The Two Ronnies: The Christmas Specials Review

Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett first worked together in the mid-1960s on the popular sketch show The Frost Report. Although they always maintained separate careers, they became a double-act for sixteen years for the BBC on the show The Two Ronnies The first series appeared in 1971 and was an instant success, thanks to a combination of mildly near-the-knuckle humour, sketches, songs and monologues from both stars. Much of the humour was verbal, particularly in Ronnie Barker’s word-twisting pieces to camera, and a lot of it relied on saucy seaside-postcard style innuendos provided by a large team of writers including Barker himself, under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley. Subtle it wasn’t but it was sometimes very clever and, occasionally, surprisingly surreal. Some of the sketches have entered into TV mythology, notably the famous “Four Candles” scene and the brilliant David Renwick parody of Mastermind.

This two-disc DVD set contains four of the Christmas Shows which the duo produced during their tenure at the BBC. I’m not entirely sure why only four have been included when they did one virtually every year until 1987, but there’s presumably some reason to do with copyright or the like. Still all is not lost – the omissions mean that we don’t have to see Phil Collins.

Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery 1973

The opening instalment of this Two Ronnies festschrift is somewhat atypical, changing the usual format in favour of a rather loose mystery story set in a country house at Christmas. This was a popular location for seasonal BBC shows – you may remember Perry Como and his Olde Englishe Christmas Show – and has something to do with Michael Bracewell’s theory that if you want to make an Englishman nostalgic at Christmas, you should show him some panelling. However, fans will be relieved to know that only two minutes pass before the first reference to Ronnie Corbett’s stature, although it’s a full five minutes before we get the first oblique reference to a pair of tits.

The format is a bit awkward. The setting is meant to be 1874 but the styles of the gentlemen dancers’ hair suggest that this is an alternative universe where T-Rex have become famous a whole century earlier. There’s a good deal of Messrs Corbett and Barker talking to camera in order to link a series of variety sketches – a juggler, a dance group and suchlike. Most of these items are dispensable in the extreme, particularly the juggling; I have an aversion to jugglers born of too many childhood trips to summer shows on the pier at Morecambe. Meanwhile, the two stars change costumes to become those mystifyingly popular detectives Piggy Malone and Charley Farley and, as usual, the quality of comedy takes a dip, largely because Corbett’s acting skills aren’t anything like as good as Barker’s. There’s not even a decent mystery to solve apart from the one about how on earth anyone would think the script was funny. The only highlights are Ronnie Barker’s monologue in the middle, Ronnie Corbett’s usual joke-telling spot and the final Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche.

Christmas Show 1982

This is the one which begins with Ronnie and Ronnie pretending to be Chas and Dave. It’s a rip-roaring musical opener with some clever lyrics and a nostalgic black and white recreation of the traditional family Christmas. It’s perhaps become a bit over-familiar with constant repeats but it still raises a smile from me. The momentum continues with one of their two-blokes-in-a-pub sketches which is satisfyingly deadpan, though suffers from the spirit of Pete and Dud which hovers over it. Then, sadly, things come to a standstill with David Essex singing A Winter’s Tale, one of the atrocities committed to manuscript by Mike Batt in the days before he met Katie Melua. It doesn’t help that Essex seems to be flat throughout.

The show picks up again with an amusing restaurant sketch, in which Barker indulges his brilliance at character comedy by playing a loutish customer who irks Corbett’s pretentious foodie. Corbett’s monologue is also amusing – “There’s a rumour that the moths in Michael Foot’s jacket have applied for a home improvement grant – although the punchline, as ever, isn’t worth the time it takes to get there. A lengthy sketch about ringing bells didn’t do anything for me but it’s followed a well devised short film about an alien encounter that features Ronnie Corbett as an extra-terrestrial and Barker wearing a quite appalling wig. Some good one-liners in this one, although there seems to be a baffling assumption that there’s something inherently funny about Basildon. Finally, we get a mildly amusing duologue about memory loss which gets its biggest laughs from the sight of the stars sans trousers.

Christmas Show 1984

Some of the traditional news items open this special – “A secretary refused to kiss her boss under the mistletoe because she didn’t like where he was wearing it” – and there are no surprises contained within those, although I smiled at a reference to the Archbishop of Golders Green. Things pick up with a good sketch in which the two stars plays posh chaps whose pronunciation causes a few problems in a department store. The tramps sketch is also amusing – “Give me the great outdoors, a pipe and a beautiful girl and you can keep the pipe and the great outdoors!”

But Elaine Paige brings proceedings grinding to a halt with a gruesome rendition of “Windmills of Your Mind” during which the vision mixer shows off the televisual equivalent of St Vitus Dance. At one point, we are treated to two Elaine Paiges which is at two more than sanity can bear. Nor does Ronnie Barker’s monologue bring much to the party – it’s that milkman’s address to the nation which has always seemed grimly unfunny to me although it is apparently very popular.

Still, if I seem a little disgruntled, I have to admit that the “Stereo Santas” number always makes me grin, especially the reference to dropping a flatiron down the old girl’s drawers. Even better is the courtroom sketch involving a lot of BBC game shows and a welcome appearance from Patrick Troughton. I also like the musical number from Lightweight Louis Danvers –Ronnie Barker at his best with some outrageously sexist lyrics. Sadly, the show winds down with an uninspired Ronnie Corbett monologue and a lengthy filmed sketch called “The Ballad of Snivelling and Grudge” which doesn’t have more than one or two genuine laughs.

Christmas Show 1987

The last of the Two Ronnies Christmas Shows, and the last shows they did for the BBC until 2005, is not one of their best. The jokes are very tired throughout – references to Zandra Rhodes, Shakin’ Stevens and British Rail cuisine seem strangely outdated – and the sketches are nothing that we haven’t seen before. Even Elton John seems subdued, offering a morose version of “Candle In The Wind”, still in its Marilyn Monroe incarnation.

There are minor compensations however. Ronnie Barker has fun in a lengthy Wild West musical number, during which he gets to dress up in women’s clothing as Effervescent Flo. Most interestingly, there’s also a long film called Pinocchio 2: Killer Doll which contains a staggering array of guest stars, headed by a bemused looking Charlton Heston. Ronnie Corbett’s Pinocchio is bizarrely disturbing and will surely be remembered with dread by anyone who was slightly the worse for wear when switching on.

The Disc

The shows are divided up over two discs. Picture quality is generally excellent throughout considering the nature of the material – a mix of VT and film inserts. The archive film material from The Frost Report looks particularly poor while the film inserts from the later shows look especially good. The mono soundtrack is generally pleasing, although less so on the 1973 show.

The two extra features on the discs are quite substantial. The first, on Disc One, is the episode of Christmas Night With The Stars from 1972. For those of you too young to remember this, it was a compilation programme shown on Christmas night which featured morsels from some of the biggest names of BBC Comedy and Variety. This one is included here due to it being presented by the Two Ronnies who provide some of their news items and sketches to keep things moving along – “Later the massed band of the Noise Abatement Society will be singing Silent Night”, you know the sort of thing. The programme has been edited down so you don’t get the appearances from Dad’s Army or The Goodies, but the good news is that this means that you don’t have to sit through The Liver Birds or Mike Yarwood either. Sadly, someone has decided that it was a good idea to retain the appearance of what Ronnie Barker once called “38 legs and no breast”, or Lulu and the Young Generation. Dressed in red corduroy hipsters, she sings up a storm but not even the awful dancing can distract one from the awful Godspell-era lyric about the many mansions in my father’s house. As if this were not bad enough, we then get , surprise surprise, Cilla Black singing something about how your love runs through me, which would seem to equate passion with diarrhoea. Cilla sticks around to sing a mind-numbingly dreadful duet with Ronnie Corbett that relies on allegedly hilarious topical references to “Clunk-Click Every Trip”, Jess Yates, Fanny Craddock and Danny LaRue. Given the way that the audience breaks into hysterics throughout the song, one can only suspect that they have been told that the first person to stop laughing will be taken out and shot.

The second extra feature is a new 30 minute documentary called Christmas Retrospective which contains an overview of how the Two Ronnies got started on the BBC and their big break as a major part of the Christmas schedules. This is all very pleasant and uncontroversial with a good array of clips, rare behind the scenes footage and some interview material from Bill Cotton and Ronnie Corbett. One slight bit of altered history however - the BBC had already started winding down the show before the duo finished. The last series was moved to Wednesday nights in 1985 and the final Christmas special was shown on Boxing Day rather than Christmas Night.

All the materials on the disc have optional English subtitles.

Although this is far from being a complete collection of the Two Ronnies Christmas Specials, it's a representative selection of their shows and anyone with fond memories of the duo will find it well worth picking up.

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