A comedy about long-term NHS patients on a hospital ward may not sound like the best premise for fun – but on the contrary. Only When I Laugh has become one of the best-remembered television series of all time. The Yorkshire TV series ran from 1979 to 1982 and featured misbehaving patients Norman Binns, Roy Figgis and Archie Glover, who managed to create continual comic mayhem with their antics.
A well-known face on our screens in the ’70s thanks to his role in Raffles as the gentleman thief’s sidekick, Christopher Strauli played the rather naïve middle class Binns. Starring alongside former Likely Lad James Bolam as working-class lorry driver and all-round troublemaker, Figgis, the trio was completed by upper-class hypochondriac Glover, played by Peter Bowles – he was already a major star thanks to appearing in the sitcom, To the Manor Born.
The other regular characters included the long-suffering Dr Gordon Thorpe played by Richard Wilson, who went on to star in One Foot in the Grave. Staff Nurse Gupte was played by Derrick Branche, the Mumbai-born actor who later starred in the award-winning 1985 film, My Beautiful Laundrette.
Bolan, Bowles, Strauli and Wilson appeared in all 29 episodes, while Branche appeared in 22. A multitude of other popular actors from the era made guest appearances, including British actor Neil McCarthy -whose previous credits included the classic 1964 film Zulu – and famous comedian, actor and scriptwriter John Junkin.
Despite being apparently ill, the three patients on the men’s surgical ward seem to be suffering from severe cases of hypochondria and they become the bane of the unsympathetic Dr Thorpe’s life. Written by Eric Chappell who also penned Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh was a family show which relied on wit and funny situations for laughs rather than bad language or vulgarity, with viewers of all ages settling down to watch it together.
Each with their strong characters and different traits, the fact that the patients sometimes clashed with each other but worked together at other times created the humour. A favourite episode among fans was one in which Figgis stole a doctor’s white coat – not to pose as a doctor to diagnose other patients but to sneak out and have a pint at a local pub! However, he soon regretted his choice of disguise when he had several other hypochondriacs bombarding him with questions about their own ailments! He ended up admitting all of them to the hospital in the end.
The series ended on 16th December 1982 in an episode called The Reunion – the trio were finally discharged from hospital and they arranged a reunion under much more enjoyable circumstances.
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