The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Butterflies and me

Do you, I wonder, remember the British comedy Butterflies? It starred Wendy Craig and Geoffrey Palmer, as Ria and Ben, a stay-at-hone mother and her dentist husband, and focused rather daringly for the time on the discontents of marriage for a woman who found the traditional roles of wife and mother stifling, and unsatisfying. And, while she tried gamely and persistently, Ria just wasn't domestic. Moreover, Ria was persistently courted by a rich younger man who was on her wavelength in a way Ben often failed to be, so the tension in the series was always would (and should) Ria junk her marriage, run off with Leonard, or at least sleep with hum? Ria's loyalty, her conventionality, and her genuine if bemused and frustrated love for Ben and her sons, held her back--if only just--but as she paced around the local church to Albinoni's "Adagio," viewers wondered if she would take the leap. Ben's sarcasm sometimes pushed her toward the jump, and as much of the humor came from Ben's snidery directed at Ria's cooking, at their two sons Adam and Russell and at his own foibles (especially in later episodes), anything was possible.

Over the years, the show subtly shifted its focus; the first few seasons took Ria's perspective almost entirely; in the later years, as Ben began to suspect that all was not well in their marriage, he sometimes became the viewpoint character, and tried to grapple with Ria's frustrations, or persuade himself that all was well, or share with her his own discontents in a life as a respectable dentist. Ria's perspective always anchored the show, but I loved the simple fact that in "Butterflies" there were no villains. Ria loved Ben, but was drawn to Leonard's appreciation of her, and his need. Ben loved Ria, but was perplexed at her unhappiness; he dealt with it by living life as a vale of irony. The boys loved their parents, but were young and it was the late 70s. They had more pressing concerns. It was real, and, in the best possible way, feminist. By which I mean it drew attention to the injustices embedded in culture that had constrained Ria's growth and choices, and made clear that Ben was complicit in her limitation without even knowing he was. Even Leonard often adored not Ria, but a fantasy figure--although, to be fair, as portrayed by Bruce Montague, there was a lot more to Leonard than that.

In one way, though--and this is the brilliance of Carla Lane's writing--Ben was a very good match for Ria. His sneaky concern for her well-being, his ability to joke her out of her more melodramatic solipsistic moments, and his deep love for this woman he doesn't understand earn our sympathy, and Palmer plays the role beautifully.

Ultimately, it's Wendy Craig's show, though--fetching, charming, tragic and overwrought by turns, she isn't afraid of Ria's ridiculous moments, or of her suburban sub-tragedy. She's the heart of this most unusual comedy.

Here's the Children in Need abbreviated Reunion episode, for longtime fans, such as myself:

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