Dudley Rush is an eccentric cartoonist who hates working and is constantly missing deadlines. His long-suffering but adoring wife Muriel is used to his foibles and his penchant for practical jokes, which he most often takes out on his stoical agent Duncan, who’s always pressuring him to turn in his cartoon strip for Barney – The Bionic Bulldog which he loathes spending time on. Dudley is also a doting if overbearing father to two teenage daughters, Jacqui and Susan, who live partially-independent lives in a flat beneath the main house. They keep their father on his toes with a string of unsuitable romances and rites-of-passage for him to disapprove of and worry about.
That’s the set-up for Keep It In The Family, an enormously popular sitcom from the early 1980s and a rarity in that it’s one of only a handful of ITV’s genuinely funny successes (Rising Damp being another notable exception). Robert Gillespie plays head of the household Dudley, and it’s partly his performance that makes the sitcom so memorable. Dudley’s flights-of-fancy and mild-mannered charm play to Gillespie’s strengths; which can perhaps be expected given that Brian Cooke wrote the part with him in mind. Most of the action takes place inside the Rush household, either upstairs in Dudley and Muriel’s home, or in the girls’ flat beneath. Duncan has his own office, but apart from a brief foray here and there (and very little location filming), it’s as much of the outside world as we see.
A lot of the humour and comic situations derive from Dudley’s lively mind. He constantly makes up stories, especially at the expense of Duncan, who must be the most patient agent in existence. In the first episode, Phoney Business, Dudley has injured his ankle whilst dancing. Recovering in bed, he’s missed another deadline but is too bored to work. Can he put Duncan off the idea of calling round? In Home Is Where the Heat Is, Dudley convinces Duncan that they should impersonate police detectives in a vain attempt to recover his daughter’s stolen handbag. When the real police turn up, Dudley leaves Duncan to do the explaining. One of the funniest scenes of the series is when Dudley gate-crashes Duncan’s table at a Chinese restaurant then secretly improvises a story to Duncan’s date that he’s his psychiatrist, and that Duncan has had issues since falling in love with a duck. All these unwelcome scenarios Duncan bears with stoicism and dignity, and Glyn Houston, who allows his Welsh accent to come to the fore, is an excellent straight man to Gillespie’s impish Dudley.
Cooke’s imaginative writing conjures different scenarios for Dudley. He tries to persuade Susan from drinking by getting hopelessly drunk with her so that she’ll regret it the next morning. Needless to say, the plan backfires, but allows Gillespie to play both roaring drunk and hung over in the space of a few minutes of screen time. He’s even more neurotic than usual when he gives up smoking, satisfying himself instead with blowing bubbles through a pipe, and he sets himself up for an ugly scene with a randy brush salesman when he misconstrues the nature of his visit to his daughters’ flat. Probably the finest episode of the second series is Takeaway Sunday, in which the best laid plans for a barbeque come to naught when rain stops play and nobody brings anything but salad to the table. Dudley drives to the local Chinese restaurant to pick up a takeaway (cue a cameo by Burt Kwouk) and disrupts the horrified Duncan’s date. As usual, things go disastrously wrong and Dudley ends up being arrested twice in that episode.
Some aspects of Keep It In The Family have inevitably dated, especially Dudley’s attitudes towards his daughters’ boyfriends, which don’t now solely seem overprotective and prudish, but uncomfortably bigoted when throwing out a young black man and disapproving of another he suspects may be homosexual. This doesn’t leave too bad a taste in the mouth as Keep It In The Family has to be viewed in the context of the time, and because Dudley, whilst a much more likable character than Rising Damp’s Rigsby, is, like him, invariably the target of the humour in these instances, and the audience is invited to condemn or find amusing his yearning to smother his daughters’ independence, and he invariably emerges looking foolish.
The style of performance, which was the norm thirty years ago, now feels theatrical to a modern audience used to having the idea constantly reinforced that there’s only merit in absolute naturalism. It ought to go without saying that of course people wouldn’t act and speak like the characters in the show, but unfortunately older television and film constantly needs defending on this point. Robert Gillespie is adept at physical comedy, and is a naturally warm and likeable performer anyway, so it’s not at all hard to believe in and care for Dudley Rush. The energy he gives to the part, and his strong suits of self-deprecation and sarcasm make him a constant joy to watch.
Dudley’s wife is played by Pauline Yates, who had some years earlier also been Reggie Perrin’s wife in The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin. I always found her slightly off-key in that series, but here she is infinitely better-suited to bouncing off Gillespie than she ever was Rossiter. In some respects her part is a bit thankless. It was still the era where middle-aged women played domestic-goddess housewives where some concession to women’s lib was made in their daughters’ ineptitude in culinary matters and responsibility for the home. Brian Cooke does at least give Yates some cracking one-liners and a nice line in surreal asides that flesh out her character and make her more than just a foil for Gillespie. Slightly less-successful are the daughters, played by Jenny Quayle and Stacey Dorning, but this is perhaps because they are less interesting characters, and the strongest episodes always involve Dudley, Muriel and Duncan. The scenes between the daughters feel the most artificial and unengaging in the series, as neither of them are strong enough characters in their own rights to deserve prolonged focus.
The merits of a sitcom ultimately rests on whether or not it’s funny – a notoriously subjective judgement call. Keep It In The Family is well-written with some strong characters and scenarios, and the inventive mind of Brian Cooke and the brilliantly funny central performance of Robert Gillespie ensure that it is rightly fondly-remembered; and revisiting it three decades on is a real pleasure. The Rush household is a quirky, gentle and good-natured world.