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Butterflies (1978-83)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Butterflies (1978-83)
BBC2, 10/11/1978-19/10/1983
27 episodes in 4 series plus 2 specials, colour
DirectorsJohn B. Hobbs
 Sydney Lotterby
 Mandie Fletcher
WriterCarla Lane
ProducersSydney Lotterby
 Gareth Gwenlan

Cast: Wendy Craig (Ria Parkinson); Geoffrey Palmer (Ben Parkinson); Andrew Hall (Russell Parkinson); Nicholas Lyndhurst (Adam Parkinson); Bruce Montague (Leonard); Michael Ripper (Thomas); Joyce Windsor (Ruby )

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Oppressed by the demands of marriage and family, Ria Parkinson dreams of escape and seeks some respite in furtive meetings with businessman Leonard.

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Suburban housewife melancholia was the situation behind Butterflies, and the discontented Ria Parkinson was its endearing if sometimes infuriatingly irresolute figurehead. Alongside her taciturn dentist husband Ben, and feckless adult sons Russell and Adam, Ria and her journey through mid-life crisis made this one of the most popular and resonant sitcoms of its day.

The story's hook was Ria's secretive but platonic 'affair' with businessman Leonard, who she would meet in public places for walks, lunch and gentle comedy. To Leonard's chagrin, their relationship never went any further, as Ria's restlessness and frustration were never enough to surpass her devotion to Ben and her fear of challenging middle-class morality.

The female focus was typical of writer Carla Lane - whose previous creation, The Liver Birds (BBC, 1969-79) had established her as a rare woman's voice in TV sitcom - and in its depiction of women's issues, Butterflies was very much of its historical moment in the immediate aftermath of the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, and before the so-called 'backlash' against feminism in the 1980s. Less incisive was its attempt to illustrate the lifestyle tension between Ria and her family and their cleaning lady Ruby, whose occasional appearances and deadpan working-class expressions served to inject moments of class humour into an otherwise thoroughly bourgeois environment.

The series' title encompasses both Ben's lepidopterist hobby and Ria's desire for change and liberation, as well as her ruminations on the fragility and fleetingness of life. For actress Wendy Craig, Ria was a culmination of the discontented housewife persona she had cultivated across previous television comedies Not in Front of the Children (BBC, 1967-70) and ...And Mother Makes Three/Five (ITV, 1971-73; 1974-76), but in its script quality and depth of character Butterflies marked the zenith of this trend.

The hidden malaise at the heart of the middle-class suburban family has been a periodic theme in sitcoms since, notably in 2 Point 4 Children (BBC, 1991-99), while My Family (BBC, 2000-), borrows many of Butterflies' key elements, including the dentist father and culinarily-challenged mother, but presents a more post-feminist take on the domestic sitcom. Butterflies was momentarily revived for a one-off charity special for Children in Need (BBC1, tx. 17/11/2000), which saw little change in the Parkinson family when the cast gathered for Ria's 60th birthday celebration and a bittersweet reunion between Ria and Leonard.

Hannah Hamad

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Video Clips
1. Worrying about Adam (3:25)
2. Meeting Leonard (1:49)
3. Breakfast (1:32)
4. Culinary disaster (1:02)
Complete episode (29:36)
Craig, Wendy (1934-)
Lane, Carla (1937-)
Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)
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The Sitcom Family