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.
Written by Garry Chambers, Tony Hare, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Peter Vincent, Bill Solly, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley
Party Sketch – Toilet Humour
Ronnie C at the piano
Hampton Wick – Episode Five
Tina Charles – Time and Love
Rev Spooner – The Musical
Notes: In this party sketch, Ronnie C desperately wants to find the toilet, but can’t bring himself to actually say so – instead he uses a string of subtle hints (inspect the plumbing, etc) which Ronnie B totally fails to understand. It’s not a terribly long sketch, nor does it have a particularly good punchline, but you can’t beat a bit of good, honest toilet humour.
New World, a vision in matching blue sweaters, are as relaxing as always. Tina Charles ups the tempo a little with another Laura Nyro song, Time and Love.
Now this is odd. Even this early on, the Two Ronnies had a sense of order and tradition, so it’s jarring that Ronnie C’s solo spot is so early in the show (we’re only seven minutes in) and what’s worse he’s not sitting in his chair – he’s by a piano instead! Luckily the jokes are just the same, including this one which I’m sure had more than one outing over the years. “This morning we had an argument with the children about staying up late to watch daddy. They wanted to go to bed.”
Hampton Wick once again places Madeline Smith in low cut dresses as well as offering us the chance to see Ronnie C as Toulouse Lautrec.
Next up Ronnie B plays a confused Scottish doctor (he doesn’t seem to realise he’s a doctor) whilst Ronnie C is his patient attempting to get a little treatment. When Ronnie C gives his profession as a Chartered Surveyor, it’s impossible not to wonder if one of the Pythons scripted this (Chartered Surveyors tended to loom large in Python). That the sketch veers off in an unexpected direction also supports this, as that’s a very Pythonesque trademark.
Chaz Chase, born in Russia in 1901, made a career out of eating practically anything – cigarettes, flowers – and he does so here as well. Definitely one of the odder spesh acts we’ve seen so far, but I’m rather glad we have it.
The closing musical number is something that’s archetypical Two Ronnies fare. Ronnie B is the Rev Spooner who has endless trouble with words. Here he is attempting to give his wife (Josephiner Tewson) a present. “I knew you needed a scentle of bot. A sottle of bent. Perfume”. Ronnie C gets in on the act. “The manner of your speaking, it ounds it a little sod.” And so on and on.
There’s several ways to date the episodes. If you don’t want to do it by the suits the Rons wear, then you can always do so by observing which big-breasted celebrity is the butt (as it were) of many of the news items. Here it’s Raquel Welch, so it’s plainly early days. She’s been signed to play Quasimodo “in the new film entitled The Hunchfront of Notre Dame.”
Written by Garry Chambers, Tony Hare, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Peter Vincent, Bill Solly, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley
Party Sketch – Fancy Dress
Tina Charles – Stoney End
Ronnie B Solo – Smart Cooking
Hampton Wick – Episode Four
New World – Delia
Ronnie C in the Chair
Notes: The party sketch is a fancy dress affair, with Ronnie C making a very fetching Nell Gwynne, complete with copious oranges. His appearance certainly tickles the studio audience, leading to a round of applause. Ronnie B has apparently come as Richard the Lionheart, although he doesn’t quite look the part in a lounge suit (but apparently that’s what Richard wore when he wanted to relax).
Tina Charles tackles Laura Nyro’s Stoney End, which had been a hit for Barbra Streisand in early 1971, whilst New World offer rather soporific fare with Delia.
Ronnie B is Lionel Smart, who demonstrates Smart Cooking (this week bourguinon a la pouf celebre). That Smart is a grubby common type is the joke, of course.
Hampton Wick continues, with Madeline Smith’s winsome heroine now ensconced in the Crimea, tending to the wounded. She has to make the ultimate sacrifice (her clothes for bandages) which certainly seems to bring a smile to the faces of the patients (and no doubt warmed the hearts of some of the viewers at home too).
Joe Andy balances swords on his chin and attempts to climb a ladder at the same time. Oddly, he doesn’t receive an introduction (not even an onscreen caption). As impressive as his feats are, what’s more interesting is that as he slowly climbs the ladder you can see the studio lights, transmission sign and the clock – which tells you exactly what time this was recorded. Well it interested me anyway.
Up next is a sketch with Ronnie B as a vicar attempting to marry Ronnie C and Josephine Tewson. If they all didn’t have various ailments (hiccups, sneezing fits) then no doubt things would be a lot easier. This is one of those sketches where because the joke is obvious straight away, the question is whether things will get more or less funny when the gag gets repeated numerous times.
No musical item in this one, so the marriage sketch leads into the closing items.
Written by Garry Chambers, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley
Party Sketch – Hello
New World – Listen to the Falling Rain
Ronnie B Solo – Weather Forecaster
Tina Charles – Close to Me
Hampton Wick – Episode Three
Ronnie C in the Chair
Doctor’s Sketch – Ronnie B as a man who’s caught Radio 4
Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson
Notes: Yet another party sketch with Ronnie B as the dominant force, in this case a man so sensitive that he reacts with suspicion to Ronnie C’s innocent greeting of hello. For example, Ronnie B’s first response is to wonder whether Ronnie C really meant to say “hello, you boring old git, who invited you?” Given that most of the Pythons have writing credits on these early shows, it seems that some of the material had originally been earmarked for Monty Python. Indeed, in the past the Pythons have joked that if a sketch didn’t work then they’d send it onto the Ronnies!
This is one that could easily have fitted into Monty Python (and so seems a little out of place here) as the punchline sees the camera pull back to reveal that everyone in the party, expect for Ronnie C, is dead. Not quite the way you’d expect a Two Ronnies sketch to end.
New World are a vision in matching outfits whilst Tina Charles demonstrates she’s able to show restraint by tackling a quieter song in Close to Me.
There’s another typically convoluted chair monologue from Ronnie C, with plenty of incidental pleasures along the way. “I was just stretching my legs there. Did you see that? Stretching my legs. Left it a bit late in life, haven’t I really?”
A short sketch features the Ronnies as doctor and patient (Ronnie B is a man who’s caught Radio 4). After he asks if it’s bad, there’s an obvious punch-line. “Bad? Have you heard it? It’s terrible.”
Georges Schlick is the latest speciality act – a rather good ventriloquism performance – which leads into the Ronnies as Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson. Any similarities to Kenneth McKellar and Moira Anderson must be purely coincidental then ….
Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley
Party Sketch – Ronnie C’s embarrassing baldness
Hampton Wick – Episode Two
Tina Charles – Ruby Tuesday
Ronnie C in the Chair
Tarzan in Suburbia sketch
Jo, Jac and Joni
Gilbert and Sullivan
Notes: The desks are no longer at a weird angle and although a smaller CSO back screen remains – seemingly showing a shot of the universe – it no longer changes to display a picture for every news item.
The party sketch features Ronnie C as Mr Goldie, a rather bald man (wearing a not very convincing bald cap). After being told not to mention his baldness, of course Ronnie B can’t help himself (referring to him as Baldy, rather than Goldie to begin with). Ronnie B gets most the lines here as he attempts to dig himself out of this unpromising start, whilst Ronnie C is able to sit back and simply react. Such is Ronnie B’s over-sensitiveness, that even words like “wig-wam” are off limits – he quickly changes it to “wog-wam” (“you know, the wams where the wogs live”). Politically correct this is not …
Episode Two of Hampton Wick is chiefly memorable for Madeline Smith’s dress, which at times is unable to restrain her ample charms. How they got away with some of the shots is anyone’s guess ….
New World warble an unknown (to me) song whilst Tina Charles continues her full-throttle attack on pop classics by tackling the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday. She certainly doesn’t hold back, that’s for sure.
Although some of the productions misteps from the opening show have been ironed out, there’s still a sense that this is early days – as sometimes sketches don’t finish with a musical flourish, as they do later on, but rather with a fade to black.
Ronnie B makes an unlikely looking Tarzan (but then Ronnie C would have been even less convincing). But the strange juxtaposition of Tarzan crashing into the suburban garden of Ronnie C’s Arthur Norris is an appealing one.
As with the first show, there’s a moment of fourth-wall breakage, as the end of this sketch is interrupted to prepare the way for the spesh act – in this case Jo, Jac and Joni. They demonstrate that variety isn’t dead with a spot of musical comedy.
For a long time, the show would often end with a musical number – in this case Gilbert and Sullivan entertain (or not) us with a some of their favourite numbers, albeit cunningly re-worded. At least this one doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cyer, Eric Idle, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley
Party Sketch – Ronnie B finds it impossible not to keep attacking Ronnie C
Tina Charles – River Deep, Mountain High
Ronnie B Solo – A Doctor who has a cure for people who say everything twice
Hampton Wick – Episode One
Ronnie C – Interpol Sketch
New World – Rose Garden
Ronnie C in the Chair
Hearing Aid Sketch
Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones
Notes: Although the Ronnies had worked together for a number of years prior to this, there’s still a slight sense of nervousness on show (especially in Ronnie B’s case). This is evident in the opening news items which seem more than a little stilled – although the weird set design (angled desks) and CSO back projections don’t help. This would be swiftly amended for show two.
The first of many party sketches finds Ronnie B in an abusive mood, first slapping Ronnie C’s face and then kneeing him in the groin! And since the slaps sound real it seems that Ronnie B wasn’t holding back.
Some of the Ronnies serials tend to drag a bit and Hampton Wick is the first example of this. Luckily Madeline Smith’s winsome beauty is some recompense for the fairly laboured comedy.
These early series have an abundance of guests (later on they’d be pared down to just a single guest spot). The sixteen-year old Tina Charles impressively belts out River Deep, Mountain High whilst New World offer a blend of laid-back acoustic warbling that’s rather relaxing – although the moustaches and hairstyles on display make it a little hard to take them seriously. But Rose Garden was a hit for them in 1971, reaching no 15 in the UK charts.
As for Alfredo, well he’s the first in a series of speciality acts who pop up in most of the series one shows. Where else are you going to see a man dressed in German military uniform playing the drums and (sometimes) catching ping pong balls in his mouth? If that’s not entertainment I don’t know what is.
The 1987 Christmas Special was the Two Ronnies’ last hurrah. This was primarily the decision of Ronnie Barker, who had decided to walk away from showbusiness at the age of 58. Although the Two Ronnies was still popular, Barker was wise enough to realise that their time was coming to an end and presumably wanted to avoid the treatment meted out to the likes of Benny Hill (who had been unceremoniously dropped by Thames a few years earlier). Barker would later confirm exactly why he retired.
“The reason I retired was that the material was getting less good. I’d run out of ideas. I was dry of sketches. Plus, I’d done everything I wanted to do. The situation sort of pushed me, goaded me into asking, ‘Well, haven’t you done enough?’ And I had.”
With one more series to come in 1988 (Clarence) and this final Christmas special from the Rons, Barker could ensure that he was leaving at a point where the audience still wanted more – which was much the best way to go. He was tempted back for a few decent character roles, but in the main he stuck to his decision and enjoyed a long and happy retirement,
None of this would have been known at Christmas 1987, so it was just another special with none of the baggage that would have surrounded the show had it been known it was the last one. As ever, there’s nothing radical here – no deviations from the tried and true formula. But what they do, they do so well.
One of my favourite sketches (which reappeared several times down the years) gets one final outing here. Ronnie C is a man who can never complete his sentences and Ronnie B is his friend who has several attempts at filling in the missing words.
RONNIE C: We had our Christmas party the other night. Funny old do, it was. It’s always the same every year. Always takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egg and … What, egg and spoon race?
RONNIE C: No, takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egon Ronay banquet?
RONNIE C: No, no. No, an egg and chip supper
It’s just a pity that the final punch-line was so weak, but then the Rons never went down the Python route of abolishing punchlines, which was sometimes a problem. The big musical number was set in the Klondyke Saloon, Alaska and goes from black and white to colour as well as featuring some gorgeous girls.
Ronnie Barker always enjoyed writing the Yokels sketches, since it gave him a chance to reuse old jokes and some of them (“‘Ere, the girl I was with last night wouldn’t kiss me under the mistletoe. She didn’t like where I was wearing it”) would be familiar to anybody who’s been watching these Christmas specials in sequence.
After Ronnie C’s chair monologue, we’re into the big closing film – Pinocchio II – Killer Doll. No expense was spared (the village set looks very impressive) and whilst it’s quite long (seventeen minutes) there’s more than enough going on to justify the length.
Ronnie C is wonderful as the evil Pinocchio II whilst Ronnie B has, as you might expect, spot-on comic timing as Geppetto. They’re well supported by the likes of Lynda Baron and Sandra Dickinson and having Ed Bishop as the narrator was another joy. Unlike Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies didn’t make such a habit of featuring guest stars but there’s cameos here from Frank Finlay, Dennis Quilley and most unexpected of all, Charlton Heston.
It’s a more than decent way to bring their career to a close and whilst it’s interesting to ponder if they could have continued into the 1990’s, they probably made the best decision by deciding to bow out whilst they were still at the top.
As might be expected from the Two Ronnies, there’s several wordplay orientated sketches in the show. The first (upper class city gents who can’t pronounce their words properly) is amusing enough, but does slightly outstay its welcome.
Ronnie B’s monologue is delivered by a milkman (H.M. Quinn) in the style of the Queen’s Christmas speech. His delivery clearly appeals to at least one member of the audience (listen out for some very audible female squealing on the most innocuous of lines). The majority of the monologue doesn’t actually contain any jokes – the idea that Barker is talking like the Queen is obviously supposed to be funny in itself.
Next up are a couple of Northern road-workers who exhume some golden oldies from the Old Jokes Home, such as –
RONNIE C: Sithee, does tha believe in reincarnation?
RONNIE B: Well, it’s all right on fruit salad, but I don’t like it in me tea.
Following the very Chrissmassy musical number (the Rons dressed as a couple of Stereo Santas) and a quick Ronnie C solo sketch we move into the best part of the show. First up is another wordplay sketch – with the Ronnies as two soldiers in a WW1 trench. Ronnie C has the unfortunate knack of mishearing everything that Ronnie B says, such as –
RONNIE B: God, I wish I were back in Blightly.
RONNIE C: Do you, sir? What sort of nightie, sir? Black frilly one?
RONNIE B: Sounded like a Jerry rifle.
RONNIE C: Bit strange in the trenches, sir. A sherry trifle.
It’s a lovely, typical Two Ronnies sketch. The courtroom sketch that follows is something a little different. It opens quite normally, with Ronnie C prosecuting and Ronnie B in the dock, but it quickly becomes a parody of several popular quiz shows (What’s my Line?, Call My Bluff, Blankety Blank, Mastermind, The Price is Right) – it’s also a pleasure to see Patrick Troughton as the judge.
Ronnie B has a solo singing spot as Lightweight Louie Danvers (not too dissimilar to Fatbelly Jones it has to be said).
Following Ronnie C in the chair, it’s the big film – The Ballad of Snivelling and Grudge. Guest star Peter Wyngarde is a delight – mainly because he takes the whole thing totally seriously. There’s no winks to camera and his dead-pan performance is spot on. And if, like me, you can spot Pat Gorman in the background, then you’ve probably watched far, far too much old British television. If you don’t know who Pat Gorman is, then you’ve clearly not watched enough!
No news items to end the show – instead it’s a old-fashioned style song about Christmas. It’s somewhat comforting and sums up the Two Ronnies quite well. By the mid eighties they were pretty much out of step with contemporary comedy (and Barker knew that their time was nearly up) but it doesn’t really matter – great comedy is timeless, and there’s several examples here that still work thirty years later and will surely endure for decades to come.
Although the rigidity of The Two Ronnies’ format was sometimes mocked (especially by Not The Nine O’Clock News) it’s always a surprise when a show does depart from what we expect. The 1982 Christmas Special doesn’t have the usual introductions and farewells (so no “In a packed programme tonight” or “And it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him”).
Instead we’re pitched straight into a musical number with the Rons dressed as Chas and Dave, entertaining a pub audience with a reasonable facsimile of a typical Chas and Dave song. It’s entertaining stuff, not only for the cut-away shots of Christmas celebrations but also for the performances of the extras in the pub (some of whom seem to have more enthusiasm than others).
Next door are Sid and George. Sid guessed that George was in the snug as he saw everybody moving away from there (escaping from the smell of George’s feet) something which George denies. “There’s nothing wrong with my feet. I’m on the odour eaters now”. Sid tells him “I had them once. They weren’t half hard to swallow”.
There’s a lovely performance by David Essex of A Winter’s Tale (live and with a full orchestra accompaniment). Ronnie B doesn’t get his usual monologue, but Ronnie C’s chair ramblings are present and correct.
The film sketch features Ronnie B as a man who travels back in time (thanks to the mysterious Ronnie C) and alters his own personal time-line, so that he was never born. Thankfully, since it’s Christmas, all is resolved and he ends up back with his wife (Brigit Forsyth) and family, together with a new appreciation of how good his life is.
At just 45 minutes, this is quite a compact special. Nothing particularly outstanding, but it’s all good solid Christmas fare.
Apart from their links and sketches for the 1972 Christmas Night with the Stars, this was the Two Ronnies’ only Christmas special during the 1970’s. With Morecambe and Wise reigning supreme, there was less need for a Two Ronnies Christmas show as well – but after M&W jumped ship to Thames, the Ronnies would gradually fill the void – with stand-alone specials in 1982, 1984 and 1987 (as well as Christmas shows from other years as part of their regular series).
The 1973 Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery was an attempt to do something a little different from the norm. It takes place at the country house of Sir Giles (Ronnie Barker) and Lady Hampton. The year is 1872 and the mystery of the title refers to the Christmas turkey – somebody’s stolen it, so what will Sir Giles’ guests have to eat for Christmas lunch?
He decides to engage the services of that ace detective Piggy Malone (and his trusty assistant Charley Farley). Given that Malone and Farley appeared in four serials during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s a little surprising that none of them were set in Victorian times – maybe something of a missed opportunity. As might be expected, they bumble about for a while, and the mystery is never really solved (although they do inadvertently provide an alternative for the Christmas dinner).
Although on the surface this looks different from the normal Two Ronnies shows, underneath there’s still plenty that’s familiar. Ronnie B delivers a monologue, Ronnie C sits in a chair (more comfortable than his usual one) to spin a shaggy dog story and both of them end proceedings with some musical numbers (new words to the familiar tunes of Gilbert & Sullivan).
Along the way there’s some guest stars. Tux (a man who balances plates on his head) was a throw-back to the specialty acts that were a regular feature during the first series. Gabrielle Drake is gorgeous as Emma, who has her eye on Ronnie C – although he seems totally immune to her charms.
Cheryl Kennedy provides one of the stand-out moments by performing a monologue, Christmas Bells. Given the opulent surroundings it’s something that certainly has an impact and serves as a timely reminder that we should always stop to remember (and help) those at Christmas who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Hear the bells are ringing, Bill? That’s cos it’s Christmas Eve. But it ain’t for you and me as there’s a ringing. When we is cold and hungry, Bill, it’s hard to make believe, as we can hear the happy angels singing. If we had a bed to sleep in, and could get a bite to eat, then bells of angel’s voices might remind us. But not when you’re to doss, Bill, in the cold and cruel street, where the Bobbies are nearly always sure to find us. Ah, it’s dreadful hard on you, Bill, cos you’re such a little kid, what didn’t oughta know a bit of sorrow, and wouldn’t if them Christian folks would do as they was bid. Why, him whose birthday’s gonna be tomorrow. But it was him what said, “Let little children come to me.” And meaning just such little coves as you, Bill. But I ain’t got no chance, cos I’m fourteen you see. And I’ll tell you, as I knows a thing or too, Bill, you can’t sell evening papers so as to get a bit to eat, like I done since the time as I was seven, without picking up enough of badness in the street to leave no earthly chance to get to heaven. Them coves what comes around with tracts summed me up a treat. I’m an outcast, little heathen, poor lost sinner.
Perhaps they’d be the same if they’d been brought up in the street and hardly ever had no proper dinner. But Bill, when you and me is dead, I’ll come along wi’ you, and you shall introduce me as your brother. And him who’s knows what sorrow is, he’s sure to let me through. Cos why? We’ve been such pals to one another. Ain’t we, Bill?