1 9 5 4 – 1 9 5 7 (UK)
220 x 15/20 minute episodes
Debuting in April 1954, The Grove Family was the first British television soap opera for adults. It was set in the north London suburb of Hendon and featured three generations of a successful builder’s family who took their name from the BBC’s Lime Grove studios.
The series was cheap to produce – a mere 400 guineas per episode – and broadcast live to air (only two episodes were ever recorded). When it first aired, it attracted around four million viewers, but by the time the series ended in 1957, viewing figures were around eleven million – a very large figure in the 1950s.
The Grove family consisted of Bob, the father (Edward Evans), a jolly although sometimes harassed ‘jobbing builder’; Mum Gladys (Ruth Dunning), a warm and forthright housewife; 12-year-old Lenny (Christopher Beeny), who was bright but a fibber; 14-year-old Daphne (Margaret Downs); Pat (Sheila Sweet and then Carole Mowlam), a 20-year old assistant librarian who turned actress; Jack (Peter Bryant), a bit of a lad who was doing National Service; and testy old matriarch, Grandma (Nancy Roberts) who was always complaining: “I’m starved for want of nourishment”.
The first episode saw the Groves celebrating their last mortgage payment – a monthly instalment of £13 8s – and the prospect of Bob Grove starting up his own building business. Within a year, the BBC regularly received letters asking Bob to quote for building work and Gladys for slimming tips.
Viewers also wrote angry letters to the BBC about the cantankerous and atrociously ungrateful Gran (“I’ll faint for lack of nourishment”) but held their breath when actress Ruth Dunning was rushed to hospital with appendicitis.
The show even had royal patronage. On a studio visit, the Queen Mother declared herself a fan, calling the family “so English, so real”.
First and foremost entertainment, it nevertheless contained public service elements (such as the need to secure your house against burglars) as well as reflecting the post-war growth in prosperity.
A 71-minute feature film version – entitled It’s a Great Day and filmed at Shepperton Studios on a tight, three-week, low-budget schedule – was released in 1955, starring the cast of the television series.
Then suddenly, in June 1957, the series was scrapped after a row between the BBC and the father-and-son writing team of Roland and Michael Pertwee.
Exhausted from three years of writing, the Pertwee’s wanted a break and asked instead whether they could oversee the scripts of other writers. The BBC wouldn’t agree to this and hired new writers but then axed the Groves altogether.
Michael Pertwee later reflected: “The people at the BBC then didn’t have the foresight, the commercial sense, to see what the people making Coronation Street saw – that these series can go through quiet spells, but they can survive and last and be important”.
It was a sad end for the Groves. Edward Evans and Ruth Dunning never again achieved such stardom. Only Christopher Beeny prospered as the accident-prone under-butler in Upstairs Downstairs and the gormless nephew in the funeral parlour comedy In Loving Memory.
All that remains of The Grove Family is a short film. No copies of the series exist.
The show was briefly revived for a one-off episode in 1991 as part of the BBC’s Lime Grove celebrations.
Sheila Sweet (1)
Carole Mowlam (2)