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O Happy Band!
Why mixing brass bands and political satire may never be a success

A prime time television series about aviation expansion, big business interests, venal politicians, bureaucracy and a brass band. A recipe for a biting modern day political satire or a terrible 1980s sit-com...?

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Harry Worth and his Happy Band...

If Armando Iannucci was thinking of producing a new satirical television series based on a battle between a small rural English village and the powers of big business to stop the building of a multi-billion pound international airport obliterating their green and pleasant land, you would have thought he had just come up with a sure-fire ratings idea.

Just think of it. 

Boris Johnson

The man who 'The Daily Telegraph' once described as ‘the hardman of political satire’- the genius who brought to our screens ‘Alan Partridge’ and ‘The Thick of It’, parodying the all too real ‘Heathrow Third Runway’ shenanigans of commercial self-interest, bureaucracy and the venal political ambitions of characters who closely remind you of Boris “I will lie down in front of the bulldozers” Johnson.

The man who The Daily Telegraph once described as ‘the hardman of political satire’- the genius who brought to our screens ‘Alan Partridge’ and ‘The Thick of It’, parodying the all too real ‘Heathrow Third Runway’ shenanigans of commercial self interest, bureaucracy and the venal political ambitions of characters who closely remind you of Boris “I will lie down in front of the bulldozers” Johnson.

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Airport expansion was ripe of satire even in the 1980s...

All that would be needed to make it a roaring success would be to put a brass band in it.

However, someone has already come up with the idea on the BBC nearly 40 years ago… and it was terrible.

Airport expansion

‘O Happy Band!’ was such a series - starring the comedian Harry Worth as the conductor of the Nettlebridge Band in a small rural northern village, whose very existence is threatened by the imminent building of a brand new international airport.

Amazingly, it was written by scriptwriters David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, who between them already had CVs packed with 1970s television classic sit-coms such as ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, ‘Hi-de-Hi!’ and ‘Are You Being Served’.

And although television political satire in 1980 was rather non-existent (‘Yes Minister’ had just started, although ‘Spitting Image’ wasn’t to hit the screens until 1984) - the future expansion of Heathrow had already been a major news story for two decades or more by the time the first episode hit the screens in September that year.

O Happy Band!

However, ‘O Happy Band!’ was so bad that after just six episodes it was axed and has never been broadcast since.

And although television political satire in 1980 was rather non-existent (‘Yes Minister’ had just started, although ‘Spitting Image’ wasn’t to hit the screens until 1984) - the future expansion of Heathrow had already been a major news story for two decades or more by the time the first episode hit the screens in September that year.

Harry Worth

The central character was played by Harry Worth, a much loved comedy actor who had played himself in a genial, rather confused sort of way on British television for the best part of 25 years. 

At a time when a great deal of sit-com humour still contained homophobic, racist and sexist content – his was an everyman ‘magnet of calamity’ style that people sympathised with.

Today he is perhaps best known for his comedy sketch-show ‘Here’s Harry’ from the 1960s which featured an opening sequence which showed him performing an optical illusion trick using the corner of a shop window. 

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Doing a Harry Worth...

Doing a ‘Harry Worth’ (and every wannabe comedian in school would try it) made you look as if you were levitating with both legs in the air.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f189hOfyYSY

Dad's Army

Much like ‘Dad’s Army’, the casting of ‘O Happy Band!’ (as well as the stage sets) rather mirrored that of Capt Mainwaring and his Home Guard Unit of Walmington on Sea. 

Worth played the conductor, Mr Beddington - a small, slightly bumptious ineffectual leader of men (and in 1980, the band, made up of members of Aldershot Brass Ensemble, were all men).

They also provided the theme tune (below) and had already notched up some experience of working on the BBC in appearing in one of the famous musical routines with the ‘Two Ronnies’.   

O Happy Band! theme tune
https://www.britishclassiccomedy.co.uk/oh-happy-band-1980

Comedy foil

Worth’s upper-class ally/comedic foil was the principal cornet player Mr Braithwaite, who lived in the local manor house and was the owner of the land on which the airport was going to be built against his wishes. 

Around them came the ensemble of stereotypical characters in the form of the rather effeminate Band Secretary Mr Herbert, the country bumpkin trombonist, Mr Sowerby, and the hapless percussionist Mr Giles, who finished playing half a second after everyone else (and who from ‘Dad’s Army’ does that remind you of…)

There was a vicar (who happened to be the same bloke who played ‘Young Mr Grace’ in ‘Are You Being Served’) and minor character parts for women – including the obligatory posh do-gooder, a couple of determined ‘battle-axes’ and 1970s leggy blond.

There was a vicar (who happened to be the same bloke who played ‘Young Mr Grace’ in ‘Are You Being Served’) and minor character parts for women – including the obligatory posh do-gooder, a couple of determined ‘battle-axes’ and 1970s leggy blond.

Threadbare

The storyline of each episode developed at rehearsal as well as around the table in the adjoining committee room (mirroring ‘Dad’s Army’ and many years later, ‘The Vicar of Dibley’), with occasional outside shots in the village.    

However, unlike ‘Dad’s Army’, (although the band always rehearsed in full uniform) the inspiration behind the six 30-minute episodes soon became rather threadbare.

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The programme was scripted by two of Britain's finest comedy writers

At first Harry finds himself charged with leading the fight against the Aviation Ministry to build the airport – one that will obliterate the village. 

It’s followed though by increasingly strained plot lines that include of the finding of Roman remains, the band deciding to record a protest record to be played on the radio, the discovery of a Holy Well, an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records, and finally, a ruse to deceive the Aviation Ministry that Mr Braithwaite’s house has been sold to an Arab millionaire.

Final episode

That final episode, ‘Diplomatic Privilege’ perhaps sums up the reason why even the BBC Comedy Guide described it thus: “Considering the usual dependability of the major protagonists here, it is fair to say that Oh Happy Band! was flat rather than sharp, however.”

Seen today it’s rather excruciating.  Jokes about ‘A – rabs’ and old men in young girls changing rooms – although there is the occasional gem in the series such as the trombonist at one point playing a pneumatic road drill in the ‘William Tell’ overture.   

And as for the response about the series from the brass band world?

Literally nothing.  

Not much credit

British Bandsman newspaper didn’t feature a single letter in praise or condemnation, whilst a week before it first aired the ‘British Mouthpiece’ told its readers that; “…a player who took part assures our reporter that the actual situations do not try to make the band (Aldershot Brass Ensemble) take part, or make them look foolish, as some of the other shows using bands during the past year have not brought much credit to our movement.”

It appears they were almost right. 

Over to you then Mr Iannucci…

Iwan Fox


Further viewing:
 
Pilot episode and episode 2: Let Bygones be Bygones
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y32kHVar2_g

A Bird in the Bush:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7PCmhd8-Oo

A Song in the Air:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BZl7NiMb-A

End credits:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRykGc6kMjQ



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