Butterflies is a very strange TV series. It ran for four seasons across six years, totalling 28 episodes of about half an hour each: and in those 28 half-hours, almost nothing happens.
It’s billed as a comedy, and it does have some funny moments. But there are long, long stretches that could not be described as remotely humorous — for example, passages in which the viewpoint character wanders through a public park, inwardly monologuing over how predictable her life has become. There is a laugh track, which is sometimes unbearably inappropriate.
Yet somehow, it all works. It’s a programme that’s remembered with a lot of affection by people who grew up with it (between 1978 and 1983). and I don’t think that is because of the sporadic humour. Essentially, writer Carla Lane wrote a psychological drama and sneaked it under the radar, onto prime-time TV, in the guise of a comedy.
Butterflies is essentially the story of one person, Ria Parkinson, who is a housewife in the upmarket suburban town of Cheltenham. She is more-or-less happily married to Ben Parkinson, a successful dentist. They have two adult sons: the scrawny Adam, and the effortlessly good looking Russell. (That’s the family in the picture above: from left to right, Russell, Ben, Ria and Adam.) Although Ria’s life is comfortable and secure, and although she genuinely loves Ben, she can’t escape the feeling that her life is slipping away in an endless and meaningless round of shopping, cooking, and walks in the park. She doesn’t have a job: Ben would disapprove. Into this equilibrium comes Leonard, a local businessman in the middle of a divorce. He meets Ria in a cafe, becomes obsessed with her, and wants her to have an affair. She is tempted, but resists.
And that’s it — that is the whole plot of the fourteen hours of Butterflies. Just as every one of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories has the same plot, so does every episode of Butterflies. The family argue over breakfast. Ben goes to work. Ria goes shopping, then for a walk in the park. In the park, she meets Leonard. They talk, and he tries to persuade her to leave Ben for him. She refuses, and returns home to cook a bad meal. Meanwhile, Adam and Russell will have tried unsuccessfully to get jobs, or one of them will have a new girlfriend. Ben, old-fashioned and intolerant, disapproves. Ria loves him anyway. Curtain.
Nothing changes. Leonard and Ria never have their affair — they never even kiss. Ria remains faithful to, and in love with, Ben. But she also remains frustrated and distanced from her life without really understanding why. Ben remains an inherently good man, but unable to express himself, either to Ria or to his sons. Adam and Russell remain immature and feckless, and never really find proper jobs or long-term relationships.
So why does the show work? I think there is something appealing about Ria’s basic decency, and about her honesty with herself. But it’s also painfully frustrating to watch Ben so consistently fail to understand it. And every scene with Leonard and Ria is uncomfortable, sometimes painfully so. Why does she keep seeing him at all? She knows she will never allow it to go anywhere, and that he can only ever be a source of pain to her. Then there’s Adam and Russell: they are likeable, but there’s not enough about their characters for them to make a big contribution to the show. Putting it all together, I’m not sure even I understand why I watched all four seasons. Honestly, I could have got 90% of the value from watching just the first.
Still, I do think it’s well worth watching at least that first season (or indeed whichever of the seasons is most convenient to get hold of, since they are all more or less the same). It has a uniquely unflinching quality, and really pushes the boundaries of what a TV comedy can be. I’m not sure there’s been anything like it since.