A good night from him?

Glenn Reuben has a sneak preview of The One Ronnie

The idea sounded brilliant: apply for tickets to the recording of a special TV show featuring a plethora of comedy guests to mark the 80th birthday of the legendary Ronnie Corbett. What a great chance to see one of my comedy heroes being celebrated in style, and in time for a Christmas broadcast too.

Yes, The One Ronnie sounded a great night out. And yet, I couldn’t shake the one thought running around in the back of my paranoia-filled brain: don’t get your hopes up. And for the most part, my thought was justified.

The opening bit was great, showing Ron doing a bit of pre-recorded gymnastics, and there were some lovely ‘But first, the news...’ headlines, which also closed the show. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the material was sub-standard.

One sketch had Catherine Tate as a barmaid verbally sparring with Corbett’s ‘Bert’, who, if you remember, was one of two men in the classic pub sketches in which Barker would try to second-guess everything Corbett would say (‘I’ve just been down...er...’ ‘Down the road? Down the pub? Down with the kids? Down and out?’). Tate’s delivery was noticeably slow, partly to accommodate for Corbett’s advancing years, one may assume, but either way, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the sketch would have been better performed 30 years ago. Obviously, it’s terribly easy to say so, especially since the editing process might reveal one or two surprises which we didn’t see that evening, but as the night wore on, the feeling of familiarity crept in time and time again.

I suppose I can’t fault the greengrocer’s sketch which had Harry Enfield’s shopkeeper dealing with Corbett’s broken Blackberry, Apple and an Xbox 360/Egg Box, £3.60. Funny, too, was the tribute to the musical numbers at the end of The Two Ronnies, which had Enfield, Rob Brydon, Matt Lucas and David Walliams doing the drag routine by playing old ladies singing hymns in a church, but with different lyrics, of course, taking pops at one another.

Many others played on Corbett’s age, such as seeing him as an elderly sidekick to Walliam’s youthful superhero, and playing Lassie, whom his agent (Robert Lindsay) can’t find new work for any more. Fairlyamusing, but not hilarious. And then there was the now-famous armchair monologue, scripted by Ben Elton, who had him on his own show in 1998. Again, this demonstrated the age-gap between Ronnie and the younger generation, written as it was about dealing with a mobile phone and a charger for his granddaughter. Good stuff, but not a patch on his old ramblings. But of course, by now, I don’t fully expect it to be an archive moment.

We were also ‘treated’ to video clips of various impressionists ‘doing’ Ron. Rory Bremner and Jon Culshaw were the obvious choices, but we also saw Les Dennis, Bobby Davro and even Phil Cool. No offence to the latter, but good as he is, when was he last on television? I seem to remember him saying he wouldn’t work for the BBC again after their shabby treatment of him in the 80s. Either way, the best one, in my opinion, was Rob Brydon.

Aside from all that, what they all said wasn’t particularly funny. It’s all very well being able to take off somebody, but if the material itself isn’t up to scratch, the opportunity feels wasted. I have no idea who was writing it all (at least not until the credits appear after the show’s Christmas Day airing) but you would hope for better.

More sketches came and went without consequence or laughter. Several party sketches with guests from Richard Wilson to James Corden (the former almost being quite witty); a restaurant sketch harking back to another classic by treating everything as an optician’s (it did get a big laugh with the line ‘Is that soup better?’ (pause) Or worse?’); a village hall meeting about bringing pop stars to open small events (The Vicar of Dibley did this much better); a man who can’t eat biscuits with nuts, aided by Miranda Hart; an ice cream van treated as Starbucks/Costa/Nero/Coffee Republic, with Jocelyn Jee Esien; Rob Brydon animating Corbett as Frankenstein’s monster; June Whitfield and Corbett discussing a play; and Jon Culshaw as Michael Parkinson, with Corbett as an explorer in a game of one-upmanship. I must admit, for a few of these, I just didn’t know whether to clap or laugh at all. Much of the applause seemed out of politeness and fondness, sadly – not really deserved.

But there was drama too, when tripped and fell on the studio steps. Very worrying for everyone involved, but thankfully he was fine, and full credit to Lucas and Walliams and the rest of the crew for easing Ronnie back into things and making him more comfortable. Yet there’s another point regarding Lucas and Walliams – why were they in so many sketches? Couldn’t they mind anyone else? Another duo like Mitchell and Webb or Armstrong and Miller? Are they really that chummy, more than David Jason perhaps (who wasn’t there and should’ve been)? Or maybe it’s because they had another comedy series to promote on Christmas Day, possibly? Hmm...

Now I’m quite prepared for the inevitable pick-ups and re-takes, but when each live sketch started to be done again and again, it did get a bit tedious, even for the increasingly-irritated Mr Corbett, who seemed to hide his frustration with the crew quite thinly. This, though, I should’ve expected, since the glamour of television is stripped away rapidly at such recordings, especially after we were shown Charlotte Church performing ‘live’. On a screen. From a few hours ago.

The One Ronnie was always going to be given a Christmas Day slot, and it’s been scheduled for 5.10pm. Why so early? I appreciate The Royle Family being on too, but starting the new series of Come Fly With Me on Christmas Day as well? Why not push one back and have Ronnie’s birthday bash on primetime? Let’s face it, the show probably wouldn’t have found a decent place if it wasn’t December 25. If the Sketchbook pulled in the viewers in 2005 (and that, too, was of questionable quality), why not try again? That’s probably the thought running around the brain of the BBC’s scheduling department. Yes, they only have one between them.

I doubt this will get much more than about 10 million, if that, on the day – a far cry from the heyday the duo used to receive in the Seventies and Eighties. Still, I mustn’t forget that this is harmless, clean amusing fun, and the warmth and affection I feel for Ronnie Corbett is still there. It’s just a shame that the show could’ve been so much more. I almost, almost regret going to the recording.

So there we go – a taster of Christmas Day viewing. And while it was a fairly good night for me, I’m sure it was a good night for him. But never mind me. I know my place...

Published: 13 Dec 2010

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