He Ain’t Heavy… ‘Sink Or Swim’

❉ Looking back on the ’80s sitcom starring a pre-Doctor Who Peter Davison and, in his television debut, Robert Glenister.

“In a nutshell, Sink or Swim is, like Seinfeld would become years later, a show about nothing. It threatens to pursue a plot at various stages throughout all three series… but on the whole this is a series which gets by on the charm of its three leads and Alex Shearer’s gently comic writing. And the key players really are charming, with a good mix of chemistry that is a delight to watch on screen.”

A vintage BBC sitcom about two brothers. The older brother is ambitious, eager to grasp what the world has to offer. The younger brother is scruffy and hopeless, forever tempering the enthusiasm of his older sibling and raining on the parade of his aspirations. The setting is London at the dawn of the ’80s – Thatcher’s Britain – though in reality location filming in Bristol stands in for the capital. The producer/director is Gareth Gwenlan.

No, I’m not talking about Only Fools and Horses. That series arrived on the BBC in September 1981. Instead, I’m talking about a sitcom that beat John Sullivan’s much-loved classic by almost a year, running for three series between 1980 and 1982. I’m talking about Sink or Swim, written by Alex Shearer of The Two of Us fame (which ironically starred Only Fools‘ Nicholas Lyndhust) and starring a pre-Doctor Who Peter Davison and, in his television debut, Robert Glenister, as the brothers Brian and Steve and Sara Corper as Brian’s girlfriend, Sonia. All three series of Sink or Swim were released as one DVD set by Network in 2016.

Brian Webber (Davison) is a naïve but determined young man, relatively new in London from somewhere ‘Oop North’ and determined to strike out on his own. There’s just one small problem; Brian’s younger brother Steve (Glenister), a feckless, childish oaf who comes looking for Brian following the latest in a series of endless disagreements with their father. Steve has heard wonderful things about life in London from his big brother’s letters and he’s eager to sample them for himself.

What he finds however is that Brian has been guilty of gilding the lily somewhat. The “substantial and self contained accommodation in what is rapidly becoming one of London’s most fashionable bohemian quarters” described in Brian’s missives home is in fact a dingy bedsit in pre-gentrified Notting Hill. It’s not all bad news though – Brian does have a job, he works in a petrol station, and he does have a girlfriend, an idealistic to the point of zealous young woman called Sonia (Sara Corper) whose every topic of conversation seemingly revolves around vegetarianism, ecology, new age interests and the patriarchy. Needless to say, her and Steve are not likely to see eye to eye on many matters. Faced with these difficulties and challenges in the bustling capital, will the Webber brothers sink or will they swim?

© Network Distributing Limited.

Despite a change of location in the final series – Brian moves to Newcastle to study at the university there, taking Sonia and Steve along with him – the premise that I have outlined above is basically the gist of all three series of Sink or Swim. Granted, the blurb on the back of the DVD does suggest a plot involving the trio’s plans to buy a narrowboat and ply the Thameside tourist trade, but this doesn’t actually trouble the series at all until the final two (or three, at a push) episodes of the first series and is completely abandoned by the start of the second series.

In a nutshell, Sink or Swim has no real plot to speak of at all. It is, like Seinfeld would become years later, a show about nothing. It threatens to pursue a plot at various stages throughout all three series; the search for their estranged mother in series one, Steve dating the daughter of a work colleague in series two (a pre-EastEnders Gillian Taylforth playing TV legend Ron Pember’s daughter) and Brian’s pursuit of knowledge at university in series three, but on the whole this is a series which gets by on the charm of its three leads and Shearer’s gently comic writing. And the key players really are charming, with a good mix of chemistry that is a delight to watch on screen.

In the lead role, Peter Davison is at his well-meaning, slightly wet best as Brain Webber, a bespectacled prototype of the ’80s ‘New Man’ who is mostly wholly enamoured by the beliefs of his girlfriend Sonia, but whose more pragmatic Northern roots occasionally rise to the surface thanks, in the main, to Steve’s influence. In Steve, Robert Glenister delivers a fine comic performance which ought to be congratulated far more, given that this was his first TV role.

On paper, the character could be deeply irritating and it’s fair to say that there are some “it was acceptable in the ’80s” levels of unreconstructed, non-PC, alpha-male attitudes that Glenister is saddled with uttering which are, sadly, not always appropriately challenged; notably in some alarmingly homophobic dialogue that equates gay people to somehow being subnormal in Steve’s eyes and some casually racist language. But Glenister plays against the stereotypical ignorant Northerner trope and mines instead a vulnerability to his performance that stems from just how childish the character of Steve actually is.

In doing so, he makes Steve genuinely likeable, wholly harmless and, frankly, in need of mothering – which usually falls to Brian of course, making for successful comedy. Together, Davison and Glenister are an authentic pair of siblings and I especially liked how they frequently had the ability to be tearing lumps verbally out of one another yet, should some bystander intrude, their natural reaction as brothers was to group together, defend each other and tell said person to keep their nose out. Wholly believable! I also appreciated the costume department’s take on how each brother should look. The would-be upwardly mobile but wholly nerdy Brian is often dressed in zip-up cardies and woolly ties, topped off with the a navy blue parka with fur lined hood and orange lining. Steve’s style, on the other hand, drew only to a battered, moth-eaten sheepskin flying jacket, slogan T-shirt and woolly hat.

© Network Distributing Limited.

Rounding out the main cast is Sara Corper as Sonia. Like Glenister, this was Corper’s first major TV role, having previously appeared in an episode of The Jim Davidson Show, penned by Alex Shearer. For me, Corper is often the highlight of each episode and gains some of the biggest laughs. Perhaps this is because the many preoccupations of Sonia are still deeply relevant in today’s world of achingly right-on ‘vegan bores’. Again, this could have easily been a very one-note character, a ‘let’s all laugh at the mad veggie feminist’ trope, but Corper, like Glenister, finds the key to her likeability. She’s just an incredibly enthusiastic and well-meaning person, and the fervour with which she approaches her many causes (which she sometimes doesn’t fully understand) are therefore wholly sympathetic.

As a Northerner myself, I especially liked her belief that Brian and Steve’s father must be a miner as, in her mind, all Northern men work down the pit. When Brian corrects her, she comes to question whether he really is Northern after all! The character of Sonia also gets the prize that many a sitcom desires in an effort to establish the show in the public’s mind; the catchphrase. Seemingly every other earnest diatribe or long-winded monologue she delivers in an attempt to educate either Brian or Steve ends with “You know?”, delivered in an inimitable manner by Corper. Costume-wise, she’s often kitted out in dungarees, which was of course the shorthand for militant women at the time.

Like many BBC sitcoms from this golden era, Sink or Swim is blessed with a theme tune and score by the illustrious composer, Ronnie Hazlehurst – the man behind the themes for Are You Being Served? Last of the Summer Wine, Just Good Friends, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Yes Minister, Sorry! and, yes, even the first series of Only Fools and Horses. Like his memorable theme tune for Carla Lane’s Butterflies (an arrangement of the Dolly Parton 1974 hit, Love is Like a Butterfly)  Sink or Swim was not an original composition. Instead, for this show about the fractious, chalk and cheese relationship of siblings, Hazlehurst was asked to arrange an instrumental version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – a 1969 hit for The Hollies.

The theme would play over the opening credits which comprised of still photography of archetypal northern settings such as chimney-stacked, terraced streets and backyards with tin baths, the motorways of Britain and finally, the bright lights of London in an effort to suggest the Webber brothers’ transition from their humble roots to the big city which, they hope, will be paved with gold. This did of course change in series three to footage of Newcastle and the Tyne Bridge, reflecting this further move of the Webbers, with Sonia in tow.

© Network Distributing Limited.

Despite the Network blurb claiming that Sink or Swim is a “well remembered BBC sitcom“, the fact that it languished, unrepeated, in the BBC vaults for nigh on thirty-five years suggests otherwise. Indeed, in his 2016 autobiography, Is There Life Outside The Box?, Peter Davison laments otherwise, citing “It’s early obscurity is a regret” and believing that it would be “unlikely (that) anyone will get to see it again”.  In Davison’s view, despite its excellent ratings across all three series, the show was cancelled because “the BBC didn’t think it could have two shows about brothers, running at the same time, and preferred Only Fools and Horses to ours.” Yes, it’s that show again! Nevertheless, there are some truly memorable episodes of Sink or Swim, including the series one Christmas special revolving around the conflicting ideas of how the brothers ought to spend Christmas and which somewhat perversely aired on January 1, 1981.

When I recently posted on Instagram that I was watching Sink or Swim, a friend got in touch to recall how a single line of dialogue from that Christmas special (“It was all they had left in the shops, Bri”) had become part of her everyday lexicon since watching the episode forty years ago. Davison too has fond memories relating to the filming of that particular episode. Recalling in his autobiography how neither he nor Glenister could look each other in the eye without corpsing, he writes “In the Christmas episode there was a scene where we disagree about the need for a baby Jesus in our nativity decorations. It wasn’t a particularly stand-out scene but we never got through it without laughing and when we finally got through it, the occasional smirk could still be seen”.

The series concluded on 14 October 1982 with the trio setting off for a holiday in France. However, following a mix-up with the tickets the final shot sees Steve all alone on board a cross-channel ferry with Brian and Sonia stuck helpless at the harbourside. That familiar Davison and Glenister avoidance of full eye contact would reappear once more, two years after Sink or Swim ended, when Glenister guest-starred in Davison’s final Doctor Who story, The Caves of Androzani, in March 1984. Later that year Glenister would take the starring role as a hapless romantic in another Shearer scripted sitcom, the short-lived The Lonely Heart Kid for Thames Television. Since then, both actors have gone from strength to strength and remain fixtures of British television to this day.

Sara Corper continued her career in TV comedy, reuniting with Jim Davidson for Up the Elephant and Round ther Castle (OK, with Davidson, I’m using the term comedy in its loosest terms obviously) and taking regular roles in 1985 sitcom Mann’s Best Friends (also released by Network DVD) and Red Dwarf star Norman Lovett’s shortlived but fondly remembered sitcom I, Lovett, as well as a semi-regular role as snobbish sister-in-law Phoebe in Rab C. Nesbitt; her 1993 appearance in which is her last credit on IMDB.

Alex Shearer went on to write several sitcoms including, most memorably, the aforementioned The Two of Us, which ran for four series from 1986 and 1990 and starred Nicholas Lyndhust, Janet Dibley and another Doctor, Patrick Troughton. This too has been released to DVD by Network. But it’s arguably the sitcom he wrote between that and Sink or Swim which has the most curiosity value; the BBC’s 1984-85 series The Front Line starred Alan Igbon and another Only Fools alumni, Paul Barber, as two chalk and cheese brothers sharing a house in Bristol. Barber starred as straight-laced older sibling Malcolm, a police constable, whilst Igbon was Sheldon, his Rastafarian kid brother.

The Front Line was praised at the time for providing cultural representation in a prime time slot and remains one of a pitifully few Black sitcoms made by British television, however some critics argued that the programme did not accurately reflect the Black experience which is hardly surprising given that Shearer is white and, from the premise alone, just seems to have been rejigging Sink or Swim. Unlike that show, The Front Line remains in the bowels of the BBC – though, at time of writing at least, someone has uploaded off-air recordings of all six episodes to YouTube. In recent years, Shearer has concentrated on a career as a children’s author, gaining international and cross-media success with his novel Bootleg, which has been adapted twice; firstly by the Children’s BBC and again as manga anime in Japan, under the title Chocolate Underground.

❉ ‘Sink or Swim: The Complete Series’ is available on DVD from Network Distributing Limited. RRP £15.99. Order from Network here. Order from Amazon UK.

❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

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  1. Great overview of a series I am also currently rewatching for the first time since original broadcast. I’m slightly disappointed to learn that the Series 1 filming locations are not authentic Notting Hill, NF graffiti and all!

  2. Thank you very much for your kind appreciation! Yes the graffiti is a real snapshot of the time.

  3. If you liked Sink Or Swim, you’ll take to A Very Peculiar Practise, it’s a different kettle of fish, being 50 minutes per episode, no laughter track and more of a comedy drama compared to the former’s sitcom antics but both highlight PD’s talents effectively outside of ACGAS and DW.

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