Friday, 19 June 2009

Shelley: The likeable layabout

Fran is standing at the bottom of her stairs. “Shelley!” she calls up to her husband, and the fourth series of the BAFTA-nominated ITV sitcom begins.

James Shelley ambles down the stairs in his pyjamas and joins his wife for a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Shelley’s a work-shy layabout, but clever with it. Despite his sporadic dalliances with full-time employment, we join him two years on from the first series (originally broadcast in 1979) seemingly still as lazy as ever.

The truth is James Shelley is enjoying his last day on the dole before starting a new job with the Foreign Office. He and Fran now have a daughter, baby Emma, and with a mortgage to pay the chance to hold down a permanent job couldn’t have come at a better time. Yet as viewers of Shelley were already aware after three series, the Life of Riley was never far around the corner for our eponymous hero.

Shelley has often been referred to as a quiet comedy, distanced somewhat from the faster pace of today’s sitcoms, but therein lies its appeal. The main focus is on Shelley himself, played brilliantly by Hywel Bennett (Pennies From Heaven, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Eastenders), and the frivolous thoughts bouncing around inside his head.

As the audience, we are given time to work out what it is that makes Shelley so happy, apart from his wife Fran (played by Belinda Sinclair) and in this series, their young daughter. Being able to loaf around and watch the world go by are undoubtedly high on his list, but coming a close second would be the opportunity to occasionally play mind games with people he sees as less intelligent than himself.

Fortunately for him, those opportunities come along frequently whenever his ex-landlady Edna Hawkins (Josephine Tewson) pops by to pay him and his wife a visit. Mrs. H, as she’s known, is a nosy parker with a heart of gold but sadly isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Though she’s worked out Shelley as being the bone idle slacker he obviously is, she often falls unwittingly for the flights of fancy he regularly reels off to brighten his otherwise dull day.

And it’s not just Mrs. H that feels the full force of Shelley’s sarcasm and vibrant imagination. More or less everyone he bumps fails to match his lofty insight on matters of pith and moment. Most memorably, it’s his run-ins with the staff at the Social Security Office that provide the most spiky exchanges, both sides reserving as much vitriol for each other as they can muster.

In Series 4, however, Shelley finds himself with a lot on his plate. Fatherhood quickly proves that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there are bills to be paid and worse still the whole planet is walking a nuclear tightrope thanks to Reagan and Brezhnev not seeing eye to eye. Will Shelley cope? Is he capable of taking on so much responsibility at such a young age? The answer, of course, is yes – albeit on his own terms.

Shelley’s journey through life is always a joy to watch, thanks largely to the writing of people like Bernard McKenna, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, not to mention the acting of such a small but talented cast. At times the level of cynicism and acid wit delivered by the lead character are so well-honed that it's hard not to compare him with Basil Fawlty, and that's a high accolade indeed.

While some point all too easily at the lack of decent ITV sitcoms down the years, Shelley is invariably overlooked – unfairly so in many ways. Peter Tilbury’s creation graced our screens until 1992 and rarely showed a drop in standards throughout the entire thirteen years of its life, which begs the question “Why have none of the satellite channels snapped it up before now?”

Short of finding the answer, we should perhaps be grateful that we can at least rediscover this forgotten gem on DVD, and for my money it’s well worth hunting down. Shelley is without question an excellent comedy series and deserves every bit of the popularity it gained almost thirty years ago.

Shelley (Series 4) is available to buy from Network DVD from Monday 22 June 2009, priced £10.75.

(Photos courtesy of Network DVD.)


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