1 9 6 9 – 1 9 7 9 (UK)
1 9 9 6 (UK)
87 x 30 minute episodes
What’s got four legs, walks peculiar?
Talks with all the choicest words?
What’s got four arms, loves to grab ya?
Answer is two Liver birds
The Liver Birds – the keyword rhymes with “saliva” – was the distaff answer to The Likely Lads, charting the exploits of two oestrogen-charged dolly-birds with more loon pants than sense, sharing a flat on Huskisson Street and hell-bent on pulling all the “gear” guys on Merseyside.
The city was still, just, exuding a certain glamour from the boom period that followed the success of The Beatles and other pop groups earlier in the 1960s (indeed, the series’ theme song was sung by The Scaffold, a pop/poetry trio that included Paul McCartney‘s brother, Mike).
The series’ title originated in the name given to two sculpted birds perched atop the Royal Liver Building at the city’s Pier Head.
Originally the two ‘liver birds’ were Dawn (Pauline Collins) and Beryl (Polly James), but after five episodes, Dawn moved on (or, rather, moved out) and was replaced by Sandra (Nerys Hughes), a pairing that resulted in the series’ most popular period.
At the end of the fourth series, James left the cast (Beryl got married), and she was replaced by Carol (Elizabeth Estensen), who stayed throughout the remaining 1970s episodes.
Launched as a Comedy Playhouse pilot, The Liver Birds was the creation of first-time writers Carla Lane and Myra Taylor, Liverpool housewives who loosely based the characters and storylines upon their own experiences.
The BBC initially teamed them with veteran writer Lew Schwarz, whose mission was to explain the sitcom-writing technique, and then employed Eric Idle as script editor, but from the third series, the women were left alone; Taylor then departed soon after and Lane took sole charge of the writing.
The episodes concentrated on the relationship between the two lead players as they went about their everyday life, dealing with boyfriends, jobs, parents, lack of money and the quest for a more comfortable standard of living.
This was a breakthrough period for young, single women following centuries of repression – they had independence, both sexual and financial, and the opportunity to live life as they wanted it, and Carla Lane’s scripts reflected this admirably, as well as sketching the uncertainties and philosophies of being single when everyone else seemed to be married.
The Liver Birds was only the start of Lane’s remarkable sitcom career, but her ability to conjure laughs out of pathos and, as she called them, ‘little tragedies’, was apparent even here.
During its heyday, with Beryl and Sandra, there was a robust energy about the desperation in which the girls went to parties, trawled for ‘talent’ and threw themselves into relationships.
Beryl was the more common one, spontaneous, scatty and with a voice so staggeringly piercing that you could hear it on the other channel; Sandra was quieter, more cautious, optimistic and refined, mainly thanks to the influence of her snobbish and overbearing mother (played in exaggerated music-hall style by Mollie Sugden).
In hindsight, however, the series seems to have made as much impression for its reflections of fashion trends as for its humour, the young women wearing everything from caftans, maxi-coats and mini-skirts to trouser suits, hot pants and platform shoes. Carol, who replaced Beryl, dressed particularly loudly.
The arrival of scatty Carol was also used to introduce a wider circle of characters, including her larger-than-life Catholic parents and rabbit-obsessed brother Lucien. (Their family name, Boswell, reappeared in Carla Lane’s 1980s series Bread.)
The Liver Birds continued much as before until the eighth series when the women worked as kennel maids, and Sandra became romantically involved with a vet, Derek Paynton. They eventually married, and Derek narrowly avoided having to move to Africa to study wildlife.
In the ninth series, Sandra fell pregnant, and Carol returned to live with her parents, but after the Boswells were evicted from their home, she moved in with Sandra and her husband.
That should have been the end of it, for by this time the format had moved far away from the concept of two wacky young women sharing a flat, and with the greater emphasis on the fringe characters and Carol’s family, The Liver Birds was moving closer to the area that Carla Lane would explore in the extended-family sitcom Bread.
Although fondly remembered, the series did not age well and (apart from screenings on cable/satellite nostalgia channels) has never enjoyed the mainstream re-run appeal of, say, Dad’s Army or Are You Being Served?
But in the 1990s, following the US trend of resurrecting old sitcoms, the BBC recommissioned three former hits for a new generation of viewers: the Doctor series (Doctor At The Top), Reginald Perrin (The Legacy Of Reginald Perrin) and The Liver Birds.
Back came Polly James and Nerys Hughes from the show’s golden period, playing their characters nearly 20 years on.
There was some liberty taken with continuity (Lucien, who had been Carol’s brother, was now Beryl’s brother; and Carmen McSharry, who had played Carol’s mother, Mrs Boswell, now appeared as Beryl’s mother Mrs Hennessey) but the two lead characters were believable developments of their earlier selves: wiser, sadder, perhaps even more desperate – but both bouncing back from failed relationships and marriages to throw themselves into the maelstrom of middle-aged single life.
The new series was not a great success, however – while the public might nostalgically reminisce about old television comedies, it rarely takes to updated revivals.
Nerys Hughes and Polly James appeared in The Last Waltz, a specially scripted celebration that brought together the key characters from four Carla Lane series – The Liver Birds, Bread, Solo and Butterflies – screened by BBC1 on 10 March 1989 as part of Comic Relief.
Ivan Beavis (1)
John McKelvey (2)
William Moore (3)
Sheila Fay (1)
Carmel McSharry (2)
Eileen Kennally (1)
Carmel McSharry (2)