble than their daughter. Strangely, Patsy Smart who’d been a regular in the early episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs joined the cast but only stayed for a few episodes before being replaced by Annie Leake ,who played an almost carbon copy of Smart’s character, with no explanation! Future EastEnders icon Pam St Clement even turned up as a guest star for an episode, playing holiday relief for Lynne Webber, arriving with an outrageous Irish accent and a small dog in tow!
The biggest change of all was that the show was now live. The previous series had been recorded as live, but this time it was going out live for real! Each episode had an announcement beforehand to tell viewers of this “And now, live from the studios of Southern TV, Together.” This allowed them to shoehorn in as many contemporary references as possible, such as the Merchant Navy going on strike or what Charles and Di were currently up to. Rather oddly, the production generally took a step upwards for the live shows, maybe the adrenaline got the actors through, as there aren’t too many fluffed lines or muffed camera moves (though check out a scene at the end of the second episode of the series, where the Powells are having dinner; there’s definitely a strange camera move or two there!)
Despite these changes and the general warmth shown towards the show by the viewers, this was to be the final series of the soap. Southern TV lost their franchise and were replaced by TVS at the start of 1982, so that was the end of Together. The show went out with a big party, with its stars picked out one by one as they had a drink together in the Rutherford Court lounge where so much of the action had taken place. As they’re spotted one by one chatting and laughing, slowly the camera pans out and out, revealing the set and the cameras and the technicians working behind the scenes, all accompanied by an extended version of the theme and the chatter of the actors. It was an unexpected breaking of the fourth wall and rather unique way to end the show.
The show was an unexpected hit for Talking Picures TV when they showed it for the first time in 2016, so much so that they repeated it straight away after its first showing so viewers who’d missed the early episodes could catch up on it again. There were many clamours for another showing leading to it being shown again this year and finally an unexpected uncut release on DVD in July.
So why did it go down so well when it got shown again? It’s always difficult to pinpoint why something is popular but maybe it’s because it is so different to today’s soaps. Together is gentle and slow and all about its characters rather than relying on shocks and serial killers and murders. It really is a slice of life and not a great deal happens and yet you get caught up in the lives of these people. Perhaps it’s a reminder of when soaps didn’t chase ratings and just wanted to reflect the lives of their viewers. Also, I think, it was unexpectedly modern in some ways, especially in its depiction of the lives of its gay characters which are wonderfully free of any kind of sensationalism, which still carries on today. For this to be found in a daytime soap from 40 years ago was really unexpectedly progressive and really rather wonderful. It’s good to have that omission redressed now and to know that perhaps Eastenders wasn’t breaking as much new ground as was thought in 1985.
I’ve loved dipping back into the world of Rutherford Court again via the new DVD set. I think it’s a show I’m going to pop back to every few years because as we all now know; our lives are waves in a tide, and just as a tide can flow and our fortunes may come and go, we will survive, if we can keep alive the art of living Together…
❉ The 6-DVD Release TOGETHER Series 1 & 2, starring Kathleen Byron, Victor Maddern, Sarah Greene, Hilda Fenemore, Margaretta Scott and Gillian Bailey, is available now from Renown Films. Running Time: 1244 minutes | 51 Episodes on 6 DVDs | All episodes are unedited and complete.
❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.