The last Ronnie


(c) BBC


The death the other day of the diminutive comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett dominated Britain’s TV news broadcasts, which prompted one truculent commentator to complain on Twitter about the media’s ongoing trivialisation of current affairs.  (Yes, Gerry Hassan, I’m looking at you.)


Well, I’m as against the trivialisation of current affairs as much as the next humourless curmudgeon.  But in the case of Ronnie Corbett I’ll make an exception.  I’m glad that he dominated the news.  He deserved to.


By his life’s end, Ronnie Corbett occupied a unique position in the British comedy world.  He was part of the old-fashioned, golf-playing light-entertainment establishment that includes such venerable personalities as Bruce ‘Brucie’ Forsyth, Jimmy ‘Tarby’ Tarbuck and Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson.  But he was adored by younger and more anarchic comedians too.  (Though I use those adjectives subjectively.  I’m referring to any British comedian who became famous after about 1980.  And come to think of it, some of them aren’t so young, nor so anarchic, anymore.)


What’s often forgotten is that Corbett and his long-term comic partner Ronnie Barker (who died in 2005) were involved with another strand of British humour, the Monty Python one.  Both men worked with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman on The Frost Report, hosted by journalistic legend David Frost from 1966 to 1967.  And various Pythons wrote sketches for them in subsequent years.  Indeed, I’ve read that Corbett and Barker first gravitated towards one another because they felt slightly out-of-place among Frost and the Pythons, who’d all been educated at Cambridge University.  Although Corbett and Barker had grown up in big university towns, Edinburgh and Oxford respectively, neither of them had attended university.


(c) BBC


That maybe fed into The Frost Report’s most celebrated moment, the Class Sketch, which has the towering John Cleese, the average-height Barker and the tiny Corbett standing in a row, respectively representing the upper, middle and working classes.  The three of them extol the advantages and disadvantages of their social positions, whilst physically reinforcing what they say by turning to look down on, or up at, their neighbours.  Of course, Cleese has all the advantages and does all the looking down; whereas Corbett is confined to delivering the regular punchline: “I know my place.”


Corbett and Barker revived the sketch for the BBC’s Millennium Show in 2000, with Stephen Fry standing in for Cleese.  It sounded like it was going to be pants, but given a charming historical twist – now Fry is Modern Man, Barker is Renaissance Man and Corbett is Medieval Man – it works rather nicely.


It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker made waves, with their comedy sketch show The Two Ronnies becoming a mainstay of the BBC’s Saturday-night schedule – a schedule already packed with massively popular shows like Doctor Who, The Generation Game and Match of the Day.  Okay, it also included Jim’ll Fix It, but let’s not talk about that just now.


Though The Two Ronnies sometimes got astronomical ratings – 17 million on one occasion – the duo never received the critical acclaim they deserved.  The critics of the time seemed to consider them a tad too bland and showbizy in comparison with the era’s other big TV comedy double-act, the more character-based and idiosyncratic Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.  It wasn’t until 1987, when the show was shelved because of Barker’s failing health, that, belatedly, people realised how good it’d been.


While Morecambe and Wise had fixed personas – Morecambe was the anarchic buffoon and Wise the harassed straight man – the Ronnies were malleable.  Both men could play funny or straight and during those 16 years they essayed many different characters.  And like another Saturday-night BBC staple, Doctor Who, I think I appreciated The Two Ronnies so much because it was, at heart, a writers’ show.  Among The Two Ronnies’ writing talent were Cleese, Idle, Palin, Jones, John Sullivan, Barry Cryer, David Renwick, the brilliant but deranged Spike Milligan, and David Nobbs, author of the sublime and subversive sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.


Because they didn’t have to create their sketches around established personalities, the writers were able to experiment – and they and their two performers had a lot of fun playing with the English language and exploiting its paradoxes and absurdities.  (They also, it has to be said, crammed in a lot of good-natured smut.)


(c) BBC


The most famous example of Two Ronnies-style wordplay was the Four Candles sketch, which was written by Ronnie Barker.  (Nobly, Barker kept his writing identity secret and submitted scripts to the show under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley, wanting his work to be considered by its own merits and not by who he was.)  Four Candles has the proprietor of a hardware store – though for joke purposes it also sells peas – being driven mad by a series of misunderstandings with a near-monosyllabic customer.  It revels in the peculiarities of English pronunciation and their potential for misinterpretation: for example, H-dropping (‘o’s’ mistaken for ‘hoes’), homophones (‘p’s’ mistaken for ‘peas’) and juncture (‘fork handles’ mistaken for the titular ‘four candles’).


Also clever was the Mastermind sketch, a piss-take of the BBC’s relentlessly-interrogative quiz show.  Corbett plays a contestant whose chosen subject is “answering the question before last each time”.  This leads to such surreal exchanges as: “What is palaeontology?”  “Yes, absolutely correct.”  “What’s the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage?”  “A study of old fossils.”  Although the cultural references (Dean Martin, Len Murray, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Bernard Manning) have dated, it’s still very amusing.


The format of The Two Ronnies also allowed both Ronnies to perform individually.  Critical opinion once had it that Barker was the more talented of the duo, but time has proven kind to Corbett.  There’s now much admiration for the technical skill he showed during his regular solo slots when he’d sit on an armchair and tell the audience a long and rambling joke.


Admittedly, you’d normally see the punchlines to those jokes on the horizon, five minutes before they arrived; but their telling was glorious.  Corbett delivered masterclasses in cadence, digression, self-deprecation, innuendo, comic timing and mutual performer-audience conspiracy.  (You know that the joke’s going to be rubbish.  He knows that you know that it’s going to be rubbish.  You know that he knows that you know…  Etc.)  All came in the inimitable Corbett package of chortles and catchphrases: invariably, “Now I know what you’re thinking…” and “I was having a round of golf with the producer the other day…”


Come to think of it, he was probably the closest thing Britain had to a practitioner of rakugo, the venerable Japanese art of comic story-telling.


A decade after The Two Ronnies, and at a time when Ronnie Corbett’s profile was much lower than it’d been, Ben Elton – one-time doyen of Britain’s alternative comedians – persuaded him to dust down the armchair and appear in a regular guest-slot on 1998’s Ben Elton Show.  Prior to his first performance, Corbett was dreading how Elton’s young and racy audience would react to an old fogey like him.  But, needless to say, when he materialised onstage on the armchair and in the trademark glasses and golfing sweater, a cheer went up; and lo, a star was reborn.


Of course, it transpired that the younger generation loved him too – having watched The Two Ronnies as kids.  So started the Ronnie Corbett revival, which probably peaked on Christmas Day 2010 when the BBC aired a special called The One Ronnie, which had Corbett appearing in a series of sketches alongside such modish comic talent as Miranda Hart, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Harry Enfield and Rob Brydon.  Incidentally, Brydon is something of a Ronnie-obsessive: he seems to have spent half his career doing impersonations of him.


The same year, he appeared in the comedy-horror film Burke and Hare alongside another slew of modern comedians and comic performers, including Simon Pegg, Reece Shearsmith, Bill Bailey and Jessica Hynes.  (And the other day, both Pegg and Shearsmith showed their respects by tweeting pictures of themselves posing with him during the movie’s making.)  Directed by John Landis, Burke and Hare was set in Corbett’s native Edinburgh and had him playing the head of the city’s early-19th-century militia.  The American-but-Anglophile Landis is a big Two Ronnies fan, by the way.  He’d even wanted to cast Ronnie Barker in An American Werewolf in London back in 1982.


(c) BBC


But Corbett’s greatest late-career moment surely came in 2006, when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had him cameo in their showbiz satire Extras.  The show depicts him as an unlikely drugs fiend who entices Gervais and Merchant into a toilet cubicle backstage at the BAFTA Awards Ceremony to snort cocaine.  They’re caught by security.  The ensuing scene has the three of them lined up in front of a disgruntled security chief: “Corbett…  It’s always bloody Corbett!”  With Corbett standing next to the medium-height Gervais and the gangly Merchant (who looms over him like Chewbacca looming over R2D2), it’s reminiscent of the Class Sketch with Barker and Cleese forty years earlier.


Favourite TV comedy songs


(c) Channel 4


With The Thick of It finished and Peep Show on a long hiatus, I’d assumed there was no decent comedy on British television at the moment.  Yes, I know some people like Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda but any time I’ve encountered it, I’m afraid, my facial muscles haven’t come remotely close to forming a smile.  And yes, the BBC4 comedy The Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook and starring Crook and the excellent Toby Jones, won acclaim a little while ago.  But though I liked Crook’s show, about a pair of hopeless metal-detecting enthusiasts whose love-lives are even more hopeless than their metal detecting, I didn’t find it particularly comic.  Rather, it seemed to me a gentle, melancholy drama with a streak of wry humour.


And as for asking me if I like watching Citizen Khan or Mrs Brown’s Boys…  Well, you might as well as ask me if I like eating dumplings that have been fashioned out of dried vomit and then deep-fried in manure.


However, over the last month, my negativity about the state of British TV comedy has been proven wrong.  For I have greatly enjoyed the latest season of Toast of London, the Channel 4 sitcom starring Matt Berry as a middle-aged actor struggling to make ends meet in the recording studios, on the film sets and on the theatre stages of showbiz London.  Among other things, Toast has to endure the belligerence of his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who comes across as half-Mary Poppins and half-dominatrix; and various nefarious plots hatched against him by his acting rival and arch-enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock).  At the same time, Toast takes every opportunity going to shag Purchase’s desperate-housewife missus (Tracy-Ann Oberman).  In fact, the mellifluous, baritone-voiced and altogether hammy Toast is a splendid comic creation.  He’s a variation on those barnstorming over-the-top actors that in real life the British drama world has churned out by the dozen: Todd Slaughter, Donald Wolfit, Graham Crowden, Steven Berkoff and Brian Blessed.


The show’s style complements its main character.  An endearing mixture of absurdity, stupidity, surrealism, catchphrases (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”) and occasional showbiz satire, it also contains enough good-natured smut to float a fleet of Carry On films.  If its whimsical nature feels familiar, that’s probably because it’s co-written (with Berry) by Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote the legendary Irish-priest sitcom Father Ted back in the 1990s.


One thing I particularly like about Toast of London is its musical interludes.  Berry and Matthews know the value of slipping an occasional, good comic song in among the humorous scenes.  This is to be expected because, in addition to acting and comedy, Berry has an excellent track record in making music – serious music as well as silly stuff.  His albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf are laudable confections of non-cheesy pop, non-pompous progressive rock and slightly-spooky Wicker Man-y folk music and can be listened to at YouTube, here:


Anyway, Toast of London has set me thinking.  What are the best comic songs to have appeared on TV comedy shows over the years?  By ‘comic song’, I don’t mean a simple parody of a ‘serious’ song or musical genre (which is what Not the Nine o’Clock News used to do in the early 1980s).  No, I mean a song that holds up as a song in its own right, with a proper tune and lyrics, whilst also managing to be funny.  Here are my favourites.


In the world of TV comedy songs, one name that looms large is Monty Python – and for this we should thank the musical and lyrical talents of the Python team’s second-youngest member, Eric Idle.  It’s fashionable nowadays to knock Idle for being a sell-out, because he was the one who transformed the second Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot!, a money-making juggernaut of a stage musical.  And apparently he was the driving force behind the team getting back together this year and mounting some indifferently-reviewed (but, again, massively lucrative) farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena.


But at least Idle was the man who put the music into Monty Python.  Because of him, you can rarely utter the show’s name in a British pub without middle-aged men around you bursting into lusty renditions of The Lumberjack Song.  My favourite Idle-penned Python song, though, is Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song, in which some Australian philosophy lecturers sing about the drinking prowess of history’s greatest abstract thinkers.  I probably like it because I studied philosophy at college and, after a gruelling lecture where I’d squirmed and sweated and tried to get my head around the basics of classical Greek philosophy, it was nice to hear this song and have Idle assure me that “Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle” and “Socrates himself was permanently pissed.”


It’s just a shame that Idle’s most famous song is the dirge-like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  It was funny enough when it was sung during the crucifixion sequence in the third Python move, Life of Brian, but over the years, irritatingly, it’s become a ubiquitous anthem extolling the supposed British virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.  And I have to confess I cringed when Idle turned up and sang it during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  (Although he was still better than the Spice Girls.)


One man who shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about Monty Python music is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and pianist Neil Innes, whose CV includes stints in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, GRIMMS, Beatles piss-take The Rutles and The Idiot Bastard Band, as well as an association with Python that started in 1974 (after John Cleese, temporarily, left the troupe).  In addition to Python song-writing duties, which included penning the tunes for Holy Grail, Innes has the distinction of being one of only two people who wrote sketches for Python who weren’t in the core team of six – the other person, coincidentally, was Douglas Adams.   I thought it was a bit off of the Python gang not to invite Innes back to participate in the O2 Arena concerts – an invitation that they did extend to the show’s resident female performer, Carol Cleveland.  But Innes himself didn’t seem that bothered.  In an interview for, he said: “…Eric Idle is in charge.  And he’s got Arlene Philips, and boy and girl dancers, and a band.  You don’t really need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.  Now Eric’s gone all show business, he sees it as he sees it.  It fills me with horror to be honest.”  And no, he didn’t like Idle’s performance at the Olympics closing ceremony, either.


(c) BBC


Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s, no round-up of great TV comedy songs would be complete without a mention of one of Arthur Matthews’ previous credits, the much-loved Father Ted.  Responsible for the musical component of Father Ted was Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish frontman with the celebrated ‘chamber pop group’ The Divine Comedy.  After the theme music (which was reworked as Songs of Love on The Divine Comedy album Casanova), Hannon’s best-known work on the show is surely My Lovely Horse, the song sung by Ted and his gormless side-kick Father Dougal in the episode A Song for Europe when they were bidding to become Ireland’s entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.  Incidentally, Hannon also wrote the overwrought anthem The Miracle is Mine, sung by Ted’s nemesis Father Dick Byrne, who wanted to be Ireland’s entry too.


My Lovely Horse is ghastly, in a uniquely Eurovision way, but it’s brilliantly ghastly.  It’s no surprise that, recently, life tried to imitate art and a petition was launched in Ireland demanding that My Lovely Horse really be Ireland’s entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest.


Incidentally, Hannon made a guest appearance in the latest episode of Toast of London, performing half of the vocals on a duet that Toast sings with his old friend, the debauched Soho-loving artist Francis Bacon.  Yes, I know Francis Bacon died in 1992.  But Berry and Matthews cunningly get around this in their script by stating that no, Bacon didn’t actually die.


Moving from the British Isles to America, and from live action to animation, we inevitably come to The Simpsons.  The show’s head honcho Matt Groening is a big music buff – he’s curated two of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals, one in the US in 2003 and the other in England in 2010, and performed in the ‘literary’ rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King.  So it’s no surprise that The Simpsons has always been choc-a-bloc with songs and music.


My favourite Simpsons’ comedy song is probably Dr Zaius, performed in the episode where Troy McClure wins a role in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.  However, because it’s really a spoof of an existing song – Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian musician Falco – I can’t nominate it here as a bona-fide comedy song.  Instead, I’ll opt for Your Wife Don’t Understand You, But I Do, that brief but glorious encapsulation of everything that’s bad (and good) about country-and-western music, sung to Homer by Lurleen the Waitress when he retreats to her honky-tonk bar to drown his sorrows following a particularly bitter bust-up with Marge.


(c) South Park Studios


But when it comes to funny music, The Simpsons is outdone by its more scatological cartoon rival South Park.  From the beginning, South Park wore its musical interests on its sleeve – the theme tune was performed by Primus, The Cure’s Robert Smith made a guest appearance in an early episode, and of course its Chef character was voiced by the late, great soul-funk-jazz legend Isaac Hayes.  However, it wasn’t until the release of the South Park movie in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed their inner Stephen Sondheims – they packed the movie with spiffy song-and-dance numbers like Blame Canada, Uncle-F*cka and Kyle’s Mom is a Big, Fat Bitch.  (Curiously, Eric Idle made a guest vocal appearance in the film too.)


Since then, the show has been a parade of musical delights.  I particularly liked Butters’ version of What, What (in the Butt) and Cartman’s swashbuckling song, Somalian Pirates, We (which includes the jolly lines, “We’ll shoot you in the face with glee / We’ll cut off your cock / And feed it to a croc / Somalian pirates, we!”).  But at the end of the day I guess my favourite South Park song is a typically salacious, but nonetheless funky number sung by Chef, Simultaneous.




One live-action American comedy show that should be saluted for its musical greatness, meanwhile, is the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, about a hapless singing duo from New Zealand trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make a name for themselves in New York.  Written and performed by the show’s two Kiwi stars, Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie, the songs in Flight of the Conchords are guaranteed to raise a smile; but the one that made me laugh out loud was their attempted debut in the rap world, Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenocerus.  Actually, lyrics like “They call me the hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorus / Poppin’ off the top of this oesophagus / Rockin’ this metropolis” are better than what you’d get in 95 percent of serious rap songs.


Incidentally, I can’t wait to see Clement’s new mockumentary-vampire movie We Live in the Shadows.


Finally, and especially because I mentioned him at the start of this post, I should add something by Matt Berry to my list of favourite TV comedy songs.  Not, however, from Toast of London.  Rather, I think his funniest musical moment came when he sang One Track Lover during the 2004 spoof horror show Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.  The song is a piss-take of those toe-curlingly rubbish 1980s soft-rock power ballads.  However, when Richard Ayoade suddenly breaks in with his attempted rap, it becomes a thing of genius.


(c) Channel 4