The Two Ronnies Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery (1973)

ronnies 73

Apart from their links and sketches for the 1972 Christmas Night with the Stars, this was the Two Ronnies’ only Christmas special during the 1970’s.  With Morecambe and Wise reigning supreme, there was less need for a Two Ronnies Christmas show as well – but after M&W jumped ship to Thames, the Ronnies would gradually fill the void – with stand-alone specials in 1982, 1984 and 1987 (as well as Christmas shows from other years as part of their regular series).

The 1973 Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery was an attempt to do something a little different from the norm.  It takes place at the country house of Sir Giles (Ronnie Barker) and Lady Hampton.  The year is 1872 and the mystery of the title refers to the Christmas turkey – somebody’s stolen it, so what will Sir Giles’ guests have to eat for Christmas lunch?

He decides to engage the services of that ace detective Piggy Malone (and his trusty assistant Charley Farley).  Given that Malone and Farley appeared in four serials during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s a little surprising that none of them were set in Victorian times – maybe something of a missed opportunity.  As might be expected, they bumble about for a while, and the mystery is never really solved (although they do inadvertently provide an alternative for the Christmas dinner).

Although on the surface this looks different from the normal Two Ronnies shows, underneath there’s still plenty that’s familiar.  Ronnie B delivers a monologue, Ronnie C sits in a chair (more comfortable than his usual one) to spin a shaggy dog story and both of them end proceedings with some musical numbers (new words to the familiar tunes of Gilbert & Sullivan).

Along the way there’s some guest stars.  Tux (a man who balances plates on his head) was a throw-back to the specialty acts that were a regular feature during the first series.  Gabrielle Drake is gorgeous as Emma, who has her eye on Ronnie C – although he seems totally immune to her charms.

Cheryl Kennedy provides one of the stand-out moments by performing a monologue, Christmas Bells.  Given the opulent surroundings it’s something that certainly has an impact and serves as a timely reminder that we should always stop to remember (and help) those at Christmas who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Hear the bells are ringing, Bill? That’s cos it’s Christmas Eve. But it ain’t for you and me as there’s a ringing. When we is cold and hungry, Bill, it’s hard to make believe, as we can hear the happy angels singing. If we had a bed to sleep in, and could get a bite to eat, then bells of angel’s voices might remind us. But not when you’re to doss, Bill, in the cold and cruel street, where the Bobbies are nearly always sure to find us. Ah, it’s dreadful hard on you, Bill, cos you’re such a little kid, what didn’t oughta know a bit of sorrow, and wouldn’t if them Christian folks would do as they was bid. Why, him whose birthday’s gonna be tomorrow. But it was him what said, “Let little children come to me.” And meaning just such little coves as you, Bill. But I ain’t got no chance, cos I’m fourteen you see. And I’ll tell you, as I knows a thing or too, Bill, you can’t sell evening papers so as to get a bit to eat, like I done since the time as I was seven, without picking up enough of badness in the street to leave no earthly chance to get to heaven. Them coves what comes around with tracts summed me up a treat. I’m an outcast, little heathen, poor lost sinner.
Perhaps they’d be the same if they’d been brought up in the street and hardly ever had no proper dinner. But Bill, when you and me is dead, I’ll come along wi’ you, and you shall introduce me as your brother. And him who’s knows what sorrow is, he’s sure to let me through. Cos why? We’ve been such pals to one another. Ain’t we, Bill?

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1982

ronnies 82

Although the rigidity of The Two Ronnies’ format was sometimes mocked (especially by Not The Nine O’Clock News) it’s always a surprise when a show does depart from what we expect.  The 1982 Christmas Special doesn’t have the usual introductions and farewells (so no “In a packed programme tonight” or “And it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him”).

Instead we’re pitched straight into a musical number with the Rons dressed as Chas and Dave, entertaining a pub audience with a reasonable facsimile of a typical Chas and Dave song.  It’s entertaining stuff, not only for the cut-away shots of Christmas celebrations but also for the performances of the extras in the pub (some of whom seem to have more enthusiasm than others).

Next door are Sid and George.  Sid guessed that George was in the snug as he saw everybody moving away from there (escaping from the smell of George’s feet) something which George denies.  “There’s nothing wrong with my feet. I’m on the odour eaters now”.  Sid tells him “I had them once. They weren’t half hard to swallow”.

There’s a lovely performance by David Essex of A Winter’s Tale (live and with a full orchestra accompaniment).  Ronnie B doesn’t get his usual monologue, but Ronnie C’s chair ramblings are present and correct.

The film sketch features Ronnie B as a man who travels back in time (thanks to the mysterious Ronnie C) and alters his own personal time-line, so that he was never born.  Thankfully, since it’s Christmas, all is resolved and he ends up back with his wife (Brigit Forsyth) and family, together with a new appreciation of how good his life is.

At just 45 minutes, this is quite a compact special.  Nothing particularly outstanding, but it’s all good solid Christmas fare.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1984

ronnies 84

As might be expected from the Two Ronnies, there’s several wordplay orientated sketches in the show.  The first (upper class city gents who can’t pronounce their words properly) is amusing enough, but does slightly outstay its welcome.

Ronnie B’s monologue is delivered by a milkman (H.M. Quinn) in the style of the Queen’s Christmas speech.  His delivery clearly appeals to at least one member of the audience (listen out for some very audible female squealing on the most innocuous of lines).  The majority of the monologue doesn’t actually contain any jokes – the idea that Barker is talking like the Queen is obviously supposed to be funny in itself.

Next up are a couple of Northern road-workers who exhume some golden oldies from the Old Jokes Home, such as –

RONNIE C: Sithee, does tha believe in reincarnation?
RONNIE B: Well, it’s all right on fruit salad, but I don’t like it in me tea.

Following the very Chrissmassy musical number (the Rons dressed as a couple of Stereo Santas) and a quick Ronnie C solo sketch we move into the best part of the show.  First up is another wordplay sketch – with the Ronnies as two soldiers in a WW1 trench.  Ronnie C has the unfortunate knack of mishearing everything that Ronnie B says, such as –

RONNIE B: God, I wish I were back in Blightly.
RONNIE C: Do you, sir? What sort of nightie, sir? Black frilly one?

RONNIE B: Sounded like a Jerry rifle.
RONNIE C: Bit strange in the trenches, sir. A sherry trifle.

It’s a lovely, typical Two Ronnies sketch.  The courtroom sketch that follows is something a little different.  It opens quite normally, with Ronnie C prosecuting and Ronnie B in the dock, but it quickly becomes a parody of several popular quiz shows (What’s my Line?, Call My Bluff, Blankety Blank, Mastermind, The Price is Right) – it’s also a pleasure to see Patrick Troughton as the judge.

Ronnie B has a solo singing spot as Lightweight Louie Danvers (not too dissimilar to Fatbelly Jones it has to be said).

Following Ronnie C in the chair, it’s the big film –  The Ballad of Snivelling and Grudge.  Guest star Peter Wyngarde is a delight – mainly because he takes the whole thing totally seriously.  There’s no winks to camera and his dead-pan performance is spot on.  And if, like me, you can spot Pat Gorman in the background, then you’ve probably watched far, far too much old British television.  If you don’t know who Pat Gorman is, then you’ve clearly not watched enough!

No news items to end the show – instead it’s a old-fashioned style song about Christmas.  It’s somewhat comforting and sums up the Two Ronnies quite well.  By the mid eighties they were pretty much out of step with contemporary comedy (and Barker knew that their time was nearly up) but it doesn’t really matter – great comedy is timeless, and there’s several examples here that still work thirty years later and will surely endure for decades to come.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1987

ronnies 87

The 1987 Christmas Special was the Two Ronnies’ last hurrah.  This was primarily the decision of Ronnie Barker, who had decided to walk away from showbusiness at the age of 58.  Although the Two Ronnies was still popular, Barker was wise enough to realise that their time was coming to an end and presumably wanted to avoid the treatment meted out to the likes of Benny Hill (who had been unceremoniously dropped by Thames a few years earlier).  Barker would later confirm exactly why he retired.

“The reason I retired was that the material was getting less good. I’d run out of ideas. I was dry of sketches. Plus, I’d done everything I wanted to do. The situation sort of pushed me, goaded me into asking, ‘Well, haven’t you done enough?’ And I had.”

With one more series to come in 1988 (Clarence) and this final Christmas special from the Rons, Barker could ensure that he was leaving at a point where the audience still wanted more – which was much the best way to go.  He was tempted back for a few decent character roles, but in the main he stuck to his decision and enjoyed a long and happy retirement,

None of this would have been known at Christmas 1987, so it was just another special with none of the baggage that would have surrounded the show had it been known it was the last one.  As ever, there’s nothing radical here – no deviations from the tried and true formula.  But what they do, they do so well.

One of my favourite sketches (which reappeared several times down the years) gets one final outing here.  Ronnie C is a man who can never complete his sentences and Ronnie B is his friend who has several attempts at filling in the missing words.

RONNIE C: We had our Christmas party the other night. Funny old do, it was. It’s always the same every year.  Always takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egg and … What, egg and spoon race?
RONNIE C: No, takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egon Ronay banquet?
RONNIE C: No, no. No, an egg and chip supper

It’s just a pity that the final punch-line was so weak, but then the Rons never went down the Python route of abolishing punchlines, which was sometimes a problem.  The big musical number was set in the Klondyke Saloon, Alaska and goes from black and white to colour as well as featuring some gorgeous girls.

Ronnie Barker always enjoyed writing the Yokels sketches, since it gave him a chance to reuse old jokes and some of them (“‘Ere, the girl I was with last night wouldn’t kiss me under the mistletoe.  She didn’t like where I was wearing it”) would be familiar to anybody who’s been watching these Christmas specials in sequence.

After Ronnie C’s chair monologue, we’re into the big closing film – Pinocchio II – Killer Doll.  No expense was spared (the village set looks very impressive) and whilst it’s quite long (seventeen minutes) there’s more than enough going on to justify the length.

Ronnie C is wonderful as the evil Pinocchio II whilst Ronnie B has, as you might expect, spot-on comic timing as Geppetto.  They’re well supported by the likes of Lynda Baron and Sandra Dickinson and having Ed Bishop as the narrator was another joy.  Unlike Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies didn’t make such a habit of featuring guest stars but there’s cameos here from Frank Finlay, Dennis Quilley and most unexpected of all, Charlton Heston.

It’s a more than decent way to bring their career to a close and whilst it’s interesting to ponder if they could have continued into the 1990’s, they probably made the best decision by deciding to bow out whilst they were still at the top.

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show One

ronnies s01s01

Original Transmission – 10th April 1971

Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cyer, Eric Idle, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Introduction/News Items
Party Sketch – Ronnie B finds it impossible not to keep attacking Ronnie C
Tina Charles – River Deep, Mountain High
Ronnie B Solo – A Doctor who has a cure for people who say everything twice
Hampton Wick – Episode One
Ronnie C – Interpol Sketch
New World – Rose Garden
Ronnie C in the Chair
Hearing Aid Sketch
Alfredo
Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones
Outro

Notes: Although the Ronnies had worked together for a number of years prior to this, there’s still a slight sense of nervousness on show (especially in Ronnie B’s case). This is evident in the opening news items which seem more than a little stilled – although the weird set design (angled desks) and CSO back projections don’t help. This would be swiftly amended for show two.

The first of many party sketches finds Ronnie B in an abusive mood, first slapping Ronnie C’s face and then kneeing him in the groin! And since the slaps sound real it seems that Ronnie B wasn’t holding back.

Some of the Ronnies serials tend to drag a bit and Hampton Wick is the first example of this.  Luckily Madeline Smith’s winsome beauty is some recompense for the fairly laboured comedy.

These early series have an abundance of guests (later on they’d be pared down to just a single guest spot). The sixteen-year old Tina Charles impressively belts out River Deep, Mountain High whilst New World offer a blend of laid-back acoustic warbling that’s rather relaxing – although the moustaches and hairstyles on display make it a little hard to take them seriously.  But Rose Garden was a hit for them in 1971, reaching no 15 in the UK charts.

As for Alfredo, well he’s the first in a series of speciality acts who pop up in most of the series one shows.  Where else are you going to see a man dressed in German military uniform playing the drums and (sometimes) catching ping pong balls in his mouth?  If that’s not entertainment I don’t know what is.

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Two

ronnies s01s02

Original Transmission – 17th April 1971

Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Introduction/News Items
Party Sketch – Ronnie C’s embarrassing baldness
New World
Hampton Wick – Episode Two
Tina Charles – Ruby Tuesday
Ronnie C in the Chair
Tarzan in Suburbia sketch
Jo, Jac and Joni
Gilbert and Sullivan
Outro

Notes: The desks are no longer at a weird angle and although a smaller CSO back screen remains – seemingly showing a shot of the universe – it no longer changes to display a picture for every news item.

The party sketch features Ronnie C as Mr Goldie, a rather bald man (wearing a not very convincing bald cap). After being told not to mention his baldness, of course Ronnie B can’t help himself (referring to him as Baldy, rather than Goldie to begin with). Ronnie B gets most the lines here as he attempts to dig himself out of this unpromising start, whilst Ronnie C is able to sit back and simply react. Such is Ronnie B’s over-sensitiveness, that even words like “wig-wam” are off limits – he quickly changes it to “wog-wam” (“you know, the wams where the wogs live”). Politically correct this is not …

Episode Two of Hampton Wick is chiefly memorable for Madeline Smith’s dress, which at times is unable to restrain her ample charms.  How they got away with some of the shots is anyone’s guess ….

New World warble an unknown (to me) song whilst Tina Charles continues her full-throttle attack on pop classics by tackling the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday. She certainly doesn’t hold back, that’s for sure.

Although some of the productions misteps from the opening show have been ironed out, there’s still a sense that this is early days – as sometimes sketches don’t finish with a musical flourish, as they do later on, but rather with a fade to black.

Ronnie B makes an unlikely looking Tarzan (but then Ronnie C would have been even less convincing). But the strange juxtaposition of Tarzan crashing into the suburban garden of Ronnie C’s Arthur Norris is an appealing one.

As with the first show, there’s a moment of fourth-wall breakage, as the end of this sketch is interrupted to prepare the way for the spesh act – in this case Jo, Jac and Joni. They demonstrate that variety isn’t dead with a spot of musical comedy.

For a long time, the show would often end with a musical number – in this case Gilbert and Sullivan entertain (or not) us with a some of their favourite numbers, albeit cunningly re-worded. At least this one doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Three

ronnies s01s03

Original Transmission – 24th April 1971

Written by Garry Chambers, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Intro/News Items
Party Sketch – Hello
New World – Listen to the Falling Rain
Ronnie B Solo – Weather Forecaster
Tina Charles – Close to Me
Hampton Wick – Episode Three
Ronnie C in the Chair
Doctor’s Sketch – Ronnie B as a man who’s caught Radio 4
Georges Schlick
Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson
Outro

Notes: Yet another party sketch with Ronnie B as the dominant force, in this case a man so sensitive that he reacts with suspicion to Ronnie C’s innocent greeting of hello.  For example, Ronnie B’s first response is to wonder whether Ronnie C really meant to say “hello, you boring old git, who invited you?” Given that most of the Pythons have writing credits on these early shows, it seems that some of the material had originally been earmarked for Monty Python. Indeed, in the past the Pythons have joked that if a sketch didn’t work then they’d send it onto the Ronnies!

This is one that could easily have fitted into Monty Python (and so seems a little out of place here) as the punchline sees the camera pull back to reveal that everyone in the party, expect for Ronnie C, is dead. Not quite the way you’d expect a Two Ronnies sketch to end.

New World are a vision in matching outfits whilst Tina Charles demonstrates she’s able to show restraint by tackling a quieter song in Close to Me.

There’s another typically convoluted chair monologue from Ronnie C, with plenty of incidental pleasures along the way.  “I was just stretching my legs there. Did you see that? Stretching my legs. Left it a bit late in life, haven’t I really?”

A short sketch features the Ronnies as doctor and patient (Ronnie B is a man who’s caught Radio 4). After he asks if it’s bad, there’s an obvious punch-line. “Bad? Have you heard it? It’s terrible.”

Georges Schlick is the latest speciality act – a rather good ventriloquism performance – which leads into the Ronnies as Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson. Any similarities to Kenneth McKellar and Moira Anderson must be purely coincidental then ….