The Two Ronnies Sketchbook

Friday, March 25, 2005 by

It’s the same faces, the same theme tune, the same punchline over and over again – and it’s all to the good.

Some things don’t need updating to become new, let alone still feel fresh and exciting, and it’s a tribute to the unashamedly universal pitch of Messrs Barker and Corbett’s sketches and songs that they can be wheeled out decades after they were first aired and need no explanatory preambles or exhaustive scene-setting. They stand up as perhaps the finest examples of character-based TV comedy ever, and do so on their own merits.

Both performers have sought to repeatedly make a virtue of this fact in this new compilation series. Every episode so far has begun with the pair studiously, if not pointedly, emphasising that what we’re about to see is “warts and all” Two Ronnies: sketches in their entirety, not cut down to a particular isolated gag, or sequence, or highlight. They’re entitled to nurse their work with such care, of course, but they’re already slightly in danger of sounding like they’re protesting too much. There’s no need to come over quite so defensive. We want to see the whole of the sketches too, after all. The main reason we’ve tuned in is to wallow in the quality of the duo’s material, and to do so at length – 60 minutes at a time, no less.

Besides, it’s not like either performer or their work has been treated that unkindly by the passing of time. Both men have largely been able to avoid the kind of backlash often meted out to their erstwhile contemporaries, especially fellow double acts, thanks in part to that same element of timelessness which never sought to bracket them within a particular era or style of entertainment. The pair rarely went in for topical gags, at least at the exclusion of all other ways to generate laughs. Ironically, the only thing that felt at all out of date in this particular collection of clippage was not the closing musical pastiche or any number of character-based fancy dress encounters, but Ronnie Corbett’s monologue. It’s a fair bet some, but by no means all, of today’s viewers would have been nonplussed by his oblivious namechecking of various luminaries of the mid-1980s (“Selina Scott was being dusted for fingerprints”, “I have to dedicate this joke tonight to our Executive Producer, tipped by some to get a car parking space in Michael Grade’s birthday honours list”) and the seemingly obligatory digs at the BBC canteen.

You don’t encounter these kinds of references on TV at all any more. As such they were the only things which truly date-stamped any of the material in the Sketchbook as being from another age. Yet in truth Ronnie reeled them off with such aplomb it almost didn’t matter. It was like encountering a charming museum piece: look, a joke about the BBC canteen, and there’s a swipe at Michael Grade. There was a shared knowingness about it all, but of a harmless rather than a snide kind. Besides, they were, as was always the case, merely diversions from Ronnie’s main joke. “Oh, and before I go on I must give a little wave to my wife and the mother of my children – if either of them are looking in …”

There’s almost no difference between these new compilations and the ubiquitous Twenty Years of The Two Ronnies – plus its various numerological offspring – which lumbered through the schedules during the 1980s. In fact, those earlier offerings went further than this latest effort by not only screening, yes, the sketches in full, but topping and tailing them with new material. Here even the news stories at the end are recycled (“A man has crossed an Irish spinster with the Potato Marketing Board, to get a woman who’s grateful for small Murphies”) which on one level is consistent with the whole show, but you can’t help thinking rather wastes the potential afforded by having Barker and Corbett together again behind a big desk. As it is they’ve shelled out for new musical guests, so why not toast the occasion with some new trademark closing shots?

The one genuinely new element in every show is the linking material, received with absolutely enormous enthusiasm by the studio audience but somewhat less of a knockout watching at home. “I’m waiting for tall screen TV,” quips Ronnie C selflessly. “You can’t phone in to have one of us evicted,” he continues, to roars of laughter. “I’d hate to lose you,” adds Ronnie B, to thunderous applause. This is all very well, and it’s great to see both men held in such fond acclaim, but you sense they would receive the same kind of dizzying reception were they reciting numbers from a phone bill.

Moreover, this kind of blanket acclaim doesn’t seem to sit all that well with the pair, especially Ronnie Barker, who sometimes looks hugely ill at ease and befuddled at the whole enterprise. His counterpart, on the other hand, is clearly thrilled to be back helming another packed programme, often almost leaping out of his seat in anticipation. Their heavily-scripted badinage is the one point where all these various niggles crystallise into perilously clunking, on occasion downright unfunny, material.

But it is the only point, and is far outweighed by the cumulative power and sparkle of the clips, which it merely footnotes rather than overshadows. By way of a reunion the Sketchbook is enough. In truth it is ultimately impossible to begrudge the duo taking such pride and delight in their work. Anyway, all the jittery banter and bi-play quickly fades from the memory in the wake of seeing such meticulously-crafted and towering sketches on primetime telly. It’s wonderful to be with them again.


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