Once in a while, a show comes along that epitomises an era. Whether it’s The Rag Trade, Citizen Smith, Only Fools and Horses or The Young Ones, these shows depict something truthful about a certain part of the population and become almost instant hits as a result.
In the UK in the late 70s, unemployment was a serious political issue. Under Labour it had reached the unheard of figure of 1 million and under the Conservatives, it was soon to reach 3 million. ‘The Dole’ – aka unemployment benefit – was both a godsend for those who were poor and out of work and a bugbear for those who saw it as a way for skivers to get paid to not work.
And onto this scene came Shelley. It starred Hywel Bennett as the eponymous James Shelley, a professional layabout, an over-educated, underemployed loafer with a PhD, living in a grotty bedsit in North London, dedicating his life to not working and escaping from people who think he should be, such as the Inland Revenue. And Fran (Belinda Sinclair), his girlfriend with whom he lives and who thinks he should settle down and start working. Then there’s his bank manager, his landlady, the Labour Exchange… The list goes on.
But the anti-establishment, cynical Shelley – a sort of cross between Wolfie Smith and Tony Hancock – would rather dedicate himself to not working and pondering the philosophical implications of existence than to earning money the traditional way.
Created and then written by Peter Tilbury for three series before Drop The Dead Donkey creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin took over for another three, the show was massively successful, mainly thanks to the performance of Bennett, but also because Tilbury knew exactly what it was like to be on the dole in a grotty North London flat. And then there was the theme tune by Doctor Who theme tune composer Ron Grainer.
Eventually, all good things had to end and Shelley waved goodbye in 1984. But that wasn’t the last we were to see of him. In 1988, Shelley returned in The Return Of Shelley, after having moved to Saudi Arabia to teach English. Here, in scripts written once again by Hamilton and Jenkin, he has to get to grips with his now-yuppified old neighbourhood and all the other changes that have occurred in his absence. Fran has had enough, so the single Shelley ends up by himself, although the show did have a regular female presence in the shape of Caroline Langrishe (Pulaski).
For the show’s final two series, which reverted to being just Shelley, he moves in with David Ryall’s Ted for an unexpected spot of philanthropy – Ted’s house, in which he has lived his whole life, is the only one left in his street, the others having been demolished to make way for a leisure centre, so Shelley moves in to help Ted with his fight against the developers who want to demolish it.
Unfortunately, after 10 series, Shelley’s stay had grown unwelcome. It was a different age, and Shelley was a relic. It was time to call it a day. But never has one layabout put in so much effort into not making an effort.
Here are some clips and if you like it, at least some series are available on DVD.