ALL GAS AND
GAITERS started when we were trying to write a piece for BBC
TV's Comedy Playhouse in 1965. My then wife, Pauline
Devaney, and I were both actors. I had become best known as Mr
Halliforth in Whack-O!, with Jimmy Edwards, written by
Frank Muir and Denis Norden in 1957. But we had turned to
We had been trying to
think of an idea for some time. The problem was that, in the 1960s,
it was becoming almost impossible to write farce, because farce has
to be about transgression. And in order to transgress, there needs
to be a set of rules.
We asked the TV producer
Stuart Allen if he had any ideas. He said he had been wondering
about the old joke, "As the actress said to the bishop". He
suggested as a character a bishop who has a niece who is a
stripper. Turning to me, he said: "You know about bishops."
As soon as he said the
word "bishop", bells began to ring in my head. I realised that this
was a world I knew about, and which no one had attempted. Moreover,
if a society existed where there were still rules, and rules that
everyone subscribed to, it was the Church.
We agreed to go away and
think about it. When we began to examine the idea, however, it did
not hold water. The niece was too lightweight. But the idea of a
bishop would not go away.
I found a book called
Like Nothing on Earth by the former Archdeacon of
Hastings, Guy Mayfield. Reading this, I was back in Canterbury with
Archbishop Fisher, and the "Red Dean", Dr Hewlett Johnson, to whom
Archbishop Fisher refused to speak. A bishop and a dean who hate
one another, but are tied together for life, like some terrible
married couple, is what is known in dramaturgy as "the unity of
opposites", and is a perfect set-up for comedy.
We began to picture them:
the bishop, easy-going, fond of comfort, in a beautiful
18th-century palace; the dean, a humourless martinet, in a stark,
gothic deanery; the archdeacon, an older, worldlier character,
former chaplain at Parkhurst; and the bishop's chaplain, which I
thought was a perfect part for me.
WHAT we needed was a story. We racked our brains, without success.
Then, one night, I went to bed, but could not sleep, as I turned
the characters over and over in my mind.
I had been reading Osbert
Sitwell's autobiography, with its portrait of his father, Sir
George Sitwell, and his passion for the Middle Ages and its
Suppose, I thought, a
rich man, such as Sir George, were to leave a large sum of money to
a cathedral, on the the condition that the dean and chapter revive
a medieval ceremony, which forces the bishop to do something he
does not want to.
As the night wore on, the
idea continued to take shape. The bishop must ride around the
diocese on a white horse, and give 20 pairs of white stockings to
In 1965, girls were
wearing miniskirts with white stockings, and the advent of the pill
had greatly re- duced the number of virgins. They would have to
find a horse, and buy the stockings - the dean would insist the
bishop did it, because the Norman tower was in bad shape, and they
desperately needed the money. The problem was how to end it, where
to find the virgins. . .
Morning light was
filtering through the curtains. Pauline stirred. I said: "Listen,
I've got it, but I can't end it." I told her the plot, and she said
one word, "Novices" - and we were home and dry.
AND so we wrote The Bishop Rides Again. As plans went
ahead for its production, the first thing that Frank Muir, who was
Head of Comedy at the BBC, said, when it came to casting, was that
I could not play Noote, the chaplain.
The BBC liked to have
established stars, and preferably those who were used to working
together; so the first suggestion was Alastair Sim as the bishop,
and George Cole as Noote. I was unhappy with the idea, feeling that
Alastair Sim would be better cast as the Moderator of the Church of
Scotland than a Church of England bishop. Fortunately, when he read
it, he turned it down as being too funny, saying that he had to
have scripts that were not funny, so that he could make them
Frank's next suggestion
was Robert Morley and Wilfred Hyde-White. I told him that we had to
believe that these men prayed, and I could not imagine either of
them praying, except on the race-course when their horse was being
Then someone came up with
the name William Mervyn, which seemed a better idea, and Stuart
suggested Robertson Hare as the archdeacon. For the dean, we wanted
John Barron. We had seen him in a play, in which he had been very
funny as a manic headmaster. And, if I could not play Noote, I told
Frank the right person was Derek Nimmo. We had often been up for
the same part, and, although I saw him as a rival, I admired
A short time before
rehearsals began, Frank said that he would like to go through the
script with us. It was a crash course in comedy- writing, a
distillation, and the fruit of his long years of writing with Denis
Norden. It was in the detail that he was so revealing - the
principle of always having one more surprise up your sleeve, and
never letting a weak line pass.
Just before the first
reading, Stuart asked me to go with "Bunny" Hare to the costumiers,
and see him fitted for the archdeacon. The costumier took him to a
dressing room, and when they emerged with Bunny in breeches, and
gaiters, and the clerical morning frock of an archdeacon, I felt
certain we had a success on our hands.
AS SOON as rehearsals
began to shape up, it was clear that we had the perfect cast. Bill,
with his splendid appearance and solid personality, was the anchor;
Bunny, his inimitable self; and Derek, endlessly inventive. I saw
at once how right Frank had been in not letting me play the part.
Derek, coming to it from outside, brought another whole conception
of the part which I could never have done; and John's dean was the
perfect menace for the others to bounce off.
Rehearsals went well. On
the night of the recording, a professional entertainer did a
warm-up, Pauline and I introduced the actors, and then we went to
sit behind Stuart in the box. The audience laughed in all the right
places, and there was a crackle of electricity about the evening,
as though everyone felt we had a success on our hands.
Afterwards, we went out
with Frank and Polly Muir for dinner. As we crossed the road
towards the restaurant, Frank asked if we felt we could do a
series. We told him we felt we could, and the next day we had a
meeting with the Head of Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan. We were to
write six episodes in six months, for £500 a script.
The question then arose
what the series should be called. Stuart wanted "Oh, Bishop!" but I
had in mind a biography I had read of Dean Inge, in which he was
quoted as saying that the trouble with the Church of England was
that it was "all gas and gaiters". I suggested "Gas and Gaiters" as
the title to Frank and Stuart, but they did not seem impressed,
until Frank, thinking about it, said, "It will work if you keep the
The Bishop Rides
Again was transmitted on 17 May 1966, and, in the event, the
press and public reaction was all we could have hoped for. So now
we just had the problem of writing six more.
IN WRITING the part of Noote, we had based him on my schoolfriend,
Gordon Rhodes, and had asked ourselves how he would react, or what
he would say. Now we turned to him for technical advice. Although
he had been turned down by the Church, he was a mine of information
on the subject, and we sent him all the scripts for his comments.
We did not dare tell him that he was Noote, though I suspect that
At the same time, Frank
put us in touch with Church House, and we had a contact there whom
we could ring at any time, fire questions at, and test ideas on. He
was a great help; after all, neither of us had ever met a bishop,
or been in a bishop's palace. So it was very gratifying when we
began getting letters from bishops, saying: "How did you know that?
It is exactly what happened to me yesterday."
The first series was
watched by between 4.5 and 5.5 million viewers, and was warmly
received by the public, although some critics thought the criticism
of the Church too mild. As we had never intended to write a biting
satire, but rather a series of farces set in a cathedral precinct,
the criticism was beside the point.
THE second series proved even more successful. The Stage
recorded that "the new series of All Gas and Gaiters
opened with 10 million viewers."
Derek was invited to the
"Man of the Year" luncheon, and found himself sitting next to the
Queen Mother's private secretary, who told him that All Gas and
Gaiters was the Queen Mother's favourite programme, and that
she insisted that her diary was arranged so that she could watch it
Never slow off the mark,
Derek asked him if Her Majesty would like to come to see a
recording. In the event, she did not come, but sent her secretary,
and her household.
The episode was one in
which the bishop, the archdeacon, and Noote go to dinner with the
dean, who is very frugal, and there is only a very small roast.
When this appeared, a huge laugh went up from the royal household,
who were heard to whisper: "Just like Clarence House!"
When Stuart had done the
outside filming for The Bishop Rides Again, we did not
know how the Church would view the series. Previous attempts to
write comedies about the Church had failed, and the Church had let
it be known that it had not appreciated them; so Stuart had decided
not to use English cathedrals, but to use French ones instead. Now,
though, the deans of Chichester, Winchester, and several other
cathedrals were falling over each other to have their cathedral
become St Ogg's.
The Church's attitude was
summed up in a letter in 1967 from a Canon [Alan] Edwards, writing
from Bosley and North Rode vicarage, near Macclesfield: "On this
last night of the series of 'All Gas and Gaiters', I would like to
express deep appreciation of its clever, amusing themes. . . it has
been amusing and, if I may say so, so typically Anglican in style
and predicament, it has been in no way hurtful to the image of the
Church of England."
Robertson Hare had been
76 when the series began, and, by the time he reached 80, he was
beginning to have difficulty learning the lines. This meant we had
to use him sparingly, keep his lines short, and place a key word in
the previous line to jog his memory. Both Bill and Derek - although
they de- tested each other, and never spoke unless it was
absolutely necessary - were fond of Bunny, and each, in his way,
took care of him.
The fifth series was very
well received by press and public. After the last recording,
however, the Head of Comedy, Michael Mills, congratulated us, but
at the same time told us that the BBC did not want any more.
As Pauline drove us home,
I sat slumped beside her as it sunk in that this was the death
knell for St Ogg's and its senior clergy. We had invented them, but
they had taken on a life of their own, and, in doing so, had taken
us over. For the past seven years we had thought about them night
and day, and life without them was going to take some getting used
There were 33 TV
episodes, transmitted between 1965 and 1972, but - owing to an
unhappy attempt at economy at the BBC - most of the tapes were
cleaned so that they could be used again. Only 11 episodes
When we had written
The Bishop Rides Again, television had felt like an
adventure, something dangerous and fun, and worth doing. . .
This is an edited
extract from Pursued by Bishops by Edwin Apps, published
by Durand Peyroles at £17.90 (Books, 19