1 9 6 1 – 1 9 6 3 (UK)
37 x 30 minute episodes
1 9 7 7 – 1 9 7 8 (UK)
22 x 30 minute episodes
Some British workers adopted a new mood of militancy in 1961, all because of a comedy series. The Rag Trade featured Peter Jones as Mr Fenner, harassed boss of East-End ‘sweatshop’ Fenner Fashions and Reg Varney as his foreman, Reg.
Leading the workers was Miriam Karlin starring as trade union shop steward, Paddy, who with a blast on her whistle was only too happy to declare “Everybody out!”.
Rag Trade regulars were Barbara Windsor, Wanda Ventham, Esma Cannon as little Lily (who used to be good at buttonholes but wasn’t the same once zips came in) and Sheila Hancock.
In her book Ramblings of an Actress, Sheila Hancock recalls how she used to suffer badly from nerves before performances.
She said that she and Miriam Karlin would ‘take one of those lovely purple heart-shaped pills a nice doctor gave us’ with a bath and a glass of champagne to help the nerves. It subsequently took Sheila months to shake off her addiction.
Although most episodes involved a conflict between the boss and the staff, the plots were usually resolved by having everyone pull together, which kept the atmosphere at Fenner Fashions comfortable rather than hostile.
Peter Jones’s role typically was as straight man to the women, and Reg Varney fared little better as his foreman, stuck in the dichotomous position of having a foot in both camps – management and workforce.
Minor cast changes occurred from season to season, but major restructuring was necessary for the third series, after the departure of Cannon and Hancock. Barbara Windsor, who had played a minor role in the first series, returned to become Judy, Reg’s love interest; and Irene Handl was cast as Reg’s chatty mother who came to work as Fenner’s bookkeeper.
Scriptwriters Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney went on to create a new series for Reg Varney (the highly successful On The Buses), before returning with a revival of The Rag Trade in 1977.
The BBC rejected the new series and the writers took it to LWT, but only Miriam Karlin and Peter Jones returned in their original roles.
Anna Karen reprised her On The Buses role of Olive in the new Rag Trade, with the cast also featuring Gillian Taylforth (who went on to fame as Kathy Beale in EastEnders).
The decade had changed but things were much as before at Fenner’s and the central storylines still revolved around the conflicts between Fenner and paddy. Reg was replaced by the young and naive Tony (played by Christopher Beeny – best known as Edward from Upstairs Downstairs – and a Barbara Windsor type (Diane Langton) played the buxom Kathy.
After fifteen girls had been sacked at a real-life Derbyshire electronics firm, the stewards ordered an all-out strike.
The firm’s boss lamented “I think this is a case of the girls watching too much Rag Trade“. Other fashion bosses complained that the series gave a poor impression of the industry and working conditions.
A stage version of The Rag Trade (with most of the TV cast) ran at the Piccadilly Theatre in London in 1962 and 1963, and the series has been remade around the world under various other titles, including Scandinavia’s Fredericksson’s Fabriks (1989-94), Belgium’s Freddy Tex (1994) and Portugal’s Trapos and Company (1995).
A 1978 US version (The Rag Business) failed to go beyond the ABC pilot.
Lily (“Little Lil”)
Rowena Cooper (1)
Joy Stewart (2)