"Hardwicke House" was a sitcom set in a school which was apparently located somewhere in London. It was filmed during the summer of 1986 for Central TV (the ITV contractor for the Midlands area) and was scheduled to be screened between February and April 1987. It was written by Richard Hall and Simon Wright, and it was their first attempt at a sitcom.
The programme attracted an impressive cast of established comedy actors, including Roy Kinnear ("George & Mildred"), Roger Sloman ("We’ll Think of Something"), Tony Haygarth ("Farrington Of The FO") and Duncan Preston ("Victoria Wood – As Seen On TV"), all of whom would have been quite familiar faces to the British public. Furthermore, they would appear to be relatively harmless, having been mainly seen in cosy, family-oriented productions. However, "Hardwicke House" was not in this tradition. It was a brash, over-the-top, somewhat surreal offering with larger-than-life characters. And unusually for a sitcom, it featured no laughter track and no studio sets; it was filmed entirely on location.
To put it into perspective, this show was an extension of the wave of 'alternative comedy' that had been gaining momentum since the beginning of the 1980’s. Comedians such as Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle had first come to prominence through performances at London's Comedy Store and they had developed a new brand of comedy. It tended to be free-form in nature and was often manic and cutting edge, incorporating a significant amount of satire. They were certainly different to safe, straight-laced comics like Tom O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck. Not surprisingly, 'alternative comedy' quickly invaded the domain of TV and programmes including "The Young Ones", "The Comic Strip Presents….." and "Saturday Live" hit the screens and rapidly became popular amongst teenagers and young adults, at whom they were largely aimed. They generally starred core 'alternative comedy' performers, in particular Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, as well as the aforementioned trio of Ben, Rik and Alexei. "The Young Ones" was classic 'alternative comedy', with plenty of madcap, slapstick moments and a bit of vulgarity thrown into the mix. Middle-aged, more narrow-minded viewers who were used to watching "Robin's Nest" and "Never The Twain" were not impressed but they were not expected to be. They wouldn't 'get it' because this was a style of comedy targeting a young, vibrant 'switched on' audience that were open to something that would break moulds. And it was on the back of this that "Hardwicke House" came along. Interestingly, one of the co-writers of "Hardwicke House", Simon Wright, had previously worked with "The Comic Strip Presents...." team.
If "Hardwicke House" had a regular cast consisting solely of 'alternative comedians' like those listed above, it would have correctly been branded an 'alternative comedy' and would have been given a suitable time slot for such fare, for example 10PM on a Friday night on Channel 4. It would then almost certainly have been screened in full and garnered little outrage. Unfortunately, it wasn't given such a time slot. "Hardwicke House" was no ordinary sitcom.
To begin with, most sitcoms possess two-to-five regular characters whereas "Hardwicke House" had as many as sixteen. That’s a lot to accommodate in a running time of no more than twenty-five minutes, the common length for a half-hour ITV slot allowing for commercial breaks. Then there was its timing. "Hardwicke House" was scheduled to be shown at 8.30PM on a Wednesday and on the surface this was nothing unusual. It was a typical time for standard sitcoms such as "Fresh Fields" and "Duty Free", but "Fresh Fields" and "Duty Free" were tame, mainstream shows that were designed to appeal across the spectrum. "Hardwicke House" was not.
In hindsight, it seems incomprehensible that it was given a prime-time slot on a weekday evening. Had no one actually viewed the programme before it went on air? What is more puzzling is the large amount of promotion it received beforehand, and this promotion billed it as a family-oriented sitcom. These were essentially the two major errors concerning "Hardwicke House"; its time slot and its billing. Thus when viewers tuned in to watch the opening episode, they would rightly be expecting to experience something in the vein of "Fresh Fields" and "Duty Free". Is it any wonder they were shocked?
The series was launched with a one hour special on Tuesday, 24th February 1987, starting at 8PM, and the theme focused on the South African Ambassador and his wife visiting the school as they were considering enrolling their son there. We were introduced to all the main characters in what was an appropriate exercise in setting the scene for the series that followed. No one should be blamed if they were startled by this opener, for in one particular scene Slasher Bates (the school bully) was dangling an unfortunate victim over a bannister, presumably two or three floors up. He was distracted by the headmaster and his victim slipped through his grip, disappearing from the frame. We never actually saw anyone hitting the ground (in fact we never actually saw the victim at all apart from their feet and ankles), though some viewers saw enough to make them complain. But this was pure comic strip stuff, cartoon violence in the tone of "Tom & Jerry". It was not graphic in any way and it was not the first time this mode of humour had been shown on TV. Regardless of that, few could have anticipated the volcanic uproar that was to follow.
Predictably, the media jumped on the bandwagon as if the world was about to explode into oblivion if "Hardwicke House" wasn’t removed from the schedules immediately. Should we be surprised if the tabloid newspapers, always prone to exaggeration and never hesitant to over-indulge a headline-making story, hound their target relentlessly until they achieve a result? Whether it be show business, or politics, or sport, every opportunity is taken to showcase the so-called power of the press and is done so in a self-righteous, moralistic fashion (ironic given their own sleazy reputation).
The second episode went out the next evening; Wednesday, 25th February at 8.30PM, adopting what would be its normal half-hour format. The plot here was the arrival of a batch of stationary stock which Herbert Fowl, the English teacher, was placed in charge of. In order to prevent the likes of Slasher Bates getting their grubby hands on it, he wired up the stationary cupboard so that anyone breaking in would get electrocuted. The incident that caused most outrage was when Herbert tested his trap by asking an unsuspecting schoolgirl to venture into the cupboard and she was subsequently frazzled. "Looney Tunes" cartoons had contained this type of violent slapstick since its inception in 1930 and which children had freely been watching ever since.
"Hardwicke House" had certainly caused a stir. However, it was obviously not intended to be taken seriously and for those who 'got it' in terms of the humour, it was just plain funny and something of a breath of fresh air as is stood directly opposite the usual dull, unchallenging pap that is spoon-fed endlessly to the public. When the closing credits rolled on the second episode at 9PM that would be it. The show would never be seen again. There were five more episodes due to be transmitted but the plug was pulled and the tabloids rejoiced in another 'we-represent-the-people's-interests' victory.
Strangely, it seemed that many children actually loved the show. There were reports of boys and girls gushing over it feverishly in school playgrounds the next day. Almost instantly, all the furore in the media fizzled out and the world moved on as if nothing had happened. This was not unprecedented. Some people may remember back to the summer of 1966 when John Lennon’s 'bigger than Jesus' remarks caused a sensation in the USA. Then, too, there was a media outcry that was stoked for all it was worth but once he had been coerced into apologizing it quickly vanished and was essentially forgotten about. Looking back, the commotion surrounding both John Lennon and "Hardwicke House" seems rather silly and was clearly blown out of proportion. They were characteristic media knee-jerk reactions.
With "Hardwicke House", there was a claim that the series would resume at a later date in a much more suitable late-night slot, but nothing ever materialized. Meanwhile, vulgar humour and black comedy continued to reign in comedy shows like "Bottom", "The New Statesman" and "Vic Reeves' Big Night Out", none of whom were plagued by a hostile media campaign. As a comparison to "Hardwicke House", consider "Hot Metal". This was a sitcom which starred Robert Hardy and ran for two series (in 1986 and 1988 respectively). It was transmitted in a post-10PM slot on a Sunday night and during its run, it featured murder, topless women, babies being bought and then given away as competition prizes, an autopsy (including spurting blood) and a crooked Prime Minister hiding a homosexual past. This is not to criticize "Hot Metal", for it was an extremely funny comedy, but where was the media uproar? Where were the calls to have it taken off air? It was no more outrageous than "Hardwicke House" yet "Hot Metal" ran its full course without a murmur and got a second series.
It was not the fault of the cast or crew that caused the demise of "Hardwicke House". They had been perfectly aware of the type of programme they were making and it was obviously a departure to have family favourites like Roy Kinnear to engage in something more associated with the 'alternative comedy' phenomenon. At the time, both Roy and Nick Wilton (who played Peter Philpott, the geography teacher), were openly (and understandably) disappointed in the treatment of the show, and its treatment was indeed unique. Has there been any other programme that has been speedily thrust into obscurity to never see the light of day again?
Why has "Hardwicke House" never been subsequently televised in full? With the advent of satellite TV, the number of available channels has mushroomed incredibly, including ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4. Therefore, there can be no argument that there is no room in the schedules, and these additional ITV channels consist mainly of repeats anyway. At least it could be released on DVD, but why has that never happened? The following controversial movies can all be purchased freely on DVD; "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (original 1974 version), "A Clockwork Orange", "Straw Dogs" (original 1971 version), "Visions Of Ecstasy", "The Last House On The Left" and "Caligula". Is "Hardwicke House" more offensive than those? Basically, there is no justifiable reason as to why it has not been televised or given a DVD release. Its banishment is simply puzzling and it remains an almost forgotten curiosity.
"A Clockwork Orange", directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in the UK in 1972, was withdrawn at the request of Stanley himself due to the huge amount of controversy it ignited. It remained 'banned' until 1999 when Stanley passed away. However, during that span of twenty-seven years it was not too difficult to obtain a bootleg copy. But bootleg copies of "Hardwicke House" just do not seem to exist, despite extensive searching. For anyone who wants to see this sitcom, it is frustratingly beyond reach.
As previously mentioned, the errors of its time slot and its billing led to its downfall. It was never provided with an appropriate opportunity to succeed and could have ultimately spawned two or three series. Maybe at some point in the future it will be given a chance to find a suitable audience (and there is a suitable audience if programmes like "The Comic Strip Presents...." found success). There are a significant number of viewers who remember the two episodes which were screened and there is a genuine desire to see it in its entirety. If sitcoms like "The Young Ones" and "The New Statesman" have gained loyal fans then "Hardwicke House" is certainly funny enough to gain them too.
Granville Saxton played Mr Fowl (the English teacher)
Gavin Richards played Dick Flashman (the history teacher)