Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Two Ronnies Go Bluegrass

Jehosophat and Jones

The Two Ronnies
Jehosophat and Jones
Philips 6308 190
1973

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It is well documented in various books and endless TV documentaries that in 1966The Frost Report, a seminal BBC sketch show under the astute guiding influence of David Frost, united for the first time as writers the team that would later form the anarchic Monty Python team. That alone would have earned The Frost Report a place in comedy history, but the programme also saw the first professional pairing of Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. A good deal less anarchic and ground-breaking than the Pythons but no less funny,  the Two Ronnies were an unlikely looking but enduring comedy duo who enjoyed a career in the middle ground of comedy, spanning some five decades with enormous worldwide success.

Before appearing on The Frost Report both of the Ronnies seemed unlikely TV superstars, both were married and in their early-thirties and had been shuffling around the fringes of the showbiz circuit for many years.

Ronnie Barker was a jobbing comic actor, best known at the time for his role in The Navy Lark. He was a reliable performer who had learnt his trade and perfected his considerable skills in the demanding world of repertory theatre in Oxford. Rep was a challenging discipline that would see an ensemble company of actors appearing in a different play every single week, while simultaneously rehearsing another one for the following week. Its peculiar exigencies helped Barker develop the various accents, voices and characterisations that would make him such a star later in his career.

Ronnie Corbett by contrast was  a diminutive Edinburgh comedian chancing his luck on the London club scene, gradually making his name in various stand-up and cabaret roles, most notably with Danny La Rue at the West End hotspot Winston’s.  The fortuitous pairing of the Two Ronnies may never have happened though as Corbett was committed to appearing in a West End musical at the time. Luckily for us, a lot less so for Lionel Bart, that musical was the ill-fated Twang. Let the The Frost Report begin as the saying almost goes.

The Two Ronnies were an unconventional double act, there was no ‘straight man’ in the traditional sense, neither Barker nor Corbett took precedence over the other and other than Corbett’s chair-bound monologues, neither appeared as themselves while together. There nearest contemporaries in terms of style and success were Morecambe and Wise, but even their formula relied on old music hall and variety conceits.

For around twenty years, The Two Ronnies reigned supreme on the BBC, their shows a mixture of sketches, farces, musical numbers, serials and clever subtle wordplay. Many of the latter coming from the inventive mind of Gerald Wiley, one of the many pseudonyms adopted by the master of such things, Mr Ronnie Barker himself. As well as penning numerous sketches crammed with clever wordplay, Barker also wrote songs, monologues, plays and comic serials, all of which were also crammed with his trademark clever wordplay. And, as with his sketches, the songs too were written under pseudonyms

The two post-Woodstock country singers Jehosophat and Jones, created of course by Ronnie Barker, proved popular enough characters to earn this album, their very own 1973 eponymously titled spin-off. In fact while we are on the subject of pseudonyms, it would be hard if you were not familiar with the faces of the Two Ronnies (and I have to assume that a handful of TV-fearing Luddites still aren’t) then it would be hard to identify this as a bona fide comedy spin-off of the Two Ronnies. All the songs are credited to Barker’s alter-ego ‘Fatbelly Jones’ and the disc has comedy biographies for both Fatbelly and his partner Big Jim Jehosophat, aka Ronnie Corbett. On the record sleeve and the label itself, no mention is made anywhere of either Ronnie, which, given the millions who watched them every week on TV, must have driven their record company Philips into a state of collective and confused spittle-spewing apoplexy.

Jehosophat and Jones stayed an established part of the Two Ronnies’ act until their last original series, made in 1987 for Australian TV. Bewigged and clad in beads and kaftans, Big Jim Jehosophat and Fatbelly Jones were authentic looking country-singing drop-out freaks, who would not have looked out of place at any 1970’s folk festival.

Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett made many albums together, there were four BBC compilations of their material and a ‘best of’, plus solo efforts by Ronnie Barker (all to feature on here at some future stage I hope…), but this album of tuneful country numbers was their most conventional musical effort. Other than Nell of the Yukon, a monologue culled from Barker’s earlier solo album, A Pint Of Old And Filthy, they all play with American musical clichés and traditions while retaining the Ronnie’s trademark British sense of bawdy seaside humour.

The music on the album is surprisingly competent, indeed it is professional and more than authentic, augmented as it is by accomplished 1960’s British bluegrass band, Orange Blossom Sound  led by veteran guitarist and fiddle player Roger Churchyard. The songs  are all typically and recognisably the work of Ronnie Barker. They are by turns rude, cheeky, clever, occasionally crude and suggestive but always highly inventive and manage to raise an admiring wry smile whenever I hear them. I shall leave it to the late great and much-missed Ronnie Barker to play us out with the stinky little ditty, Up Cat Pole Cat:

Hi-de-Hi! – Fun and frolics at Maplin’s Holiday Camp

Hi-de-Hi! - Songs and Fun from the Staff of Maplin's Holiday Camp

Hi-de-Hi! – Songs and Fun from the Staff of Maplin’s Holiday Camp

Hi-de-Hi!
Songs and Fun from the Staff of Maplin’s Holiday Camp
BBC Records – REC 436

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Hello campers! These days almost anyone with a hankering for a holiday can save up a few pennies and fly around the world on the sort of exotic tropical vacation that fifty years ago would have been the exclusive preserve of the international jet set. How it must have irked the likes of Alan Whicker and King Hussein of Jordan to see the arrival of unwashed sweaty Brits in their elegant playboy retreats, wearing socks and sandal combinations and sporting hankies on their heads. The new arrivals generally despoiling tropical paradises everywhere while they griped about the food and complained about the locals not speaking English.

Before international travel and exotic holidays became the norm, Alan Whicker’s sanity was safe and sound largely thanks to the efforts of Billy Butlin. He had the wonderful idea of building holiday camps where Brits in search of a cheap and fulfilling holiday could be saved from the worst harridan excesses of seaside landladies and instead be accommodated in custom built chalets with Butlin branded entertainment on offer each and every day. All the holidaymakers’ money would be spent without ever leaving the camp and Butlin would rake it all in. It was a wonderfully simple and elegant money-making scheme.

The entertainment wasn’t the sophisticated type of diversion that today’s modern demanding holidaymaker would expect. Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast, the site of the first Butlin’s camp, clearly lacked the constant hot sweltering sunshine and perfect sandy beaches of foreign climes, the sort of sun-drenched shoreline which Brits seem keen on sprawling around on like beached anemic walruses, slowly turning as red and as horribly blistered as they can. Instead, entertainment in Billy Butlin’s world largely revolved around such peculiar diversions as glamorous granny competitions, knobbly knee contests, fancy dress balls and throwing anyone who looked like they weren’t enjoying themselves into an ice cold outdoor pool where they either drowned or learnt to fake enjoyment very quickly.

It was this crazy world of forced entertainment and rigidly enforced bonhomie that in 1948 saw young comedy writer and aspiring RADA trained actor Jimmy Perry plying his trade in the Butlin’s camp at Pwllheli as one of their ‘Redcoat’ entertainers. Jimmy Perry has made a steady living over the years turning every experience he ever had into a long-running and successful BBC sitcom, usually with David Croft lending a guiding hand, and his time in the holiday camp was no exception, eventually forming the basis of hit 80s sitcom Hi-de-Hi! Complete with obligatory exclamation mark.

Where Butlins has Redcoats to entertain the campers, the fictional Perry creation, Maplins, had Yellowcoats, and that is probably the only difference. The Maplins staffroom is filled with either dissipated desperate failures, their faded glory years long gone, or naive aspiring ingénues whose glory years are far off or never to be at all. Like all Perry/Croft sitcoms the comedy started out brightly with fresh faces, genuinely imaginative and creative plots plus a healthy sprinkling of jokes and broad comedy. Like all Perry/Croft sitcoms it soon became a predictable hodge-podge of stereotypes, tired creaky old catchphrases and people falling in the Olympic sized swimming pool for no adequately explained reason.

This record though presents the show at its very peak, before the clichés took hold and strangled the life out of the series. The ensemble cast were all talented performers and seemed equally at home recording an album as they were appearing in a sitcom, touring in the Hi-de-Hi stage show or lending their faces to board games and merchandise galore. The nominal stars of the piece were Simon Cadell and Ruth Madoc. Cadell played the camp Entertainments Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother, a fish out of water Cambridge professor of archaeology who had somehow decided running a holiday camp was a great career move. Madoc was the Chief Yellowcoat and served as his love interest, a forlorn and frustrated Welsh wisp of woman. The album is an appealing mix of quirky novelty numbers (such as Jeffrey Holland’s stab at ‘Little White Bull’) and serious versions of musical standards and songs that seem somehow just right for the characters, particularly the desperate lovelorn yearnings and repression that plays out between Simon Cadell and Ruth Madoc.

They both perform admirably on the album, the pining sexual frustration between the two providing much between song banter. Ruth Madoc reveals herself to be a sonorous Welsh siren, quite unlike her meek TV character, belting out the Cole Porter song ‘Easy to Love’ with a singing voice that could strip paint from behind a brick wall. Simon Cadell delivers ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ in a chatty talking style of singing, reminiscent of an even more uptight Rex Harrison, but elsewhere he also reveals a surprisingly tuneful understated voice on the Lerner and Lowe classic ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face’.

Kicking the album off and putting the hefty hobnail boot into it a regular intervals is Paul Shane, surely the ultimate personification of the club singer. Whenever he speaks or sings it’s hard not to imagine him stuffed into a soiled ill-fitting purple velvet suit, belting out tortured emotional ballads at the top of his voice to a bunch of disinterested colliery workers supping brown ales, amusing themselves with dominoes and cigarettes until the stripper finally gets on. Paul Shane has a booming rich foghorn of a voice, the sort of vocal talent that in Italy might have produced an opera singer of some note but which in Yorkshire was only ever going to produce Paul Shane. Quite where scheming Maplins comic and inept club singer Ted Bovis ends and Paul Shane begins is an enduring mystery which will perhaps remain forever unsolved.

Also seizing the moment to shine is Su Pollard who sings in the same way that she acts, ie at full throttle barely pausing to breathe or consider her dignity. It is the sort of singing style that seems popular at stage schools and in West End musicals of the fifties, where the only way to get noticed in the chorus was to elbow your fellow performers in the ribs to get to the front of the stage, where you would be able to wave your hands frantically and murder a show-tune several decibels louder than anybody else around you.

Jeffrey Holland who played camp comic Spike Dixon annoys anyone in possession of ears with his ‘Little White Bull’ and an excruciating version of ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ while warm-up comedian turned unlikely star Felix Bowness does justice to ‘The Next Horse I ride On’, a jaunty music hall number that really suits his talents. Leslie Dwyer who played the grumpy child-hating alcoholic Mr Partridge impresses with an unlikely cover of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’.

So, like a British holiday in the late 1950s, this LP is a real curate’s egg, good in parts and really quite painful and embarrassing in others. Endure the knobbly knees and sub-standard cafeteria food that is Jeffrey Holland and who knows, you may fall for some of this album’s charms as you twirl around beneath the sultry charms of the Hawaiian Ballroom. Hi-de-Hi!

Join in with the Holiday Rock at:
http://www.freewebs.com/maplins/

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