To this day, whenever my extended family gathers for a meal, usually at Christmas, someone will crack that Two Ronnies “four candles” gag. All it takes is an innocent request for a fork and we’re off. The young ’uns will groan, “Oh no, not this again.” But we old ’uns will hoot. “Four candles? No, handles for forks.”
You remember it. A taciturn Ronnie Barker walks into a hardware shop to make increasingly bizarre demands of an exasperated Ronnie Corbett, who’s serving behind the counter. “Sore tips?… What, do you want ointment or some- thing?” It was saw tips, of course.
That sketch is a good 40 years old, but I watched it again after news broke of Ronnie Corbett’s death at the age of 85, and I rocked with laughter. Like the best comedy, it will never age. There’s something about the wordplay, the deadpan Barker and the fizzingly furious Corbett. Four candles… what a priceless present to leave the world.
Ronnie Corbett was an old man when he died, but as is the way of entertainers we’ve grown up with, we somehow expect them to live for ever. It’s almost an affront when we learn, with real sadness, that they don’t. Earlier this year it was Terry Wogan. Terry Wogan? But… he’s Terry Wogan! How can he not be here? Now Ronnie Corbett, the little man in the golfing jumpers who told those shaggy-dog stories direct to camera on The Two Ronnies. But… he’s Ronnie Corbett! How can he not be here?
It could be a generational thing, but I define my childhood and growing years by television. Thunderbirds, The Man from UNCLE, Batman and Marty (Feldman) as a kid, The Morecambe and Wise Show and The Two Ronnies as an adolescent – though we never had the same embracing, all-encompassing affection for the Two Ronnies as we did for Morecambe and Wise, simply and unfairly because they weren’t Morecambe and Wise. But they were still Saturday-night and Christmas Day staples.
A new series of The Two Ronnies was always a big deal, when we really did gather as a family around the telly. No one really gave a second thought to the double entendres and innuendos in those pantomime songs at the end where the Ronnies would more often than not dress up as women. This was the 1970s and 1980s when things were simpler.
I realise now that those false-boob gags were too much. But not then. Then, I loved them. I was a kid, they were funny, I even liked the silly burlesque horror-parody serials, The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town and The Worm That Turned. Corbett and Barker had a comedy alchemy that was worth its weight in rubies.
Corbett wasn’t just part of a double act. In yet another of those sketches that has become part of the rough weave of British comedy, he was the little fella in the cloth cap and scarf in “The Class Sketch” with John Cleese and Ronnie Barker from The Frost Report in 1967. It’s another piece of comic plutonium; it still says so much, so truthfully, with so little, and it will never wither. (“I look down on him because I am middle class”… “I know my place. I look up to them both.”)
One of Corbett’s greatest triumphs was the 1980s sitcom Sorry!, a slightly creepy thing about a meek librarian, Timothy Lumsden, who was dominated by his smothering mother. It gave birth to the abiding catchphrase “Language, Timothy!” and gained a curious, brief currency last year when it was mentioned in a radio interview by then Government Chief Whip Michael Gove. He used it to make a point that Sorry! – about a man in his 40s still living at home with his parents – would be a documentary now because of the housing shortage.
Crucially, Corbett never went out of fashion. He was beloved across all ages and he never looked awkward when he turned up in contemporary comedies such as Ricky Gervais’s Extras, where he played a version of himself behaving very badly at the Baftas.
He gathered a whole new demographic through a happy accident, filming for Peter Kay’s Comic Relief spoof video Is This the Way to Amarillo in 2005, when he fell off a treadmill. Trouper that he was, he allowed Kay to keep the footage in.
Though, of course, the real sadness at Ronnie Corbett’s death belongs to his family and close friends, it’s impossible not to appropriate him, just a little bit. When someone you’ve never met accompanies you through life, through a television screen, it’s poignant to consider their loss.
But let’s not be sad, because Corbett was all about laughter. So when you sit down to dinner tonight, ask for a fork…