Six Dates with Barker – 2274: All the World’s a Stooge

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The year is 2274 and comedy is now a religion with Chaplin, Keaton and W.C. Fields revered as gods.  Life is an endless stream of corny jokes, but Prince Boffo (Barker), shortly to ascend to the throne, is increasingly dissatisfied with this.  His wife, Princess Hysteria (Joyce Grant), is baffled to learn that Boffo’s lost his sense of humour, but his daughter, Cheeky (Lesley Anne-Down) is more sympathetic.  Is Boffo fit to be King?  That’s for the Arch Funster (Michael Horden) to find out ….

Written by Barker (under his regular pseudonym of Gerald Wiley), All the World’s a Stooge is an intriguing and vaguely experimental sci-fi story.  No expense was spent to bring 2274 AD to life, although it’s possible this was an intentional nod to series such as Out of the Unknown, which also tended to depict future times on a shoestring budget.  And even if it wasn’t, it works anyway – flimsy looking sets and lashings of CSO just seem to be right for this type of story.

Did this obscure little playlet influence future writers?  It’s easy to see parallels in several later Doctor Who stories.  Vengeance on Varos also featured a couple who provide a running commentary on events, watching via their television screen (here it’s Joy Stewart and Victor Maddern as Tarty and Atlas).  And The Happiness Patrol could easily be depicting a sister world to this one.

Ronnie Barker loved corny gags and would later recycle many of them in the Two Ronnies Yokels sketches.  I’ve no doubt he enjoyed giving the old jokes featured here another airing, but there was also room to air a serious point.  This sort of humour becomes mechanical over time, with no joy to be gained from the responses and punchlines.  Boffo wants a world where humour is natural and unforced and it appears by the end of the episode that he’s got his wish, even if most of the planet (including his wife) don’t understand this and are simply glad he appears to be his old, funny self again.

A strong guest cast helps to enhance Wiley’s script.  Horden looks to be enjoying himself as the Arch Funster, especially when doing the Groucho walk.  Lesley-Anne Down is very appealing as Boffo’s idealistic daughter whilst Jack Tripp also impresses as the doctor who tells Boffo that his father is dead (“do you know what’s good for water on the brain? A tap on the head”).

Although it features a couple of indifferent instalments, overall Six Dates with Barker is a pretty strong series.  A few years later, after Barker moved back to the BBC, they did something similar with Seven of One, although that would produce both of Barker’s biggest sitcom successes …

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Six Dates with Barker – 1971: Come In and Lie Down

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After the disappointment of Lola, things take an upward turn again with Come In and Lie Down.  Doctor Swanton (Barker) is a brusque, seen-it-all psychiatrist who’s possibly met his match with Mr Matting (Michael Bates).  Matting’s tale of being observed all the time by a small man in a Robin Hood hat with binoculars seems like a typical sort of delusion, but then Swanton sees the man as well ….

Since it’s scripted by John Cleese, it’s possibly no surprise that it has a definite Python feel (for example, Reginald Maulding is namechecked).  Bates gives an energised performance as a man who has an intense fear of being labelled a looney.  To this end, when he first enters Swanton’s consulting room he pretends to be the gas man, sympathising about the difficulties Swanton must face.  “Blimey, what a job eh? Talking to loonies all day. Wouldn’t catch me being a psychiatrist, not me. I’ll stick to gas. A load of nutters aren’t they? In here, hopping around on one leg, squawking, think they’re Napoleon.”

Bates, best known for Last of the Summer Wine and It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum, freewheels in a most impressive fashion.  To begin with, it appears that he has the more showy role (Barker comes off as rather pallid in comparison).  But once Swanton believes he can also see Matting’s imaginary man, the power dynamic between the pair subtly shifts and Swanton begins to act in a hysterical fashion.  Matting is rather irritated when Swanton declares Matting isn’t a looney.  “Oh that’s nice isn’t it? If I can see him he’s imaginary but if you can see him he’s real. I get it. You think you’re Lord God Almighty don’t you? If a patent can see something you can’t see, he’s a looney, he should be down on the funny farm, but if Doctor Smartypants can see him, he’s there mate.”

The reveal of the imaginary man (Ian Trigger) is done subtly, as for a few minutes the audience is aware of him, but neither Swanton or Matting react.  As Matting’s used to him being there all the time that’s understandable, but are we viewing the scene through his eyes only?  It’s only when Swanton double-takes that the fun really starts.

Swanton’s mounting hysteria is a gift for Barker, who doesn’t disappoint.  The conclusion, as all three debate the nature of existence, is also nicely handed.  After Swanton proves that the imaginary man is real, Matting is able to leave a happy man – safe in the knowledge that he isn’t a looney.  You can see the final story-beat coming a mile off, but it’s really the only obvious punchline.

Given how the early series of The Two Ronnies recycled material from their time at LWT, it’s easy to see  a cut-down version of this working as a sketch, with Ronnie C taking the role of Michael Bates (despite the twenty five minute length, it’s played very much in the tempo of a typical Two Ronnies sketch).  It’s certainly one that still stands up well today.

Six Dates with Barker – 1915: Lola

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Fritz Braun (Barker) is a rather incompetent shorthand typist in the employ of Kaiser Wilhelm (Dennis Ramsden).  The Kasier dismisses him and then decides that since he knows too many secrets he can’t be allowed to live.  But the man he choses for the task, Captain Otto Von Diesel ( Graham Armitage), finds himself unable shoot his brother-in-law in cold blood.  This presents a problem, Fritz needs to be dead whilst a sultry female spy called Lola is reportedly dead but it would be better if she was alive.  This presents an obvious solution, why doesn’t Fritz drag up as Lola ….

After a couple of good episodes, Lola is a broad and fairly comedy-free farce.  Although Barker would put on women’s clothing on numerous occasions during The Two Ronnies, it was never something he felt terribly comfortable with.  His Lola is therefore a fairly broad creation (although the script by Ken Hoare and Mike Sharland didn’t really give him many opportunities for subtlety).

This studio-bound story flits between Germany and Paris and if the script is rather indifferent, then it’s possible to derive some enjoyment from the guest cast.  Hugh Walters has a few nice moments as a German corporal, Graham Armitage impresses as Von Diesel whilst Freddie Jones plays it very broad (but there’s no other way with this script) as an English officer bewitched by Lola’s charms.  The peerless Valentine Dyall has a small role as Lord Kitchener, posing for his famous portrait, complaining that his arm is going to sleep and taking more than a shine to Lola.

This one is best filed under indifferent.

Six Dates with Barker – 1970: The Odd Job

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David Jason’s early career was very much intertwined with Barker’s.  Jason’s respect and admiration for Barker has never been in doubt (to him, Barker was always “the guvnor”) and it’s plain that Jason considered his work with Barker, especially during the 1970’s, as something of a comedy apprenticeship – a chance for him to watch the master at work and learn from him.

Jason aged-up to play Dithers the gardener in Hark At Barker (1969 – 1970) and His Lordship Entertains (1972).  His old-age make-up would also come in useful when he appeared as Blanco in Porridge (1975 – 1977).  So it wouldn’t be until Open All Hours (1976 – 1985) that he was finally able to play a regular role of his own age opposite Barker.

The Odd Job also sees him act without aged make-up, as he appears as Clive, a man desperate for any odd jobs (“engines you want de-clogged or television sets, I mend typewriters and washing machines you know”).  Arthur Harriman (Barker) does have a job for him – remove the scabbard from a samurai sword.  Arthur can’t take the nagging from his wife Kitty (Joan Sims) any more, so has decided to take his own life.  But when faced with the sword (plus Clive’s graphic description of hari-kari) he finds it impossible to do it himself, so wonders if Clive would do this odd job for him ….

Arthur is a meek, mild and fairly monotonous character whilst Clive (thanks to Jason’s comic tics and Northern accent) rather commands the screen.  Given that Clive is by far the showier part, it’s interesting that Barker chose to play Arthur instead.  This may be because, coming from an acting background, he didn’t have the ego that some comedians possess and wouldn’t have minded if Jason was earning more of the laughs.

Written by Bernard McKenna, who’d earlier penned several instalments of Hark at Barker and would later write several of Jason’s early sitcom efforts, A Sharp Intake of Breath and The Secret Life of Edgar Briggs, it’s a simple, but effective concept which is given a twist when Arthur and Kitty are reconciled.  This means that he no longer needs Clive’s services, but convincing the enthusiastic Clive is a little tricky.

Part two is where we see Clive really begin to treat this odd job with gusto.  He’s a man of limitless invention – for example, putting hydrochloric acid in Arthur’s milk so that his cereal disintegrates, setting up a tripwire which catches an unfortunate milkman instead, and almost managing to shoot Arthur in the park (instead some garden gnomes are dispatched).

It’s always nice to see Joan Sims, even if she has little to do, and the appearance of Derek Ware (playing the milkman) is a sure sign that something nasty is going to happen.  Ware was one of those select band of stuntmen (along with the likes of Terry Walsh and Stuart Fell) who would become so ubiquitous that their arrival on screen was a clear indication that mayhem wouldn’t be far behind.

It’s a pity that The Odd Job only exists as a black and white film print, as I’ve no doubt that the location work in the second half would look rather better in colour.  But no matter, it’s always a pleasure to see Barker and Jason together and whilst the final twist may be obvious it’s also satisfying.  It would later be revived as a 1978 film with Jason reprising his role and Graham Chapman replacing Barker.  Chapman’s involvement makes it an interesting Python curio, but The Odd Job works best in the twenty five minute format.

Six Dates with Barker – 1899: The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town

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The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, thanks in part to the later Two Ronnies remake, is one of the more interesting segments of Six Dates With Barker.  The Six Dates version was written by Spike Milligan whilst the Two Ronnies remake was credited to Milligan and A Gentleman (an indication that Barker had a hand in reshaping the original concept in order to fill out the expanded running time of the Two Ronnies serial format).

Unsurprisingly there’s more than a touch of Goon Show humour about this one.  If the rumours are to believed, then Milligan originally planned it as a film which would have featured himself, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers – but these plans were abandoned due to Sellers’ film commitments.

After the somewhat laboured comedy of The Removals Man, Phantom is a joy right from the start.  Milligan’s eye for the absurd is given free range with numerous sight and dialogue gags.  One of my favourites revolves around Sergeant Bowles, who’s played by different actors of various builds.  One Bowles might enter a room directly behind Inspector Alexander (Barker) only for another to be seen in the next shot.  It’s stupid, but it works.

Barker plays several other roles (including dragging up as Lady Penelope Barclay-Hunt).  Lady Penelope ends up so shocked by the Phantom that her face turns black and her hair white (not something you’d see today of course).  The identity parade is another exercise in total ridiculousness – as we see a topless Scotsman, a Chinaman, a black Chelsea pensioner, a vicar and an upper class toff (played by the lovely Moira Foot, who’d earlier been equally unconvincing – in a comic way – as a newspaper urchin).

With concerns that Queen Victoria may be targeted, a number of male officers with no resemblance at all to her Majesty are drafted in to impersonate her (Pat Gorman is amongst their number).  Another favourite moment is the meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth, who feature a number of dummies amongst their number, including one who has a pumpkin for a head and another who sports a balloon instead!  Moira Foot, who’d also appeared alongside Barker as Effie the maid in Hark at Barker, once again provides a touch of glamour, this time as the pneumatically enhanced Maureen Body.

The later Two Ronnies remake might have seen the addition of many more gags (as well as enjoying the comic talents of Ronnie C) but the compact Six Dates with Barker version is highly entertaining in its own right.  A pity they didn’t spin this one off into its own series, had Milligan been able to keep up this stream of comic invention it might have worked very well.

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Six Dates with Barker – 1937: The Removals Person

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Having transferred over to LWT from the BBC, along with Ronnie Corbett and David Frost, it wasn’t surprising that Ronnie Barker’s talent for playing numerous different characters quickly earned him a series of one-off playlets, Six Dates with Barker, which aired during 1971.

The premise of the series is straightforward – each twenty five minute episode is set in a different year (mostly the 20th century, although the final one – All The World’s A Stooge – ventures into the year 2774AD) and sees Barker tackle a set of diverse characters.  Possibly it was hoped that one or more of them would prove popular enough to spin off into a series – it did happen with this one, although it took seventeen years until Clarence reached the screen (and then on the BBC).

The Removals Person is such a one-joke premise that it’s highly doubtful Clarence would have ever gone ahead had Barker not been so keen to make it.  At that late point in his career, Barker was a comedy heavyweight who was pretty much able to do as he pleased.  Barker clearly saw untapped potential in Hugh Leonard’s The Removals Person and wrote all six scripts of Clarence himself (under the pseudonym of Bob Ferris).  He wasn’t averse to recycling Leonard’s jokes though ….

Here, Barker plays Fred, although visually he’s pretty much identical to the later Clarence.  Josephine Tewson, as in Clarence, is Travers, a maid who attempts to limit the damage caused by the myopic removals man and then slowly falls in love with him.  The year is 1937 and whilst the rest of London is busy celebrating the Coronation, Fred and Albert (Christopher Timothy) have a job to do – pack up all the belongings from a swanky flat and transport them over to Southampton.

Albert (Timothy essays possibly not the most convincing Cockney accent ever heard) has other ideas as he wants to pop off for an hour or so to watch the procession, which leaves Fred in sole charge.  We’ve already had a quick look at the world through Fred’s eyes (blurry to the point of blindness) so nothing that happens subsequently should be a surprise.  For example, he mistakes a post box for a Chelsea pensioner, believes that Travers is a coat stand and decides that the unhappy Miss Angela (Gillian Fairchild) is a standard lamp.

How much this appeals will probably depend on how well disposed you are towards the numerous (lack of) sight gags.  Fred is rather crude and not terribly sympathetic, conversely Tewson is rather appealing as Travers, a woman so obviously lonely that she responds to Fred’s charmless overtures.  Gillian Fairchild soars over the top as Miss Angela, but this is mainly a two-hander between Fred and Travers.

The Removals Person is diverting enough, but it’s chiefly of interest because of the eighties revival – taken on its own this is pretty average fair.  The shocking amount of tape damage on the VT master is quite notable, it’s quite unusual to see something in such poor shape.