Early Doors: An underrated sitcom making a welcome return

Rob Keeling
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey prop up the bar in Early Doors. (BBC)
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey prop up the bar in Early Doors. (BBC)

It was confirmed earlier this week that Craig Cash and Phil Mealey were bringing back their oft-overlooked sitcom Early Doors for a run of live performances in 2018 at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. In the wake of this exciting announcement, it’s the perfect time to revisit the show and look at what makes it such an underrated classic.

While there are certain sitcoms that have achieved legendary status and are repeated readily on TV from one year to the next, there’s also a great number which are genuine comedy gold but which never quite managed to attract the public’s attention. The likes of 15 Storeys High and Saxondale certainly fit into this category, but for me it’s Early Doors that is perhaps the most unjustly neglected in recent memory.

The Royle connection

The show was written by Cash and Mealey in the interim period between The Royle Family’s initial end in 2000 and its resurrection in 2006. Cash famously shared writing duties in that instance with the late Caroline Aherne to immensely successful effect. The show ran for three critically acclaimed series with regular specials also receiving huge audience figures right through to 2012.

Early Doors clearly shares a great deal of DNA with The Royle Family, possessing the same distinctly northern sense of humour and a love of celebrating the amusing oddities of everyday working class life. Like its illustrious predecessor, Early Doors also takes place entirely in one location, this time replacing a small terraced house with a dingy Manchester boozer, The Grapes. Where The Royle Family poked fun at the quirks found in domestic family life, Early Doors instead focused on those found in one’s social life alongside friends and confidants when spending time away from your family.

Funny and poignant

The show’s premise is brilliantly simple – A bunch of locals sit around, sharing their insights on life’s trivialities and gently ribbing each other at any chance they get. Around this ingenuously foolproof framework, Early Doors combines a witty and clever script with some genuinely touching character moments. As a result, while there are hilarious scenes built around mundane everyday things such as a pub quiz, temporary traffic lights and the lonely existence of a man whose partner has left him, there are also far more important matters going on in the background. Issues such as Ken the barman’s daughter searching for her real dad, the pub facing possible closure and a “will-they-won’t they” romance between Ken and his barmaid Tanya. These story threads are all allowed to slowly play out rather than being rushed through in one episode.

In the case of Ken’s adopted daughter Mel and the hunt for her biological father, it also gave us an unexpectedly affecting moment when Ken removes himself from the hustle and bustle of the bar to seek solace in his room in order to come to terms with the news. As Tony Bennett’s “The Good Life” plays on the pub jukebox, it creates a poignant and bittersweet scene that despite its sombre nature, fits into the show’s dynamic perfectly.

Maxine Peake, Lisa Millet, Susan Cookson and John Henshaw put the world to rights in Early Doors (BBC)
Maxine Peake, Lisa Millet, Susan Cookson and John Henshaw put the world to rights in Early Doors (BBC)

Strong cast

From top to bottom the show is blessed with great performances, with each character bringing a special something to proceedings. Cash and Mealey perform their Likely Lads roles brilliantly, Ken is delivered with sarcastic perfection by John Henshaw and his mother Jean comes across as a manipulative mastermind thanks to the excellent Rita May. Elsewhere, nice-but-dim couple Eddie (Mark Benton) and Joan (Lorraine Cheshire) are relentlessly endearing, the incredibly grouchy Tommy (Rodney Lichfield) does his best to be left alone and of course the local constabulary is represented in inglorious form by Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight). Everyone is given a chance to shine, whether it’s the crooked cops in the backroom bemoaning their bad luck or Jean and cleaner Winny putting the world to rights upstairs.

The show also proved to be a springboard of sorts for the likes of Maxine Peak and current Hollywood A-Lister, James McAvoy. McAvoy appeared throughout series one as Mel’s boyfriend Liam, before leaving for a major role in Channel 4’s Shameless.

The bittersweet elements of the show are wonderfully incorporated but it’s the warm celebration of camaraderie and friendship that makes it so enjoyable. It’s a fitting tribute to the great British boozer and it’s a huge shame that it only ran for two seasons. The forthcoming live shows will finally give us the chance see what these characters did next and more curiously perhaps see how in the world they all coped with the arrival of the smoking ban.

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