Ronald Wolfe was one half of a comedy writing partnership with Ronald Chesney whose dominance of commercial television schedules in the 1970s earned them the nickname “ITV’s Two Ronnies”.
Ironically, the pair’s first hit, The Rag Trade, had been turned down by Associated Rediffusion before being snapped up by the BBC in 1961. It originally ran for two years, made household names of Peter Jones and Miriam Karlin, and gave Wolfe the first of many catchphrases to follow – “Everybody out!”, the shopfloor-clearing clarion call of Karlin’s militant shop steward. The show’s success extended into a live show, seen at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1962, a short-lived onscreen revival in 1976 for Michael Grade’s LWT, and remarkable international sales that continue to the present day.
A second-generation Russian immigrant (and cousin of Warren Mitchell), he was born Harvey Ronald Wolfe-Luberoff in London on August 8, 1922, spending some of his childhood in Southend-on-Sea, where his parents had a fish and chip shop. During the war, he worked as a radio engineer in a factory where he discovered a talent for entertaining his fellow workers. By the end of the 1940s, he was writing professionally, gaining early work on radio show Starlight Hour.
It was there he met Beryl Reid, going on to write sketches for her two most popular characters – naughty schoolgirl Monica and Brummie Marlene. When Reid became a regular on Educating Archie, Wolfe followed her on to the show, later becoming lead writer following Eric Sykes’ departure. The programme also marked his first meeting with Ronald Chesney. The pair began collaborating on material for the show’s transition to television – a one-off BBC special in 1956 and a two-year run on ITV from 1958 – and its final radio appearance in 1960.
Wolfe also contributed material to a number of stage shows, including dialogue for the star-packed variety show The World’s the Limit at the Windsor Theatre (1955), and the one-off staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Kenneth Williams and Tommy Steele at the London Coliseum in 1959.
Their first original series, the short-lived Sid James radio vehicle It’s a Deal, followed in 1961. But with the success of The Rag Trade, Wolfe and Chesney left radio behind to concentrate on television, enjoying another hit with their next creation – Meet the Wife, which ran from 1963-66 with Freddie Frinton and Thora Hird as a husband and wife negotiating middle age.
The Bed-Sit Girl, starring Sheila Hancock railing against the tedium of life as an office typist, ran from 1965-66, followed by Sorry, I’m Single, with Derek Nimmo clinging to life as a student, in 1967. Wild, Wild Women (1968-69) returned to The Rag Trade territory, with Barbara Windsor and Pat Coombs in the cast.
Wolfe’s talents were also in demand outside the UK. Together with Chesney, the pair became the first foreign scriptwriters to work on Australian television, contributing to the daily variety show In Melbourne Tonight, and writing the sitcom Barley Charlie for Antipodean audiences in 1964.
Back at home, the two created what was to become their most popular success with On The Buses in 1969. Set in an east London bus depot and rejected by the BBC, it was commissioned by Frank Muir, recently installed at the newly launched London Weekend Television. The series performed moderately well on first broadcast but climbed to the top of the viewing charts on its repeat. At its peak it was watched by 16 million and became a cornerstone of ITV’s Sunday evening schedule for much of its five-year run until 1973.
The show’s success was followed by three film versions and the spin-off series, Don’t Drink the Water, featuring Stephen Lewis’ put-upon Inspector Blakely living in retirement in Spain with his sister, Pat Coombs (1974-75). It also earned Wolfe an invitation to America where he and Chesney were contracted by American giant NBC to write a US version, Lotsa Luck.
In the UK, conceived as a vehicle for James Beck (who died shortly after the first series was completed), Romany Jones (1972-75) made stars of Arthur Mullard and Queenie Watts as caravan-living cockneys, and saw them in their own series, Yus, My Dear (1976).
Wolfe’s last mainstream television work -1980s advertising agency-set Watch This Space, and the following year’s Take a Letter, Mr Jones, with John Inman as Rula Lenska’s somewhat improbable secretary – never managed to recapture the rough-edged, saucy appeal of On The Buses. The partnership’s last collaborations were a script for ‘Allo ‘Allo in 1989, and the screenplay for Fredrikssons Fabrik – The Movie, a Norwegian film based on the country’s television version of The Rag Trade, in 1994.
In later life, Wolfe created several comedy writing courses for colleges in London and at the Banff Television Festival in Canada. He published two books – Writing Comedy (1992), and Ronnie Wolfe – My Life in Memoirs (2010 and was credited alongside Chesney in Craig Walker, On the Buses – The Complete Story (2009). He was a regular contributor to The Stage, writing memorable despatches informed by a career that spanned six decades from the Montreux and Lucerne Rose d’Or television festivals over many years.
He died, aged 89, following a fall on December 18 and is survived by his wife and two daughters.