We’ve written recently about Ronnie Corbett showcasing his culinary talents on Ronnie Corbett’s Supper Club, but now, to celebrate his 80th, Ronnie returns to his comedy roots for The One Ronnie, a sketch comedy special with James Corden, Rob Brydon and Miranda Hart set for a Christmas Day transmission on the BBC.
English freelance writer and journalist, Adrian Peel, who has had numerous articles published in the U.S. the UK and Mexico, recently conducted an extensive interview with the British comedy legend and one half of the comedy duo, The Two Ronnies, with the great Ronnie Barker. Originally written and published for Suite 101, Adrian has generously allowed tellyspotting to reprint his piece in honor of Ronnie Corbett’s 80th birthday today.
Ronnie Corbett in 2010
Suite101: How are you? What have you been up to of late?
Ronnie Corbett (RC): “I am very well, thank you very much. I have recently been recording a show for the BBC to celebrate my 80th birthday and I have to say it is full of the most wonderful names – Rob Brydon, Hugh Dennis, Robert Lindsay, Matt Lucas and David Williams, Miranda Hart, Rory Bremner, Harry Enfield etc. It’s just a real treat. It was a little bit of a worry because it was an enormous number of sketchers – about 22, but I did it at the weekend.”
“The biggest influences on me were of course British comedians,” explains a still-sprightly Ronnie Corbett, when asked to name the comics who most inspired him. “Certainly Max Miller and Max Wall, who in the early days I used to see quite a lot of.
Perhaps on top of them all really – because they were such classy and stylish performers with good writing – would be Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, who were all wonderful on the stage.”
Suite 101: And double acts?
RC: “Well obviously Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise at the top of the list and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. So they would certainly hold a very important position in the back catalogue.”
Suite 101: When did you first realise you had the ability to make people laugh?
“I suppose when I was a sixteen year old boy in the church youth club in Edinburgh. I used to take part in shows, and a pantomime in particular, where I played the Dame and I realised that it was a very comfortable thing for me to do.
I hope I have improved, because I have now been in the business over fifty years.”
The Frost Report
After having met in The Buckstone Club in London’s Haymarket – where Ronnie C. was working as a barman – in 1963, Ronnie and Ronnie made their TV debuts in 1966 on The Frost Report, a satirical sketch-based programme hosted by David Frost.
“David Frost invited me on to The Frost Report, having seen me in nightclubs,” remembers Ronnie, “and it was a major turning point in my life. David Frost has been a close friend and a great supporter and perhaps the foundation of my career because he put me on television.”
Suite 101: Who wrote the legendary “Class” sketch, in which you appeared with Ronnie and John Cleese and which remains an unforgettable moment in British comedy history?
“The ‘Class’ sketch was written by a Glasgow chap, whose name, I think, was John Law. He was married to a ballerina, I do know that – Bery Kaye I think it was. But it has lasted forever and whenever there is an article about class, that picture appears.”
The Two Ronnies
Universally acclaimed, it featured such timeless classics as Mastermind (where the contestant’s specialist subject was answering the question before last) and The Worm that Turned, a dystopian society ruled by leather-clad women.
“My favourite Two Ronnies sketches? Very difficult,” muses Ronnie when asked for his opinion on the subject, “but because it’s everybody’s favourite: Fork Handles (this inspired use of wordplay once topped a TV poll to find the nation’s favourite sketch) and of course and The Two Men at the Bar, who wouldn’t let each other finish what they were saying.”
Suite 101: Were you surprised when Ronnie Barker retired?
RC: “Yes, when Ronnie retired it was a little bit of a shock, but I wasn’t surprised because he hadn’t been very well, and of course we did re-unite for The Sketchbook, which was really a collection of stuff we had done in the past linked afresh. It was a great thrill to do it, and that’s how it was revived.”
Suite 101: Why do you think the more innocent style of sketch comedy, as performed by the likes of The Two Ronnies and Morecombe and Wise, has all but disappeared from our screens?
RC: “I’m not sure that the innocent style of sketch comedy has absolutely disappeared from our screens, but people’s tastes do vary; they seesaw up and down.
They come and they go and I think people probably have a different sort of basis to their education than perhaps university college boys who are a little bit smarter, but don’t have the same true blue vaudevillian spirit inside them because it has been slightly hammered out of them by their education in a way.”
Ronnie Barker: Death of a Friend
Shortly after completing work on The Two Ronnie’s Sketchbook, Ronnie Barker, who had been ill for some time, passed away from a heart condition on October 3rd, 2005. What are Ronnie Corbett’s fondest memories of his much-missed colleague?
“It’s too much of a question about missing Ronnie Barker,” he sighs. “He was a very dear friend, darling mate, generous, sweet, talented, clever and his memories are dotted all around my house, with photographs and drawings and books and typed and handwritten notes and goodness knows what. So although he’s gone, he’s still here.”
Despite The Two Ronnies taking up much of their schedule, the pair found time to broaden their horizons as solo performers. Ronnie Barker showed off his considerable range most successfully in Porridge and Open All Hours, while Ronnie Corbett’s Sorry! with its “Language Timothy!” catchphrase proved to be the perfect vehicle for the often underrated actor.
“Sorry! I was very lucky to stumble on. Ronnie B. was about then and read it and said he thought it was the best sitcom that had been written for me. It was a great pleasure to do, and the boys – Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent, who wrote it, have also written a radio series that I did last year on Radio 4 – When the Dog Dies.
They are writing another one, because it has been re-commissioned, so I should be doing that later on in the year as well. So that has been a great pleasure, because Ian and David are very dear friends.”
Comedy Today: Ronnie Corbett in Extras
In 2006, Ronnie made a hilarious cameo in the Ricky Gervais sitcom, Extras, playing a version of himself caught up in illegal substance abuse.
In a scene involving Gervais and co-writer, Stephen Merchant, the three get caught snorting cocaine (given to Ronnie by newsreader, Moira Stewart) in the toilets at the BAFTA Awards and subsequently get banned from attending all future events.
“I enjoyed doing Ricky Gervais’s Extras show,” says Ronnie, “and it had an amazing affect because people still talk about it, and remember it very clearly. I suppose for the unlikely casting of me as a user of some sort and I was always quite relieved to know that Moira Stewart was my supplier!”
Suite 101: What current sitcoms or sketch shows do you enjoy?
RC: “The sitcom I’m enjoying at the moment is Miranda, who is a new discovery. She writes it herself, stars in it herself and is enormously funny in a very natural, unhampered way. She is a very free spirit.”
Suite 101: What are your proudest achievements in your career to date? Do you have any ambitions left to fulfill?
RC: “I’m just pleased to jog on as always is the answer to this question. My God you are full of enquiries! I hope these answers satisfy your needs.”
Thanks, Adrian and Happy 80th, Ronnie. Thanks for the decades of laughter you’ve brought the world.