This week is slightly different as we are paying tribute to those sitcom characters that are ‘invisible’, by invisible what I mean is they are a key part of the show without ever actually being seen. Many sitcoms use this technique, possibly due to budget issues or as I like to think a method to bring more depth to an established character.
In this post, in turn, I will be looking at four sitcoms that feature ‘invisible’ characters, some more frequently than others and some that have a huge part in the sitcom as a whole.
Let’s begin with two of Margo Leadbetter’s allies in The Good Life. These are the twenty odd stone wife of the local Conservative agent, Mrs Dooms-Patterson and Miss Dolly Mountshaft an active force in Surbition. We usually hear of these people directly from Margo, moaning about their ideas not being as good as hers or from Jerry moaning that they are invading his home. Margo makes Miss Mountshaft out to be someone who is selfish and doesn’t really approve of Mrs Leadbetter’s ideas for the music society and their production of ‘The Sound of Music’. Margo often has to use bribery and persuasion to get her way when it comes to Miss Mountshaft, “Blackmail is such an ugly world, Miss Mountshaft.” This, like so many other elements of Margo’s character should make her unlikable but instead you can’t help but side with Margo and take her word that Dolly Mountshaft is a nightmare. A clear example of this is in the episode ‘I Talk to the Trees’, in which Margo is asked to return to the music society (having resigned after the atrocious production of ‘The Sound of Music’) and run for president by fellow members, hoping to oust Miss Mountshaft into the back row of the choir. Before we even see the scene with the election taking place we get the impression that Margo is more liked by members than the current president. When the election takes place at Margo’s home we can see that despite there being more people sat on the Miss Mounshaft side of the room Margo does receive the biggest applause and does touch on admiration for her predecessor.
What is a wonderful about this scene is we still don’t see Miss Mountshaft as she is “holidaying in Greece”. Her “mouthpiece” Mr Chipchase really sucks up to the invisible Dolly and is written up to be so irritating you instantly side with Margo, believing that Miss Mounshaft and her allies are just as bad as Margo says they are.
This can be seen with Mrs Dooms-Patterson too; she appears to batter any furniture she sits on, causing Jerry to moan endlessly whenever she has appeared to have visited the Leadbetter’s abode. We also learn from Tom and Barbara that she isn’t an elegant horse rider when they pay a visit to the stables.
So, the purpose of these invisible characters is to big Margo up. They make her look more stylish, intelligent, and likeable. They also provide the character with more punch lines at the expense of her allies who are never seen, rounding off Margo as a sitcom character.
Dressed to impress: Miss Mountshaft and Mrs Dooms-Pattersom make Margo look good
PC Reg Deadman’s adulterous wife, Minnie is never seen in Goodnight Sweetheart. This is primarily, in the first few series is to boost the laughs at Reg’s apparent lack of knowledge when it comes to sex. “Bloomin’ Welsh windbag, he’s been hanging round my Minnie and I think they have been doing more than discussing the price of his yard brooms.” While Reg always has his suspicions that his wife is playing away he is never sure, which not only has a heightened comedy effect, highlighting the fact that PC Deadman is not the brightest tool in the box but also elicits sympathy for the bumbling police officer.
His wife’s farcical antics not only make light of Reg’s intelligence, or lack of it, but come series three when Gary discovers that Reg is the father of bus conductress Margie’s son the audience and the few characters that know about this controversial situation for the time, are happy for him. And as the world and his wife are aware of Minnie’s antics they don’t condemn him, despite being a ‘respectable’ Police Constable . Cheating Minnie also, along with Margie’s abusive husband is the catalyst for hapless Reg to eventually find a happy family with Margie and their little boy.
PC Deadman: His wife’s antics give him humour and a happier future
The third example of how ‘invisible’ characters can play a key part in a sitcom comes from Keeping Up Appearances in the form of the apple of Hyacinth Bucket’s eye, her son Sheridan. We mainly learn about the Bucket’s only child from the one-sided phone calls he makes to his mum, demanding a huge sum of money to fund his latest phase that has tickled the fancy of he and ‘friend’ Tarquin. It often involves something over the top and extravagant like buying pure silk pyjamas or going on some trip to a far out country to ‘find oneself’ or to write poetry. Of course, the main joke here is that it is heavily hinted that Sheridan is gay due to taking a degree in needlework and his mother is too proud of his artistic approach to realise.
However, I personally think that this generates quite the opposite effect with Mrs Bucket. Most people see her as being so self obsessed that she is oblivious to the people around her and what they think of her. I would disagree. I think deep down she knows that Liz isn’t necessarily her best friend, and she is not really highly regarded in the community as many of her guests decline her invitation to a candle light supper, and she clearly knows about Sheridan’s situation. For example on several occasions Richard indicates that they need to chat about Sheridan and why he shows no interest in girls. His wife looks at him seriously for a split second and then quickly changes the subject to avoid the topic, hinting that deep down she knows he is gay and despite the joy of Sheridan “Just ringing his mummy” she knows he only calls her when he needs some cash as she is unable to say no to her son and heir.
Sheridan is also seen to be frequently used as a pawn in her game of social-climbing and impressing those higher up the social ladder than her. Whether it being an art exhibition, one of Emmet’s musical recitals or something someone has achieved, she never misses an opportunity to boast about his talents and how well he is doing at university. Which is actually a polytechnic which Hyacinth insists is “university standard”. This is another indication of Hyacinth’s insecurities as despite several pushes at using him to impress high standing people in the community like Mrs Councillor Nugent, it shows that Hyacinth is and always will be the working class girl in a middle class world.
It is worth touching on Mrs Bucket’s social rivals Mrs Barker-Finch and Lydia Hawksworth, even though they have both been briefly seen in the odd episode or two they never have a speaking part and pay a vital role in Hyacinth’s characteristics as she is convinced that both woman try to outdo her, Lydia with her new car and branding at one of Mrs Bucket’s candle light suppers that kiwi fruit is “so lower-middle class”, and Sonia Barker-Finch with her hyphenated name (“He was a Barker, she was a Finch, suddenly they are hyphenated”), getting a well-known builder’s merchant to come for a barbecue and of course getting burgled three times to Hyacinth’s none.
Neither women try to outdo Hyacinth but she is convinced that they are. Unlike with Mrs Dooms-Patterson and Miss Mountshaft in The Good Life, who make Margo appear more likeable, the one-sided rivalry Hyacinth sees to be in place just highlights her flaws and snobbery and makes her somewhat unlikable.
Mummy’s boy: Hyacinth dotes on Sheridan but does she know everything?
The final and perhaps most important example comes from Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em and is found in the form of Frank Spencer’s mother. Of course this one is a little different as she is the only deceased ‘invisible’ character on the list.
Frank’s mother is clearly his hero and apart from long-suffering wife Betty, was the only one that didn’t judge Frank on his incompetence and the fact he is accident prone. He often mentions his mother in most episodes and clearly her questionable words of wisdom have had a propounding effect on Mr Spencer who takes on board this advice, “My mother always said a trouble shared is trouble doubled.” Frank was an only child and brought up singled handed by Jessica after his father “disappeared”, so naturally he was very close to his mum.
We get the impression from Frank’s personal anecdotes about his childhood and from Betty’s mother that Mrs Spencer behaved in a similar way to Frank and is the reason he has turned out a little different to most people. For example his mother was told by a fortune-teller she was expecting a little girl and so she bought all girls clothes before Frank was born and instead of exchanging them for the first few months of his life he had to wear girl’s clothes. He also tells his psychiatrist that his mother entered him in a baby show but was disqualified as the pram was broke so he was “exhibited in the cat’s box.”
We also learn that she didn’t send him to school until he was ten and then it was during the holidays as she didn’t want him getting bullied so he was taught by the caretaker. Thus, illustrating the reason behind Frank’s trouble socialising with others as well as his intellectual trouble. In a strange way you really see that Mrs Spencer cared for her son and passed on the same displays of affection when Frank became a father to a little girl, who was named after his mother, Jessica. Showing again, how much his mother still means to him in a very poignant scene before she is born Frank confides in Betty how his mum would have loved to have been a grandmother and it clearly upsets him that she is not there enjoy that with the Spencers. For me I really feel that here we get a true insight into the real Frank, a trying but ultimately caring family man.
Frank is also quick to defend his dead mother’s memory from his aunt who claims she was ashamed of him but by hearing Frank’s tales and when, in the very first episode, Betty’s mother says: “His mother was always breaking things, just like Frank” we get the impression that isn’t true.
So by hearing stories of Frank’s unique upbringing the audience is given a vital clue as to the reason behind Frank’s adverse behaviour and child-like innocence.
Just like mum: it is indicated that Frank’s behaviour stems from his mother
While many sitcom fans feel that (particularly in the case of Keeping Up Appearances) that the ‘invisible’ characters should be seen, I don’t. There is a reason why there are never shown as they provide a key understanding into the characteristics of a main character and allow the audience to create their own vision of the character. I mean how disappointed would you be if you saw Sheridan Bucket and he wasn’t really as camp as they make out and that he was telling his mother all these tall tales about knitting and re-building Romania in a bid to make her proud and give him more money. Or what about if Margo Leadbetter’s allies weren’t as stuck up as she made out, would Margo be as unlikable as Hyacinth is when it comes to her ‘rivals’ in the world of social mobility?
What about those pesky unseen character’s that I haven’t mentioned like Nick Swainey’s mother in One Foot in the Grave, here we are often given an empty window where mother is, is she in bed or is she just a figment of the imagination of the Meldrew’s neighbour? We can have fun debating this. What about the outrageous Father Bingley in Father Ted? Here the writer gives the viewer an opportunity to let their imagine run wild, picturing this insane ‘dead looking’ priest, seriously could that really be shown on television? And what about Mrs Mainwaring in Dad’s Army? The audience is often teased into a possible glimpse of what the Captain’s wife is like and like with Keeping Up Appearance we get a glimpse into Mr Mainwaring’s somewhat domineering home life through the telephone calls he receives. These are often a comic offering thanks to Arthur Lowe’s wonderful, reluctant facial expressions on taking the call and they are made that bit funnier when the Captain can’t get a word in edgeways. Let’s not forget that egotistical, crude, intimidating big boss Joe Maplin in Hi-De-Hi! (the role was intended to be played by Bob Monkhouse but he was unavailable for filming), who we only see in statute form and through those sarcastic, poorly constructed letters to staff detailing how his holiday camp is to be run. Giving an insight to why the camp appears to be manically run at times.
One thing’s for sure, unseen characters can be just as important as onscreen characters when it comes to situation comedies as well as helping constructing and developing those characters we are lucky enough to actually see.