Obituary: Ronnie Corbett, comedian

Other half of arguably UKs greatest comic partnership, considered a giant of comedy. Picture: Pamela Grigg
Other half of arguably UKs greatest comic partnership, considered a giant of comedy. Picture: Pamela Grigg
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Born: 4 December, 1930, in Edinburgh. Died: 31 March, 2016, aged 85.

Ronnie Corbett, the diminutive (he was five foot tall) half of The Two Ronnies – one of the funniest duos of their generation – was a highly versatile comedian who was just as much at home doing stand-up comedy (although usually sitting down) on his own, or sitcom characters, as he was with his famous partner Ronnie Barker.

His long professional association with Barker produced one of the most popular TV programmes of the late 20th century until Barker’s retirement in the mid-1980s, after it had run for 12 series.

The Two Ronnies (1971-87), invariably ended with the two saying: “It’s goodnight from me ... and it’s goodnight from him.”

When on his own, Corbett specialised in long, rambling jokes delivered from an outsized armchair with his legs dangling in the air. The punchline came after the beginning had long been forgotten, so many twists and turns were there in the telling.

Ronald Balfour Corbett was born in Edinburgh on 4 December, 1930. He was educated at the James Gillespie School and the Royal High School. At 15, he played the Wicked Aunt in a pantomime at his local church youth club in Edinburgh.

After two years overseeing animal-feed rationing at the Ministry of Agriculture in Edinburgh, and National Service with the Royal Air Force, Corbett moved to London and started to do summer seasons, intimate revues and running the bar at the Buckstone Club off London’s Haymarket, where he first met Ronnie Barker.

In the late 1950s, Corbett worked in the late-night revues at Danny La Rue’s Club on Hanover Square, where he met Anne Hart, the actress and singer he later married.

He was spotted at the club by David Frost who invited him to join Barker and John Cleese in The Frost Report, one of the most influential TV shows of the 1960s. “David turned my life around,” Corbett said later.

After TV successes with Frost on Sunday, Corbett’s Follies, and No, That’s Me Over Here, a sitcom, he and Barker got their biggest break thanks to a mishap at the Baftas.

They were hosting the live ceremony when a technical fault meant they had to fill in unscripted for some minutes. BBC executives immediately signed them up and The Two Ronnies was born. The programme won the Best Entertainment Show Award of 1972, ran for 16 years on the BBC and for a record-breaking spell at the London Palladium in 1978.

Corbett said their success lay in the fact that the pair got on well together and complemented each other. “We had a certain kind of material that was not dangerously esoteric. It’s difficult to be clean and clever at the same time, but a lot of our stuff was.”

After Barker’s retirement, Corbett had many starring roles in the theatre, including The Seven Year Itch, Out of Order, The Dressmaker, and on TV, the sitcom, Sorry.

In 1996, he appeared in Cleese’s follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures. He played a sealion-keeper at a zoo, but he said his worst experience on the film was when he had to carry “a very smelly baby ostrich”.

The following year he recorded An Audience With... for ITV. In 1998 he returned to his famous armchair in a new Ben Elton series for BBC1, as well as starring in a Pizza Hut commercial.

His films included Top of the Form, You’re Only Young Once, Casino Royale, No Sex Please, We’re British and Fierce Creatures.

His publications included: Ronnie Corbett’s Armchair Golf, The Small Man’s Guide To Life and an autobiography, High Hopes. A keen and proficient golfer, he was a member of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Corbett was awarded a CBE in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to charity and entertainment. At a celebration to mark the award, Corbett collapsed in a restaurant but recovered. He was presented with the award by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in February 2012.

Afterwards he admired his medal – which matched his blue and pink striped tie – saying: “It’s very pretty. It’s a very lovely honour. I shall treasure it.’’

His charity work included fundraising for the RNLI and the Variety Club.

In March 2014 Corbett was among the speakers at a memorial service at Westminster Abbey for Sir David Frost, who died the previous September, aged 74. Corbett was also among more than 200 celebrities and public figures who urged Scotland to stay part of the UK ahead of the independence referendum in September 2014.

He is survived by his wife Anne and two daughters.