Obituary: Ronald Wolfe - Writer of TV sitcoms such as The Rag Trade and On the Buses

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Born: 8 August, 1922, in London. Died: 18 December, 2011 in London, aged 89

RONALD Wolfe formed a script-writing partnership with Ronald Chesney (at the BBC they were known as “the other two Ronnies”) that began in 1958 when they wrote for the famous radio comedy programme Educating Archie. Wolfe was to go on to write many successful television sitcoms and movies – ranging from The Rag Trade to On The Buses.

Harvey Ronald Wolfe- Luberoff – shortened to Wolfe and known professionally as Ronnie – was brought up in Stoke Newington in north London during the Second World War and began working as a radio engineer with Ecko in Southend.

He got work from the BBC in the mid-Fifties writing sketches for Beryl Reid in Educating Archie. When the original writer (Eric Sykes) left, Wolfe became head writer for the show. The partnership with Chesney developed and they were soon on radio, television and pantomimes for stars such as for Tommy Steele and Ken Dodd.

Educating Archie was a smash-hit radio show starring ventriloquist Peter Brough and his puppet – the ever naughty schoolboy Archie Andrews.

Wolfe and Chesney had written a one-off special in 1956 (called Here’s Archie) which co-starred Irene Handl. The programme attracted an audience of over 15 million and for a couple of years was transferred to television. The cast reflected the show’s popularity: Tony Hancock was Archie’s tutor and other future stars included Benny Hill, Harry Secombe, Bruce Forsyth and a very young Julie Andrews as Archie’s girl friend.

In 1961, Wolfe and Chesney wrote their last radio sitcom – It’s a Deal for Sid James cast as a delightful bungling property developer. It was that year that they decided to concentrate on television work and they started with an absolute winner.

The Rag Trade (seen on ITV from 1961 to 1963) has found a place in sitcom history – first, it broke many of the standard pre-conceptions of the genre. Wolfe introduced industrial controversy and Miriam Karlin, an abrasive character, was the bolshie battle-axe shop steward with a cigarette dangling from her mouth who harassed the bemused manager (Peter Jones).

Wolfe was able to bring to such a socially touchy subject real humour and wit – the BBC had, in fact, turned the pilot down on account that it might cause offence to the unions. The Rag Trade gave British television the catchphrase “Everybody out”, which was bellowed by Karlin at every opportunity.

Again, a mark of the show’s success was reflected in the top-drawer artists who appeared in the show: Jones and Karlin were joined by Sheila Hancock, Barbara Windsor and Reg Varney.

Wolfe and his partner wrote prolifically throughout the decade and brought such successful shows as Meet the Wife (with Thora Hird), Take a Letter Mr Jones (with John Inman) and, most famously, On The Buses to the small screen.

The last, which gained a huge cult following, starred Varney, Doris Hare, Bob Grant amongothers and ran for five years from 1975 on ITV. There followed three feature-length films and a stage show, which ran for two years in Canada. In all the episodes, Wolfe brought a dry earthiness and down-to-earth charm to the scripts. There was a gleeful camaraderie among the bus crews and although the characters were all rather stereotypical, Wolfe gave them a roguish charm.

All the males eyed up the passengers and lampooned their bosses -–by today’s terms, it was decidedly un-PC – but the series remained soundly traditional. Despite the goings-on at the depot, there was never any violence or swearing. Wolfe carefully ensured that the banter was good-humoured and never snide or malicious.

For On The Buses Wolfe wrote the catch line “I’ll get you, Butler”, which the infuriated Inspector Blakey, played by Stephen Lewis, used to scream at the driver (Varney). The critics moaned and the public loved it. Wolfe once commented about the series: “The success of On The Buses was due to strong, believable storylines. Also, it was very funny.”

Of the three spin-off films, the first, also called On The Buses, was the most commercially successful – it was the highest-earning British film of 1971. Two others movies, both scripted and produced by Wolfe and Chesney, followed: Mutiny on the Buses and Holiday on he Buses.

In retirement Wolfe was a popular after-dinner speaker and lectured to media studies students.

Ronnie Wolfe, who died after a fall in a care home, married Rose Kriegerin 1953. She and their two daughters survive him. ALASDAIR STEVEN