SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 22 September 2014

'LAST OF THE DUTY FREE' (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre) // "They look tired, but they look happy. At peace. I'm not even sure they are in character anymore . . "

Actor Keith Barron, better known as the two, three, sometimes four times a night-timing (he wishes) David Pearce from mid-80s Yorkshire TV sitcom 'Duty Free' walks into the foyer of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford to greet a bunch of friends sitting at a table, chatting away.

"Hello," he coos, in a thick Yorkshire moor mist of an accent. "Well - what did you think? Did you enjoy the show?" Ever the professional; the born entertainer - clearly looking out for others; everyone an audience. Even his closest friends.

I had a feeling I knew what their reply was going to be, having heard the laughter to be the loudest from those in the front row as I crept in to the (fairly-empty, not surprisingly for a rainy afternoon) balcony earlier, just a few minutes late (by the time I mastered the one way system of heaving Saturday shopper traffic in Guildford, I could have packed, flown and reached my hotel on the Costa del Sol).

The stalls below me in the theatre to see Last of the Duty Free were packed, mostly an older crowd, but not exclusively - children too (who later laughed as loud as the adults at the - pretty restrained really - rude jokes). In the interval I saw some of the front rows get up to leave for the bar - and was sure I remembered some of those faces later. Keith Barron's circle of friends - loyal to the last. Right at the front!

Keith Barron is cool, right? (Not the grumpy old geezer you may have thought he was - the kind of roles he seems to get these days.) Well, if you don't think so, fans of cult TV and film think so! This admittedly gruff but affable, light-of-touch and often shifty-of-hand Yorkshireman (born in Mexborough, in 1934) has appeared in some true classics with cult status: Baby Love (1968), The Land That Time Forgot (1975), At The Earth's Core (1976), 'The Professionals: Private Madness, Public Danger' (1977 hallucinogenic drug terrorism in the water supply - one of the best episodes), Doctor Who: Enlightenment (as Captain Striker - 1983) and a fabulous episode of Jeremy Brett's already unbeatable Sherlock Holmes series for Granada TV - 'The Last Vampyre' (1993).


Plenty more cult classics could be added and there have been numerous, more recent, TV roles. But for many, Keith Barron will always - really: always - be remembered as shifty, shady, hapless David in Duty Free. A man married to loyal - but devious, and wise - Amy (Gwen Taylor) while lusting, throughout his Spanish package holiday break to the San Remo hotel in Marbella, after blonde mature snooty sex-bomb Linda (Joanna Van Gyseghem - unavailable for the stage show and replaced by Carol Royle) whose husband, Robert (Neil Stacy) suspects little, or a lot, it's hard to tell with an upper lip as stiff as his. Or as stiff as David's nightcap in the bar every night as he waits to meet up with the lovely, undeniably fragrant, Linda.
David and Amy - a working class couple from Northampton and Linda and Robert, decidedly upper-middle, from Henley-on-Thames. This isn't just sitcom: this is class warfare.

A memorable addition to the show regulars was Carlos Douglas as the harassed hotel waiter - 'Carlos.' He died in 2005, having shot a Dutch version of the show called 'Tax Free' with an entirely new cast in the early 90s. In Last of the Duty Free he is replaced by Graham Elwell. That's 'Elwell' - not 'Elsbells' as in the Spanish resort destination that the Carry on team went 'Abroad' to in the 1972 movie that, for me, always clearly inspired Duty Free, along with those other British sitcom movie spin-offs - such as Are You Being Served (1977 - from London to the 'Costa Plonka'). Duty Free cut out the wait and sent its cast away on holiday from the start - that's a kind of genius idea when you think about it.


Buoyed up with an 80s obsession for cheap package holidays, the time was well and truly right for Duty Free to hit the small screen sunny side up in 1984 (ending in 1986). Written by Eric Chappell (with Jean Warr) who had already given us classic sitcoms Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh in the 70s, the show was a huge ratings success and although the action, except for one Christmas special, was filmed entirely in a Leeds studio, the hotel set and glowing background of sunsets, sunshine, sex and Sangria was intoxicating and almost authentic enough to make you wish you were there.

Duty Free did take you away from the drab 80s, strike-torn (and Duty Free was born in the same year as the miners' strike, and only just outlived it on screen) divisive, community-tearing atmosphere that many believed Thatcher's Britain to be.


The plots of Duty Free usually centred around David trying to impress and bed Linda, but doing neither (certainly not the bedding), with Amy finding out and getting payback and Robert - well, pouring himself another glass of wine. I don't think David would ever - really - have bedded Linda. Or rather - I don't think Linda would ever have bedded him. David was her lower class plaything - her flirt with what she saw as a 'bit of rough'. She was the cruellest character sitcom had ever really launched. The thing is - only she, I reckon, knew it.
As I sit in the bar after the stage version of 'Last of the Duty Free' at this gorgeous theatre (the Yvonne Arnaud is named after the French-born British actress and singer who appeared in movies such as 1947's The Ghosts of Berkeley Square and - her final role - Mon Oncle in 1958) sitting nearby is the new chap playing Carlos having a meal and a drink before the evening performance starts up - he is chuckling away amiably; animatedly (unlike the silent, bemused Carlos would be - always a man inspired by the character and sheer panic of waiter Manuel from Fawlty Towers, but with even less knowledge of the English language or ability to balance a tray).
In the foyer, near the bar, Keith Barron greets his friends, while outside, on the side of a busy road, actor Neil Stacy (Robert) chats to friends and fans too - including some young actors from the nearby rehearsal rooms for a youth theatre summer school. All the cast seem to be loving appearing together again on stage and - while Duty Free could never be claimed as the best sitcom Britain possessed, it was always one of the warmest-hearted as well as warmest of location.

The plots were repetitive, but never less than endearing and the cast always played their roles as if this was a serious drama - a funny drama. But serious with it. The potential for an affair - between David and Linda - was never just only played for laughs. Sometimes (for Amy) you could see it really hurt. Duty Free isn't far away from the later fashion for comedy dramas such as Coupling (2000-2004) written by Steven Moffatt with its farcical interplay between the sexes and Joking Apart (1991-1995) that preceded it (also created/ written by Moffat) about the breakdown of a stable relationship towards divorce. And then of course there is Benidorm (2007-); a kind of grown-up Duty Free with a bigger budget.


Last of the Duty Free is performed with real enthusiasm, despite occasionally wobbly line fluffs and a script that, while poking fun at, say, Robert's rampant xenophobia comes close to endorsing such old-fashioned lampooning - as if jokes about Japanese people being 'mustard-coloured' and 'shouting Tenko' are acceptable in a modern world of light farcical comedy (even from a character as deliberately arch and dumb as Robert). The joke falls flat and leaves a momentarily unsavoury taste, because it's not necessary and seems out of place amongst such a distinguished cast.

But writer Eric Chappell has already ridiculed casual racism in his scripts for Rising Damp in the mid-late 70s, where landlord Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) pokes fun at black tenant Philip (an oozingly classy Don Warrington). Perhaps, the casual racism of Robert is entirely appropriate after all - perhaps, as he gets older, it has even become worse than when we saw him last. The thing is - we are conditioned to believe that Robert is a calming influence on all the mania around him. The Jerry Leadbetter (Paul Eddington's reserved character from The Good Life, shown around the same time as Rising Damp) of Marbella. But then, while casual racism may have been acceptable (or tolerated) back in the British sitcoms of the 80s, today it just sounds out of joint - no joke.

We want only good things to happen - at last - to these familiar favourites of old, and nostalgia hangs heavy over proceedings. From the start, we hope that the characters don't look too much older or say anything too stupid. But while the show is played for laughs, there's a different feel at times to the farcical goings-on, that perhaps hardens the heart. They are all older - and the determination of David to snare Linda, now verges on the obsessional. The creepy. In fact, they almost actually do start to get it on, in the bushes - luckily interrupted. And while you always wondered if David would back out of doing the actual deed with Linda, given the opportunity to choose, for a moment here - you realise this man is serious (and a reason why, by the time the curtain falls, it seems there is a harsh realisation by David as to how crazy - how pathetic - his life has become).


If the 'Tenko line' is a rare fail (in terms of the nervous laughter it provoked) there's still good fun to be had spotting the old favourites in action and in recognising those familiar plant pots from the show's past (that David hides behind and - when talking out loud to Carlos, thinking its Linda, from his position behind the pot - gets the biggest laugh of the night).

The play also has a fab set design that replicates and improves on the original with an upper balcony above the bar area with plenty of opportunity for darting and weaving of David both on - and right off - the edge. The cast don't look all that much older (Neil Stacy looks almost exactly the same as he did in 1984, I swear) and these 'old codgers' can still out-farce the younger pretenders that have been added to the storyline (perhaps just in case one of the original players drops dead, Monty Python style, mid-show).

The script for the stage revival starts with a secretive rendezvous between Linda and David (following a chance meeting) at their old haunting ground: the San Remo in Marbella. But the reunion soon turns into an unwanted bigger party as the suspicious Amy and (little bit less suspicious) Robert, arrive at the hotel as well. David tries to keep the presence of Linda secret from Amy - and Linda does the same, about David, to Robert. Add a younger - very funny - honeymooning couple (played by Maxine Gregory and James Barron - son of Keith!) with increasing doubts about their own fidelity into the mix and we have the same old, darting and ducking Duty Free of old. It's as if it never went away.

It's not going to win any awards this - but hey, like a bona fide Brit abroad, the spirited, warm-hearted revival of such a popular TV sitcom knows how to have fun in the (fake) sun and stays true to the original show. The chemistry on stage is as genuine as that seen in the foyer of the theatre post-performance when Keith Barron's friends all reply to his question in unison about whether they enjoyed the show: "It was brilliant, Keith" they all seem to say at once. And from their faces, you can see they aren't just saying that.


A few days later, and there are rumours that Last of the Duty Free's touring run will be cut short. And this is later confirmed. Only a few performances remain. Maybe the mid-80s was a time that can't easily be upgraded to the present without losing a few casualties along the way. Keith Barron has talked of a revival of the show back on TV as well as on stage - he holds up hope that it could be done. It looks less likely now.

And you know - in the final scenes of the stage version of Duty Free, where there's a certain joy in seeing an almost entirely original cast reprising their roles from those classic days of sitcom past, there also seems to be even more pathos than ever before; especially when Amy finally gets David back (it looks for good) from the clutches of a scheming Linda.
Amy is harder of heart than she used to be - there's a sense that she and David really do need each other; perhaps far more so than the TV version ever dared suggest (is this because of their advancing years - this softening of barriers between them?). And suddenly the script, in the closing minutes, gives us a flourish of increasing warmth between the old warring couple (Gwen Taylor is outstanding as Amy - full of cynical determination, love and toughness) and a chance of mending this brittle partnership of old. At the end - the stage is theirs alone. They sit in chairs in the empty bar, side by side - and you know what? They look tired, but they look happy. At peace. I'm not even sure they are in character anymore.
If Duty Free was ever revived for TV, it should be only to showcase this change in the love that David and Amy perhaps always had for one another but that went, alongside David's obsession to better himself, off the boil. Amy was just a symptom of his frustration and what he thought, blindly, could be the cause. It's still burning, that love, in the stage version - reignited now and finalised at the last hurdle, before the curtain falls forever. And victory for Amy is sweet.

Does the farcical nature of the marriage of Amy and David; the chasing and the catching - suddenly look silly in the twilight of their years? Is that where the script of this stage adaptation is heading towards, carefully? These two - without warning - seem to have ended up with a love that can't be spoilt any longer by class conflict and the 'Me! Me! Me!' culture of Thatcher's Britain (that so often spawned bullying opportunism of the kind that many saw as provoking and glorifying the individual but may instead have been killing a country and community; even lovers, in the process - a culture that seemed to permeate the scripts of the original series with an almost subliminal message of 'greed and wealth' being good; a thing to aspire to).
David and Amy kind of stand for a resilience, or a need, in all of us - a need to be free. Many see freedom as something that only the individual can obtain. Or can only be found if you look for it; outside of what you know. For David and Amy, despite an entire three seasons of an ITV sitcom that seemed to tell us otherwise - freedom, at least as felt on stage this afternoon in an old historic theatre on the outskirts of a rainy Guildford, is only ever going to be found together.
words: mark gordon palmer / Summer 2014

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