Before this past week I had a highly tangential relationship with the BBC’s 70s ‘boardroom to bedroom’ saga The Brothers. I had vaguely watched an episode on UK Gold by accident in the early 90s, I knew of Jean Anderson’s legendary performance as its formidable matriarch, Mary Hammond, and of course, Colin Baker’s as evil Paul Merroney once the series gets going. I also, rightly or wrongly, have it in my mind that Tom Baker took Elisabeth Sladen onto a set from The Brothers during a recording break to emphasise how lucky they were to be doing Doctor Who instead. Weirdly in 2005 I also ended up helping organise the funeral of Gerry Glaister who produced The Brothers, but that’s a whole other story. The series follows the personal and business lives of the Hammond clan, principally the three brothers of the title – Edward, Brian and David (remember this is what boys used to be called, not Kyle, Gabriel and Lewis), and apparently had the British public utterly hooked. So much so that Glaister was required to pack in as many as 7 series and a whopping 92 episodes between 1972 and 1977.
My DVD of the first series had been sat in its cellophane wrapping ever since I bought it while freelancing for the DVD company who sold the set. I remember talking to their main man at the time, Colin Higgs, who a few weeks after its release had already decided they weren’t going to put out any more, a fact that didn’t exactly encourage me to watch the first series of 10 episodes. 11 years later I finally got around to putting it in the player not expecting an awful lot, but, you know what, the wife and I were quickly agog and if not hooked, certainly very interested.
One of The Brothers’ many fascinations is the glorious window it gives us into a long forgotten world of crimplene, ghastly parties, strikes, Crepe Suzette and the apparent legal requirement for 70s adults to drink and smoke all day. But it goes much deeper than the kipper ties, funny hair and the dearth of restaurant menu choices, it starkly and neatly reveals the limitations and frustrations of societal conventions around marriage, the place of women, and the rights of men. On the latter front, David Hammond played by Robin Chadwick who at one point is accurately, if unfortunately, referred to as looking like a hungry trout, is the worst culprit: forever asking his girlfriend to make him eggs, getting more than a little rapey with Annette Andre, and caressing the face of a female office worker unbidden. But it’s all ‘OK’ because he’s the playboy brother and that’s what he does. He’s quite a nice chap really once you peel back the blatant sexism and male entitlement that oozes out of him.
My favourite brother, in spite of myself, is the dependable if dull Brian (Robert Easton) who in one memorable scene wears more brown than seems humanly possible. Brian is saddled with a proper nightmare wife-from-hell, the dreadful Ann, played with gusto by Hilary Tindall (left). Ann will love the Eighties when they come around because she’s desperate to move up the social ladder, adores clothes and going to the hairdressers, and wants a far bigger house than the ‘little dollhouse’ selfish Brian has supplied. Ann is dangerous and vicious because she is completely bored, not just by Brian, but by life in general. At one point Mary Hammond, who can be quite insightful when she’s not just staring into space from her ugly floral armchair, suggests to Brian that Ann needs to be ridding herself of her frustrations in a work setting as she currently has no outlet for her overwhelming feelings of boredom. She’s dead right. In fact, in contrast to her ponderous relatives, one can easily imagine just how successful and dynamic Ann would be managing Hammonds road haulage. She’d piss everyone off royally, yes, but those artics would be up to Liverpool and back in a jiffy.
Jennifer Wilson’s unflappable Jennifer Kingsley is the dead opposite of Ann: calm, thoughtful and self-assured. She sits at the very heart of the show as the former secretary and secret lover of the dead Robert Hammond to whom has been bequeathed a quarter share of the company. This revelation infuriates eldest son Edward, played by Glyn Owen, until he starts to develop feelings for Jennifer himself. A scenario that on paper, and to a horrified Mary, looks like Jennifer is seeking to bag, or is that bed, both father and son. However, this progression is handled very tenderly and is beautifully underplayed by both parties, despite its slightly icky feel. Jennifer Wilson is probably the best actor in the series, at this point at any rate, and is able to convey her feelings through the tiniest movements of her eyes and lips. The fact that Jennifer seems to know so much more about life that anyone else in the show and the way she is woefully misread and generally abused by her dead lover’s widow and his sons, make her the person you absolutely root for. And this despite the fact that she is not obviously likeable. Nevertheless, you want her life to come good. This is much less true of her drippy 17-year-old illegitimate daughter Barbara who moons about as she tries to get a handle on who her father, Robert Hammond, was. The fact that Barbara looks more like 24 than 17 doesn’t help matters. What is more she is the least likely 70s teenager to ever get into art school – not interested in sex, gin or, most staggeringly, Pentangle records – but apparently that’s where she’s headed by the end of the series.
Glyn Owen is typically good value as Edward Hammond, basically a younger version of his Jack Rolfe in Howards’ Way, gruff, straight-taking and forever peering down from the roof of Hammonds to bark orders at his working-class employees. Class is not a major theme but Derek (Timeslip) Benfield’s Riley certainly underlines a ‘them and us’ mentality that separates the workers from the bosses. You get the feeling that Riley doesn’t want to become a boss because he’s much happier complaining about them. Anyway, he’s handy in picket line situations, so is probably best out of the boardroom, besides its terriby drab in there.
The series sets merit attention, speaking as they do so eloquently of the times. From Mary’s sedate stencilled sitting room to the extreme of David’s racy bachelor pad, all 70s society is here. I suspect that we are not meant to have much sympathy for Ann as she complains about her ‘too small’ home especially as it is furnished with a terribly stylish open wooden staircase, a very full drinks cabinet and some statement purple, black and white curtains that have to be seen to be believed. One of the most important sets, the boardroom of Hammonds, looks like an abandoned motorway café with its exposed pipes and chipped paint. But perhaps the fact that it looks in serious need of some attention is deliberate and it will be tarted up as the series continues and the fortunes of this small beer road haulage firm change. Or perhaps the 70s was really just as grim looking as this?
You can see why Jean Anderson had a whole lot more fun sticking it up the Japanese (as it were) in Tenko than she did here, but Mary Hammond is still a plum of a role. Although Mary’s interference in matters here includes checking whether she can contest her dead husband’s will, inviting Jennifer and Barbara to tea apparently just to make them feel uncomfortable, and finally (spoiler alert!) arriving at Hammonds to inform Edward that she will never allow him to marry Jennifer, the clues are all there that she has only just got started. We were surprised that Mary can run to either a green or mixed leaf salad (fancy) in 1972 but were confused about whether she had a ‘help’ (she does) for some time. She seems much too grand to do things like preparing salad or putting out empty milk bottles. Mary regularly sits in her sitting room in silence thinking, getting her knickers in a twist about what her sons and Jennifer Kingsley (how she spits out her name!) are up to. She’d be a whole lot happier if she just sat back and watched Its a Knockout.
There are many unintentionally hilarious moments in the series, some which simply speak of simpler times, some which are just weird, and others that are entirely unexplainable. The party episode sees Gabrielle Drake briefly incarcerated in a very complicated white staircase, while outrageous flirting takes place between Ann and a party guest, tantalisingly listed in the end credits as ‘The Man’. The Man in question hovers by the door looking like a confused heavy until he gets a whiff of Ann’s Charlie and starts to follow her about like a misguided pootle. I was amused to discover from the end credits that he is no less than Christopher Robbie, Revenge of the Cybermen’s Cyberleader, who I once flagged down for a chat in Loughborough, as his son was studying there at the same time as me. Surprisingly we didn’t talk about his performance as ‘The Man’ during that encounter. Equally ridiculous are Ann’s outings with a decidedly ugly ‘up-for-it’ father from her children’s school and with Coronation Street’s Jonny Briggs who plays a minicab driver tasked with keeping the madam amused for the day. No easy task. However, the cabbie is far wiser to Ann’s ways than poor hapless Brian and elects to pick her up after a visit to a clothes shop at double the length of time she stipulates. There is also an episode which we dubbed as ‘the one in which people keep sitting down on muddy ground while wearing white’ and another in which Jennifer is mostly adorned in that 70s abomination: the housecoat. The ‘housecoat episode’ has her finally seeing off the attentions of a self-obsessed suitor, a terrible salesman played by Michael Hawkins, who is just plain odd and whose intentions are never made entirely clear. Jennifer wisely decides that he is not worthy of seeing her sans housecoat just before his last call to her house. There is also the mystery of why Annette Andre’s Sally Woolf keeps letting herself into David’s flat to have secret baths! Either she only has a shower at home or, as she playfully notes, it’s something to do with her washing away guilt. Also curious, or rather miraculous, is how many of the show’s women can have baths without getting their hair remotely wet.
All in all there is much to enjoy here, funny bits aside, there’s some great plotting, admirably economic dialogue, and pleasing character development. Although the final episode ends the first series with a whimper rather than a bang – with Jennifer changing the flowers at Robert’s grave – we reached for the second boxset immediately, impatient to discover what will happen next..
Will Barbara fit in at art school? We doubt it.
Will Edward still fancy Jennifer and vice versa? Probably even though he’s about to morph into a new actor.
Will Mary Hammond stop interfering all the time? Not bloody likely.
Will Ann ever get the house of her dreams? No, that women is destined never to be happy.
And, most importantly, will anyone ever repaint that bloody boardroom?