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The boat opera genre originally came about when an elderly, deaf BBC executive misheard the phrase "soap opera" and believed that all on-going drama serials should be set on-board boats. As no-one else at the BBC had any idea what popular and populist programmes like soap operas were, the idea stuck.
The corporation's first ever boat opera was The Onegin line, which took the "opera" part of the "boat opera" name literally, being based on Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. This proved too highbrow for most viewers. It was followed by a more down-market series, Triangle, set on a run-down, rusty car ferry, but which still failed to attract viewers. Refusing to give up, the BBC tried again replacing the ferry with a variety of expensive, luxury yachts, and calling the new series Howards' Way.
Plot and Characters
The series followed the career of Howard Howard (played by Maurice Dancing) who has been sacked from his job as an airplane designer after one too many crashes, and is now trying to start a new career as a mercenary Commander in the Dialect Task Force. Howard's wife Jan Howard (played by Jan Howard—the producers thought that getting a fictional character to play herself would be cheaper than hiring an actress to do it for her) finds herself being slowly estranged from her husband after his repeated attempts to exterminate her. Jan eventually divorces Howard and dedicates herself to creating "the best damn boat-builder's yard in Uttoxeter."
Over the course of the series, Howard and Jan's new careers bring them into conflict with several ambitious business rivals, nearly all of whom turn out to be their lovers, ex-lovers and/or long-lost illegitimate children. In one season cliffhanger, Howard even reveals that he's his own lover, which comes as no surprise to anyone who'd ever met him.
Since this series featured boats and boat-building so heavily, the BBC chose to make it at their Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, hundreds of miles from the the sea. This meant that any outdoor location filming meant several hours transporting the cast and crew, together with all the equipment, props, yachts, etc., down the motorway to the south coast, and back again in the evening.
When asked why they were wasting licence-payers' money this way, a BBC spokesman explained:
- "Well, we get so much money from the licence fee that we have trouble thinking of new ways to spend it all. I mean, we can't really give the excess money back to viewers and explain that we don't need it after all. It just would make us look rude and ungrateful, and we nobody wants that."
The series boasted a memorable theme tune, with a distinctive "DUM de-dum" refrain that had all the audience singing "HOW-ards' Way. How-How-How-HOW-ards' Way." Or at least it would have done if that deaf BBC executive hadn't turned up again and volunteered to write the theme lyrics. He misheard the programmes title, and wrote "AL-ways There. Al-Al-Al-AL-ways There", which just sounded so stupid that even Marti Pellow who had been hired to sing the theme song, would only do so disguised in women's clothing to hide his identity. (Well, that's what he claimed anyway.)
Despite all the problems, the series was popular with the viewers, and somehow managed to run for five seasons before anyone noticed that Maurice Dancing, the actor playing Howard, had been dead for all that time, and was now quite badly decomposed. The producers quickly wrote him out, but he had been the most popular character in the show despite being played by a lifeless corpse. Audiences stopped watching, and the series was soon cancelled.