Once in a while, a TV show is fortunate to possess the synchronicity of plot and writing with current social and political circumstances that it could not fail to be a hit with the viewing public. In Britain in 1983, such a show was "Auf Wiedersehen Pet". The country was in the grip of a recession, while the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had produced a highly polarized nation, in many senses divided between the North and South. The industrial North was suffering greatly from the effects of high unemployment, while the entire country was still grappling with the notion of integration into the European Union - already a reality, but one difficult for insular Britons to come to terms with. Against this backdrop, hard-hitting TV drama such as Alan Bleasdale's "Boys From The Blackstuff" was able to supply some scathing social and political commentary. but the British public in general needed some lighter relief. The comedy-drama "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" filled the niche perfectly, portraying a group of three Geordie bricklayers who take short-term contract work on a building site in Düsseldorf, who, along with four compatriots, made plenty of sideswipes at politics, social and national stereotypes, while providing plenty of humor along the way. While providing gritty realism and satire, it struck a balance between the aggressive nature of Bleasdale's work, and more light entertainment shows such as Carla Lane's "Bread".
"Auf Wiedersehen Pet" was created by Franc Roddam and penned by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, well-established writers of British situation comedy (which bears little resemblance to the American sitcom), and specializing in the most unlikely situations. Their success with shows such as "Porridge" (starring Ronnie Barker as a prison inmate) and "The Likely Lads" had seen them to be established as one of the best comedy-drama writing teams to emerge from the BBC. But "Pet" saw them "defect" to ITV, although not directly. While it has become more and more common since then, "Pet" was one of the first shows produced by an independent TV production company, Allan McKeown's Witzend Productions, on behalf of one of the most progressive ITV franchises, Central Independent Television. ITV was at the time considerably lagging behind the BBC in the popular entertainment categories, perhaps because of its division into regional franchises, and its 100% dependence on advertizing as income. The young Channel 4 was experiencing growing pains, and BBC2 had an established reputation as the culture channel, leaving the ITV network and BBC1 to duke it out in a ratings war for every time slot. Aggressive TV scheduling was the norm, whereby each channel would attempt to straddle two shows on the other, in an attempt to keep people from reaching for the remote control. "Pet" found itself thrown into this turmoil by following Britain's most popular news bulletin, "News At Ten" on a Saturday evening, where it would straddle the current BBC1 variety title and be up against the formidable weekly soccer highlights magazine, "Match Of The Day". Sink or swim scheduling was not unusual, and so "Pet" looked destined to be a cult classic rather than a commercial success.
Other seemingly unusual choices seemed to make it unlikely that "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" would become a success. The core cast of the seven Brits were (with the exception of Pat Roach through his wrestling career) relatively unknown at the time, although the show was to bring many of them to greater things. Kevin Whately, Jimmy Nail. Timothy Spall and Tim Healy all attained further success in television, while Christopher Fairbank and Pat Roach made varied movie appearances. Gary Holton completed the main cast, while German and British character actors filled out the remaining roles. Most of the filming took place on a real German building site. The "significant others" of the group typically made brief appearances throughout the series, but the show focused primarily on the social interactions of the menfolk in their temporary hut (nicknamed the Stalag) on the building site, at work, and of course at the local bierkeller. The show made no excuses either for using strong language to convey realism, although the dreaded bleeper was never used. As a result, Geordie utterances of "Aw b***cks man!" quickly became absorbed into the national consciousness, although none was as disturbing as the regular sights of Jimmy Nail's character "Oz" in distinctly off-color and moth-eaten underwear, or his naked rear end in the showers. "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" also followed the lead of drama shows at the time and applied authentic regional accents to the characters, which could be dangerously close to being considered as offensive stereotypes in comedy. But the authenticity and perhaps the otherwise unrecognizability of the actors served to make the show believable - the actors were the characters they portrayed. In many ways, such decisions became less likely over time, since they were claimed to make it difficult to export the show, but recent successes of international channels such as BBC America may prove them wrong.
The first episode of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" screened on November 11, 1983 and happened to strike a chord both with the viewers with nothing better to do on a Saturday evening drawn by the reputations of Clement and la Frenais, and TV critics alike. It presumably was enough to generate conversation at the water cooler or, more likely, the break room at the assembly line, that Monday morning, and by the next week viewing figures were considerably up. While each episode continued the plot, they were to some extent self-contained, and the introduction of the remaining characters and the fleshing-out of the existing ones meant the new viewers were not left behind. The remainder of the series was destined to achieve a place in British television history. By the third episode, the show was already challenging the weekday evening soap operas for the top spot in the ratings. The "Magnificent Seven" were making tabloid news headlines, and the theme music performed by Joe Fagin (a double A side featuring the opening title music, the poignant modern folk of "Breakin' Away" and the bierkeller-flavored "That's Livin' Alright" of the end title) was also heading for the number one spot. A nation found itself laughing at lines such as "they're the bastards who bombed me granny" while seriously addressing issues such as bigotry, German versus British work ethic, and political issues which perhaps had not until then been of much humor to the British public. The same chemistry existed on-screen as in "Hogan's Heroes", and there were many references to classic prisoner-of-war movies. The series managed to secure over 20 million viewers who were determined to catch up with events in the bierkeller even though they would usually have been in their own pub.
All too soon, it seemed, the series was over, the storylines were wound up, and the seven protagonists returned to England, presumably to resume their former lives where they had left them, although nothing would ever be the same for the actors who played them. But public opinion is a powerful thing, and the British public wanted to see more. Central Television could see a second season could be just as much of a hit, and returned to Witzend Productions with the request. Immediately the writers were faced with a problem - the original series left little opening for a sequel. The contract was over, and European Union employment law seemed to have closed up the loophole which was the basis for the original plot. After several rewrites, the second season brought in Scottish character actor Bill Paterson as bookmaker "Ally Frazer", to whom the group's nominal leader "Dennis" owed a significant amount of money and the agreed payoff was to renovate a country house, then work on Frazer's villa in southern Spain. All of the other cast members were to come to Dennis' aid, but would they be bringing their wives this time? The difficulty of getting a workable storyline was only the beginning. Many of the actors were under other commitments based on the success of the first season, so it was some time before filming began.
It appeared though, like many other shows before and since, that "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" was going to suffer second season blues, and production was hit by various delays. Urban legends of accidents on the set, disagreements between cast and crew, and even claims of a curse were rapidly seized by the British public as explanations of why they were left waiting so long for the return of the magnificent seven. The culmination of all this speculation came when, on October 25, 1985, actor Gary Holton was announced to have been killed by a massive heroin overdose, leaving the grieving cast and crew wondering if the production could, or even should, be finished. With significant editing, use of many long shots using "Wayne" lookalikes, and the development of new scenes, the second series was completed, but it was expected to be merely a shadow of the first runaway success.
Indeed, the British public found they were viewing something very different from the first series. The synchronicity was no longer there, the political situation in Britain appeared to be changing, and the technical difficulties in the series' production were showing through. The spirit of the show had changed to include much more from the team's "significant others", including "Marjorie Osbourne" (played by Su Elliot in a way that Sharon Osbourne might be unnerved by), "Neville's" supposedly-domineering wife "Brenda" (Julia Tobin), "Dennis'" unlikely new girlfriend, "Christine" (Madelaine Newton), and perhaps the most-underrated performance of the series, "Barry's" fiancée "Hazel", played with an incomparable Wolverhampton accent by Melanie Hill. The chemistry was different, the scenario had changed, but the established fan base remained faithful. It came close to the success of the first series by such loyalty alone, but season one proved far more successful in its reruns, once again topping the ratings. Things had moved on both in politics and television, and at the close of the second series the remaining cast members went their own separate ways, many forming careers they would not have had opportunities for were it not for the success of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet".
The Magnificent Seven Returns
Perhaps aware that this was the end of the road, the second series concluded, quite literally, with the boys sailing off into the sunset to who knows where and what. Yet, over fifteen years later, a third season of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" was announced, this time aired by the BBC. The third series came into being through tragedy. Tim Healy was close friends with actor Sammy Johnson, who had appeared in the second season of "Pet" and had also starred with Jimmy Nail in his later projects. Johnson died in 1998, and Tim Healy conceived a charity performance in his memory at Newcastle City Hall, with proceeds dedicated to helping young actors in the area. As part of the performance, original writers Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais wrote three sketches for the three Geordie characters played by Healy, Jimmy Nail and Kevin Whately - one echoing season 1, one for season 2, and one to bring the story up to date. Further coincidences saw creator Franc Roddam involved again, and all were looking for the possibility of another "Pet". Before long, a plot had emerged, which saw the seven moving the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge from the River Tees to the Arizona desert.
The return proved such a success that already a fourth series is in production, this time seeing the group heading to Cuba to assist in the renovation of the British Embassy in Havana. It seems, twenty years from the start of this phenomenon, the boys are back in town.
Cast of main characters
- Dennis (Tim Healy) was the level-headed and pragmatic member of the group and unwillingly assumed the position of their "leader" virtually by default. He understood the necessity of keeping the peace in the Stalag and keeping the seven united and together, while, unknown to them, his own marriage was crumbling and there were rumors of romance with the building site pay clerk, Dagmar (Brigitte Kahn).
- Oz (Jimmy Nail) was instantly recognizable as the face of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet", broken nose and all. Described as capable of "starting a fight in an empty house" and with his own issues concerning Germans and women (but mostly Germans!), he was nevertheless invaluable to be on one's side in conflict.
- Neville (Kevin Whately) was the third of the Geordie bricklayers. Ribbed continually about his henpecked nature and his incessant habit of writing postcards to his recently-wed Brenda, his naivety was a stabilizing influence in the group.
- Bomber (Pat Roach) was by far the largest of the group, usually having to little than flex his enormous six foot six frame to avoid the rest getting into a fight. His deep West Country accent made him the stereotype gentle giant, but his love of hard word led to unexpected issues.
- Barry (Timothy Spall) was another stereotype, loaded with a thick Brummie or Black Country accent (even though Spall was himself a Londoner). Notorious for his drawn-out tales about the "West Bromwich and District Building Society Table Tennis League", and the love of his motorcycle, he managed to find "Moxey" as the outlet for his tales.
- Moxey (Christopher Fairbank) from Liverpool, complete with thick Scouse accent, was the electrician with dermatological problems. His paranoia and nervousness delightfully rendered the Scouse war-cry "Calm down! Calm down!" in times of strife.
- Wayne (Gary Holton) was the blue-haired Cockney wide boy of the group. In many aspects a loner and wont to disappear without a moment's notice, his schemes would unwittingly embroil the others.
Episode Guide: Season 1
All episodes include the original UK first broadcast dates.
- If I Were A Carpenter (Nov 11 1983). On their arrival in Düsseldorf, the three Geordies discover there's only jobs for two bricklayers. Can Neville masquerade as a carpenter?
- Who Won The War Anyway? (Nov 18 1983). After Oz's xenophobia gets him the sack, the last thing anyone expected to find on the site was an unexploded bomb.
- The Girls They left Behind (Nov 25 1983). Oz's wife Marjorie gets with Dennis' wife to find out why she hasn't received any money from him, and Oz is exposed when he finds himself accidentally on the way home.
- Suspicion (Dec 02 1983). Tensions run high as possessions begin disappearing from the hut. Which one of the seven is it?
- Home Thoughts From Abroad (Dec 09 1983). Bomber's runaway daughter appears at the hut. Will the lads be able to convince Oz to put some clothes on?
- The Accused (Dec 16 1983). When Oz upsets the Germans more than usual, and Neville is accused of assault, tensions run high on site.
- Private Lives (Dec 23 1983). Dennis and Dagmar try to get away from Oz's practical jokes.
- The Fugitive (Dec 30 1983). What is the secret of the mysterious hitch-hiker the lads pick up on a fishing trip?
- The Alien (Jan 13 1984). How will the lads remove the violent Magowan (Michael Elphick) from the hut while Bomber is away?
- Last Rites (Jan 20 1984). How can Oz see profit in the death of a fellow worker?
- The Lovers (Jan 27 1984). Oz in love? With a German? Hadn't he best be reminded he's already married?
- Love and Other Four Letter Words (Feb 03 1984). Dennis' wife Vera (Caroline Hutchinson) comes to Germany and wants him back, while Wayne plans to change his philandering ways for Dagmar's assistant Christa (Lysette Anthony).
- When the Boat Goes Out (Feb 10 1984). Will Dennis and Dagmar ever get it together, or are they to be plagued by one disaster after another?
Episode Guide: Season 2
- The Return Of The Seven (Part 1) (Feb 21 1986). Can the gang help Barry finish his house in time for his wedding? And who broke in?
- The Return Of The Seven (Part 2) (Feb 28 1986). Dennis has news of a job in Derbyshire, but is all as it seems?
- A Law for the Rich (Mar 07 1986). Both the locals and the police take an instant dislike to the new 'guests' at the manor.
- Another Country (Mar 14 1986). The manor is a listed building, so work has to stop, leaving Wayne to stir up trouble with the landlord, Arthur Pringle (Bryan Pringle) and his daughter Carole (Catherine Rabbet).
- A Home From Home (Mar 21 1986). Unable to find lodgings anywhere, the crew return to squat in the manor, but find an unexpected chance for revenge on Pringle.
- Cowboys (Mar 28 1996). A new plumber joins the crew, but when the truth about Dennis comes out, everyone is out on strike.
- No Sex Please, We're Brickies (Apr 04 1986). Pringle is causing trouble again. Can the lads seal him up for good this time?
- Marjorie Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Apr 11 1986). How will Oz get to see his son, before Marjorie plans to run away to Italy with her new boyfriend?
- Hasta La Vista (Apr 18 1986). How will the gang kill time when they arrive in Spain too early to start work on the villa?
- Scoop (Apr 25 1986). What could be the harm in a bit of skinnydipping in the pool in Ally's villa?
- Law And Disorder (May 02 1986). The boys' trip becomes a vacation, since they have no work permits, while Ally's stay could become permanent.
- For Better or Worse (May 09 1986). Hazel arrives for her wedding to Barry, and Ally Frazer has a seemingly generous offer to the couple.
- Quo Vadis, Pet (May 16 1986). Barry picks six best men for his wedding, Oz wins the Spanish Lottery, and the customs close in on Ally Frazer. is everything what it appears?
Episode Guide: Season 3
- Bridging The Gap (Apr 28 2002). The gang reunites at Oz's "funeral", and meet with two surprise guests.
- Heavy Metal (May 5 2002). How on earth do the Magnificent Seven, now the bosses, deal with a workforce of Serbs and Kosovons dismantling the bridge?
- Bridge Over Troubled Water (May 12 2002). Work on the bridge isn't the only problem as other personal issues come to the forefront.
- A Bridge Too Far (May 19 2002). Has Oz really managed to sell the bridge over the internet, to a Native American tribe in Arizona?
- Another Country (May 26 2002). After arriving in Arizona and being bailed out of prison on drug-trafficking changes, the team find themselves in a strangely familiar hut.
- An Inspector Calls (Jun 02 2002). Where is Wyman? And where is the missing piece of the bridge?
Episode Guide: Season 4
Filming on season four is completed and the series is in post production, expected to air in the UK in Spring 2004. Thanks to http://www.aufpet.com for the unconfirmed list of episode titles.
- Brittania waives the rules
- Our Men in Havana
- A Gift from Fidel
- Dangerous Liaisons
- The End of the Affair
More information and credits
See the original "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" homepage at http://www.aufpet.com/aufhp.htm for more details. Many thanks go to http://www.aufpet.com and http://www.bbc.co.uk for the information about the third and fourth series.