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 ….
Simon, back in Rome, becomes aware of an odious protection racket targeting the city-wide population of beggars. They’ve been forced to give a percentage of the money they collect to a mysterious figure known only as the King of the Beggars. A young actress, Theresa (Yvonne Romain), has gone undercover in order to identify the “King” and Simon, suitably disguised, quickly takes her place (after all, he’s got much more experience of tangling with the ungodly than she has). But events take a sinister turn after Theresa is kidnapped …..
The King of the Beggars touches upon a theme previously raised in The Charitable Countess, specifically the divide between Rome’s rich and poor. As before, Simon shows sympathy towards those who have nothing, especially when one of them is brutally mown down before his eyes.
There’s plenty of familiar faces in this one – Oliver Reed (more of him in a minute), Ronnie Corbett (credited more formally as Ronald) and Warren Mitchell, who was making his third and final appearance as Simon’s Rome-based helper, Marco. Moore and Mitchell slip easily back into their bantering partnership (Simon offers Marco a drink – he asks for a large whisky, but receives a small coffee instead!). Marco is again partly present to give us the opposite view about beggars – he regards them as a workshy nuisance, whilst Simon is much more forgiving about the plight they’ve found themselves in.
Oliver Reed’s imposing physical presence is immediately evident. As Joe Catilli, a member of the protection racket, he glowers splendidly and it isn’t long before he and the Saint come to blows. Their bout of fisticuffs may be brief, but it feels quite convincing. They tangle on several later occasions as well, with the most entertaining being when the Saint uses Catalli as an unwilling guinea pig in order to demonstrate to a group of impressively bearded vagrants the best way to defend yourself from unwanted street attacks!
Last time, I raised an eyebrow (in tribute to Roger of course) at the Saint’s previously unheralded skill with disguises. Remarkably he’s at it again today – a pair of dark glasses, a little bit of stubble, mussed hair and he’s instantly transformed into a blind beggar. It’s ever so slightly awkward though that he’s then approached by Catilli, who doesn’t seem to connect this blind beggar to the young chap who had earlier duffed him up. I mean, it’s not that great a disguise.
Marco and Simon are teamed up for several very enjoyable scenes. One of my favourites sees them interrogating an uncommunicative member of the gang. But never fear, Marco has a pair of pliers in his pocket and attempts to give him an instant spot of rough dentistry!
Who could the King of the Beggars be? We’re introduced to Stephen Elliot (John McLaren), a philanthropic American who appears to share Simon’s distress at the plight of Rome’s displaced citizens. But everything points to the fact that this upstanding man will later be revealed to be the “King”. Or will there be a twist? Hmm ……
John McLaren seems a little stiff, although this may be due to the character he’s playing and not a lack of acting ability. More naturalistic is Maxine Audley as the Contessa Dolores Marcello. Dolores and Elliot first encountered the Saint when he was wearing his beggar disguise and when they all meet again at a swanky party she quickly makes the connection (which is more than Elliot did).
But it seems that Catalli eventually did twig as well, as Simon finds himself drinking a cup of drugged chocolate at the flop house run by Maria Calvetti (Jessie Robins). As Simon slumps to the floor, Catalli pops up in a typically menacing fashion. Maria and Catalli then team up to interrogate the kidnapped Theresa. A shame that Robins’ role isn’t larger as Maria’s got a nice line in threats. “Miss Mantania, don’t get rough with me. I can knock you right through the wall”. I believe her ….
One of two novellas from the 1948 book Call for the Saint, Charteris’ story was set in Chicago, with Simon’s regular sidekick – Hoppy – assisting him. Marco performs a similar function in the teleplay (and is considerably less irritating). Many of the characters are essentially the same, although the names have naturally been changed to rather more Italianate ones.
John Gillings’ teleplay retains all the essential story beats of the original, including the chess piece left behind by the abducted Theresa (which gives Simon a vital clue). The identity of the “King” is a decent twist and together with the strong guest cast, headed by Reed and Mitchell, it helps to make this another very solid story. Four halos out of five.
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.
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.
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
One of the many joys of revisiting The Two Ronnies is the chance to hear Ronnie Hazlehurst’s iconic opening and closing music. It was just one of his many credits, as he also penned the themes for Are You Being Served?, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Last of the Summer Wine, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, To the Manor Born, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister amongst others. Not a bad CV to have ….
The below recording comes from his album, Sixteen Small Screen Greats, and is a fairly close approximation of the original (albeit with a Piggy Malone/Charley Farley sidestep in the middle).
Few themes, especially the closing section, are quite so evocative. It instantly conjures up a sense of warmth and security as the memories of decades gone by come flooding back. Thank you Ronnie H.
Written by Eric Idle, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley. Additional material by Gary Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar.
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
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.
Written by Barry Cryer, Eric Idle, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Dick Vosburg, Gerald Wiley. Additional Material by Garry Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar, Peter Vincent
New World – Cape Cod Boys/My Dear Mary Anne
Ronnie B Solo – Wedding Speech
Hampton Wick – Episode Seven
Dress Shop Sketch
Tina Charles – Wedding Bell Blues
Ronnie C in the Chair
The Short & Fat Minstrel Show
Notes: I’ve previously touched upon how you can date the series by observing which female celebrity is most frequently mentioned in the news items. Another way to quickly identify that we’re definitely in the seventies is by totting up the number of jokes directed at lazy British workers, like this one. “At Ford’s Halewood plant today, a man was given a gold watch for long service …. after working for 25 minutes.” That it gets a round of applause from the audience clearly indicates that it struck a chord (expect much more of this throughout the decade).
For a change the party sketch doesn’t take place in somebody’s living room, instead we’re in the hall, which sees Ronnie B open a conversation with Ronnie C, who’s just come down the stairs. Set design is pretty minimal, with black drapes behind the staircase. Once again we see a mini obsession with chartered accounts – that’s Ronnie B’s occupation (who in time honoured Python fashion comes across as incredibly dull – well he’s a chartered accountant, so he must be). Ronnie C is completely different – he’s the world’s leading authority on impressionist paintings and therefore someone who has nothing in common with his fellow guest.
For example, Ronnie C lives in a converted monastery in the Outer Hebrides whilst Ronnie B lives in Hendon. The sketch continues to escalate nicely, before the final pay off is made. Corbett might be the one in control but Barker is delightful as a very dull man, so the honours are about even.
New World weld a couple of songs together, including My Dear Mary Anne which features this immortal line. “A lobster dies in a boiling pot. Oh, pity the blue fish too. Yet they’re quickly gone and they suffer not like the ache I bear for you, my dear Mary Anne.” Tina Charles can’t hope to top this, but Wedding Bell Blues (yet another song from Laura Nyro) is pleasant enough fare.
Ronnie B is up next, as a drunken father toasting the happy couple at a wedding reception. “He has already shown that he can put her in the family way … the family way of life to which she has become accustomed. We drink to Arthur as he’s always drunk … to us.” Christopher Timothy gets to sit and suffer in silence as the unfortunate bridegroom. He’d briefly appeared opposite Barker earlier in the year in Six Dates with Barker – The Removals Person.
Madeline Smith’s indomitable heroine Henrietta Beckett now finds herself in America as Hampton Wick slowly staggers towards a conclusion. She’s found gainful employment “as a slave-girl in the orgy scene of a film called Belshazzar’s Feast.” But for once this isn’t an excuse to dress her up in very little ….
She does get to act though, opposite Ronnie C as a diminutive film-star who has to stand on a box in order to play scenes eye to eye with her. And when he slips off, he inevitably falls into her breasts. Subtle this isn’t, although a later section, shot in black and white and mingling new footage with vintage clips, is a little more inventive.
We then have a quickie sketch with Ronnie B as a man who’s come to by a dress. But not for his wife, it’s for him. He claims it’s only for fancy dress, but the assistant (played by Claire Neilson – a familiar Two Rons face) isn’t so sure. Once again, the sketch is played against black drapes, an indication that a spot of cost cutting was going on.
Following Ronnie C’s chair spot, there’s a sketch which features Corbett as Jenkinson, a man who’s come for a job interview but instead acts as if he’s the one in charge. As with the party sketch, Corbett dominates, but Barker – in the more passive role – is much more than a simple feed.
There’s no speciality act in this one. Boo!
We close with The Short & Fat Minstrel Show, which is the sort of sequence I’d expect to see pop up in one of those My Goodness Wasn’t Television Awful Back in the Old Days type shows, where modern comedians you’ve never heard of pour scorn on the crimes of their forefathers. True, it’s undeniably a little grisly but it’s very much of it’s time. And the Raquel Welch obsession continues. “Oh Raquel Welch, I love your left … doo-dah, doo-dah. I sit and think of Raquel’s left doo-dah all the day.”
Written by Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Gerald Wiley. Additional material by Garry Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar
Party Sketch – Trends (with John Cleese)
Ronnie B Solo – Appeal on behalf of the very clumsy
Hampton Wick – Episode Six
Class Sketch (with John Cleese)
Tina Charles – Got To Get You Into My Life
Ronnie C in the Chair
Musical Number- Elizabeth Aa Ha
Notes: The party sketch simply screams early seventies. There’s a variety of bizarre fashions (Ronnie B has to be seen to be believed) whilst attractive women lounge around in hotpants. A poster of Che Guevara on the wall is further evidence that it’s a hip and happening joint. The only person not hip and happening seems to be Ronnie C, dressed in a normal suit, but he’s doing his best to try and be in with the new scene, telling the others that jumping up and down is the latest, fun thing.
No-one else seems impressed with this as the sketch – a sly swipe at fashion and trends – continues. It’s only when a new guest appears (John Cleese) and starts doing Ronnie C’s hopping that it instantly becomes accepted. Nice to see Cleese, who pops up again later.
New World are standing up this week with a slightly more uptempo foot-tapper. But if they’re still operating in fairly gentle territory, which might lull some into a sense of slumber, there’s no chance of dozing when Tina Charles is around. She belts out the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life with the sort of full-hearted gusto that’s already become her trademark, six shows in.
Ronnie B is in his element as a very clumsy man making an appeal on behalf of others equally afflicted. “I myself to tend to knock over the occasional table. In fact, last month I knocked over five occasional tables.” Although Barker never liked to appear as himself before an audience, once in character he was in total command. This is seen here after an onscreen caption causes a little titter amongst the audience and slightly throws him off his stride. But he’s able to say “thank you” and carry on, keeping in character all the time.
Next, there’s a reprise of the famous Frost Report sketch featuring Cleese, Barker and Corbett as examples of the upper, middle and lower class members of society. As with the original, it’s Ronnie C who gets all the laughs whilst the other two play his straight men.
Wasta is this week’s speciality act. He’s a physical drunk act and is rather good (not a great many other credits I can find, apart from a few appearances in The Good Old Days, which would make sense – it’s the sort of non verbal comedy that would work well there).
The closing musical number is an Elizabethan costume drama set to music. Ronnie B as Queen Elizabeth I fairly takes the breath away, although Ronnie C’s Sir Francis Drake (sporting a very modern pair of glasses) is equally as eye-catching. Mind you, this sketch is probably best known for the impressive entry of John Owens.
Owens was a very dependable Two Rons performer (chalking up many credits between this one and their final Christmas special in 1987). He should have come running in and then slid to a kneeling position, but possibly the floor was a little too slippery, which meant he ended up on his backside. Ronnie B just about keeps it together, although the extras in the background are less restrained. They could have gone for another take, but since it’s a nice moment (the audience always likes to see a few fluffs and mishaps) it wasn’t surprising they kept it in.