Corbett gave short shrift to mentions of his height
A LARGE part of Ronnie Corbett’s career featured jokes about being a rather small man. You know the sort of thing; “I was lying in bed with my wife last Sunday morning when she called me by a special pet name. ‘Hey Shorty,’ she said. ‘Would you like to hear the patter of little feet?’ Taken aback, I replied: ‘Yes, I would.’ She said: ‘Good. Run down to the kitchen and get me a glass of water’.”
However, a new documentary suggests the Scots-born legend’s ability to laugh at himself owed more to comedic artifice than natural self-deprecation.
Remembering Ronnie Corbett is a half-hour tribute to the 5ft 1in star who died in March and features interviews with friends such as Barry Cryer and Harry Hill. The programme, hosted by Liza Tarbuck, who worked with Corbett on radio comedy When the Dog Dies, offers a special insight into the man.
Corbett’s theatrical career began at a church hall as a 16-year-old schoolboy in Edinburgh in 1946, in a production of Babes In The Wood.
His height, he hints at in one vintage interview, was a troubling factor in his mind.
“It was the turning point in my life,” he said of the show in which he played the Wicked Auntie. “I had felt unnoticed until then.”
Life growing up in 1930s Edinburgh was less than exciting. “My dad was a seriously working class chap. It was a church-going household, and on Sundays I dressed up in my kilt and wee black brogues and marched off. It wasn’t John Knox Church of Scotland but by today’s standards it was a bit dour.”
School dances were all about choosing the smaller girls. But his forays into amateur theatre brought colour into his life and revealed he could sing and play the piano. But first a career in the Civil Service beckoned, then came National Service, where Corbett became an RAF pilot officer. The stint, he says, was the making of him, but not at first. Again, his height was an issue. Other officers feared he wouldn’t be taken seriously.
After National Service, Corbett landed theatre work as “a comedian’s labourer”, working alongside the likes of Harry Secombe and Dickie Henderson. In the late 1950s he graduated to West End cabaret work. Barry Cryer, who worked alongside him and became a life-long friend, remembers: “Ron’s future wife Ann, an actress and singer, was also in the show with us.”
Corbett moved to Danny La Rue’s club, where he developed his act. “He didn’t want any jokes about being small,” says Cryer. “He was very self-conscious about his height.” Later, on television, Corbett would joke about buying his shoes in the boys department of Selfridges, but it seemed this was getting in the first hit.
Comedian Harry Hill reinforces this notion. “The first comedian I ever saw was Ronnie Corbett when my parents took me to summer season in Eastbourne. I knew him from TV but when he walked on stage wearing little tartan trousers everyone started laughing and applauding. When it died down he said: ‘I know what you’re thinking – isn’t he really small?’ And when you saw him in the flesh you realised he really was small.”
Stanley Baxter worked with Corbett in panto in the seventies, playing Ugly Sisters.
“Ronnie was a lovely man, but rather self-aware about his height,” he recalls. “He didn’t like any jokes about it.
“I remember once commenting on how dainty his feet were and it didn’t go down well.”
Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent wrote Corbett’s TV hit, Sorry. Peter Vincent says the star also demanded no height gags. “We made one minor mistake in Sorry, when in one scene in the script Ronnie was to be looking into the kitchen through the catflap. He didn’t like that at all and he made us take it out. He regarded that as undignified.”
Yet, no one who worked with Corbett, who died aged 85, ever suggested he was unlikeable or anything less than entirely generous as an entertainer and a human being. His writers loved him and Tarbuck says he was “a charming man, with a particular kind of comic talent that was hard to define”.
And although height-sensitive, Corbett wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself, evidenced by his appearance as a coke-fiend in Ricky Gervais’s Extras.
And gags such as this; “This week I was asked to do a very important after-dinner speech. I said; ‘Do you want me to be funny?’ They said; ‘No, just be yourself.’”
‘‘ Ronnie was a lovely man, but rather self-aware about his height. He didn’t like any jokes about it
Remembering Ronnie Corbett, BBC Radio Four, Saturday, 10.30am.