Raymond Allen, who has died aged 82 after suffering from cancer, created the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, which starred Michael Crawford as the accident-prone Frank Spencer and Michele Dotrice as his wife, Betty.
At the age of 31, while working as a cinema cleaner on the Isle of Wight, Allen submitted a single play titled Have a Break, Take a Husband! to the BBC. In his original concept, Frank had not been the main character, but by the time he approached the BBC it had evolved. “The Liver Birds had just started on television,” Allen told me in 1990, “and I remember reading a bit in the paper saying there were few situation comedies written for women, with women in the lead roles. I thought I wanted to write a situation comedy with a woman in the lead. It was Betty Spencer, and Frank was the idiot husband who said very little, just following her around. When I started writing it, I found I had more sympathy with Frank and he started saying more and more, and Betty merged into the background.”
The play featured Frank and Betty as a honeymoon couple in a hotel room – with Allen aware that its few characters and scene changes would make it cheap to produce and more likely to be accepted. After wondering what laughs he could get from the setting, he decided they could smash the place up. This is how Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em’s visual comedy was born, and it would combine with Frank’s malapropisms and hapless exploits to produce one of TV’s most popular sitcoms ever.
The BBC producer and director Michael Mills felt that this new screen couple should be introduced in another story, with Frank applying to be a door-to-door sales rep, while Have a Break, Take a Husband! became the fourth episode. Mills cast Crawford in the role after seeing him on the West End stage in No Sex, Please – We’re British. “He was already doing some of the Frank Spencer mannerisms,” Allen recalled.
Crawford contributed further character traits such as a funny voice and walk, and the trademark black beret and army raincoat. “Ooh, Betty!” and “I’ve had a bit of trouble …” became Frank’s catchphrases. Crawford’s eagerness to perform his own stunts led him to embellish Allen’s ideas in the first series, then come up with ever-more daring ones before future scripts were written.
The show attracted up to 25 million viewers during its two series in 1973 and a return run in 1978, with two Christmas specials in between. However, after Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Allen failed to find another winning formula – leaving him as a one-hit wonder.
He admitted that the character of Frank Spencer was not far removed from himself. “I am accident-prone,” Allen said in 2016. “I tend to drop trays and break things, and I’m always walking into things that have just been painted. I passed my driving test in 1964 but never had a car, as I was so nervous. Twelve years ago, I took a refresher course of eight lessons and ended up putting the car in a ditch and a hedge.”
He was born in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, to Les Allen, a railway supervisor, and his wife, Ivy (nee Ayley). On leaving Ryde secondary modern school aged 16, he was a reporter on the Isle of Wight Times but left after 18 months because he hated working unsocial hours.
He became a sales assistant at a builders’ merchant, then spent three years in an RAF accounts office in Gloucestershire – writing a comedy sketch for a concert – before returning to civvy street in 1961 with an ambition to write full-time. Over the next 10 years, while working as a dishwasher at the Hotel Ryde Castle, then a cleaner at the Regal Cinema, Shanklin, Allen wrote 40 plays, all rejected by the BBC or ITV.
One script reader picked up that Allen had been influenced by Harold Pinter’s device of a character carrying on two conversations at the same time – which he was finally able to put to good effect with Frank Spencer. He made the switch from dramas to comedy with material accepted by the BBC for the revue show Don’t Ask Us (1970) and programmes featuring Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd.
After completing the first two series of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Allen’s next sitcom idea, The Dobson Doughnut (1974), starring Milo O’Shea as a newly retired man whose ambition to sail around the world is constantly thwarted, only made it as far as a pilot screened in 1974. His other pilots, Sidney, You’re a Genius (1977), starring Matthew Kelly and co-written with Jimmy Perry, and Don’t Move Now (1976), a removals firm comedy with David Kelly and Brian Glover, were made but never transmitted.
However, Allen had some success with a 1979 tour of his stage play One of Our Howls Is Missing, starring Christopher Beeny and based on a waiter he knew who put an “H” before everything and owned a stuffed owl. He also wrote sketches for the comedian Jimmy Cricket in All Cricket and Wellies (1986), the 1987 series of the children’s programme Fast Forward and the 1987 and 1988 runs of The Little and Large Show.
However, further sitcom series eluded him. “I found it difficult coming up with another character, partly because I had a genuine feeling towards Frank Spencer,” he told the author Richard Webber. “I tried other things, including one about a school reunion, but they never seemed to work, partly because my characters ended up like new versions of Frank Spencer.”
Allen was reunited with Crawford and Dotrice in 2016 when he and Crawford scripted a new, one-off episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em that ran for 13 minutes during the BBC’s Sport Relief special.
Guy Unsworth’s stage adaptation of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, starring Joe Pasquale, first toured in 2018.
In 2017, Allen married Nancy Williams. She and his stepson, James, survive him.