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24 September 2014

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Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

David Jacobs and Michael Crawford

"Ooh Betty, the cat's done a woopsie on the floor".

That single phrase, repeated across the country throughout the 1970s by impressionists dressed in dark beret and raincoat, probably did more to harm the reputation of one of the decade's most successful sitcoms than the arrival of punk and alternative comedy ever could.

Written by Raymond Allen, Some Mothers was the story of Frank Spencer, the well-meaning, ineffectual and utterly accident-prone mummy's boy of the title.

Endowed by star Michael Crawford with an effete manner, a nervous laugh and a desperate need to please, Frank was the sweetest walking disaster area you could ever want to meet.

Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer

Though the BBC had wanted Norman Wisdom or Ronnie Barker for the role, Crawford was the perfect choice, combining an air of innocence with the youth and athleticism necessary to perform some of the biggest and most dangerous stunts British comedy would ever see.

He and Allen also improvised many of Frank's mannerisms, from the bug-eyed smile that causes a shop assistant to leap back in horror (incidentally destroying a window display) early in the very first episode to the dreaded "Ooh Betty" catchphrase that was to become lodged in Britain's collective psyche.

The show's storylines amounted to little more than set-ups for a series of increasingly spectacular stunts.  Many episodes begin with Frank at home with long-suffering wife, Betty. 

Ably played by Michelle Dotrice, Betty's deep love for her husband was never quite enough to cover the constant anxiety she (like anyone else) felt in his presence, leading many of her lines to begin with a high-pitched "Ohhhhh Fraaaa-aaank".

From this domestic bliss Frank would be catapulted into the world of disaster by the search for a new job, the need to pass a driving test, a sudden enthusiasm for DIY or even, on one occasion, an RAF reunion.

Betty and Frank Spencer

The stunts these set-ups led to rivalled anything from Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  Among the most memorable were an audition to be a holiday camp "bluecoat" that ended with a life-threatening human fireworks display, a daytrip that culminated in Frank hanging from the exhaust of his little Morris Minor as it teetered on a cliff edge and an extended roller-skate ride that saw our hero crashing through doors, smashing through shops and even skating under a passing lorry.

Some Mothers ran for only 22 episodes over three series from 1973.  By the end of series two Frank had become the doting father of baby Jessica. 

Apart from two Christmas specials, the show then had a long gap to its final series in 1978 while Crawford went off to pursue other projects.

In his last outing, Frank the dad was a noticeably more self-confident and rather less sympathetic character than before; given to pompous turns of phrase and frequent malapropisms ("I was ejaculated from my home").

The times had also changed and Frank's physical comedy was beginning to seem old-fashioned.  And then there were all those dreadful impressions.

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