“Citizen Smith” is one of these extraordinary 1970s British sitcoms that one should rediscover. Thanks to the BBC show, the London suburb of Tooting will forever be associated with Citizen “Wolfie” Smith and his Tooting Popular Front, the first Marxist revolutionary movement to make it to the television on weekly basis and for almost four years. Citizen Smith is an amusing and refreshing reminder of how the 1970s were so vivid and imaginative. It is also one of these memorable comedy series that have proved enduring in British cultural memory and a great example of the British comic tradition of mocking everyday idiocy.
Citizen Smith – BBC1, 12/4/1977-31/12/1980 – 28x30 min episodes in 4 series. Written by John Sullivan and produced by Peter Whitmore and Dennis Main Wilson Cast: Robert Lindsay (Wolfie Smith); Mike Grady (Ken); Cheryl Hall (Shirley); Peter Vaughan and Tony Steedman (Charlie, Shirley’s dad); Hilda Braid (Florence, Shirley’s mum); Tony Millan (Tucker); George Sweeney (Speed); Harry Fenning (Stephen Greif).
In the popular imagination, the 1970s was a dull decade, sandwiched between the allegedly liberating and swinging 1960s and the supposedly oppressive conservative and neoliberal 1980s. For those who can remember something from this apparently regressive and boring decade, it would be a great inaccuracy to describe the 1970s in those terms. It is both true and unfortunate that the flared trousers, the platform shoes and the glittering lurex trousers of the clean-cut Donny and Marie Osmond were very 1970s. Yet, on the other side of the Atlantic, it is during the same decade that the “Tooting Popular Front” (TPF) with its unquestionable and amusing leader Wolfie Smith made an appearance on BBC1 and rapidly became one of the most hilarious of British TV comedy shows and the only one starring a revolutionary wannabe and his fellow comrades.
Power to the People!
Written by John Sullivan, the show ran from 12 April 1977 to 4 July 1980. Citizen Smith stars Robert Lindsay as “Wolfie” Smith, a young Marxist urban revolutionary living in Tooting (South London) who is attempting to emulate his hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Wearing an iconic and hip “Che” T-shirt, a black beret and an Afghan sheepskin coat, Wolfie is the self-proclaimed leader of the Tooting Popular Front, a clearly Marxist revolutionary organisation with an even clearer political agenda expressed in two major slogans: “Power to the People” and “Freedom for Tooting”. Assisted by his best mates Ken (Mike Grady), Speed (George Sweeney) and Tucker (Tony Millan), Wolfie is battling against the establishment when he is not avoiding the pressing demands of engagement from his partner Shirley (Cheryl Hall). “I cannot be engaged when the Revolution is just round the corner”, Wolfie likes to remind his viewers on a regular basis throughout the series.
Nothing ever works. None of the truly imaginative campaigns to combat capitalism, society and the establishment ends according to plan. After having only secured six votes at the local by-election, Wolfie decides to kidnap David West, the successful Tory MP (Series 1, episode 6, “the hostage”, December 1977). “We will be able to demand radical changes in government policy, yeah? And we will be able to make a few bucks for ourselves, you know”. Unfortunately, instead of kidnapping the local Tory MP, he kidnapped the local swindler Harry Fenning. “Rebel without a pause” (Series 2, episode 2, December 1978) starts with a Wolfie, inspired by a nocturnal visit to Karl Marx’ grave (“When I stand here Shirl, I can feel the power in me nostrils”), lecturing Shirley about working-class, upper-working-second-class and freedom:
Wolfie: Look, it may be a great source of amusement for you but for me it is another nail in the coffin of freedom!
Shirley [looking at Karl Marx’ grave]: Maybe the people of Britain don’t want freedom?
Wolfie: Of course they do!
Shirley: Well they might not…
Wolfie: Well, they gonna get it whether they like it or not
In the second part of the episode, Wolfie and Ken decide to protest after Shirley’s dad loses his job at the factory. They chain themselves to the railings before realising that he has happily taken voluntary redundancy and has another job. The episode ends with Wolfie and Ken still chained to the railings on the back of a truck on their way to a smelting yard in Birmingham. The episode “Spanish fly” (Series 3, episode 1, August 1979) starts with Ken and Shirley belittling Wolfie’ seriousness and dedication to THE revolution:
Shirley: After all this time, your revolution has become a little bit of a joke!
Wolfie: A joke?
Ken: we’ve got to admit, it is a bit silly innit? I mean look at the last meetings of the Tooting Popular Front, the question of Cambodia was decided with an arm-wrestling contest!
Wolfie: All right you two! I sent a letter to our brothers in the Viet-cong. They won didn’t they? I sent a letter of support to our brothers in Angola. They won didn’t they? I sent a letter to our comrades in Chile…
Shirley: They lost!
Wolfie: Did they? Argh, bugger!
Of all the letters Wolfie sent to the revolutionary comrades in the world it is the fine-looking Spanish Jose Maria Ignacio de Alvarez, leader of the Bilbao Liberation Movement, that pops up in Tooting, promising “dinero”, vehicles and “one thousand young soldiers” in order to liberate Tooting. It turns out quite rapidly that the Bilbao Liberation Movement with its seven members is worth just as much as the cash-starved and derisible Tooting Popular Front. The opening sequence of each episode is in itself a visual merriment with Wolfie emerging from Tooting Broadway tube station, with an exciting version of the Socialist anthem the Red Flag as the soundtrack (“Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here”), and ending with him shouting his slogan “Power to the People”.
Broadcasting the TPF in Times of Discontent
Don’t play games with me. Remember, I am an urban guerrilla” (Wolfie, 1969)
The seventies are probably the most important and fascinating period in modern British political history. In their recent edited collection, Lawrence Black, Hugh Pemberton and Pat Thane commented that the 1970s as a whole has suffered from a “relative neglect of the decade”. As Andy Beckett reminds us, during the 1970s Britain had four prime ministers, four general elections and five official states of emergency, culminating with the 1978-79 “winter of discontent”. That decade encompassed the biggest strikes this country had ever knew – the images of garbage pilling up in the streets are still prominent in the British national memory –, an oil crisis, inflation, numerous race riots, the rise of the National Front and of the skinhead sub-culture. The conflict in Northern Ireland was reaching its peak, the 1976 Notting Hill carnival was transformed into a riot, The Sex Pistols were welcoming the 1977 Queen’s silver jubilee with an exhilarating “God save the Queen (she ain’t no human being)” and The Clash were denouncing the heavy use of police truncheons in “Guns of Brixton” (1979). The musical scene was punk, rebel with flashes of glittering pop with David Bowie.
The 1970s were certainly a time of seemingly never-ending industrial disputes, heavy discontent and disenchantment with the tiring older generation of British post-war politicians. Citizen Smith is a product of that period and echoes the 1970s ground-swell of frustration with politics. Citizen Smith is far from the extremely sophisticated and elaborated anti-establishment cynicism and surrealism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974) but certainly draw on the same well-established British tradition of parody, sarcasm and irony that gave the British public permission to laugh at others and at themselves regarding British history and politics (Blackadder, Yes Minister), class divisions (Butterflies), WWII (Dad’s Army) and, last but not least, revolution, radical left and urban guerrilla (Citizen Smith).
At a time when Jeremy Corbyn has been woken up from a peculiar yet long political coma, it seems that there are plans to revive this classic sitcom. Nostalgia is not necessarily a bad thing especially if the new version of Citizen Smith comes with the same spirit of irony and irreverence with which it was imbued in the 1970s.
Roof Over My Head [Pilot] (April 12, 1977)
Crocodile tears (November 3, 1977)
Guess who’s coming to dinner (November 10, 1977)
Abide with me (November 17, 1977)
The weekend (November 24, 1977)
The hostage (December 1, 1977)
The path of true love (December 8, 1977)
But is it art? (December 15, 1977)
A Christmas story (Christmas special)(December 22, 1977)
Speed’s return (December 1, 1978)
Rebel without a pause (December 8, 1978)
The Tooting connection (December 15, 1978)
Working class hero (December 22, 1978)
Rock bottom (January 5, 1979)
Spanish fly (August 16, 1979)
Don’t look down (September 20, 1979)
Only fools and horses (September 27, 1979)
The big job (October 4, 1979)
Tofkin’s revenge (October 11, 1979)
We shall not be moved (October 18, 1979)
The party’s over (October 25, 1979)
The glorious day (November 1, 1979)
Bigger than Guy Fawkes (May 23, 1980)
Changes (May 30, 1980)
The final try (June 6, 1980)
The letter of the law (June 13, 1980)
Prisoners (June 20, 1980)
Casablanca was never like this (June 27, 1980)
Sweet sorrow (July 4, 1980)
Buon Natale (Christmas special)(December 31, 1980)
. Acknowledgment – I wish to express my gratitude to Peter Lawler who first introduced me to Citizen Smith and to Richard Hector-Jones for his friendship and his musical expertise. The subtleties of British culture would still be a mystery for me without them.
. Black, Lawrence, Hugh Pemberton, and Pat Thane (eds.) Reassessing 1970s Britain, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013
. Beckett, Andy. When the lights went out: Britain in the seventies, London: Faber & Faber, 2009
. Shepherd, John. Crisis? What Crisis?: The Callaghan Government and the British’ winter of Discontent’. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013
. Brenner, A., Brenner, R., & Winslow, C. (Eds.). (2010). Rebel rank and file: Labour militancy and revolt from below during the long 1970s. Verso