The Troubled Production History of Girls On Top

July 30, 2012

An amazing article documenting the production, and underproduction of the mid-1980s comedy series, Girls On Top, starring Tracey, Dawn French (The Vicar of Dibley, Murder Most Horrid, French and Saunders), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous, French and Saunders), and Ruby Wax (script editor for Absolutely Fabulous). In it, we learn about Tracey's own British sitcom that never came to fruition, The Five Faces of Tracey. We also learn that Ruby Wax acted as writer for that series. This article leaves us wondering, whatever happened to those scripts? Were they incorporated into Girls On Top? Where's Girls missing 1983 pilot? This is a fascinating read! It's amazing that this show ever got on the air. In a January 1984 edition of Tidbits Magazine, Tracey mentions Four Fs To Share, as well as her electrician boyfriend, which when you read this article, should give you a chuckle. :)

By Smarter Than The Average!

Alluded to as Four-Play in a profile of Ruby Wax in the 27th May 1983 issue of Television Weekly (much later, Martin Aston’s article in the 9th November 1985 issue of Melody Maker revealed that another potential title was Bitches On Heat), the first news of production taking place on Girls On Top comes in the 11th August 1983 issue of Television Today. Here it goes by the name of Four Fs To Share, and “production of 13 episodes is expected to be next spring”. A pilot has already been made, produced by Tony Charles, who its said will go on and produce the series, and directed by Baz Taylor, who would have had to drop out of directing the show to work on the upcoming series of Shine On Harvey Moon.

The following spring, the 27th April 1984 issue of Television Weekly reports the bad news that “a sitcom series of six half hours called Girls On Top was due to go into rehearsal this week but has been held up by the electricians dispute”. This electrician’s dispute took place at Central’s Nottingham Studios on Lenton Lane, where the show was to have been (and was eventually) recorded. It adds that Paul Jackson will produce and direct the show, and that “the series will go out in the Autumn”.

The same article also mentions a Tracey Ullman series which never happened: “Starting shooting in July is an all film series of five half hours, Five Faces Of Tracey, in which she takes a different character per show and plays it through a self-contained story. Three have been written so far, one by Ullman and two Wax and Ullman together”. One would imagine that quite a bit of Tracey Ullman’s material was incorporated into her later projects, but who knows what happened to the Ruby Wax scripts.

The 13th September 1984 issue of Television Today tells us that Girls On Top is now “to be recorded in January. Girls On Top was originally to have been recorded last April, but was delayed by the strike of 28 electricians at Central’s Lenton Lane studio complex”. The 24th January 1985 issue of Television Today says of Girls On Top that “three days of location filming in the Nottingham area took place last week and studio work begins today, Thursday, until March 13”.

In fact, what was recorded in January 1985 was a second pilot (subtitled Four-Play), according to the 8th February 1985 issue of Television Weekly. Its article starts by saying that “WitzEnd Production have just completed episode one of Girls On Top, a seven-part sitcom, for Central”. However, the same piece does contradict the end date given in the previous article, saying that shooting for the rest of the series is “scheduled to begin in May”. One could theorise that May was proposed as a time to record the remaining episodes of Girls On Top, but it was pushed earlier when Happy Families was being mooted for shooting around this time. It may also have been moved so as not to conflict with Adrian Edmonson’s and Jennifer Saunders’ wedding plans, married as they were on the 11th May 1985. (Incidentally, on the subject of Jennifer Saunders’ domestic life, she gave birth to her first child Eleanor on the 22nd January 1986, which means that she must have been impregnated in late April 1985, exactly in the middle of the three-month break between recording Girls On Top and filming Happy Families. Nice one, Ade!)

Happy Families was shot between the 10th of June and the end of August 1985 in locations including Liverpool, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and BBC Manchester, according to the 30th May 1985 issue of Television Today and the 31st May 1985 issue of Broadcast. More interestingly, both articles say that when he commissioned Happy Families, Head of BBC Network Production at Manchester Roger Bolton offered Paul Jackson two series. Happy Families was one and the other was, as Television Today put it, “a second, as yet undecided, series due to begin production in the summer of 1986”. Presumably this undecided production became Filthy, Rich And Catflap.

In short, the Girls On Top shooting history runs thus: a pilot was recorded by May 1983; the first series was meant to be recorded in April 1984; the first broadcast of the first series was supposed to be in Autumn 1984; the first series was actually recorded in early 1985; and the first broadcast of the first episode was on 23rd October 1985. So in fact it was actually an understatement for the 15th August 1985 issue of Television Today and the 31st October to 6th November 1985 issue of Time Out to say that the series had been delayed for a year.

The recording of the second series was far smoother and, according to the 8th May 1986 issue of Television Today, “studio work at Central’s Nottingham Studios began last week and will finish on June 12”.

The thirteen episodes of both series were released as a two-DVD set from Network on the 22nd January 2007. The set notably omits Four Fs To Share, the 1983 Girls On Top pilot with no Paul Jackson involvement. Which raises the question - where is it?

From the 1983 pilot, or rehearsal?

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