Keeping Down with the Joneses

Romany Jones Series 2 on DVD

romany_mainRomany Jones was a cursed show, possibly because it took the Romany name in vain. Writers Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe (the other Two Ronnies) devised the show when they were still riding high with the continuing success of On the Buses. Despite making a pilot which was shown in 1972, Thames Television decided not to continue, and it was only when the director/producer Stuart Allen moved to London Weekend Television that the idea was resurrected and the series emerged. This caused another problem when Arthur English, the original Wally Briggs, was unavailable for the series and so fate decreed that Arthur Mullard would take on the role. Mullard and Queenie Watts went on to steal the show, with their popularity eventually leading to the infamous spin-off series Yus, My Dear. It’s possible that the ascendency of the two supporting characters might have led starring man James Beck to feel somewhat aggrieved, but in the cruellest misfortune of all he didn’t even survive long enough to see this second series transmitted.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Romany Jones concerns the shambolic lives of Bert (James Beck) and Betty Jones (Jo Rowbottom) who are newlyweds reduced to living on a caravan site thanks largely to Bert’s inability to either work or get his nose out of the latest issue of The Sporting Life. They have an antagonistic relationship with their neighbours Wally and Lily Briggs, and the plots usually revolve around moneymaking scams or the urgent need to put on a good show for visitors: the disapproving mother-in-law coming to stay, Social Security visits and charity workers with a potential handout all loom large.

What’s striking about the series is how depressingly seedy and downbeat everything is. The no-man’s land between the caravans is populated with dilapidated cars whose only function is to provide a bed for the night when Wally or Bert have been banished for yet another comic misunderstanding. There’s mud everywhere; the farmer who owns the site is deeply unpleasant; and the washing facilities are so bad that at a particularly low point for the participants and the viewers, Bert and Wally have a shower together. Everything is claustrophobic: Wally’s chicken is too big for its cage just as Wally is too big for his dirty vest. Bert and Betty’s caravan leaks and their bed is damp. When Bert and Wally have to live together in the episode ‘For Better or Worse’ it takes about three minutes before Wally’s black pudding is trodden into the carpet, leaving Bert waving around a black skin leaking congealed blood. And that’s one of the less depressing moments.

If there’s anyone out there who’s seen Series One and is expecting dramatic developments in this release, then I’m going to disappoint you. Wally, for instance, does not decide on a lifestyle change and begin training as an architect. The first two series were effectively made as a single 13 episode run, and most of the episodes here are retreads of about three basic scenarios that were already exhausted after the first run limped to a close. I suspect Chesney and Wolfe didn’t lose much sleep over this as, by this point in their careers, they were more interested in creating new formats and letting other writers do the donkey work. In fact, they wrote none of this series and so Jon Watkins takes the dubious credit for the majority of episodes that contain such deathless lines as “Me and Wally sit in bed all night cracking our nuts together”. Although some people might claim Romany Jones as a prototype Shameless, it only features a superficially similar milieu and lacks the slightly higher quality of writing found in the similar contemporary series Queenie’s Castle.

Given the fact that Romany Jones was castigated by critics from the start, it’s a bit of a puzzle why it managed to run for four series and a two series spin-off. I suspect the good ratings for this second run were at least partly down to both the death of James Beck and the quality of the opposition on BBC1. Beck was a hugely popular figure thanks to his role as Private Walker in Dad’s Army, and in the run-up to the first series of Romany Jones much was made in the press about Beck’s happiness at becoming a leading man at the age of 40, and his sudden death from complications arising from pancreatitis had a big impact on the public.

As for the opposition on BBC1, when this second series premiered in the London region on Sunday, 16 September 1973 it had the good luck to be up against ratings disaster Moonbase 3 – which remains the only series ever made about the adventures of metallurgists in space. Faced with a choice between that and BBC2’s The World About Us about the Bedami tribe of New Guinea it’s no wonder that Romany Jones did so well and no surprise that a third series was commissioned despite Beck’s death. It’s also the case that Arthur Mullard does seem to have been genuinely popular with the audience and some of the media. William Marshall of the Daily Mirror for instance, was so moved as to aver that “Wally, or Arthur, is pure comic genius, one of the great natural talents of our time” which does make you wonder if he’d ever seen another television comedy in his life.

Romany Jones is no Yus, My Dear because it does have redeeming features. James Beck is likeable (if one-note), as Bert Jones, but by far the best performer is Jo Rowbottom as Betty. Bert and Betty are the Jonathan and Jennifer Hart of the caravan site. Barely a moment goes by where they’re not at it like knives and the performances and chemistry are good enough to make this believable. It’s not a huge surprise that Rowbottom went on to greater things and only two years later she appeared as Calpurnia, Claudius’s confidante, in the brilliant BBC series I, Claudius. She was not the only cast member to make a move into period drama – within a year Mullard himself ventured into the past with a role in the BBC’s catastrophic folly Churchill’s People. Truly it was a match made in heaven.

Romany Jones itself would survive for two more years. The question is: will Network bravely complete the run? I hope so – some of us need closure.

Romany Jones Series 2 is released on DVD by Network on 23rd January, 2012

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