Sarah Sands: A prodigal son returns. Welcome back!

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The vagaries of celebrity that have blown Cheryl Cole back across the Atlantic will strike terror in many British performers, but James Corden need worry no longer. He turned his back on television just before it consumed him, with a wise decision to return to the theatre that launched him. His acknowledgement of a standing ovation at the first night of the National's latest hit, One Man, Two Guvnors, last week, was modest and relieved. The returning sinner was not merely forgiven but greeted with rapture. The son of a Christian bookseller, Corden was almost lost, but now is found.

It was not necessarily going to be such a happy ending. The audience divided between those who had come because of Corden and those who were there despite him. Online comment reflected the ambivalence: "Talented comic actor or 'king of blokes'... Chris Moyles goes to Rada?"

Supporters talk of the engaging, cheery character from The History Boys and Gavin and Stacey; opponents the overexposed, self-satisfied lead in the witless Lesbian Vampire Killers, host of a terrible World Cup show, and participant in an embarrassing dust-up with Sir Patrick Stewart at the Glamour Awards. The critical view was encapsulated in the words of the actor and comedian Rob Brydon, who famously took his friend Corden to one side to warn him he was in danger of becoming a twat.

The undecided had noted that his latest Comic Relief sketch, featuring Gordon Brown, George Michael, Paul McCartney and others, was very funny and good-natured. It was also encouraging that he and Sir Patrick had since made friends. Perhaps he could make a full recovery in artistic rehab.

It still takes people by surprise that celebrity is double-edged. Corden was plied with fame and persuaded the public could not get enough of him, although almost everyone is tiresome after a couple of days. He was never nasty, but he was everywhere.

So his megaphone celebrity persona threatened to smother his natural talent. Whatever his private qualms, revealed occasionally to interviewers, Corden was rich and had famous friends. He was on telly all the time. Did it matter whether or not he was any good any more?

It was at this pivotal moment that he was telephoned by Nicholas Hytner, who'd directed him in Alan Bennett's History Boys. Like an Old Testament God, Hytner summoned him back and Corden unquestioningly came, reportedly giving up a £6m gold handcuff offer from ITV.

It is a nice parable, but Corden needed the conditions for redemption. What made him choose artistic respectability over celebrity? First, it's in his nature: the joker in the class may occasionally become annoying but less so when his humour is mostly cheering. Corden has never been sneering or cruel, in contrast to the prevailing tone of comedy television shows. There was dismay in his eyes as Sir Patrick attacked him.

And while he may have spent too long at the Groucho Club, his emotional judgement appears sound. He went out with Sheridan Smith, the West End's most lovable and least uppity actress. He is now engaged to a charity worker. They have a son.

I was never fully convinced that Corden was at home on the football terrace. Never mistake fame for friendship. Always choose good work over fame. These are the lessons that Corden, the prodigal son, has learned. It's great to have him back.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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