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

Hell 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:


 

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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.
 

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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.
 

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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:
 

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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).
 

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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.
 

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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.
 
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