With the sad news that Ronnie Corbett has passed away aged 85, we’re taking a look back at the comedy icon through this wide-ranging interview from 2011, where Corbett discusses his early days, struggles with ageing and impressions of modern comedy.
I’m in a dismal, carpet-stained conference centre in East Croydon on a wet weekday afternoon about to meet a hard-of-hearing 80-year-old comedian. Life doesn’t get much more exciting than this.
Ronnie Corbett, national treasure with a tinkling cackle and a jaunty skip that belies his age, explains he wants to meet here because it’s near his home, easy parking, and without the bustle of strangers who might accost him, forcing him to whip out his mobile phone and pretend to talk portentously on it to avoid contact. Not that he’s unfriendly – far from it – but time is limited and he wants to concentrate.
The Two Ronnies…
Although The Two Ronnies ended in 1987 after 16 years, he’s had a renaissance since a 2006 appearance in Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. “I was caught snorting cocaine in a toilet,” he laughs. “Anne [his wife of 46 years] wasn’t sure. It could have gone the wrong way, but the saving grace was Moira Stuart being my supplier.
Last December the BBC spent a lot of money celebrating my 80th birthday, which was nice, and then I did The One Ronnie, a Christmas Day special. Now ITV have snatched me from the jaws of the BBC. That wasn’t difficult. I’m up for anything if it’s interesting and attracts me.” One recent venture is a sitcom When the Dog Dies [the second series is currently on Radio 4 Extra]. “I love radio and have done a little bit for years – since Workers’ Playtime in the 1950s. It’s also a good springboard for comedians.”
He’s garrulous, a rare entertainer more interested in others than himself, and keeps asking questions: have you been on holiday? Where do you live? How did you get here? A master of non sequiturs, he meanders into riffs that have nothing to do with our conversation. This was part of the charm of his soliloquies on The Two Ronnies. “As you get older you worry about your memory. I have lists and mnemonics to help. Part of my style was getting into a muddle. Audiences think that’s part of the act. Sometimes it might be – but you have to guess which bits.”
Ronnie Corbett’s Comedy Britain…
In the two-part series Ronnie Corbett’s Comedy Britain [“I needed a new challenge at 80”] he meets comedians whose work he admires, including John Cleese, whom he met on The Frost Report in the 1960s. In those days Cleese was terrified of performing, and he credits Corbett with teaching him how to hold a pause.
“It was lovely to spend time with John and those I didn’t know so well, like David Mitchell, Michael McIntyre and Miranda Hart – a really funny lady who, with Harry Hill, is one of my favourites.” She says she was inspired by the slapstick of The Two Ronnies and seems in awe of him. “Does she?” He’s genuinely surprised. “I didn’t notice.”
During the programme Matt Lucas tells him his clothes make him look like a rainbow. Today he’s more understated but still dapper: light brown corduroys, suede shoes, blue open-necked shirt, light-blue waistcoat and tartan jacket accessorised with a vivid blue handkerchief. “I had the jacket made in Lochiel.” He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket. “It’s a Stewart of Appin Hunting Ancient.”
So he’s a bit of a dandy as well as meticulous, even fussy. He washes his own trademark Lyle & Scott cashmere sweaters. “It’s not a fetish,” he insists. “Someone told me if you add a dash of vinegar to fresh soapy suds and steam them with an iron they come up brilliantly. I like to take trouble. It upsets me if I meet someone before a show wearing jeans and a jersey who goes on stage in the same clothes. You have to dress up and present yourself as a ‘turn’.” He takes a scruffy Stephen Merchant to an up-market Savile Row tailor to smarten him up. “I feel Corbett-ised,” wails Merchant.
Filmed sharing a punt in Cambridge, David Mitchell mentions that, with comedians, self-doubt can turn quickly to megalomania. “Some are like that. Me? I’m always nervous. A classy comedian is full of self-doubt disguised with an air of false confidence. If there isn’t self-doubt you seem aggressive.”
The road to comedy fame…
He and Ronnie Barker toiled for many years before becoming famous on The Frost Report in 1966. He was 36 and ready to give up when he was thrust, virtually unknown, into the midst of ambitious, mostly Oxbridge, performers. “There wasn’t snobbery. I’d done National Service in the Air Force, which was immensely helpful to me, like going to university. Ron and I were family men with children, lucky with our wives, quite educated in our own way.
“I think the university boys were frightened of us because of our theatrical know-how, rather than the reverse. We were pretty complete performers by then with a lot of inbuilt skills, and a sort of stillness. All those I admired as a young performer had a calmness to their comedy – Max Wall and Jack Benny. It wasn’t frenetic, as it is often today. I was also influenced by Scottish comedians [he was brought up in Edinburgh] Dave Willis and Jack Radcliffe. I’d watch them, borrowing a little bit here and a little bit there.
“Today it’s easier to become a comedian because there are more venues. Although you work for very little money at least you can practise saying a few words. It’s never easy to make people laugh, but nowadays more comedians are bold enough to burst into full bloom prematurely. We made our mistakes in obscurity – Ronnie in repertory and me in revues and pantomime.
“Comedy today is grosser. We did Donald McGill, seaside-postcard stuff – middle of the road. We knew what mums, dads, and children would understand and enjoy without resentment. I don’t see the requirement to upset people. You’re there to entertain and please. We’d never do anything tasteless. There’s enough to make fun of without offending. Our comedy was light-hearted amusement that seemingly tripped naturally off the tongue. That’s why I don’t think it will date.”
On Frankie Boyle…
Frankie Boyle? “Oh my gosh. Yes. It’s not for me to say, but being outrageous is his territory. I’d be interested to chat to him to see why he wants to upset people. I don’t understand it. There are also a superfluous amount of stand-up programmes. You long to have them talk to each other or do a little sketch. I watch the wonderful Dara O Briain refereeing Mock the Week where they all compete with each other. I wouldn’t be on that. It frightens the life out of me.”
There’s a Two Ronnies sketch about an optician and his patient, both virtually blind, with the patient “reading” the furniture. “Would that be regarded as insulting to the visually impaired? I don’t know. We did it on stage at the London Palladium in 1983 at a time I was suffering from labyrinthitis [an inner-ear disorder, with anxiety a possible contributory factor] so balance was a problem. But I watched it yesterday and found it hysterically funny. We also did The Short and Fat Minstrel Show, but that was all right because it was us, so we could only offend each other. In those days there was The Black and White Minstrel Show – how out of date that seems.”
On Little Britain…
He admires Little Britain and saw it live in Brighton. “David Walliams showed the audience his naked bottom, quickly and carefully with no additions. In the interval, his mum said to Anne, ‘Oh gosh, where has he learnt this?’ I wouldn’t have done it myself, although I was romanced by Bubbles Devere in Little Britain Abroad: she took off her clothes and thrust her body at me.
“David and Matt [Lucas] are bold, funny, and imaginative, but I thought some of their characters wee’d [Mrs Emery] or were sick [Maggie Blackamoor] too much.” He discusses comedy with Lucas in a studio and is challenged to play a pregnant Vicky Pollard. “He flung it at me at the last moment, in the sweetest possible way. I’d have done it better if I’d known beforehand.”
He’s competing for career longevity with 83-year-old Bruce Forsyth. “He’s amazing, but was always pestered about a knighthood. It’s true they’ve rarely knighted comedians, although now Bruce has it they may have softened up. I’d be very honoured, of course. I was doing cabaret in the Gulf one New Year’s Eve many years ago in front of a lot of Arabians who didn’t understand a word of English. So I boiled my 45 minutes down to 20. At the back of my mind I knew the next day Ron and I were going to get OBEs, so I didn’t care.” He chuckles again, one of the least maudlin of comedians. “The sad clown? An operatic cliché. It’s not true.”
COMICS ON CORBETT:
Matt Lucas: “One of the best comic actors of his generation. He absolutely nails it. A giant.”
Stephen Merchant: “He makes comedy look easy and is part of comic history. I looked religiously at The Two Ronnies books. It was a way of teaching myself how it was done. He was a huge inspiration to me.”
David Walliams: “A brilliantly fun man, universally loved.”
John Cleese: “Ronnie C and Ronnie B were always going to be immensely popular because they were both hugely likeable, which matters for comedians. I never used to believe that. I used to quite like it if the audience didn’t like me very much but I could make them laugh anyway. It was a sort of slight… I don’t know… up yours.”
Miranda Hart: “A national treasure. Absolutely brilliant, a real inspiration, one of my comedy heroes.”