Thursday, June 01, 2006


The Two Ronnies: The Worm That Turned

I grew up watching and enjoying The Two Ronnies. Rather like the Carry Ons, I had a vague feeling in my teens that they were sexist and otherwise old hat, then came to rediscover that they were still very funny. We loved their Sketchbook series last year, and I felt strangely bereft when Ronnie Barker died. I recently discovered that ITV3 were showing old editions of their series on Thursdays and Fridays, and had become quite hooked all over again by their absurdly sexist serial The Worm That Turned. Tune in tonight and tomorrow, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

The Worm That Turned, made in around 1979 / 80, is a terrifying tale of England in the near future where women have taken over. Men are oppressed with women’s names, nasty frocks and having to do the housekeeping; the ‘secret’ police strut around in tightly-fitting PVC uniforms that show a lot of leg; and the Ronnies play our heroes, Janet and Betty, who aim to flee this feminist state for the macho sanctuary of Wales. So far, so ‘70s in its tooth-grinding depiction of the horrifying reality behind feminism (at least The Avengers only did it once, in 1966, though that was pretty ghastly – while Doctor Who escaped the ‘how horrid it would be if women took over’ more or less by accident, as several appalling scripts were written but cancelled for one reason or another).

I found ITV3’s repeats a couple of episodes into an eight-week run, and watched with some trepidation. My head told me it was going to be horribly misogynistic rubbish; my heart said I’d really enjoyed it when I was eight or nine. Strangely, neither of those feelings turned out quite right in retrospect.

The main problem I had was that it wasn’t nearly as funny as their sketches; the only gag I remember laughing at this time round was renaming the Tower of London as the ‘Barbara Castle’. With the Ronnies playing rather World War Two-heroic types, they didn’t get a lot of laughs, and most of the supporting actors weren’t terribly good. Stretched over eight weeks, a lot of it was just running around and escaping capture, and it really needed tighter editing, greater tension and more jokes.

The sexism somehow wasn’t as offensive as I’d imagined, either. A lot of it’s groan-inducing, but the implicit strength of the women characters means they can’t just be done down in most of the traditional ‘70s ways; they’re simply altogether evil. While I can’t quite believe this was the point, it’s so ludicrous that it undermines the idea of a ‘feminazi’ conspiracy rather than scaring men about what might happen if women are allowed to wear trousers and get the same pay.

The real reason that it still works in part, though, is the same thing I remembered it for. The two guest stars are both wicked women, and they’re both terrific. Wanda Ventham appears in a couple of episodes as a treacherous lounge lizard who ensnares Ronnie Barker, and she’s not just got by a long way the best outfits (her sharp jacket or leather waistcoat means she’s the only person in the whole thing who doesn’t look dreadful) but steals every scene she’s in. The main villain, though, who sadly only appeared in one of the episodes I got to see this time round, was the country’s evil leader, the Controller. It’s Diana Dors, and she’s fabulous. Far from being scared by the prospect of women getting top jobs, I remembered her from this (and a similarly-timed Adam and the Ants video) as simply awesome. She and Servalan may have appeared as nasty women, but they were strong and spectacularly impressive. I thought she was great; goodness knows what she did to the straight boys. There are probably a generation of about my age who’d rather be dominated by them than keep men on top.

All told, I was looking forward to the final episode, where I remembered Diana Dors reappearing to get the best lines (and her comeuppance). Last week, they repeated two episodes rather than one; the penultimate episode of The Worm That Turned, and one from a different year that started off a new and completely different serial. Hmm. Well, it could have been that the final episode would turn up today and tomorrow, but I e-mailed ITV to check. I had a prompt reply saying they’d check, then this:

Dear Mr Wilcock
Following my earlier email, Programme Planning has now informed us that we do not have the rights to show episode 8 of series 8. Additionally, the contract we have does not permit editing of any programmes in the series.
I'm sorry for the disappointment caused but thank you again for taking the trouble to contact us.
Duty Officer
Is it me, or is it curiously offputting to have seven episodes of a continuing serial, then – without warning – not be able to see how it ends? Sigh. I’ve not been so irritated at a missing ending since Channel 5 showed all but the last couple of episodes of J Michael Straczynski’s pre-Babylon 5 show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (probably the first time that’s been linked to The Worm That Turned).

Still, points to the ITV Duty Officer; getting the information and giving two replies the same day. Much as I prefer the BBC in general, I notice that one of their online complaints forms only ends in an error message, while another I used last week – asking why the commentaries advertised on Doctor Who repeats keep vanishing from Freeview without warning – didn’t get a reply until this week. And it was not only a standard reply, but a standard reply (surreally) to a question about an entirely different programme. So, a heartfelt “Bah!” to the ITV schedulers, but it’s nice to know at least someone there is doing a good job.

On the bright side, one of the editions of The Two Ronnies shown last week featured a very funny sketch in which mild-mannered sweetshop owner Ronnie Barker, for whom ‘Nothing is too much trouble’, is slowly driven mad by impossibly picky customer Ronnie Corbett. So good, Little Britain has done approximately 573 versions of the same sketch.

The Worm That Turned is the Ronnies' serial I recall with huge fondness - much more so than the phantom raspberry-blower. (Though I also liked the Russ Abbott show back then too, so ignore my juvenile taste...) As it is, my ITV3's on the blink and I've not been able to catch up with it.

I remember I liked the pun about Mars Bars being renamed Pa's Bars - also there was a church service where hymns were re-named hers. (Not sure they make much contextual sense, mind.)
Yes, it was always my favourite, too (perhaps we were too young for Raspberry Blower, though it seemed only 'all right' when they showed it last year. Save one brilliant scene of Prince Barker stalking Queen Corbett). The Pa's Bars were fun, too.

Shame about your ITV3, but I'm glad you can blog about some classy TV rather than just trashy, low-brow, Booker-winning series ;-)
My memories of this are very vague and probably from "X years of the 2 Ronnies" Xmas specials. That said, I remember laughing at the Worm just because of the Ronnies being in dresses and clearly enjoying it so much.

Wanda V is/was (has she retired?) a bloody good actress, even in awful parts. James got the BluRay of Blood Beast Terror this xmas, and although it's a truly awful film, it's worth watching for the professionalism of her and Cushing trying their best despite script, direction, camerawork and effects. And it seems the acting gene got passed on to her son...
Thanks, Jennie!

Totally agree with Wanda - I've always thought she was fantastic (I met her once, briefly, and she was very funny, too). And, OK, her son's pretty good as well ;)

I think Cushing said that film was the worst he ever did. Poor Wanda. I've often wondered if Jackie Pearce and Barbara Shelley turned it down after doing similar roles in (spoilers).

And happily, though ITV3's not shown any Ronnies at all for ages, you can get the whole serial as part of The Two Ronnies Series 8 for under a tenner. So I have.
Ahhhhh so jealous that you met her!!!

Was she as fabulous as Jacks Pearce? She's amazing.

Slightly surprised that Cush thought Blood Beast Terror was worse than the 80s Biggles, but I admit it's a close run thing. I think it's the John Deacon soundtrack tht edges it for Biggles. And this from the world's biggest Queen fan...
It's difficult to compare anyone with Jackie Pearce, in so many ways! But she was sharp, and funny (and incredibly glam). I went to one convention last year specifically to see her, then she couldn't make it - and this year's that she's booked for is one I can't get to. Bah.
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