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

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Looking Back At SHELLEY

Tony pays homage to an early idol.
In this televisual world, there are mostly sitcoms, with the emphasis on the sit. In most cases, when it comes to pitching comedy series to a network, you have to be able to explain the situation of the series, because it’s generally the situation you rely on to give you the laughs.

Be it Steptoe and Son (two generations of rag and bone men, the younger trapped and despairing of his father’s social and intellectual grubbiness), One Foot In The Grave (early retiree refuses to become cuddly with age), or Only Fools And Horses (market traders trying to make it big), the situation pf a sitcom is usually where the comedy comes from.

But occasionally, there’s a comedy that’s about a personality first and foremost, a way of looking at the world, with situations that can change significantly over time.

Hancock’s Half Hour is an early example – yes, he was usually rooted in one place, but Tony Hancock could feasibly go anywhere at the determination of the writers.

More recent examples of the art of character-com (and yes, the awkwardness of that construction is probably at least partially why there aren’t more of them) include successes like Seinfeld (famously, “the comedy about… nothing”), and Fleabag.

But in July 1979, just two months after Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister for the first time in the UK, Peter Tilbury (who would go on to have writing credits on a whole sackful of popular sitcoms) created a simple show named Shelley, which, at least in principle, was as pure a character comedy as you could get.

James Shelley is an overeducated, lecherous, philosophically whimsical layabout. He knows the benefits system better than the back of his hand, and his defining character trait is that he is perennially, good-naturedly, bone idle.

That means that the adventures he has week after week (for ten series all told, including a couple of holiday specials) basically involve him avoiding work, or where necessary doing work in anything that is essentially a doss with knobs on, while musing whimsically on whatever subject happens to cross his mind, or chatting open-mindedly to anyone who doesn’t get a clue and move away from him fast enough.

The comedy in Shelley is fundamentally rooted in this central character, played by Hywel Bennett, and his refusal to do an honest day’s work wherever possible, despite, as is frequently pointed out to him, being fully qualified (though admittedly, his degree and his PhD is in Geography, so fully qualified is an… erm… qualified criterion).

The thing about that though is that situations almost immediately begin to creep in, so while Shelley starts out as a “freelance layabout” with no intention of earning an honest living – or a dishonest one, for that matter – within the space of the first episode, his girlfriend Fran (Belinda Sinclair) has announced that she’s pregnant, so the lifelong layabout, having positively bamboozled everyone at his local job centre for some considerable time, has to genuinely look for employment to support a growing family.

In one sense, that begins to put walls around the character, but in another, it’s simply a way of feeding the central character with different people to talk to, other than Fran, Shelley’s landlady, Mrs Hawkins (Josephine Tewson), and the increasingly frustrated dole office staff.

But really, the “sit” in the sitcom of Shelley is just that Shelley is like a character out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, endlessly prepared to go round in circles when people can’t square the fact of his over-education with the fact that he simply does not want to work. Doesn’t want to contribute, but wants to collect his dole money and spend it on drink, fun and women – or at least, one woman. While Shelley’s as red-blooded as the next man in 1979, he’s devoted to Fran, in the same way a lead weight is devoted to a dinghy.

Fran is frequently shown to be the responsible one of the pair, though at the start, there’s little to choose between them and she too is, as Shelley puts it, “on the government payroll.”

While still pregnant in the second series, Fran finishes her first novel, and – it was a simpler world in so many ways, the early Eighties – gets it almost immediately published. So there’s fuel for Shelley’s continual work-avoidance, but he nevertheless occasionally finds himself trapped in the world of employment, whether behind the bar of his local pub, which has been recently “themed” like a ship, or, more often, in the creative team of one advertising company or another.

That’s a particular joy, because when he’s out of work, one of the things against which Shelley is most free to rant is the absurdity of the advertising industry and the tricks it pulls to get people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. Seeing Shelley have to use his creativity to perpetuate these dark arts is delicious, and sometimes borders on the absurdism of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – a resonance helped along by Shelley’s boss at the Harper Mackintosh agency being played by John Barron, who had played CJ to Leonard Rossiter’s Perrin years before.

Infuriatingly for him, the truth is that advertising is an almost perfect career for Shelley, because it allows him to take his free-form whimsicality on a subject and turn it into cash. But nevertheless, he almost never lets himself enjoy having a job, and certainly not one in advertising, feeling it’s just a temporary inconvenience until he can get back to the bone idleness he loves.

Series 3 sees Shelley and Fran marry, to some extent casting aside the “anything is possible” nature of the comedy and turning it into a show with a family dynamic. Perhaps understandably though, given Shelley’s central preoccupation – the avoidance of a decent day’s work – the marriage ultimately founders, and by the start of Series 5, Fran is leaving him and taking baby Emma with her.

Essentially, the truth is that while Shelley’s work-avoidance is a sincerely held passion for him, and it’s funny to watch from the outside, living with him long-term becomes an untenable option for practically anyone who has a choice.

Partly, that’s because he only takes work under protest, and on the strict understanding that everybody KNOWS it’s under protest, so every pound he earns comes with a load of guilt that he’s suffering for their benefit – and partly, quite possibly, because while having a whimsical bloke philosophising at you all day might be fun for a while, it probably becomes less fun the longer it goes on!

There are two very different ‘blocks’ of Shelley, too. The first run takes him from 1979 – as we say, the dawn of Thatcher in Downing Street – to 1984, an auspicious year for totalitarians everywhere, but also, significantly, the year in which the miner’s strike begins.

British political and economic history of the 1970s and 1980s are pretty much divided by that year, and that clash between worker power and political power. The country was never to be the same again after the miners were broken. Thatcher would increasingly neuter the power of trade unions after 1984, bill by bill, until they could never be a threat to any government again.

Given that the years between 1979-1982 had been marked with record inflation and a previously unheard-of peak unemployment of 3 million people, Shelley’s antics as an overqualified layabout who didn’t want and threw away something for which so many people would have given their right arm began to feel out of touch with the times, and when the miner’s strike began tearing families apart and rendering whole communities unemployed, it seemed wisest for Shelley to disappear – at least for a while.

When he returned in 1988, the country had been well and truly Thatchered, and also distinctly Yuppified. Flying back after an extended period teaching English in Kuwait, Shelley finds the country very different to the one he left.

And from 1988-1992 (an era which saw Thatcher ousted by the annoyingly sensible charisma-vacuum that was John Major, and murmurings beginning about Britain’s relationship with Europe), Shelley becomes more and more a Don Quixote character, tilting at windmills large and small, the freelance layabout increasingly becoming a freelance awkward sod, but usually, if not always, with his heart in the right place.

With the absence of Fran, though, it became necessary to find other regular sounding-boards for Shelley’s wit, wisdom, and whingeing, so for instance in Series 5, we meet Desmond (Garfield Morgan), who’s a warden in the block of flats into which Shelley moves. More than that though, he’s an older character, who can rail against Shelley’s more relaxed attitude to employment and life. And by Series 10, he’s living as a lodger with Ted Bishop, played by the magnificent David Ryall, who had a history of playing cantankerous and lonely old buggers going back at least to Jack Rosenthal’s The Knowledge in 1979. Ryall would continue to add such characters to his roster after Shelley, in shows like Goodnight, Sweetheart, and films like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1.

In Shelley, Ted Bishop gives James Shelley a kind of direct purpose by giving him a genuine windmill at which he can tilt – a land battle between developers who wanted to knock Ted’s house down, and Ted, who really doesn’t want them to.

While it isn’t perhaps textbook Shelley, the final series does at least show that apart from lying to people for money, as he knew he was doing as an advertising executive, there is a place for the likes of Shelley in an increasingly capitalist, post-Thatcher world, where the ‘little people’ can be simply bulldozered over. The capitalists might still win, but they have to get past James Shelley first – and if the accumulated series proves one thing above all, it is that Shelley can drive a logical person up the wall in half an hour, week after week.

Rewatched with at least thirty years of hindsight, it’s possible to see Shelley as a potential nightmare to live with – even his mother (played with a gorgeously dynamic lip-curl by Sylvia Kay before she went upmarket in 1983 as Penny Warrender’s mum in Just Good Friends) tempers her love for him with a clear knowledge of what an incorrigible layabout he is.

And it’s probably worth admitting that any modern reworking of Shelley would be significantly harder to convincingly create. While the Thatcher era was when the welfare state began its journey into demonisation in Britain, trying to be Shelley in the 2020s would be much more difficult, because the benefits system has been simplified to a black-and-white point of idiocy, rather than a sophisticated bureaucracy with lots of little loopholes to slip through.

But it’s worth noting that before there was Carla Lane’s Bread, about a family trying to survive the hostile environment of Thatcher’s industrial Britain (starting in 1986), and before there was Rab C Nesbitt, a fellow layabout poet who hit screens in 1988 (and coincidentally also ran for 10 series), there was James Shelley, a voice that shouted to the system that it couldn’t break him, however much occasional poverty, and the need to be a responsible husband and father, sometimes did.

With writing from Peter Tilbury, Guy Jenkin, Andy Hamilton and others, Shelley is a sitcom that can be binged or sipped, and while the world it shows may not be recognisable to younger viewers, the spirit of the semi-professional layabout is something the world could do with remembering in the 2020s.

Let Shelley into your life today, and realise there’s more to it than everything you’ve been told is important. Absolutely, by the end of it, you may well be poorer, having quit your job, and yes, you might even have had an occasional smack in the face as a smart alec. But life will be distinctly more rounded by exposure to the very idea, let alone the wit and the charm, of a generation-defining layabout of exceptional prowess.

Watch Shelley 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.

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