Known for his prolific gag-slinging partnership with radio scriptwriter Ronald Wolfe, former harmonica player Ronald Chesney would this year have celebrated his centenary.
In a way, it’s a surprise that neither of “the other two Ronnies” made it to treble figures: the pair enjoyed such a hit rate when working together, it felt like the zingers would land forever. Meeting on ‘50s radio show Here’s Archie before briefly teaming up to work with Marty Feldman, Chesney and Wolfe created the BBC wireless comedy It’s a Deal (1961), making good use of Sid James’ throaty cackle.
Commissioned to write for TV, they’d insist their work be set in worlds their audience could recognise, much to the alarm of BBC senior managers. The Ronalds’ gamble worked, producing a selection of “kitchen sink sitcoms”, many of which proved so popular that side characters would often be transplanted into shows of their own.
The Rag Trade (1961)
Fenner’s Fashions is a boutique textile manufacturer (read: East End sweatshop), where a put-upon Reg Varney is forever given impossible errands by his desk-bound boss Peter Jones.
Not the most exotic setting for a viewing audience settling down after their day’s shift, but thanks to firebrand shop steward Paddy (A Clockwork Orange’s Miriam Karlin), antics would ensure as she interpreted Jones’ directives as a personal affront, announcing “Everybody out!” Watching The Rag Trade today is a fascinating look at the pre-zero hours workplace, and a goldmine for sitcom trainspotters: Tony Robinson, Christopher Beeny and Gillian Taylforth all feature in early roles.
While Chesney and Wolfe’s writing has since been branded politically incorrect in places, The Rag Trade was progressive for mainstream TV, featuring a large female cast – Sheila Hancock and Barbara Windsor among them – who’d constantly outwit their male supervisors.
The formula proved so popular that the series was revived three more times: first by LWT in 1977, then in Norway as Fredericksson’s Fabricks (1994), and finally in Portugal as Trapos and Company (1995).
On the Buses (1969)
One of the most successful sitcoms ever aired in Britain, you won’t find On the Buses topping many “Best British comedy” polls. Time has not been kind to the programme’s concept, which largely involved bawdy bus driver Stan (Reg Varney) and his leering clippy Jack (Bob Grant) honking at girls in miniskirts, as well as taking every opportunity to stitch up gormless line manager Cyril “Blakey” Blake (Stephen Lewis). Rejected by the BBC, ITV pounced on the idea when it was brought to them, and ordered 74 episodes over four years.
The show may seem antiquated today, written between the rise of sexual liberation and the dawn of feminism, but it created a world with which its millions of viewers could identify.
During the programme’s run, employers were beginning to take a less tolerant approach to shop floor unions, so seeing the authoritarian, Hitler-moustached Blakey being splashed by a passing Number 11 gave fans a weekly victory.
On the Buses’ appeal stretched beyond the armchair, too: actor Bob Grant’s wedding was flooded with well-wishing viewers, and the film adaptation (available in the Network boxset) would see domestic returns that out-grossed that year’s Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Don’t Drink the Water (1974)
Having had enough of being pranked at Luxton bus depot, 1974’s Don’t Drink the Water saw Inspector Blake ditch his trademark peaked cap and clipboard for a knotted hanky: he’s decamped to Spain, and has bought a flat for £3750 that caught his eye in a retirement brochure.
With his pet budgie and young sister Dorothy (Pat Coombs) for company – who enjoys a flirtatious relationship with cheeky porter Carlos (Derek Griffiths) – Blakey is dismayed to find his view of the “sparkling blue Mediterranean” is in fact through a girder.
Realising he’s traded one brand of mayhem for another, our gurning hero has to endure unfinished plumbing, week-old English newspapers, and the fact he’s not in charge – all while driving on the right. It may not have lasted the seven seasons that its parent show did, but Don’t Drink the Water was braver than its critics suggest, showing that the pokes at “foreigners” hurt when it’s the Brit on the receiving end.
Romany Jones (1973)
Best known for playing oily Private Walker in Dad’s Army, James Beck got a sitcom of his own in this genteel send-up of the traveller community. Bert Jones (Beck) is stuck living in a cramped caravan site.
His newlywed wife Betty (Jo Rowbottom) wishes he would do more than just “hanging around that labour exchange with them layabouts”, while his next door neighbours Lily Briggs (Queenie Watts) and her oafish, chicken-breeding husband Wally (Arthur Mallard) conduct their rows about three feet from Bert’s pillow. But that can’t dampen our leading man’s spirits, or his various schemes to turn his fortunes around, which involve trying to breed goats, contemplating emigration, and opening a one-man rabbit farm.
Tragically, Beck would pass away at the early age of 44, which meant Chesney and Wolfe were forced to write the Joneses out of the show. They were replaced with Gay Soper and Jonathan Cecil as the upper-middle-class Crichton-Joneses; the randy cockerels and meat pilfering continued for a further two series. Look out for the new couple’s run-ins with a young Alan Ford, AKA Brick Top from Snatch.
Yus, My Dear (1976)
This spin-off from Romany Jones sees the Briggs couple given a council house as recompense for the redevelopment of their campsite. Arthur Mullard’s Wally has managed the impossible, and appeared presentable enough to secure regular, well-paid work as a bricklayer.
But his and Lil’s harmony is short-lived thanks to the arrival of grasping younger brother Benny (an early acting role for comedian Mike Reid), who’s armed with a catalogue of tricks for sponging off the happy household. Lil can spot the would-be playboy’s scams a mile off, but somehow it’s Wally who cops the brunt of her anger – understandable given that he’s still fond of eating sandwiches in the bath, missing her local committee meetings, and calling in at the bookies every payday.
Again, some of the humour may seem out of time by today’s standards, but the balance of power is unorthodox for a seventies sitcom.
Who’s the real alpha of the house? Is it the bloke in hideous trousers who thinks graft entails reading his paper next to a cement mixer? Or could it be the lady in rollers?
George Bass – Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist