❉ “If you squint, you could almost convince yourself that you’re watching a Fawlty Towers prequel.”
“And then, at 9.30, we’ve got another rollocking half-hour of laughter-packed squalor with Yes, It’s the Sewage Farm Attendants. And this week, Dan falls into a vat of human dung with hilarious consequences. Ha, ha, ha.”
That’s Graham Chapman, Monty Python’s Lord of Misrule, viciously skewering the predictable, telegraphed nature and stock scenarios of the sitcom format back in a 1969 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Of course, the Pythons, as first generation children of the cathode ray, used the Flying Circus to comment upon and dissect every genre of the medium – from documentaries to chat shows – and the sitcom in particular was ripe for a kicking, in spite of (or perhaps because of) it being such a notoriously difficult genre to master: Like bubblegum pop, it requires a skilled craftsman (and a well-chosen cast) to elevate the medium above the middlebrow, to stand apart from the litter of “Will this do?” efforts that suggest a casual disdain for its audience.
Graham Chapman knew this as well as anyone working in television in the 1970s. For such a notoriously undisciplined creative, between 1967 and 1974 Chapman penned over fifty episodes of LWT’s Doctor… sitcoms and No That’s Me Over Here – mostly written in conjunction with Barry Cryer – whilst also co-writing and performing in all 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As Barry Cryer reflected in an interview with We Are Cult, “Graham and I wrote a lot together, we did fifty shows or more together outside Python. It was interesting, because I would have thought, A sitcom? No, not Graham… and I hadn’t done a sitcom before that.”
Chapman himself took pains to explain the paradox of this unconventional comedian working in a highly conventional medium in the pages of Time Out in 1973:
“I know people will say, Oh fucking hell, what awful sitcom tat, but because it’s an area that I’m involved in, I have enjoyed writing some of those…There is something to be idealistic about, I hope I am. I don’t like to be associated with something I don’t like, I mean I can’t write under those conditions. I couldn’t write an episode of On The Buses, I just couldn’t do it. I think it’s an abysmal programme… I don’t think it’s witty, I don’t think it’s well constructed. I’ve seen fairly good episodes of it but that’s rather like the monkey writing Shakespeare.”
It was David Frost who brought together the daring pairing of Chapman and Cryer to deliver Frost signing Ronnie Corbett his first solo vehicle, Rediffusion’s No That’s Me Over Here (1967 – 1970) and its BBC sequel Now Look Here (1971 – 1973), virtually the template for every suburban sitcom from Terry & June to My Family, its format best summarised by TV Cream: “Predictable run-ins with the boss, the boss’s secretary, the boss’s secretary’s stapler, a missing stapler, a missing boss, missing the train, missing his boss’s train and so on.” …With hilarious consequences.
For these series, Corbett – playing insurance salesman Ronnie – was paired with Rosemary Leach as his long-suffering wife, Laura. In 1974, the BBC relocated Ronnie and Laura from the stockbroker belt in The Prince of Denmark (BBC1,TX April – May 1974) as Laura inherited the titular pub, and Ronnie began a new career as landlord, despite no previous experience. With hilarious consequences?
Well, now the archive telly buff and sitcom obsessive can judge for themselves as The Prince of Denmark is the latest chunk of archive BBC TV to be plucked off the shelf and given a cursory digital polish by the folks at Simply Media to plug the gaps left by Network Distribution’s exhaustive efforts to prolong the afterlife of every middle-range sitcom from the sleazy, sexist seventies.
The Prince of Denmark is firmly set in the “Fish out of water” idiom, as our Ronnie overreaches his shortcomings in his attempts to ingratiate himself with the local punters, casually spurn the well meaning advice and experience of established barman Steve (A young, long-haired David Warwick) and assuage the misgivings of brewery rep Mr Yates (Roger Booth). The first episode goes to some lengths to alienate the viewer from the lead character, as Ronnie strides through every scenario spurning and discarding advice, pompously puffing himself up, and irksomely undercutting Laura’s status as de facto publican while she effortlessly charms everyone around her.
The long-suffering, smart and gracious sitcom wife in these relics of yesteryear is often a thankless task until it was brilliantly subverted in Reginald Perrin (1976) with the sublime Pauline Yates, and Rosemary Leach rises above the raw material with her lightness of touch, mollifying influence on her buffoonish husband and always-present ability to pinprick Ronnie’s pomposity with an understated quip. It’s also clear that for all his flaws, Laura will make allowances for Ronnie because she adores him – and if it was anyone other than the immediately likeable Corbett, with his ever-present twinkle, clownish self-deprecation, and affability, this would be a big ask.
Across the show’s six episodes, The Prince of Denmark soon hits its stride after a first episode that’s creaky in the extreme and plagued with almost every 1970s sitcom stereotype imaginable (Notably Declan Mullholland as the token pissed, argumentative Irishman), and Ronnie’s unsuitability for his new role becomes the source of much of the humour, as opposed to his attitudes to his patrons.
One particularly enjoyable episode sees a half-cut Ronnie in high spirits during one poorly attended evening at the Denmark, with Corbett blatantly ad libbing and improvising wildly to Leach’s delight, and playing marriage counsellor to a young Geoffrey Palmer.
For guest star spotters, elsewhere in the series one is rewarded with early appearances from Gwyneth Powell, aka Grange Hill’s Mrs McClusky, and the Zelig of 70s British film and TV, Harry Fielder as a member of a raucous rugby team. Perhaps its most endearing contribution is one of the series regulars, a crossword-obsessed old duffer, whose talking at cross purposes with Ronnie has the most noticeable hints of Cryer and Chapman’s offbeat humour. The token dispomaniac twit propping up the bar has perhaps aged less well, but this is 1974.
Equally, the presence in one episode of a homosexual couple who – while signposted as ‘the other’ as per the dominant attitudes of the time – is an interesting example of Chapman slyly overturning casual prejudices about gay men (A frequent – and frequently misunderstood – trope in his ’70s work as an out gay man working in comedy), and – rarely for a ’70s sitcom – they are left to their own devices to sit there being quietly fabulous, and any jokes about their orientation are shown to reflect poorly on Ronnie’s own prejudices.
The Prince of Denmark is by no means a 24 carat sitcom, and feels more like an escapee from the LWT stable than a BBC creation (as indeed it was), with its vulgar stereotypes and broad stock scenarios, and it’s hard not to disagree with Mark Lewisohn’s sanguine estimation of it in the Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy (1999) as “moderately enjoyable”.
However, The Prince of Denmark is worthy of cursory investigation, as it shared a producer with John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers, Douglas Argent. The comic messiah’s finest half-hour was in the earliest stages of germination when The Prince of Denmark was first aired, and although it’s unlikely there was any cross-pollination of influences or inspirations between Chapman and his former collaborator Cleese, The Prince of Denmark was a fascinating rewatch for this seasoned Python observer as a possible answer to one of those classic TV canon head games: What on Earth did Sybil ever see in Basil before the rot set in, and how the hell did Basil Fawlty end up in the service industry?
If you squint, and adjust your head canon while watching these episodes, you could almost convince yourself that you’re watching a Fawlty Towers prequel, albeit one not scaling that series same heights of wild comic invention and high farce. Backdate it five or ten years in your imagination, and The Prince of Denmark plays out pretty much as you may imagine the early years of Basil and Sybil stumbling into the hospitality trade, regardless of authorial intent.
So, a curio, as opposed to a must-have, a weak also-ran in comparison to the critically underrated Sorry! and one bound to find its way in the collections of Python completists after the Network Frost and Barker sets. It’s also worth a peek for the underrated Rosemary Leach who is never less than wonderful and had established a tangible rapport with her onscreen husband by this point.
A few notes on the DVD itself: While it has a basic menu, the episodes themselves look as good as they could hope to look, with vivid colours and sharp resolution, and actually a hell of a lot better than most episodes of Python on their last DVD go-round.
❉ The Prince of Denmark was released on DVD by Simply Media, 17 July 2017. RRP: £19.99, Certificate: 12, Run Time: 180 mins approx. on 1 disc