Newton's laws of television

May To December

A series overview by Matthew Newton

May To December was a series which had regular repeats, high ratings and ran for six series. However, for a series that enjoyed such success, it began with few such prentensions. The series began on Sunday evenings in April 1989, significantly not as part of either of the high profile new seasons, and although adequately publicised it appeared to be just another of the harmless sit-coms trotted out on BBC1 throughout the year. However, unlike many such comedies, May To Decemberturned out to be a charming character driven series that also happened to be very funny as well.

The very first episode, "It Never Entered My Mind", quickly established the main characters and sets up the main plot that would carry the series. We are introduced to Semple, Callender and Henty, a firm of solicitors in the Middlesex suburb of Pinner, and in particular to its senior partner, Alec Callender (a surname certainly influenced by the title of the series). Alec, a pleasant 53 year old Scottish widower, has two great passions - musicals and Perry Mason - the latter being Alec's great hero to such extent that a photograph of Raymond Burr in the role adorns his office wall (signed "Cheers Alec, let's crack open a case sometime. Perry"!). One of Alec's new clients is a Mrs Zoe Angell, an attractive 26 year old PE teacher at Eldon High School, who is seeking a divorce to end her eight year marriage after her husband has had an affair. Zoe also has an interest in musicals, and this mutual interest draws Alec and Zoe together, although sparks fly at first and Zoe storms out of the offices twice. The rest of this first season watches as this relationship defies the age gap and develops, from this first meeting to their first date and beyond, and examines the reactions Alec and Zoe get to their relationship from their respective families and friends.

However, the great joys of the series are the characters. Alec and Zoe are of course the leads and are both immensely likable, but it is the supporting roles which colour the series. There are effectively two groups of characters, the colleagues and family of each of Alec and Zoe, who rarely mix. In the first group the highest profile is given to Miles Henty, Alec's partner (Mr Semple died some years ago but his name is still retained by the firm). Mr Henty is a colourful character, a middle aged man with more than a passing interest in the opposite sex and a resulting bumpy relationship with his wife, a sculptress called Annabel. Mr Henty is a self-proclaimed expert in what he calls "popsy pursuit" and he encourages Alec to ask Zoe out early in the series, although he finds the idea that Alec is looking for a serious relationship and not a bit of fun totally alien.

Eve Matheson as the original Zoe

Also working at Semple, Callender and Henty are the firm's secretaries, Vera Flood and Hilary. Vera, or Miss Flood as she is virtually always referred to as (we don't find out her christian name until episode three), has been working for Alec for 23 years, always immensely reliable and sensible. Miss Flood is a spinster, watching life pass her by and it seems never going to get a chance at personal happiness. However Miss Flood is a total contrast to the other secretary. Hilary (we never find out her surname) is attractive, blonde, well meaning and not particularly bright. Hilary joins Semple, Callender and Henty in the first episode, and she is immediately noticed by Mr Henty who is constantly taking her out to lunch. The character of Hilary is very well used and she is often given many of the funniest lines - or is the butt of them. One very funny moment comes in "Anything You Can Do" when Hilary overhears one of Alec's clients talking about a bimbo and asks Miss Flood what and is told that one "is often blonde, pretty and empty-headed."

Alec's son and daughter also appear. His son, Jamie, is 21 and a law student with Marxist ideals and a very well developed sense of humour - every time he visits his father it is with a new practical joke, be it a confession to murder or an invisible dog. In this first season, Jamie is always seen as cheerful and he always brightens up any scene he is. Again in total contrast is his sister, Simone, a woman of very strict principles (according to Jamie "she believes in separate honeymoons") who also happens to be a vicar's wife. She also happens to be older than Zoe. Simone only appears in two episodes this season - she would become more prominent later - and one of these, "They Didn't Believe Me", builds up to her finding out about Alec and Zoe. She at first believes Zoe to be Jamie's girlfriend, but when she finds out the truth she almost has a seizure and, to put it mildly, she disproves of the relationship.

The characters on Zoe's side are generally less significant. The main person we meet is her sister, Debbie, who works in their parents' greengrocers shop and lives with her boyfriend, Trevor. Debbie is unfortunately not endowed with much character and is not given much to do other than give Zoe someone to talk to and bemoan the fact that Trevor is always working nights. More important is Roy Morgan Jones, the boys' PE teacher at Eldon High. Roy is Welsh, and is incredibly fit, but not exactly clever or sophisticated, preferring a good rugby match to visiting an art gallery. He is the closest thing that Zoe has to a boyfriend at the start of the series, so he is not exactly delighted when Zoe meets Alec, and he is constantly making jokes about his age.

May To December was created by Paul A Mendelson and was his first work for television. Indeed, while writing the first series he was working as an advertising account executive. However, he had previously worked as a law graduated in a family law firm, and his observations there concerning the way that clients and solicitors interracted inspired the creation of Alec and Zoe. Mendelson made Alec Scottish, the nationality of his father, and gave the character his own passions of musicals and Perry Mason. Zoe was named after one of Mendelson's daughter; his second daughter, Tammy, latter provided the name for a character in his second comedy series, So Haunt Me. Zoe's occupation came from the fact that Mendelson's wife was also a teacher and the setting of Pinner in Middlesex was his own home town.

Producer and director of the first season was Sydney Lotterby, an experienced BBC comedy producer, whose work stretches back to the 60s and had included such classics as Porridge. This time Lotterby was working outside the BBC as May To December was a product of the Corporation's increased output by independent producers, and was the first major venture for Cinema Verity, set up by ex-BBC and Euston Films producer Verity Lambert. The series seemed to be a springboard for the company, whose later productions included Boys From The Bush, the Peter Howitt vehicle Coasting, the excellent comedy drama Sleepers, as well as So Haunt Me and, dare I mention it, Eldorado.

Anton Rodgers as Alec

Although Paul Mendelson created many good characters, a lot of the credit for their success must go to the actors and actresses who portrayed them. Although May To December was very much an ensemble piece, probably the star of the series was Anton Rodgers, who played Alec. During the 60s Rodgers built himself a respectable career appearing in many ITC series, including Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), Man In A Suitcase, The Prisoner and The Champions. He later became associated with situation comedy, playing Julia McKenzie's husband in Fresh Fields and its successor French Fields. In a strange case of art imitating life, Rodgers himself was married to a woman some 25 years his junior. But regardless of all this, the casting was perfect and Rodgers managed to create a warm and likable character in Alec.

Cast opposite Rodgers was Eve Matheson as Zoe, a seemingly unusual choice as she was mainly a classical actress before this, with the lead in the Sunday classic serial Vanity Fair amongst her credits.

The rest of the cast were generally unknowns, but with a sprinkling of familiar faces. One of these was Clive Francis, who played Mr Henty, an established actor with numerous television and film appearances and who also appeared in the LWT comedy The Piglet Files in which he played a very similar role to Mr Henty. Another recognisable face belongs to Frances White, whose career of playing glamorous leads (including Doctor Who "The Mythmakers") had now given way to dowdy secretaries in series such as A Very Peculiar Practice and now with Miss Flood. Less well-known was Rebecca Lacey, daughter of Ronald Lacey (from "Raiders of the Lost Ark", amongst many other credits), who would make Hilary one of the most popular characters in May To December. She had previously appeared in series such as The Bretts, The Bill and Home To Roost in which she was a semi-regular as John Thaw's daughter. Her subsequent appearances included a regular role in Casualty. Another daughter of a famous father is Carolyn Pickles (Simone), daughter of the notorious Judge James Pickles. The rest of the regular and semi-regular cast were relatively unknown, including the two Pauls, Venables and Raynor, who played Jamie and Roy respectively.

With the first set of episodes deemed a success, a second series was commissioned. Although still produced and directed by Sydney Lotterby this season was to see a number of changes. Firstly Clive Francis only appeared in the opening episode "What Kind of Fool Am I?" in which Mr Henty was written out (he was going to try and retrieve his wife after she had left him to live with a stone mason in St Ives). Also, although the theme tune to the series remained the same - a version of September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson from the 1944 film Knickerbocker Holiday which fits the series perfectly - a new title sequence was used, and the graphics showing a tree aging through the seasons (from May to December) was replaced by a mainly clip-based sequence. An unusual precedent occurred when the repeats of the first series in 1990 also used these new titles, presumably for a more uniform look as seasons one and two were repeated in succession. There were actually two version of the new titles; one credited Clive Francis (used for "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and the season one repeats) and the other (seen on the rest of the second season) didn't. The change in opening titles saw a corresponding change in end credits, with the cast now credited as the parts they play rather than in a generic list.

Apart from Clive Francis's departure, the regular and semi-regular cast from the first season continued to appear, although now the Zoe/Alec relationship was established the character of Roy was now not as important and he only appeared in two episodes. Zoe's parents appear slightly more than in the previous season and in "I Remember It Well" we find out they are called Barry and Dot and that Zoe's maiden name is Burgess. Sonia, a biology teacher at Eldon High and the only person who accepted her relationship with Alec without question, also reappears during this season after being introduced at the end of the previous season. Elsewhere, there was an occasional shift in emphasis, with Jamie having now finished his course and replacing Mr Henty at Semple, Callender and Henty.

The general storyline of the season continued in much the same way as previously, with just the occasional diversion (one episode concentrates on Alec's attempts to teach Zoe to drive), eventually leading to Alec moving into Zoe's flat. However, things were not to run so smooth and the sixth episode, titled "No Other Love", saw Alec and Zoe split up, their relationship apparently doomed. However, a seventh episode was forthcoming, which sees the pair reunited when Alec mistakenly believes that Zoe is pregnant - shades of things to come!

With the second season ending like this it became apparent that a third was intended. However, it is quite possible that the series would have been forced into ending here when Eve Matheson decided to leave the series after being offered a world tour with the National Theatre. The very nature of May To December prevented Zoe being written out and replaced by a different character, so the brave decision to recast the part was made. The actress chosen to fill Zoe's tracksuit was Lesley Dunlop, who had started her career as a child actress but was a regular in Angels and had appearanced in programmes such as The Sweeney, Boon and Doctor Who. This forced change could have proved disastrous for the series, but fortunately it survived and even thrived, due in no part to Ms Dunlop not doing an impersonation of her predecessor but just playing Zoe in her own way. Another person to depart the series after the second season was Sydney Lotterby, who was replaced by Sharon Bloom as producer (who had been associate producer on series two) and Paul Harrison as director. Surprisingly this change in creative control would have little effect on the series, which would continue in much the same style as before - with just one episode proving the exception.

Alec fails to notice the change in his wife!

The third season began with what was described as a Christmas special, a fifty minute episode called "I'll See You In My Dreams", shown on New Year's Eve 1990. Whereas the inherent strength of May To December is in its characters, this episode is very much plot reliant and is much poorer because of it. The episode concerns the events leading up to the 25th anniversary of Alec becoming a solicitor when there has been a number of break-ins in solicitors' offices in the area, including Semple, Callender and Henty, leading to Alec trying to solve the crimes and emulate his hero Perry Mason. Because of this there are a number of fantasy scenes, filmed in black and white and occasionally featuring a piece of music which sounds almost but not exactly like the Perry Mason theme, where Alec is Perry (complete with a photograph of Alec on his office wall!) with most of the regulars playing a second role. It is interesting that the character of Zoe doesn't appear until almost ten minutes in, save for the adapted title sequence and a photograph on Alec's desk, deliberately anticipating our expectations of seeing Eve Matheson's replacement. However, the episode generally comes over as silly and self indulgent, but as it was Christmas I suppose we could forgive them.

With the next episode, "That'll Be The Day", May To December returned to more familiar ground and produced one of the best episodes of the series, concerning Zoe's attitudes towards her and Alec actually marrying and featuring Paul Venables' excellent Buddy Holly impression (the clever episode title refers to both of these). Despite the change in cast, the third series is still incredibly good, featuring some very funny moments and lines and occasionally some effective sentimental scenes. We also meet a couple of new characters during the season. The most important of these for this season is Anthony, Miss Flood's nephew who arrives in Pinner in "It's All in the Game" when he is temporarily working in London and staying with his aunty. Much to Miss Flood's horror it becomes immediately apparent that Anthony and Hilary are attracted to each other and their relationship develops during the season, coinciding as it does with Hilary's "trial separation" from her boyfriend Derek, a character who had been mentioned since the very first episode (although not named until "Send in the Clowns") but never seen. This season also sees romance for Miss Flood when in "Feelings" she reveals that she has met Gerald, a surgeon. However, when Hilary bumps into Gerald later in the same episode we find out that he actually plasters broken arms and Miss Flood had exaggerated slightly. Gerald would prove to be a more important character during the following season.

The final episode of series three, "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans", appeared to draw the series to its natural conclusion, as it is a brilliant episode with a perfect ending. The plot mainly revolves around a series of misunderstandings which make it appear that both Alec and Jamie fancy Hilary, who is pining for her "Tone" who has by now returned to Newcastle. Zoe discovers that she is pregnant, but is dismayed to find that everyone seemed to know before she did (by "reading the signs"). Anthony returns to Pinner and he and Hilary announce their engagement (Miss Flood is not exactly delighted!) and eventually the episode - and one would have assumed the entire series - ends with Alec and Zoe eloping to Gretna Green to get married.

However, popular television is not normally concerned with artistic merits, and contrary to reports that the third season had been unsuccessful (low ratings?) and the series had been axed, the episodes had obtained a reasonably high number of viewers and a totally unwarranted fourth season was thrust upon us, despite even Anton Rodgers' initial misgivings. The director was now John Kilby, who had worked for many years at the BBC on programmes like The Goodies and was now freelance, although I don't think this was the reason why this new batch of episodes failed. The big problem was that it had nothing to do; the previous three seasons had followed Alec and Zoe's relationship from their first meeting to eventual marriage with a baby on the way. So it was not surprising that the six new episodes (the shortest season since the first) basically turned May To December into a soap opera with a few laughs every so often - and it even failed here by mostly being nowhere near as funny as previously with mostly only Rebecca Lacey carrying much of the humour. Nowhere is this new style more apparent than in the fourth episode, "The Party's Over" in which Zoe suffers a miscarriage.

The season opener, "This Could be the Start of Something Big" basically had to sort out the loose ends from "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans" and actually succeeded in being one of the stronger episodes of the season. It opens with Alec and Zoe returning from their honeymoon in Scotland (they have brought presents for everyone and it is a nice touch that during the episode virtually every character wears something tartan!) to find Hilary and Miss Flood not speaking to each other over Hilary's engagement to (an unseen) Anthony. Carolyn Pickles would appear less in this fourth season (she was by now a regular in The Bill) but she does appear in this episode, continuing what appears to be Paul Mendelson's fascination with pregnancy (Simone was now expecting her third child, joining Zoe and two characters in Mendelson's other comedy of the time, So Haunt Me).

Most of the other series four episodes are weak, dealing with plots such as Zoe's non-acceptance of an au pair to help around the house, Alec's attitude towards homosexuality and the miscarriage and its aftermath. The season generally seems to be even more linked than previously with a number of plots continuing throughout the season, mainly concerning Hilary and Miss Flood. Very early in the season it becomes apparent that things are not working between Hilary and Anthony, eventually leading them to split up and Hilary returning to Derek. The opposite occurs for Miss Flood, with her relationship with Gerald improving with each episode until "Catch the Bouquet" (which was originally broadcast before an episode of Perry Mason). This episode fortunately ends the season on a high note, when Miss Flood and Gerald marry. Mendelson had intended this series to be the last, and this shows with this episode bringing everything to a natural conclusion,Alec and Zoe have now got over the miscarriage, Hilary has caught the bouquet (in a manner of speaking) and is pursuing Derek (who appears for the first time), and Jamie has a new girlfriend. Alec even has a line about happy endings.

However, the BBC persuaded Mendelson to revive the show and a fifth series followed. There were a number of changes; Paul Harrison returned as director, but more importantly a new writer, Geoffrey Deane, was brought in, presumably to allow Mendelson to concentrate on his other projects such as So Haunt Me. It was this move that seemed to help the show; May To December seemed to be rejuvenated. Whereas the show continued the soap style of the previous year and the plots were rather predictable, the show had actually become quite funny again.

Series five starts some time after we had last met the Callenders. Completely trivialising the miscarriage plot of the previous year, Zoe is heavily pregnant, and in the first episode she gives birth to Fleur. A separate subplot sees Jamie becoming a full partner in Alec's firm (the name becoming Semple, Callender and Callender - Mr Henty conveniently forgotten about again).

However, it appeared that this was only a temporary improvement, with a sixth series being transmitted in 1994. Deane and Mendelson were joined as writers by Brian Leveson and Paul Minett (creators of The Piglet Files), but this was not to help the show. A major problem for this season to overcome was the departure of Rebecca Lacey, depriving the series of the source of much of its comedy. A new character was created, Rosie McConnichy, an eccentric Scottish secretary. Main plot points for the series concerned preparing for Fleur's future, Debbie finding her own older man, and then in a virtual repeat of series two, a jealousy subplot seeing Alec and Zoe almost splitting up. Fortunately, season six was to be the last series, and the show disappeared from television.

This would appear to be the end of the May To December story. However, 1998 brought about a slight revival. Firtsly, the show has enjoyed repeats on the archive satellite channel UK Gold. The concept had been bought by ABC in 1992 with a view to an American remake, but nothing come of this. However, the series did reappear in a new home - on radio...

The relationship between BBC radio and television is often mutually productive. Many television shows have had precursors on the radio. However, more recently there has been a trend for shows to move in the opposite diection. On the 23 April 1998 BBC Radio Two broadcast the first episode of a radio adaptation of May To December. This version is a remake rather than a sequel, so again opens with Alec meeting Zoe. The scripts were again by Paul Mendelson and Anton Rodgers, Lesley Dunlop, Frances White and Rebecca Lacey all reprised their parts from television (and of course Ms Dunlop was not in the corresponding television episodes). There was some recasting, with Benedict Sandford playing Jamie and Charles Collingword as Miles Henty.

The appearance of May To December on radio illustrates that it is a well-liked series and fondly remembered series. Fortunately, it appears that the mediocrity of the latter episodes have not overshadowed the fact that it was a fine series for the first three seasons.

More on May To December at Newton's Laws Of Television

Copyright MJ Newton 2003. All rights reserved.
This article may not be reproduced without permission