Nostalgia corner: Mulberry (1992)

Jacko from Brush Strokes <em>is</em> the son of Death


Sitcoms, as a whole, don’t do science-fiction. Fewer still do fantasy. You get the occasional one, such as Kröd Mändoon, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with even 10 fantasy sitcoms once your initial flurry of 1950s/1960s sitcoms The Munsters, The Addams Family, Mr Ed and My Mother The Car was out the way, I reckon (challenge: extended).

1992’s Mulberry, created by UK sitcom stalwarts John Esmonde and Bob Larbey (The Good Life, Please Sir!, Ever Decreasing Circles), is one of these unicorn-tears rare few: a primetime fantasy sitcom. Intriguingly, for a whole series, it wasn’t even obviously a fantasy sitcom.

It starred Karl Howman (Jacko from Esmonde and Larbey’s womanising painter sitcom Brush Strokes) as the eponymous Mulberry, who appears at the country house of a crotchety spinster, Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan of Marple), wanting to become her servant – a position which hasn’t yet been advertised. Over the course of the first series, it becomes clear that the mischievous Mulberry may not have Miss Farnaby’s best interests at heart: he’s in cahoots with a mysterious man in black (John Bennett of Saracen), who appears to want Miss Farnaby killed, even if Mulberry appears to be having second thoughts.

But all becomes clear by the end of the sixth episode: Mulberry has come to kill Miss Farnaby… because the mysterious man in black is Death, Mulberry is his son and Miss Farnaby is his test job for the ‘family business’. Here’s the title sequence and you can watch the whole thing after the jump.

Once the initial mystery was out of the way, the show was able to mine more of its fantasy elements, introducing Mulberry’s estranged mother, Springtime (Sylvia Sims) – a heritage foreshadowed in Mulberry’s clothing choice of black to symbolise death, but with a flowered waistcoat symbolising life. The show becomes darker, playing on the tension between Mulberry’s two heritages: Mulberry starts to acquires a darker sense of humour, making knowing jokes about death, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to kill Miss Farnaby, only make her final days more comfortable by making her less cantankerous and more able to enjoy life. And Death becomes a greater presence, involving himself with the other characters, once it becomes clear he might have to do the job himself.

However, before Mulberry could complete the job, the show was cancelled. Problematically for a sitcom, although it had a much better level of writing than many others of the time, it wasn’t actually very funny, going for whimsical and usually class-based humour involving the somewhat stupid working class servants Miss Farnaby also employs (Albert and Alice Finch played by Tony Selby and Lill Roughley initially, with Roughley replaced by Mary Healey in the second series).

Had the third series gone ahead, Mulberry would have got the job done – nicely – according to Larbey:

But that never got to happen. Instead, Mulberry has become quickly forgotten, never repeated, even if it is available on DVD. But, you lucky people, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. Enjoy!