As Time Goes By, the charming British sitcom of the 1990s, stars sparkling-eyed Judi Dench as Jean Pargetter and glum-faced Geoffrey Palmer as Lionel Hardcastle. Long-time lovers, Lionel and Jean have had to lead separate lives. Lionel, who had served as second lieutenant in the Korean war and then run a coffee plantation in Kenya, is now back in England and trying to write a book. Jean, a widow, has worked her way up from being a nurse to running a secretarial agency in West London. Coincidence (what else?) brings them together now, 38 years later.
“Who’d be interested in a soppy story like that?” Jean asks Alistair (Philip Bretherton), Lionel’s ever-excitable jumping bean publisher.
“Only half the world,” says Alistair, and he is almost correct.
My well-thumbed copy of And Furthermore by Judi Dench tells of the gigantic success of the series that ran from 1991-2002 in England and its resounding success in Australia and America, which has an As Time Goes By internet fan club. Palmer’s recent death at 93 has brought on a flood of posthumous praise. Dench has said how lucky she was to have worked with him “because there is nobody with a drier sense of comedy”.
Geoffrey Palmer makes the perfect Lionel as described by his father (Frank Middlemass) – “a bit of a dismal Jimmy”. No one could, as Alistair points out, take “stiff upper lip to super glue proportions”.
For this, Palmer’s face is his fortune. In an episode involving Lionel’s unsmiling resistance, Jean splutters about him being “like some old empire builder... pompous, patronising and...and...I’m looking for another word with P.”
“Periwinkle?” Lionel offers dourly.
She chooses “pernickety”.
Outrageously funny this, because Alistair, in pushing for a TV miniseries based on Lionel’s magnum opus gushes that Lionel could be played “by...by .. Robert Redford”.
Laughing at Lionel is not all that makes for the magic of the nine DVD discs that I watch parts of every night. Each episode opens with the theme song from Casablanca, sung wistfully by Joe Fagin and a nostalgic black and white montage of a Britain we once knew – from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth to a waving Harold Wilson, the Beatles, the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana and ending approximately with the success of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.
If you are as much a sucker for crisp English pronunciation and dry English humour as I am, warming to the witty exchange of Bob Larbey’s script is instant (though I did need to look up what it meant when Jean says she is on the verge of a tight perm and taking a carriage off to Worthing). Flawlessly enunciated by the principal characters, the series for me is more to do with turn of phrase than turn of events, though there are some of those moments too.
It is indeed a perfect nightcap, provided one is not offended by the insular and ultra-Brit content – a little surprising for a story set in the 1990s when the sceptred isle was well peopled with those of colour. A Chinese family and a Chinese waiter have all of three minutes between them; Alistair’s brown-skinned secretary has a near non-appearance; there is a brief moment for a black nurse in a hospital. But otherwise, whether it is “Postman Pat,” Mr Harris the builder, Mr Partridge from British Telecom, shopkeepers, grocers or neighbours moving in and out, there is barely a trace of colour (except in crowd scenes).
The French “don’t speak good English,” there is no fresh air to be found in America, the land of thugs and muggers, Chinese are known as “China men”, books read and referred to are only British books and the right thing to do is always the British thing to do. Does any of this matter? No, but if one watches the series every night for three years, the Brit is beautiful theme makes a quirky signature.
Never strident or aggressive and never ever taking the humour away, As Time Goes By has women who react to sexist remarks with spunk. When Lionel comments on a young secretary’s knees popping into his head, Jean tells him sharply to “pop them out again please”. Judith (Jean’s twice-divorced daughter played by Moira Brooker) makes it clear her life is her own and Alistair cannot take her for granted.
Minor character Denise, Lionel’s Bed and Breakfast hostess, announces she has a right to her expectations while Daisy, another minor character, says she does not mind being “found” attractive but she does mind being “pre-sold” as attractive by Jean’s secretarial agency.
The series includes Jean’s sister-in-law Penny (Moyra Fraser) and her husband Stephen (Paul Chapman) who are endearingly droll and ‘propah’ foils to the lead couple. Penny, with her inflated sense of propriety, and Stephen’s awkwardness around women make for some hilarious moments. The oldest couple in the series (Lionel’s octogenarian father who would rather be called Rocky than Richard and his new bride Madge, who, at 78, is ready to shoot rapids with him) are the feistiest. They cannot think of anything worse than being “like most people”, and they certainly aren’t.
But it is the Dench- Palmer chemistry that is the essence of As Time Goes By. She is the crisp boss and nosy mother with the best lines on age, sex and the general state of affairs. He, in addition to writing a book and mini-series, has the job of trying to be a non-interventionist who is frequently plunged into deep waters. Individually, they are gifted. Together, they are irresistible.
As Jean says, “I don’t know why Judith went to see that Jacques Tati film. We’re much funnier.”