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31 March 2016updated 01 Apr 2016 4:53pm

Church, cabaret, class and a well-timed technical hitch: the making of Ronnie Corbett (1930-2016)

The TV comedy star known for his work in The Two Ronnies has died at the age of 85.

By James Cooray Smith

Ronnie Corbett was born into what he termed the “respectable working class” of Edinburgh in 1930 and decided acting, particularly comic acting, was for him after appearing in amateur church theatricals while still a schoolboy. The Corbett family, by Ronnie’s own account, trouped to church every Sunday in kilts and black brogues.

The stage, though, had to wait until after National Service, that inevitable intermission in the lives of all young men of his generation. After two years in the RAF (during which, he later claimed, Flight Lieutenant Corbett was the shortest commissioned officer in the British Armed Forces) he came to London with £91 in savings in his Post Office account, rented a bedsit and set about breaking into show business.

His endeavours in this regard were assisted by the actress Helena “Pixie” Picard, the mother of his RAF bunk mate and subsequent lifelong friend Ted. Ted himself would himself soon be well-known to the public as the actor Edward Hardwicke, after undertaking postponed studies at RADA.

Corbett worked in cabaret, and was appearing in Lionel Bart’s musical Twang!! – playing Will Scarlet to Zulu star James Booth’s Robin Hood – when asked to join a new TV project The Frost Report. When Twang!!, despite Bart’s post-Oliver! popularity, failed as spectacularly as anything in West End history and closed early, Corbett was able to accept.

In retrospect, it’s extraordinary that The Frost Report was over and done with within two years, so deep is the mark it left in British television culture. As well as putting five of the six members of Monty Python in the same room for the first time, it was also the programme that gave us “The Class Sketch”.

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You know the one. Written by Marty Feldman and John Law, and featuring three men of excessive, average and little height who also represent upper, middle and working class Britain.

An instant classic (a compilation containing it won the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1967), particularly Corbett’s brilliant delivery of “I know my place”, it provided a framework and an argot that are still frequently invoked by the media when discussing class issues.

It was even reprised, in a rewritten version, on 2000 Today, the international television co-production that ushered in the year 2000, with Stephen Fry substituting for the original production’s John Cleese.

The third actor in both the original and remade versions of that sketch was Ronnie Barker; and pairing the two of them is, of course, another of The Frost Report’s huge contributions to British television culture.

In 1970, technical problems at an awards show led to the Ronnies having to fill in time without having had any chance to prepare. The great and the good of television were present, including BBC Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton and BBC One Controller Paul Fox. So impressed were they by the duo that plans were quickly made to pair them as the headliners of a series.

Starting in April 1971, The Two Ronnies ran for over 15 years. At its core it depends on the fact that, like Morecambe and Wise, the Ronnies weren’t a funny man and a straight man; they were a double act both halves of which were funny on their own.

The series won a hatful of Baftas, could at its peak draw well over 20m viewers and only came to an end because Barker made a personal decision to retire. Corbett himself always described his screen collaboration with Barker as the “second great partnership” of his life, after his 50-year marriage to Anne Hart.

There is a tendency to overlook Corbett’s contribution to The Two Ronnies, one especially prevalent since it became widely known that many of the series’ most successful sketches were written by Barker under his Gerald Wiley pseudonym.

Yet the series’ most recognisable running sketch doesn’t feature Barker at all, being Corbett’s series of monologues to camera in which, dwarfed by an enormous prop chair, he never quite gets to the point.

The writer Spike Mullins developed the sketches, based on seeing Corbett presenting and realising the comic possibilities of his voice lost in endless discursive patterns, and wrote the monologues for eight series. After Mullins’ retirement, David Renwick – now best known for One Foot in the Grave and Jonathan Creek, took over. 

The sitcom Sorry! (1981-88), in which Corbett starred as a middle-aged librarian still living with his parents, is a sitcom easily, and often, dismissed by people who have never paid attention to it.

One of those deliberately excruciating comedies of the manners of despair that prospered in the Eighties, it is, like Corbett’s turn as a furiously drug-abusing version of himself in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, one of many examples of Corbett’s comedy stretching into places at odds with shallow perceptions of his work as cosy, safe or dull.

After Barker’s retirement, Corbett continued to work. A revived version of Corbett’s monologues was the highlight of Ben Elton’s 1998 series. And Sorry!’s authors, Peter Vincent and Ian Davidson penned Corbett’s Radio 4 sitcom When The Dog Dies (2010-13), about an elderly man resisting attempts by his children to move him into a home in order to sell his house and “release the equity” within it. A notable success was a guest slot presenting BBC One’s Have I Got News For You.

In 2005, Barker was persuaded to record new introductions for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a compilation programme in which the duo introduced the best material from their old series.

Its festive special episode, transmitted two months after Barker’s death, was the fourth most-watched programme on television that Christmas Day. Five years later, and to celebrate his 80th birthday, Corbett made The One Ronnie, a Christmas sketch show that paired him, in the absence of Barker, with admirers from younger generations of comedy performers. It was again a ratings hit.

When he was a child, Corbett’s parents had worried that his shortness (He was 5” 1’) was a symptom of some illness or problem. But medical investigation indicated it was no such thing. He’d simply stopped growing. Corbett himself never felt inhibited by the idea of “being short” and played up to it for comic effect, recently calling it “the cornerstone of my success” as a comic actor.

His comic persona may have depended on him being “the little man”, but Ronnie Corbett was one of the giants.