Ronald Chesney: Harmonica player turned sitcom scriptwriter who co-created ‘On the Buses’

Christine Manby
The musician teamed up with Ronald Wolfe to embark on a television career: Getty

Once Britain’s foremost harmonica player, Ronald Chesney, who has died aged 98, delighted radio listeners up and down the country throughout the Second World War and the 1950s.

He is probably best known, however, as one half – along with Ronald Wolfe – of arguably the most successful comedy-writing duo of the Sixties and Seventies.

Chesney was born René Cadier in London. His French parents, Marius and Jeanne, discovered he had musical talent early on.

He learned to play the piano but it was the toy mouth-organ he found in his Christmas stocking one year that really captured his imagination.

Inspired by the American player Larry Adler, Chesney soon graduated to the chromatic harmonica (which has a button-activated sliding bar).

He became a professional player, making his first public performance at the age of 17 before going on to appear on BBC Radio’s Palace of Varieties show.

During the Second World War, the BBC commissioned Chesney to give harmonica lessons on. The lessons were hugely popular with the troops and he received more than 10,000 fan letters.

After the war ended he undertook a concert tour, which included a performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Chesney’s wide-ranging repertoire included Debussy and Chopin but his most popular recording was of Rimskij-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”.

Chesney with mouth organs donated for British prisoners of war in 1941 (Getty)

As a harmonica player, Chesney would go on to perform with such stars as Duke Ellington and Gracie Fields. Throughout the 1950s, his “talking harmonica” was a regular feature of the ventriloquist Peter Brough’s radio comedy Educating Archie.

It was while performing on Educating Archie that Chesney first met comedian Ronald Wolfe, who joined the show as a scriptwriter. The pair formed a writing partnership, working together on the scripts for Educating Archie’s last two episodes.

After Educating Archie (1958-1959), Chesney stepped back from his musical career to join Wolfe in creating a radio sitcom, It’s A Deal, which starred Sid James as a hapless property developer. From there, Chesney and Wolfe moved into television and kicked off two decades of hits with The Rag Trade. Set in a garment factory called Fenner Fashions, it starred Barbara Windsor and Sheila Hancock as seamstresses.

When it debuted in 1961, the show’s ribald humour left critics unimpressed but millions of viewers were delighted. “Everybody out!” the catchphrase of shop steward Paddy, played by Miriam Karlin, resonated with Britons questioning the Establishment after years of post-war austerity.

After The Rag Trade, Chesney and Wolfe worked with talents such as Thora Hird, in Meet the Wife, and John Inman, who played a secretary in another sitcom, Take A Letter Mr Jones. However, the show for which Chesney and Wolfe are best remembered is On The Buses.

Set in a bus depot in the fictional town of Luxton, On the Buses was turned down by the BBC, which had produced The Rag Trade to such popular acclaim. It was picked up instead by Frank Muir at London Weekend Television who rightly predicted that audiences would love characters such as hapless bus driver Stanley Butler, played by Reg Varney, and Blakey, the depot inspector, played by Stephen Lewis, whose schemes to catch the drivers in some misdemeanour inevitably backfired.

Though the Guinness Book of Records described the show as ITV’s “longest running and most self-consciously unfunny series,” On The Buses ran to seven series, spawned three feature films and a stage show and was remade for American audiences as Lotsa Luck.

Chesney and Wolfe wrote an episode ’Allo ’Allo and collaborated on Fredrikssons Fabrikk, a Norwegian version of The Rag Trade, in the 1990s. They plotted a return of On the Buses to mirror Rag Trade’s brief return to British screens towards the end of the Seventies. In the Nineties, Chesney and Wolfe plotted a revival of On The Buses. A pilot was written but never made. However, the original series continues to be shown on ITV3 to this day.

In retirement, Chesney no longer played the harmonica, preferring instead to play jazz on his grand piano. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Patricia, and their children, Marianne and Michael.

Ronald Chesney, harmonica player and comedy writer, born 4 May 1920, died 12 April 2018