"And in a packed programme tonight...": The Two Ronnies at 50

Mel O'Drama

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The final musical number of the Fourth Series saw Jehosophat & Jones singing with various guests also played by the Ronnies. Pretty much none of it would fly today. They might - just - get away with Ronnie C. as Elton John with huge comedy specs and a balding wig. But I can't help feeling certain that Gary Schmutter (based, obviously on Mr Glitter) and The Suprises (the Ronnies dressed as The Supremes) wouldn't fly today. I suspect the BBC would today edit them from any TV or iPlayer screenings in the same way they've cancelled some of Victoria Wood's material.

It's true to say that the brownface aspect of The Suprises is a little uncomfortable. And no doubt rightly so. It is a little crude to say the least. But it's worth noting that it probably wasn't intended to be as cruel as it may appear to 21st Century eyes (the road to hell, and all that). It feels in many ways like a pastiche that's meant to be somewhat affectionate, albeit hugely broad. Note, too, that there's a drag element to this, which heightens things further and essentially doubles the "imposter" element. We're watching two white middle aged men in sequin dresses doing some choreography that they've obviously worked hard at.

In context, it's an interesting little number that could only have come from the Seventies:


 

Mel O'Drama

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With each passing year it feels as though a lot of the ballast is being dispensed with so that each consecutive series is more watchable and entertaining than the one before.

Notably with Series Five there are more sketches, which is a very good thing. I think one of the weekly sketches replaces the second singer, and it's much preferable for me to watch just one "serious" singer per week, with one or two musical spoofs from the Ronnies themselves.

This year's singer is Barbara Dickson who seems very winsome and smiley, with lots of grins straight to camera. It's a nice surprise, since I think of her as being very serious (based mostly on covers of the couple of BD albums I have, and of course the iconically melodramatic music video to I Know Him So Well). She has a good, clear voice. In fact it seems so flawless that I've found myself wondering if the show has taken to using pre-recorded vocals: a theory fuelled by the fact that a couple of the songs haven't had "cold" endings. The audience applauds loudly before it finishes. I'll keep watching as the rest of the episodes go by.

Ronnie B. continues to impress with every new character we see. Following on from the end of Series Four, there are more impersonations these days. Among others, he's given us an uncanny Pam Ayres and Nana Mouskouri (here called Nana Moussaka) to Ronnie B.'s Charles "Azenough".

The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London Town is a favourite serial of mine, and I'm relieved that it's not my memory playing tricks. It's not perfect, and a couple of repetitive little gags and horrible Seventies comedy speedup. A scene with Johnnie Wade's police constable running back and forth along a path as the Phantom appears at either end to tease him was terrible and the clearly repeated footage went on for far too long. But overall it does hold up very well. While it's obviously quite broad and silly, I also love the foggy gothic atmosphere it creates and some scenes of the Phantom in shadows or hidden behind opaque glass have a nice sense of mystery. It's easy to see why the comic-reading kid in me loved this. It just operates on so many levels it's a winner all round. Even Joan Sims had a small role in one of the episodes, which was a joy.

Episode Three gave us what is generally viewed as the most legendary of Two Ronnies sketches: Four Candles. I've watched this quite a few times in isolation on YouTube and in a few reaction videos. All the same, there's a genuine feeling of excitement that comes from seeing it in context as part of the full episode (I felt the same when watching Victoria Wood's Two Soups sketch recently). It's such a wonderful moment for both of them, with Barker fully inhabiting his slightly gormless character and Corbett the incredulous and increasingly impatient shopkeeper. On paper, it feels like it would work best with them switching roles (which they would indeed do later on with sketches such as Sweet Shop), but this goes to show their versatility. Their physicality is fully utilised here, with Barker's character having a lumbering Bernard Bresslaw kind of quality, and Corbett's shopkeeper even more put out because of his short stature which necessitates him to climb a ladder to reach the higher shelves and also makes his walks to the other side of the counter feel that much further. Ronnie B. wrote this sketch, and his brilliant wordsmithery is all over it. No wonder it's such a gem. I could watch Ronnie B.'s characterisations all day long.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Last night saw me watching two absolute Ronnie Barker gems.


The Round Of Drinks sketch is Ronnie at his absolute best. I'm sure he wrote this one, but even so his memory for complex dialogue is incredible. He doesn't miss a beat and it's one of their funniest for its brilliantly jumbled wordplay:

The bare lady with the behind wants a rum and coke. My wife will have an old man on the rocks. The girl with the shifty boobs wants a big bottle of brandy on the house. The young man with the flat wife wants an enormous wine...

And yes... that is the Oxo Dad. He's been in a number of episodes.

The Ministry Of Sexual Equality sketch came from a time when gender-neutral phrases like "spokeperson" and "chairperson" were a bit of silly surrealism, while poking gentle fun at second wave bra burning feminism of the time. Who'd have thought it would turn out to be so prescient?:
For too long, women have been beneath men.

It combines two of the character types at which Barker excelled: the newscaster and the harridan. His deadpanning makes the sketch. Despite the ridiculousness of his dictates and statements, he delivers them with the gravity of a newsreader announcing the death of a national treasure, which is exactly why it's still so incredibly funny.
 

Mel O'Drama

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With each passing year it feels as though a lot of the ballast is being dispensed with so that each consecutive series is more watchable and entertaining than the one before.

Series Six is now underway and continues this trend. Despite being more or less the same running length, it feels still leaner and more carefully put together. There's less tedium and the percentage of what feels like classics is now greater than ever, with the filler continuing to diminish.

Even the two regular slots that reduce the watchability for me - the three or four minutes given to the singer(s) of the series and Corbett's monologues - can still be viewed with at least a modicum of affection as a necessary evil since they're a recognisable part of the series' structure. 1977's music act is The Nolan Sisters whose sensible clothing and wispy delivery seems to epitomise blandness. Meanwhile, Corbett continues to fill time in his monologues by riding laughs and making it seem as though the audience is laughing more hysterically by laughing himself as he starts a new sentence, repeating each sentence up to eight successive times. As much as the iconography of him in the tall chair feels essential to the series, I do find these sections a little tiresome. It feels akin to watching the cabaret warm up act engage the audience.

Piggy Malone and Charlie Farley are back for this year's serial, Stop! You're Killing Me. This time out they use Alan Tew's iconic theme music The Detectives:


Support in the serial comes in the form of Kate O'Mara as Lucy Lee, a well-endowed tipsy Gypsy "whose body is a temple, supported by two hefty turrets". Much is made of her impressive cleavage with the skimpiest of tops and she also gamely sat on Ronnie Barker's face in her opening scene.

Sketches have included the Nant Garw Co-Operative Male Voice Choir and the introduction to Ball and Socket, the Ronnies' version of Hinge and Bracket. It seems a little odd to satirise an act that's already satirical, but the Ronnies look so right in drag how could they not?

Ronnie Barker's impressive memory for dialogue continues to pay off. Perhaps the best example of such this year has been the Ice Cream Parlour sketch. Unfortunately, the only video I can find only has the first third of the sketch and the picture's poor, but it does give a flavour (pun unavoidable) of the impressive and differing lists Ronnie B. recites throughout while looking and sounding bored:
 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Six is now over, and it's been a thoroughly enjoyable year.

The increase in the sketches has improved things no end and it's been particularly good to have Bert and Charlie regularly this year (I think Series Six was their debut, but I may be wrong about that).
 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Seven is underway.

Some classic sketches in the year's first episode, including some wonderful Barker wordplay in the Beans Shop sketch. And this one:


There's no serial this year, which is a first. But that leaves more room for more sketches. And far too many cheap Irish jokes.

The Manhattan Transfer are the musical guests this year. They led with Chanson D'Amour so now I'm not sure what else there is for them to do for the rest of the series. Incidentally, the performances are now very blatantly lip synced, but this allows for the staging to be more interesting, with Chanson performed in some kind of Parisian bistro setting.
 

Mel O'Drama

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I'm now three quarters of the way through Series Seven, and have found the lack of a serial gives it a very different tone. Weirdly, the episodes now feel much shorter. Well, they are shorter, with each now running at 40 minutes. But they feel shorter still.

This year's equivalent of the serial is Sid and Lily, George & Edie, which is actually a series of sketches featuring what appears to be the previously seen Bert and Charlie, who we know from sitting in the pub putting the world to rights. The different names have confused me though. Lily and Edie are their wives (also played by the Ronnies) who in each episode discuss their husbands' latest predicament before we cut to see the two blokes. It's a nice way to pass seven minutes or however long, and with two clear halves feels retains the short, sketchy tone.

The Manhattan Transfer's performances are proving quirky and energetic. There are some really good voices in there.
 

Mel O'Drama

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With the beginning of Series Eight, we've finally reached The Two Ronnies that I remember watching as a kid.

For a start, there's the arrival of the Westcountry blokes sitting in the allotment, a feature that I remember being an intrinsic part of the series.

Then there's my most fondly-remembered serial: The Worm That Turned. I suppose young me was drawn in by the animated title sequence, and stayed for the bizarre novelty of the men in drag.


The dystopian future presented (it's set in 2012) has proved bizarrely prescient in many ways.


Oh, and the first sketch of the series was this classic:

 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Eight proved to be one of my favourites.

Not only is there my own nostalgia as these are episodes I'd watched the first time round, there are many genuine classics in there.

The last few episodes included the legendary Crossword and Sweet Shop sketches, both of which featured Ronnie C. driving Ronnie B. to distraction:



The song and dance numbers included a satire of Star Wars, with Luke and Leia dancing, Darth Vader using his lightsabre (I can't bring myself to spell this the American way) and the Ronnies playing C3P0 and R2D2.


Alternating singers for each episode has kept things interesting but, while it's nice to see Barbara Dickson back, I do feel a bit robbed that this means Elkie Brooks has only done four episodes in total. I've always loved her voice so I do hope she returns.

The Worm That Turned is definitely my favourite serial to date. Again, my objectivity is skewed by nostalgia, but I'm glad to say it's as enjoyable as ever. Often these things don't date well, but this has proved fun now that we're looking back on 2012 rather than it being in the far off future. And, as previously said, it's proved to be somewhat prescient in its depiction of 21st Century feminism being as much about subjugation of men as it is actual empowerment. One kept expecting Diana Dors to trot out now hackneyed meaningless phrases such as "toxic masculinity" or "systemic misogyny".


One anomaly this series was a repeated Corbett chair section in one episode. They almost got away with it as well, since most viewers probably tune out or go and do something else (my partner has taken to resting his eyes for the entire five minutes, waking up again for the song and dance and final newscaster bits). Even I took most of the sketch to realise it was repeated. Since Corbett tends to repeat certain gags again and again throughout these monologues, I just thought he was doing it a bit more than usual. The only giveaway was the fabric of the chair, which was the earlier striped version rather than the tweedy beige of the current chair. But it does go to show what a waste of time they are. They could paste repeated chair solos into most episodes and very few would notice or care.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Nine got off to a promising start with the brilliant Crossed Lines sketch:


It's generally business as usual. Charlie Farley is back for the serial, which feels like a bit of a comedown after The Worm That Turned, but then almost anything would. It's still great fun.

In place of the Westcountry allotment we've got the two washerwomen scrubbing steps, which has made these brief interludes feel fresh. There was also a Village Idiot sketch which went on and on for what felt like twenty minutes.

Barker is as impressive as always. Even what appears to be a repeated section with his Pismonunciation bit was as enjoyable the second time round.

I'm on my way to making my peace with Ronnie C. being the weak link. He's there for the duration of the series (and beyond if one counts The One Ronnie), so I look at him as the bland side salad accompanying Ronnie B.'s gastronomic delights. Corbett's limited talents do wear after a time. He's not a great actor in the way Ronnie Barker is. His acting basically extends to him sniffing and twitching his nose and he does four accents, all of which are terrible (including his own). But the two do spark off one another really well. He's certainly game, and when it comes to the more stagey stuff like the song and dance numbers, he's usually right on it.

Three episodes in we've had three different singers - Kiki Dee, Randy Crawford and Marti Webb - which feels more contemporary. It helps that each has a different musical style which gets the attention.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Ten is now underway with revamped opening credits and a change to the structure.

Truthfully, I was relieved that the series are a little shorter from this point on. Series Ten has six episodes compared with the usual eight. However, the episodes are also longer than recent series. While Series Nine was around 40 minutes an episode, the opening episode of Ten was closer to 50. This means we're actually not far off the same number of minutes per series.

What's more, the change in structure makes the episodes feel longer. Rather than a big song and dance production before the late news closer, we now have the equivalent of the serial. This year it's a series of film spoofs. Episode One was a Raiders Of The Lost Ark take-off in which Leslie Ash tried to talk posh and the Ronnies took it in turns to fondle her arse under the guise of helping to lift her. While it's right that this big production should be the big finale, it has the not-so-favourable effect of making the first 30 minutes feel particularly fragmented, aimless and plodding. Previously, the serial mid-episode has helped to provide a solid core around which the rest of the show floats.

The music references so far this series feel more topical and current, with Corbett as Boy George ("Do you really want to squirt me? Do you really want to make me wet?") and Barker as Kid Creole. The final episode of Series Nine had similarly contemporary nods, with Ronnie B. doing Bad Manners and Ronnie C. as Adam Ant and the pair of them as Chas & Dave (who had only appeared on the show themselves an episode or two before).

Incidentally, the BBC have removed The Two Jimmies from the "complete" DVD version, rendering it into a confusing mess.


While they've done similar pop spoofs in earlier series (Elton John, Gary Glitter, etc.), I find myself hoping that it's not going to be an "every episode" thing. Fun and deadly accurate as they are, there's also something about them that feels as though they're trying a little too hard to move with the times. And they really don't need to.

Between the film spoofs, the music acts and the pop take offs, I can't help thinking that the template would be picked up a few years later by French & Saunders (indeed, the F&S series began on BBC the year immediately following the final Ronnies series). I'd never before made any kind of connection between what I think of as two very different acts, so that's given me food for thought.

By the way, musical guest Elaine Paige singing a disco version of Tomorrow from Annie, wearing a black silk gown and standing in what looks like a budget version of Superman's Fortress Of Solitude blew my mind.
 

Mel O'Drama

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It seems the contemporary pop spoofs are just an occasional thing. Thank goodness. The last two episodes have lost them entirely.

Great to see Patricia Routledge, pre-Kitty, as her usual familar archetype playing against Ronnie Barker's Hercule Poirot. Or, as it turned out, Ronnie Barker playing Albert Finney. There have been a number of these meta references. Another saw Barker playing The Doctor, emerging from the TARDIS as Worzel Gummidge having put on the wrong head. He makes a pretty good Jon Pertwee.

Elton John appeared as the Ronnies' "special Christmas guest", though there was no hint of Christmas at all elsewhere in the show and it took place mid-series.

There's no hint of political correctness catching up with the Ronnies. Not only has Barker revived his Al Jolson bit (Al Vermont: the Chocolate Coloured Cough Drop), he also (to my shock) casually dropped the N-word in another sketch as he recited Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo in full. It somehow feels far less acceptable here than when the Ronnies were doing The Short And Fat Minstrel Show back in Series One.

Incidentally, these "vintage singer" Barker solo slots are nowhere near as enjoyable as his previous solos (Pismununciation, etc). Instead of his brilliant wordplay, we get a lot of funny faces and collapsing sets.

Still, at least there's a little of the wordplay in the musical numbers. The Little Trains Of Wales was a nice one:


The puns in this really got me. "Down the depot, piston broke" at the one minute mark took quite some seconds to register. Up to that point I really thought I'd heard what they wanted us to really think we'd heard. Hats off to them for getting away with that one on prime time weekend TV.
 

Mel O'Drama

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There's no hint of political correctness catching up with the Ronnies. Not only has Barker revived his Al Jolson bit (Al Vermont: the Chocolate Coloured Cough Drop), he also (to my shock) casually dropped the N-word in another sketch as he recited Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo in full. It somehow feels far less acceptable here than when the Ronnies were doing The Short And Fat Minstrel Show back in Series One.

The political incorrectness continues into 1985 with another Crop Of The Flops featuring blackface. This revisit has well and truly shifted my perception of the Ronnies as "safe" entertainment.

While this ended the third episode (of only five Eleventh Series episodes), the previous two ended with great satires: Sunshine Boulevard and Caribbean Nights. I'm not sure what the latter was parodying, but it felt very much like Hi-de-Hi aboard a cruise ship, with the Ronnies as Ted and Spike equivalents who end up in the middle of a mystery.

Oh, and Series Eleven has given us this as well:


Curiously, this appears to be a re-shot version. I'm sure this video is different to the actual sketch I watched in the Eleventh Series, and I think the actress playing the wife is different. I imagine they must have reprised it for a Christmas special or some other event.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Last night I reached the penultimate episode of the Twelfth Series, meaning just one episode remains of the series proper.

Considering over ninety episodes and fifteen years have passed by the quality of these episodes is really impressive. The fourth episode of the final series was one of the better ones of the entire run (though when I found myself laughing at Corbett's chair sketch in said episode I began to question whether I was being overcome by goodwill or bad taste).

The Annoying Man At The Cinema sketch in this episode felt like vintage Ronnies, with Barker winding up Corbett by sitting next to him munching crisps, slurping drinks, talking and giving him huge spoilers about the film he's trying to watch (as well as the book he has on his lap). There were also two great Barker solos with The Man Who Says Everything Twice being particularly clever. And Ronnie B. as Claire Rayner, singing her way through her mail was hilarious. As soon as Rayner was mentioned, I knew it had to be Ronnie B. and I could picture how he would look. And I wasn't far off. It's a shame none of these skits have made it onto YouTube along with the other classics.

Barbara Dickson is back as one of this year's musical guests, which I think is her third stint as a regular. It's been interesting to see her evolve from the cute little ingenue to the almost inaccessibly refined poised big haired woman I remember performing with Elaine Paige.

Babs is alternating with Phil Collins. I've generally been quite ambivalent towards him. I like some of his songs but I've never actively sought out or bought his material. Watching these episodes it turns out I may like him more than I thought. He even did a bit of acting in one of his episodes, as a friend of the two yokels. It's not featured on IMDb, but according to its timeline this would be one of two acting roles in 1985 (the other was Miami Vice). These seem to be his first acting roles outside of music videos since 1969. Following these, of course, would be 1988's Buster. I wonder if the Ronnies encouraged him back to the art in some way.
 

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WOW @Mel O'Drama I still admire your perseverance in Watcing the 2 Ronnies, Id have put the DV D back on the shelf long ago!

11/10 for dedication there
 

Mel O'Drama

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WOW @Mel O'Drama I still admire your perseverance in Watcing the 2 Ronnies, Id have put the DV D back on the shelf long ago!

11/10 for dedication there

Ha ha. Thanks BF and I'm almost at the very end now.

I must confess I do feel rather horrified that I'll have watched all of Ronnie Corbett's chair speeches in full. That adds up to around 7 and a half hours of sighing and wishing it was all over.
 

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Thats when i went upstairs to run a bath! then came back down, watched final sketch and "its goodnight from me" et al
 

Mel O'Drama

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I'm still impressed with the quality of writing and performances right to the very end.

The very final episode had some of Barker's best rapid fire but accurate dialogue in the water pub sketch:


FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE IMPATIENT: Cut to 1:46 for forty seconds of brilliance.

After this it's been on to the Christmas specials. The 1973 Special was great. At times I was reminded of the Carry On Christmas Specials that aired around this time (mainly through a similar opening sequence with the horse drawn carriage) though the Ronnies was much better written (by Gerald Wiley, AKA Ronnie Barker himself).

It was also very smoothly executed, done as a period piece that cleverly retained a lot of the usual episode structure (Piggy Malone and Charlie Farley made an appearance, while Corbett did his chair monologue kind of in character as someone speculating about what humour will be like in 1974). There was an impressive variety of acts, from dance numbers to a semi-tragic monologue from an actress playing a fourteen year old boy (which actually worked). And I loved the way it was edited to appear pretty much in real time, with lots of Hitchockian Rope cuts to seamlessly get from these Ronnies characters to those, all appearing to be at the same party. Their host characters were great as well, talking straight to camera to welcome you to their party, etc.


The 1982 Christmas Special, while also very enjoyable, felt like a more ordinary, slightly less ambitious affair. The Tree was a great one-off story featuring time travel and aliens and whatnot while still feeling nostalgically of its time and still reassuringly Ronnies.
 
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