Ronnie Corbett: The other Ronnie

The Ronnie we're talking about is the short one who sat in the big armchair and told the long, rambling joke every week. Not the big, fat one who went on to star in 'Porridge' and 'Open All Hours'. Now, 30 years after 'The Two Ronnies' first appeared on television, they're back and are bigger than Bond. So let's hear it for the little guy...
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The Independent Online

He's 74, famous for telling rambling stories about the quality of the coffee in the BBC canteen, and claims to be "the only citizen in the UK with a full-length photo in their passport". Yet, if the television ratings figures are to be believed, Ronnie Corbett is more popular than James Bond.

He's 74, famous for telling rambling stories about the quality of the coffee in the BBC canteen, and claims to be "the only citizen in the UK with a full-length photo in their passport". Yet, if the television ratings figures are to be believed, Ronnie Corbett is more popular than James Bond.

Three decades after its first appearance, The Two Ronnies is back. Sort of. The Two Ronnies Sketchbook is a collection of classic clips from the old shows, linked together by new reminiscences from Corbett and Ronnie Barker from behind their trademark "news desk".

The great surprise of the show is how well the comedy still works, and how little Corbett has changed. His boyish face is virtually as it was during the days of Ted Heath and the three-day week. Corbett, who was already middle- aged when The Two Ronnies began, retains the deep, rich chuckle of a man 30 years younger.

Another surprise: the first episode of The Two Ronnies Sketchbook smashed the opposition. Nearly eight million viewers tuned in - 35 per cent of the viewing public at the time - leaving poor 007, languishing over on ITV1 in the movie GoldenEye at the same time, with not much more than half that number.

But The Two Ronnies is not merely being championed by forty- and fiftysomethings with an eye on how things were better in the good old days of harmless innuendo, naughty seaside postcard winks and lolloping drag acts. A quarter of the audience of the first episode of the new series was under 35. Remarkable, given that The Two Ronnies, which ran for 16 years from 1971, began before the vast majority of these young people were born.

Ronald Balfour Corbett was born into a working-class family in Edinburgh, the son of a baker who worked night shifts for 29 years. Corbett's own career began patchily. There were stints as a barman, a tennis court supervisor, an advertising salesman and an estate agent's runner, before he was spotted in cabaret in the 1960s by David Frost at a London nightclub. He was appearing alongside Danny La Rue, Barry Cryer and Anne Hart, the woman he was to go on to marry in 1965.

Today he and Anne live very comfortably in the Surrey golfing belt. Their marriage is strong and happy, say friends. But it is a relationship that has, sadly, been tested - first by the death of a baby son at 10 weeks, and latterly by the severe depression suffered by one of their adult daughters.

It was on The Frost Report on the BBC in 1966 that Corbett first found himself performing with Barker. When Frost moved to ITV, the two Ronnies - though they were not yet known as that - moved with him. Shortly afterwards, under the tutelage of Bill Cotton, the BBC's famed head of light entertainment, they found themselves back at the corporation as the stars of their own show. Coming together was a complete accident because Jimmy Gilbert, the producer of The Frost Report, brought Ronnie Barker in, and David Frost brought Ronnie Corbett in. But the chemistry was there immediately. "They just hit it off," recalls Cryer, a chief writer for The Two Ronnies, and still a close friend of Corbett.

Marcus Plantin worked on the show for more than a decade, rising from a props boy to producer and director (and subsequently going on to run the whole of ITV). He says Corbett, like Barker, was a stickler for his standards in the studio. He wanted "the highest and the best" and was "super-critical with the costume and the make-up, and, of course, the script. In rehearsals he would pull it apart, rewriting and reshaping it." Those qualities are more evident than ever when compared to some of today's threadbare offerings. He adds: "Artists in those days, if they were very good, were very empowered. They could call the shots."

"It wasn't like writing for Eric and Ernie," adds Cryer, who wrote for all four men. Morecambe and Wise played themselves in every sketch, whereas outside the spoof news items and the Corbett monologue, the two Ronnies did their best to lose themselves in character. "You could write almost anything knowing those two would do it brilliantly. Because they weren't a double act; they were two men who worked together and had had their own careers."

Corbett and Barker brought different qualities to the show. Barker was "an actor who was brilliant at comedy, and Corbett was the comic who was a pretty good actor," says Cryer. Neither was a straight man and each received equal billing. This, according to those who worked with them, prevented any petty rivalries - between themselves or with their fellow BBC stars Morecambe and Wise. "In fact," claims Cryer, "because they [alone] never regarded themselves as a double act, Corbett and Barker never saw themselves in competition with Eric and Ernie."

Ronnie Barker is a private man, whose friendship circle does not revolve around show business. Not so Corbett, a much more gregarious creature who is chums with David Frost and Danny La Rue, and is at his happiest waving a five iron in the vicinity of Parky, Tarby and the smoothie actor Gerald Harper.

"I always called them the closed book and the open book," says Cryer. "If Ronnie [Corbett] is happy, you know it; if he is depressed you know it; if he is angry, you know it; and then it's all over in five minutes. He is completely transparent. You know exactly where you are with him."

This is true in his professional life, but not always at home. Early on in their relationship, Anne Corbett wondered why her husband found it difficult to say anything romantic to her. He put his reticence down to his Scottish roots. But they found a way round the problem, Anne has recalled: "I said: 'Well, think of something nice you can say that doesn't embarrass you,'' and he said: 'Ambrosia Creamed Rice.' Even now on his birthday and Valentine cards I never put 'I love you', and nor does Ron. We put 'ACR'."

Corbett was similarly restrained in his dealings with Barker. Plantin never once heard him lose his temper with his professional partner. He suspects that they may have had a secret agreement, "rather like a married couple, never to display any differences in public".

That peace pact was tested in 1987 when Barker decided to retire from show business, despite the fact that his partner wanted the show to continue. "I did feel a bit isolated," admitted Corbett last week, "but I [thought I] could always do panto at the Palladium and then a summer season at Eastbourne and then eight weeks at Paignton to keep myself busy." Indeed, little Corbett has done since the split has registered: not many viewers remember The Ronnie Corbett Show that followed the split from Barker. But he did not show any signs of bitterness. A TV executive who worked with him in his post-Barker days says he is one of the genuine good guys in the industry.

None of this matters today, as the 5ft 1in star surveys the success of his "new" show. Perhaps, like Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and even Tom Jones before him, Corbett is about to become championed by the young. Is that possible? According to Graham McCann, comedy historian and lecturer at King's College, Cambridge, The Two Ronnies has all the right ingredients - fast-talking sketches, a quick pace and handy catchphrases - to capture the Little Britain generation.

"Their best sketches are really great prose," says McCann, "and young audiences can recognise that."