The Two Ronnies Go Bluegrass
The Two Ronnies
Jehosophat and Jones
Philips 6308 190
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: