Looking Back At BREAD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At BREAD

Tony makes it and he takes it home.
Carla Lane was an absolute master of the craft of sitcom, with a voice unlike anyone else whose work featured regularly on TV.

You’ll find POETS like Carla Lane. PLAYWRIGHTS like Carla Lane. OK, Victoria Wood and Carla Lane together would probably share a podium, but while we’ll hear no bad spoken of Victoria, Carla Lane marked out four separate DECADES with her unique voice in poignant, truthful, working class, middle class, aspirational, hopeful, sometimes crushed but moving forward sitcoms. For sheer longevity and quality, you’d have to go a long, long way to beat Carla Lane.

She created The Liver Birds, which ran from 1969-79, showing the reality and concerns of young Liverpool women of the period, and bringing Nerys Hughes and Polly James to national prominence. She created Butterflies, speaking a previously unspoken truth – the desperation for escape and excitement of the suburban housewife, and doing it with both pathos, reality, and real, warm laughs, while searing Wendy Craig into the British national consciousness forever.

Her two early Eighties comedy series starring Felicity Kendal, Solo and The Mistress, are less spectacularly remembered, but pound for pound they tackle important social subjects (grief and infidelity) in ways that are groundbreaking and truthful and funny and sad, and are very much worth your time.

And then there’s Bread.

Bread is probably Carla Lane’s most politically and socially conscious sitcom since The Liver Birds. It mines a lot of the same themes as many of her works – how to get by, how to survive, and how to keep your dreams alive despite a world that wants to make you small and insignificant – but it does it against a very particular background that unlocks a strong central philosophy.

Bread takes place in late-Eighties Liverpool, when the dual effects of the government of Margaret Thatcher were in full effect.

On the one hand, the platform of Thatcherism was essentially consumerism and capitalist enterprise – you can have all the shiny things, if you ‘work hard’ for them (the subtext being that pushing figures around a stock market was working at least as hard, if not harder, than doing a shift in a coal mine).

And on the other, the economic ‘miracle’ of Thatcherism was very much focused on rewarding the heartland of her support, particularly the affluent south-east, while traditional jobs in ‘the north’ – which for the purposes of Thatcherism included everywhere north of Watford and everywhere west of Reading – were evolved out of existence, resulting in a growing unemployment culture, from which many people, and many communities, were never to recover.

Into this unemployment-rife Liverpool step the Boswells, each trying to essentially follow a Thatcherite model in a distinctly anti-Thatcherite way. Trying to make money (the slang term for which was ‘Bread’) however they could, but bringing it home to a collective pot so that the family could support itself through any disasters that came its way. Thatcherite methods, socialistic family support – the underlying message of which was that you relied on the family, because the world outside was untrustworthy.

You can imagine the Boswells as an entirely peaceful Liverpudlian mafia, if you like. Using the state, making its money, but bringing it home and redistributing it so that the whole family rises.

That was something that they often displayed when faced with the unfairness of life, too – the Boswells were a clan that could live together, act together, and if, for instance, there was a query over the benefits owing to one of them, could also turn up together to make their case for its reinstatement at the earliest convenience.

That’s another factor that makes the Boswells appealing – they almost all have a way with words, and use them to make their way through life in as agreeable a fashion as possible. There’s never any violence or threatening intent about the Boswells, but almost every one of them has a unique way with the language. And the Boswells are an amazing family of talkers.

Freddie Boswell (Ronald Forfar), the Einstein-haired, free-spirited poetical dustcart-pushing father of the brood, who left his wife Nelly (Jean Both) for the wild spirit and akimbo limbs of Lilo Lil (Eileen Pollock), has the twinkle-eyed wisdom of a street philosopher, and the need to be free of tight discipline.

Nelly, in his absence, has become the matriarch who holds the family together and wields their togetherness as both a weapon and a shield against the outside world. Her summations of the family’s problems around the dinner table, which she fills and insists they join her at, are legendarily concise, funny, and caring. Supported by her strong Catholic faith (something from which Bread never shrinks), she is the lynchpin of the Boswell family, and she gives them a lot of the values that help them get by, day to day. Her assessment of Lilo Lil became famous nationwide – “SHE IS A TAAAART!”

Eldest brother Joey (originally played by Peter Howitt, then by Graham Bickley for the last three series) is probably the best fusion of Nelly and Freddie’s natures – he’s in control of everything, like Nelly, but charming and a slick speaker, like Freddie. Ironically enough, it’s only when it comes to the women in his life (and in particularly, the exciting, exotic Roxy (Joanna Phillips-Lane), whom he loves) that Joey loses his trademark cool, acting with the relative recklessness recognisable in his father. For the rest of the world, Joey, who opens most conversations with a brilliant smile and a “Greetings!” is put together and in control, acting as the head man of the family, Nelly’s chief ambassador in difficult times, and the effective voice of the family’s decisions.

Middle son Jack (Victor Maguire) is the dinner table philosopher of the Boswell clan. His stories are often rambling, and frequently esoteric. He’s also where the money-making nous of the Boswells starts to go awry. Technically an antique dealer, he is naïve, optimistic about people, and therefore frequently a sucker for all-comers. He often has to be subbed when it comes to the daily ritual of putting his ‘bread’ in the family pot (a bowl with a lid in the shape of a chicken – or if you want to be even more symbolic about it, a mother hen).

Adrian (Jonathan Morris) is the poet of the family. Born Jimmy, he chooses to be known as Adrian because he feels it is more becoming of a poet like himself. The likelihood of his character being influenced by the other great poetic Adrian of the Eighties, Sue Townend’s Adrian Mole, feels strong, and Adrian Boswell’s nerves, as he frequently moans, are “’angin’ by a fread,” because money-making opportunities for a poet are few and far-between, and his ill-advised liaisons with women frequently leave him exhausted and bruised both physically and emotionally.

Aveline (initially played by Gilly Coman, and played by Melanie Hill for the final three series) is the family’s ‘princess,’ the only girl in a family of boys. As such, and with her mother’s staunch Catholicism drilled into her, she has been overly protected at every stage of her life. That gives her a sweetness and a seeming innocence that clashes with her chosen career as a model. Eventually marrying a PROTESTANT vicar, she is – perhaps intentionally – written as the Boswell who manages to maintain the dream in her heart better than most of her brothers, and achieve a happiness in her personal life that demands the strength to state her case, even with her ever-loving mother.

And finally in direct line of descent, there is Billy (Nick Conway). A young, well-meaning but spiky idiot, he gets his girlfriend Julie (Caroline Milmoe/Hilary Crowson) pregnant, and they live across the road from the Boswells, though Billy is very much, like his father, on-again off-again when it comes to the responsibilities of fatherhood, and is regularly back at his mam’s for dinner with a new tale of woe.

His attempts to start a mobile sandwich business, peculiarly enough, represent the most fundamentally legitimate money-making enterprise in which any of the Boswells are engaged. You can judge for yourself the level of intentional satire Carla Lane deploys in making him nevertheless one of the less stable Boswells, both emotionally and financially.

There are two other members of the family – Grandad (Kenneth Waller), who lives next door to the main family, and whose most frequent linguistic gem is a straightforward “Piss off!” whenever any of the family - who take him his dinner on a tray without fail because “he’s family. We take care of family.” - outstay their welcome. And, when Jack goes off to America to seek his fortune in Series 4, we’re introduced to Cousin Shifty (Bryan Murray), who shares Jack’s meandering poetical soul, but also has more of an eye on the main chance, and isn’t perhaps as averse to directly criminal action as the rest of the god-fearing Boswells. He eventually moves in with Grandad and establishes himself as a genuine boon to the family.

The Boswells have been criticised as a ‘scrounger’ family, a cliché of Liverpool’s society and its reputation for dishonesty and the quick buck. But to write them off this way is to overlook the point of them almost entirely.

They are a family. They’re bonded by faith, and by a strong shared code. They share meals, lives, tales – but more than that, they share what they make, and whoever needs it, they give. They sort it, as Joey says. They never advocate violence, and even those who stray and have hurt them, like Freddie Boswell, are invited back because of their bond. They look after the terminally hapless among them, like Adrian and Billy. They look after the inherently vulnerable (the innocent Aveline among a world of predatory men). They look after their elders on the simple premise that they’re old and they’re family. Their lost sheep, like Shifty, are invited in, given a haven, and given an example of positive action to which they can aspire.

In a world that tells them they have no real right to exist, they get up every day, go out every day, with the mission of making some bread and bringing it home. Because that’s what families do.

During the Thatcher years particularly – and probably again right now – that’s still what families do, to survive and plant their flag of continuing existence in the soil of a world that wants to wipe them off the face of the credit-cultured earth.

They are, beyond a shadow of doubt, an example both of strong family values and indomitable determination to survive an economic nightmare, while being proud of each other, and lifting one another’s lives whenever they can.

Also of course, they’re written by Carla Lane, so they’re poignant, flawed, and fantastically funny people to be around. Life gets effervescently better after a Boswell binge, and you may even learn a thing or two about how to get up in the morning and face a new challenge. So grab your Britbox, and carb out on seven series of the finest Bread since the sliced kind.

Watch Bread today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad