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Carry-on at the cathedral

by
26 July 2013

Set in the fictional St Ogg's Cathedral, the TV sitcom All Gas and Gaiters - starring William Mervyn, Robertson Hare, Derek Nimmo, and John Barron - ran for for five series. Its co-creator, Edwin Apps, recalls how it all began

Cassocks and comedy: William Mervyn (left) as the bishop and Robertson Hare as the archdeacon in All Gas and Gaiters, 1966

Cassocks and comedy: William Mervyn (left) as the bishop and Robertson Hare as the archdeacon in All Gas and Gaiters, 1966

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 writing.

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 customs.

 

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 20 virgins.

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 funny.

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 overtaken.

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 him.

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 'all'."

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 he guessed.

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 each week.

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 to.

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 remain.

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 July).

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