After almost 60 years as an entertainer, Ronnie Corbett remains one of the most instantly recognisable faces on British television. Martin McGrath talks to him about life in the union, comedy and his only disagreemnet with Ronnie Barker.
Meeting Ronnie Corbett is a strange experience. He has been one of the most instantly recognisable faces on television for decades and you immediately get the sense that this is someone you’ve known and liked for a long time. At the peak of The Two Ronnies popularity 22 million people were tuning in each week for the mix of sketches, variety-style entertainment and clever word play. That show lasted an incredible 16 years and together Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker made 98 episodes. But like all good showmen, they quit on their own terms in 1987 leaving audiences still wanting more.
I think it is fair to say that for many years Ronnie Corbett was more famous than most rock stars.
However, even though we meet for the interview in the salubrious surroundings of the Hilton Park Lane Hotel, where Ronnie is getting ready for a corporate gig as after-dinner speaker and awards host, there is nothing in the way he acts that suggests that the fame might have changed him.
Indeed, chatting to him about his career, and almost 60 years as a member of Equity, he seems exactly like the character we are familiar with from years on the television. He is relaxed and funny and his answers to my questions are long, occasionally rambling, encompass an enormous cast of characters and are suffused with self-deprecating wit. He’s quick to pay tribute to the help he has received throughout his career and the contribution of the performers, producers and writers he’s worked with. His answers to my questions are most often diverted along routes that lead to praise for other people.
For example, when I show him a copy of his original Equity application form, and ask him what he remembers about joining the union, he immediately begins to discuss the people who helped him into his first role.
“I finished my national service and my first job was a film at Southall Studios that I got into through my dear friend Ted Hardwick whose mum, Pixie Hardwick, was my main encourager and sponsor,” he remembers. “She knew a man called Reginald Beckwith who was a comedy actor and writer and he’d co-written the script for a film that was being made at Glasgow University called You’re Only Young Twice. Pixie sent me along to see Reginald and the director Terry Bishop and I got the part of the president of the student’s union, and that was my first job.”
He confesses that, unlike many performers at the time who regarded getting the Equity card as something of a rite of passage, his focus was more practical. “My main aim was not to get an Equity card but to get some work,” he said. But he did come from a trade union background. “My father, who’d been a baker all his life, was a strong union man – perhaps stronger than me. In those days the miners and the bakers had to struggle over terrible wages and conditions, so I did have unionism in my blood.”
He was proposed and seconded for his membership of Equity by the stars of You’re Only Young Twice, Diane Hart and Charles Hawtrey, but Corbett’s future didn’t lie in movies. Over the next decade Ronnie would make a smattering of television appearances but it was in clubs, reviews and seaside concert parties that he worked most often and started to make a name for himself.
“In those days there were small pantomimes in rep and little concert parties dotted around the coast,” he recalls. “I did one in Cromer, that was my first stage job, directed funnily enough by Clive Dunn – Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army – who is celebrating his ninetieth birthday soon. Lovely fellow. He gave me my first job there in Cromer in a summer show.”
As well as providing much needed work, Ronnie looks back on those concert shows and his work on stage as laying important foundations for his future success because the work encouraged versatility.
“The main difference in those days was that you didn’t only work as a comedian,” he said. “You’d play roles in sketches, feeding lines to the show’s stars, you might sing or dance and in each of the five 16 minute programmes – which we changed every week on a Thursday – I only had to do four minutes on my own. That’s a big difference between now and then, you didn’t have to rush on like you do today and do 45 minutes.”
From seaside concert shows Ronnie began to find work in London’s burgeoning club scene – though not all of it was onstage. Between jobs he worked behind the bar at the Buxton Club, a famous hang-out for theatrical types in the late fifties and early sixties. It was there that he was introduced to Digby Wolfe – a comic, actor and writer – who used Ronnie in his television programme and then asked him to work in a show he was putting on in the hot Mayfair nightclub Winstons, then owned by Danny La Rue.
The move to Winstons was an important one. Amongst the performers also on the bill in the nightclub was Ann Hart, who Ronnie would marry in 1965.
“She was singing and being very funny,” Ronnie remembers.
They’re still together almost 45 years later. I asked Ronnie whether it helped having a partner who understood the business.
“I think it did, certainly,” he said. “She very unselfishly gave up the business. We lost our first baby and that really made her stop and think that she wanted to spend her time with our family, as she did with our girls [they have two daughters]. So she gave up performing. It was a bit of a waste really. But although she looks bold and fierce she wasn’t that kind of person as a performer, she worried a lot. She did miss it at first, I think.”
As well as meeting his future wife on stage at Winstons, Ronnie was also spotted by David Frost, who invited him to work on The Frost Report. On that show he worked with Ronnie Barker for the first time and under the auspices of Frost’s company Paradigm he’d go on to feature in television shows such as No – That’s Me Over Here, Now Look Here, The Prince of Denmark and hosting his own variety show, The Corbett Follies.
So he was already a successful and increasingly recognisable face on television when an appearance presenting an award with Ronnie Barker at the BAFTAs changed his career.
“At the Palladium there was a technical breakdown and we had to fill in for about seven minutes,” he remembers. “And Bill Cotton is supposed to have turned to Paul Fox and said do you think we could get them?”
In many ways The Two Ronnies was an unusual show, not least because the two stars never really formed a traditional double-act. There was no straightman/comedian split, they’d often perform sketches and routines apart and even when they were on screen together it was very much a partnership of equals.
When Ronnie Barker died in October 2005, Ronnie Corbett told the press that in all the years they’d worked together there’d never been a cross word between the two men.
For those familiar with the sometimes competitive and occasionally spiky world of comedy it was a remarkable statement. Even more so given that this was a relationship without a defined funny man/straight man division. Surely, I suggest, there must have been times when there was competition for the best lines?
“There was never competition between us,” Ronnie says flatly.
There must have been something?
“We only had one row,” he says and suddenly I feel that I may have stumbled upon an exclusive. “There was a sketch which involved a man being paranoid about being caught by Eamon Andrews on This is Your Life. Every time there was a knock at the door he’d panic and eventually, of course, Eamon Andrews eventually comes through the door and catches him. We’d rehearsed this sketch with me playing this unlikely role and it felt totally wrong. I went home to Ann that night and I said Ron’s absolutely trying to elbow me into this role and it’s not working, I should be playing the other part. It was so unusual and I really wasn’t happy. Ann just said go quietly and do the sketch. Of course she knew that when Eamon Andrews appeared at the end of the sketch he was going to say “Ronnie Corbett this is your life!” We’d been rehearsing all day with the This is Your Life in set in the flyers and I’d never notice it. And so I was caught…”
So the truth is the only time Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker argued about their work was when they had to bend the rules to accommodate the outside world.
I asked Ronnie about the monologues he delivered from his famous chair, and I suggested that these sections were a very modern style of comedy – not the rapid fire gag! gag! gag! pattern familiar from other comedians of that era but more like the rambling storytelling that many modern comedians employ. Again he’s quick to pass the credit for the success to the others – specifically to the writers Spike Mullins and David Renwick, who crafted the material for him over the years and for whom Ronnie’s praise is effusive. When I try to insist that the format, which he’d already used while introducing The Corbett Follies, was ahead of its time and might explain why decades after the end of The Two Ronnies he remains beloved of a new generation of comics, he prefers, again to talk about those behind the scenes.
“Ben Elton wrote some very funny bits for the chair when he asked me to come back and do them,” he said. “David Renwick didn’t feel up to it, and I shopped around for writers and we managed to cobble together the pieces but it made me realise how lucky I’d been. But Ben did write a couple of my chair spots, they were a shade fierce, but they were still very good. Ben’s a very funny and very brave comedian when it comes to his material.”
But the fact is that the wheel has turned. After what might have been an initial down period – the end of The Two Ronnies coincided with the end of his most successful sitcom – Sorry – Ronnie Corbett is now perhaps more respected than at any stage in his career.
“To be truthful I think that when the general public and some of the young comics see the shows repeated and see the quality of the stuff that we did, they know that it hasn’t been matched since really. Your reign is extended a bit when people recognise the quality-in-depth of the material we did. They spent money on the show, we had the cream of writers, extraordinary production values, music, orchestras, dancers – they really looked after us.”
There’s no denying that there’s nothing like The Two Ronnies on television today but, I insist, it was about more than just the money. Surely the two performers at the heart of it all brought something special. The difference, Ronnie suggests, might lie in their background – both Ronnies had experience as character actors and in a wide variety of performance styles.
“We mustn’t mention names, but some modern comedians or presenters are very personable but if they try to play a funny character they can’t, because they don’t have the training or the background,” he suggests. “There’s nobody doing the sort of thing Ron and I did now. You see, we were partly actors. Particularly Ronnie, but me as well. We could play character sketches. We could play different classes of people. We could play people from different parts of the country – we could be Scottish, or from Lancashire or wearing smocks down in the West Country. And unlike some modern shows, we didn’t find one character and keep doing it week-in-week-out, even if they were very strong characters.”
I ask him whether there’s anything that he wishes he’d done in his career and he seems at a loss for the first time in the interview. It’s clearly not something he’s given a great deal of thought to. What about films, I prompt?
“Ron and I never did a film,” he concedes. “We were asked but we wanted to find a subject where we weren’t linked together in the film – like Morecambe and Wise or Canon and Ball – we wanted to find a story where we were quite independent but could come together to do our stuff but we never found the script. But Ronnie did play the Butler to Albert Finney’s Churchill – I’d like to do something like that. But the trouble is with me is that I am so clearly Ronnie Corbett when I come on, if I slightly try to disguise the fact it’s a waste of time. But I suppose others get away with it. Ronnie did, and someone like Dawn French can do it brilliantly. She can be in all these wonderful period pieces and be believable doing it, but she’s always Dawn French. But they don’t seem to cast me.”
He did of course recently take a little step out of his onscreen persona when he appeared in Ricky Gervais’s Extras and is famously “captured” taking drugs during a BAFTA award ceremony. The memory of that makes him laugh.
“I enjoyed doing that,” he said. “Ricky is very clever. I got a lot of reaction from Extras.”
So perhaps there’s another turn in his career still to come if there are any directors brave enough to cast him against type? But he’s not unhappy with his present lot. As we prepare to leave I ask him what he’s most proud of having achieved in his career.
“There’s obviously The Two Ronnies,” he said. “But you know I quite like that after all these years, I have gathered the facility to just go on in an evening after an awards ceremony or a dinner and do a half-an-hour and everybody think it’s tripping of the end off my tongue and I can feel easy standing there – dressed up theatrically and doing a proper turn and providing laughs. You do benefit with the credit of people’s memory of you. You walk on carrying that goodwill with you, so as long as you’re professional and give them a good show, you start with a big plus.”
So he doesn’t envy the modern comedians with their stadium tours and their huge crowds?
“I wouldn’t like to do an arena stadium, I think the Palladium is quite big enough for a turn. The idea of the 02 doesn’t appeal. I think comedy needs a connection with people – you’ve got to be in touch,” he said. But he accepts that the rise of the “rock star” comedian is a sign that the business has changed. “They all play terrific tours, like Rob Brydon or Michael McIntyre, both of whom I love. Their tours are huge. They seem to do better in live performance than they do on the box. It says something for the state of television today. It is so different and the audience is so fragmented that you can’t get the numbers that we used to. So now they do these great colourful tours. I look at the advertising pages in the colour supplements and I wonder where they’re all going to work.”
But while the comedy scene might have changed out of all recognition in the almost 60 years since Ronnie Corbett got his first Equity card on the set at Southall Studios, one thing has remained constant, his membership of the union.
“BECS is an amazing service. I got a cheque from them yesterday. It’s something that the union has had to fight for and I often think of all those people who made films before a certain date and didn’t get anything. I am most certainly aware of how valuable it is to have a strong union supporting claims and putting people’s thoughts and well-being in one place.”
Does he have any advice for new comedians? Again he hesitates. He doesn’t want to be seen as talking down to anyone.
“You should stick together,” he said. “It’s because of the nature of the beast, in a way. The great comedians who I loved and was brought up watching – like Jack Benny and Bob Hope – all did these wonderful, effective, stylish acts with a company. They were basically production comics who thought through the whole show – they worried that the set would be nice and the girls would look good and that the orchestra would be right – not just ‘how long am I on for?’ – and that’s the foundation of the union. There is more to show business than just thinking of yourself. They thought of the company and weren’t so self-interested. And the union was a very important part of the structure of it all. All that work we did together throughout our careers, all the while we were all Equity members. All working for the same thing.”
“I was astounded to learn that a number of modern comedians aren’t members of Equity – it’s very sad.”
Throughout our interview Ronnie Corbett proves that, like his heroes, he’s still thinking about the rest of the production not just about himself. His modesty is striking, his determination to share the credit for his success is admirable and his memory of those he’s worked with is razor sharp.
Some people, having achieved far less, have become far more convinced of their own importance and demand recognition from all around them. It says something for Ronnie Corbett’s self-confidence and strength of character that there isn’t a whiff of egotism about him.
And yet, despite his best attempts to avoid taking any of the credit for his own success, his talents are obvious throughout our meeting – and have not dimmed over the years. He still has that easy wit, the casual charm and, above all else, he is a fantastic raconteur.
Ronnie Corbett is a natural-born storyteller and that can’t help but shine through.