Ronnie Corbett is dead at 85 – and with him that golden era of British television comedy, when as a nation we all laughed together at the same tastefully smutty, funny, apolitical jokes on the same programmes on the same evenings and viewing figures ran into the many millions.
Corbett was, of course, with Ronnie Barker one half of The Two Ronnies – which at its height, in the 1970s and 1980s, pulled audiences of up to 17 million viewers.
A lot of their humour depended on word-play – especially puns and double entendres – as in their most famous sketch, The Hardware Shop.
In a hardware shop. Ronnie Corbett is behind the counter, wearing a warehouse jacket. He has just finished serving a customer.
CORBETT (muttering): There you are. Mind how you go.
(Ronnie Barker enters the shop, wearing a scruffy tank-top and beanie)
BARKER: Four Candles!
CORBETT: Four Candles?
BARKER: Four Candles.
(Ronnie Corbett makes for a box, and gets out four candles. He places them on the counter)
BARKER: No, four candles!
CORBETT (confused): Well there you are, four candles!
BARKER: No, fork ‘andles! ‘Andles for forks!
(Ronnie Corbett puts the candles away, and goes to get a fork handle. He places it onto the counter)CORBETT (muttering): Fork handles. Thought you said ‘four candles!’ (more clearly) Next?
Well, it was the way they told them – as I discovered myself when I went to meet the great man (or rather the small man – he was 5′ 1″) a few years back.
One of the regular sketches on The Two Ronnies was the one where Corbett would sit in a smoking jacket in an armchair and recount some interminably boring story. As a child I used to have doubts about this particular interlude, as it seemed to me that it got in the way of the funnier sketches featuring both Ronnies rather than just one, and their serial murder mysteries where they played detectives Charlie Farley and Piggy Malone – most famously The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town (co-written with Spike Milligan).
Meeting Corbett, though, it all made sense. His timing, his intonation, his turns-of-phrase all showed an immaculate comic gift which made me appreciate what an underrated talent he was – and how unfair it was merely to write him off as Ronnie Barker’s straight man.
Like Morecambe and Wise, Corbett and Barker were throwbacks to the age of vaudeville and the “end of the pier” show, with their smutty, seaside postcard humour which everyone could laugh at, whatever their age, sex or politics.
What killed it was the more topical, more political (ie left-wing) satire of the Eighties Alternative Comedy scene.
Corbett told me he knew the writing was on the wall when he found their own show being satirised on Not The Nine O’Clock News (featuring those zany upstarts Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith). Both shows were BBC productions and the Ronnies in their old fashioned way, felt this just wasn’t on.
“I think Ronnie was more upset than me. It was the most scathing affront because we were doing a big show on the Beeb at the time. The point I felt most strongly was that, until then, we tended to revere what had gone before, whether it was Jack Benny or Bob Hope or Max Wall. Even if we didn’t like it we would never have said so. We didn’t want to bring it down.”