Ronnie Wolfe: The driving force of On The Buses
Ronnie Wolfe brought us the comic heroes Jack and Stan. Now 86 and living in Fortune Green, he reveals how he got into TV comedy.
RONNIE Wolfe wrote for the golden ages of radio and TV comedy. His early career involved penning sketches and gags for the likes of Bob Monkhouse and Beryl Reid, followed by a stint co-writing top radio show Educating Archie.
In the 60s, he and writing partner Ronnie Chesney successfully moved into the emerging medium of TV sit-com, writing ratings-topping shows The Rag Trade and On The Buses – characterised by lively working-class characters dodging boring jobs.
The latter led to three feature film spin-offs, the first of which was Britain’s top grossing movie of 1971, outselling the James Bond feature Diamonds Are Forever.
The 86-year-old, who lives in Temple Fortune with wife Rose, has written an account of his career in My Life In Memoirs (Kaleidoscope Publishing, �14.99). It takes a gentle meander through a long career that also includes several stage comedies.
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Wolfe was born and raised in “rough, tough” Shoreditch in the 1930s. His working-class Jewish parents ran restaurants, worked hard and made little money.
His first cousin is Highgate actor Warren Mitchell, whom Wolfe admits often annoyed actors and directors by telling them how a scene should be played.
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Once at a party, he heard another actor calling Mitchell a “big-headed, overbearing, bombastic impossible person” and quipped: “Yes and it’s nice to know that success hasn’t changed him!”
Wolfe was an avid reader who borrowed books from Hoxton library, got good marks at school and won a scholarship to the Central Foundation School.
Upon leaving, he worked in the Marconi radio factory, which left a lasting impact. The petty pilfering and dodges, cheating the time clock by clocking in mates, sneaking to the toilets to smoke, chat, sleep or do the football pools and bunk-ups in a disused air raid shelter found their way into both On The Buses and The Rag Trade.
But it was at amateur concert night in the factory canteen that the teenage Wolfe found his funny bone. “There I was on stage for the first time in my life, working my own gags, and the audience of fellow workers was loving it. The laughs came rolling towards me in waves. I had never felt so good. I knew then I would never be happy unless I was in showbiz.”
At his first paid stand-up gig, he died on stage and thereafter decided to be a comedy writer rather than performer, hawking scripts around stage doors, pestering the BBC with material and writing to every young comic.
He sold his first script aged 19 – a series of short radio skits for comedian and drummer Max Bacon.
Wolfe, who calls showbiz a mix of talent, perseverance, hard work and being in the right place at the right time, was freelance writing for variety programmes when he met upcoming star Beryl Reid in the mid-50s and started producing material for her stage and radio jobs, including sketches for revolting schoolgirl Monica in the radio show Educating Archie. (Based around ventriloquist Peter Brough’s schoolboy dummy Archie, Reid would record the radio show dressed in gym-slip, boater and gym knickers.)
That led to a job as head writer when Eric Sykes quit and Wolfe wrote for a parade of guest stars including Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Sid James, Harry Secombe and an 11-year-old Julie Andrews playing Archie’s girlfriend.
Ronald Chesney, who did a harmonica spot in the show, was a frustrated writer who started contributing ideas and Wolfe gave a young Marty Feldman his first break as co-writer, describing the future Hollywood star as “the gentlest, kindest and warmest of people”.
They would turn out a half-hour radio show in a matter of days but Wolfe and Chesney soon realised contemporaries Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight, Milligan, Muir and Norden were moving into television.
With Wolfe writing the dialogue and Chesney specialising in the use of props and camera shots to maximise laughs, the pair pitched their first sit-com The Rag Trade to ITV. But the broadcaster turned it down fearing Britain’s factory workers didn’t want to return from work to watch a show set in a dress factory.
Green-lighted in 1961 by BBC head of comedy Frank Muir, it was a huge hit – The Office of its day – remade in numerous countries including the US, Spain and Scandinavia.
It starred actresses Sheila Hancock, Miriam Karlin and a young, streetwise Barbara Windsor who spent time between rehearsals arranging bail and lawyers for husband Ronnie Knight.
Her outfit of low-cut blouse, piled high hair and tight miniskirt that she dubbed “tits, bum and beehive” became her trademark in the later Carry On Films.
In 1963, sit-com Meet The Wife, co-starring Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton, was also a success at the BBC. But conversely, it was the corporation who rejected Wolfe and Chesney’s pitch for On The Buses. The then head of light entertainment wrote: “Once you’ve done jokes about buses not stopping and oil on the garage floor what is there?”
Muir, by now at newly-formed LWT, commissioned the show in1969. It ran for 76 episodes and both Ronnie Barker and Bernard Cribbins were suggested for the part of bus driver Stan, which eventually went to Reg Varney.
The part of Stan’s plain sister Olive was played by Anna Karen, who turned up for the audition dressed to kill in full make-up and had to be bundled into the back of a car by the writers and forced to dress down.
After garnering 16 million viewers, it was turned into a low budget film, shot cheaply by Hammer films at Elstree Studios, with the buses rolling up Borehamwood High Street and a cast of extras splitting their time between playing female clippies and bloodsucking vampires in a Hammer horror movie.
Wolfe, who in later years wrote episodes of ‘Allo, ‘Allo, and ran writing workshops, remarks cheerfully that, after a long partnership, he and Chesney are “still on speaking terms!”
He has also been married to Rose for 55 years and has two daughters.
He says: “Comedy comes from conflict. The best TV series have people who are naturally in conflict with each other; bosses and workers, ministers and civil servants, husbands and wives, prisoners and warders.”
In a foreword, Michael Grade hails the sit-com the “one original creation of television that owes nothing to music hall, movies, cinema or documentaries.”
Citing Simpson and Galton’s Steptoe and Son, Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads and Porridge, and Wolfe and Chesney’s On The Buses among the best of sit-coms’ golden age, he adds: “These are what made television in the UK mass entertainment. The greatest made the dustmen and the judges laugh out loud together at the same comedic exchanges. They were the topic of conversations across gender class age and race.
“Ronnies Wolfe and Chesney’s work had an impact on the nation that is hard to imagine in these days of multi-channels.. their ability to empty the streets and cause millions and millions to settle back for half an hour a week of unrelenting laughs in front of their TV screens is the stuff of legend.”