The Happiness Patrol reviewed

TheKandyManWelcome to Terra Alpha, a world where being happy is compulsory. Welcome to Muzak and the blues, welcome to state control of almost everything. Welcome to The Happiness Patrol. Written by Graeme Curry this is infamous for a Margaret Thatcher inspired Helen A (Shelia Hancock) and more still for The Kandy Man (and yes it is a liquorice allsorts monster). More disliked than liked is it possible to give this a fair hearing? Is it possible to look behind the disguise of pinks and candy to tease out a great story? Let’s try…

Some background

I won’t pretend to have found this interesting when it was shown in 1988. I had long since lost interest in the programme and only paid it passing attention in its 25th anniversary year. I’d loved other 80s shows such as Blake’s 7  and Star Cops and Star Trek was in the early stages of its Next Generation. To a casual viewer the show had for the most part decided to become childish and almost farcical. At a first glance The Happiness Patrol wouldn’t look out-of-place on CBBC (Children’s BBC for overseas readers). I am not who I was then, and I know a lot more about Doctor Who than I ever thought I might.

I wonder what might happen were The Happiness Patrol made again today…

Visuals and soundscape

Watching it again the first impression is rather strong (please do watch the documentaries). I was reminded in an odd way of the style of V for Vendetta and between the streets, the darkness and the painted faces of the natives the visual is strong. Add in the Muzak and more importantly the melancholy blues harmonica and the whole thing oozes style.

One thing I didn’t get at the time was the early Toyah Wilcox hair (see, for example, this fan gallery) and the lurid pink costumes. Watching now these work in context. Remaking I can imagine a darker pink, maybe even a steampunk leather outfit being worn.

The aliens are a bit vanilla but things like the slot machines add to a crazy ambience.

The KandyMan

The big problem is the Kandy Man. My own view from watching the documentaries is that Graeme Curry and Andrew Cartmel can defend this only after many years of experience. It is the one image the alienates and it did that for me in 1988. Did the effects guys get carried away? I don’t know. I can’t defend this, nor the plot around a Hansel and Gretel witches kitchen which is clever but not well realised. This is not to decry the work that David John Pope had to do wearing the costume.

Cast and characters

It’s a good cast, not just Sheila Hancock but also Ronald Fraser as her husband Joseph C, and many of the patrol are good performers. Any remake has a decent bar to cross to match some of these.

I love the way Helen A gives true affection only to Fifi her horrible dog creature (Stigorax) and treats humanity with varying levels of disappointment.

I have to talk about Ace who was almost not needed for this story. I wonder if the show knew what it was trying to do with her character though as we all now know her character is a major driver of the next season.

The plot

Standard fair and none the worse for that. Insurrection, regime change and the power of music and the role of sadness to humanity.

There is also a much admired scene on the balcony when The Doctor talks two assassins out of their sport. Sylvester is first class here and allows one to begin to forgive some of the more pantomime moments.

Other bits

The go-karts also annoy me (and I think the crew) in that they move hardly faster than a walk. I do the fan thing and imagine some futuristic transport device and ignore how disappointing they are.

Where has this left us?

I re-watched this for the first time since transmission and was surprised at how much there is to it. I thought what this really needs is for Big Finish to remake it as an audio. It could be one of the best.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Aidan says:

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed this story. Some really fun guest performances and I remember liking its themes.


    1. Tony Jones says:

      Even with the somewhat childish treatment of some of the concepts? Ace is very uneven here as well.

      I still think this could make a really excellent audio


      1. Aidan says:

        I hadn’t thought about it but you’re right that Ace is really wasted by this story. The concepts aren’t realized as well as I might want and a few of the acting performances are suspect but this is more than just a commentary on Thatcherism which I appreciated.

        I like the idea of revisiting this as an audio. I keep meaning to listen to the audio book version to compare!


      2. Tony Jones says:

        I hadn’t thought of an audiobook version, I’ll add that to my enormous list of things to do one day!


  2. Elizabeth Thorne says:

    I agree with both of you; I think of it as Tony says, but find myself really enjoying it and that it has a high “repeatability index”. I think the best thing is the whole concept of the nanny state turned totalitarian. Character development is somewhat caricaturish, but I thought that enhances the comedy value. The hen pecked husband, the despot without human sympathy, but cares deeply for a pet… The scene with the guy blowing blues is hilarious for me. Oh, and pink symbolizing tyranny. I see it as a great sarcastic romp more than a sci-fi story.


    1. Tony Jones says:

      Thanks Elizabeth!


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