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Loving Butterflies

November 30, 2011

No, not the flappy things that end up pinned deadly to a board with a label underneath (a similar thing happened to Mr P after a college term end party once, but moving swiftly on)… I mean the classic 1978 TV comedy, with theme tune by Dolly Parton and a quartet of memorable performances from Wendy Craig, Geoffrey Palmer, Andrew Hall and Nicholas Lyndhurst.

Too young to really appreciate it back then, watching this box set was a mixture of my own nostalgic feelings, coupled with a deep wonderment at the memories it triggered – and an amazement at just how far we have come as a nation.

For those who don’t know the programme, it concerns a dentist, his wife and twenty year old layabout sons living a comfortable lifestyle in Cheltenham. He is a keen lepidopterist with a semi-detached attitude to his wife and tremendous frustration with his sons’ lack of work ethic. She is sick of her pre-feminist era role of “just a housewife” and enjoys chance (never more than chat) meetings with a divorced businessman who is driven around by his chauffeur thanks to one lost driving licence. The sons exist happily on a diet of dole money and young women, with little concern for those around them or the future.

The acting is less naturalistic and more “stage speech” than we are used to – though that evolves as the series continues. It’s all still considerably more cerebral than today’s ‘one liner’ comedy, with the real beauty found in the contemplation of lines and delivery – not just the smart arrangement of the words.

Production values aside, it’s the portrait of how we once lived (well within my own memory) that marks this out for me as compulsive viewing.

A dentist, earning a good enough salary to run a large house with 3 cars and a cleaner. Yet neither his house (nor those of his neighbours) are double glazed. No front gardens are bricked over for parking space – and indeed there is ample space at every curb to park a car. Even in the centre of town – and no ticket machines and marked bays either.

You’d be lucky to make it that far, though. Those cars don’t appear to have safety glass, airbags, compulsory seatbelts or anything to protect such tiny and light metal objects from impact. Further, they are all just bolted and welded with cables to control everything – how do they keep going without a computer to run the engine?

Out of the car, the park has not a bit of graffiti and nor do any of the streets. The streets themselves appear ‘ethnically cleansed’ and every shop assistant was educated at Grammar School.

You won’t spot a charity shop, just a varied collection of small businesses, which folk still need to visit daily to stock up for the evening meal and get to before “half day” and Sunday closing. The one supermarket would be a mini-mart today, bringing an ironic smile as I recall one local ‘major’ supermarket that became a video store in the early 90s and just last year became a ‘minor’ supermarket for another chain. Where once you would do a shop for a whole week, the space cannot contain enough to satisfy more than an office lunch run now. What do we do with it all (and does the obesity rate have anything to do with it?).

Back home, the dentist makes it home for lunch each day – a cooked one (badly, the running joke of the series) at that. Never a frozen M&Smeal. Or curry. Or Spaghetti Bolognaise. And it comes from the actual oven. No “Chicken Tikka Ping” (named for the sound the microwave makes when it’s ready).

On the other hand, there’s a sense of continuity, parents passing still valid experiences to sons, knowing their lives will turn out the same – a job leading to regular employment until retirement, affordable home if they work for it, values shared by a community unafraid to discuss and demonstrate them.

The pace is slow, aspirations more modest and life takes a little longer… you wouldn’t want it all back (strikes, shoddy goods, Bay City Rollers) but a little gentle waft from a butterfly’s wing would be nice.

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