Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It makes me laugh - In praise of The Preston Front

I've just finished re-watching the 1990s BBC tv series The Preston Front. This is the first time I've watched all three series in one go and this near-perfect drama / comedy impressed me even more than when I saw it originally.

I find it hard to understand why the series has been largely overlooked. The BBC have never repeated it, most of the actors haven't appeared in much since (although I did see Diesel dressed as an orange in a tv advert), and even IMDB can’t be bothered to list the cast list correctly. Despite this, I can’t think of many shows I've enjoyed more, as it harks back to those dim and distant days when tv series weren't filmed in shaky vision, and the price of petrol in Diesel's garage was 55p a litre.

The premise, or at least the premise on which the series was sold, was that it's about a group of people in the Territorial Army (part-time, volunteer soldiers), and explores how they cope with having different levels of responsibility in their two very different careers. In reality it was a look at life in a small town, featuring normal people who grew up in the small town, are destined to spend their whole lives there, and who will never achieve anything because they're quite happy with their lot. Unlike most BBC productions that have used the small town premise, the series isn't twee and neither does it portray everyone as country bumpkins from up north. Instead, the characters are believable and the comedy always develops naturally from their behaviour.

The cast work as an ensemble with several main characters and about twenty other memorable recurring roles with each episode usually centring on one of the main cast. The first central figures are best mates Eric and Hodge. I reckon it's likely that when writing the early episodes Eric Disley was meant to be the central character, but quickly it was realized that having a passive, moody, no-hoper as a hero wouldn't work, which is sad as Eric is an interesting character. He has no job or ambitions through a stated reason of having to help look after his ailing father, but his responsibilities come over as an excuse for why he's always failed to grasp opportunities. All his enjoyment in life comes second-hand from the exploits of his popular mate Hodge, who works at the local garden centre. Eric keeps him company in the rare interludes when he doesn’t have a girlfriend, an achievement that seems as if it'll always be beyond him.

Then there's schoolteacher Spock, so named because he's less stupid than everyone else, who tries to champion being called Kirk. But he's not one of life's Kirks, so it doesn’t take. The improbably large 'walking eclipse' Lloydy, whose catchphrase is 'it makes me laugh' and who has a secret job before he invents the board game Gurkha Tank Battle, can always be relied upon to counteract Spock's cleverness by being stupid. While my favourite character (not sure why) Polson is a short, put-open, aggressive failure both at the army and at life. Then there's Spock's sister who is stuck in a bad marriage while pining after Polson's boss while Polson's boss pines for her and her best friend pines after Eric who is oblivious to... Or as the title music (the superb Here I Stand by the Milltown Brothers) says, round and round and round we go and around again once more, never stopping to think just who we are.

For 19 episodes the series details their interacting lives with stunningly good writing, although I was amused to see that the dvd extra acknowledges that the opening scene of episode one features a terrible bit of tv writing. It's usual for the first episode of a series to hit the ground running and in the opening ten minutes set up the scene, the characters, the situation and provide a hook that'll keep you watching. Unfortunately the writer Tim Firth hadn’t written for tv before and he didn't appreciate this requirement. So the opening scene involves the army on a silent and unspecified manoeuvre in an unknown location, in the middle of the night in pitch darkness, with everyone in camouflaged clothing and blacked-up faces. After ten minutes it's anyone's guess what’s happening!

Happily the series quickly settles down and demonstrates some of the best foreshadowing and plot developing I've ever seen. A minor character, for instance, might repeatedly state for no apparent reason that 'they just never read the sign' until later in the episode at a key moment someone gets wheel-clamped and you realize which sign wasn't getting read. Or there'll be a kid who only says 'na-na na-na' until you find out later that he sets fire to things because he likes to hear the fire engines go 'na-na na-na'. Except he didn't because the teacher who ran out of the school to shred a book of poetry set off the fire alarms as she was having an affair with… oh the stories always eventually fit together in clever ways without you even realizing it. Even a key plot point shown in the opening title credits of the opening episode doesn’t get explained until the final episode.

Also, the series is a perfect example of how to make every single character memorable, even if they get only one line, such as the restaurant owner who's the second most famous Black Scouse Chinese Marvin Gaye impersonator... in Ormskirk. Or the bloke whose only line every week is to turn up at an inopportune time and ask 'is this a bad time to discuss grass seed?'. Or Freddie 'Parrot-face' Davies (once a familiar face on tv) who offers deadpan comments such as 'what colour were his eyes?' after being asked if he's seen a suicidal, drunk German dressed only in a black bag with a bin strapped to his back running down the street.

The German episode is probably the best one and it always leads to me saying 'Opposite the hotel' (the German is told that this is a common British phrase) for days afterwards. And the best scene perhaps comes in the final episode where Polson, after drinking several pints of wine at a dire wedding reception, climbs on the table and launches into a stirring speech about how Eric may be the most useless, worthless, stupid, inane and pointless piece of pond life that has ever crawled out from under a rock, but he's a soldier and he's been trained to die for his friends and that means he's a better man than every person who has ever sneered at him. But in truth there's not a bad episode or scene in a series that could have run for years, except it ended all too quickly and so ultimately, what was filmed was perfect.


Colourman said...

I too have just watched the series again, on DVD. It was one of the best written and most subtle programmes on TV in the early 1990s.
Having spent many years in uniform I'm well used to the usual crass and unsympathetic way that the military is portrayed on screen. Somehow the actors were actually made to look, speak and dress like soldiers / reservists. Even the minor nuances of dress that would not be picked up by a civilian were there.
As you say, this wasn't so much about the Army as small town life.
Quality was written right through this excellent production.

MZRIDER said...

But where, oh where can I get hold of Series 2 on DVD? I have series one and three but have been unable to source series 2? Any help out there in Preston Front land? Jamie

Anonymous said...

Are you the guy who just outbid me on e-bay? Am also struggling to find series 2!!!

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