One of the more solid franchises for which my film company is responsible is called A Couple in a Thousand. It’s a television series set in that strange period of English history, the early Sixties, when it was really still the Fifties but there were noises off. It involves a young couple – less young now, as the seventh series is negotiated – called Bob and Sheila and where The Royle Family has its couch and Star Trek has its flight deck A Couple in a Thousand has the front seats of a Morris Minor. Hence the show’s title; I didn’t think to start with that people would get it but they seem to.
Although the car is always a Morris Minor, the set, from front windscreen to back, is remade each series to include different amusing or nostalgic artefacts and those from previous series often end up, so I’m told, in the homes of senior executives of the broadcast company along with their daleks.
The original idea was a gentle progress through the English countryside of yesteryear, loveable rather than side-splitting. It has worked out differently because the studio audiences have turned out to laugh uproariously at any situation that would play differently in the Twenty-First Century. For instance there was an episode where Bob and Sheila were desperate to find a public phone that worked, and the audience found the lack of mobiles hilarious. The actors, who of course are now unfirable, have taken to making knowing looks to camera when these situations arise.
Similarly there is fun sometimes to be had with the noises off. On one occasion Bob and Sheila were given tickets for a concert in 1962 where the Beatles were one of the support acts, and they decided to spend the evening in the pub instead.
Bob and Sheila are a happy couple. They have their ups and downs and they bicker a lot but nothing will ever seriously threaten their relationship so long as the series continues to be commissioned. So far they are childless, despite a vigorous campaign on the part of the broadcaster to develop the concept as A Family in a Thousand, with cheeky kids.
The back seats of the car are sometimes occupied, if not by children. In one series, the fourth, there was a man in the back, who clearly had designs on Sheila, but the ratings for that series were the lowest of all and Bob saw him off.
In my darker moments I sometimes like to imagine a serial killer or an escaped python rising up from the Morris Minor’s back seat behind Bob’s and Sheila’s comfortable faces, but it all pays the rent and it’s wrong to be ungrateful. Nonetheless it is for The Jibjab Woman, and Van!, for which I have high hopes, rather than for A Couple in a Thousand that I hope to be remembered.
It was the dog that made me muse on A Couple in a Thousand. He is not in the best of health. He has been repeatedly incontinent at both ends, which has made him weak and thin and his bones have shown through his fur, which has lost its accustomed gloss. Yesterday the postman arrived as he was in the middle of vomiting on the hall floor, but he changed tack in mid-heave and was still able to destroy a catalogue from the Annely Juda art gallery before resuming his filthy business.
The vet says that he has picked up a bug in the water at Hampstead Heath. Since the dog was neutered the question of his sexual orientation has been theoretical, but he does enjoy the fellow feeling in the Men-Only Pond – which is precisely why I wait for him outside. Anyway, while he was in the water he swallowed something there that disagreed with him and now he is on anti-biotics and reduced to a diet of ‘intestinal’ hard bits.
Today he is much improved. But watching him on the rug, the flutter of his indomitable heart the only sign of life apart from the occasional appalling fart, I thought about how we imagine him, and that’s what brought A Couple in a Thousand to mind.
Bob and Sheila have an invisible friend called Gerald the Sparrow. Much of their banter involves making up dialogue for Gerald the Sparrow and the imaginary bird is often called in aid when they have a disagreement. “Gerald the Sparrow says that you’re quite wrong….”
Many couples do this. You should see our fan mail on the subject.
When Bob and Sheila do Gerald the Sparrow they do him consistently with each other, although Sheila does it in an irritating high voice. They would, of course, because they both have the same writer. It struck me however that the better half does the dog rather differently from the way that I do him. In her sadly unrecorded – lived – blog he talks with a constant sense of grievance, like a canine Hyacinth Bucket. In mine, he is often disagreeable but – well you know how he is.
Sometimes you have to face reality. At the end of Series Four, Bob tells the man in the back seat, “That’s the last time you ride in our car”, he looks at Sheila with renewed love and respect, it is one of the rare completely serious moments and Gerald the Sparrow falls silent for a moment. Just so, as I say, the other evening the better half and I found ourselves bent (not unlike early Flemish paintings of the Holy Family) over the emaciated form of the dog, who was fighting if not for life at least to keep his intestinal hard bits down, me willing him to beat this thing and she, more practically, mopping his bottom with some kitchen towel, and the better half turned to me and asked, What does he say.
And I replied, with a grim smile, He doesn’t say anything: he’s a dog.