PLEASE SIR! / THE FENN STREET GANG (1968)

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Please Sir

Possibly inspired by the 1967 Sidney Potier movie, 'To Sir, With Love' -'Please Sir!' starred former Emergency Ward 10 actor John Alderton as newly qualified teacher Bernard Hedges (specialising in History and English), as he tried to tame the most unruly class at Fenn Street School; 5C.

On his first day at school Bernard crossed swords with caretaker Norman Potter (Deryck Guyler), a former Desert Rat with delusions of grandeur, although with some credibility as he was the right hand man of incompetent headmaster, Maurice Cromwell (Noel Howlett), who in turn was the subject of infatuation by formidable deputy head Doris Ewell (Joan Sanderson). This trio virtually ran the school much to the resignation of the rest of the disillusioned staff and the last thing they wanted to disturb the balance was a young schoolmaster fresh out of teachers training college and full of bright ideals about modern teaching.

In order to curb Bernard's naïve enthusiasm it was conspired between the trio to give him a class of 'no-hopers', namely 5C. In their last year at school the pupils of this class were an uneducable bunch of delinquents who were simply biding their time until the final bell sounded on the last day of term. This of course did not involve participating in any school activities such as lessons. However, through a series of (comical) events Bernard managed to win over not only the staff but also the class of pupils (who nicknamed him 'Privet' Hedges) that contained 'hard case' Patrick Duffy (Peter Cleall), the tough talking but wimpish Frankie (Hank) Abbott (David Barry), slow witted Dennis Dunstable (Peter Denyer), flirtatious Sharon (Penny Spencer in the first two season's, Carol Hawkins thereafter), and Maureen (Liz Gebhart), who had a crush on her teacher. Support on the teacher front came from Richard Davies who gave a first class performance as the down to earth no-nonsense Welsh science teacher, Mr Price, and the aging Eric Chitty as Mr Smith, a teacher that was clearly beyond retirement age at the series outset. In fact most of the actors who played the students were already in their twenties when Please Sir! began in 1968 and two years later (at the end of the longest last year in school history) the pupils were clearly showing their age.

The series made stars of several actors although oddly none of the students found lasting television fame. LWT Head of Light Entertainment, Frank Muir, cast Alderton as Bernard Hedges after he had spotted him as a teacher in the opening episode of Never A Cross Word. After leaving Fenn Street School the actor went on to several successful series such as Upstairs, Downstairs, it's spin-off series Thomas and Sarah, the LWT sitcom No-Honestly and a series of Wodehouse plays (Wodehouse Playhouse) for BBC (all of which Alderton co-starred alongside his wife, Pauline Collins), and the BBC sitcom My Wife Next Door with Hannah Gordon. Joan Sanderson won television immortality as Mrs Richards, the hotel guest with hearing problems in Fawlty Towers and after Please Sir! had finished she teamed up again with Deryck Guyler (who was originally cast as Fenn Street's headmaster) on a BBC radio show (also penned by the same writers), You're Only Young Once.

A 1971 feature movie was released in which Bernard meets and begins to date Penny Wheeler (Jill Kerman), and this was carried on in subsequent TV series of Please Sir! and its predecessor, The Fenn Street Gang (which in turn spawned Bowler), which briefly followed the fortunes of the pupils after they left school.

The series was the creation of former school chums and a new-to-television comedy writing team of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who went on to write Get Some In!; Ever Decreasing Circles; As Time Goes By and the enormously successful The Good Life. Actor David Barry has fond memories of working on the show and told Television Heaven that he thought the writing was always of the highest quality. "(They) wrote some wonderful comedy dialogue," he said, not least of all his favourite line from the Please Sir! movie: "Mrs Abbott has just put her 'little soldier' on the coach for summer camp. She bumps into Norman Potter. Tearfully she says, 'They had to do away with my fallopians when I gave birth to Frankie.' To which Potter replies: 'Kept jumping on the pram, did they?' "

The format of Please Sir! travelled to the US as Welcome Back Kotter, which launched the career of one John Travolta, however the US producers of that particular series never acknowledged its British predecessor.

After the original class of pupils left at the end of series three a new intake of students was brought in but failed to impress the viewing audience, and with Bernard taking a year out of school to do a course in Sociology (Alderton having had enough of the role), the sparkle that had made Please Sir! such a huge hit (the first major sitcom success for LWT) was lost. The final episode aired on 13th February 1972 in which Miss Ewell (now mellowed and a much more likeable character) married Bernard's replacement, Mr Sibley.

The original cast were sent out into the big wide world to make their own way in life. Having previously avoided much school work it was now time to knuckle down and face the realities of life (albeit in a sitcom setting). In The Fenn Street Gang some of the characters fared better than others over the ensuing three series. Duffy became a painter and decorator and continued his relationship with Sharon (they had got together in season three of Please Sir!). They were engaged by the end of series two and married in season three. Maureen, who originally wanted to be a nun decided instead to become a nurse and wide-boy Peter Craven went to work for local racketeer Bowler-played by George Baker (The subsequent spin-off was made sans Craven due to the fact that it was actually a prequel and not a sequel to both Please Sir! and Fenn Street). Frank Abbott continued to live out his Walter Mitty-like existence as an incompetent, clumsy, trainee private detective whilst still being mollycoddled by his doting mother, and although in the early episodes the 'gang' kept in touch with each other, later in the series storylines tended to focus on each individual on a rotating basis.

Review: : Laurence Marcus April 2006

for Television Heaven