Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em was something of a sitcom oddity. Ask anybody who watched it how long it ran, and how many episodes there were, and estimates will range wildly. In fact it ran for just three brief seasons from 1973 to 1978 (the first two both being confined to the debut year of 1973) and a trio of Christmas specials – all in all, just 22 episodes.
Some Mothers was dreamed up by an Isle Of Wight-based writer, Raymond Allen. Allen eked out a living writing single sketches from home for the likes of Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd. This didn't really bring in enough cash to live on so he also had a "proper" job cleaning his local cinema. Over the years he had submitted over 40 full-length scripts to assorted TV producers, but all had been rejected. Following the advice which accompanied one reject letter, Allen decided his next idea would be firmly based on something he knew about – himself.
As a starting point, Allen borrowed some characteristics from a strange man who used to stop by the cinema that Allen cleaned at and ask inane questions about the current films that were playing. Following the advice he had received in the earlier rejection letter, Allen also folded several autobiographical facets into the mix – his character had few friends and suffered from insecurity and depression, as did Allen himself. Allen also still lived at home with his parents and could, in fairness, be called a "mummy's boy". Thus, step by step, the new character was born. Allen "borrowed" his character's name from the strange cinema man, too – Frank Spencer.
Allen's proposal landed on the desk of Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, who saw the potential in the idea. Over a series of subsequent meetings, Mills (who had taken on the role as the programme's producer/director) and Allen added in other ingredients to the prototype character. Frank was a walking disaster area – fully competent at being incompetent. Whether it was mending a boiler, auditioning for a job at a holiday camp or transporting a child's playhouse back home – if he could get it wrong, he would get it wrong. He was also given a supreme ability to annoy people. Within the space of a ten-minute conversation, otherwise calm and rational folk could be reduced to tears by Frank's inability to answer any question coherently, or his habit of peppering his responses with long-winded and trivial monologues (usually concerning his childhood). Frank was easily shocked and immensely naïve – any vaguely risqué comment or action would result in a startled "oooh" and a shocked expression. The image was completed by his clothing – his permanent attire was a raincoat and beret worn atop tight trousers and a gaudy tank-top, which he even wore in bed.
Rather surprisingly, the somewhat effeminate Frank Spencer was married. His mild-mannered wife, Betty (played by Michele Dotrice, actually fifth choice of actress after Sinead Cusack, Elisabeth Sladen, Linda Hayden and Nell Curran), seemed to exist on the edge of a nervous breakdown brought on by Frank's almost uninterrupted stints of being out of work and the couple's general lack of money. Nevertheless, she was loyal to him and always took his side when he was being criticised or picked on.
The lead part of the series (then being called variously Don't Bring Frank, His Mother Was Just The Same and I Do Try) was offered first to Norman Wisdom (who probably could have had a fair stab at it) but Wisdom ultimately proved to be unavailable for the planned shooting dates. More strangely, it was then offered to Ronnie Barker. Barker turned down the offer based on the fact that he considered himself a "word comedy" man and didn't do "physical stuff".
The third choice was Michael Crawford, then appearing on stage, who came with his own ideas on how to interpret the part: "The characterisation I worked out in a play called No Sex Please, We're British. I thought it was getting a very good reaction and people were laughing at him. There was also a lot of pathos attached to the character so I'd thought I'd like to develop it. He's a strange mixture because he's funny in what he says and also how he behaves but inside he's boiling – he's an incredibly sensitive soul. To play the part properly you've got to know what it feels like when people say things that hurt." Though Raymond Allen was credited with sole responsibility for the scripts, Crawford had a great deal of impromptu input causing Allen to remark dryly on one occasion, "It was nice of you to use some of my words."
The series required an amount of action and stunt work to portray Frank's misadventures. When executed properly, these sequences (almost always done by Crawford himself without the use of a stand-in) could be amusing. However, more often than not, BBC economies played their part and the end results were less than they should have been. Having said this, exploits like Frank's wild roller-skate ride through the streets, or his ejection through a church roof by a stage lift, were, and still are, the highlights of the show to many. There was an amount of public concern about the risky stunts causing producer Michael Mills to comment: "I'm torn between two things here. One is to say, 'Oh it's frightfully dangerous and he shouldn't do it and he's breaking his neck four times a day,' and that sort of thing. But the truth of the matter is that neither Michael nor I are really quite as stupid as we look and we wouldn't do things unless they were very, very carefully prepared and all the possible precautions were being taken. That's my job as the producer and that's his job as an actor – to make sure he doesn't do anything where he's going to kill himself."
As with much television in the seventies, self-appointed media watchdog, Mary Whitehouse, found the show displeased her. She attacked the series publicly, describing the Frank Spencer character as "a purveyor of pornography" apparently after his habit of pulling at the top of his leg while complaining of an unspecified problem vaguely in the area of his genitals ("Genitals – that's a very rude word for her to use," pointed out a mid-seventies TV interviewer. "It's a very long word for her to use," retorted Crawford). In fact, Frank's downstairs "trouble" was understood by the production team simply to be mild incontinence, and nothing sexual at all.
At the end of the second series, to everybody's bemusement, Frank managed to father a baby. After a further two lone Christmas specials, Crawford decided to hang up his beret and move onto other projects. He explained: "I wanted to go off and do different things in those days. I didn't want to be owned by the public as a character. They'll demand that you go on and do more and more but I think you have to be very disciplined about your own career and I want to be acting when I'm 60 and 70."
Despite Crawford's fears of typecasting, he eventually donned the mac and beret again for a belated third (and last) season in 1978. Some slight changes to his character were made after worried viewers had voiced their fears about Frank as a father. "I decided," said Crawford, "that the original Frank Spencer could be made to grow up a little – to be slightly more sophisticated. Frank had to grow up, after five years, or he would seem a complete idiot. He is more in command, but still getting things wrong – simply because he is accident-prone. I knew this had to be done very well indeed. Otherwise people would say I should have left while I was ahead." No doubt the pay being offered – £10,000 per episode (an absolutely incredible amount for the time) – also played its part in Crawford's decision to return to the show.
Frank Spencer had indeed now grown up – he was more self-assured and often assumed an air of preposterous self-importance (he would answer his name with "I am he"). This behaviour caused him to use words that he didn't understand, and so Spencer now became a Malaprop as well (claiming, for example, to have been "ejaculated" from his home and, on another occasion, threatening to take his medical problems to "Harlot Street"). This last series saw Frank's long-lost grandfather appear from Australia and offer Frank a new life down under working on a sheep station.
Crawford subsequently refused the BBC's requests for further Some Mothers despite allegedly being offered a joint contract by the BBC and an foreign broadcaster (probably Australian, where the show was a massive hit) for another five years of episodes. Just in case, the BBC – who had done financially well out of the show (selling the British version to over 50 countries as well as licensing a new version for German TV) – decided to leave the series oddly open-ended: Frank last being seen taking flying lessons ready for his move to Australia. Crawford moved onto another sitcom, Chalk And Cheese, which was not well received. Thereafter, he concentrated mainly on musical stage shows such as Barnum and Phantom Of The Opera. The spectre of Frank Spencer was kept alive long after the show ended as a fallback for TV impressionists: notably Mike Yarwood and Bobby Davro (the latter of which was spied on British TV some 25 years later still doing Frank Spencer impersonations). Meanwhile, a young Lenny Henry turned in probably the only black version of Frank Spencer!
Creator Raymond Allen, meanwhile, had no more hits after Some Mothers despite writing comedy pilot vehicles for the likes of Matthew Kelly, Milo O'Shea, David Kelly and Brian Glover. He did, however, continue to write sketches here and there for comedians like Jimmy Cricket and Little & Large.
Luckily, the episodes of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em were not affected by the BBC's archive purges of the seventies and have been much repeated since, often in disgracefully abbreviated form, on both the terrestrial BBC channels and on satellite. They were also amongst the most successful of the BBC's early home-video releases.
In the guide that follows, each of the episodes is listed together with full cast, crew and transmission details, although for the third season the character names were given only in The Radio Times listings magazine and not on screen. I give a synopsis of each episode and some brief critical comment. Each episode is given a star rating out of five relative to the other episodes. The titles given for the episodes were not shown on screen (or, apart from Jessica's First Christmas, used in The Radio Times) and seem to be intended to be descriptive rather than aesthetic. Three different (sometimes incomplete and/or overlapping) sets of assumed titles exist – those used internally by the BBC; those used on the various UK and US home-video/DVD releases; and those used in Kaleidoscope's The British Television Comedy Research Guide. This guide follows the "official" BBC titles (as listed on the BBC's Videotape Library computer), but the other titles are mentioned in passing. All dates are in European DD/MM/YY format. All initial transmissions were on BBC1 unless otherwise stated.
Various mp3 audio clips are included. These will give people who are new to the series some idea of what it was all about, but there is really no substitute for seeing the actual programmes or buying the DVDs, as Crawford's facial expressions were so much part of the programme (as were the stunts, of course!) But, of course, the clips may while away the odd hour or two at work...
Ronnie Hazelhurst's famous piccolo theme tune (for which he was paid £30) in its full version. Trivia: the piece is based on the show's title in Morse code!
Text portions copyright © S. Phillips 2012. All rights reserved. I can be emailed for comments etc. at: (Click to see e-mail address) And the name of Frank's cat is Cleopatra. I get asked that so much, it must be on a trivia quiz somewhere!)