Looking Back At THE TWO RONNIES CHRISTMAS SKETCHBOOK - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s sitting down with a good book.
The Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett) were for decades a staple of British TV. While neither was a typical stand-up comedian, they each had significant skills as comic actors, and they’d first developed a rapport together on shows like That Was The Week That Was.

Their comedy was free to touch a lot of bases – they had regular sketches based in characters, like two yokels, two allotment philosophers, and so on, but often they would work at least as well when the situation was purely farcical and only lasted as long as a single sketch (the now world-famous Fork Handles sketch being probably the best example).

On top of that, each had sketches or segments entirely to themselves – Barker would frequently take on the role of an authority figure delivering important information with one comically twisting factor, so the information would grow further and further into gibberish as he progressed, while Corbett became famous for his sit-down monologues, where the ‘diversions’ were often more funny than the straight route through the story (and were absolutely meticulously written to be so).

They usually included at least one comedy musical number, and one serious musical guest artist.

The thing it’s important to remember if you’re watching The Two Ronnies this far into the 21st century is that there was very rarely any intention to do harm. Was harm potentially done by their sketches? Probably – they frequently worked to the limit of the envelope of acceptable humour, as defined by straight white men in their decades, so there are jokes that show gay men as comically suspicious, jokes for which one or both of the Ronnies used black or brownface, there were groping gags and more innuendo than you could shake a stick at before the watershed, both picking up on and feeding into a culture of casual misogyny that didn’t especially know any better.

That said, there was also brilliant invention, random comic directions that yielded hugely funny results, and clever, linguistically complex comedy.

If people think of The Two Ronnies today, most people assume, given the content that’s most remembered, that they were a phenomenon that came and went entirely in the Seventies, but little could be further from the truth. The duo were top of the TV listings for several decades, and often mixed sharp satirical sketches in with the stuff that pandered to a straight while male audience and their assumptions.
The 2005 Two Ronnies Christmas Sketchbook is something of a testament to their enduring popularity, for all it also shows up some of the unfortunate elements of their long history on television.

It has a particular poignancy because, as Ronnie Corbett explains before the show begins, it was Ronnie Barker’s last broadcast performance as part of the Two Ronnies. Barker, knowing his health and his ability to track the gags was failing, asked the BBC to record the Christmas Sketchbook earlier in the year, for fear that he would be too unwell to do it at the right time. It proved to be a sensible precaution, as Barker died before the show was broadcast.

The very notion that there was a Two Ronnies Sketchbook series in 2005 shows that unusual relationship they had with the British public – by the 21st century, they were less mainstream, but still, when the Sketchbook series – a compilation of old sketch recordings, linked with new ‘newsdesk’ links and up-to-date ‘news items’ – aired, it was phenomenally popular, like a hug from a pair of uncles you’d thought had decided not to visit any more.

The Christmas Sketchbook in particular has that feeling of old-fashioned familiarity, like those uncles who used to crack you up when you were a kid, popping round for Christmas at your house. Sure, maybe some of their humour’s questionable these days, but they’ve given you so much pleasure over the years that you can’t help but love them.

The sketches that make up the Christmas Sketchbook are a very mixed bag – including a Christmas Chas ‘n’ Dave parody that never really hits any mark, and an extended sketch in a bar in the frozen Yukon that includes a couple of songs and some one-line gags, but seems ultimately to be a whole lot of lead-up to the appearance of some high-kicking, skimpily-clothed dancing girls, accompanying a song about how these days will one day be thought of as the good old days. It’s a little on the nose when watched with hindsight.
It's unfortunate that the Corbett monologue that makes it into this Sketchbook collection, while for the most part a fun riff on male testosterone-driven bragging, especially as regards cars, part of the diversion involves Corbett claiming he told the producer he was intending to tell the audience a joke with a fairy in it. “Isn’t it funny when you know you’ve said the wrong thing. He stopped holding the barman’s hand…”


It’s annoying, essentially because Corbett was a raconteur who didn’t NEED to rely on this kind of material – and as we say, the main thrust of the monologue is a keenly observed piece of satire on male one-upmanship.

Beyond these unfortunate and needless glitches, though, there’s some high-quality comedy and satire in the Christmas Sketchbook. A sketch with Barker as a city businessman and Corbett as a Sun-reading pleb, comparing crosswords in a train carriage, is fairly joyous, both as a commentary on people who won’t shut up in public spaces and as an adjusted re-run of the sketch on middle and working class people that is the two Ronnies’ most well-remembered contribution to That Was The Week That Was.

Similarly, the sketch of the Ronnies’ famous ‘two yokels’ that is included here is a riff on an older and still hilarious Abbott and Costello routine – Who’s On First?

There’s more invention and originality in a sketch where a courtroom becomes an amalgamation of game shows, including What’s My Line?, Call My Bluff, Give Us A Clue, and The Price Is Right, as a commentary on the creeping way game shows were becoming the be-all and end-all of entertainment in the later Seventies. If you want an extra bonus, that sketch also stars Patrick Troughton as the judge. Every time you can include Patrick Troughton in something, the inherent value of the piece increases exponentially – sorry, that’s just how the universe works, we don’t make the rules.

Another sketch, with the Queen’s speech delivered by Ronnie Barker as a milkman is a fabulous idea, but ultimately doesn’t hit as many of the points it should to make it a snortingly funny piece of material.
Because the show is a collection of sketches from the televised shows over the years, there’s a vintage quality to it, which is belied by the musical guest, the perfectly 21st century Katy Melua, singing a laboured version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas that nevertheless, by imbuing the song with a dread melancholy it’s never possessed before, gives Christmas itself a glimpse of the hollow, dark dread it contains for many people. Which, to be fair, is not something you expect to find in a Two Ronnies special, and so, weirdly, counts as a bonus.

The fact that the Christmas Sketchbook was Ronnie Barker’s last televised appearance as one of the Two Ronnies gives the collection a value – and perhaps a pathos – that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Strangely though, it’s not really clear that the extra pathos improves the experience of watching it.

If anything, it just makes you extra sad to live in a world that once contained Ronnie Barker, and now no longer does. It now of course no longer contains Ronnie Corbett either, though the pathos of that is lessened when watching the Christmas Sketchbook, because of the opening in which Corbett clearly talks of Barker as having been lost to us.

People say the Two Ronnies reflected the time in which they lived, and to some extent that’s true. A deeper analysis of course is that they reflected the white, straight, male world of comedy producers and TV executives during their time.

That means that their comedy sketchbooks, over the four decades they were popular on British TV, contain some highly questionable material, because they played to the comfort zones of the existing majority.

The point that comes shining out of the Christmas Sketchbook though is that their only intention, ever, was to make people laugh. Had they been born and popular a couple of decades later, they would still have been as funny, but they would have been funny in ways that appealed to the audience of that time.

They were, in their own, very different ways, each brilliant. It’s very possible Ronnie Barker was a comedic genius (he wrote some of the best material they ever performed, and he did it under a pseudonym so as not to have the work approved on the basis of his reputation). Ronnie Corbett was an excellent actor, who grew to know the power of the hesitation, the pause, the sudden panicked uncertainty that would always get him a laugh, and could set scenes rolling down whole other pathways.

When the two of them came together, they worked, and they worked hard. While the Christmas Sketchbook has the occasional clunker in it, some of its content is The Two Ronnies in beautiful, festive, heartwarming, gigglingly silly form.

Hundreds of Christmas TV & Film favourites are available to stream now. Enjoy Britmas with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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