The Two Ronnies – Sid & Lily, George and Edie

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Trawling through the British Newspaper Archive on a separate research project, I stumbled across this interesting article from the Daily Mirror, dated the 29th of October 1979.

It reported how the death of Freddie Usher (who wrote the Lily & Edie segments of these joint sketches) might mean the characters wouldn’t be seen again  (John Sullivan was responsible for writing the Sid & George parts).

Whenever I watch these sketches I’m always conscious of the fact that I enjoy the segments with Sid & George much more than Lily & Edie’s contribution.  I’d previously thought that this was down to the fact that the Rons in drag never quite convinced (at least outside of their barnstorming musical numbers).

Certainly compared to the masters of the genre during the seventies – Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough – the Rons never seemed totally at ease during the Lily & Edie sketches, with the laughs (such as they were) being somewhat muted.

But this new nugget of information about the different writers could explain the disparity between the two halves.

I’d love to have a complete breakdown of the writing credits for The Two Ronnies but (unless anybody knows differently) there’s not one in circulation. A fair few sketches can be credited (most of Ronnie Barker’s contributions for example and various others, such as David Renwick’s Mastermind) but a fair few are less certain.  Even identifying which sketches were penned by the Pythons isn’t clear cut.

Moving back to Sid & Lily, George and Edie, it’s interesting that their slot in series seven (broadcast between December 1978 and February 1979) is right in the middle of the programme, exactly where – in previous series – the film serial would have been.  Since inflation was biting and budgets were being cut, I can only assume that this year the Rons weren’t able to afford the type of lavish serial they’d previously enjoyed.

So this cheap studio sketch had to suffice (the running time of each episode tended to be about five minutes shorter than previous years as well).

A last point – if there’s one thing that’s always irked me, it’s the fact that the doubles of Barker and Corbett (seen in the opening titles) look nothing like them.  The double of Barker is somewhat on the thin side whilst the faux Corbett seems a little tall.  Never mind, one day I’m sure I’ll get over it ….

The Good Life – Silly, but it’s fun (26th December 1977)

Unsurprisingly, the message of Silly, but it’s fun is that you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to have an enjoyable Christmas – all you need is the company of good (no pun intended) friends.

The Goods, of course, have no other choice than to economise (Tom scavenging a Christmas tree – or at least part of it – from the greengrocers, Barbara using her craft skills to make a yule log with a rather substantial Robin). But on the plus side, it does mean that this year’s Christmas has only cost them fifteen pence!

But next door, commercialism is rampant – with Margo railing against tradesmen. David Battley is the tradesman in question, offering a wonderfully phlegmatic performance which was something of his trademark (a similar turn in The Beiderbecke Tapes immediately springs to mind).

Margo’s unhappy that her tree – part of her Christmas delivery – is slightly under the required height, so she decides that everything will have to go back (it’s all or nothing for her). Given that it’s Christmas Eve this seems a little reckless. I know that the seventies was another era, but surely nobody would have been expecting another delivery on Christmas Day? And yet, this is the crux of the story.

Suspension of disbelief also has to come into play when pondering the question as to why Margo’s left it so late to take delivery of all her Christmas provisions – not only the tree, but the food, drink and decorations. A severe lack of forward planning?

The upshot is that when no fresh delivery is forthcoming, she’s forced to ring up all her friends and fob them off from coming around (claiming that Jerry has chickenpox and therefore is out of bounds for the duration). Jerry’s “political” chickenpox cheers him up, as he – naturally enough – wasn’t looking forward to spending yet another Christmas with all their friends, mouthing the same pointless trivialities at the same round of endless parties.

I daresay his wish (which came true) to simply have a quiet Christmas at home would have struck a chord with many ….

So Margo and Jerry spend Christmas Day with Tom and Barbara. It may just have been the especially potent peapod burgundy, but Jerry does get rather frisky with Barbara (although you can’t really blame him). The same sort of sexual tension doesn’t crackle with Tom and Margo (the mind boggles at the thought of that) but they do share a rather intimate scene in the privacy of the kitchen – although this is more about Tom forcing Margo to unbend a little, and embrace their silly Christmas revels.

It’s rather touching that Margo confesses that she’d like to, but simply doesn’t know how. But it doesn’t take long before she’s completely warmed up and throwing herself into all the party games with gusto.

Some sitcom Christmas specials, especially from the eighties onwards, tended to offer something more expansive than their usual fare. Silly, but it’s fun revels in the fact that nothing much happens except that the Goods and the Leadbetters have a jolly enjoyable Christmas day. This embrace of simple pleasures might be one of the reasons why the episode always seems to strike a pleasing chord whenever it makes another Christmas appearance.

 

Are You Being Served? – Christmas Crackers (22nd December 1975)

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It’s Christmas, so we can forgive the employees of Grace Brothers for indulging in a spot of dress up. Mind you, as the series progressed they tended to do it virtually every week ….

Christmas Crackers is a game of four halves.  It begins with a brain-storming meeting called by Mr Rumbold – although in his absence Captain Peacock moves into his seat with alacrity. He also quickly acquires Mr Rumbold’s cup of tea (the only one in a real cup – the others have to make do with plastic ones). It’s a reminder of the rigid herichary which exists at Grace Brothers.

Elsewhere the chat is, as you’d expect, very dependent on double entendres. Mrs Slocombe frets about her pussy whilst Mr Grainger – late once again – tells the others that Mrs Grainger failed to rouse him this morning. Mr Lucas supplies the obvious punchline.

The strangest moment occurs just after Mr Humphries suggests that they should organise a glee club.  This seems reasonable enough, but it tickles the fancy of one member of the audience who hoots in a very distracting fashion.  John Inman, pro that he was, carried on regardless which meant they didn’t have to go for a retake.

When Mr Rumbold eventually does turn up, he reveals that young Mr Grace has already decided exactly how the department should get into the Christmas spirit, thereby negating the previous ten minutes of chat.  This is either a clever touch or it reveals that the plotting of AYBS? was never that solid.

The second section of the episode revolves around a shop-floor spat between Mrs Slocombe and Captain Peacock.  Mrs Slocombe doesn’t like the high-kicking automated display model which has been wheeled onto the floor by the ever-annoying Mr Mash. She wants it removed, but Captain Peacock stands firm and tells her to return to her counter.  So she turns it on when his back is turned and the inevitable happens (it kicks him up the backside).  Mr Humphries then notes that it’s playing the Nutcracker Suite ….

Christmas dinner is next on the agenda, which is a good example of the fact that Grace Brothers remains the most parsimonious of employers.  A microscopic chicken has to be shared amongst them all, whilst their Christmas pudding deflates after Mr Mash liberally sprinkles it with a dose of powerful wood alcohol.  Mind you, their crackers were very large and did include decent novelties, so it wasn’t all bad. Chief amongst these were Captain Peacock’s googly eyes and Mr Grainger’s sticky-out ears, which allows him to cosplay as Mr Rumbold.

This just leaves the reveal of the shop floor, now transformed into a very credible Christmas grotto (clearly all the money went on this, rather than the staff Christmas dinner) and the emergence of the regulars, all decked out in their costumes (this was young Mr Grace’s brainwave).  Whenever dress up was on the cards it seemed there was a strict pecking order (with Mr Humphries always being the last to show his face). This suggests that the writers had quickly latched onto the fact that Inman had clicked with the audience (he certainly gets the loudest whoop of appreciation – although it’s debatable whether his costume is the funniest).

Captain Peacock’s snowman is wonderful (I think it’s the addition of the pipe which really sells it) whilst Miss Brahams and Mr Lucas, as a fairy and Long John Silver, don’t let the side down. Mrs Slocombe’s Robin Hood isn’t too way out but it’s counterbalanced by Mr Grainger’s egg costume (my favourite). As always, Arthur Brough helps to sell the moment – Mr Grainger’s long-suffering miserablism is pitched at just the right level.  Like all Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry series, AYBS? was never the same once the original cast began to break up and Brough’s death (following the conclusion of series five) undeniably affected the balance of the show.

Once all the staff have assembled, out of nowhere music begins to play and also out of nowhere everybody starts to sing a song based on the way their day has gone.  This isn’t quite as jolting as raising a glass and wishing everyone at home a very Merry Christmas, but it’s not far short.

Are You Being Served?

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Are You Being Served? is a series I’ve never added to my DVD collection – mainly because the R2 sounded a little unappealing (certain episodes used shorter edits prepared by David Croft for a nineties repeat season) and in the past I didn’t have a R1 compatible player, so the uncut American release was out of reach.

Which meant that I’ve come to the recent Gold repeats pretty fresh and – so far – AYBS? has proved to be a more than pleasant surprise. Of course, it’s early days yet (I’m currently on series three) and there will no doubt come a point – as happens with most Croft/Perry and Croft/Lloyd sitcoms – where the show starts to run out of steam.

Often it’s cast changes which seem to signal the beginning of the end. Dad’s Army was never the same after James Beck’s death, although it’s true that his absence wasn’t the only reason why the post Beck episodes lacked a little spark. On the other hand, the departure of Simon Cadell from Hi-De-Hi! was a major tipping point. When Jeffrey Fairbrother was replaced by someone more streetwise and less vulnerable it was a blow which the series never recovered from.

I’m expecting the post Trevor Bannister years to be a little tricky and I can’t say I’m looking forward to the introduction of Old Mr Grace. Young Mr Grace (Harold Blewett) was always a charming character, but Old Mr Grace (Kenneth Waller) was just a nasty type.

But one piece of replacement casting which I think did work was that of Arthur English stepping in for Larry Martyn (as the general handyman/dogsbody character). Martyn’s Mr Mash stands out during the early series, mainly because Martyn is playing much broader than the others (had he appeared during the later run this might not have been such a problem). Another issue with Mash is that Martyn’s clearly been made up to play older, which didn’t work very well. So the later hiring of a more mature actor (English) made sense.

If the Gold repeats continue, then I await with interest the numerous replacements for Mr Grainger, none of whom lasted very long.

The innuendo of AYBS? started fairly mildly, although you can see that series by series things are getting broader. One such barometer is Mrs Slocombe’s pussy, whose misadventures become much more suggestive over time ….

Apart from the increasing lashings of sexual innuendo, highlights so far have included Camping In (S01E04). There’s something rather charming about the way that the members of staff – forced as they are to sleep in the store overnight – reminisce about the good old days of WW2 and engage in a spot of Blitz-era spirt with a good old singalong. This one also ties the programme to another specific moment in British history – namely the early seventies when strikes and power shortages were increasingly common (other episodes also make capital out of this).

Several episodes focus on work/office politics in a way that’s still highly recognisable today. How the others react unfavourably to Captain Peacock being rewarded for twenty years loyal service (with the key to the executive washroom) will no doubt strike a chord with many. The travails of Coffee Morning (S02E02) is another one which seems just as relevant today as it did then. Stores like Grace Brothers might be long gone, but companies who react unfavourably whenever workers elect to nip off for a tea break or a visit to the toilet are still very much with us ….

The last word should be left to Mrs Slocombe.

It’s a wonder I’m here at all, you know. My pussy got soaking wet. I had to dry it out in front of the fire before I left!

Blankety Blank – Series One

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Those hardy souls who’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter feed recently will have noticed that I’ve been tweeting screencaps from the first series of Blankety Blank (I cater for very niche interests it has to be said ….)

Although I’ve a great deal of time for the later Dawson incarnation, my heart really belongs to the Wogan era of Blankety Blank. And thanks to Challenge broadcasting a selection of shows a few years ago (although they could really do with digging out some more) I’ve now got most of the first series available whenever I need a BB fix.

And I do tend to give them a spin quite regularly. Why should a quiz game, no doubt seen at the time as rather disposable, still work so well for me today? I’ll try and explain …..

The presence of Terry Wogan is an obvious plus. Relaxed and jocular, he’s nevertheless quite happy to be the butt of endless jokes from the more boisterous panel members (Paul Daniels springs to mind). On the one hand this shows a refreshing lack of ego, but Wogan was canny enough to realise that by playing the victim he could gain a good deal of audience sympathy (which he does). But whilst he may be a ham (witness his endless array of funny voices when reading out the questions) he’s an endearing one.

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The range of guests across this first series is another major plus. There’s plenty of faces that you’d expect to see on a show of this type (Bernie Winters, Lennie Bennett, Lorraine Chase, etc) but it’s the more leftfield choices which really catch the eye. George Baker and Ron Moody are two actors who would appear to be fishes out of water in this sort of environment, but both throw themselves into the spirit of the game with gusto.

The real stars are some of the more regular players. Beryl Reid appears to be gloriously disconnected from reality whilst Peter Jones’ cutting wit always entertains. It’s always good to see Bill Tidy and his cartoons whilst David Jason (not really a quiz game regular outside of BB) seems to acting a part (that of the abrasive quiz game celeb) but he’s still good value.

But goodness, Paul Daniels is irritating. I’ve always been very appreciative of Daniels the magician, but he’s at his impish worst here. Position five, where Daniels sits, quickly came to be seen as the place where you plonk the comic/disruptive element (lest we forget it was Kenny Everett’s favourite seat).

I have to confess that I found the presence of the likes of Shirley Ann Field, Alexandra Bastedo, Diane Keen and Wanda Ventham to be rather pleasing ….

Jon Pertwee only made one appearance during this first series, but it’s a good ‘un. He decided to come along dressed as the Doctor (or maybe that was his usual evening leisurewear) and couldn’t help but aim a sly dig at Who mid way through. It clearly always rankled with him that Tom Baker was more popular in the role than he was.

The Generation Game had already presented us with the spectacle of the contestant as star, but Blankety Blank is more of a throwback to an earlier age. Most of the contestants (bar the odd confident chap – such as the Taxi Driver of the Year) seem more than a little overawed. This is best seen during Terry’s introductory chat, which always tends to be brief and to the point.

Generally Terry has three questions for them – finding out the quaking contestant’s name, the place where they live and then either their job or whether they’re married. For some, even this brief (but very gentle) interrogation seems like a terrible ordeal.

It’s interesting that much later quiz/panel shows have come in for criticism due to the dominance of male players. Blankety Blank never had that problem – the celebrities were always split equally as were the contestants. True, it’s noticeable that Terry is always keen to clutch the younger, female contestants tightly (plus they also run the risk of attracting the attention of the likes of Paul Daniels) but it was the 1970’s, so that sort of treatment was no doubt par for the course.

If you haven’t seen it for a while, then you could do much worse than seeking it out on YouTube. Genuinely entertaining, series one of Blankety Blank is something of a keeper.

The Prince of Denmark – Simply Media DVD Review

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Although largely forgotten today, Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman had a lengthy sitcom partnership with Ronnie Corbett (they ended up penning three different comedy shows for him).  First, along with Eric Idle, they created No – That’s Me Over Here, which ran for three series between 1967 and 1970 on ITV.  The first two series no longer exist, although one episode is possibly held in private hands.   Series three is available from Network.

After Corbett and Barker moved from ITV to the BBC in the early seventies, Corbett’s sitcom career continued with Now Look Here (1971 – 1973).  Rosemary Leach, who had also appeared in No – That’s Me Over Here, returned, although since she was now playing Laura, rather than Rosemary, the series clearly wasn’t a direct continuation.  Mind you, Ronnie was still playing Ronnie and to all intents and purposes was pretty much the same character (unlike his long-time comedy colleague, Ronnie Barker, Corbett tended to stick with a very similar comic persona).

Something of a precursor to Sorry!, Corbett’s most popular sitcom success, Now Look Here saw Ronnie attempting to break free from the stifling influence of his mother.  The difference was that in Now Look Here he does (albeit his new house is just a few doors away) and by the second and final series he was married to Laura.  Although a release from Simply was announced, it was then pulled due to unspecified rights issues.  Hopefully these problems can be ironed out and it’ll reappear on the schedule at a later date.

The Prince of Denmark (1974) followed on directly from Now Look Here.  This series saw Ronnie and Laura running a pub (hence the series’ title) which Laura had inherited.  Ronnie, despite knowing nothing about the pub game, blithely assumes he knows best and frequently overrides the good advice offered by those around him, with inevitably disastrous comic results.

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Ronnie Corbett & Rosemary Leach

The pub setting is a fruitful one, since it allows new comic characters to keep popping up in each show.  Making appearances were a host of familiar faces, including Derek Deadman, Richard Davies, Harold Goodwin, Mary Hignett, Claire Neilson (also a regular on The Two Ronnies) and Geoffrey Palmer. Penny Irving adds a touch of glamour as the pneumatic barmaid Polly.

The dependable David Warwick appeared in all six episodes as the long-suffering barman Steve whilst the pub also boasted several semi-regulars.  These included Mr Blackburn (Tim Barrett) who never manages to catch his train due to the fact he always stays for one more drink and a crossword addict (played by Michael Nightingale) who only talks in riddles.  The unmistakable Declan Mulholland, playing the abusive Danny, also helps to enliven a couple of episodes.

The first episode opens with Ronnie and Laura visiting their new pub incognito. Ronnie’s pedantic, uppity and pompous (complaining about the service and the fellow customers whilst also muttering darkly that there’s going to be changes) whilst Laura is much more patient and understanding. These traits will be repeated across the series time and time again.

And the price of Ronnie’s half a bitter and Laura’s small sherry? Twenty five pence, which is a bargain!

The start-up screen displays the following disclaimer. “Due to the archive nature of this material, modern audiences may find some of it editorially challenging. In order to present the content as transmitted, no edits have been made. We ask that viewers remain mindful of the period in which it was commissioned and transmitted”.

This seems to be due to the moment in the opening episode where we see a black customer, Reg (Lee Davis), tell the departing licensee, Mrs Bowman (Maggie Hanley) that her pies are disgusting (she suggests he eats a missionary instead). That’s the only slightly off-key joke I can find, which makes the disclaimer seem a little anti-climactic.

Since the first episode went out at 7:40 pm, it’s surprising to hear Declan Mulholland’s truculent troublemaker call Ronnie a bastard several times. Another interesting point is the later scene where Ronnie mistakes an ordinary customer for a Brewery bigwig and fawns over him whilst roundly abusing the real Brewery man.  Given Graham Chapman’s involvement, it’s highly likely that his old comedy partner John Cleese would have tuned in. Could this have inspired Cleese to pen the later Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors?

By the third episode things are ticking along nicely. This one boasts a strong guest cast – Richard Davies, Claire Nielson, Geoffrey Palmer – and sees Ronnie cast as a confidant and sage to his customers. The only problem is his total lack of understanding.  For example, when Davies’ character mentions that he believes in a benign oligarchy, all Ronnie can do is nod sagely. Ronnie’s increasing desperation as he’s quizzed about his views on democracy is nicely done.

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Ronnie Corbett & Geoffrey Palmer

Ronnie’s exuberant cheeky-chappy persona is precisely what Martin (Geoffrey Palmer) doesn’t need as he’s suffering from marriage problems. And when Martin’s wife, Alison (Claire Nielson), turns up, Ronnie once again puts his foot in it. Corbett and Palmer play off each other very well (is it just another coincidence that both Palmer and Nielson would later check into Fawlty Towers?). Although Corbett overplays somewhat, Palmer is a model of restraint and it’s probably their differing styles which helps to make this one flow nicely.

Show four opens with Ronnie in the kitchen, attempting (but failing disastrously) to make Laura a snack whilst she enjoys a quiet bath. Whilst it offers a change of pace from the bar scenes, the visual comedy on offer is somewhat laboured (and subject to some hard edits – one moment the pan is on fire, the next it isn’t).

Elsewhere, Ronnie’s prejudices are on display. He declares that all football supporters are hooligans unlike followers of rugby, who are gentlemen. Given this set-up, no prizes for guessing what happens when a large crowd of rugger fans turn up. The highly-recognisable Michael Sharvell-Martin pops up as Gerry, captain of the rugby team, whilst the equally-recognisable Harry Fielder and Pat Gorman (familiar background faces from this era of television) are also present.

Ronnie’s jukebox jiving in show five is a highlight and seems to briefly amuse what is otherwise a very muted audience. When Ronnie treats a couple of customers to his regular joke about the Irishman in the restaurant, the punchline doesn’t raise a titter either from them or the studio audience. This episode also seems to have the strongest Graham Chapman feel, as what begins as a quiet night quickly spins out of control. The comic escalation we see is a touch Pythonesque.

Although Ronnie’s character remains highly smackable throughout, Corbett’s timing ensures that he makes the most of the material he’s given. It’s just a slight pity that Rosemary Leach didn’t have more to work with.

This was an era where female members of comedy couples were often dominant (Terry & June, George & Mildred) and although Laura is clearly much more sensible and level-headed than her husband, she’s less well drawn than either June or Mildred. More often than not Laura isn’t called on to do much more than show exasperation at Ronnie’s latest flight of fancy.

No lost classic then, but The Prince of Denmark should be of interest to both Ronnie Corbett fans and devotees of seventies British sitcoms. Although the scripts can be a little weak in places (surprising given Cryer and Chapman’s track record) it’s still enjoyable fare, thanks to the familar faces guesting and Corbett’s energetic performance. Recommended.

The Prince of Denmark is released by Simply Media on the 17th of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here

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The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Eight

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Original Transmission – 29th May 1971

Written by Eric Idle, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley. Additional material by Gary Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar.

Introduction/News Items
Doctor’s Sketch
Tina Charles – Remember Me
Ronnie B Solo – Statistics
Hampton Wick – Episode Eight
Class Sketch (with John Cleese)
New World – Tom Tom Turnaround
Ronnie C in the Chair
Christening Sketch
Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones

Notes: I rather like this news item. “The world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle designer was divorced today after his wife found he was keeping a piece on the side.”

No party sketch, instead it’s a sketch with Ronnie B as a doctor and Ronnie C as a patient who complains of not being there all the time (and promptly vanishes). He also tells the doctor that he gets this floating feeling sometimes and – via the magic of CSO – does just that. A fairly indifferent effort, although Cheryl Kennedy as a nurse with a very short skirt provides a brief moment of interest.

For only the second time, Tina Charles is up before New World. For this final show she tackles Diana Ross’ Remember Me. New World bid us farewell with their biggest UK hit, Tom Tom Turnaround, which made the top ten.

Ronnie B is in his familiar spokesman guise, this time as a Statistician. “A recent survey conduced in Bolton has proved conclusively that 10 out of 10 people who live in Bolton, live in Bolton. Although 3 out of 10 people who live in Bolton think they live in Birmingham. On further questioning, 5 out of 10 people agreed with us, agreed with us that they agreed with us. Of the remaining 5, 5 out of 10 remained out of the 10 from which the 5 out of 10 who agreed with us that they agreed with us remained.”

Hampton Wick concludes in a rather recursive way, with Henrietta waking up in 1971 after a long illness, realising that everything she’d experienced had been nothing but a dream. But Barker and Corbett, playing themselves, happen to be sitting on a bench outside the hospital, and after they see her leave both decide she’d be perfect for their show …

There’s another Class Sketch with John Cleese but once again there’s no speciality act. Double boo!

After Ronnie C in the chair and a christening sketch (Ronnie B as a vicar, Ronnie C and Cheryl Kennedy as parents who are surprised to find their baby is Chinese) we end as we began, with Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat-Belly Jones.

Although series one was a pretty mixed bag, the Python influence (and the appearances of John Cleese) make it pretty noteworthy. There might have been the odd production misstep, but even this early on the formula of the show is pretty much set in stone. That’s not a criticism, as whilst Python and Q might have delighted in unpredictability, there’s also a place for a series which delivers precisely what the audience expects and rarely lets them down – and The Two Ronnies is a perfect example of that.