Ronnie Corbett: my part in his shortfall

Ronnie Corbett, for a lot of Brits of a certain age was a staple of Saturday night television comedy. He recently died aged 85. If you weren’t around in Britain or other countries able to pick up his BBC1 show, The Two Ronnies, in the 1970s and ’80s in which he co-starred with Ronnie Barker, let me give you the basics quickly. And then permit me a few personal reminiscences, as I was privileged to work with him.

A lot has been made of his stature (or lack of) – 5’1″ (1.55m). To be fair, he made a lot of his short stature himself (he might have called it a longstanding problem). But my guess is that someone of his comedic talent – performance, on-screen or on-stage warmth, timing, professionalism – would have risen to the top anyway, even if he had been vertically un-challenged.

Next to his height, he was nearly as famous for his ‘And it’s goodnight from me’ payoff at the end of The Two Ronnies.

 

Scotsman of many parts

As a Scot who’d planed the Edinburgh edges off his accent to make himself ready for the bigger capital, London, he slipped effortlessly into a plethora of rôles in comic sketches. He could glide from country bumpkin to grey bureaucrat, but for me it was his rambling monologues in his stripy armchair with his trademark thick, black-framed specs, almost mimicking the shape of the screen we were viewing him on, which were the ultimate in pure comedy.

While the big production numbers with singing and high-kicking from both Ronnies were impressive and complex musically and in design terms (my Dad commented on how good Corbett’s legs were when he was in drag), there was something so beguiling about wee Ronnie C starting to tell a joke and interrupting himself in such an entertaining way as to eclipse the punchline. The journey was indeed more important than the destination.

Hats off to main Ronnie-in-the-chair writer, Spike Mullins – whom Ronnie said to me sadly ‘is no longer with us’ (he died in 1994) – for the best scripts. So successful was Mullins in capturing a unique comedic voice for Corbett that when he was hired for speaking engagements, Ronnie told me that that was the version of him clients expected. (It’s also testament, of course, to the quality of the chairman’s performance.)

In my sound engineering days I worked on a couple of series Ronnie starred in: the sitcom Sorry!, in which he played the lead, a 40-something who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) leave home, and then years later, on English comedian Ben Elton’s The Man from Auntie, in which Corbett featured ‘in the chair’, reprising his Two Ronnies days.

 

Up close and personal

I had more personal interaction with Ronnie on the latter show in the 1990s, and found him to be polite, professional, calm and – if anything – quite subdued when not performing. I observed how he engaged with colleagues as equals – for instance, I was there when he was telling one or two of the wardrobe staff about a special type of clothes iron he had that drew steam through the ironing board.

But there was another unreported – or under-reported – side to Ronnie C that all the obituaries I’ve seen missed, and I don’t feel my assessment of the man is complete without it. A number of my former colleagues recalled how, at the height of his fame, he could be (choosing my words carefully) difficult, playing ‘bad cop’ to Ronnie Barker’s ‘good cop’. I hesitate to say this as it was not my experience of him, but this version of Corbett reached me from a number of independent directions which, being from colleagues I knew and trusted, I couldn’t just dismiss. They painted a picture of a man who was egotistical and demanding at the peak of his powers. I was even told that Corbett had sat with a stopwatch viewing a pre-recorded comedy item he was in, noting the amount of screen time he had been allotted compared to Barker.

I only heard that particular anecdote from one former crew member, so it could be part of the mythology that grew around Corbett. And where a view is, in journalistic language, ‘single sourced’, there’s always the possibility that there might be some subtext: a misreading of the situation, rivalry or personality clash, or even that the individual was not very good at their job. Stars tend not to suffer fools gladly.

But the overall picture I gained of the comedian from a number of people I knew who’d worked with him in that earlier era – not just crew, but others, including a director (not the one referred to later) – was consistently unflattering.

 

Doorknobs and noises off

The first sitcom I worked on was Sorry! and I remember a colleague describing the star of the show, Ronnie C, as ‘a bomb that never went off’, another hint at a more tempestuous era. With that warning ticking in my ears, I recall cast and crew rehearsing a scene in the lounge set, and Ronnie having a problem with the door creeping open again after he shut it. As the floor manager got involved I vividly remember wincing in anticipation of the Corbett explosion to come… but it never did. So I consider myself lucky to only have experienced the later period, more centred man.

On that same series I enjoyed witnessing a private joke between the leading actor and his director/producer, David Askey. I was in part responsible for it. On the sound crew we discovered in one episode’s first ‘stagger through’ (early rehearsal) that, due to a cable being left plugged in in error from a previous show, when Ronnie picked up the prop phone to act one side of a conversation, instead of hearing silence in the handset, he could actually hear David directing the crew on the communication system from the gallery called talkback. (I had to be on talkback at this point as I was on the sound boom which was picking up Ronnie’s words.) I think I pointed this out to the sound crew leader and he said he would unplug the offending cable from the wall.

In the event, it got overlooked (and I missed an opportunity to disconnect the cable, too) and there was a delicious moment each time we got to the phone part of the plot and I could see that there was a subtle acknowledgment on both sides – in David’s voice and in Ronnie’s twinkling eyes – that, probably for the first time ever in a TV studio, Ronnie was being directed by the director in the gallery, er, directly!

 

Going (more) gently into that “Goodnight”

When working on Auntie, I was lucky enough to be able to tell Ronnie in person that, when revising for my exams at the age of 16, my reward was to catch him ‘in the chair’ at the end of The Two Ronnies. My Dad would rap on the living room door to beckon me downstairs from my bedroom.

On telling him this, Ronnie said, ‘And did you pass your exams?’

Thanks in no small part (no pun intended) to Ronnie, I was able to tell him I did.

 

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