Actor and playwright Richard James gives a fascinating account of his adaptation of an original sitcom script written by Gerry Anderson and Ronnie Cass.
Gerry Anderson is well known for producing such television classics as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Space 1999 and UFO but, had things turned out differently, he would also be remembered for writing a sitcom. Gerry died in December, 2012. Amongst his family, he wasn’t known as a particularly sentimental man. He rarely kept anything from his illustrious career so it was something of a surprise for them to find, in a chest of other paraphernalia, a three page document entitled ‘Off The Fat Of The Land’. Written with Ronnie Cass (who also co-wrote the screenplays for the Cliff Richard movies ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Summer Holiday’) it was a pitch for a sitcom that was never made. The basic premise was that of a man, Peter Morton, living in a crumbling country house called Merridale Manor. Faced with losing his home, he is forced to put the place on the market. A rather rich, obnoxious man who owns a restaurant in the village, Andrew Cunningham, determines to buy the house. Peter is so aghast at the idea that he convinces his bank manager to lend him the money to convert Merridale Manor into a health farm. There follows a couple of pages of rather colourful dialogue and half-scenes featuring the sexual misdemeanours of various local villagers, Peter’s sister Jennifer, his groundsman Alfred Butterworth and a famous Italian footballer, Albert Napoli.
I am lucky enough to have played a very small part in the Gerry Anderson story. As an actor, I played alien police officer Orrin in twenty four episodes of Gerry’s last live action series, ‘Space Precinct’, in the mid 1990s. Aside from this, I am a playwright with almost thirty published plays to my name. As such, the premise of ‘Off The Fat Of The Land’ intrigued me. It seemed to me just the sort of story that could be told, with a few changes, as a play. Luckily Gerry’s son, Jamie, agreed and I was given permission to adapt the idea into a full length comedy for the stage. A small name change later (I felt ‘The Fat Of The Land’ was a little snappier), and I set to work.
The basic premise remains intact except, to introduce a little sibling rivalry (which is always dramatically interesting), I made the two protagonists brothers. In the play, Peter Morton has been left the family home upon his parents’ death while his brother Andrew has been left the money. When Peter falls on hard times and is forced to sell his home, he does everything in his power to stop it from falling into the hands of his richer brother. Andrew and his trophy wife plan to turn Merridale Manor into a new, bland, corporate headquarters for their many businesses, razing it to the ground and bulldozing the grounds to do so. Peter is forced to think outside the box to save the day. A quick chat with the bank manager (at the local branch of Anderson & Cass, naturally) and, as the curtain rises on the second act, the crumbling Merridale Manor has become the rather more fashionable Merridale Spa. Determined to scupper the venture for their own ends, Andrew and his wife then spend the second half of the play trying to sabotage the business; turning the sauna up to its hottest setting, pouring detergent in the jacuzzi, etc. All with hilarious consequences, naturally!
One of the greatest challenges was to find an ending. The original pitch document was left open-ended with a few ideas as to how the series might proceed (usually involving some sexual shenanigans or other) but I had to find a satisfying climax to the play. So, the rather obnoxious Andrew Morton gets his comeuppance and is left with nothing as his business empire crumbles around him, while Peter remains the owner of a very successful health farm.
As a product of 1980, the original pitch is rather dated in its attitude to women. They are generally viewed as sexual playthings, an attitude which is rather out of kilter in today’s world. To remedy this, I made Peter’s sister Jennifer (originally the waitress in Andrew’s restaurant), the owner of a successful gastro pub in the village. It is she that comes up with the best business ideas and it is she who insists on inviting the famous footballer Alberto Napolini (those added syllables give the name a more Italian feel) to the grand opening of Merridale Spa, thus guaranteeing some much needed publicity. The groundsman from the original story undergoes a gender change to become Mrs Butterworth, the housekeeper who has a knack for keeping Peter in his place. I tried to include or adapt as many of the original jokes as possible with the result that, just occasionally, you might hear an original Gerry Anderson gag. With a liberal sprinkling of complaining guests and a few added character names that Gerry Anderson fans might just recognise, ‘The Fat Of The Land’ was now complete! The result of my labours is that another of Gerry’s ideas has been completed and made available. You can read the script online via my publishers, Lazy Bee Scripts. If you like it, you can buy a review copy of the script to put on your book shelves. If you are of a mind to, you could even buy a performing licence to produce the play yourself! For my part, I feel privileged to shine a light on a little known Anderson property and complete and publish another work with his name attached so that others can enjoy it too.
Read “The Fat Of The Land” Here
In recognition of the life and legacy of Gerry Anderson, twenty per cent of all sales and performing revenues from ‘The Fat Of The Land’ will go to The Alzheimer’s Society.
Follow Richard on Twitter @RichardNJames