‘I'm going,’ Ron told me. Days later he was dead

Interview: Ronnie Corbett

Ronnie Corbett may be turning 75 on Sunday, but a mischievous, schoolboy twinkle still shines through his trademark glasses. But his face turns sombre when he talks about the death of Ronnie Barker, last month at the age of 76.

And he says it was London cabbies who brought tears to his eyes the day after Ronnie’s death.

‘It’s been very poignant,’ says Ronnie. ‘I had to go into the West End the day after and taxi drivers, who normally toot their horns and go, ‘Hello, Ron’, didn’t do it that day. They just lowered their windows and held their hands up. I just couldn’t help blubbing,’ he admits, blinking hard. ‘It was so respectful, they were just wonderful.

‘For about a fortnight after Ron went, I didn’t go many places because people would want to stop and speak and then I would get upset.’

The Two Ronnies experienced a revival when their best sketches were repackaged with new links for the Two Ronnies Sketchbook shows in March.

‘People were thrilled – you couldn’t get tickets to see the studio show,’ he says. ‘I think people feel starved of nice, glamorous entertainment. They want to see costumes and gaiety and a singer; old-fashioned entertainment – it won’t die easily.

‘People came to me and said, “My children are 10 and 11 and didn’t know who you were and now they’re hooked.” We found a completely new audience.”

Links for the Christmas special were recorded this summer; the last work Ronnie B did before his death.

‘Ronnie knew he was frail and that he wouldn’t be stronger as the weeks went by, so he did want to get it done quite early,” explains Ronnie.

‘Because we’d done the Sketchbook, we had a special kind of routine. He would only have the energy to come in for one day, and we did a brief rehearsal late morning and then he’d have a little rest; then we’d do a little in the afternoon – as little as possible to save the energy for the night.

‘It ran very smoothly. Ronnie hadn’t the strength for it to take too long because he was weary.

‘I spoke to him the week before he died and he said, “I’m going” So this will be the last wonderful celebration of him.

‘He had a fantastic press, and what a library of work he did.’

And as for compiling the sketches for the seasonal special, Ronnie adds: ‘It was amazing how much apt stuff is there and it wasn’t difficult to come to anagreement about what was suitable. We’ve creamed off the particularly Christmassy items.

‘There are some beautiful costumes. In Alice In Winter Wonderland, we’re Tweedledum and Tweedledee, we’re the King and Queen, we play all the roles. Ronnie always said he didn’t like dressing up in women’s clothes very much, and Joy, his wife said she didn’t like it either.

‘But, you see him coming on with a real bit of razzmatazz, and he looks fantastic, with wonderful eye make-up – all very Mae West!”

The most embarrassing part, Ronnie says, was when the costumes were half-made and ready for a fitting. ‘We had to get out of our suits and down to our Y-fronts behind a screen and try on a bra and a dress.’

Ronnie says the secret to their success was their versatility as actors, rather than comics with distinct hard-to-shed personas.

‘We were fortunate in that, unlike Eric [Morecambe] and Ernie [Wise], who were ruling at the same time, we could do any material that was written that was funny; we could perform it because we could be posh characters, working-clas characters, Cockneys, Northern, eccentrics, yokels – we could be anything.

‘Whereas Eric and Ernie’s material had to be Eric and Ernie – they were only ever Eric and Ernie, like Tommy Cooper was only ever Tommy Cooper. So that was the advantage for us – whatever came up that was well-written and funny, we could tackle.

‘We were never blue as such – maybe the odd innuendo. There’s perhaps a bit of seaside postcard naughtiness, but certainly not by comparison with the sort of things that we now hear, and, I have to say, enjoy. The barriers have all gone down now.’

Showbiz folklore has it that Ronnies’ partnership was forged on the anvil of crisis when their banter rescued an awards ceremony from an unexpected glitch.

‘That is the legend, which is altered and amplified over the years,” he grins. ‘Ron and I were hosting the Bafta awards, live from the London Palladium, when there was a breakdown in transmission and we had to entertain the audience and make up bits.

‘Sitting next to each other in the stalls were [the BBC’s] Bill Cotton and Paul Fox. Paul turned to Bill and said, “Do you think we can get these two for the BBC?” And that’s how it happened.

When Ronnie B died, Ronnie said that in the40 years they worked together, they had never exchanged a cross word. ‘And we both have marriages in which there was never a cross word,’ he adds, ‘so we were very lucky, really.’

Ronnie married actress, singer and dancer Anne Hart, once leading lady with The Crazy Gang, in 1965.

‘Anne gave up the business for the sake of our daughters [Emma and Sophie] and she doesn’t regret it for a minute, although my wife was a fantastic performer.

‘She says that it’s important, in our business, if you can marry somebody who knows the business, who is in it with you or was in it, because you have to be able to understand its demands.’

Ronnie C worked with Barker’s wife Joy before he met Ronnie B – she was stage manager for a pantomime in which Ronnie C was appearing just before The Frost Report would fuse a unique comic chemistry.

Today, Ronnie lives on the genteel fringes of a manicured golf course in Surrey, but he has no intention of retiring. And in the pipeline could be a new sitcom written by David Walliams and Rob Brydon.

‘The setting is an old folks’ home that they run and I am the only male resident. It’s full of ladies and I play a sort of Hugh Hefner – a bit of a Lothario.

‘I’m sure it would be funny with these two boys writing it, but I’d have to be very careful if I was doing a sitcom. With Ronnie gone, I have to be very careful that the thing I do next is good enough – because he’s watching me from up there.’

First published:November 28, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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