4 December 1930 – 31 March 2016
As one half of The Two Ronnies, Ronnie Corbett – who has died at the age of 85 – was one of the UK’s best-loved entertainers with a career spanning more than six decades.
The Two Ronnies predated Ant and Dec by more than 20 years and followed on from another household name comedy double act – Morecambe and Wise.
Made up of the rotund, jocular Englishman Ronnie Barker and the diminutive mischievous Scot Ronnie Corbett, the pair would become known for their hilarious sketches, mock news bulletins and comedy songs.
Their famous pay-off after every show was: “And it’s good night from me. And it’s good night from him.”
Neither comic played the straight man, both seemingly more than content to share out the funnies between them and they worked together for more than 30 years until Barker’s death in 2005.
Born in Edinburgh to a Scottish baker and his English wife, Corbett was educated locally but shunned further education after a handful of performances in amateur theatrical shows at his church youth club convinced him he wanted to be an actor.
He served his national service with the Royal Air Force and was, at only five feet tall in his stocking feet, the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces.
After moving to London, he made his first professional stage appearance as Ronald Corbett in Take it Easy in 1956.. He was initially sensitive about his height, but as his career developed he made shrewd use of its comic potential.
His film appearances included Rockets Galore! (1957), Casino Royale, alongside David Niven, (1967) and the cinema version of the farce No Sex Please, We’re British (1973).
In 1965 he starred with Danny La Rue in cabaret at Winston’s, La Rue’s Mayfair nightclub, where he was seen by David Frost who asked him to appear in The Frost Report. It was there that he first worked with Ronnie Barker. Most of the writers and cast – which included the Monty Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin and Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie – were Oxbridge graduates. But as former grammar school boys who did not go to university, Corbett and Barker were drawn together and were soon thought of as a pair. They famously appeared with Cleese in the Class sketch, in which Corbett – representing the lower classes looking up to the middle and upper classes – got the pay-off: “I get a pain in the back of my neck.”
Of his relationship with Barker, Corbett said: “We liked each other very much and Ron, I suppose was the brainier of the two of us as far as theatrical knowhow because of his writing skills.” The pair would get their own show in 1971. It would run for 16 years and became essential family viewing.
One of their most famous sketches, Four Candles, was written by Barker showing off his natural gift for amusing wordplay. Walking into an old-fashioned ironmonger’s store, Barker appears to ask for “four candles”. Corbett gives him the candles but it turns out that Barker wanted “fork handles – ‘andles for forks”. With a team of writers and the hugely talented Barker at his disposal, Corbett said he was never tempted to sit down at the typewriter himself: “I think it’s a very brave thing to do, to write something down on a piece of paper and give it to someone and say, ‘I think this is very funny’.
“It’s bad enough getting up and doing it.”
Corbett’s most famous contributions to the show were his solo monologues, delivered from a chair, facing the camera.
His attempts to tell a simple joke, usually with a deliberately corny punch line, were constantly disrupted by his own going off tangent and relating other humorous incidents. The jokes could often last several minutes in the telling. Even after the show ended, it would be regularly repeated and enjoyed many festive specials.
Both Corbett and Barker enjoyed hugely successful solo careers, the latter with the classic prison sitcom Porridge and Corbett in Sorry!, which ran from 1981 to 1988.
In 2005, Corbett teamed up again with Ronnie Barker for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, featuring comedy sketches from their original series with newly-recorded linking material.
The shows were recorded prior to Barker’s death later that year from heart failure at the age of 76. Corbett led tributes saying: “Ronnie was pure gold in triplicate – as a performer, a writer and a friend.
“We worked together since 1965 and we never had a cross word.
“It was 40 years of harmonious joy, nothing but an absolute pleasure. I will miss him terribly.”
Speaking to BBC’s Front Row in 2010, when he filmed a one-off The One Ronnie to mark his 80th birthday, he said he had never even entertained the idea of starting a partnership with another comedian.
“I suppose I avoided thoughts of it because it had been such a happy and supportive collaboration that we had, that I would miss his advice and his touch.”
In 2006, he played himself in Ricky Gervais’s comedy series Extras. A running gag involved references to Gervais’s character Andy apparently losing his virginity to “a women that looked like Ronnie Corbett”. The episode featured Corbett being caught taking drugs at the Baftas.
He also starred as himself in Little Britain Abroad and, in 2009, he hosted Strictly Come Dancing alongside Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman when regular host Bruce Forsyth had flu.
Corbett was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to entertainment and charity.