Mulberry was a TV comedy series in 1993 by Esmonde and Larbey that seems to have been somewhat overlooked.
I remembered enjoying its gentle story line, but wasn’t sure if I’d still like it now. So I did what I always do and had a look at Amazon, where I found a two-disc set for well under a tenner. I decided to risk it and get the whole thing, and how glad I am that I did.
I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Esmonde and Larbey, but have only ever admitted to liking The Good Life, an acknowledged classic. Mulberry, however, is way up there with it.
It’s an unhurried story about a mysterious young man, Mulberry (Karl Howman), who arrives out of the blue to apply for a job that hasn’t even been advertised yet. The elderly, cantankerous Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan), is a sour recluse who takes him on reluctantly, but gradually comes to rely on him, much to the disgruntlement of her two staff, Bert and Alice (Tony Selby and Lil Roughley).
The mystery keeps you wondering. Who is Mulberry and what are his intentions towards Miss Farnaby, who he is teaching about life while taking her out of herself? Who is the sinister stranger who seems to be urging the reluctant Mulberry to kill her? All is revealed by the end of Part 1, much to our relief.
Karl Howman as Mulberry is perfect casting. He has immense personal charm and you hope and hope that he’s not going to turn out to be a baddie after all. His scenes with Geraldine McEwan are masterpieces of dialogue and you know she’s going to warm to him eventually. How could she not?
I wondered why Geraldine McEwan (who I remember in shorts and crew cut in The Member of the Wedding in the 60s) hadn’t been offered a damehood, and found that actually she had, but declined it. If anyone knows why, I should like to hear. Her Miss Farnaby has an edge of Mrs Proudie and the same qualities that we used to admire in Margot Leadbetter – she’s steely and determined and can dig in her heels like a jack donkey - but she also has Miss Marple’s twinkle and charm. I think that’s the keynote here. The leads have charm. Not false sweet charm, but a kind of innocence. Even the sinister stranger (the divine John Bennett, another perfect casting) has it, in his dour way.
The ancillary characters, alas, do not. Bert and Alice are perhaps the weakest. Their bickering sometimes borders on the silly, and their scenes only take off when another character is present. I think the problem with them is that they are just there to be sounding boards, something for the leads to bounce off. They do add to the enclosed feel of the scenes, but they don’t quite work. I’d have preferred more interaction with Miss Farnaby’s sisters, whose scenes do work. Bert and Alice are outsiders.
Esmonde and Larbey were very fond of Mulberry and had planned a third series, in which Miss Farnaby understands what is going on. I think this would have been an excellent idea, but unfortunately the Beeb didn’t see it that way and it never happened. Quite often a series passes its natural finish (see Last of the Summer Wine, in which we start getting Compo riding down a hill in a bath for no very good reason), but I think we could have taken a bit more. Larbey appears in an interview - see below - to be quite distressed that we never got the chance. These characters get under your skin and make you want to stay with them for just a little bit longer while the story line winds to its natural conclusion. We are left with a feeling of something incomplete.
Bob Larbey discusses end of Mulberry