It’s been branded sexist… but the women always came out on top

On August 15, 1973, I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am) by Gary Glitter topped the Hit Parade, England and Stoke City goalkeeper Gordon Banks announced his retirement following a road traffic accident, a pint of bitter in the local would set you back 14p… and the first episode of ITV sitcom Man About The House was aired.

It proved hugely popular from the off – even if the premise was faintly shocking.

A young man sharing a flat with two young ladies?

Good heavens! Whatever next?

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“It seems incredible now to think that quite a few people in the 1970s still thought that way – I mean, nothing is off limits today,” says actress Paula Wilcox, who played Chrissy Plummer, one of the “young ladies”.

“But 50 years ago, it was very different. Man About The House reflected the flat-sharing that was beginning to happen in many young people’s lives back then.

“This phenomenon was what so many sitcoms of the era were based on, though. What was used as the background setting or the situation? Comedy writers would take something that was changing in society and write a sitcom about it.”

Often hailed as the show that introduced sex to British TV, the Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer-penned show was a ratings winner with all ages.

Young people could relate to fashionable Chrissy and her equally trendy flatmates Jo and Robin (played respectively by former child actors Sally Thomsett and Richard O’Sullivan).

While older viewers loved sharp-tongued, sex-starved landlady Mildred Roper (played by Yootha Joyce) and her hen-pecked husband George (Brian Murphy).

“Sex was the problem we had,” Cooke recalled. “Because the powers that be at Thames said: ‘This is about sex, isn’t it?’ and we said: ‘No, no, it’s about flat-sharing.’ They said the man must be sleeping with at least one of the women and we said, ‘No, he might want to but he never does’.”

To the modern viewer, however, elements of Man About The House, while funny, could easily be construed as sexist and homophobic.

Not that its star necessarily agrees.

“I feel it stands up very well,” argues Paula. “I think so, anyway. I’m proud of it. There isn’t really anything in the show that is offensive – not in my opinion, anyway. It’s all very tongue in cheek and was also very much of its time.

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“That’s what we have to remember. It was the mid-70s and reflected what life was like then. Man About The House was funny, entertaining and instead of tackling big, serious issues, it focused on the daft little things and misunderstandings that happened between the characters. With regards to the issue of sexism, well, the women in the show were much sharper and funnier than the rather weak male characters. It was always Robin and George Roper who came off worse. Chrissy, Mildred and also Jo gave as good as they got, didn’t pull any punches, had the best lines and the last laugh.

“Whenever, for instance, Chrissy felt Robin had overstepped the mark or was trying it on, she’d outwit him with great class. The women certainly weren’t victims who felt threatened by the men – even though the men were, by today’s standards, sexist at times. Anything but, in fact.”

PaulA believes Man About The House reflected its time, and should be seen as such, not viewed through the modern prism that finds everything offensive.

“It’s always good to see strong female characters on TV,” she says rather diplomatically. “Man About The House was very much of its time and reflected what life was like then. It couldn’t be made today because there’s nothing in the least bit shocking about people of both sexes sharing a flat.

“We all tend to look back at the time when we were young and think how great it was. Was life better then? I don’t know. It was certainly a lot less complicated. There was no social media, of course, and we weren’t constantly bombarded with bad news and didn’t instantly know what awful things were happening in the world. Life was simpler and so I think people were maybe more content.”

The Manchester-born actress, now 73, certainly has happy memories from the time.

“It was great fun filming in front of a live audience who were genuinely excited to be there and who gave us a real buzz when the cameras started rolling,” she continues.

“But my fondest memories are actually of the times away from filming – spending time with Sally and Richard. We made Man About The House at the Thames TV studio at Teddington Lock. We’d have lovely lunches at the pubs by the river, enjoy a drink together after work… that kind of thing.”

A still bubbly Sally, 73, above, appears with Paula in a new documentary marking 50 years since the show aired. Richard, 79, retired from showbusiness in 1996 and has been a resident at Brinsworth House, a retirement home for entertainers in Twickenham, since suffering a stroke in 2003. Yet talking today, it sounds like a great camaraderie grew up between the three fictional flatmates in the show Paula likens to a 1970s’ version of Friends.

“We became very close. We’ve kept in touch. We send Christmas cards and speak occasionally.”

Man About The House put Paula on the map as a TV actress, although she had appeared in another popular sitcom, namely The Lovers written by Jack Rosenthal and co-starring Richard Beckinsale.

The Lovers was my first job,” she recalls. “Again, it reflected what society was like at the time. My character Beryl was an old-fashioned kind of girl who wanted a ring on her finger before she became intimate with Geoffrey, Richard’s character.

“Meanwhile Geoffrey was desperate to join the permissive society of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and indulge in free love.”

But it was Man About The House, which ran for three years with six series and even a film spin-off, that she knows she will be remembered for.

When it ended in 1976, the show spawned George and Mildred – a sitcom about the Ropers, and Robin’s Nest, which saw Richard O’Sullivan’s Robin opening his own bistro.

Paula also landed her own show – Miss Jones and Son – about a single mother making a life with her young son. It ran for two series during 1977 and 1978.

She has barely stopped working since, starring as Pauline Johnson in the Sky One comedy drama Mount Pleasant for seven years.

Most recently, she has appeared as semi-regular character Elaine Jones in Coronation Street and returns to the soap from time to time.

“That suits me perfectly,” she says. “It wouldn’t suit me to be a regular character. I wouldn’t have time to do anything else.”

By “anything else”, Paula means spending time in the US with her husband, Nelson “Skip” Riddle, an American businessman and the eldest son of the composer, bandleader and arranger Nelson Riddle.

“There’s nothing on the cards work-wise at the moment but that doesn’t mean I’m looking to retire,” she smiles. “I still love what I do. It’s such fun.”

Today she is still recognised for playing Chrissy even though the show was first broadcast 50 years ago. And not just by the viewers who watched it in the 1970s.

“The show has been repeated over the years on various channels and I also get approached by younger people who watched in the 1980s and 90s. I get taxi drivers telling me they used to be in love with me.

“I say, ‘What do you mean, used to be?’ It’s lovely, though, and very flattering after all this time. Man About The House” was a lovely show and obviously very dear to people’s hearts.”

  • Man About The House: 50 Years Of Laughs is on Channel 5 at 9.30pm on Saturday

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