Goodnight from Him: A Review
This was a Radio 4 comedy drama by Roy Smiles. Smiles has written past plays like this one, in which the central protagonists are real people. He wrote - Ying Tong (the Goons), Pythonesque (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and Dear Arthur, Love John (Dad’s Army).
This play tells the story, not always in chronological order, of Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker from their beginnings in cabaret and repertory theatre, their first meeting at the bar of the Buckstone Club in 1963 and how they were chosen by David Frost for his new show The Frost Report (alongside John Cleese); it details what Barker calls the “extraordinary luck” of getting their own Saturday night BBC1 series The Two Ronnies in 1971 which ran for 16 years until 1986, topping the ratings, until Barker decided to call it a day and retire (although he was lured out of retirement to play Inch, Churchill’s butler, for one last performance).
We see the differences between the extrovert Corbett, able to ad-lib, and Barker, a shy introvert who needed characters to hide behind, and who also was a workaholic - he managed to find the time to write for the show under the –pseudonym Gerald Wiley. It also shows their great strength was that they broke the mould for comedy pairings – they were not a double act, comedian and straight man, as for instance Morecambe and Wise, Little and Large, Hale and Pace, etc – but rather two actors who did their own shows in between – Barker in Porridge and Open All Hours, and Corbett in Sorry.
One strength is the way in which it brings out Barker the perfectionist, calling it a day on all his series when they were still at their height. There were only three series of Porridge and a few specials. This is something notable about good comedies of the time – Fawlty Towers only had two series, To the Manor Born only had two series, Yes Minister only three, Yes Prime Minister only two - and while Dad’s Army ran and ran, it ended on a high note. More comedies that start on a high and go one and on and on – Are You Being Served, Allo Allo, My Family – run out of steam, and become tired parodies of themselves.
Speaking of parodies – Smiles uses parodies of some of their greatest sketches - Fork Handles, the Rude Man at Party, Mastermind from the Two Ronnies and The Class Sketch from The Frost Report, but I felt that these really did not work well.
A few of the parodies of the sketches came across fairly well, but on the whole, they seemed enormously laboured. The introduction and closure sequences, which involved fake news item jokes, fell particularly flat. The parodies were so bad, they made you see how extraordinarily good the Two Ronnies actually were.
Robert Dawes gave a very passable impression of Ronnie Barker, but Aidan McArdle’s Ronnie Corbett varied in Scottish accent, at some times passably like Corbett, but at others very different
Every so often McArdle reminded me of Tony Hancock’s Joshua Merriweather, of whom Patrick Cargill’s Producer said “It is never the same two performances running” (where Hancock incorporated bits of Welsh and impersonations of Robert Newton's 'Long John Silver'. Then McArdle would pull himself back, and we’d get that somewhat plummy Scots Corbett voice).
Addis with Cleese was more of a generic voice than anything, while James Lance as David Frost had little more than a run through Frost’s cliché’s “Great” “Super, Super, Super”. In fact, hearing those makes me wonder if David Nobbs actually cribbed them from life for his TV show Reginald Perrin – it is entirely possible, as Nobbs wrote for “The Frost Report”.
The bottom line: a genre than Smiles has made his own, if you really want laughs and a lighter touch than the heavy handed parodies, watch the real show. But in between the parodies, some good stuff about the two actors and their working relationship.
Ronnie Barker - Robert Dawes
Ronnie Corbett - Aidan McArdle
David Frost - James Lance
John Cleese - Matt Addis
Writer - Roy Smiles
Producer Liz Anstee