Tuesday 17 July 2018

It's goodnight from him - comedy great Corbett dies at 85

Dean Gray

Friends and fans of Ronnie Corbett, the diminutive titan of British comedy, have said "goodnight" to the star for the last time after his death at the age of 85.

One of Britain's best-loved entertainers, Corbett's career spanned six decades. He was most cherished for his partnership with Ronnie Barker in the BBC sketch show 'The Two Ronnies', the pair bringing laughter to millions in the 1970s and 1980s.

He died in hospital "surrounded by his loving family", his publicist said, and is thought to have been ill for some time.

It emerged last night that Corbett was to have been knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours list, after a discreet campaign led by fellow comedian David Walliams, who described Corbett as his "comedy idol".

Corbett had been approved for a knighthood by the honours committee after a small group of top entertainers warned that the comedian was gravely ill, sources said.

Corbett is said to have been unaware that he was to be knighted. He was given a CBE in 2012, and convention dictates that recipients must wait around five years before receiving a higher honour, although the protocol can be overridden, particularly if a person is gravely ill

Ronnie Corbett with his wife Anne Hart. Photo: PA
Ronnie Corbett with his wife Anne Hart. Photo: PA
Ronnie Corbett in 1955. Photo: Getty
Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker during filming of The Two Ronnies. Photo: PA

Fellow comedians and TV personalities spoke of their sorrow at his death, with close friend Michael Parkinson calling him "a very easy man to love".

He said: "He was a perfect companion. He was bright. He could tell good stories. He was funny... We were just mates and I shall miss him terribly."

John Cleese said he was a "great, kind mentor and a wonderfully witty companion".

Veteran showman Bruce Forsyth (88) said: "I am so very sad to hear the news about Ronnie. I have lost a close and very dear friend and we have all lost one of the greatest comedians and entertainers this country has known."

Corbett achieved such fame as one of the 'Two Ronnies' that his solo career was often eclipsed; as his fans knew well, he worked on his own for many years, exploiting to the full both his lack of height - he was only 5ft 1in - and his undoubted talent as a comic performer.

Corbett maintained that after he became a professional comedian he had no regrets about being so small. His height had been the making of him, and he would make jokes about it as long as people thought his height was funny. Fortunately for him, they never stopped thinking it hilarious.

Although he had become a star in his own right before meeting Ronnie Barker, 'The Two Ronnies' (1971-1987) remained the zenith of a television career that lasted more than 40 years.

With his thick-rimmed spectacles and rotund, smiling face, he was more obviously a comedian than the more subtle Barker, whose appearance was more like that of a senior schoolmaster. Both were funny: Corbett the more experienced as a comic, Barker the more broadly based as a character actor. They complemented each other perfectly.

Corbett's singular contribution to 'The Two Ronnies' was his weekly monologue, delivered full-on to camera from an oversized easy chair.

Each show opened with Corbett and Barker at the "news desk", dispensing items of "news" in smartly paced "two-handers".

Corbett: "Further developments tonight in the case of the Hyde Park flasher, the man who jumps out in front of lady joggers, stark naked." Barker: "Eye-witnesses have helped police put together an Identikit picture of his face, but are still not sure of his whereabouts."

With weekly audiences of some 17 million, their programme achieved top ratings throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Ronald Balfour Corbett was born in Edinburgh on December 4, 1930, the eldest of three children. His father, a night-shift baker for the McVitie firm, stood 5ft 6in.

Ronnie did well at James Gillespie School and Edinburgh's Royal High School. Initially his lack of height created an awkwardness he was not to overcome for some years. An aunt paid two guineas for a course called 'How To Become Taller', which involved stretching exercises and a daily repetition of the mantra "Every day and in every way I'm getting taller and taller." He was not.

After months working as a clerical assistant in the Ministry of Agriculture, Corbett began his National Service with the RAF.

After being commissioned he decided to try to lose his strong Scottish accent and after demobilisation in 1951 some voice training accomplished this.

As a teenager he had taken lessons at a stage school in Edinburgh. Moving to London, he endured eight lean years, taking occasional engagements but mostly living on his earnings as a caretaker, tennis-court superintendent and advertising salesman. For some years he lived in grimy digs, working in nightclubs or on the halls, and teamed up with Anne Hart, a singer whom he met at a club, who became his stooge and whom he later married.

Corbett's big chance came when he was spotted by David Frost at Winston's, Danny La Rue's West End night club, and cast in his BBC show 'The Frost Report' (1966-67), followed by 'Frost on Sunday' for ITV (1968-69). It was with Frost that he first teamed up with Ronnie Barker. Barker had been an occasional customer at the Buckstone, an actors' drinking club where Corbett had worked behind the bar.

'The Two Ronnies', although time-consuming, prevented neither Corbett nor Barker from appearing on his own. Corbett's films included 'You're Only Young Twice' (1952), 'Fun at St Fanny's' (1955) and 'No Sex Please, We're British' (1973). 'Sorry!', starting in 1981, was another successful television series on his own.

Meanwhile, 'The Two Ronnies' continued to attract enormous audiences, and when it looked as if it might run for 20 years Barker suddenly, and to Corbett's surprise, announced that he wanted to leave.

Anyone who thought there had been any sort of feud between them was wrong. They had always been friends and remained so, although their private family lives kept them apart. Barker may have been worrying about his health; one way or another he felt he was becoming stale and that enough was enough.

Corbett's career continued along its successful path. When, with Barker, he was appointed OBE in 1978 (advanced to CBE in 2012), he was thrilled to discover that the Queen was a 'Two Ronnies' fan. Single-minded, a man with great drive, he now was living a very full life.

He published a 'Small Man's Guide to Life and Armchair Golf'. His interests outside family included racing, soccer, cooking and woodworking, but his main recreation was golf. His autobiography, 'High Hopes', appeared in 2000.

Corbett married Anne in 1965. She survives him with their two daughters. A son born in 1966 died at the age of six weeks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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