here’s a rundown of recent book, CD and DVD releases …
LAUREL & HARDY: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
RHI Entertainment/Vivendi Entertainment (10-disc set)
This DVD set was released in late 2011, and it represents the first time an American release has done the immortal comedy team proud. Previously the main DVD set that L&H buffs rejoiced over was the large 21-disc British shoe-box edition, Laurel and Hardy: The Collection, from 2004.
The new set is less than one-tenth the size of the British box. It has been produced by RHI, the current owner of the Roach film library. And this time experts were consulted for crucial input.
First up it should be mentioned that this collection covers the talkies only. That said, there’s more than 32 hours of prime material here covering all the L&H sound shorts (forty in all and in correct order starting with 1929’s Unaccustomed As We Are all the way to 1935’s Thicker Than Water) plus the following features: Pardon Us, Pack Up Your Troubles, Sons of the Desert, The Bohemian Girl, Our Relations, Way Out West, Swiss Miss, Blockheads, A Chump at Oxford, and Saps at Sea.
But the chief difference between this latest release and the UK set is that the new collection contains brand new high-definition transfers, scanned from restored fine-grain copies of original 35mm release versions borrowed from European masters stored in Munich (which means all the original opening titles featuring Leo the lion are restored to their rightful place for the first time, instead of all those battered, phony openings with Film Classics distributor names). The images now look much cleaner, and the soundtracks are finally crisp and clear. In truth, these are not totally new restorations: for that to be a reality, all original negatives and film elements must be sourced from the world’s archives and given to UCLA’s film restoration facility, a long-term project thankfully already underway.
Another plus is that the new set contains classy English-subtitled versions of the surviving foreign language feature films. This makes viewing the non-English language films far more enjoyable. The foreign versions are often considerably longer than their English-language cousins, with gags not seen in the American versions.
A third advantage is that these new versions are not affected by the UK set’s PAL format speed-up that subtly marred the earlier box set for American viewers watching on a PAL/NTSC converting player. Indeed we are seeing far and away the best-looking/best-sounding copies of these shorts since audiences first saw them in the 1930s. And that includes even the earliest talkies, which are sadly victims of the late 1920s method of recording sound on disc, and on location with its attendant hazards of ambient noise, noticeable in the otherwise delightful Men O’War.
Features that are new to this excellent collection are alternate soundtracks for Perfect Day (the original 1929 track and the 1937 reissue track); two similar tracks for Brats; the 31-minute three-reel foreign version of Laughing Gravy; the 70-minute uncut Pardon Us; and the two versions of A Chump at Oxford, both the 63-minute version and the 42-minute “featurette” release. A trailer for this movie contains material seen in neither cut.
The attractive box itself is like a compact book featuring concise liner notes covering each title, written by knowledgeable Roach studio historian Richard Bann, a familiar name to all Laurel & Hardy scholars. His contributions contain the usual information like director and supporting players, but are “plussed up” by unusual facts about locations, alternate versions and other vital ephemera. That said, the discs can be a little hard to remove so they should perhaps be transferred to paper sleeve holders, and the box retained for its handy reference points while viewing the films.
Finally, there are some bonus items, including an interesting “Tribute to Laurel & Hardy” featuring talking heads like Dick Van Dyke, Chuck McCann, Tim Conway and others, along with a truly embarrassing appearance by Jerry Lewis who spouts a gushing tribute to this great comedy team that is riddled with inaccuracies. A fascinating interactive map-cum-featurette (“On Location with the Boys”) displays then-and-now filming sites for various L&H entries and a look at the Roach studio in Culver City. Theatrical trailers are included for Pack Up Your Troubles, A Chump At Oxford and Saps at Sea. The Laurel & Hardy cameos appear on Disc Ten, with On the Loose (a 1931 Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts entry), Wild Poses (their 1933 Our Gang guest shot), and On the Wrong Trek, the 1936 Charley Chase short in which Stan and Ollie make a gag appearance. Plus we get an improved version of their only colour film, the 1942 public domain short The Tree in a Test Tube, this time from the original camera negative. Along with some informative audio commentaries, this set is an essential purchase for real fans of the boys, and come to think of it, who isn’t?
NOTE: For completists who want all the 1930s material, you will still need the fine TCM Archives 2-disc set called “Laurel and Hardy Collection” which contains the features still under MGM’s control (The Devil’s Brother from 1933, Bonnie Scotland from 1935, and the Laurel-Hardy sequences from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Hollywood Party, 1934, and Pick a Star, 1937), as well as the single discs of Babes in Toyland, 1934 (on the MGM disc The March of the Wooden Soldiers) and the public-domain title The Flying Deuces, 1939 (the best copy is from Kino/Lobster).
(Keith Scott, April 2012)
some new books about British comedy on the shelves for Christmas 2011 …
MARTY FELDMAN – THE BIOGRAPHY OF A COMEDY LEGEND
by Robert Ross (Titan)
THE MASTERS OF SITCOM
by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Christopher Stevens (Michael O’Mara Books)
THE MAKING OF ON THE BUSES
by Tex Fisher (Deck Chair Publishing)
ADVENTURES OF A CARRY ON GIRL
by Liz Fraser, with Robert Ross (Signum)
CARRY ON ACTORS – A COMPLETE WHO’S WHO
by Andrew Ross (Apex Publishing)
THIS CHARMING MAN – THE LIFE OF IAN CARMICHAEL
by Robert Fairclough (Aurum)
LITTLE ERN – THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF ERNIE WISE
by Robert Sellers and James Hogg (Sidgwick & Jackson)
ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES – THE UNTOLD STORY
by Graham McCann (Canongate Books)
ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES – THE OFFICIAL INSIDE STORY
by Steve Clark (Splendid Nooks)
THE NECESSAR APTITUDE – A MEMOIR
by Pam Ayres (Ebury)
THE LIFE OF LEE
by Lee Evans (Michael Joseph)
SMALL MAN IN A BOOK
by Rob Brydon (Michael Joseph)
COMEDY RULES – FROM THE CAMBRIDGE FOOTLIGHTS TO YES PRIME MINISTER
by Jonathan Lynn (Faber & Faber)
I, PARTRIDGE – WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ALAN
by Alan Partridge (HarperCollins)
PETER KAYE – THE BOOK
by Peter Kaye (Hodder & Stoughton)
DISPATCHES FROM THE SOFA – THE COLLECTED WISDOM OF FRANK SKINNER
by Frank Skinner (Century)
ABSOLUTELY – A MEMOIR
by Joanna Lumley (W & N)
THE HONEYMOONERS – LOST EPISODES 1951-1957
MPI Home Video (15-disc set)
Assuming fans of The Honeymooners already own the excellent-looking CBS DVD “Classic 39” set from 1955-56, they will be highly satisfied with this new box of Ralph Kramden goodies. It contains all surviving Honeymooners sketches from the Dumont Cavalcade of Stars series and the later CBS Jackie Gleason Show. And there’s much more, too.
For over 25 years Honeymooners buffs have been able to see a lot of fine sketches that, before 1985, were presumed either lost to the ages or confined to a vault, never to be seen again. In the last years of his life Jackie Gleason negotiated the release of generous parts of his private collection of kinescopes. Obviously he was highly aware of the large cult following for “The Classic 39” shows which had been shot on 35mm film. This cult following had grown to large and enthusiastic numbers over thirty years of constant reruns. And they were classic: as the saying goes, “funny is funny” and viewers ignored any so-called dated aspects to the shows. The writing and performances remained timeless.
Little wonder then that those fans were ecstatic over the release to Showtime and then VHS tape of these long-unseen comedy performances. It was a holy grail-like experience: the lesser quality of kinescope recordings (from the pre-videotape era) was not an issue and Honeymooners groupies were simply glad to finally see new sketches featuring their beloved Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie. It provided a fine opportunity to see the characters in earlier and later phases of their development, but mostly it was just the suddenly large addition to the collections of these buffs that was the high point.
By the new millennium, the “Lost episodes” eventually made it to DVD but were essentially repackaging of earlier VHS releases. This new box definitively puts all past digital releases in the shade. It presents 107 complete Honeymooners skits in chronological sequence. A well written booklet accompanies the box, and in its listings of the content of each disc, it enumerates the final still-missing shows (in the hope that some or all could still turn up in the future; indeed one of the sketches included in this set was only discovered this year, 2011).
And so it is now possible to watch the evolution of this show in order, and to view various sketches that were so successful they were remade: here you will find various versions of sketches about Halloween, Christmas and so on.
A big plus in this set is the first time-ever appearance of the 50-minute Honeymooners musicals from the 1956-57 season immediately following the “Classic 39,” with the characters visiting various locations on a European holiday. These musical shows were remade a decade later in colour, but here we finally get to see the template versions with the original female leads Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. Of course it’s also instructive to view the eight extant segments from the early Cavalcade of Stars featuring Pert Kelton as an angrier Alice. The younger Gleason and Carney are fascinating to see in “embryonic” form.
The fifteenth disc is set aside for special features, including a featurette, an interview with Joyce Randolph, and a bevy of sketches containing Honeymooners characters away from their regular appearances, including other parts of the Gleason Show, and guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show. There are even parodies from Red Skelton and Jack Benny, commercials, and, rarest of all, two recently unearthed auditions for a radio version of The Honeymooners.
The set can be recommended for its attention to detail, its completeness and the overall high image quality considering the age of the original source material (kinescope, forever imperfect). It’s also to be hoped that if the set is successful, MPI might consider releasing Gleason’s other TV work, particularly the complete American Scene Magazine shows, which display many other sides to Gleason’s considerable comic skills.
(Keith Scott, November 2011)
THE GOODIES – SUPER CHAPS THREE
by Andrew Pixley (Kaleidescope Publishing. 2010)
Despite facing a stubborn refusal by the BBC’s heirarchy to air repeats (since the team deserted them for LWT in 1981) a large fan base in Australia created by constant screenings on the ABC in the 80s and 90s has ensured the series simply won’t go away.
LAUGH magazine offered the original episode guide back in the early 90s, and published the Sharp/McKay/Tatchell GOODIES FACT FILE a handful of years later. Then came several efforts by the ubiquitous Robert Ross.
Now, on the show’s 40th anniversary, inveterate British researcher Pixley has compiled a mammoth 600-page tome (the size of a phone book!) which covers the trio before, during and after the series was made. This highly recommended volume is 100% text (the only photo is on the cover) and includes an in-depth episode guide and itemisation of merchandise.
(If all writers unearthed as much information on their subject, laughterlog.com would be rendered unnecessary).
also released to coincide with the Goodies’ anniversary is another 2DVD set:
AT LAST … BACK FOR MORE AGAIN
Network 2DVD (2010)
containing 8 episodes (but no bonus extras)
Cecily / The Music Lovers / The New Office / Goodies Rule – OK?
Camelot / It Might As Well Be String / 2001 and a Bit / Royal Command
some books about British comedy on the shelves for Christmas 2010 …
THE LOST HANCOCK SCRIPTS
by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson (JR Books)
BORN BRILLIANT – THE LIFE OF KENNETH WILLIAMS
by Christopher Stevens (John Murray)
DO YOU THINK THAT’S WISE – THE LIFE OF JOHN LE MESURIER
by Graham McCann (Aurum)
MEMORIES OF MILLIGAN
edited by Norma Farnes (Fourth Estate)
THE FRY CHRONICLES
by Stephen Fry (Penguin/Michael Joseph)
CAN’T STAND UP FOR SITTING DOWN
by Jo Brand (Headline/Review)
BOB MONKHOUSE UNPUBLISHED!
edited by Dave Ismay and Chris Gidney (JR Books)
MY LIFE IN COMEDY
by Nicholas Parsons (Mainstream)
TOMMY COOPER – MIRTH, MAGIC AND MISCHIEF
by John Fisher (Preface)
MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE/GEORGE AND MILDRED – THE DEFINITIVE COMPANION
by Tex Fisher (Deck Chair Publishing)
WHATSHISNAME – THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CHARLES HAWTREY
by Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press)}
THE SUNNY SIDE OF WINTERS
by Mike Winters (JR Books)
AT LAST SMITH & JONES
Talkback Thames / Fremantle Media 2DVD
Highlights from Mel and Griff’s 1980s BBC2 series Alas Smith & Jones … alas not complete episodes, but two 30-min compilations from each of the four seasons (1984 to 1987) plus the 1987 and 1988 Christmas specials: Home Made Xmas Video and Alas Sage and Onion. Also included is the four-part 1989 series of 20-minute playlets Smith and Jones in Small Doses.
THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION (Volumes 1 to 7)
Sony Pictures Home Video (2 DVDs per volume)
Until the advent of this series, starting in late 2007, the Three Stooges’ film career was rather haphazardly represented for collectors. Aside from a dizzying array of bootleg releases (featuring the same handful of public domain titles ad infinitum), Columbia, and later new owner Sony, released a large selection of titles on VHS tape, laser disc and, later, DVD. But although these were official uncut versions of the Stooge shorts, they were presented in random order, or in indifferently themed collections, and some were even colorized. DVD seemed to be the perfect new medium for a proper treatment of their slapstick antics, but collectors were still not happy.
Finally, following several years of outcry by the Stooges’ not-inconsiderable fan base, Sony-Columbia got the point. They spent money wisely by digitally remastering the entire Stooge catalogue, so that even the earliest Moe-Larry-Curly shorts from 1934 look remarkably vibrant compared to the often battered and spliced 16mm television prints everyone had got used to over the years (to say nothing of latter-day censorship which often saw these films in scandalously bowdlerized form).
Happily that is no longer the case. Each volume contains two discs, with all the Stooge classics (and a few duds) presented in their original release order. The chronological aspect is a boon to collectors who can trace the team’s progress and gag development, and, rather sadly, watch the gradual decline in Curly Howard’s health and performing skills from about mid-1944 to late 1946, before his older sibling Shemp (who, as many will know, was the original third Stooge) had to take over his knucklehead role.
The volumes, each covering a two-year release period, are presented in handsome slip cases with many small still photos (different for each volume) and brief plot summaries on the back of each case. The image and audio are in excellent condition for shorts as old as 76 years, and the uncut presentation is very welcome in an era when political correctness meant that, just a few years back, nervous Disney suits were digitally removing the image of a cigarette from the cartoon Pecos Bill. Thankfully, all the Stooge antics, from eye pokes to carpenter’s planes on the skull, are here in all their glorious silly violence.
There are no extra features on any of the volumes so far (although volume 7 includes both versions of the Stooges two 3-D shorts, and even includes glasses for watching them).
Aside from a recent 2-disc set of the complete Buster Keaton Columbia shorts (also in chronological order), it is hoped that the studio eventually releases more of their large backlog of comedy two-reelers.
THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION
Volume 1 1934-1936 (19 shorts) Sony 21104
Volume 2 1937-1939 (24 shorts) Sony 25799
Volume 3 1940-1942 (23 shorts) Sony 26382
Volume 4 1943-1945 (21 shorts) Sony 27104
Volume 5 1946-1948 (25 shorts) Sony 30304
Volume 6 1949-1951 (24 shorts) Sony 30582
Volume 7 1952-1954 (22 shorts) Sony 32919
(reviewed by Keith Scott)
DVD/Bluray: MONTY PYTHON – Almost the Truth – The Lawyer’s Cut
(Eagle Rock 3-dvd KAL 1689)
To celebrate the Python’s 40th anniversary, the five surviving team members (along with friends, contemporaries and current day performers) get together for a series of 6 one hour programmes tracing the history of the TV series, movies and live shows.
A third (bonus) disc offers expanded interview segments (some explaining the genesis of particular sketches), seven of the classic routines themselves and a Terry Gilliam Picture Gallery.
In 2003, Orion Books gave us The Python’s Autobiography by the Pythons (in print and as a 2CD set of background interviews) … now fans can have a new TV version.
Also just released for Python fans are a couple of books:
MONTY PYTHON LIVE
edited by Eric Idle (Simon & Shuster)
MICHAEL PALIN DIARIES 1980-1988 – HALFWAY TO HOLLYWOOD
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
CD: HANCOCK’S HALF HOUR – The ‘Lost’ TV Episodes
(BBC CD 978-1-4084-2682-1)
Before the days of video tape, programmes went out live and could only be recorded as kinescopes (called “tele-recordings” in Britain) by pointing a film camera at a TV screen. By the end of the 1950s, the BBC was beginning to record some of its shows with a view to repeat screenings and also to allow them to be sold to overseas markets (mainly Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries). This really only got underway in 1960 (with flagship shows like Hancock’s Half Hour and Jimmy Edwards Whack-O!).
Meanwhile, soundtracks of a few of these early editions were also preserved by viewers on their home reel-to-reel tape recorders (cassette machines didn’t appear until the mid-1960s).
Two such recordings were the fourth season episodes The Flight of the Red Shadow (aired January 23 1959) and The Wrong Man (March 6 1959). Sound quality is noticeably less than that of the usual official standard, but the BBC chose to telerecord only the first four episodes that season. (By season 5, later that year, all editions would be telerecorded and appear forty years later on dvd.)
21st century technology has improved the sound quality of these amateur recordings, but there is still the problem of listeners being unaware of what is happening visually at certain parts of the programmes.
BLACKADDER – The Ultimate Edition
(BBC 6-DVD set)
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the saga, the Beeb has released a newly remastered set containing all four seasons (24 episodes) plus the specials Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, The Cavalier Years and Back and Forth.
Audio commentaries by the cast and writers are included for three series 2 episodes (Bells, Money and Chains), three series 3 episodes (Ink and Incapability, Amy and Amiability, and Dual and Duality) and two series 4 episodes (Major Star and Goodbyeee).
Also included are Baldrick’s Video Diary, Blackadder Rides Again and interviews with Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Richard Curtis & Ben Elton, Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson, Hilary Bevan Jones, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall.
THE YOUNG ONES
(BBC 3-DVD set)
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, comes a reissue of both seasons plus a bonus disc featuring three newly produced documentaries Alternative Rebellion: The Beginning of Britain’s Alternative Comedy Scene, The Making of The Young Ones and The Guest Stars of The Young Ones. It appears this reissue also restores the segments deleted back in the 1980s (and missing from the previous video and dvd releases).
Here’s another batch of British biographies out just in time for the Christmas 2009 market:
HATTIE – THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF HATTIE JACQUES
by Andy Merriman
MARGARET RUTHERFORD – DREADNOUGHT WITH GOOD MANNERS
by Any Merriman
SID JAMES – THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY
by Robert Ross
by Graham Rinaldi
HANDLING EDNA by Barry Humphries
YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE – THE LIFE AND WORK OF ERIC MORECAMBE
by Gary Morecambe
LOOK AT IT MY WAY
by Ken Dodd
by Barry Cryer
LOOK BACK IN HUNGER
by Jo Brand
AT A GLANCE – AN ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS LIFE
by June Whitfield
A FART IN A COLANDER – THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Roy Hudd
plus the following histories of popular shows:
ON THE BUSES – THE COMPLETE STORY
by Craig Walker
CLUE BIBLE – THE FULL AUTHORISED HISTORY OF I’M SORRY I HAVEN’T A CLUE
by Jem Roberts
THE HI-DE-HI! COMPANION
by Rob Cope and Mike Fury
Christmas 2008 saw the following on the shelves (and now probably back in paperback)
BOUNDER – THE BIOGRAPHY OF TERRY-THOMAS
by Graham McCann
JAMES ROBERTSON JUSTICE – WHAT’S THE BLEEDING-TIME?
by James Hogg, Robert Sellers, Howard Watson
HELLO – THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Leslie Phillips
MICHAEL PALIN DIARIES 1969-1979 – THE PYTHON YEARS
ONE FLEW INTO THE CUCKOO’S EGG – MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Bill Oddie
CLIPS FROM A LIFE
by Denis Norden
KENNETH WILLIAMS UNSEEN
by Wes Butters and Russell Davies
TONY HANCOCK – THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY
by John Fisher
by Dawn French
50 YEARS OF CARRY ON
by Richard Webber
GRAHAM KENNEDY COAST TO COAST
A double DVD of Graham Kennedy’s legendary 1988-1989 late night news show Graham Kennedy Coast To Coast has been released in Australia.
Included are 8 episodes of the show, including the first edition from April 25 1988 and the 1989 AFL Grand Final episode which saw Kennedy’s triumphant return to the studios of GTV9 Melbourne.
Kennedy fans will also be interested in the book:
GRAHAM KENNEDY TREASURES – FRIENDS REMEMBER THE KING
by Mike McColl Jones
(includes bonus DVD of career highlights)
Check out Laughterlog’s biography of Graham Kennedy in the PERFORMERS section.
HARK AT BARKER (2 disc)
SIX DATES WITH BARKER (1 disc)
or combined as THE RONNIE BARKER COLLECTION
Ronnie Barker was one of the leading lights in the golden era of British television comedy (roughly the mid-1960s to mid-1980s). He was arguably the most versatile, offering a range of colourful and, at times, brilliant characterizations.
He starred in four classics (The Frost Report, The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours) and a handful of lesser known but highly enjoyable series.
Following the groundbreaking Frost Report, entrepreneur-in-embryo David Frost backed his three stars in solo ventures on commercial television’s Associated Redifussion … John Cleese in At Last the 1948 Show, Ronnie Corbett in No – That’s Me over Here! and Ronnie Barker in six unrelated playlets under the title The Ronnie Barker Playhouse.
The second Playhouse episode, titled Ah, There You Are (by Alun Owen) saw Ronnie as the eccentric, somewhat befuddled member of the British aristocracy, Lord Rustless. A performance he acknowledged was based largely (and never was a word more appropriate) on the great Fred Emney.
A year later (in 1969), with Rediffusion no longer a broadcaster and Frost and his sometime offsiders now ensconced in the newly licensed London Weekend Television, Barker revived the Rustless character in a series titled Hark at Barker. Each week His Lordship would offer a dissertation on a notable topic, assisted by the retinue at his ancestral seat Chrome Hall (Josephine Tewson played his secretary, Frank Gatliff his butler, David Jason the gardener and Mary Baxter the cook).
Each subject was illustrated by a series of short sketches, performed in a variety of guises by Barker and the other players. (Also making occasional appearances were Ronnie Corbett and Michael Palin). As a bonus, the programmes began with Barker, seated behind a desk as himself, offering some continuity announcements before the episode proper began. They were forerunners to similar pieces on The Two Ronnies a few short years later.
The scripts were by “Peter Caulfield” (a pseudonym used by Alan Ayckbourn because of contractual reasons), Ronnie Barker (using his regular pseudonym “Gerard Wiley”), Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and numerous others, including Python-in-waiting Eric Idle. The programmes also featured a selection of caricatures by Terry Gilliam.
It was a tour-de-force performance by Barker and earned him the 1969 ITV Personality of the Year award by the Variety Club.
A year later, Ronnie brought Rustless back for a second season of shows (now produced in colour) and a brief appearance in that year’s Christmas presentation All-Star Comedy Carnival, which unfortunately does not survive.
The Chrome Hall ensemble is now a well knit unit and the shows feature some sparkling slapstick moments. Ronnie could also be seen as a singer, performing selections available on an LP he recorded at the time A Pint of Old and Filthy.
The series was a particular breakthrough for the unrecognizable David Jason (as “Dithers”), who had recently been part of the team on Do Not Adjust Your Set and would go on to provide sterling support for Barker in Porridge and Open All Hours.
This time the scripts were all by Ayckbourn, Barker and Bernard McKenna (with the various Pythons then busily creating Python and the Goodies creating The Goodies).
Following the 1970 series, the Rustless character was retired for a couple of years, before reappearing in the 7-part BBC sitcom His Lordship Entertains in mid-1972. (Unfortunately only one episode appears to survive).
Meanwhile, Ronnie moved on to another batch of unrelated playlets for London Weekend, Six Dates with Barker. Each offering was set in a different time period and again allowed Ronnie to appear in a range of characterizations. Writers included Spike Milligan, John Cleese (contributing his first solo sitcom script) and Barker himself (as Gerard Wiley).
Disappointingly the series was largely ignored when it appeared in early 1971 (amid the behind the scenes turmoil that was taking place at London Weekend Television) and has been unfairly forgotten since. Fortuitously, Barker found his way back to the B.B.C. mere weeks later for the launch of The Two Ronnies.
The quality of the series is evidenced by the fact that several of the Dates reappeared in various guises …
The Milligan piece The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, set in 1899, would later be adapted and expanded by “Gerard Wiley” as the serial for the fifth season of The Two Ronnies in 1976.
Bernard McKenna’s The Odd Job was turned into a feature film in 1978, wherein Graham Chapman took over Ronnie’s role opposite David Jason (who appeared in both versions).
And The Removals Person, starring Ronnie as the myopic tradesman, returned seventeen years later as the basis for Barker’s final sitcom series Clarence (with Josephine Tewson also reprising her role as the maid Travers).
Network is to be congratulated for resurrecting these lost Ronnie Barker gems, which bridge the gap between his early Frost years and later B.B.C. heyday. After nearly forty years out of the public gaze, and not previously available on either video or dvd, picture and sound quality are fine (the only minor problem being that one of the colour Hark at Barkers now only survives in black-and-white).