The Liver Birds was a UK TV sitcom which ran for 9 series, from 1969 until 1979.
Set in a post Beatles Liverpool, it centres around a pair of thoroughly modern missy’s who share a flat, and was the first UK sitcom to feature two female co-stars. Series one starred Polly James as Beryl and Pauline Collins as flatmate Dawn, but it wasn’t until series two when Collins was replaced by Nerys Hughes as Sandra, that it really hit its stride.
There’s a Polly James quote about her and Nerys’s working relationship, “We just fitted together. We learned our lines sipping Pernod milkshakes.” – sadly, the Pernod milkshakes didn’t actually feature in the series, but then, it was only telly, not real life.
Not only did the show feature women in all the main roles, the show was also written by women, namely two aspiring Liverpudlian writers who had met at a local writers club. Carla Lane and Myra Taylor were approached by the BBC to write a new sitcom about girls sharing a flat, which in 1969 was still something of a radical idea.
Before the 1960s girls were expected to live with their parents, spend their latter teenage years dressing up and worrying about getting themselves a potential husband, before marrying, going on to live with said husband, and starting the whole cycle again. After the Second World War, when women took on working roles as they filled in for the absent men, many became extremely skilled in what had been previously seen as “men’s jobs”, and in turn this led to the acceptance of the idea of women working outside the home. Often for the first time, it gave women financial independence. So along with advances in the feminist movement, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, and the general swinging of the 1960s, sharing a flat became a new and positively groovy possibility for young women.
Although the series, the jokes and the writing have not aged especially well – re-watching some of the clips really just confirms that most of the “laughs” stem from the girls naivety and ineptitude at dealing with their often self inflicted scrapes and calamities. Sitcoms up to and including the 1970s had generally towed society’s line, and women characters either served as line feeders to the male stars who would then get the big laugh, or they were cast as the butt of their jokes, or they were given fluff parts to “pretty up” the set. Still guilty of some of these tried and tested female roles, the show did somehow sow the seeds of new possibilities. Maybe one day we’d all be Beryls and Sandras, but instead of worrying about how to attract a new boyfriend, we’d find something much more interesting to do. As an avid TV watcher it was a relief to see an alternative; these girls were living on their own and were not being patrolled by their parents, nor had been forced into marriage as an acceptable way of fleeing the nest. In its own way, it opened a window showing how it might be to live with your friends, and for the still impressionable under tens watching, most of us decided that it would be great.
Nerys Hughes unintentionally stumbled back into the post punk fray in the 1980s when the band Half Man Half Biscuit paid their own…err…”tribute” to her on their debut album “Back in the DHSS”, which was released at a time when it was uber cool to criticise anything and anyone connected with the mainstream. The Liver Birds may have seemed mainstream by the end of the 1970s, but for a young pre-teen audience, many of its themes of independent living, female friendships, and taking on the world left a marked impression.