In 1954, a new television series came to the BBC. With its domestic setting and short episodes, The Grove Family is now recognised as the first soap opera on British television1, though that term wouldn't come into popular usage in the UK until long after The Grove Family had ceased transmission.
The story of an average British family having average British lives may seem a rather tame subject to television viewers in the 21st Century. Soap operas today, such as EastEnders or Coronation Street, rely upon spicy storylines that mix social and political issues with melodrama to make sure viewers come back for the next episode. The established soaps can have new episodes appearing at a rate of four or even five a week, so it takes a lot of commitment on the part of the viewer to keep up with all of the storylines.
In 1954, the United Kingdom had just one television station and the expectations of the viewers were much lower. As today, television reflected the audience, but back then, that audience - ie, the kind of household that could afford to buy a television - was almost entirely white and middle-class.
Early BBC Television
Although the BBC's first experiments with television began in 1932, and regular transmissions started four years later, those broadcasts could be received by only a few hundred households in the area surrounding Alexandra Palace in North London. The television service was switched off in 1939 as war commenced with Germany. Though it's often said this was because of fears that the transmitters could provide the German Luftwaffe with a target right into the heart of London, plans had already been made for the closure of the television service for financial reasons. Many of the technicians were additionally needed for the war effort.
When the television service recommenced in 1946, the schedule only ran for a few hours a day and few people could receive a signal outside of London. Later TV transmitters were erected and in 1953, with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, TV audiences finally overtook those for radio.
It was at this point that the BBC realised it needed to invest more into the television service. While viewers might find some diversion with an entire evening of mock-Elizabethan lifestyle programmes2, what they really wanted was quality drama and entertainment that the whole family could enjoy, regardless of their background or demographic group. The Quatermass Experiment was an early drama that had audiences gripped. Though it was very popular and led swiftly to two sequels, it wasn't entirely suitable for the family (or, as the announcements at the beginning of some episodes phrased it: 'not suitable for children or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition').
What was needed was something that would entertain the entire family, represent modern life in the average household and fulfil the BBC remit to educate and inform as well as entertain.
BBC producer John Warrington came up with the idea of a weekly serial with a domestic setting, and the series was developed and written by father-and-son team Ronald and Michael Pertwee.
The first episode of The Grove Family aired on 8 April 1954 with an introduction to the characters, presented by Michael Pertwee.
Broadcast live from the BBC's Lime Grove Studios (which also inspired the name of the series), each episode aired at around 7.30 each Friday evening (or occasionally on a Wednesday) and lasted between 15 to 20 minutes3.
From episode two, 'A House of Your Own', viewers got to see the characters in action, though compared to modern programming, 'action' might be pushing it a little. Still, viewers appeared to love the series with over 9 million of them tuning in to see the latest episodes. They wrote in to the BBC's magazine, Radio Times, often to criticise the grumpy old Gran or pass comment on the family's activities. On a visit to Lime Grove, even the Queen Mother professed to being an ardent viewer.
Meet the Groves
We decided that if the family was to have some semblance of reality, not every member should have wings sprouting from their shoulders. Thus, the elder son Jack is bit of a smart alick[sic]. The elder daughter Pat has a number of boyfriends whom she does not treat very well and grandma is best described as 'crotchety'.
Writer Michael Pertwee.
The Grove family lived in Hendon, North London. Father of the house was Bob, a builder. He shared the home with his wife, Grace, their children Jack, Pat, Daphne and Lennie, and Grace's mother, known to all as 'Gran'.
Interviewed for TV Mirror in 1954, Michael Pertwee revealed that the head of the household, Bob Grove, was originally written as a commissionaire at a film studio, before Ronald Pertwee came up with the idea of making him a builder:
Being in business for himself, the man would be subject to all the fluctuations of fortune caused by economic conditions. He would have many more problems being in the open market.
An important aspect of the family was that the children were of the same age range as many of the viewers, some of whom had written to the BBC to hear more children like themselves in radio productions. Elder son Jack was 23 and elder daughter Pat was 21. Younger daughter Daphne was 13 and struggled at school, while her younger brother Lennie was 11 and seen as very smart. Unlike such radio serials as Mrs Dale's Diary or The Archers, the children were central to the storylines and were often responsible for that week's main plotline, whether vaguely dramatic or broadly comedic. The older children also helped play out some of the social debate within the family, providing a more modern counterbalance to their traditional parents or reactionary Gran.
The family was designed to reflect the average post-war family, but the series also helped to reinforce attitudes at the time. During the war, women had taken on most of the jobs that men had done, but once the men came back from fighting, the expectation was that women would return to their traditional work in the home and allow them men to return to their jobs. Though there was some resistance to this, in general things went back to how they were before, and so we see Grace Grove, though very much in charge in the kitchen and responsible for the family's welfare, still deferent to her husband, as the principal wage-earner in the house. Gran is cared for as part of the extended family and was a comical burden - forever moaning and asking when she might expect some tea as she was 'faint from lack of nourishment', but loved all the same.
The weekly events of the family were free of the tragedy and distress modern soap families have to endure at the hands of their writers. The stories had few connecting strands, beyond the central characters, with each episode being largely self contained. Lennie considered running away to America when he was told he couldn't have a pet, but he was still present in the next episode; Grace had to have a minor operation one week, but this merely served to remind the characters how important she is as they fail to keep up with the daily tasks she takes in her stride; and even when escaped convicts threatened Gran and Grace, it's the convicts who come off worse. Though some stories were stretched out over two episodes, there was little evidence of what we now call the dramatic 'story arc'.
Many episodes showed off the series' Reithian4 good intentions, with episodes explaining the latest education act or a visiting policeman showing Bob Grove the various ways that he can safeguard his home from burglars.
The most dramatic incident of all came in what would be the final episode of the series, when a family holiday ends with an air sea rescue. Despite Jack being knocked unconscious after he and Lennie were caught out by changing weather sending their boat adrift, this merely served to provide an opportunity for the programme to show viewers at home what to do in similar circumstances. It didn't seem to spoil their holiday too much.
Despite the popularity of the series, The Grove Family was brought to an abrupt end. When Michael and Ronald Pertwee asked for time off from writing the scripts, the response was to cancel the series outright. This does not appear to have been down to the producer, John Warrington, as just a few weeks before the axe fell, he'd invited readers of Radio Times to send in story ideas. But with falling ratings due in part to new challenges posed by ITV, the series came to an end on 28 June, 1957.
Born in Brighton in 1885, Ronald Pertwee was a playwright of some success (most notably Pink Strings and Sealing Wax, which was subsequently adapted for television on many occasions). He was also a screenwriter since the early days of British cinema, with over 60 films bearing his name between 1919 and 1955. Though he wrote screenplays for two films with his son in the late-1950s, The Grove Family would be his last great creation. He died in 1963, aged 78.
Michael Pertwee was a novelist, playwright and screen writer prior to The Grove Family. The series was not his first collaboration with his father; he adapted their play The Paragon for the screen as Silent Dust (1949).
After the abrupt cancellation of the series, Michael jumped ship to the newly-formed ITV, writing for series such as Armchair Theatre, The Invisible Man, Danger Man, The Saint and The Persuaders. He continued to write screenplays too, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973). He died in 1991.
Incidentally, Ronald's's other son, Jon, was also in show-business, as an actor and entertainer who soon became a household name thanks to appearances in radio comedies such as The Navy Lark and the TV series Doctor Who. Ronald's nephew, Bill Pertwee, followed Jon's footsteps into comedy, most famously as the Air raid warden Hodges in Dad's Army.
Edward Evans (Mr Bob Grove)
Edward Evans had appeared in nearly 20 films before he took on the part of Bob Grove, and despite fears of typecasting, he continued to work steadily until 1987, when he made his final TV appearance in the mini-series Heart of the Country. He joined the cast of Coronation Street in 1965 to play Lionel Petty, and Doctor Who fans can spot him as the coven member Ted Moss in the 1977 adventure 'Image of the Fendahl'. He died in 2001.
Ruth Dunning (Gladys Grove)
Perhaps playing on her matriarchal role in The Grove Family, Ruth Dunning later starred as herself in an advert for Persil. Her husband John Dunning was an Academy Award-winning film editor on such films as Showboat (1951) and Julius Caesar (1953). Working regularly on TV and in films throughout her life, her last TV appearance came in a 1980 Play for Today called 'Jude'. She died in 1983.
Nancy Roberts (Gran)
Born in 1882 in St Asaph, Wales, Nancy Roberts was an experienced actress of the stage and screen, including a major role in Michael Powell's Black Narcissus (1947). For many, her portrayal of Gran in The Grove Family stole the show, with her grumpy, ungrateful attitude entertaining and horrifying viewers in equal measure. Her final TV appearance came in 1961, in an episode of The Avengers called 'Tunnel of Fear'. She died the following year.
Peter Bryant (Jack Grove)
Peter Bryant later gave up acting to become a director and producer. As producer of Doctor Who in the late-1960s, it was he who decided on Jon Pertwee as Patrick Troughton's replacement as the Doctor. Bryant died in 2006.
Sheila Sweet / Carole Mowlam (Pat Grove)
The role of elder daughter Pat was played by two actresses: first, Sheila Sweet; then in the later episodes by Carole Mowlam.
Sheila Sweet had been an associate at RADA and in 1960 she starred in the TV series A Life Of Bliss. She died in 2003. Carole Mowlam is possibly best known for playing secretary-with-a-secret Clare Miller in the TV drama The Brothers.
Margaret Downs (Daphne Grove)
Margaret Downs played youngest daughter of the family, Daphne. Sadly, The Grove Family appears to have been her only substantial screen role.
Christopher Beeny (Lennie Grove)
Christopher Beeny is one of those rare performers to make the leap from playing juvenile roles to adults. In the 1970s, he became famous again thanks to a starring role in the ITV drama Upstairs Downstairs and went on to star alongside Thora Hird in the comedy series In Loving Memory. In 2001, he joined the cast of sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.
Lost from the Archives
Like most television of the time, The Grove Family was broadcast live. The technology and resources to record every episode wasn't available. Additionally, the BBC had an uneasy agreement with the actors' union Equity that restricted the amount of programmes they might record, as the union feared that repeats might remove opportunities for the actors to get paid work.
Only two episodes survive to represent The Grove Family in the BBC Archives - 'Prevention or Cure' from 21 March, 1956, in which the family get a lesson in burglar awareness, and the final episode, 'Under Way', in which the family go on holiday.
It's a Great Day - The Groves at the Movies
In Post-war Britain, the film industry was suffering at the expense of imports from Hollywood. To try to bolster British film-making, a quota system was introduced compelling cinemas to show a strict number of British films. This of course meant that British film studios had to produce the films for them to show! As television began to take up more and more of people's leisure time, one solution was for film studios to make pictures that tied in with the popular TV and radio of the day. So it was that the cast of The Grove Family was assembled to star in a film, to be shot at Shepperton Studios and using an original screenplay by Michael and Ronald Pertwee. It was called It's a Great Day.
Bob Groves has secured a contract to build a housing estate. Hoping to get the project finished in time for a visit from Princess Margaret, Bob accepts building materials from Charlie Mead (Victor Maddern), a friend of his son, Jack. Unbeknownst to Jack, Charlie is a crook and the materials he supplied were stolen. Charlie's dodgy materials alert the council supervisor, who decides that Bob Grove is unfit to meet the Princess and informs the police. The Grove family must unite to clear their father's name and get the project finished in time.
The cast also recreated their characters for another film around the same time. Man of the Moment starred Norman Wisdom and featured the Grove family, along with detective Fabian of the Yard, in cameo performances.
The Grove Family Revived
In 1991, to mark the anniversary of Lime Grove Studios, the BBC staged a recreation of The Grove Family using modern actors from the soaps. As Grace Grove, Sue Johnston from Brookside joined EastEnders actors Leslie Grantham (Bob), Anna Wing (Gran) and Nick Berry (Jack) to recreate an episode from the original series.
The two surviving original episodes have been repeated subsequently as part of other commemorative evenings on BBC Four.
- Series Produced by John Warrington
- Theme Music by Eric Spear5
- Scripts by Ronald and Michael Pertwee
- 'Michael Pertwee introduces the cast' (08 April 1954)
- 'A House Of Your Own' (09 April 1954)
- 'The Good Samaritans' (16 April 1954)
- 'Deadly Poison' (23 April 1954)
- 'A Hundred Not Out' (30 April 1954)
- 'The Ears Have It' (07 May 1954)
- 'Clean Sweep' (14 May 1954)
- 'Royal Welcome' (21 May 1954)
- 'A Dangerous Plaything' (28 May 1954)
- 'Looking One's Best' (04 June 1954)
- 'Midsummer Madness' (11 June 1954)
- 'Tinker - Tailor' (18 June 1954)
- 'Crisis' (25 June 1954)
- 'Slick Dealing' (02 July 1954)
- 'Convalescence' (09 July 1954)
- 'What's Wrong?' (16 July 1954)
- 'Thunder Abroad' (23 July 1954)
- 'Daphne To The Fore' (30 July 1954)
- 'Don't Talk To Strangers' (06 August 1954)
- 'Going Away' (13 August 1954)
- 'A Fine View Of The Sea' (20 August 1954)
- 'Romance While You Wait' (27 August 1954)
- 'Return' (03 September 1954)
- 'Lessons Learned' (10 September 1954)
- 'Bread Upon The Waters' (17 September 1954)
- 'Silver Wedding' (24 September 1954)
- 'Gran's Night Out' (01 October 1954)
- 'Time Bomb' (08 October 1954)
- 'Power Of The Dog' (15 October 1954)
- 'A Home Perm' (22 October 1954)
- 'Dramatic Licences' (29 October 1954)
- 'Don't Forget The Guy' (05 November 1954)
- 'Sink Or Swim' (12 November 1954)
- 'Getting The Creeps' (19 November 1954)
- 'Getting Even' (26 November 1954)
- 'Jack's Romance' (03 December 1954)
- 'Stag Party' (10 December 1954)
- 'Mrs. Clandon Calls' (17 December 1954)
- 'Christmas Eve' (24 December 1954)
- 'New Year's Eve' (31 December 1954)
- 'Rabbits' (07 January 1955)
- 'The Green Eye' (14 January 1955)
- 'A Real Bargain' (21 January 1955)
- 'The All-Risks Policy' (28 January 1955)
- 'Coming Into A Fortune' (04 February 1955)
- 'Be My Valentine' (11 February 1955)
- 'Parlez-Vous Français?' (18 February 1955)
- 'A Matter Of Principle' (25 February 1955)
- 'Now Or Never' (04 March 1955)
- 'He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not' (11 March 1955)
- 'A Friend In Need' (18 March 1955)
- 'A Good Turn-Out' (25 March 1955)
- 'April Foolery' (01 April 1955)
- 'Love Thy Neighbour' (08 April 1955)
- 'A Voice From The Past' (15 April 1955)
- 'The Baby Watchers' (22 April 1955)
- 'Gran's Birthday' (29 April 1955)
- 'Rebound' (06 May 1955)
- 'Lost, Stolen Or Strayed' (13 May 1955)
- 'Blue Rinse' (20 May 1955)
- 'Accidents Will Happen' (27 May 1955)
- 'A Thief In The Family' (03 June 1955)
- 'Press Lord' (10 June 1955)
- 'Across The Street' (17 June 1955)
- 'Pneumonia' (24 June 1955)
- 'The Duchess' (01 July 1955)
- 'The Price Ticket' (07 September 1955)
- 'One For The Road' Episode 1 (14 September 1955)
- 'One For The Road' Episode 2 (21 September 1955)
- 'It's The Thought That Counts' (28 September 1955)
- 'Standing Room Only' (05 October 1955)
- 'Idle Gossip' (12 October 1955)
- 'Don't Get Your Feet Wet' (19 October 1955)
- 'When We Were Young' Episode 1 (26 October 1955)
- 'When We Were Young' Episode 2 (02 November 1955)
- 'It's No Trouble' (09 November 1955)
- 'Step Or Step Down' Episode 1 (16 November 1955)
- 'Step Or Step Down' Episode 2 (23 November 1955)
- 'It's You I Love' (30 November 1955)
- 'The Gang' (07 December 1955)
- 'The Christmas Card' (14 December 1955)
- 'Windfall' (21 December 1955)
- 'Later Two Men Were Detained' (28 December 1955)
- 'Sour Grapes' (04 January 1956)
- 'Me - By Daphne Grove' (11 January 1956)
- 'The Under-Fifteens' (18 January 1956)
- 'The Assailant' (25 January 1956)
- 'The Champion' (01 February 1956)
- 'Leaving Home' Episode 1' (08 February 1956)
- 'Leaving Home' Episode 2' (15 February 1956)
- 'The Cellar' (22 February 1956)
- 'On Approval' (29 February 1956)
- 'The Decision' (07 March 1956)
- 'For Want Of Nourishment' (14 March 1956)
- 'Prevention or Cure' (21 March 1956)
- 'But Once A Year' (28 March 1956)
- 'Olive Green' (04 April 1956)
- 'No Smoking' (11 April 1956)
- 'As Young As You Feel' (18 April 1956)
- 'A Spring Offensive' (25 April 1956)
- 'The Gold Brick' (02 May 1956)
- 'The Prescription' (09 May 1956)
- 'Daphne's Room' (16 May 1956)
- 'Skeleton In The Cupboard' (23 May 1956)
- 'Lord Of The Manor' (30 May 1956)
- 'Silver Lining' (06 June 1956)
- 'Betters Can't Be Losers' (13 June 1956)
- 'Quite The Man' (20 June 1956)
- 'For Kindness Received' (27 June 1956)
- 'New Blood' (03 October 1956)
- 'Problem Child' (10 October 1956)
- 'The Ladder' (17 October 1956)
- 'The Choice' (24 October 1956)
- 'No Peace For Dad' (31 October 1956)
- 'Suspense' (07 November 1956)
- 'A Little Bit Cracked' (14 November 1956)
- 'Coming In Useful' (21 November 1956)
- 'Let's Start Again' (28 November 1956)
- 'Old Folks' (05 December 1956)
- 'The Shoplifter' (12 December 1956)
- 'Somebody Special' (19 December 1956)
- 'Permit To View' (02 January 1957)
- 'Petty Larceny' (09 January 1957)
- 'Moving Out' (16 January 1957)
- 'Many Hands' (23 January 1957)
- 'Do It Yourself!' (30 January 1957)
- 'The Meeting' (06 February 1957)
- 'Road Safety' (13 February 1957)
- 'Taking His Mind Off It' (20 February 1957)
- 'Fear' Part 1 (27 February 1957)
- 'Fear' Part 2 (06 March 1957)
- 'Business As Usual' (13 March 1957)
- 'Holding The Baby' (20 March 1957)
- 'An Englishman's Home' (27 March 1957)
- 'Nothing But The Truth' (05 April 1957)
- 'Lease And Let Live' (12 April 1957)
- 'The Seeds Of Friendship' (18 April 1957)
- 'A Match For Everybody' (26 April 1957)
- 'Gran's Birthday' (03 May 1957)
- 'House Bound' (10 May 1957)
- 'Close To The Wind' (17 May 1957)
- 'Title unknown (24 May 1957)
- 'The Missing Masterpiece' (31 May 1957)
- 'Food For Thought' (07 June 1957)
- 'A Complete Rest' (14 June 1957)
- 'Many Happy Returns' (21 June 1957)
- 'Under Way' (28 June 1957)