The Rag Trade was another one of those popular, early 1960s sitcoms just bursting with recognisable Carry On faces. It is also, rather sadly, one of those legendary shows that we hardly ever see broadcast nowadays. The series originally ran on the BBC between 1961 and 1963 (three series) and then came back, this time on ITV for two further series between 1977 and 1978. So let's have a look back at this comedy classic.
The main premise of The Rag Trade was the ongoing battle between the management and the workers at Fenner's Fashions, a textile factory in London. The boss at the factory was Harold Fenner, played by Peter Jones, most well remembered these days for his long running appearances in Radio 4's Just A Minute alongside Kenneth Williams. Peter Jones was a reliable character actor who appeared in two Carry Ons, Doctor and England. Starring alongside Jones was a pre On The Buses Reg Varney as Reg, the works foreman and the legendary Miriam Karlin as the militant shop steward Paddy. Karlin gained herself a catch phrase still familiar today (and borrowed by Kenneth Cope and Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On At Your Convenience) - "Everybody Out!"
Miriam Karlin was a formidable presence off screen as well as on. Interestingly, she became a good friend of Kenneth Williams, despite the fact that while she was incredibly left wing politically, Williams was quite far to the right. They often met at Equity Union meetings and their exchanges were recorded in Kenneth's wonderful diaries.
While Jones, Varney and Karlin were the leads in The Rag Trade, some of the real stars of the show came in the form of the assorted workforce that graced the original 1960s series. The wonderful Sheila Hancock (Carry On Cleo) led the pack as Carole. Joining her were Esma Cannon (Constable, Regardless, Cruising & Cabby) in a rare television role and none other than Carry On leading lady Barbara Windsor as Gloria. Esma stayed for the first two series and was on reliably twittery form while Barbara featured in just series one. Other actresses to join the ranks included Wanda Ventham (Cleo, Up The Khyber, The Big Job), Gwendolyn Watts (Doctor, Again Doctor, Matron) and Carmel Cryan who was married to Roy Kinnear and is the mother of the very successful actor Rory Kinnear.
While The Rag Trade boasted a strong cast of reliable character actors, it also featured a glut of familiar Carry On faces in one off guest roles. Over the course of the first three series the likes of June Whitfield, Irene Handl, Terry Scott, Dilys Laye, Judith Furse, Brian Oulton, Frank Thornton and Peter Gilmore all appeared. With top acting talent like that on board how could the series be anything other than a roaring success?
While many modern day viewers might look back at this black and white curiosity from fifty years ago with disinterest, the show was actually breaking new ground. At the time comedy on television was mostly dominated by middle class, middle aged men. For the first time, The Rag Trade put working class women at the centre of the action. It also dealt with themes that had not previously been seen on television, let alone a situation comedy. While strikes were perhaps more of an issue back then than they are today (although maybe not!) there is a definite social and political context to this comedy that makes it interesting viewing even today.
There was an attempt to bring The Rag Trade back to our screens by London Weekend Television in 1977. LWT secured the original writers, Ronald Chesney and Ronald Woolfe, and two of the original stars, Peter Jones and Miriam Karlin, and produced two further series. Sadly, times had moved on and the rebooted Rag Trade was less of a success. As with the BBC sitcom Sykes, the new, colour version of The Rag Trade used many original 1960s scripts on its return.
Joining Jones and Karlin in the 1970s series were Anna Karen, reprising her role as Olive from On The Buses. Writers Chesney and Woolfe also created On The Buses so simply transported Olive to Fenner's Fashions. Also starring was Diane Langton, who had most recently appeared in several episodes of the ATV series Carry On Laughing and played the Barbara Windsor type role in Carry On England. The series also featured the likes of Christopher Beeny and Gillian Taylforth. By all accounts the series lacked the impact and charm of the original.
Although I believe the LWT series has been released on DVD, sadly many of the original BBC episodes have long since been wiped. It would be lovely to see those that do remain receive an airing, either on BBC2 or perhaps on one of the many stations that now exist to show classic programmes from times gone by. Surely given the fact The Rag Trade starred the likes of Sheila Hancock, Barbara Windsor and Miriam Karlin, there would still be an audience for repeats?
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