Having recently read and enjoyed Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle I was eager to watch the DVD of the 1972 BBC series of the book, especially as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson, most famous (in the UK) for writing Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, two of my favourite comedies. The BBC series of Clochemerle was originally screened in 1972 and consisted of nine half-hour episodes each narrated by Peter Ustinov. The casting was excellent and Galton & Simpson did a brilliant job of adapting Clochemerle as they remained incredibly faithful to the original. Of course they had to prune some parts and try to summarise others but they refrained from inventing too much themselves and settled with re-arranging the original material to fit it into a nine-part series.
I was impressed, for example, with how they arranged the opening episode; in the book Chevallier had the mayor Piéchut and the schoolteacher Tafardel discussing the proposed urinal in the first chapter and then the next two chapters are spent introducing some of the other characters; whereas Galton and Simpson introduce all the characters while Piéchut and Tafardel are walking round the village. Although Chevallier’s writing was excellent and very amusing the structure of it was a bit clunky, especially the beginning and ending of the novel. Galton and Simpson smoothed out some of the longueurs and made it a more homogeneous work. I was also pleased that they managed to avoid turning it into a Carry On film, which is what, I fear, a lot of writers would have done at the time. I was also glad that they didn’t adapt it as a musical which, according to some notes on the DVD, was their initial plan—they may have been joking though, I’m not too sure.
Even though I had only recently read the book, I wasn’t always too sure whether a certain part was in the book or whether Galton and Simpson had created it. There was one scene that I liked in the series where the file on Clochemerle was passed down the ranks from first minister to second minister to chief clerk to secretary and so on until it finally arrives in the Dickensian office of two lugubrious employees who make any awkward decision by throwing darts at a dartboard—nearest the bull wins. Now, I couldn’t remember this in the book, but sure enough it’s there, they play cards to decide, not darts, but it’s there. They’re more comical in the series, appearing more like the Muppet Show’s Waldorf & Statler and more like Dostoyevskian characters in the book, but I loved Galton & Simpson’s interpretation. In the book the two characters are called Petitbidois and Couzinet and the description of Petitbidois is so good I can’t resist including it here:
He was regarded merely as an eccentric employee of indifferent merit, and his post of deputy chief clerk was the highest he would ever reach. Well aware of this, he made it a rule never to show any zeal, except in special circumstances. It is true that in these cases his zeal was clothed with a spirit of vengeance directed against the whole human race—this being his second favourite occupation. Petitbidois would have liked to hold the reins of power. This being beyond his sphere, he utilized the small driblets of authority which came his way for the purpose of casting ridicule upon established law and order, by making it act as a sort of unintelligent and, if possible, malicious Providence. ‘The world is an idiot place anyway,’ he would say, ‘so why worry? Life is just a lottery. Let us leave the decision to chance.’
Anyway, read the book or watch the DVD, or maybe do both. If you’re still interested here’s a slideshow to whet your appetite.
Starring: Peter Ustinov (narrator), Cyril Cusack (Mayor Piéchut), Roy Dotrice (Curé Ponosse), Wendy Hiller (Justine Putet), Kenneth Griffith (Tafardel), Catherine Rouvel (Judith Toumignon), Cyd Hayman (Adèle Torbayon), Micheline Presle (Baronesse Courtebiche), James Wardroper (Claudius Brodequin), Bernard Bresslaw (Nicholas), Nigel Green (Captain Tardinaux), Dennis Price (Alexis Luvelat).