Writer Eric Chappell had already tasted great success by the time he teamed up with Jean Warr in the 1980s, most notably with Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh. In 1984, ITV released two comedies from the new pairing. Duty Free found its audience immediately and was a runaway success with viewers. The pilot episode for the other would have to wait another four years before being unleashed in a series of its own – Singles would run for three series, losing its main man after two, but offering a unique opportunity for his replacement.
It is no great surprise with a title like Singles that Chappell and Warr’s programme was about the single life. It focussed on four characters in various levels of frustration with the single life and how their lives would intertwine. But these are not early life single people – they are ones who have been on the merry-go-round and been thrown off at speed.
Best friends Pam and Jackie debate going to a club. Pam (Judy Loe) is uninspired by the thought of returning to the dating world after her marriage break-up. Jackie (Susie Blake) is keen to get dating, but convincing her friend to leave the house is proving tricky. Not only does Pam mistrust men (she sees them as cranks, weirdos and freaks), she still fears her husband’s trickery – most recently protecting her home’s carpet, which her husband is claiming to want for sentimental reasons as he moves on with his life and a new partner.
Already at the club in question are Clive and Malcolm. Clive (Eamon Boland) is a troubled soul, still picking up the pieces after the departure of his wife. His initial reaction of turning to the bottle and lying in the road weeping is seemingly unhelpful in moving on. Malcolm (Roger Rees) meanwhile is a more slippery fish altogether. He is exactly the person Pam despises. Superficial, armed to the teeth with cheesy chat up lines and happy to lie through his teeth to get anywhere with the object of his affections.
Initial impressions when they meet are as expected. Clive is a broken man, but Malcolm quickly invents a backstory to promote his friend’s chances. Clive is not altogether onboard and rather than make heady with Jackie, instead starts showing pictures of his children.
Meanwhile Pam is left with the one she calls the Octopus. She is unimpressed by his slick manner and seedy stories, so quickly tells him that she is a policewoman in order to ensure he feels uncomfortable. Such is the misery of their first meeting for her that she exits through the fire escape, but by the time she returns home she establishes that her ex-husband has returned and taken the carpet in her absence.
The pattern of the first two series is consistent – Rees gives a fine performance of the yuppie kind of 1980s man – all the flash and lingo with little of the substance, but Pam can’t help but gradually become enamoured with him, while Clive and Jackie perform the able roles of supportive friends. It all leads (spoiler alert!) to a decision to marry at the end of series two, but fate had other plans for both the characters and the actors.
Series three presented a serious problem for the team behind Singles. Roger Rees had headed off to the States to guest star in Cheers opposite Kirstie Alley as Rebecca Howe’s love interest, millionaire playboy Robin Colcord. Such was the success of the role that Colcord became a recurring character in the show, meaning Rees was tied up overseas. More than two years went by before Singles reappeared on ITV…but what to do without its leading man.
Unusually, after the two year break and the loss of Rees from the cast, the writers decided to just pick up exactly where they left off – at the registry office, Pam waiting with Jackie for her fiancé. Perhaps in keeping with the whole ethos of the show, Malcolm never arrives. Malcolm has insisted on secrecy for the wedding, so while Pam is waiting, she looks for a witness to go alongside Jackie. There is really only one option – the skittish stranger dressed more for a dubious drop off in a darkened car park than for what he is really there for…his own wedding, a fourth so far.
That mysterious stranger is Dennis Duval. Duval is the ultimate egotist. He is a failed actor who has created and believed his own hype, but actually achieved very little in his acting career, as evidenced by the fact that nobody knows who he is. His mysterious get-up is to hide from the press who, in his mind at least, will inevitably be hounding the former soap ‘star’ as he ties the knot for a fourth occasion.
For Duval, the series introduced a new side to Simon Cadell, known to most as Jeffrey Fairbrother in Hi-de-hi! Here however, Cadell is unleashed. As it becomes clear that both are to be stood up, the pair manage to stay intertwined, despite Duval being another man displaying all the character flaws that Pam despises. Duval is the classic egomaniac – seeming to try everything to avoid publicity, but then frustrated when he gets none. For Cadell it was the chance to send up his whole profession and it is arguably his most freeing role television got to see as he hams it up in a number of deceptions, such as retired one-eyed military personnel and dodgy East-end car salesman.
Despite the change in leading man, Singles never moved on to a fourth series, which is a shame because for all the conflict and somewhat dispiriting depiction of the single life, it carried a lot of good comedy and fine performances. For Rees it was perhaps his most successful comedic turn before he settled into American comedy, and Cadell loved the role of Duval, saying of his role at the time, ‘Duval is vain, egotistical, flamboyant, pompous actor and I shall have a lot of fun at my own and others’ expense.’
He certainly did, as did the viewers with all three series of Singles, and it would be a worthy return if and when it makes a return to one of the nostalgia channels.
Review: Brian Slade
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on May 7th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.