Until last year, I believed Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was a sitcom set in a pet shop. I have no idea exactly why or when this image of a northern pet shop had formed in my mind. Suffice to say, it was a tad off the mark. One day, perhaps someone will write about the hilarious adventures of the employees at Perfect Pets as they grapple with escaped tarantulas and randy rabbits.
Yesterday – the TV channel – began repeating Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The programme is a comedy-drama, a genre description that always leaves me somewhat hesitant. It makes me worry that the comedy will be mediocre and the drama will be lacking any real, well, drama. When I watched an episode for the first time last year, I didn’t know what to expect and was left intrigued but not quite gripped enough to rush out to buy the DVDs. These repeats felt like the best opportunity to see the series fully.
It’s the early eighties and tradesmen around the UK are struggling to get any work. Some have looked abroad and made some contacts in Germany, who are keen to hire them. In the first episode, we follow three blokes from the North East as they make their way over. The plan is to put in a few months’ graft and save up before going back to their families.
The first episode, If I Were a Carpenter, does a good job of setting up the series. In the episode I had watched, one of the things I struggled with was trying to keep track of the characters. We are gradually introduced to them in this opening episode, ensuring I could learn most of their names. There is a lot to fit into this episode but we still manage to discover a bit of character background.
An initial summing up of the magnificent seven:
Neville (Kevin Whately) is a young brickie who desperately wants to make some money so he can buy a nice house in a decent area for him and his wife. He didn’t want to go to Germany but feels he has no choice. He misses his wife a lot and appears to write her at least three postcards before they even reach their accommodation.
Dennis (Tim Healey) is a family man with two young children and has worked in Germany several times before. He has convinced Neville to come over and is the one with the German contacts. We learn he and his wife have separated.
Oz (Jimmy Nail) has a wife back home but unlike Neville, has no qualms about leaving her. He heads to a brothel on their first night in Dusseldorf.
Wayne (Gary Holton) is a young Southern lad with long hair that has bits of blue in it. Most of the time he has headphones on and also seems to do quite well at chatting up the local barmaids.
Barry (Timothy Spall) is a Brummie that Dennis has met in Germany before. He rides a motorbike and likes to stay in with peace and quiet.
Bomber (Pat Roach) hails from near Bristol and in the first episode is planning to go home as he has work lined up there. However, the night before he is supposed to leave he gambles all his money away so has to stay on.
Moxey (Christopher Fairbank) is a Liverpudlian who doesn’t appear until the second episode. He is warmly welcomed because he owns a dartboard. In later episodes, we will find out he is a convicted arsonist.
The second episode is titled Who Won the War Anyway? and instantly in my head, Basil Fawlty is screaming at his German guests, “Who won the bloody war anyway?”
There is plenty of German spoken very well in the episode; enough to convince me that some of the actors are the genuine article. Checking IMDB afterwards, I find they are. None of it is subtitled. I prefer this because I think it would be distracting and for the most part, it is not necessary. Some of the lines are simply background chatter and anyone could take a good guess at much of the rest based on the context. As I’m learning German myself, I do spend a lot of time trying to work out what is being said.
Oz is incredibly anti-German and wants nothing to do with them. He is there to work and have a good time. Though, funnily, his reluctance to be near the Germans does not extend to some of the women. He winds the rest of them up and is generally a bit of a dick. It does, of course, come back to the war. It’s Dennis who points out that their fathers were probably fighting each other and this remark made me realise just how close the war still is for them. 1945 is the equivalent distance from 1983 as 1979 is from 2017. Apart from Oz, the workers have no real problem with the Germans, realising that the blokes they work with are not Nazis.
The impact of the war is brought much closer when Neville discovers an unexploded bomb on the building site. It’s a great reminder that Britain bombed Germany’s civilians too. Oz is bizarrely proud that it’s a British bomb until it is pointed out that “it didn’t go off“. A local news crew come and interview Neville, drawn on the novelty that it was a British man who discovered the British bomb.
Neville has made friends with one of the German locals, Helmut Fischer, who invites him over for dinner. Together, they watch themselves on the evening news. Yet it is only Helmut who actually speaks any English. When Herman pops out to buy more booze after dinner, Neville is left with Herman’s father. What follows is an awkward few minutes in which the two attempt to communicate. It was excruciatingly familiar to me. But I loved how well they both improvised. Herr Fischer Senior takes out a photograph album and starts showing it to Neville, pointing out a submarine that he was on. He tells Neville the name of it and Neville pieces it together, doing his best to explain that his own grandfather was on a vessel sunk by the submarine Herr Fischer had been on. Neville gets very excited during all this before saying of his grandfather, “He was killed.” It is such a wonderfully odd juxtaposition to throw in, having Neville become so enthusiastic about this connection.
The Girls They Left Behind gives us a look at the wives of Neville, Dennis and Oz back in England. Neville is scraping together as much as possible to send back to his Brenda and Dennis likewise sends plenty back for his kids. However, we learn that Oz hasn’t sent a penny back to his wife, Marjorie. What’s more, she doesn’t even know he’s out there until she gets in touch with Dennis’s wife, Vera.
Oz really is incredibly unlikeable. He’s expecting Marjorie to claim benefits in his absence so thinks she should be able to get by without his money. Several of the other guys are shocked to discover Oz has a child too as he’s never mentioned him before.
Dennis and Oz travel to see Sunderland play in Belgium. Oz gets hammered with some other fans and wakes up on a plane going to Newcastle. He has nowhere to go but home to Marjorie, saying he has come home because he felt bad about the letter she sent. But he’s found out when the letter comes back in the post that morning with ‘not known at this address’ written on. Even worse, when he returns to Dusseldorf, he discovers the lads picked up his pay packet for him and, not expecting him back, sent it to the North East.
It’s nice to see Oz get some sort of comeuppance for his behaviour. His marriage does not seem like it can last though. Knowing what Oz is getting up to in Germany, Marjorie decides to spend the night with a man who only leaves just before Oz arrives. Oz is content to spend all his money in the bar every weekend so it is unlikely he will change his ways.
In Suspicion, some money is stolen from Neville and a watch from Oz. The hut goes from a bunch of mates to men who all deeply distrust each other. It tests the new friendships and exposes the faults they all feel about each other.
Bomber’s daughter has run away in Home Thoughts From Abroad. He becomes very quiet and is clearly deeply worried about her, eventually choosing to head home. He plans to take the train but the others all have a whip round so he can a flight. When she actually turns up in Germany the other lads make a good job of looking after. Despite her coming on to him, Wayne turns her down, feeling it a step over the mark.
Whilst the first few episodes have tended to focus on the three Geordie blokes, this one starts to give the others a chance to shine. Apart from his oddity of speaking about himself in the third person, we know little about Bomber before this episode. Wayne has also been absent, usually because he is off chasing girls.
A highlight of this episode is when some of the lads, missing home, decide to pay a visit to an Indian restaurant. Oz is at his dreadful best.
Oz: Would ya credit, eh? Indian waiter what cannae speak English!
Dennis: Aye, well, we are in Germany, Oz.
Oz: Well exactly. So why isn’t he speaking English? I mean he’s one of us, isn’t he? I mean, this is a curry house, isn’t it? Cannae get more British than that, can ya, eh?
The Accused was really hard to watch. A German girl insists Neville escort her home, though she is actually just trying to make her boyfriend jealous. Afterwards, the police arrest Neville but none of them speak English. He is terrified and has no idea what is going on. My limited German meant I picked it up slightly earlier than we are told but anyone could have taken a guess. The woman has accused Neville of sexually assaulting her. It is an utterly dreadful ordeal for Neville and the support of the other guys becomes important. A terrible thing is used to show just how close they have become.
Dennis has begun seeing Dagma, a local German lady who works in the office on the site. However, he doesn’t want the others to know anything about it for fear of what they will say. He does not want them discussing Dagma like they do other women. In Private Lives, Wayne is trying to teach Barry how to woo women and they end up chasing after some Swedish air hostesses. They are staying in a hotel, the same hotel where Dennis and Dagma have gone for the weekend. Dennis is not a happy man.
Desperate to get out into the country for the weekend, the lads pack up the car in The Fugitive. The highlight of this episode is Ray Winstone as an army deserter. When the lads bump into him he invents various stories to explain himself before the truth eventually comes out.
The Alien was the one episode I had seen before. The reason I struggled with it perhaps is that much of the attention is directed towards Magowan, a violent Irishman, who ends up sharing the hut. Through blackmailing the site boss, Herr Grunwald (they spot him in a porn cinema), they manage to get Magowan sacked. Unfortunately, he does nick the dartboard. The gang end up in the porn cinema looking for Neville, though it turns out he has been taking guitar lessons in a room above it. The porn cinema is a foreign concept to me as I am far too young to remember them, even if my small town had had one. Do any of them still exist? I think of them as a very 1970s’ thing. Videos came along and gave full-colour porn to the masses. No need for middle-aged men to spend lunchtimes wanking underneath a trenchcoat. We moved on to the Internet, of course. Now everyone can do it however they please in the comfort of their own homes.
Perhaps the visit to the cinema is what inspired Oz in Last Rites to begin smuggling mucky videos back to the UK. He attempts to hide them in a coffin but it goes to pot when the guy ends up getting cremated.
The final few episodes of the first series, The Lovers, Love and Other Four-Letter Words and When the Boat Goes Out all have a focus on relationships and the prospect of going home. Oz goes out with a German girl who believes him to be the son of a tycoon. Meanwhile, Dennis is getting close with Dagma but has everything thrown up in the air when his wife, Vera, comes over. He believed she just wanted to finalise some divorce details but she confesses she isn’t sure she wants the divorce. Dennis is left having to choose whether to give things another go or continue with his plan to stay in Germany with Dagma. He chooses his marriage because of the kids. I didn’t want him to.
Wayne has fallen for a new German woman in the offices and deciding to become a one-woman man, chooses to stay in Germany. Neville can’t wait to get back to Brenda and Bomber to his kids. Oz is happy to leave the Erics. Barry is taking his bike off to Saudia Arabia. Moxey wants to stay in Germany.
Everything is in place for them each to go their separate ways. Then, on their final night, a fire starts in the hut, destroying tickets, money and passports. It leaves the series open-ended.
Having loved the first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, I ploughed on enthusiastically with the second and then the third, at which point I chucked it in. I think the programme would have been better if they had all ended up back in Germany and it is certainly what I had expected to happen. Perhaps the writers felt the storylines were exhausted but with seven blokes, there was surely plenty more to explore. Moxey in particular never received a great deal of plot attention.
The second series feels a tad disconnected with the gang meeting in Birmingham, then going to Derbyshire and finally Spain. The third series comes around 15 years later and already things are out of joint because Gary Holton had passed away during the filming of the second series. Though both of these series do attempt to recreate the ‘trapped’ nature of the lads’ original existence in the German hut, they never quite manage it. They are too close to family and home. There are also much greater story arcs. That first series is so very much about the characters, far more than any of the plots.
Personally, I will choose to think of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as a one-off and I am content to ignore the existence of the later series. Becoming absorbed in the goings on of the hut was an enjoyable experience. Apart from anything, I have become fond of one or two Geordie turns of phrase, including:
“gan” for “gone”
“gadgie” for “man”
“bairn” for “child”
“Ha’way, man” as a general exclamation
The first series is magnificent and brings together some talented young guys. We get to explore some interesting characters, who are all quite different in their ways but have been thrust together by circumstance.
Edit: In retrospect, I think I was harsh to consider completely ignoring Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘s later series. My excuse is that I wrote this immediately after abandoning the third series and was disappointed. I did enjoy the second series, but it was different from the first, and the third was something else entirely. It was hard trying to stick with a programme I’d enjoyed yet clearly couldn’t replicate the highs of its first series. If I was ever to return to Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, it would be because of those original episodes in Dusseldorf.