Dorset

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em: Recalling cliff hanger scene

Cliff hanger scene
Image caption Michael Crawford and Michelle Dotrice filmed the scene on cliffs near Swanage

The hair-raising stunt on 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em, when Michael Crawford dangled hundreds of feet above the English Channel, is being remembered as part of a BBC radio documentary.

More than 15 million people tuned in for one of the classic series' most memorable episodes that sees the hapless Frank Spencer take wife Betty for a picnic on Dorset's Purbeck coast.

After being given the use of a Morris Minor car for his new job on a chicken farm, what could possibly go wrong?

Being Frank, of course, it is bound to go horrendously wrong - with the car somehow ending up see-sawing precariously on the cliff edge.

As they try to extricate themselves, Frank is soon hanging from the back bumper over the sheer limestone cliffs.

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Media captionStunt co-ordinator Stuart Fell tells the story of the hair-raising scene

In a series renowned for its heart-stopping stunts - all performed by Crawford himself - the Italian Job-esque scene stands out for the sheer peril involved.

Speaking on a BBC Radio Solent documentary about the series, stunt co-ordinator Stuart Fell, now retired, admitted it was "quite ambitious for the BBC" at the time.

"We had to dig a hole for two railway sleepers and then fasten the car with some hinges," he said.

Crawford was fitted with a harness under his jumper, while Mr Fell was dressed in a summer frock ready to double for actress Michelle Dotrice - in the end she did all the shots.

Mr Fell said: "Watch for when Michael appears to transfer his grip from the bumper to the exhaust pipe - it's not an exhaust pipe.

"We had to weld a huge great big metal pipe which was secure and able to move and look precarious as he held on to it."

It did not stop the coastguard receiving an influx of calls from passing ships reporting a car stuck on the cliff and someone hanging off the back.

Image caption More than 15 million people tuned in for the episode in which Frank and Betty go for a picnic

Michelle Dotrice recalled filming was "a bit hairy" as she crawled over the top of the teetering car, holding on to her co-star's ankles.

"We could see ships in the distance," she said. "I trusted Michael and I knew he wouldn't do anything unsafe. He always prepared everything to the n-th degree.

"I didn't feel under any pressure - it was fun, I loved doing it and got whipped up in the enthusiasm of Michael."

Despite the show's popularity, she remembered her mother not being as amused after watching it go out.

Image caption The coastguard received an influx of calls about a car stuck on the cliff

"My mother came over and slapped me - 'You stupid girl, how dare you do something so silly!' she said".

In his autobiography, Crawford described the stunt as "one of my all-time favourites".

"I had enormous trust in and respect for our wonderful team of stunt advisors. We were meticulous in how we rehearsed our stunts for the show.

"Success is all in the planning, the control and knowing how to hang on like grim death!"

It's alright Betty ... I might need a bit of help though ... I'm quite comfortable ... it's just that I can't move...

Frank Spencer
BBC

For writer Raymond Allen, from the Isle of Wight, how to get Frank and Betty out of their predicament also proved "a bit of a worry".

"When I got to the end of the script, I couldn't think of an ending," he said.

"Eventually I came up with a great idea of a coach turning up - which was a dieting group's annual day out - and all these really big women get out.

"But the BBC said 'Don't be ridiculous, you can't do that - it will upset people'."

In the end producer Michael Mills came up with the idea of passing rugby players - played by members of Swanage and Wareham RFC - pulling Frank off the cliff.

Image caption Such was the popularity of the episode, toy company Corgi brought out a model of the Morris Minor

"I always got a bit worried with the stunts - I preferred the dialogue - but it was the part of the show which got the most publicity," said Mr Allen.

Having one of TV's biggest stars hanging over a cliff or hanging on to a bus while on roller skates certainly pre-occupied Michael Mills.

Speaking on a 1978 documentary, he said: "The truth of the matter is that neither Michael nor I are really quite as stupid as we look and we wouldn't do things unless they were very, very carefully prepared and all the possible precautions were being taken.

"That's my job as the producer and that's his job as an actor - to make sure he doesn't do anything where he's going to kill himself."


Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

  • The BBC One Sitcom ran for 22 episodes over three series from 1973 - 1978
  • A repeated episode in 1979 attracted 20.4 million viewers
  • It followed the well-meaning, ineffectual and accident-prone Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford), his wife Betty (Michelle Dotrice) and their baby Jessica introduced at the end of the second series
  • It was writer Raymond Allen's first and only hit sitcom. He had been working at a local cinema while writing sketch material for the likes of Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd
  • Lines like "Ooh Betty" and "the cat's done a woopsie" were much mimicked by Frank Spencer impersonators for years afterwards
  • The show's ever more elaborate stunts became its trademark - with Michael Crawford going under a moving lorry at break-neck speed on roller skates or being ejected through a church roof
  • After the series ended, Crawford only reprised the character once - on an episode of Noel's House Party in 1998

Listen to BBC Radio Solent's Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em - A Celebration of a Comedy Classic on BBC iPlayer.

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