The long-running ITV sitcom, Please Sir!, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Created by the popular scriptwriting duo of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey for London Weekend Television, the series began in 1968 and ran for 55 episodes, before its final broadcast in February 1972.
Set in the fictional Fenn Street Secondary Modern School, the comedy focused on the trials and tribulations of well-meaning but naïve Bernard Hedges (John Alderton), who was a newly-qualified teacher assigned to a class of unruly teenagers.
His eternal optimism in the face of adversity helps him to survive teaching the students of 5C – renowned for being one of the toughest classes in the school.
Fresh from teacher training college, Hedges thinks the kids haven’t been given a chance in life and that they just need someone who cares and understands them. He always sees the good in every pupil, even the most disobedient, to the amazement and dismay of his fellow teachers, who have grown cynical and think there’s no hope for any of them.
The all-star cast included Deryck Guyler (stalwart of the sitcom, Sykes) as the officious janitor, Norman Potter, who is often the butt of the pupils’ practical jokes.
Hedges’ fellow teachers included respected Shakespearean actress Joan Sanderson as starchy headmistress Doris Ewell and Welsh character actor Richard Davies as Mr Price, the exasperated schoolmaster famed for his Columbo-style raincoat and rather dishevelled appearance.
Both of them had given up on the pupils and had an air of gloomy acceptance of their classroom antics, while filled with innocent enthusiasm, Hedges was the perfect foil to his colleagues’ cynicism.
The pupils were sassy and streetwise, such as glamorous Sharon Eversleigh (Penny Spencer), wise-cracking Eric Duffy (Peter Cleall), and would-be tough guy Frankie Abbott (David Barry).
Secretly, Frankie was a bit of a “mummy’s boy”, his leather biker’s jacket and swagger failing to disguise the fact that he was “mummy’s little soldier” who still slept with his teddy bear.
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There are many raucous goings-on at Fenn Street school, mostly involving the hapless Mr Hedges. When a troublesome pupil returns to 5C, after having been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, Hedges decides all he needs is a little discipline, but this doesn’t go down well, and the bruiser calls his uncle in to “sort out” the new teacher.
In another episode, Hedges decides to start a school art club and encourages his pupils to produce some sketches that he can show to the other staff. However, as expected, things don’t go entirely to plan when one student decides to draw a life study of a fellow classmate – in the nude!
The cast went on to star in a spin-off show, The Fenn Street Gang, which followed the pupils’ adventures after they had left school. It focused on their mishaps in the world of work and Mr Hedges guest-starred in a number of episodes. There was also a spin-off ‘Please Sir!’ film, released in 1971.
Fifty years after the first episode of the sitcom, some of the former cast members enjoyed a golden anniversary reunion in September 2018 at The Cinema Museum in London. They included David Barry, Peter Cleall and Penny Spencer.
Barry went on to appear in the film George and Mildred in 1980 and also became a playwright. In 2016, he wrote and starred in his play, A Day in the Lives of Frankie Abbott, described as a ‘bittersweet comedy’. The 75-year-old performed it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it was critically acclaimed, receiving a five-star review.
Cleall, 74, became a highly-respected show business agent for Pelham Associates in Brighton, following a series of acting roles in a number of comedy movies, including Confessions of a Pop Performer in 1975 and Under the Doctor in 1976. He also appeared in several TV series, such as Dempsey and Makepeace, Minder and Are You Being Served?
Spencer, 70, also went on to star in Under the Doctor and a number of other films, such as The Playbirds in 1979. At the 50th anniversary reunion, the former cast members met fans and joined in a question and answer session with the audience.
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