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.