Butterflies is writer Carla Lane’s melancholy sit-com about a woman contemplating adultery but never actually doing it. The central character Ria Parkinson (Wendy Craig) is an archetypal bored housewife, married to dentist Ben with two teenage sons Adam (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Russell (Andrew Hall). A normal family, with all of the psychosis and repression that implies.
Ria leads a cosy middle class existence in a Britain that had weathered the 1974 oil crisis and appears unaffected by the frictions between Trade Unions and government of the period. This is Middle England, the land that Thatcher was poised to seize and subdue with ruthless market forces, proffering materialist incentives the middle classes found irresistible.
The Parkinson house has all ‘mod cons’; three cars, kitchen appliances and a cleaner, the comedy working class char Ruby (Joyce Windsor) who often had the best lines. Ria leads an enviably comfortable life, provided for by her husband, entertained by her sons and with enough time to dream of what else life might have to offer. Ben is at work or catching butterflies (his hobby, hence the title), the boys are asleep or out and the family is usually united only at meal times, where symbolically matters come unstuck.
Ria is a hopeless cook and her culinary disasters provide both a comedy staple and perhaps a metaphor for her personal feelings of inadequacy and frustration. She loves her husband and family and cannot bring herself to leave them or indeed indulge in any real indiscretion. She is happy really, but uncertain that she is allowed to be happy and worried that as middle age engulfs her she will never get to glimpse or taste an alternative life. This is the human condition with a feminine slant, not feminist; we observe her interactions and inner thoughts as she struggles with the daily grind and illicit desires, but she cleaves to the social demands of the wife-and-mother stereotype. Leonard is her plaything but standing by husband Ben is her safe position, morally, financially and socially.
The boys gradually move from being scruffy post-hippy longhairs to 80s casuals, playing out adolescent tropes the amusement of themselves and their parents’ generation (the viewers). Dad Geoffrey Palmer excels with his sardonic middle-aged one-liners as he grapples with a wife and two young men urgently pushing against the boundaries of his understanding. Cars are crashed (safely), jobs are found and lost, bedrooms are decorated and girls are chased. Promiscuity thrives, as do innuendo be-sloganed t-shirts. Eventually one girlfriend is made pregnant. This challenging situation is swiftly discarded as she opts to have the child on her own. We are no doubt supposed to admire her decision to stand alone without her feckless boyfriend, but the decision appears to have been taken because the alternative would have been too disruptive to Lane’s storyline which must always maintain the status quo.
Promiscuity is also at the heart of Ria’s predicament. She was too busy rearing two small children during the Summer of Love to have taken advantage of its sexual delights. Now they are of an age where they can (almost) take care of themselves she is tantalized by the prospect of fulfilling her desires with well-heeled Leonard (Bruce Montague), an alcoholic divorcee businessman with plenty of free time to chase skirt. They meet on park benches, lunch in bistros and have furtive conversations on trimphones (surely more civilized than the contemporary equivalents, Skype and noodle bars?). Leonard screws around but misses the companionship of marriage. Ria plays his arse like a banjo and he always comes back for more. Persistence is one of his better qualities and he enjoys the thrill of the chase. His lack of success is debated with his chauffeur and periodically he falls off the wagon.
Carla Lane wrote four seasons of Butterflies for BBC television, beginning in 1978 at the dog-end of the 70s and winding up in 1983 in the brave new world of the 80s. The sandcastle liberation provided by the contraceptive pill was being washed away by the frightening tide of AIDS and casual sex suddenly became high risk. The fun was over. Wistful whimsy and bittersweet comedy were off the menu. Now it was time to get real and make some money. Ria’s generation had benefited from everything the post-war economy had to offer. They were richer and more indulged than the rest of us, living at the expense of future generations, but no happier for all that.
Wendy Craig took her winsome smile and delightful retroussé nose and set herself up as The Nanny; Geoffrey Palmer was recruited to the Fairly Secret Army and Nicholas Lyndhurst’s endless TV career moved with the aspirational times to it’s high-water mark as the dimwitted Rodney in Only Fools and Horses.
Butterflies is also possibly the only TV series ever set in Cheltenham.