As viewing habits grow more and more fractured, it seems like true household names are becoming increasingly rare. When Ronnie Corbett died this week at 85 that list grew one name shorter, but what is even more special about him is that he reached his fame while pioneering some surprisingly uncompromising comedy.
For a man whose first fame came in black and white and who could have happily retired decades ago, Corbett’s omnipresence is genuinely remarkable. On the day he died, it would be tough to find anyone in Britain who the name meant nothing to.
Yet his reputation is a cuddly one compared to the more jagged personas of other trailblazers like Spike Milligan. Once a celebrity gains that national treasure status it can be hard to remember how revolutionary they actually once were, and in this case it is worth remembering.
Corbett’s career in the 50s and 60s – which, speaking of his sheer longevity, started straight after his national service – certainly began in a standard enough way. Undoubtedly helped by his unusual appearance, standing just above five feet, he took on a series of mostly comedic roles (although a stint in The Saint hints at his range) before David Frost saw him perform at a cabaret night and The Frost Report shot him to greater fame.
Plenty of Frost Report sketches are still famous today, not least one where he, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese summed up the class system using height difference. Corbett’s repeated delivery of “I know my place” sells the whole sketch.
It was a few years between his breakout appearances on The Frost Report led to his biggest hit with co-star Ronnie Barker. The Two Ronnies, where Corbett’s comic sensibilities are clearest to see, was the result of a high-profile piece of improvisation, when technical problems at 1971’s Baftas led to Corbett and Barker distracting the the audience – including a few BBC bosses – with 10 minutes of unplanned comedy.
It was a lucky break all round, as The Two Ronnies helped usher in the kind of smart wordplay that comedians would be trying and mostly failing to copy well into the present day. The show is remembered for its variety feel, with regular song and dance numbers, sketches, mock news reading that prefigured Saturday Night Live, and of course Corbett’s sit-down comedy sequences, which involve long takes of him performing for the camera from an armchair.
Equally as important as all of that, though, were the slyly intelligent word games that went into so many routines. The fork handles are well remembered nowadays, but not the reams of other ambiguous items that made the sketch work (somehow plugs, pumps, saw tips and hoes fit into that category).
So many of their jokes relied on completely off the wall wordplay taken to its extreme. The famous Mastermind sketch, giving the answer to the previous question, is an obscure enough concept and it runs on double meanings. Slightly less celebrated, their ‘Swedish Made Simple’ sketch is a prime example of a scene where half the joy is in two minutes of a four minute sketch being given over to explaining the joke that is about to be made. The Two Ronnies is remarkable for the zeal its stars put into sticking with convoluted concepts, and for the success they enjoyed in doing so.
Both Ronnies would always be remembered for the work they did on The Two Ronnies, but neither stopped there. For Corbett, that first meant seven years as the star of Sorry!, where this wide-ranging sketch performer threw himself into a very specific character on a very character-focused sitcom.
By the time the 21st century rolled around, Corbett was playing with his own legacy and appearing in the kind of smart comedy he had helped inspire. That legacy included the kind of cuddly avuncular persona that Ricky Gervais naturally couldn’t resist puncturing on Extras, portraying him as a childish coke fiend (“It’s always bloody Corbett.”).
You can’t choose the reputation you wind up with, but more than 60 years on from his first on-screen appearances (both as “Student”), there are worse legacies to leave behind than Ronnie Corbett’s. He is remembered as one of the ultimate mainstream comedians, bringing the UK together like few could since. For all that though, let’s not forget that part of his legacy is also in the clever comedy he pioneered and, as an inspiration and a mentor to the likes of the Monty Python crew, some of the best comedians the UK has produced.