Featuring Lord Rustless and his bizarre collection of family
Review by Brian Slade
For twelve series spanning nearly 17 years, Messrs Barker and Corbett won the hearts of the British television public with The Two Ronnies. However, hidden in amongst their relentless run of sketch comedy, Four Candles and The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town were two similar one-offs that were close to silent comedies and have been seen very rarely since their first airing.
Before The Two Ronnies had entered our homes Ronnie Barker, under the pen name of Gerald Wiley, had created a character called Lord Rustless for his 1969 series Hark at Barker. Although precious little of this series remains, Rustless would effectively make comebacks – firstly in Futtock’s End, Barker’s silent short of 1970 and then in two proper The Two Ronnies outings – The Picnic (1976) and By The Sea (1982).
With Corbett by his side and The Two Ronnies flourishing, Barker revisited his foray into the silent format – or almost silent, with plenty of sound effects and what Barker termed ‘grumble and grunt’ noises in place of actual words for the characters. First up was The Picnic. The head of the mansion household is an incarnation of the aforementioned Lord Rustless. He and his bizarre collection of family are set for a day in the countryside for a picnic. An example of the kind of life they lead is seen from the opening shots, when the milkman delivers as many bottles of champagne as he does milk.
Despite the size of the house, the characters of Barker and Corbett share a twin room, both concealed behind the curtains of four-poster beds. Breakfast is served by the maid (Patricia Brake - Porridge) who gets more than she bargained for from her employer who gets more than a little handsy behind the curtains. The butler (Denis Ramsden) gets similar treatment later in the film! As became customary in The Two Ronnies, the diminutive Corbett is more of a slapstick character, ripe for mocking but perfect for physical comedy. Shedding his overnight Union Jack pyjamas, his morning workout consists of crouching down towards ever smaller weights without ever actually daring to lift one.
Onto breakfast then, and we meet the remainder of the house’s occupants, all crowding round the breakfast table to the exclusion of Rustless. He has to make do with champagne on his cornflakes as he ogles the apparent girlfriend of Corbett’s character as she flaunts her bust and tight shorts ahead of him.
The day in the countryside beckons as six people pile into the open-top Rolls Royce. Aside from the two leads and the girlfriend (Julie Crosthwait) are the family aunt (Barbara New) her companion (Madge Hindle - Nearest and Dearest) along with a nuisance young boy (Toby Page) who carries a Biggles appearance and behaves akin to Just William. While the staff are expected to join the family to wait on them, there are no such luxuries as Rolls Royces – the butler and maid are forced to travel separately by motorbike.
After a brief stop at The Crowne Inn, where the Aunt joins an outdoor game of dominoes with the locals and the boy creates a blowpipe to annoy the girlfriend, it’s off to the green fields for afternoon tea. As the staff lay out the blanket, Corbett and his girlfriend head out for some couple time, but find all manner of slapstick issues, including being accosted by an amorous bull. The only way the girlfriend can avoid its intentions is by shedding her red shorts, so for the rest of the day she is forced to wear a discarded growbag! The butler fares no better, losing his hairpiece on a fishing line, and the afternoon ends when a combination of a field full of cows and inclement weather drive the family back home.
The short is somewhere between the longer segments of The Two Ronnies and a Benny Hill end selection of site gags that often focus on the blonde girlfriend’s figure. With no vocals, in the tradition of silent movies, the music is key and is provided by the BBC’s go-to expert Ronnie Hazelhurst.
Fast forward six years and Barker was at it again with By The Sea, another albeit longer silent television film. New and Hindle return, this time with Debbie Blythe as the girlfriend and John Brewer as the character now simply named The Brat. Added voluptuousness was provided by Rikki Howard, shortly prior to becoming a Yellow Coat at Maplins in Hi-de-hi!
Rustless and his family arrive at Tiddley Cove seaside town for a few nights by the sea at the Grand Hotel. Bizarrely commandeering a hearse to travel in, they manage to negotiate the revolving door of the hotel in traditional slapstick style, Corbett of course coming out worse off, and then they all head for the beach. Rustless is happy to read his newspaper, but for the disruption of seagulls dropping their offerings on his copy of The Times. While he is doing battle with his feathered opponents, Corbett is playing in the sea and trying to dodge an errant beach ball that seems to appear constantly to hit him in the head. Visual gags include the brat putting a crab in somebody’s shorts and Corbett constantly running into a man-mountain with his clumsy ways, while there’s also room for an audio gag as Rustless is pestered by a bumble bee.
It is in the evening back at the hotel that the wine flows and Rustless notices a buxom redhead. His remaining time in the town is largely centred on attempts to get up close and personal with her, but first he has the nuisance of heading to the pier with the rest of his party. Here we see more slapstick stalwarts like black ink around viewfinders and binoculars, courtesy of The Brat, plus Corbett overdoing the sun cream and making both he and his girlfriend overly slippery.
Eventually, Rustless encounters the redhead in a number of unlikely scenarios – finding his golf ball down her bikini bottom, and accidentally turning a drinks syphon on her. He finally attempts a rendezvous in her room via a second-floor window, but a combination of an inaccurate room number and the local policeman ensure his lust goes unfulfilled…until the very last scene when he ditches the family to head off into the sunset with the redhead in her Triumph TR7.
Although By The Sea was almost double the length of The Picnic, it is the earlier effort that garnered a better reception. Picking up the Bronze Rose at the 1976 Rose D’Or Awards, it was also a favourite of Barkers, who would claim that, ‘I wanted to capture the feel of that far-off childhood summer.’ Of his own character, he commented that, ‘you had this man who just sort of rode over everyone and behaved how he wanted to and everyone just sort of fitted in.’
Although age is not kind to either of the shorts, one can see how they fitted in to the British comedy world at the time, and Barker was a gracious enough writer to capitalise on the physical comedy Corbett brought to the table. After all, The Two Ronnies relied greatly on Barker’s verbal dexterity, something voluntarily surrendered here. While The Picnic and By The Sea may not be classic Barker and Corbett, they do offer an interesting insight into the writing mind of Barker and remind us how fine a comic performer Corbett was.
Published on November 29th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.