Our Flashback strand takes another look at the popular 1980s series Howards’ Way.
Our first piece on the BBC drama only covered its first season in 1985 so we’ve decided to revisit the folks of Tarrant and examine the series in whole. So relive the dramas, business deals and romances of Howards’ Way as Flashback once again goes down memory lane.
There is little doubt that in terms of drama in the 1980s television was dominated by “power dramas” such as Dynasty and Dallas. The two shows dealt with the power struggles and underhand business deals of two very powerful companies, their rivals, their families and the lengths they would go to too secure success. These themes were also explored in the likes of The Colby’s, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. So its hardly surprising that at some point British TV would turn its attention to such issues and try and capture the success of Dallas and Dynasty – both of which were shown in the UK with millions of fans.
By 1985 the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher had been in power for six years and their influence over the country was more than clear. While unemployment and social strife was high there was a new breed of businessmen in the country who had profited from the Thatcher style of government. Ordinary people were starting up their own businesses and become “paper millionaires” overnight because of floatation’s on the stock market. These themes of people starting up new businesses, old businesses on the verge of collapse and the rise and rise of the stock market elite were just some of the themes that Howards’ Way would cover of its six years – pretty amazing considering the series started out being about one man buying into an old boat yard.
Another important change in the 1980s was the BBC’s move towards more “popularist” drama which was criticised by some but vitally important to the corporations long-term future. The BBC had to justify its existence to a hostile Government, and media, by showing it produced shows that large sections of the audience wanted to watch. To do this the BBC needed to switch its output from critically acclaimed but often low rated drama’s to more “polished” and “glossy” drama’s which captured the audiences imagination and tapped into the themes of the time. 1985 saw the launch of EastEnders, created by Julia Smith and Tony Holland, the series had been in develop since the demise of Angels in 1983. EastEnders was a gritty soap, ala Brookside, set in the East End of London and was the corporations first series attempt at creating a long-term soap. The previous soaps produced by the BBC had limited shelf life and were often cut short by the BBC who felt producing such shows were beneath them (Compact and The Newcomers for example).
With the launch of EastEnders in 1985 came the launch of another new drama; Howards’ Way. The series was, for the time, hugely expensive costing the corporation millions of pounds and was therefore seen as a huge risk. If the drama failed at that expense serious questions about the corporation would have been asked and its drive towards more popular dramas grounded to a halt. However, despite the risk Howards’ Way was almost guaranteed to succeed; not only did it reflect the 1980s values, fashions and business drive so much but it was created and produced by Gerard Glaister who had given the BBC hit shows such as The Brothers, Secret Army and Kessler. In fact although Howards’ Way tapped into many of the themes and values of the 1980s these very same issues had been covered in The Brothers which also starred several of the same actors who would crop up in the new drama; Kate O’Mara and Glyn Owen for instance.
The original concept for Howards’ Way revolved around the titular family; the Howards. Tom Howard (Maurice Colbourne) is made redundant and decides to invest his redundancy money into struggling local boatyard the Mermaid. The Mermaid Boat Yard has been chronically mismanaged by owner Jack Rolfe (Glyn Owen) and is on the verge of being declared bankrupt but the opportunity for Tom to design boats is too much for him to pass up. However, his redundancy and investment in the boatyard places a huge strain on his marriage to Jan (Jan Harvey) who also decides to step up her own business with her boss Ken Masters (Stephen Yardley).
As the marriage begins to crack under the pressures of their new jobs, and the fact they are growing apart, both Jan and Tom suspect each other of cheating; Jan suspects Tom of having an affair with Jack’s daughter, Avril (Susan Gilmore). Eventually Tom does indeed embark on an affair with Avril and his marriage with Jan falls apart completely and they separate. The break-up of the marriage effects their children Leo (Edward Highmore) and Lynn (Tracey Childs) in different ways. Lynn throws herself into racing and embarks on an affair with ruthless buinessman Charles Frere (Tony Anholt) who just happens to be Avril’s former lover and boss. Leo meanwhile becomes involved with Abby Urquhart (Cindy Shelley) the daughter of Jan’s best friend Polly (Patricia Shakesby) and Charles’ right-hand man, Gerald (Ivor Danvers).
Also introduced during the course of the first season is Jan’s mother Kate (Dulcie Gray) who strikes up a friendship with Jack and is unhappy about Tom & Jan’s separation.
While original a drama series during the course of the first season Howards Way increasingly became more soapy in its storylines and approach – such as the love triangle between Lynn, Charles and Avril. The first season ended with a cliff-hanger when Lynn found Charles in bed with another woman and ran off but slipped and fell into the water. The second series more or less picked up straight away and continued to become increasingly more soapy with the personal (mostly love lives) of the characters taking centre stage alongside the business storylines of takeovers, boat designing, squabbles and plots/betrayals.
Charles Frere is revealed to be the real father of Abby while Gerald is revealed to be bisexual and in a “sham” marriage with Polly; both having other lovers. Ken Masters meanwhile is keen to expand his business and buys into nearby company Lesuirecruise with new characters Sarah Foster (Sarah-Jane Varney) and Graham Foster (Mark Pountey) introduced. The relationship between Jan and Ken is virtually over by the end of season two because of Ken’s underhand tactics. Lynn, having gotten over Charles, marries French designer Claude (Malcolm Jamieson) who is killed in the season finale in a boating accident.
Tom Howard and the Mermaid Yard’s future is once again in doubt at the end of season two because of another boating accident. One of the boats Tom designed sinks killing one of the passengers and there is doubt placed over the design of the boat.
The question mark hanging over Tom and his design continues well into season three as the Mermaid Yard begins to suffer the consequences of the accident as sales dry up and Tom begins to doubt himself while Jan finds herself a new designer in the form of Anna (Sarah Lam) and Charles Frere is given a new rival – is father Sir Edward (Nigel Davenport) who also becomes a new love interest for Jan. Tom is also given a new love interest in the form of Emma (Sian Webber) who helps to prove the accident was not a design issue with the boat. Meanwhile the affair between Sarah and Ken has devastating consequences’ when Graham deliberately kills himself. Polly and Gerald decide to give their marriage a proper go while Avril and Charles start up their relationship once more. Meanwhile Leo marries spoilt rich girl Amanda (Francesca Gonshaw) but the marriage doesn’t last.
Anna is placed under huge pressure by her father to marry the son of a business associate but refuses to do so and later collapses from the stress. Once again the a cliff hanger ended the season with a plane accident resulting in Charles and Avril both being lost at sea. The opening episode of the fourth season quickly resolves this with both of them being found alive but their relationship breaks down across the season and by the end of it there’s open hostility between them as both vie for control of Relton Marine.
The power struggle between them both would continue until the series conclusion and would reflect the power-struggle between Charles and Sir Edward and later on between Ken and new business partner Laura Wilder and Jan Howard and her new business partner James Brooke.
The fifth season of Howards’ Way marks some changes with actresses Dulcie Gray and Patricia Shakesby absent from the first set of episodes while Sarah-Jane Varney and Nigel Davenport were both written out of the series in the season four finale. In the first episode Sian Webber is written out as Emma as her relationship with Tom ends. However, newer characters are introduced such as Laura Wilder (Kate O’Mara) as a new business partner for Ken and an old friend of Avril.
Alongside Laura was new secretary for Ken, Vicki (Victoria Burgoyne) who is later revealed to be working alongside Laura to successfully gain control of Lesuirecruise. Jan Howard’s new business partner James Brooke (Andrew Bricknell) is also a new character. Meanwhile actress Lana Morris returned to the series as Vanessa having previously appeared in two episodes of season three. Vanessa was an old flame of Jack’s and her family owned Relton Marine before her brother (who would crop up in series six) sold it off.
Actress Patricia Shakesby returned as Polly for several episodes during the season but was permanently written out while Dulcie Gray returned midway through the season as Kate. The filming of the fifth season was thrown into chaos following the death of actor Maurice Colbourne – who died from a heart-attack. Scripts were quickly re-written to explain his absence from episode nine onwards but it was clear to the production team that this was a short-term solution only. As one of the central characters of the show Colborune’s death greatly affected its future but was also a personal blow to the cast and crew of the series.
The BBC decided to order a final series of Howards’ Way, its sixth season, which would tie-up loose ends from across the previous run. In the first episode its stated that Tom had died off-screen at some point. Returning for the final series was actress Tracey Childs as Lynn who had bowed out after two years and Nigel Davenport as Sir Edward – though his character is killed off during the course of the series.
The season dealt with Ken Master’s attempts at regaining control of his company from Laura while Charles has to deal with the legacy of his father in particular to Abby. Also brought back after a brief re-appearance in season three was actor Michael Denison as Admiral Redfern, a love interest for Kate. Interestingly actors Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray were married in read life.
Other new characters for the final series included Pierre Challon (James Coombes), a new lover for Avril, Robert Hastings (Paul Jerrico), a new love interest for Jan and David Relton (Richard Heffer), Vanessa’s con-man brother. Other important characters across the shows six year run included Bill (Robert Vahey), Jack’s friend and long-term colleague at the Mermaid Boat Yard, banker Sir John Stevens (Willoughby Gray) and the devious David Lloyd (Bruce Bould). The series featured guest appearances from the likes of Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, Pamela Salem, Burt Kwouk, Annie Lambert, Stephen Grief, Catherine Schell, Kathleen Byryon and Tony Caunter.
The series is often described as a British version of Dynasty/Dallas because of its storylines about big business and also the notable emphasis on fashion – from Jan’s fashion business to the costumers worn by the cast which clearly reflected the time (shoulder pads and big hair). The introduction of actress Kate O’Mara in the shows fifth season was also seen as an attempt at cashing in on the success of Dynasty given the actress had appeared in the show.
However, O’Mara had previously worked with producer Gerard Glaister on other productions and its more likely that this influenced his decision to cast her rather than her stint in Dynasty. Howards’ Way was originally to be called The Boatbuilders as the early episodes revolved around the Mermaid Yard before it expanded to cover business such as Relton Marine, Lesuire Cruise, Jan Howard’s fashion business and Charles Frere’s business dealings. However, the name was dropped in favour of Howards’ Way because the BBC felt it sounded too much like a documentary.
The memorable theme tune was composed by Simon May who had also written the tune for EastEnders. May had previously worked for ATV on productions such as Crossroads so he knew how to create popular music. The second series of Howards Way’ introduced a vocal version of the theme sung by Marti Webb which was played over the closing credits of the episodes. The song was released commercially and it reached 13th position in the charts.
From the third season onwards however, the closing titles played over a jazz version of the theme with footage from various power-boat races featured in the series used as a backdrop against the titles. Amongst the writers on the series were Jill Hyem (Wish Me Luck, House of Eliott), Arthur Schmidt (Crossroads), Raymond Thompson (Revelations) and Douglas Watkinson (Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat). Allan Prior, who had co-created the series with Glaister, also wrote episodes for the series. Directors included Tristan De Vere Cole and Michael E Briant who had previously worked on Glaister’s previous dramas such as Kessler and Secret Army. Other directors included future EastEnders producers Peter Rose and Matthew Robinson while Pennant Roberts and Graham Harper, both known for their work on Doctor Who, also directed episodes.
Over Howards’ Way six years on-air the series notably filmed in many different locations. Although primarily filmed on the South Coast with locations in Southampton also used (while studio filming took place in Pebble Mill), the storylines began to have an ever wider reach. As the storylines expanded on an international scale filming on the Isle of Wright, Malta, Jersey, Bermuda and Gibraltar – possibly explaining why the series was so expensive to produce.
However, the locations helped to give Howards’ Way a more exotic feel as the storylines had a wider affect than just on the small part of coast the series was primarily based around. Two days before the series finale of the drama Margaret Thatcher stepped down as Prime Minister and in many ways the series was so grounded in the principles of the Thatcher government that it couldn’t have continued. The departure of the “Iron Lady” from Number 10 made for a natural conclusion for the series.
Producer Gerard Glaister followed the series with a new drama for the BBC, Trainer, which was inspired by a storyline in Howards’ Way. However, Trainer only ran for two seasons and was not a success. Amongst the cast to appear in both dramas though were Nigel Davenport and Stephen Grief.
All six seasons of Howards’ Way have been released on DVD and a few years ago the BBC produced a 30 minute reflective documentary on the series. The “Cult Off” strand explored popular Sunday dramas such as Survivors, Blakes 7 and Howards’ Way. In recent years the drama has been repeated several times on UKTV Drama and successor channel Yesterday.