The Bootleg Files: Odd Man Out

BOOTLEG FILES 647: “Odd Man Out” (1977 British television series starring John Inman and Josephine Tewson).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


Never broadcast in the U.S.


In last week’s column, we considered a failed attempt to Americanize the long-running British comedy series “Are You Being Served?” This week, we stay on the subject by focusing on the unsuccessful effort by one of the stars of “Are You Being Served?” to start his own series.

John Inman was a minor character actor when he was cast in 1972 in the supporting role as Mr. Humphries, the campy menswear sales clerk, in “Are You Being Served?” He quickly became an audience favorite and in 1976 he was named BBC TV Personality of the Year and was voted the funniest man on British television by the readers of the magazine TV Times. In 1977, Inman fielded an offer from sitcom writer Vince Powell to star in his own series. This did not require leaving “Are You Being Served?” – the new series was shot while the popular program was on production hiatus.

The resulting series, “Odd Man Out,” was a fascinating failure at many levels. For Powell, the writing was far below the quality of his long-running series “Bless This House” and “Love Thy Neighbor,” which Powell co-authored with Harry Driver. For Inman, “Odd Man Out” showed that his charisma and comic skills were highly dependent on his material – the Jeremy Lloyd-David Croft scripts for “Are You Being Served?” brought out the best in him, while Powell’s scripts for “Odd Man Out” could not be plumbed for comic gold.

The first episode set up the series: Inman played Neville Sutcliffe, the owner of a fish and chips shop in the North England resort town of Blackpool. One day, a lawyer arrives to inform Neville of his parentage – Neville was raised in an orphanage and was unaware of his roots, but the lawyer tells him that his father was a soldier and his mother was a waitress. “Your mother and father were two ships that passed in the night,” the lawyer says, to which Neville replies: “Sounds to me that they had a collision.”

Neville learns that his father made a provision for him in his will: he is to inherit half of a rock factory in Littlehampton, a resort in the south of England along the English Channel. While American viewers might assume that Neville has gained ownership of a quarry, the rock in question here is a hard candy that is popular in English seaside resorts. Neville travels to Littlehampton to meet a half-sister that he never knew he had – but upon his arrival at the train station he gets into a conflict with a woman over the use of a telephone booth and a taxi. Of course, she turns out to be his half-sister Dorothy. Neville is initially unhappy to be sharing the factory’s ownership and his late father’s residence with this woman – he calls a friend to complain, “She’d turn a bottle of vinegar bitter. She puts on a lot of airs and graces, but underneath she is as common as muck. You know the sort I mean: all Persian lamb and no knickers.” However, that description is anything but accurate: Neville’s peevish and prickly personality makes him “common as muck” and Dorothy is rightfully unhappy over his boorish behavior. But things all work out at the end of the episode when Neville learns the factory is deep in debt and he sells his fish and chips shop and uses the profits to keep the factory running.

In concept, “Odd Man Out” had a lot going for it, at least for involved talent. Supporting Inman in the show was Josephine Tewson as Dorothy – American viewers will know her best as the bedraggled neighbor Elizabeth in “Keeping Up Appearances” – and “Carry On” veteran Peter Butterworth as the factory’s manager. The factory also offers three women who roar with sexual tension: a blonde with a fondness for showing her cleavage (Vivienne Johnson, who co-starred with Inman on “Are You Being Served?” as Young Mr. Grace’s nurse), a spirited black woman (Glenna Forster-Jones) and an elderly woman who was infatuated with Neville’s father (Avril Angers). There is also an absent-minded elderly bloke (Jan Harding) who bumbles his way around the factory. And the series producer was Gerald Thomas, who directed and produced the “Carry On” series.

So, what went wrong? After the first episode, Neville’s unpleasant edges were toned down, but the character was deposited into a series of predictable misadventures that felt like Sitcom 101 rejects: Neville has to romance the homely and horny daughter of a wealthy businessman to secure money for the factory, Neville takes dancing lessons, Neville has to sort out complications arising from the presence of a baby in the factory, Neville has to learn to swim for a publicity stunt involving the crossing of the English channel, Neville goes to Paris and gets drunk. Does any of this sound funny? Or, to be more precise, does any of this sound like the stuff that John Inman should be doing?

The series doesn’t quite know what to make of Neville’s orientation. Each episode has him confiding via telephone to a male friend named Bobby, but it’s unclear just what they’re relationship is – there is nothing sexual in the dialogue and the impression is given that Bobby is something of a cheerful dum-dum. In two episodes, Inman is mistaken for a woman by an amorous man, but he is not enthused by this sort of attention. In another episode, he has his factory manager dress in modified drag (with a tea cozy and a shawl) in order to practice his dancing.

In some episodes, Inman is clearly flirting with his female staff, even fluffing up Vivienne Johnson’s considerable breast display. Inman also has a tiresome double-entendre catchphrase that he aims at his factory manager – “How’s your rock cock?” – but he also collapses into weepy hysteria when facing minor crises, repeating a second catchphrase “What will we do? What will we do?”

But the biggest mistake here is that Inman monopolizes the comic lines in the series (nearly all of which are drowned in a mechanical laugh track at full volume). Poor Josephine Tewson has little to do but feed Inman his set-up lines and watch in consternation at the mayhem that he creates. Indeed, the only actors who manage to steal the show from Inman were a pair of familiar British television performers in single-shot appearances: stone-faced Allan Cuthbertson as a hostile banker who hates his job and the sublime Rita Webb as a garrulous coffee bar patron who mistakenly believes Neville is infatuated with her.

Only seven episodes were produced for “Odd Man Out,” which aired on ITV in the autumn of 1977. The show was a major flop with the critics, while audiences that loved Inman’s Mr. Humphries were unable to warm up to this effort. No plans were made to keep “Odd Man Out” afloat, and Inman returned to “Are You Being Served?” for the remainder of its run in 1985. He made a second attempt at starring in his own series, the six-episode 1981 production “Take a Letter, Mr. Jones,” but that was also failed to click.

“Odd Man Out” was produced at a time when British television comedies were being imported to the U.S. market, mostly for PBS broadcasting but also in syndicated presentations. However, the show never made it across the Atlantic and is mostly unknown to Americans. All seven episodes can be found on YouTube, and these appear to have been ripped from a 2013 U.K. DVD release. But the show’s mediocrity and obscurity will probably keep it off U.S. airwaves and out of U.S. DVD channels – and while Americans are always glad that Mr. Humphries is free, they should be happy that Neville is not.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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