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

Mel O'Drama

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Hard as it is to believe, The Two Ronnies series celebrated its golden jubilee on the tenth of April.


Perhaps because of this (or perhaps coincidentally), an awful lot of "Americans react to The Two Ronnies" videos have surfaced in my YouTube feed recently. I've enjoyed them so much I think a full series watch is in order.

The original plan was to watch most of the available material from both Ronnies in chronological order, as I did with Victoria Wood recently. But for several reasons (not least Futtocks End and A Home Of Your Own getting a Blu-ray release in June) I've decided to go with simplicity: starting with the duo's main series together and getting into the films, sitcoms and earlier work afterwards.

The plan is to crack open the box set later in the week, but in the meantime, here are a couple of the classics:


 

Mel O'Drama

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A nice little Radio Times piece commemorating the milestone...

On The Two Ronnies’ 50th birthday, we reveal what made the Saturday night show a national institution


Ronnie Barker was a highly versatile actor, with the magic ability to make people laugh. Corbett was at root a Vaudevillian, able to exploit his size and very physical skills to great effect, who then turned his talents to acting. Barker, rather like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, could transform himself into almost any character, while Corbett remained essentially himself, investing every role with the same recognisable twinkle.

Ronnie B never saw himself as an especially funny individual, and was only really comfortable on screen if he could hide behind a characterisation of some kind, even if that involved nothing more than a moustache, as one of those stern-faced announcers at the desk. He loved the way Ronnie C could just walk out on stage with a microphone, completely comfortable in his own skin, and make an audience laugh for an hour. It was something that was quite beyond him.
 

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Four Candles will remain my favourite sketch
As I remember as a child it was compulsory Sat night TV in the BF household back in the day and I have always had a soft spot for the legend that was Ronnie Barker

When I have seen it in past few decades there is an awful lot of bad sketches that just dont work (then and now)

I remember seeing this when i was at school as it was a take the P sketch but I found it rather funny and smutty

Both Ronnie B and C were very upset by this Not the Nine O clock news sketch and hurt by it!

 

Mel O'Drama

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As I remember as a child it was compulsory Sat night TV in the BF household back in the day and I have always had a soft spot for the legend that was Ronnie Barker

Same here. As a child I remember being drawn in by the serial The Worm That Turned, with its animated opening, Diana Dors and the Ronnies in drag.

Back then, I'd say Ronnie C. would have been my favourite, thanks to those monologues in his chair, which I found very comforting to watch (like a comedy version of Jackanory). Because of this, I always found him very avuncular (I barely remember this as I was only a toddler, but I apparently once got ticked off by him for wandering onto the course in a bid to get a better view of him when we went to sneak a peek at him playing golf).

As the years have gone by, I've grown to recognise what a brilliant writer and character performer Ronnie B. was. He was such a wordsmith, and I'm really looking forward to seeing some forgotten and lesser-known sketches.



When I have seen it in past few decades there is an awful lot of bad sketches that just dont work (then and now)

I'm expecting the series to be a bit of a curate's egg, but I'm also hopeful that I'll find plenty to enjoy in every episode.



I remember seeing this when i was at school as it was a take the P sketch but I found it rather funny and smutty

Both Ronnie B and C were very upset by this Not the Nine O clock news sketch and hurt by it!

Yes, it's a shame that shows like The Two Ronnies became unfashionable with the rise of alternative comedy, and were lampooned because they were seen as being too safe or twee. But I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And they've had the last laugh as your Two Ronnies and Terry and Junes have aged far better than most of the alternative stuff.
 

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Back then, I'd say Ronnie C. would have been my favourite, thanks to those monologues in his chair,
Thats when i went to run my bath, I was bored by them - one finale sketch after that and bath water at right level for me ;) But not if Starsky and Hutch followed!

I always liked the Phantom raspberry blower of old London town written by Spike Milligan and a gentleman
 

Mel O'Drama

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Last night I dived into the series with the first two episodes, both from April 1971.

It had me laughing from the first sketch, in which Ronnie B's character suffered from an affliction which caused him to repeatedly slap Ronnie C. It was so daft, but made incredibly funny by Ronnie B's completely serious facial expressions. He's so good at deadpanning.

Ronnie B's wordplay is already very much in evidence here. As well as the classic news report, he played the doctor with a cure for saying everything twice, which has to be seen to be believed. Has to be seen to be believed.

The most risqué dialogue is saved for the Ronnies' musical numbers such as Jehosophat and Jones. Again it involves clever wordplay. They frequently rely on the viewer paying careful attention to the lyrics as it gets close to saying something quite blue and then goes in a different direction. One of them actually made me draw breath as it seemed as though the F-bomb was about to get dropped into an early Seventies family entertainment show. I suppose they get away with it because many don't really listen closely to the lyrics and so their most daring stuff simply flies under the radar.

The first serial - Hampton Wick - is a spoof of your typical BBC costume drama. Visually it's looks very nice indeed and gives the pair the chance to play many different characters, including the first bit of drag for Ronnie C. However, the most notable thing about it is that Madeline Smith's right nipple was given an inordinate amount of screen-time when it poked out of her low cut top for much of a scene in the second episode. I'm assuming it was accidental, but I like that it was kept in without fuss at a time when Britain was less upset by a bit of skin than it's become.

For me, the Ronnies' chemistry and sense of timing really came into its own with a short Getting A Hearing Aid skit, in which Ronnie C. attends a clinic to get a hearing aid, but Ronnie C. can't hear him. Again, it's quite daft, with lots of repeated "pardon?"s. But it's played to perfection.

To be expected with a Saturday night sketch-stroke-variety show, some of the pieces spoke more to me than others. Especially the variety angle, where other acts get their own slots. The guy doing odd things with ping-pong balls made me think of Priscilla. He was back doing an unfunny funny musical number with two friends in the second episode.

Likewise, two music acts have had their own segments in both shows. New World sucked the life out of (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in the first episode, yet I find them oddly watchable, despite the fact that two thirds of the trio is quite unattractive.

Tina Charles has been a revelation. According to Ronnie C's introduction, she's just sixteen here, but my God, she can belt it out. Only being familiar with her disco era songs I Love To Love and Dr Love (and so immediately associating her name with @Willie Oleson), I was quite blown away with her soulful rendition of River Deep, Mountain High. And she outdid herself with Ruby Tuesday in the second episode by filling the song with raw emotion as well as a hugely impressive range. I'm looking forward to seeing what else she performs in this first series.
 

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I was quite blown away with her soulful rendition of River Deep, Mountain High
I'm only familiar with Kelly Marie's "Knees Are Shaking" version

Watching bits of the videos posted here I must say it reminds me a lot of the popular Dutch duo André van Duin & Frans van Dusschoten.
André was the troublemaker with all his absurd antics, while Frans' characters were determined to bring the story to a satisfying and very dignified conclusion.
Of course it was André who caused all the big laughs but now I'm feeling more entertained by Frans' "victim" characters.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Oh, very nice. It makes a better dance version than I'd have thought.

Tina Charles's version was closer to the Ike & Tina Turner/Phil Spector version.



Watching bits of the videos posted here I must say it reminds me a lot of the popular Dutch duo André van Duin & Frans van Dusschoten.
André was the troublemaker with all his absurd antics, while Frans' characters were determined to bring the story to a satisfying and very dignified conclusion.
Of course it was André who caused all the big laughs but now I'm feeling more entertained by Frans' "victim" characters.

Yes. The straight man/authority figure isn't an easy role to do and probably far more difficult than the troublemaker. I admire anyone who can do it well. Ronnie Barker is an absolute master at this because he can deliver the silliest of dialogue with complete gravity:


The thing with the Ronnies is that they took it in turns to be the straight man/authority figure. In the Four Candles sketch, Ronnie Barker is the troublemaker to Ronnie Corbett's incredulous straight(ish) man. In Crossword it's the other way round.

André and Frans sound a bit like our Morecambe & Wise, where it was almost always Eric who was the silly one while Ernie sighed wearily:



Even when they were both silly, Eric was invariably that bit siller. As in their dance with Maggie Forbes:

 

Mel O'Drama

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Nice to see some familiar faces in the series, in addition to the many famous writers. John Cleese popped up for a couple of sketches, including a "new" version of the legendary Social Class sketch from The Frost Report. Then there was Josephine Tewson - best known as Hyacinth Bucket's butterfingered neighbour Elizabeth. Both were involved with Ronnie's Six Dates With Barker earlier that same year, so their presence makes complete sense.

The individual styles of the Ronnies is so different. Ronnie C seems very much led by the audience. He'll ad lib left, right and centre if he can squeeze another laugh out (Ronnie C can do this as well, but does so much more judiciously).

Ronnie Barker just inhabits every role he does. He's very impressive indeed. Thinking about how completely he became working class criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher in Porridge, or stingy, stuttering shopkeeper Arkwright in Open All Hours... That's happening all over the shop here, especially in the serial Hampton Wick in which he plays multiple roles to perfection. Then there's his turn as Elizabeth R (or as she's called here, Elizabeth Ah-Ha) where he seems incredibly at home as the pantomime dame.

It's a wonderful characterisation. I especially love the great "live" moment just after 4:40 where the actor playing the messenger slips and slides across the floor and almost ends up under Ronnie's skirt. It's a lovely, natural moment, and Barker is a true professional. There's a flicker of humorous acknowledgement, then he gets right back to it, barely batting an eye and keeping the whole thing together effortlessly while the actors and audience are falling about laughing.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Seven episodes down. Just one remaining of Series One.

Madeline Smith has been very enjoyable in the Hampton Wick saga which has run throughout. When I saw she was essentially the lead, my expectations were fairly low. I remember her best from Carry On Matron as the squeaky-voiced Miss Pullitt, whose concern over her baby's wonky thing put Joan Sims off her sausage. And I've seen her in small roles here and there. She's very pretty, but I associate her with vacuous bimbo roles. But as Henrietta Beckett, there's some substance along with the cleavage and legs. She gamely goes along with whatever scenario she ends up in that particular week, and comes across as very likeable.

Barker's drunken Father Of The Bride speech is a classic:


With the humour all coming from the fact that it's a shotgun wedding, it's probably very outdated now. Nobody really bats an eyelid at a pregnant bride anymore. Indeed, I've attended weddings where the happy couples' children have held their mother's pure white wedding train. I'm not even sure if it was a little out of touch in 1971, by which time I'd have thought attitudes towards sex before marriage were somewhat more liberal than a short time earlier. But it works because no matter what social attitudes may have been, we know that he's extremely uncomfortable with the situation and the more he tries not to talk about it the bigger the hole he digs. I'm sure this still happens today.

Speaking of things that would not fly today, I feel almost certain that if it were to be shown on TV or iPlayer, the Beeb would feel compelled to protect our sensibilities by hiding The Short And Fat Minstrel Show segment from our view. It's all hypothetical, so I'll stop myself going into a rant about TV licences and how unhelpful revisionism is to cultural context (after all, the Beeb have at least made the DVDs available. For now). It's right that there should be some discussion and controversy around sketches like this, and that blackface has stopped being an acceptable form of entertainment. And I would hope there are many of us who have never found blackface funny or entertaining. For what it's worth, though, this sketch feels very much like it's coming from a genuine interest in all forms of variety. It's treated in the same way as drag or period drama. In context, The Black And White Minstrel Show was still airing new episodes at this point and would inexplicably continue to do so for the best part of a decade afterwards. To me, this sketch feels more like it's poking fun at the laziness and unoriginality of blackface in general and that series in particular, rather than endorsing it as valid. Whatever the intent, it's right that this should remain available as a stark reminder to us - and to disbelieving millennials - that society and the entertainment industry found this acceptable not so very long ago.
 

Mel O'Drama

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After a Columbo-sized gap, I've been diving back in with Series Two of The Two Ronnies.

With it being a variety show, it does feel like a lucky dip. And it's quite hard work sometimes. There are gems in each episode, but there's also a lot of stuff that I'd be inclined to skip if I wasn't a completist. Many of the skits and sketches are great. Some of the music acts are really good. But I often struggle with the chopping and changing between the two.

The familiar structure of is helping a little, because at least I know what's coming when. You get your newsreaders followed by a short sketch of randomness featuring the two. The pop act (Series Two has included Thelma Houston, Chelsea Brown and Lynsey de Paul among others). A Ronnie B solo featuring his brilliant wordsmithery as he delivers a party political broadcast or somesuch. Then the serial, which as the longest section feels like the core of the show. Then you have a more traditional folk singing act or cabaret act (for Series Two we've had Georgie Fame and Alan Price, billed as Fame & Price). Then Ronnie C's story. Followed by the song and dance number. And then the goodnights.

Done To Death is probably a more enjoyable serial than Hampton Wick, though they're essentially the same thing, with the two playing a variety of characters of various genders and ages. This one is helped by having the main characters played by the Ronnies themselves. It's always fun to poke fun at the murder mystery, and this does it well. I'm so impressed by how game Ronnie B is. One episode had his character frolicking in the sea and being buried up to his neck in sand as the tide came in and washed over him. All of which is game enough, but it also looked like it was filmed on the East Coast on the the coldest, greyest day of the year.

Ronnie B just impresses me more and more with each sketch I watch. He's just hilarious in drag (who'd have thought he'd make such a good Elizabeth Taylor to Ronnie C's Richard Burton). And his accents are awe-inspiring, The St Petersburg State Choir being a great example (poor Ronnie C seemed to struggle with the accent and ended up somewhere in Wales. Ironic considering his terrible Welsh accent as Burton).

On that note, the closing musical numbers continue to be a highlight of each episode. I can't say I'd taken much notice of them until starting to watch the show on DVD this year, but they're wonderful and no doubt the result of many, many hours' hard work. I'm impressed at how effortlessly both seem to handle the songs and dancing and often complicated lyrics. For those who listen carefully they're extremely rewarding as they frequently end up being the funniest and most risque lines of the episode. They seem to have perfected the formula this year, with plenty of visual interest added replacing the bearded old guys. They poke fun at any number of cultures and musical styles by mashing them together, and it works wonderfully. The Welsh Male Voice Choir and the aforementioned St Petersburg State Choir did this really well. And Tooting Carmen (an East End pie 'n' mash reimagining of the opera) was just inspired.


"May I look at your rock cakes, please?"
"Cakes is off. Try the bread and cheese. "
"May I glance at your plat du jour."
"Watch your language. She's spoken for."​
 

Mel O'Drama

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Having reached the end of Series Two, I'm taking another little break for a change of pace. I think it's just the kind of series that doesn't lend itself to binge watching. Which is fine.

There were a couple of little gems from the last two episodes.

One was the dinner party sketch in which four of the guests had been victims of a hypnotist, causing them to make comical noises when they heard certain words (one was anything relating to food. Another mooed like a cow when birds were mentioned. A third was affected by German words. And the final victim was a woman who laughed manically when someone said sorry.). It's silly surrealism, but because of the clever wordplay turned into something really funny as it escalated into chaos despite all efforts to avoid certain themes.

The other that springs to mind was the final musical number, the Phoebe Fanshaw Dance Formation which involved ballroom dancing with Ronnie C in drag as the two played husband and wife. As with previous similar numbers, a whole lot of effort had gone into pulling this off, with a fairly large cast and lots of lyrics to deliver with perfect comic timing. Some might have been inclined to simply improvise the dancing or keep it simple but because both Ronnies were absolutely flawless with their footwork, it not only looked impressive, it also brought a kind of realism which made it funnier.
 

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Off topic @Mel O'Drama - but one day can you dive into BBC series Angels from 1975 onwards, Im loving it and lots of old familiar faces in it

I must say I admire your stamina for watching the 2 Ronnies, without FWD! I couldnt do that!!
 

Mel O'Drama

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Off topic @Mel O'Drama - but one day can you dive into BBC series Angels from 1975 onwards, Im loving it and lots of old familiar faces in it

Oh yes. I have only very vague memories of it, but I remember my Mum used to love it. It might be interesting to check it out one of these days. I'm glad you're enjoying it so much.


I must say I admire your stamina for watching the 2 Ronnies, without FWD! I couldnt do that!!

Ha ha. It's my fear of missing out.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Series Three has commenced:

Dana covering Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway; Pan's People wearing virtually nothing but silver go-go boots and beaded curtains; Nixon jokes; references to Margaret Thatcher.

It could not be more of its time and I love it. And this is just the first episode.


The opening titles have been revised to open with the glasses iconography, which feels very much like the series I remember watching. I do miss those Seventies colourful streams from the earlier titles, though.
 

Mel O'Drama

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The slight tweak to the structure for Series Three is helping it feel a little fresher and even a little less formulaic.

The serial which took ten to fifteen minutes in the middle of each episode of the first two series has been replaced with a series of satirical pastiches based on then-contemporary series. These feel very much like a precursor to the kind of homages Wood & Walters or French & Saunders would be doing in their BBC series over the following decades. They're enjoyable enough, though I suspect I'd find them much funnier if I was more familiar with the original material they're taking off, such as Jason King or The Onedin Line.

I know it's the Seventies, but there really is an awful lot of casual homophobia for cheap laughs this year. Most of it coming from Ronnie C. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for political correctness being thrown out of the window, but I also find myself both intrigued by sudden explosion of gay jokes this year, and a little bored by the lazy repetitiveness of it.

But then Ronnie C. does seem big on repeating himself. The more I watch, the more it reinforces the truth that Ronnie B. is hugely talented while Ronnie C. seems to have gone a long way on very little. When he works well with Ronnie B. he's great and I applaud his going for it with pratfalls and drag and suchlike. But his style - the frequent ad libs and his being a whore for an extra laugh or a bit of attention from the audience - feels too much like naff cabaret. Truthfully I find him a little tedious at times, especially when watching at this rate.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Midway through Series Four now, and the series feels as though it's continuing to get more confident and footsure.

If I'm counting, the musical interludes have been cut back, which helps. This year it's generally restricted to a fun little ditty from the Swingle Singers (or Swingle II as this particular lineup is known) and sometimes the big musical number at the end.

Ronnie B. continues to impress. Hugely. This series was filmed right after the first Porridge series, so he'd have been very much in demand at this point. Series Four of Ronnies has seen more of his peerless wordplay, from playing none other than Archibald Spooner to the news report where all the "E"s are replaced with "O"s:




There's also the legendary Swedish Made Simple sketch:


In addition, he's played Mrs Mills the pianist (presumably well known at the time. It was another reference that only rang partial bells for me, but still very funny). And in the Abdication Street musical number he made a truly formidable Ena Sharples to Ronnie C.'s Minnie Caldwell:


It's been lovely to see a young Julia McKenzie popping up in various roles throughout Series Three and Four. This must have been among her first TV and she's hit the ground running. Another familiar recurring face has been that of Noel Dyson. In soap terms she's remembered as Ken Barlow's Mum on Corrie, though most of her Ronnies appearances have seen her playing the kind of vague and ditzy role she'd perfected in Father, Dear Father.
 
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