London Weekend Television’s school-based comedy series Please Sir! was originally broadcast through the ITV network in 1968 and is generally considered to hold a firm place in the distinguished ranks of the greatest British sitcoms. The top rated series written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey has enjoyed several reruns in recent years on Satellite Television.
50 years on, the Welsh actor and writer David Barry, (still remembered as mummy’s boy Frankie Abbott) has written a memoir of his time on the series. Please Sir! The Official History, has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd.
In the second part of an interview with Entertainment South Wales, David recalls the spin-off series The Fenn Street Gang as well as working on the Please Sir! film with Andy Howells.
It must have been quite something to have a spin-off series after Please Sir! with The Fenn Street Gang?
It was! We did many more episodes of Fenn Street Gang. It was 6 months work of 21 episodes and then the following series was 18 episodes and finally because there was only four of us left as Liz Gebhardt (Maureen) was already heavily pregnant and Peter Denyer had signed up to do a summer season.
There’s also a cutting in Please Sir! The Official History of a Top 20 TV listing from 1970 of which Please Sir! is at the top of the ratings above Coronation Street. The series is also in good company in the Top 10 with other comedy classics such as Steptoe & Son and Dad’s Army.
That’s right! I put up on social media just recently a Top 20 that featured The Fenn Street Gang and the joint three number ones were For The Love of Ada, The Persuaders and The Fenn Street Gang. I was in great company with Barbara Mitchell, Roger Moore and Tony Curtis.
Barbara Mitchell starred in For The Love of Ada but also played your Mum in Please Sir! and The Fenn Street Gang. What was she like to work with?
She was brilliant. The difficult part working with Barbara was trying to keep a straight face. She was so funny.
Please Sir! was also adapted into a film. That must have had some appeal for yourself recalling your earlier days as a film buff.
Yes, you are not under so much pressure with filming. Television is a bit like theatre but with all the drawbacks of technicalities. You must only move one pace, or you can’t lean two far in one direction or you’ll throw a shadow on someone’s face. You’re still almost doing it live as a theatre piece. Filming is a bit more relaxed because you can rehearse while a cinematographer is lighting a scene.
How much of yourself did you put into Frankie Abbott and were you influenced by the film Billy Liar at all?
Yes, I can remember Billy Liar the film with Tom Courtenay. I really related to that, so I think I did bring elements of that into it and of course it was all to do with the writing.
I always say actors are only as good as their writers and John Esmonde and Bob Larbey wrote some brilliant lines. I was a great fan of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart too, so there was an element of that in it as well.
You must been the pupil that got the most frequent slaps across the back of the head from the teacher Bernard Hedges as played by John Alderton?
Yes (Laughs!) That was John’s improvisation, he enjoyed doing it!
I did wonder after reading the opening chapter of the Please Sir! – The Official History if it had anything to do with your comments on John’s jacket when you first went into studio.
Maybe! We were constantly winding each other up and playing pranks as you’ll see when you get further into the book.
Even though John Alderton was given top billing, you were all stars in your own right, weren’t you?
I guess we were really and if you analyse it, we (the pupils of 5C) had the funny lines and John was our feed. I would do something, and he’d say “Abbott, don’t do that!” Then I’d come back with the laugh line and the camera would cut to a reaction shot of John, so it would look like he was getting the laugh. It was always his reaction!
Do you have a favourite memory of Please Sir!?
I think my favourite scene was from the film with my mother in the kitchen. I’m attempting to squirt the budgerigar with a bottle of washing up liquid. She says, “Don’t do that Duck, you know Dickie, don’t like it!” It took several takes because I couldn’t do it without laughing.
I also liked an episode of The Fenn Street Gang when Abbot goes in the army. Tony Selby as the corporal was brilliant and Colin Farrell – not the film star – was the Commanding officer. Barbara Mitchell (as Mum) came into the camp hut saying “You must make sure my little soldier does his dump-dumps every evening” with Abbott getting terribly embarrassed.
Tony Selby went on to play the Corporal in Get Some In
Esmonde and Larbey wrote that and that’s where they got the idea from the episode we did.
You also worked with Christopher Timothy, who later found fame as James Herriot in All Creatures Great & Small.
That’s right, He directed Peter Cleall, Malcolm McFee and me in the theatre for The Lads From Fenn Street. It was mainly written by myself and Ian Talbot but Chris wrote a sketch sending himself up as he did television adverts for The Sun newspaper which Malcolm played.
Your career developed further into writing after Please Sir! and The Fenn Street Gang as you wrote some episodes of Keep It In the Family?
Yes, Robert Gillespie was enduringly eccentric really and Glyn Houston, I loved writing for, played his long-suffering boss.
Did you find been in a series such as Please Sir! typecast you?
In theatre, I wasn’t typecast. I think there was an element of that in cinema and TV because not long after that I played a leading role in the George and Mildred film. The character was called Elvis but was just Frankie by another name really.
What do you think is the most enduring appeal of Please Sir!?
I think because all the characters were very well defined. Everybody, whether you went to a state or Private school, you knew kids or staff like that. You could relate to them and laugh at them. There’s a lot of schoolteachers say “Oh no, your series! I wish it had never been on because we get terrible stick now!”
Thankyou David for taking time to speak to me and also to yourself and the cast for giving so much pleasure and laughter over the years.
Well, we enjoyed doing it and its great if you get paid for doing something you enjoy!