Ronnie Corbett, the comedian, who has died aged 85, 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. Such was his talent that a large hall suited his style as much as the television screen or an intimate theatre. He was confident with a microphone and had the knack of drawing an audience to him.
In venues like the old Talk of the Town, he could hold a dinner-dance audience with a lengthy solo spot of comic patter. Television extended Corbett’s appeal. 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 black-rimmed spectacles – worn at the suggestion of another comic, Jimmy Tarbuck – 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 or a company director. Both were funny: Corbett the more experienced as a comic, Barker the more broadly based as a character actor. They complimented 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. Written by Spike Mullins, and later David Renwick, Corbett’s scripts were rambling and rhapsodic, full of digressions, detours and sidetracks, invariably introduced by Corbett with a preamble along the lines of: “I actually found this joke in an old Reader’s Digest in between an article called 'Having Fun with a Hernia’ and a story about a woman who brought up a family of four with one hand, while waiting for Directory Enquiries…”
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 rating throughout the 1970s and as late as 1986 was still a serious challenge to EastEnders and Coronation Street.
In 1977 The Two Ronnies was presented as a big-scale revue at the London Palladium with great success. Such was the power of television that thousands of people, possibly not all regular theatregoers, wanted to see the Ronnies in the flesh. The show was such a hit that Sunday performances were added to an already exhausting schedule.
Ronald Balfour "Ronnie" Corbett, was born in Edinburgh in 1930, a son of William Balfour Corbett (1898-1974), master baker, and his London-born wife Annie Elizabeth (née Main) Corbett (1900-1991). He had a brother about six years younger, and a sister about ten years younger than himself.
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. After a fairly strict upbringing, complete with Bible classes and attendance at a Church of Scotland youth club, some of that religious ethic remained with him.
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 a few months working as a civil servant 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 successfully accomplished this. As a teenager he had appeared in amateur pantomimes and taken lessons at a stage school in Edinburgh; in the RAF his friendship with the son of the actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke had encouraged him to think about showbusiness as a possible career.
Moving to London, he endured eight lean years, taking occasional engagements but mostly living on his earnings as a caretaker, house-sitter, 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.
Before this Corbett had appeared in the musical The Boys from Syracuse and in the disastrous Lionel Bart musical Twang!; played a mad German spy instructor in the James Bond spoof film Casino Royale, as well as having his own series on ITV, No, That’s Me Over Here (1967).
The Two Ronnies, although time-consuming and a long-standing hit, prevented neither Corbett nor Barker from appearing on his own. Corbett’s films included You’re Only Young Twice (1952), Top of the Form (1953) Fun at St Fanny’s (1955) and No Sex Please, We’re British (1973).
In the theatre he played an Ugly Sister in Cinderella at the Palladium, and he made a number of appearances with Harry Secombe and Jimmy Tarbuck. Sorry!, starting in 1981, proved to be 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 Ronnie Barker suddenly, and to Corbett’s surprise, announced that he wanted to leave.
Anyone who assumed there had been any sort of feud between them were totally wrong. They had always been friends and remained so, but not surprisingly 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. Much attached to his comfortable home, his interests outside his family included racing, soccer, cooking and woodworking – he was sometimes to be seen at the annual Woodworker Show – but his main recreation was golf.
Corbett covets 'treasured honour' Play! 01:30
He belonged to golf clubs both near to his home at Addington (the name of his house was Fairways) and in East Lothian. In 2004 he moved to a three-bedroom bungalow nearby, and in retirement would take the morning tea and The Daily Telegraph back to bed after letting the dogs out.
He enjoyed countless appearances in charity tournaments including the Harry Secombe Golf Classic, and during his presidency of the Lord’s Taverners Corbett was able to boost funds for the charity by such participation.
Corbett was a notable Lord’s Taverners president in 1982 and 1987 and was particularly active in his first year in office. He was able to relax at his first President’s Ball when not only did he organise an excellent cabaret but rounded off the evening with a brief double act with his wife Anne.
His autobiography, High Hopes, appeared in 2000.
Ronnie Corbett married Anne Hart in 1965. She survives him with their two daughters. A son born in 1966 died at the age of six weeks.