Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Uncle Bill Knows Best
Family Affair (1966-1971)
Created by Don Fedderson and Edmund L. Hartmann
Starring Brian Keith, Sebastian Cabot, Kathy Garver, Anissa Jones, Johnnie Whitaker, and Mrs. Beasley
Family Affairis a gentle situation comedy about Bill Davis, a globetrotting civil engineer/bachelor (Brian Keith), and his British butler Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) living a good, uncomplicated life in New York City until Bill finds himself the guardian of his deceased brother's three children (Kathy Garver, Anissa Jones, and Johnny Whitaker). Family Affair was one of several television shows in the sixties featuring motherless children being raised by their fathers. Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and even Bonanza centered on families without mothers.
Cissy, Buffy, and Jody have lost their father as well as their mother, but Uncle Bill steps in to fill the paternal role. Though he asserts that he knows nothing about raising kids, Uncle Bill demonstrates natural, down-to-earth child rearing instincts. For his part Mr. French fulfills the maternal duties of the day from feeding them to getting them to school to reading them bedtime stories. Mr. French often reads them Winnie the Pooh, an allusion to Sebastian Cabot's part as the narrator of the Winnie the Pooh series of animated shorts that Disney released in the sixties and seventies, the first, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, having debuted about six months before Family Affair.
Family Affair was one of the first situation comedies to debut in color, and the show advertises that in its opening credits with jaunty music over a kaleidoscope of red and blue and gold rhinestones. The sixties were ablaze with color anyway: carpets, appliances, and dishes were mustard and avocado. Women and little girls dressed in bright blues, reds, greens, and purples. Men wore suits of more muted colors, but their ties were brightly colored.
Like The Mod Squad, Family Affair is a show I haven't seen since it originally aired on television in the 1960s. And like The Mod Squad, Family Affair defines the sixties for me. But whereas The Mod Squad was more counterculture, Family Affair was cosmopolitan and mod--at least from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl. UN ambassadors, stewardesses, civil engineers--all quintessential sixties careers and all appear at some point on Family Affair, as does folk music and the British Invasion, which by 1966 had fully overtaken America. The folk music is represented by the fictional band, the Velvet Vultures whom Cissy adores, and the British Invasion appears in the form of Mr. French's nephew, an exchange student from London who gets uncomfortably familiar with Cissy. Uncomfortably for Mr. French that is. The young people of the sixties were tearing off the shackles of class segregation and formality and widening the generation gap.
But within the Davis household, the conflicts are more provincial. The kids worry they're getting in Uncle Bill's and Mr. French's hair, and the adults worry they're not raising the kids right. One of the few episodes I remember is "Mrs. Beasley, Where Are You?" Mr. French has accidentally knocked Buffy's doll over the balcony. They turn the apartment building upside down searching for the doll, even accusing another tenant of stealing it. When Mrs. Beasley fails to turn up, Mr. French takes Buffy to the store to buy a new doll, but even the doll that resembles Mrs. Beasley is not an adequate substitute. Cissy informs the adults that Mrs. Beasley is not just a doll; she's the one friend Buffy's had through the deaths of her parents and the separation from her siblings before they are finally reunited and placed together under Uncle Bill's care. Worry not; just as Uncle Bill has rescued and provided shelter and care for his nieces and nephew, he rescues Mrs. Beasley and places her safely back in Buffy's arms again. And, if you want to know how he does it, you'll have to watch Family Affair.