Ronnie Corbett: Comics Remember
Ronnie Corbett dies just weeks before he was to be knighted in the Queens’s 90th Birthday Honours list. He was given a CBE in 2012, Sir Bruce Forsyth said “It’s a very sad day, we’re all going to miss him”
The much loved Actor, Comedian and broadcaster was best known for his work with Ronnie Barker in the ‘Two Ronnie’s’ (1971 – 1987), the programme attracting weekly audiences of 17 million at its peak. During the show Ronnie gained further notoriety for his comic monologue, while seated in an armchair, delivering a joke which took comedic detours along the way. Lenny Henry describing him as the ‘master of the meandering monologue’. The programme gave Britain some of its most memorable sketches including the famous 1976 ‘Fork Handles’ or ‘Four candles’. Corbett’s acting in this iconic work was continually praised by fellow artistes and peers. Both he and Ronnie Barker were awarded the OBE in 1978 (and were thrilled to discover that the Queen is a ‘Two Ronnie’s’ fan).
He died aged 85, from motor neurone disease his wife Anne revealed and had been ill since May of last year. Ronnie Corbett was born in Edinburgh, started in live comedy cabaret with Danny La Rue at the Winston’s club, in Mayfair, London where he was spotted by David Frost who immediately hired him as a performer on ‘The Frost Report’ (1966-67). There he first worked with Ronnie Barker. The two immediately jelled and when both became out of contract, the BBC offered them their own show – ‘The Two Ronnie’s’. Unlike Barker, Corbett had a stand-up act which he often worked cabaret and toured the country with. He also acted in several sit-coms ‘That’s me over here’ (1967), ‘Sorry’ (1981-88) and films such as ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) ‘No Sex please were British’ (1973) and ‘Fierce Creatures’ (1997). His friend and co-star John Cleese said ‘He had the best timing I’ve ever watched. He was a great, kind mentor and a wonderfully witty companion’
Ronnie was only 5ft 1inch tall which he used to his advantage, with much of his comedy material was based around. Corbett admitted his size pushed him on ‘I’ll show them’ to be successful. Essentially he was a lovely family man and at times had a tiger inside him as recalled by his long term friend and colleague Barry Cryer ‘I was with Ronnie and David Frost. David said ‘Ooh Ronnie, I’m doing a charity on the 17th would you do a bit for me?’ and Ronnie said. ‘No, I can’t David, I’m sorry’. So Frost said ‘Are you working?’ and he said, ‘No, no’. Then David said, ‘I know you, you’re playing golf!’ but Ronnie said ‘No, no, no. I’ll be at home. It’s my only day off in that period and I can’t do it, David, sorry.’ And then Frosty tried emotional blackmail. He said, ‘I haven’t exactly been a hindrance to your career, Ronnie, have I?’ and Ronnie Corbett said ‘You certainly haven’t, David, you’ve elevated me to the position from which I’m now speaking to you’. Cryer described it as ‘One of the wittiest things I ever heard said in real life’.
Ronnie was a long-time admirer of the new comic wave of the eighties and nineties and was often seen in his birth town of Edinburgh in the que for festival tickets. One such comic he came to respect was Jim Tavare describing Jim as a ‘very good act with musical jokes and there is a bit of a french flavour about it’ The two got up to some antics at the festival by swapping places in Jim’s one man show as Ronnie mentioned in his autobiography ‘High Hopes’ (2000).Jim remembers ‘Ronnie Corbett came to see my show at the Edinburgh festival in the mid nineties. After the show I got talking to him and asked if he fancied appearing in my show the following night. He agreed so before the start of the show we sneaked him in round the back and when the lights came up at the start Ronnie was sitting there in his chair. The audience erupted and he started one of his stories. A short time later I walk out and tell him he is in the wrong theatre. He was a mean act to follow.’ Corbett commented ‘I don’t feel there is any gulf between myself and the new generation’ (2000). Other modern comics such as Ed Byrne added ‘I can honestly say that Ronnie Corbett wasn’t just a great comedian, he was genuinely one of the nicest gentlemen in the business’.
Ronnie went on to have cameo roles in Ricky Gervais’s ‘Extras’ (2006) who said of Corbett ‘It was an absolute honour & joy to have known him’ Ronnie brought back his armchair monologue in a regular spot on ‘The Ben Elton show (1998). He made several guest appearances on shows talking about his career (‘One on One’ 2002 & Piers Morgan Life Stories 2009) and made a one-off return to prime-time television with ‘The One Ronnie’ (2010), in which he is joined by a host of modern British comedy talent, including Harry Enfield and David Walliams who described him as his ‘comedy idol’. Rory Bremner said ‘The smallest giant of British Comedy, with the best timing of all. A sweet, lovely man too’
The news left me saying goodbye to another comic childhood hero, where the ‘Two Ronnie’s’ influenced a budding comedy scriptwriter to get out the pen and try. Eventually succeeding years later when the show was coming to its end. Sir Michael Parkinson, a friend of Corbett, described the comedian as a “genuinely good soul” and said he would miss him “terribly”. The former chat show host joked that he had only really seen Corbett at funerals lately. Indeed, Comic Jeff Stevenson said ‘There’s a hell of a show coming together in heaven, it’s like the best Royal Variety ever with the legends lost recently’ John Cleese responded ‘Very touching…he’ll certainly be up there. With the other greats’.
Ronald Balfour Corbett, actor and comedian, born 4 December 1930; died 31 March 2016
Cryer, Barry. ‘Pigs Can fly’ Orion Books Ltd 2003 p130
Corbett, Ronnie ‘High Hopes’ Ebury Press 2000 p252
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.