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Rag Trade, The (1961-63)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Rag Trade, The (1961-63)
BBC, 6/10/1961-30/3/1963
23 x 30 mins, 13 x 25 mins episodes in 3 series, plus 1 short special
ProducerDennis Main Wilson
ScriptRonald Wolfe
 Ronald Chesney

Cast: Peter Jones (Mr Fenner); Miriam Karlin (Paddy); Esma Cannon (Lily ('Little Lil')); Sheila Hancock (Carole); Reg Varney (Reg); Barbara Windsor (Judy)

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The working day at Fenner's Fashions, where the largely female staff run rings around their employer, the penny-pinching Harold Fenner.

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The early episodes of The Rag Trade (BBC, 1961-63/ITV, 1977-78) have a lot in common with the Boulting Brothers' trade union film comedy I'm All Right Jack (1959) - both pitilessly satirised management/worker relations at a time of growing shop floor militancy. However, what sets The Rag Trade apart from other TV comedies of its time was that the female cast, the seamstresses of Fenner Fashions, a sweat-shop in London's East End, got all the best lines at the expense of their male bosses.

At heart the show was a comedy of repetition - nothing really changed from episode to episode in the women's clothing factory. Miserly proprietor Harold Fenner, played by Peter Jones, would upset his female workforce, whose shop steward representative, Paddy (Miriam Karlin), would then bring production to a halt with a cry of "Everybody out!" An increasingly desperate Reg (Reg Varney), would try to mediate between the two parties, with little success, while being baited by the female staff, played by Sheila Hancock, Esma Cannon, Barbara Windsor, Wanda Ventham and Irene Handl. This simple format was a great success, with Karlin's call-to-arms catch phrase proving especially popular with audiences.

The programme's script writers, Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, attempted to revive the show in 1977, but the BBC declined a further series after filming an unpromising pilot episode. However, ITV regional broadcaster LWT picked up the programme, which returned with both Karlin and Jones reviving their original roles. The new cast included Gillian Taylforth, Christopher Beeny and Anna Karen, who reprised her character, Olive, from On the Buses (ITV, 1969-73), a show also written by Wolfe and Chesney and also starring Varney. Unfortunately, hardening social attitudes towards trade unions robbed the series of much of its original comedic appeal and The Rag Trade's second incarnation failed to emulate the success of the original BBC episodes.

Remakes of the show have been made in Scandinavia, where it was called Fredericksson's Fabriks (1989-94), and Portugal, as Trapos and Company (1995). A US version was planned but never got beyond a pilot episode (1978).

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
1. Workers united (2:15)
2. An inspector calls (1:24)
3. Reg or Lily (2:55)
Complete episode (tx. 20.4.1962) (28:24)
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Hancock, Sheila (1933-)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
Wilson, Dennis Main (1924-1997)
Wolfe, Ronald (1924-2011) and Chesney, Ronald (1920-)
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