And It's Goodnight From Him... The Autobiography of The Two Ronnies
By Ronnie Corbett
Hardcover: 336 pages, 5th October 2006, ISBN 978-0718149642, Published by Michael Joseph, £20 (Amazon)
Paperback: 336 pages, 7th June 2007, ISBN 978-0141028040, Published by Penguin Books, £5.99 (Amazon)
It's not for nothing that The Two Ronnies are regarded as one of Britain's greatest double acts, although they were never a double act in the conventional way, due to Barker being first and foremost an actor, rather than a comedian. Both the Ronnies have had autobiographies and biographies released (several, in Barker's case), but I must admit that an autobiography of the partnership itself is an interesting idea. The remaining Ronnie, Corbett, has found himself alone in telling the story, but he uses Barker's phrase "What luck!" in describing the events that lead to their friendship and working relationship, and heavily emphasises the effect of good fortune in his career. In fact, Corbett, although putting in a reasonable amount of biographical detail about his life (including a rather cute picture of himself as a boy), practically falls over himself in singing the praises of just about everyone he's worked with or is related to, with special attention to Barker, of course, and his talented but rather less known wife, Anne. Corbett actually deals with the lazy option that some have held that Barker was the talented part of the duo: "There is a view held by a few people...damn it, almost everybody, except perhaps my mum...well, and perhaps my dad...that Ronnie was more gifted than me, and I have no worry at all about that. In some ways, our relationship was a bit like an open marriage. What I mean is that, whatever Ron did separately, I knew that he would come back to The Two Ronnies, and come back yet more loved than he had been before."
Corbett did tend to play a lot of straight man roles, despite his assurance to the reader than he did get more than one funny line over the sixteen years that The Two Ronnies ran, and in his respect and adoration for Barker, tends to ignore the rather vital contribution that he played in such roles. The considerable talent of Barker wouldn't have been able to flourish without the fantastic support he got from Corbett and others in his career, something that I'm sure Barker was aware of, and those who dismiss Corbett whilst praising Barker are missing a vital part of the dynamic, just like those who claim Morecambe was 'the funny one' in Morecambe and Wise. When I attended a Red Dwarf convention a couple of years ago, Norman Lovett referred to Corbett as "a horrible little man", which I didn't understand then, and understand even less now, especially as Corbett is very self-depreciating in this book, with his anecdote about buying a Rolls Royce with faulty windows a good example; "How smoothly and silently the windows slid open. How smoothly and silently they...remained open. Only a minor electrical fault. Nothing to worry about. Nice to feel the fresh air on one's face. I can't remember now whether the rain was forecast, but it came. How it came. We reached London soaking wet. Was somebody trying to tell me not to be flash? Anne and I never thought of ourselves as flash, and I hope we never were. In the Seventies it seemed natural to us, if we could afford it, to buy a Rolls. Things seem different now." Even when he describes the tragic death of his first child soon after birth in 1966, he adopts a resigned tone: "Maybe today something could be done, but not then." He also seems very touched, and slightly guilty, about his wife giving up her career to look after their children, even though it was her decision, and seems almost to suggest that she is more talented than him.
In any case, amongst the huge amount of credit Corbett chucks around for everyone involved in his career except himself, there's an interesting history of the Ronnies' work together, as well as some mention of their solo projects, and it's interesting to see the idea for Sorry developed from a sketch in Ronnie Corbett in Bed, written by Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman in the early days of The Two Ronnies. This book is a joy for the kind of fan like me, who's interested in the mechanics of a show, as Corbett shows a lot more interest in how 'The Two Ronnies' was put together than his detractors would give him credit for.
There's also an interesting defence of family entertainment in the book: "We were not at the cutting edge, and didn't pretend to be. We were trying to create more than a show. We were trying to create an event, and that event was a moment for the whole family, to sit and relax together, to laugh and smile together, without embarrassment. The viewing figures suggest that we succeeded, and I venture to suggest that the families that our show was aimed at were intelligent, quite well informed, literate, musical and nice." Which is fair enough, but unfortunately Corbett falls into the trap of many entertainers from that generation in his misunderstanding of both political correctness and the alternative comedy movement. The extent to which he sees both as a threat is clear in his complete misunderstanding of 'The Two Ninnies' sketch, where he sees it as an accusation that The Two Ronnies used bad language, when of course it's making a totally different point; that, in an age of greater openness about sexual matters, innuendo can be a lot ruder than the swearing that alternative comedy was critised for, as it becomes increasingly difficult to interpret such jokes more than one way. After all, it was Barry Cryer who said "The great thing about double entendres is that they can only be taken one way". This was rather cleverly illustrated by the song in the sketch, which brought the concepts much used by Barker to their logical conclusion.
Although I think Corbett is correct about The Two Ronnies being intended as a family show, it was a little disingenuous for Barker to claim that, just because their jokes were steeped in innuendo, that they kept 'smut' off their viewer's screens. It's worth mentioning that the 'Swear Box' sketch, which is far superior to the famous 'Fork Handles', derives all of its humour from the beeping of apparent swearwords. There's a very good reason why innuendo doesn't play much of a part in comedy nowadays, and perhaps David Baddiel sums it up perfectly in his assertion that "When a lady on TV 20 years ago told her friends that it had been raining in the garden, and her pussy was soaking wet, it was taken to mean cat, with a slight overtone of vagina. Today, it would mean vagina, with a slight overtone of cat." Innuendo is an art in my eyes, but it needs to be seen in a suitable context, and I don't understand why Barry Cryer is able to do this, but many of his contemporaries are unable to. It's not even that Corbett is scared of homosexuality, as he refers to the gay husband of Mabbie Lonsdale, daughter of the famous playwright Frederick Lonsdale, with whom he lived when he first came to London, and describes himself as settling into the life down there with ease. This can be amusingly contrasted with Barker's apparent horror of homosexuality, displayed in Bob McCabe's biography. Whatever the reasons, it's rather sad to know that both Barker and Corbett misunderstood 'The Two Ninnies', as it's a rather good tribute to Barker's song writing, and I'm tempted to write to Corbett to tell him so.
Other little gems litter the book, such as Arkwright's famous stutter being influenced by Glenn Melvyn, with whom Barker worked with in rep, and who Barker credited with teaching him everything he knew about comedy, and Timothy Lumsden, a favourite character of mine, having elements of Walter Mitty in him. There's also many classic sketches quoted, including, yes, 'Fork Handles', although Corbett reveals that they changed the original tag line when recording the sketch, as both him and Barker felt it wasn't good enough, even though it was a Wiley sketch. It's also interesting to find out that the idea for the sketch actually came from a couple who owned a hardware store in Hayes, and wrote in to tell the Ronnies about the funny goings-on.
The quotes I've provided may show the slightly meandering nature of the book, and if I do have criticisms, it's that sometimes the book is too informal and cosy for its own good at times. However, it's a lovely read, and perhaps the cosy nature of the book is so because the author is so. The quote on the back of the jacket is very well chosen, as it sums the whole book up: "When I look back over our careers, and think of the ambience within which we worked, both separately and together, I think we must have had - how we arrived at it I don't know - well-balanced lives. Our work never took us over, never drove us mad, never turned us to drink or drugs. We enjoyed our grub. We loved and enjoyed our families. Our whole lives were really led in a very calm and measured manner. We were temperate. People find it hard to believe me when I say that we never had rows, never got frustrated with each other, but it's true, and I think a lot of that was to do with the way we each allowed the other space, we didn't intrude upon each other's privacy. It was, truly, a very British friendship." In an era of bickering, unstable, terminally dull 'celebrities', public figures who just get on with their lives without having to draw attention to themselves on every shopping trip are refreshing. Good for him, and you'll be right to assume that I'll be mourning Corbett as heavily as Barker when the time comes.
This article was first published in Kettering.