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Butterflies

1 9 7 8 – 1 9 8 3 (UK)
30 x 30 minute episodes

Butterflies, with Carla Lane’s fluent scripts, was perhaps the most assured of the sitcoms in which Wendy Craig was invited to explore the state of mind of a flustered contemporary housewife facing a mid-life crisis.

First broadcast on 10 November 1978, Butterflies starred Craig as Ria Parkinson – an attractive middle-class woman approaching middle-age and worrying that she has not made the most of her life – as she debated ways to break out of the confinements of the life imposed upon her by her family.

This was chiefly through seemingly endless contemplation of an adulterous affair with the smooth and wealthy businessman Leonard Dunn, played by Bruce Montague.

But Ria’s upbringing and natural timidity made it impossible for her to consummate the relationship, so instead, she daydreamed about it and, in this way, actually seemed to achieve some solace.

Craig was ably supported by Geoffrey Palmer as her stable but dull husband Ben, a dentist and collector of butterflies, and the up-and-coming young Nicholas Lyndhurst as one of her two sons.

The comedy was often obvious (Ria’s failure to cook anything without destroying it risked becoming tiresome), the pathos was sometimes painful and the central character’s self-absorption and inability to help herself was irritating to many more liberated viewers, but the skilful characterisations and the pace at which events were played together with the quality of the support kept the series fresh and intriguing and ensured a large and faithful audience.

Initially, the BBC argued with Carla Lane that comedy was not ready for a married woman stricken by another man, but Lane persevered and Ria was embarked on an adulterous affair.

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Though neither attracting the huge audiences of Bread nor defining an era like The Liver Birds this was arguably the most successful of Carla Lane’s sitcoms.

In 1979 the format of Butterflies was sold to the USA and Carla Lane flew to Los Angeles to work on the script (also to be titled Butterflies) with the producer Milt Josefsberg. A pilot episode was screened by NBC on 1 August 1979 with Jennifer Warren as Rea (sic) Parkinson, John McMartin as Ben, Craig Wasson as Russell, Robert Doran as Adam and Jim Hutton as Leonard.

Lane was hugely disappointed with the US version, lamenting the loss of most of the idea’s subtlety, and it failed to graduate to a full series.

Wendy Craig reprised her Butterflies role in The Last Waltz, a specially scripted production featuring characters from four Carla Lane series (BreadSolo and The Liver Birds were the others) aired by BBC1 on 10 March 1989 as part of Comic Relief.

In November 2000, 17 years after the final episode, the cast of Butterflies (all but Michael Ripper, who died in June 2000) reunited for a special episode broadcast within the annual Children In Need telethon.

Now a grandmother, Ria has just celebrated her 60th birthday. Bemoaning the ageing process, she surveys her life: a devoted yet plodding husband, Adam a husband and father, Russell unable to commit to a long-term relationship, Leonard ripe for one more poignant meeting on their favourite park bench.

She is seemingly more morose than ever, and still completely hopeless in the kitchen.

Ria Parkinson 
Wendy Craig
Ben Parkinson 

Geoffrey Palmer
Adam Parkinson 

Nicholas Lyndhurst
Russell Parkinson 

Andrew Hall
Leonard Dunn 

Bruce Montague
Ruby 

Joyce Windsor
Thomas 

Michael Ripper