More Than The Average Sex Appeal
The 1970s are often referred to as the golden age of sitcom and in Britain, ITV were the kings of comedy. They had so many great sitcoms that the schedules were packed with them, sometimes showing one every night of the week. But Monday night at 8.00 was the prime slot for new shows, as they were guaranteed a huge audience; it followed one of the nation's most-watched programmes, Coronation Street.
40 years ago today, on Monday 27th October 1975, the viewers settled down to watch the latest offering from Granada, The Cuckoo Waltz, and they weren't disappointed. Certainly not the ladies; Britain's newest sex symbol had just hit their screens.
The premise was a simple one: Chris (played by David Roper), a junior reporter, with his wife Fliss (Diane Keen) and twin babies Simon and Sarah, is struggling to make ends meet, and they live a poor but happy life in a rather threadbare, barely-furnished house. His mother-in-law (Clare Kelly) despairs of her daughter's choices, and the neighbour next door (John McKelvey) is pretty eccentric. "They were quite off-the-wall characters, all slightly batty", said Diane Keen.
Then Chris's friend Gavin (Lewis Collins) arrives. Rich, suave Gavin. A guy with personality, charm, good looks, and more-than-the-average sex appeal. His wife has just left him, and he wants to stay with them "for a couple of days". When they agree he can move into the spare room temporarily, he transforms it into a plush bachelor pad and never leaves. This has its ups and downs for Chris and Fliss, who have to adapt to having a cuckoo in the nest.
The series was written by Geoffrey Lancashire and, Diane Keen told us, was based on a true story. "Geoff was a struggling reporter at the time. The writer Jack Rosenthal was a great friend of his, and when his first marriage broke up he turned up on Geoff's doorstep undressed, having been thrown out, asked if he could stay for a couple of days, and never left!"
When Geoff later turned this situation into a comedy, many features were true to life; Chris's occupation, the financial hardship, Fliss's appearance - Diane was small and dark-haired, like Geoff's real wife - even the twins, Sarah and Simon were based exactly on Geoff's own twins. "It was all in there!" said Diane. Little Sarah Lancashire grew up to become a well-known actress in her own right.
While the cast were working on the show, Lew lived in his converted ambulance in the Granada parking lot. "It was a great port of call for a G & T or a coffee after work - Lew was always good for coffee. It was like having our own den" recalls Diane. "The three of us were the youngest and we all got on well so we'd hit the high spots of Manchester together. It was a lovely, easy friendship."
The show was recorded in front of a studio audience, where the Lancashire family would often come along to watch. David Roper recalls, "Lewis was a much better comedian than he realised. He often thought that he had to push himself to get laughs, but when he relaxed and let his natural humour show through, he really came into his own as a comic actor."
Each character had their own relationship with the others, and Gavin got on well with his landlady. "I loved Fliss's relationship with Gavin, " said Diane Keen, "and it was obvious that he was incredibly fond of her as a friend. But she wouldn't take any of his nonsense. Chris also wasn't averse to shooting him down in flames too, and Lew played it so beautifully with the hurt puppy look - it was so endearing".
This, together with what Diane called "a gift of a script", meant The Cuckoo Waltz was an instant success and went straight into ITV's top ten programmes. Throughout the first series it averaged figures of just over seven million* per episode, beating even Coronation Street some weeks
The three young leads became stars, and Lewis in particular picked up a huge following of female fans, and an awful lot of fanmail. He received proposals of marriage, offers of drinks and 'more', and one lady was desperate to buy him underwear. But although the ladies were impressed by his looks, Lew wasn't. He later said, " When I saw the first episode of The Cuckoo Waltz I thought I looked distinctly chubby, so I made a resolution to get fit. I cut out drink and cigars, isolated myself for training, got a tracksuit and went out running, did some swimming and then turned my attention to fitting up the spare room. It looks like a mini-gym." Lew's famous fitness regime began here.
The success of the show meant that a follow-up series was commissioned and according to Diane, it was even better to work on. "When the second series began it was like a great bonding of like-minded people. It was so easy to do as we already had the fanbase, and the camaraderie between us meant we didn't have to go into the studio and work on it, it was already there." Along with another terrific set of scripts from Geoffrey Lancashire, the second series, broadcast in July 1976, kept the show in the ITV Top Ten and a third series went into production.
Series three was broadcast in early 1977 and received even higher viewing figures than the previous two series, but by then Lewis had had enough and quit the show. All three stars had made their names in The Cuckoo Waltz - "It launched us all" said Diane Keen, and all went on to further their TV careers. Diane and David moved on to other sitcoms, Rings On Their Fingers and Leave It To Charlie respectively, but Lewis moved away from comedy and into the world of action and drama in The Professionals.
A fourth and final series of The Cuckoo Waltz was made in 1980 but Lewis's contract with Mark 1 Productions would have prevented him from returning, even if he had wanted to. Ian Saynor stepped in as Adrian Lockett, a new lodger, and Diane remembered, "He had similar qualities to Lew, the puppy dog thing that Lew also had. But he brought his own qualities too. He was a lovely guy, he fitted in very well, considering he had very big shoes to fill".
When The Cuckoo Waltz had its first repeat run, its popularity was re-enforced by scoring ITV's highest ever viewing figures for a repeat, and introduced some of Lewis's new Professionals fans to his comedy skills. But Lewis didn't appear in a sitcom again until 1999 when he made a guest appearance in The Grimleys, despite many of his fans thinking he should do more. David Roper agreed:
"Successful as he undoubtedly was in The Professionals and Who Dares Wins, I would love to have seen him succeed in what I believe was his true area of talent: Comedy. My lasting image of Lew is not of the gun-toting hard man who wanted to be feared, but of the little boy with a twinkle in his eye who just wanted to be loved."
All series of The Cuckoo Waltz are available from Network DVD.