David Frost, John Cleese, and the Two Ronnies Report on Class

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If you are living in America, when I say “David Frost,” you’d probably say, “The 2008 film Frost/Nixon.” And if I were to say “British class system” you’d probably say something about “upper class twits” or “chim-in-ey sweeps” or something like that. And when I say “pizza,” you say “party.”

Well, today we’re going to look far beyond the ignorance I’m projecting onto you hypothetically for the purposes of this introduction. Today we look at one of David Frost’s many comedy shows he made for the BBC. Airing on April 7, 1966, “The Frost Report on Class” featured, among many other things, a frank discussion of Britain’s class system, as well as a sketch featuring television newcomers John Cleese, Ronnie Corbet, and Ronnie Barker that has been named by Channel 4 as one of the 50 Best British sketches of all time.

In the early 1960s, after the success of Beyond the Fringe, there came to England a satire boom. David Frost placed himself at the forefront of this boom as the host of the program That Was the Week That Was. Each episode featured sketches, monologue jokes, and musical numbers that skewered the leaders and events of the day. The show proved immensely popular and controversial, resulting in its cancellation after just two seasons, and a move to America.

Frost as a figure also became rather divisive during this time. Peter Cook accused Frost of plagiarizing him. (At Cook’s memorial service in 1995, Alan Bennett recalled that Frost frequently said that the time in Los Angeles when Cook pulled a drowning Frost out of a swimming pool was one of his only regrets.) Eric Idle, a writer for The Frost Report, lampooned him on both Monty Python’s Flying Circus (as interviewer “Timmy Williams”) and when hosting Saturday Night Live as a self-obsessed, self-promotional interviewer who had little interest in his guests.

The Frost Report began in England in March of 1966 as TW3 ended in America. The class episode that we’ll be looking at today was the fifth episode of the first series, and features a remarkable collection of writers and performers. The cast featured the aforementioned Cleese, Barker and Corbett, as well as Nicky Henson and Sheila Steafel and a pair of special guests we’ll get to in a bit. In the writer’s room you had, among others, Frost, Cleese, the incomparable Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer, Dick Vosburgh, and future Pythons Terry Jones and Graham Chapman (Idle and Palin would join later in the show’s run).

The show begins with Frost behind the desk as he gives a brief introduction to the world of class in England. He begins with examples of how the upper class man and the lower class man behave in the world of advertising. The lower class man has an egg for lunch, and the middle class man has a Milky Way bar. “In all of this class discrimination, the only thing that embraces both sides, is a small circular mint with a hole in the middle.”

The two things that impressed me most about this show were the pacing of the material and the honesty that was being presented here. The Frost Report is a “mixed media” kind of show: it features taped pieces, monologues, live sketches and musical performances. Within each of those different types of segments, they were all of a varying length, which in my experience, is kind of rare for this time period. As a rule, I would say sketches in the 1940s-1970s run somewhere between “too long” and “aggressively too long.” The first video sketch in this episode required crew members to lug giant cameras outside, to a location, and rent cavemen costumes for a discussion of early class rivalries in which Caveman 1 hits Caveman 2 over the head with a club. “Ugh!” replies the attacked caveman. Caveman 1 speaks in a very posh accent, “Now, now. Surely you mean ‘Oh-hhhhhh.’” And that’s it. Clearly this pacing had an influence on the Pythons, who would play with the structures of television programs in a variety of ways.

The best example of the show’s honesty in dealing with the idea of class is through its most famous sketch. “The Class Sketch” was written by Marty Feldman and John Law, the latter of whom would go on to write the screenplay for the Peter Sellers Casino Royale. In the sketch we see the tall John Cleese, in a bowler cap, as the representative for the upper class, Ronnie Barker, in a good suit as the middle class, and Ronnie Corbett, in a newsboy cap, as the working class. In turn each of them describe their position in society and their advantages and disadvantages.

Upper: I’ve got innate breeding, but I haven’t got any money. So sometimes I look up to him. (he squats down to middle class height)

Middle: I still look up to him because, although I have money, I am vulgar. But I am not as vulgar as [the working class], so I still look down on him.

Working: I know my place. I look up to them both. Though I am poor, I am rich, industrious, and trustworthy. I could look down on them both, but I don’t.

A short segment of the sketch is available on YouTube:

However, the clip does not include the punchline of the sketch.

Middle: We all know our place, but what do we get out of it?

Upper: I get a feeling of superiority over them.

Middle: I get a feeling of inferiority from him. But a feeling of superiority over him.

Working: (looking up to them, literally) I get a pain in my neck.

In addition to the Frost commentary and sketches, there are also a pair of musical contributions. Julie Felix sings a folksy, acoustic version of “I’m Sticking with the Union” halfway through the show. Then, later in the program, a frequent performer on the American version of That Was the Week That Was, Tom Lehrer, appears with a song. If you’re not familiar with Tom Lehrer, he was a satirical musical performer with a sharp bite like no other. Due to the fact that he would sing from behind a piano, he tends to get lumped in with the milquetoast Mark Russell, but Lehrer could be very piercing with his satire, and his song on this episode of The Frost Report, entitled “National Brotherhood Week,” is the perfect example.

“The Frost Report on Class” doesn’t offer anything in the way of a solution for the issues described here, but it did shine a light on a world that wasn’t often discussed so frankly. While The Frost Report would only last another two years, the impact it had on the world of comedy is incredible. The fact that it brought together the majority of the Pythons (minus Gilliam) is enough of a contribution that it belongs in the comedy history books. In summary:

Pizza! (Now you.)

Pizza!

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!