I won't say goodnight yet . .
IT'S more than a year since Ronnie Barker died, but everywhere his comedy partner and lifelong friend Ronnie Corbett looks, there are memories of him.
His house he says, is full of Barker reminiscences. "There is not a corner I can turn without seeing a still of him or a picture on the wall or a book or a biography or a sketch or a little note that he'd written to me. I will hear some joke or watch some programme and think, 'I must see what Ron thinks of that,' and then realise that I can't ask him."
So often, when a comedy partnership ends because of a death, the remaining partner fades into the background to be lost without trace. But Ronnie Corbett has moved on.
The 75-year-old who splits his time between homes in Gullane and Croydon, remains a national institution among those who remember The Two Ronnies, but he has also recently found himself in demand among a younger generation of funnymen including Ricky Gervais, Matt Lucas and David Walliams.
Recently he caused controversy appearing in a hilarious cameo role on BBC2's comedy Extras snorting cocaine in the toilets at the Bafta awards, where Ricky Gervais' character Andy Millman was nominated for a gong.
"My wife didn't want me to do it," says Ronnie. "She thought, is it right that I'm seen as one of those people sniffing substances? But people know that I'm the most unlikely person to do that. Ricky Gervais is lovely and very intelligent. He knows when his stuff is being done as he wants it to be done. He and Stephen Merchant have a clear picture of the level at which they want their stuff to be performed. And they are jolly while they're doing it."
Was he worried that some of his more traditional fans, those who enjoyed The Two Ronnies in the 70s and 80s, might disapprove? "Those who are that traditional probably don't watch Extras anyway," he laughs.
Come December he'll be again be seen on screen as himself in a Christmas special of Little Britain, this time being chased by Bubbles de Vere, the grotesque, fee-dodging spa addict.
"I'm doing a romantic scene with Bubbles - in fact I am trying to get away from her.
"She invades my smart villa in Spain, breezing in and eating all my Ferrero Rocher chocolates."
He continues: "There are some very creative people about. The Little Britain team, Rob Brydon, Harry Hill and Ricky Gervais. They know I'm a fan and I'd seen a lot of them do early gigs at the Edinburgh Festival.
"They trust me as I'm a friendly face. When they were maturing, I was doing The Two Ronnies and Sorry! They think that I've moved with the times a bit. Although I'm 75 and have been around for a long time, a lot of my thinking is fairly contemporary."
He laments the shortage of family entertainment on TV these days, but he keeps up with new comedy, including The Catherine Tate Show, which he loves. But reality TV is not for him. "Jimmy Tarbuck's been on Strictly Come Dancing, but I'd never do anything like that - I'm too old," he says, before adding: "I don't mind watching some celebrity-based thing in the jungle, but a house packed with nobodies is so boring."
Since Barker's death, Corbett
has written a memoir of The Two Ronnies, entitled "And It's Goodnight From Him", which features their career from its beginnings on The Frost Report to 98 episodes of The Two Ronnies, right up until Barker's death last year and subsequent memorial service at Westminster Abbey.
"That memorial service was the peak of my grief, really. Anything after that is tinged with sadness, but I think of the happiness and feel grateful thanks that we did what we did together."
In a 50-year friendship, many decades of which they worked closely together, they never fell out or got irritated by each other or turned to drink or drugs.
"We were both from the same social strata," says Ronnie. "Ron was born and brought up in Oxford, a university town, while I was brought up in Edinburgh, which was similarly academic.
"We both went to grammar schools [Corbett attended the old Royal High School]. Ron went to work in the bank and I joined the civil service. There were similarities there."
The pair met when Ronnie Barker's career was on the rise and Ronnie Corbett was working in a bar of an actor's club in London. Neither could have imagined how much of a success they would later enjoy with The Two Ronnies.
"Because we had both worked in the theatre we had been doing things in front of the public for a long time before we were asked to do them on television. So we did know what the general public would enjoy and appreciate and what they might be slightly offended by. We had strict rules and safety devices so that we didn't upset people. While being clever with words and characterisations, we were middle of the road."
It is well known that Ronnie Barker was never happy being himself in front of the public, which is why he usually performed in character. He was shy and didn't go out much. Corbett was always more outgoing.
"I don't think he was so immediately recognisable as I am, what with my height, the voice and the glasses," says Corbett.
Both Ronnies had very different interests outside work. While Barker loved browsing around antiques shops, and for a time had his own shop in the Cotswolds, Corbett loves sport. His father taught him golf, and he still plays regularly and has strong links to Gullane's Golf Inn, which his nephew and his wife, Gavin and Rhona Corbett, used to own.
And like his father, Willie Corbett, below, who was by trade a master baker with MacVitties Guest and Company in Roseburn, Corbett loves food and enjoys cooking. Each week for the past 15 years he has baked two loaves, a tradition of which he hopes his father would be proud.
Ronnie recalls that they were on location dressed as Vikings, in a BBC caravan, when Ronnie Barker told him in confidence that he was going to retire in 18 months' time - taking them up to the end of 1986.
Part of Barker's reason for retiring was that he felt The Two Ronnies was coming to the end of its natural life and that standards were slipping. And he had already had the first heart warnings.
"He was always haunted by the pictures of Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper," says Ronnie now. "They were all so young. Eric Morecambe was only 58. And then there's Paul O'Grady, who's had two attacks."
There'll never be another Two Ronnies but he hasn't written off a sitcom. "David Walliams and Rob Brydon were supposed to be writing a sitcom for the three of us, about an old people's home in which I was the only man - the Hugh Hefner of the old people's home.
"I can be in a sitcom if something gently funny and artily done comes up. But those parts are few and far between."
And It's Goodnight From Him . . . by Ronnie Corbett with David Nobbs, is out now, published by Michael Joseph, priced 20.
Extra reporting by Iain Halliday.
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