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28 October 2014

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The Boswells from Bread

Believe it or not, this much-derided fusion of sitcom and soap was once the biggest show in Britain.

After the failure of her alcoholism-themed sitcom I Woke Up One Morning, writer Carla Lane returned to more populist form with Bread.

Firmly set in Thatcher's Britain, the show owed more than a little to Boys from the Blackstuff in its depiction of DHSS culture - although unlike Yosser and co in that series, the Boswells ran rings around the state.

Jean Boht as Nellie

They were a larger-than-life Catholic clan living in Liverpool, governed by Nellie (a defining role for Jean Boht), the armour-plated matriarch who keeps her grown-up children on taut apron strings. Deserted by layabout husband Freddie, she's fashioned the family into a tight unit, who deposit wads of cash into the family's housekeeping funds each night thanks to a series of dodges and scams.

Joey is the eldest, and, in the absence of their dad, the family's patriarch. A 1980s epitome of cool, with big hair and a leather jacket, he acknowledges people with "greetings", and drives to the dole office in a Jag.

Then there's Jack, a hard-working wheeler-dealer; Adrian, an overly sensitive would-be poet; and Billy, the baby of the group. 

However, most precious to Ma Boswell is Aveline. The would-be model is the only girl in the family, and thus cosseted from the big bad world.

Next door lives Grandad, a scruffy, cantankerous old man, who accepts meals brought round to him with little thanks. Point of interest: it's never made clear if he's actually Nellie or Freddie's father.

Aveline and Adrian

Although Bread was clearly intentioned as optimistic salute to the resourcefulness of Liverpudlians on the dole-line, and the invincibility of the family unit, not everyone took it in good stead.

"[It] reinforces the cultural stereotype of the inhabitants of that self-destructive city as a bunch of spongers abusing the welfare state," snorted the Times, previewing the first series.

Nevertheless, the show quickly became a hit, thanks to its killer catchphrases ("She is a tart!") and soap opera-style storylines. When Aveline married Protestant Vicar Oswald in 1988, more than 21 million viewers tune in.

That same year also featured a memorable cameo by Lane's real-life chums, Paul and Linda McCartney. "Your husband - got a job has he?", Nellie asked Linda.

When the show returned for its fifth series, both Gilly Coman and Peter Howitt had gone. Lane had already written five episodes of the series at the point Howitt decided to quit, and so there was no option but to recast the role of Joey. Thus, in came Graham Bickley, who never quite convinced in the role, although Melanie Hill did make a good fist of playing Aveline.

Rocked by the changes, Bread continued for another two years, but never quite recaptured its popularity. It finished in 1991, and remains the last of Lane's creations to survive for more than one series.

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