Saturday 12 November 2022

The Prince of Denmark

It would be a foolish soul who argues against the importance of the pub in British society. Walk into any public house and you will be presented with every possible emotion and attitude which has ever been expressed in this fair island. In one corner you may find a couple of older gents arguing about the rules of dominoes. Another nook is almost certainly going to contain either a romance being made or broken over some dry-roasted nuts. And, last but not least, there will be lots of loud, drunken behaviour atop every square-inch of lager-stained floorboard. The pub is certainly a hotbed of hijinks, but does this translate into bona fide comedy? Let’s head for a quick half at The Prince of Denmark to find out.

Ronnie Corbett (Ronnie Corbett) has, after 10 long years, had enough of the insurance game. Subsequently, he’s decided to step swiftly sideways into the role of pub landlord at The Prince of Denmark. At least that’s what he’s telling everyone. The actual truth is that his wife Laura (Rosemary Leach), after inheriting control of the pub, is the only name on the licence. It’s with good reason too as Laura has plenty of experience working in pubs. Ronnie, on the other hand, has only ever been one side of the bar, hence why he falls through the cellar doors several times on his first day. He seems to enjoy riding up and down on the bottle lift, though, so there’s hope for him yet.

Ronnie and Laura, thankfully, aren’t on their own and have the reliable Steve (David Warwick) alongside the busomy Polly (Penny Irving) to help man the bar. And on the opposite side of the bar there lives a varied and curious clientele. Blackburn (Tim Barrett) is a well-spoken alcoholic who is persistently in a rush for his train home, a situation he uses to justify a quick double scotch or eight with alarming regularity. Crossword Man (Michael Nightingale) forever has his head buried in a newspaper and speaks only in confounding crossword clues as he strives to fill every blank. Most worryingly for Ronnie, there’s also a regular appearance from local drunk and troublemaker Danny (Declan Mulholland), an Irishman with an irrational desire to rearrange Ronnie’s face.

As Ronnie is finding, running a pub isn’t as simple as he thought. It doesn’t help that he has an unwavering belief that he knows what’s best and that his personal prejudices are for the good of all society. The Prince of Denmark, subsequently, acts as a chaotic battlefield with Ronnie leading the charge. A raucous rugby team is given free rein to do what they want, as Ronnie is an old rugger boy, and almost destroy the pub. The billiards table is quickly converted into a makeshift birthing bed when a patron goes into labour, the baby being delivered by the 102-year-old Mr Bosworth. And, amidst all this, Ronnie has to pray he doesn’t upset of any of the bods from Chadwell, the brewery which owns the pub.

The Prince of Denmark was the final part in a trilogy of sitcoms, following on from No – That’s Me Over Here and Now Look Here, to star Ronnie Corbett and feature Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman on scripts. Whereas these previous efforts had run for multiple series, The Prince of Denmark was a shorter affair with just six episodes airing in 1974 at 7.40pm on Wednesdays. Publicity for the series was relatively light, with a sparsely detailed snippet in the Radio Times contributing the main push. As with so many forgotten sitcoms, although this one eventually sneaked out on DVD, The Prince of Denmark only received one airing before being retired from the schedules.

If you were offered a comedy trio of Ronnie Corbett, Graham Chapman and Barry Cryer then you would have little room for complaint. Corbett was a national treasure of the highest order, the offbeat genius of Chapman defied description and the stratospheric achievements of Cryer’s CV are remarkable in their width, depth and length. The BBC certainly didn’t complain and were keen to poach the No – That’s Me Over Here team from LWT for Now Look Here in 1971. The latter of these two series ended in March 1973 and, little over a year later, it was time for The Prince of Denmark to open its doors.

Corbett has top billing and it’s a deserved role in which he exhibits his comedy brilliance. To a certain degree, Corbett lived, quite amicably, in the shadows of Ronnie Barker’s acting achievements. But who wouldn’t when they’re up against Norman Stanley Fletcher and Arkwright? Nevertheless, Corbett was an assured and skilled performer – just watch his brilliantly choreographed dance to ‘Witch Queen of New Orleans’ in episode five for irrefutable proof. He’s more than just a comedy jig, though, and he wrings every last drop of arrogance, chauvinism and snobbery out of the character, a combination deployed most evidently when he sides with a ‘sophisticated’ rugby team over a ‘thuggish’ trio of football fans.

Being a Ronnie Corbett vehicle it’s inevitable the rest of the cast will pale in comparison to his talents. But they all put in strong shifts which are the epitome of character comedy, Rosemary Leach is given the most to do and, if she doesn’t get the pick of the lines, has plenty of opportunity to prick Corbett’s pompousness. There’s also a rather wonderful turn from Geoffrey Palmer in one episode who, at the time, was just hitting his comedic stride in the world of television. The ensemble make for an engaging team and they radiate a warmth comparable to the double scotches downed by Blackburn.

And there's plenty to laugh about in The Prince of Denmark. Cryer is the eternal gag machine and Chapman’s otherworldly skill for transforming the hilarious into the sublime is blatantly obvious. Ronnie’s lack of experience in the pub trade is ripe for struggles with delivery men and getting involved in unwinnable debates with patrons. But it’s the character’s foibles which are skewered most effectively: Ronnie hastily dons a makeshift Eton tie and Cambridge blazer to impress the head of the brewery and his horror at the sight of a homosexual couple in the bar is ignorance par excellence. Decades may have passed, but The Prince of Denmark remains, like any good night in the pub, a cracking lark.

But, not unlike an alcohol-fuelled trip to the pub, there’s little in the way of a strong plot. It feels heretical to level this accusation at Messrs Chapman and Cryer, but the taps run dry in this respect. The narrative remains untwisted and linear rather than travelling from point A off on a tangent to C and finally arriving at B. The final episode, where the managing director of Chadwell arrives for an inspection, has the potential for a fantastic farce but it suffers from a lack of action and the denouement is far too easy. Compared to contemporary sitcoms of the time such as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Fawlty Towers it’s light years behind in terms of story.

Unremarkable plots aside, and it’s very unfair to hold them up against genius level programmes, The Prince of Denmark is immense fun. Corbett’s performances are the central pillar of the series and there’s little more an audience (or scriptwriter) could want in a traditional sitcom lead. Laughter is also assured, just take a look at the initial meeting between Ronnie and Crossword Man which is probably the greatest Two Ronnies sketch which never was. The Prince of Denmark is unlikely to feature on permanent repeat in the nostalgia channel schedules and it would probably baffle the non-purists. But for the comedy nerds (i.e us) The Prince of Denmark is rich in fun and intrigue, so it’s more than deserving of your time.

This article originally appeared in issue three of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

1 comment:

  1. The show missed Henry McGee's pompous 'Cyril'. And Jill Mai Meredith should have been kept onboard. Perhaps she could have worked behind the bar with the others.