Actor and comedian who became a national treasure as partner to Ronnie Barker in The Two Ronnies
Thursday 31 March 2016
“I was lying in bed with my wife last Sunday morning when she called me by a special pet name,” said the actor and comedian Ronnie Corbett, during a monologue on the TV show The Two Ronnies. “‘Hey, Shorty,’ she said, ‘would you like to hear the patter of little feet?’ Somewhat taken aback, I replied: ‘Yes, I would.’ She said: ‘Good. Run down to the kitchen and get me a glass of water.’”
It would be wrong to suggest, though, that Corbett’s huge role in British TV comedy from the 1960s onwards was due only to him playing on his diminutive stature. Over the years, Corbett, who has died aged 85, and his long-term professional partner, Ronnie Barker, created some of the most memorable and frequently repeated moments in British comedy.
In another, more celebrated Two Ronnies sketch, for instance, Corbett played an ironmonger confounded by Barker’s homophonically challenged customer. “Four candles,” demanded the latter. Corbett presented the customer with four candles. “No, fork ’andles. Handles for forks.” The sketch continued with more hilarious misunderstandings. In a version that was not broadcast, Corbett was to be replaced by a buxom woman who would ask the customer: “Right then, young man, what kind of knockers do you want?”
Sketches like these – which can be quoted verbatim by viewers of a certain age – wove themselves into the fabric of British vernacular in the 1970s and 80s, as did Corbett and Barker’s catchphrases. Corbett’s rambling weekly monologues, delivered from a tubular steel chair by the comedian while sporting a Lyle and Scott sweater, were frequently punctuated with Corbett’s “But I digress.” And when the show ended, with the Ronnies as faux newsreaders behind a desk, Corbett would say: “It’s goodnight from me!” “And it’s goodnight from him!” added Barker.
In an era of TV double acts – Morecambe and Wise, Mike and Bernie Winters, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball – the Two Ronnies were different*, not least because Corbett was more than Barker’s straight man and both received equal billing. “In fact,” argued Barry Cryer, who wrote for both The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise, “because they [alone] never regarded themselves as a double act, Corbett and Barker never saw themselves in competition with Eric and Ernie.”
For 16 years, and more than 93 episodes, from 1971 to 1987, up to 22 million British viewers regularly watched The Two Ronnies on Saturday nights, making the comedy duo household names and even national treasures. Corbett, unlike his diffident partner, enjoyed the fame. “I do find the ‘national treasure’ thing very touching,” he told one interviewer. “Actually, it brings a tear to my eye when people call me that.”
Corbett was under no illusion about why he was a national treasure. “It’s all down to The Two Ronnies,” he said. “Those years with Ronnie Barker were the spine of my career.” But he had other successes. In the BBC sitcom Sorry!, which ran for seven seasons from 1981, Corbett played Timothy Lumsden, a middle-aged librarian who lives at home with his mother. “He was a sort of Walter Mitty – he pretended to be bold and worldly but really he was just a timid mother’s boy,” wrote Corbett in his autobiography, High Hopes (2000). “I received a lot of letters from librarians saying: ‘We are trying to improve the image of librarians and we’re not sure Timothy Lumsden is a step in the right direction.’”
And then there were the late-career comedy turns in which Corbett gamely subverted his national treasure status. On Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras in 2006, Corbett played himself snorting cocaine with fellow actors in the loos at the Baftas. They were caught and hauled before the head of security, who said: “Corbett! It’s always bloody Corbett.” “Just a bit of whizz to blow away the cobwebs,” replied the comedian. Corbett explained why he took the role: “It did cause a stir, but I had the reasonable safety valve that Moira Stewart was my ‘supplier’. If I was in trouble, she was in more trouble.”
In Little Britain Abroad, broadcast on Christmas Day in the same year, Corbett appeared as unwitting suitor to Matt Lucas’s grotesque exhibitionist Bubbles DeVere, who stripped off and attempted to seduce the 76-year-old in his Monte Carlo villa. Corbett turned down another sketch on the show, though. “I was supposed to be having a massage at a health spa and the script said I came out afterwards in my towelling dressing gown ‘visibly erect’,” he recalled. “I wrote a letter saying: ‘You have to understand that after years of me being a cherished little soul in a Lyle and Scott sweater, I am not prepared to trade it all for one sweaty moment in a sauna.”
Corbett was born in Edinburgh, the eldest of three children of William, a baker at McVitie’s who worked night shifts for 29 years, and his wife, Annie, who worked in a telephone exchange. Ronnie was educated at the Royal high school, and after leaving took an office job at the animal feeding stuffs department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. By then, though, he had a sense of his true vocation.
“There was no history of theatre in the family,” he said once. “It wasn’t until I got a part playing the dame in my local church youth club pantomime at 17 that it all burst out of me. I thought: ‘Hang on, I’ve got something here.’”
He was entering a world very different from that of his childhood. “Our parents taught us the value of hard work and discipline. They never borrowed money, never drank except for a sherry at Christmas and took us to church on Sunday.”
He joined an amateur dramatics company during his national service in 1950 and subsequently moved to London to start an acting career. He worked for a time behind the bar at the drag artist Danny La Rue’s nightclub, Winston’s, in Mayfair, and for many years did cabaret there. It was at Winston’s that he met and fell for Anne Hart, an actor and dancer who, at 5ft 8in, was seven inches taller than him. “But of course she was married, and in those days you didn’t fall in love with married people,” he recalled. “Sadly, her husband then died an untimely death.” The pair eventually married in 1965, and had two daughters, Sophie and Emma, as well as a son, Andrew, who died of a heart defect at six weeks.
Corbett’s first big break was doing standup on the BBC children’s TV show Crackerjack in the mid-50s. But he was also becoming a stage star. In 1963 he starred opposite Bob Monkhouse in Rodgers and Hart’s musical The Boys from Syracuse at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1965 he was due to appear as Will Scarlet in Lionel Bart’s Twang!, a musical about Robin Hood, but the production collapsed. That was fortuitous as it left Corbett free to accept an offer by David Frost to appear in The Frost Report (1966–67). It was there that he met Barker, and the two men formed a bond: they were two grammar school boys who had not been to university, surrounded by writers and actors who were mostly Oxbridge graduates.
One sketch from the satirical show became a classic. In it, Corbett played a cloth-capped working-class man literally looking up to Ronnie Barker’s middle-class man (5ft 8in) who, in turn, looked up to upper-class John Cleese (6ft 5in). “I know my place,” said Corbett. “But I don’t look up to him” – looking at the other Ronnie – “as much as I look up to him,” nodding at Cleese.
Apart from being a satire on the sclerotic British class system, the sketch traded on Corbett’s size. He had been self-conscious about his height ever since his doctor recommended stretching exercises when he was 15. He recalled asking a girl to dance with him when he was in his teens. She looked down at him and said: “If you weren’t so short, you’d be quite good-looking.” The remark devastated him. “I felt like I’d been cut in half,” he said.
In the late 1960s he gave a revealing interview in which he said: “Being small is a bit like being Jewish – you always feel you’re being discriminated against. I mean, could you see anyone employing me as a bank clerk or consulting me about an insurance policy? Whatever I did to seem dignified, they’d think I was the teaboy.” But at least he could play that sense of discrimination for laughs. Between 1967 and 1970, he starred in No, That’s Me Over Here!, a sitcom written by Cryer, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, as a small insurance clerk with big ideas, always confounded by more adept office politicians (notably his lanky colleague Henry McGee).
During the late 60s, Corbett started to get film work. He appeared in the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1966) alongside David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress. It was a critical and box-office disaster. He also appeared in Some Will, Some Won’t (1970), as one of four people who go to great lengths to obtain the fortune left in a will, and in the film version of No Sex Please: We’re British (1973). In this, he was a small-town bank clerk horrified when he receives pornographic postcards in the post, rather than the calculator he ordered. His character spends much of the rest of the film trying to dispose of the package without courting scandal. “A pleasing performance from Corbett,” said the American TV Guide critic, “saves this otherwise average British farce from the usual doldrums.”
Corbett was destined to become more famous on the small screen. After No, That’s Me Over Here!, he appeared in two follow-up BBC sitcoms by the same writers, Now Look Here (1971-73) and The Prince of Denmark (1974).
After The Two Ronnies and Sorry! finished, he was never to repeat their successes. He appeared on game shows such as the short-lived Full Swing (1996), hosted by his golfing chum Jimmy Tarbuck, which involved general knowledge and golf. It was cancelled after one series. The following year he was reunited with Cleese to appear in another big-screen comedy flop, Fierce Creatures.
In 2000 he revived his armchair monologue routine on Ben Elton’s TV show, his still-innocent humour standing up well among younger, swearier and more political comedians.
He was reunited in 2005 for one last time with Barker, who in 1987 had retired from showbiz, for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a series of six programmes of sketches from The Two Ronnies, with new introductions by the two stars. The last episode was broadcast on Christmas Day that year, Barker having died in October.
The one Ronnie carried on. In 2010 he took a role in the John Landis film Burke and Hare, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as two 19th-century grave robbers in Edinburgh. In his 80s he starred in the cult hit When the Dog Dies (2010-14), a BBC Radio 4 sitcom written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent (who wrote Sorry!), as a retired man whose family want him to leave the house he shares with a lodger, Dolores (played by Liza Tarbuck), so they can move in. He resolves to do so only when his beloved companion, Henry the dog, dies.
Corbett celebrated his golden wedding with Anne in 2015. For many years he lived in Surrey in a house adjoining a golf course, where he could indulge his passion for the game. He was appointed CBE in 2012. “I’ve had a very happy life and although I have had tragedy,” he said once, “I’ve never suffered from any darkness.”
He is survived by Anne and their daughters.
• Ronald Balfour Corbett, actor and comedian, born 4 December 1930; died 31 March 2016
Ronnie Corbett: 'It was such a wonderful feeling making people laugh'
TV great Ronnie Corbett died on March 31, 2016, aged 85. This interview with Celia Walden was conducted during an emotional time for Corbett, when he was returning to TV after 17 years and mourning the sudden loss one of his oldest friends, David Frost. It was first published in The Telegraph in September 2013
"Is this tea or coffee?” asks Ronnie Corbett, peering through his horn-rimmed Specsavers glasses at the murky liquid in his cup. “I can’t tell.” Without waiting for a response, the 82-year-old comedian empties one sachet of sugar and one sachet of sweetener into this unidentifiable brew, takes a sip and frowns. “I think it’s a mixture of tea and coffee. But it’s warm, isn’t it?”
It’s the kind of relentlessly upbeat reaction one would expect from a man whose joyous brand of humour as one half of The Two Ronnies has been part of our national comic identity for over 50 years. Age and a much-mourned absence from our TV screens has done nothing to diminish Corbett’s effect on the public. As he trots into Addington Palace – a country club near his Surrey home – in a canary-yellow windbreaker, every face colours with pleasure. “I do find the 'national treasure’ thing very touching,” Corbett admits, once safely ensconced in a Queen Ann style armchair, the windbreaker swapped for one of his trademark tartan jackets (“Hunting Stewart of Appin, this one’s called – or 'Little Ron of Midlothian’ as I like to call it”). “Actually, it brings a tear to my eye when people call me that.”
These days, that happens all too easily, he apologises, dabbing beneath his specs with a hankie. Filming his new prime time BBC One show, Ronnie’s Animal Crackers – a quirky series about the British love of animals – provided more than a few touching moments, as did the compilation of The Two Ronnies’ best moments for a forthcoming UK Gold series. “Ronnie B, bless his heart, had kept such an impressive collection of material.
Watching it all back reminded me what an excellent fit we were. And it was such a wonderful feeling making people laugh,” he explains, his eyes filling with tears again. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying so much. My eyes just keep on running.” It has been an emotional time for Corbett, who buried one of his dearest friends, Sir David Frost, last week. “To die the way he did, suddenly taken ill on a cruise ship… I mean David wasn’t just a great friend, he was the founder of my career.” The Edinburgh-born son of a master baker was in his early thirties when the late broadcaster spotted him at Winston’s nightclub in Mayfair and put him together with Ronnie Barker, with the comedy duo soon becoming a regular feature on his satirical BBC show, The Frost Report.
The Two Ronnies’ physical incongruities belied a comic connection that was based on a mutual love of the absurd. “We were a real couple with matching tastes and styles,” smiles Corbett. “Of course we were quite different but somehow we fitted so well together. I think it’s a more pleasant and palatable thing to see people being funny together because you’re touching areas of truth. Dinner parties or falling out with people – it’s the naturalness of it.”
The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was a great period for comedy duos, with the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders and Reeves and Mortimer dominating prime time television. Is the dearth of double acts now down to celebrity culture? A reluctance to share the glory with someone else? “Well, my first instinct was not to be up there on my own,” Corbett shrugs. “People who want to do stand-up from the start – I mean that’s an extremely self-centred thing to want, isn’t it? Michael McIntyre is an exception, along with one or two others, but it is more difficult when you’re standing on your own two feet to avoid vicious jokes. It’s very easy to be fierce.”
The meanness of contemporary British humour is, as one might expect, anathema to Corbett. He thinks talent shows are partly responsible (“it’s all about having a quick effect. Mock the Week is a little bit like that: they’re all rushing to get up and say their funny joke first”) and although negativity is not in his nature, Corbett appears mystified by the tiresomely provocative Russell Brand. “He seems to be so bold in everything,” he says. “I mean he’s had a terrific touch in America managing to follow Dudley Moore in that great role [in Arthur]. But the trouble with monologue people is that all they seem to be doing is showing off.”
Does he think women can ever be as funny as men? “Well, I loved Beatrice Lillie,” he chuckles. “And Joan Rivers is very funny and raw. But you have to be very clever as a lady to be funny and not lose some of your sexuality. I mean Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French were very funny together and Miranda Hart is divine – although not, of course, really feminine. A man can add to his sexuality by being funny whereas a woman can diminish hers. I don’t know why that’s the case: it’s completely unfair.”
Corbett was nevertheless grateful for this when he met his wife, Anne Hart – a beautiful actress and dancer, seven inches taller than him at 5ft 8in – at Winston’s one night. “But of course she was married, and in those days you didn’t fall in love with married people. Sadly, her husband then died an untimely death.” The pair finally married in 1965, and have two daughters, Sophie, 45, and Emma, 46.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” he sighs contentedly. “I’ve had a very happy life and although I have had tragedy,” he adds – referring, I imagine, to the loss of his baby son Andrew, who died of a heart defect at six weeks old – “I’ve never suffered from any darkness.” Unlike some of his contemporaries, who had depressive temperaments off screen, Corbett was never afflicted by ''sad clown’’ syndrome.
Indeed, throughout our hour together, Corbett’s face has creased up with mirth every few minutes, propelling those wonderful eyebrows right up to his hairline. He chuckles raucously all the way through an account of the moment he was awarded his CBE at Buckingham Palace last year. “I was caught in the lavatory when they called me up. I was having a quick pee. This keeps happening to me. I was caught in the lavatory at Windsor Castle, too – I was late for a dinner because I couldn’t get out of there. And at Victor Spinetti’s memorial service I was really locked in. They had to throw a screwdriver over the door.”
Did the Queen mind when he – as described at the time – committed the faux pas of touching her arm? He thinks about this for a moment. “No. I think she was quite pleased to be reassured.” What did she feel like? “Silky smooth and sweet,” he smiles. “She said to me 'You’ve been doing this a long time haven’t you?’ And I said 'Over 50 years, but not as long as you.”
Memories of the medical he was forced to undergo before doing National Service provokes still more hilarity. “I panicked because I had – and still have – a deviated septum. When the doctors pointed this out I thought: 'Please don’t send me home because of a deviated septum. I can’t go home and tell people that.’”
Corbett remembers there being a lot of laughter around the kitchen table as a child. “Mum was really funny. She was well read and enjoyed words, but it wasn’t until I got a part playing the dame in my local church youth club pantomime at 17 that it all burst out of me. I thought: 'hang on, I’ve got something here’.”
He joined the amateur dramatics company during his National Service stint (he was the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces) and subsequently moved to London to start an acting career that initially involved playing schoolboy roles in films.
Although he’s pleased to be coming back to our screens after 17 years, Corbett’s also relieved that he doesn’t have to fill an hour of prime time Saturday night TV. “I don’t do as much stuff on my own now because one does have a worry about memory.”
Ask which moment of his professional life he would relive if he could, and a slow grin spreads across his face. “When Ronnie B and I did those two big sell-out seasons at the Palladium. Having sat in that same theatre at 18 and seen Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye perform there… To think that we were in the same place, together and being such dear friends. That’s a pretty hard one to beat.”