Thirty years on, the 1990s remains the most innovative decade for studio sitcoms as the lines between experimental cult TV and cosy mainstream were blurred.
Yes, there is a guffawing studio audience behind the camera that suggests something tranquil and familiar. However, with darkness at their fingertips, a distinctive group of comedy writers were ready to bring horror, death and destruction to the forefront of mainstream British Comedy. David Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave (covered in Horrified‘s Horror in the Britcom series) is essentially Terry, June and the Grim Reaper Too with its macabre plots and eerie production values. And while Andrew Norris and Richard Fegen’s leisure centre sitcom, The Brittas Empire (BBC, 1991-97), looks on the surface to be a 90s amalgamation of Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1972-85) and Hi-De-Hi (BBC, 1980-88), their meticulously crafted scripts are drenched in black humour and explode with anarchic farce; resulting in violent moments such as electrocutions and even a decapitation. Of course, it was toned down for primetime, but it still makes Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990) look tame!
Perhaps the most underrated and misremembered of these subversive outputs is Andrew Marshall’s 2point4 Children which began in 1991 and ran for eight series. As the title suggests, the premise centres around The Porters, a seemingly average family led by the indomitable mother Bill, the infantile father Ben and their two children, the perpetually grumpy Jenny and her annoying, and concerningly warped, younger brother David. A regular at the house is neighbour and Bill’s business partner Rona.
Critics will have you believe that this family sitcom is of the utmost crowd pleasingly plain; an offspring of Not in Front of the Children (BBC, 1967-70) and the impressionable older sibling of My Family (BBC, 2000-11), the noughties gag-a-minute family sitcom that many compare 2point4 Children to. In the 2010 Independent article, TV Land: No Place Like Home, journalist Gerald Gilbert refers to ‘Dom-coms’ as ‘a genre that has a reputation for being cosy and life-sappingly un-amusing, and certainly some shows – 2point4 Children, My Family and The Life of Riley (ABC, 1950-58), for example – do little to refute this association.’
Let’s make this clear, apart from the set-up of the family unit and domestic quarrels, 2point4 Children bears no relation to these shows and, in style, is in fact a cousin of One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2001). This is unsurprising given that Marshall and Renwick were long-time writing partners whose satirical shows, Whoops Apocalypse (John Reardon, ITV, 1982) and Hot Metal (David Askey/Nic Phillips, LWT, 1986-88), define cult comedy thanks to their trademark left-field humour. Ironic that both talents then turned to the suburbs for their solo projects and entangled their subversive qualities which, while decidedly toned down when compared to their collaborative work, is no less offbeat. Much like One Foot in the Grave, Marshall’s scripts lure the unsuspecting British public into a false sense of cosy security before pulling the rug from underneath their feet. Episodes balance an apparent mundanity as the Porters go about their daily tasks, with surreal plots and characters that hints at otherworldly forces.
The first two series of 2point4 Children centre on Bill’s soul searching as her increasing grievance of modern life starts to grind her down. This is further spurred on by the arrival of a mysterious motorbiker who conveniently appears upon moments in which she needs help or advice. In the episode ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, a should-be sitcom classic moment is followed on by an overt supernatural occurrence. Storming out after a family blow-up at her sister in law’s house, Bill’s rage causes her to drive Ben’s van, only to forget that she doesn’t drive! She loses her confidence and after narrowly avoiding a collision, the motorcyclist appears in the side mirror and telepathically instructs Bill on how to stop and park the van. In only the second episode of the entire series, Marshall suggests that this seemingly ordinary world contains mysterious characters who harbour supernatural powers. A theory that he is in fact Bill’s guardian angel is exhibited through the visual of the word ‘Angel’ printed on the back of his motorbike jacket. The storyline takes a dark twist at the beginning of Series Two as the character, whose name is revealed to be Angelo, dies in a motorway accident and this event is the catalyst for a series of strange occurrences at the Porter household.
Fans of 2point4 Children have mixed feelings towards the Angelo story arc and the overall tone of the first two series; while it’s certainly an ambiguous concept, it is ultimately fleeting and not fully developed. Whether wholly successful or simply a misguided experiment, it can’t be denied that Series Two of 2point4 Children contains some of the most daringly bleak ideas in a primetime sitcom. In ‘Bedtime for Bonzo‘, the Porters have to put down their neighbour’s painfully ill dog, with whom the family are caring for while the elderly couple next door are on holiday. It’s an unsentimental and heartfelt exploration of death when compared to the twisted humour of David’s increasingly warped fascination with death and the macabre. If he’s not wanting to watch the ambulances arrive at the hospital, he’ll be playing ‘accidents’ using ketchup or putting his GI Joe action figure in a body bag! In the Series Eight episode ‘After the Fox‘, David reveals to Declan, a child the Porters are in the process of adopting, that he used to murder Jenny’s Barbie dolls and shows him the ‘victims’ such as electric chair Barbie and shark attack Barbie. He’s like the British version of Sid from Toy Story! (John Lasseter, 1995). Seriously, this kid had the makings of either becoming a serial killer or a member of The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1991-2017). At David’s parents evening, in the episode ‘Hormones‘, Bill reads the titles of his English compositions; A Trip to the Torture Chamber, My Sister is a Vampire and Samurai’s Cut Out Their Guts. This scene reminds me of Mark Gatiss’s anecdote in his 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, in which he recalled a composition piece entitled ‘A Day at the Beach’, which involved a decapitation.
Another of David’s increasingly weird habits are his trips to the cemetery, including one in which he takes a Saint Christopher. While David’s initial belief is that it could be cursed, Bill sees it as a force that brings good luck. In ‘The Skeleton in the Cupboard‘, Bill is drawn to the Saint Christopher and wears it to a disastrous interview in which a man, who’s lost his job, has a nervous breakdown and believes he’s a dog. Adding insult to injury, it is revealed that the job that Bill applied for doesn’t exist. She looks earnestly at the Saint Christopher and says: ‘Where were you when I needed you?’ Despite the traumatic experience, she is able to pursue her ambitions of running a catering business, thus suggesting that the Saint Christopher did in fact bring her good luck.
This cocktail of weird occurrences builds up to a daring final episode, ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars‘, in which David is in a coma after contracting tetanus. In a moment of limbo, he stands over his bedridden body and opposite Angelo, who is revealed to be the owner of the Saint Christopher! The scene depicts the two discussing David’s choice between life and death. Can you imagine a sincere spiritual moment in the likes of My Family or Mrs Browns Boys (BBC, 2011-)? Such themes have never been explored more eerily or beautifully in any primetime sitcom since 2point4 Children.
Although the Angelo storyline is unceremoniously dropped at the end of Series Two, his chilling presence can be felt in Series Three. In ‘Badger’s Bend‘, Rona attends her Catholic school reunion and tells a lie in order to enhance her reputation towards an old friend. The guests are then subjected to a speech from the Sister Virtue, whose imprisonment in an iron lung doesn’t dilute her fervent beliefs. As a flashing orange light flickers on her face, she delivers the ominous speech:
‘Every time a lie is uttered, an innocent deceived, a devil is released into the world. A foul demon will sit on her shoulder and he shall fly abroad the land and commit evil. For before that very day is out, an innocent shall suffer for her evil and wicked sin.’
Near the end of the speech, Bill is seen walking away from a shop, and as she walks through a dark tunnel a shadowy figure with a menacing laugh appears. As she runs away in fear, a foreboding whisper utters a chilling warning; ‘Don’t Go, Mia.‘ Bill dreams about the sinister encounter and this time the visuals show a darker and more misty aesthetic. I can imagine young children finding these scenes very sinister upon first watching the episodes in 1993! Bill spends the remainder of Series Three working out the meaning behind ‘Mia.’ It is revealed to be the warning against travelling to Miami, where the family go on holiday and narrowly avoid a deadly hurricane named Bill! Once again, Marshall explores the ideas of warnings, curses and luck by suggesting that Angelo still has influence over Bill’s life and decisions; particularly in her dreams, which continues to impact Bill’s life beyond Series Three.
Take for instance ‘Fortuosity‘, a decidedly creepy Series Four tale, which begins with strange alien voices observing a ‘typical subject’ who thinks the world is against them. Bill, who is, of course, the subject, rips up a chain letter threatening bad luck to anyone who doesn’t comply with its instructions. Weird events take place and, once again, death is used as a sick punchline, as Bill visits a man with whom she was arranging to cater for his wedding anniversary. Upon entering his house, she learns that he has died, and his hysterical widow assumes that Bill is the undertaker! While Bill dreamt the events, the episode avoids the trappings of the ‘it’s all a dream’ cop-out by ending with Bill waking up to a chain letter and ripping it up as an act of defiance. Was the dream a premonition? What do the alien voices represent? Were they merely a figment of Bill’s dreams? Or did they hint at something wider, more spiritual and that Bill’s dreams predict what’s to come? Incidentally, Bill doesn’t learn from her nightmare as she refers back to ripping up the chain letter after the house fire at the end of Series 4. You really feel as though Bill regrets doing it. Again, can you imagine the Harper’s of My Family being dealt such a cruel card without resorting to wisecracks?
Bill’s dreams reflect reality once again in ‘Fame‘, the opening episode to the eighth and final series. She has a nightmare involving the family auditioning for a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Average Family. Only this time, it is too late to prevent reality, as upon waking up, she learns that the house has been redecorated with a garish style as the family have fallen victim to Changing Rooms! Even near the end of the series, it could be suggested that Angelo’s influence remains as Bill turns to soul searching when making big decisions.
Beyond Angelo, Marshall continued to explore spooky themes in 2point4 Children. While his writing injects an inventive flavour to the sitcom genre, it is thanks to the choice of directors who successfully brought to life his vision of the show’s heightened sense of reality. Indeed, this seemed particularly important to Marshall as in a recent interview he stated: ‘2point4 Children is a strange show, it seems to be very simple, but it’s got sort of nuances underneath that’s very difficult to get right if you don’t really understand what’s going on in it.’
Richard Boden, in his five series tenure, consistently delivered in capturing the nuances of Marshall’s increasingly malevolent scripts. The first truly strange episode is ‘Bedtime for Bonzo‘ with scenes involving a storm outside the Porters house, but played out to suggest that evil forces are at work. Even the closing credits for that episode remixes Howard Goodall’s chirpy theme tune with a macabre clang that sounds more like The Addams Family theme tune. ‘Babes in the Woods‘, the 1993 Christmas Special, sees the Porters stranded in the foggy woods on Christmas Eve. Upon hearing of a dangerous criminal escaping a nearby asylum, they take refuge in an abandoned house. Boden’s choice of shots, including the flickering torch lights through the thick fog, evokes a brooding X-Files atmosphere; this is ironic as the cult sci-fi series had yet to be shown in the UK.
In the BBC press pack for his 2003 horror series Strange, Marshall cites himself as a long-time fan of ‘The X-Files (1993-2018) and the great fantasy series of the past.’ You can see the influence cult horror and fantasy TV had on 2point4 Children; especially the plots and style in Series Five. ‘Seven Dials‘ is a tour-de-farce with Bill, Ben and Rona seemingly entering The Twilight Zone (Various, 1959-); Bill and Rona stumble across a strange warehouse and Boden builds the tension with an eerie atmosphere through glistening red sky and creepy incidental music. They discover the warehouse is where Shirley Bassey stores her costumes. Meanwhile, after Ben plays a practical joke on fellow plumber Jake Klinger, (played by Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003) and The Vicar of Dibley (BBC 1994-2007) alumni Roger Lloyd Pack), Klinger exacts his revenge by kidnapping Ben, driving him to Portmeirion and embroils him in a tormenting spoof of The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-68). Although not traditionally a horror series, the 60s cult classic is decidedly weird and creepy, and Marshall and Boden deliver nearly all the ingredients for an effective and affectionate pastiche; the weird townsfolk uttering the “be seeing you” catchphrase, the dramatic music and the giant white balloon. With Ben dressed up as Number Six, the only moment that’s not included is him shouting, ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’
Series Five aired one year after The X-Files gained a cult following on BBC2 and, of course, David would be an X-Phile! We learn off Jenny states in ‘We’d Like to Know A Little Bit About You for Our Files‘, that he rang the FBI to ask if he can ‘take over The X-Files.’ And, in ‘Mayday‘, when helping Ben fix the giant hole in the bedroom wall, David refers to a mutant who hibernates and awakens every thirty years to eat people’s livers. This will have gone over the heads of the majority of viewers who watched this episode, but to us devoted X-Philes we know that he is referring to Eugene Tooms, the terrifying monster from The X-Files first season. No other episode evokes more of an X-Files vibe than ‘The Truth is Out There,’ the title inspired by The X-Files famous tagline. The production team, along with the studio audience, must have been baffled by an episode with a scene involving a seance in Rona’s kitchen. The episode works as the plot has stakes, Rona tries to contact her deceased mother to help find her birth certificate, which she needs to avoid being evicted, and the sincerity of the performances. Furthermore, the production is effective with the lighting, darkness and the return of the eerie incidental music that was first heard outside the warehouse in ‘Seven Dials‘. Other sitcoms that have attempted such a scene, like Birds of a Feather (BBC, 1989-2020). feel out of place compared to the bizarre world of 2point4 Children.
Like Renwick, Marshall’s plotting technique involves red herrings which hints at an evil or supernatural presence, only for the reveal to be something completely innocuous. An early example of this is ‘The Skeleton in the Cupboard’; after Bill learns of Angelo’s death, a black and white point-of-view shot wanders through the house at an inhuman pace, suggesting that Angelo’s ghost is watching Bill. It’s particularly eerie and evokes a similar filming technique used by Sam Raimi in The Evil Dead (1982). It is revealed to be Ben sneaking around the house with a camcorder in the hopes of sending embarrassing footage to You’ve Been Framed! (ITV, 1990-)
Two other episodes that demonstrate this type of misleading plotting are equally memorable as 2point4 Children was one of only two 90s British sitcoms, the other being Bottom (BBC, 1993-95), that produced Halloween specials. Of all the BBC One sitcoms of the time, although one can imagine the comic potential for trick or treaters terrorising the likes of Victor Meldrew or Hyacinth Bucket, the quirky and strange world of the Porters naturally lends itself to tales set on All Hallow’s Eve.
While the episode title is of a Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938) is an affectionate tribute to the Hammer horror movies that were popular at the same time as the thrillers by the Master of Suspense. The plot involves Bill’s growing concern for the elderly woman next door, Mrs Crudal, after seeing a strange delivery of a large coffin by two men in long black cloaks. The script references the Dracula Hammer films with Christopher Lee, as Christine, Ben’s plumbing assistant, lists the various ingredients such as the use of an anagram, for the Count’s various pseudonym names, in order to fool unsuspecting victims. Upon seeing a figure dressed like Count Dracula emerging from Mrs Crudal’s house, Bill and Ben conclude that the Prince of Darkness has indeed been ‘delivered’ from Transylvania and moved in next door. Bill and Ben look stupid upon learning that the delivery for Mrs Crudal was an oxygen tank and her middle-aged son, John, is dressed up to attend four Dracula-Grams in the evening. You couldn’t write this stuff! It’s a fun and entertaining episode with a twist in the tale that suggests that he is indeed the real Count.
Series Six saw Nick Wood helm the director’s chair and, like Boden, he was able to understand and capture Marshall’s vision. Like ‘The Truth is Out There,’ the episode succeeds because of serious performances and ambitious production values that capture the Hammer atmosphere. In fact, it’s the episodes use of heavy rain, thunder, lightning, shadows and a more realistic flying bat than other adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, that, for me, outdoes even the most creepy Hammer film. And that’s without the use of James Bernard’s iconic score from the 1958 classic! This episode should be an annual October ritual like carving a pumpkin.
The other Halloween special, ‘Carry On Screaming‘, is the perfect title for what is essentially more of a Carry On farce as opposed to the previous instalments’ more ‘serious’ approach. There are some amusing moments, such as trick or treaters knocking on the Porters door, only to run away screaming upon being greeted by the social worker who confirms the Porters application for adoption. Christine’s driving a van wearing a Grim Reaper costume. And Rona running in a cemetery dressed like Morticia Addams. This time, Marshall swaps vampires with werewolves and the script references the Oliver Reed Hammer film The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher). Ben visits his ill elderly Uncle Lon (a name no doubt inspired by The Man of a Thousand Faces) who has been found outside in the freezing cold and hints to Ben of something hereditary that is passed down to the males of their family. Marshall once again employs red herrings to hint at supernatural undercurrents, this time suggesting that the family history includes the males turning into werewolves. Far-fetched, right? Well, as sleeping pills work the magic on Uncle Lon, Ben concludes this when a box, which Lon says contains the answer, shows a picture of a massive dog with the words ‘Lupus Humana,’ which is Latin for ‘human dog,’ written on the back. Growing hair on the palm of Ben’s hand, a howling and full moon once again skew Bill and Ben’s rational judgement and they rush home to prevent David from turning into a wolf. They find a dog on their son’s bed, directly under the beam of the moon from the skylight. Could David have transformed? Well, not when he appears behind his daft parents.
This time, we learn that a neighbour’s dog had wandered into the house. Ben used a hair restorer that he bought off the internet and that had yet to be officially approved and tested and he also hadn’t used the rubber gloves as instructed. And as for the picture of Lupus Humana, this was in fact Uncle Lon’s favourite pedigree dog that he bred years earlier and is an Alaskan Malamutes. Oh, and Ben learns that he is Jewish. Like Boden and Woods, director Dewi Humphreys continued to deliver the high-quality production values of 2point4 Children in its final series. The Halloween episodes alone are more creative than any studio sitcom episode since and, to me, deserve the same classic status as The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror episodes.
In the twenty years since 2point4 Children ended, there has yet to be another mainstream British sitcom that has captured its unique blend of the natural and the supernatural. In fact, the genre has since returned to a bygone era of safe and predictably bland humour. It’s frustrating as Marshall’s overlooked masterpiece, as well as One Foot in the Grave and The Brittas Empire, prove that mainstream audiences, of between 10 and 20 million, are open to sitcoms that embrace the Horror genre, the dark and spiritual elements of life. What’s more frustrating is that critics, like Gilbert, choose to ignore the innovative qualities and retain a stubborn view. Oh well, their loss.
 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/tv-land-no-place-home-197555 4.html https://www.ganymede.tv/2019/10/dwarfcast-103-rob-grant-andrew-marshall-interview/