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.
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.)
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.
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.