"I was lying in bed with my wife last Sunday morning when she called me by a special pet name," said the actor and comedian Ronnie Corbett, during a monologue on the TV show The Two Ronnies. " 'Hey, Shorty', she said, 'would you like to hear the patter of little feet?' Somewhat taken aback, I replied: 'Yes, I would'. She said: 'Good. Run down to the kitchen and get me a glass of water'."
It would be wrong to suggest, though, that Corbett's huge role in British TV comedy from the 1960s onwards was due only to him playing on his diminutive stature. Over the years, Corbett, who has died aged 85, and his long-term professional partner, Ronnie Barker, created some of the most memorable and frequently repeated moments in British comedy.
In another, more celebrated Two Ronnies sketch, for instance, Corbett played an ironmonger confounded by Barker's homophonically challenged customer. "Four candles," demanded the latter. Corbett presented the customer with four candles. "No, fork 'andles. Handles for forks." The sketch continued with more hilarious misunderstandings. In a version that was not broadcast, Corbett was to be replaced by a buxom woman who would ask the customer: "Right then, young man, what kind of knockers do you want?"
Sketches like these – which can be quoted verbatim by viewers of a certain age – wove themselves into the fabric of British vernacular in the 1970s and 1980s, as did Corbett and Barker’s catchphrases. Corbett’s rambling weekly monologues, delivered from a tubular steel chair by the comedian while sporting a Lyle and Scott sweater, were frequently punctuated with Corbett’s “But I digress.” And when the show ended, with the Ronnies as faux newsreaders behind a desk, Corbett would say: “It’s goodnight from me!”, followed by “And it’s goodnight from him!” from Barker.
For 16 years, and more than 93 episodes, from 1971 to 1987, up to 22 million viewers regularly watched The Two Ronnies on Saturday nights, making the comedy duo household names and national treasures in Britain.
Ronnie Corbett had other successes. In the BBC sitcom Sorry!, which ran for seven seasons from 1981, Corbett played a middle-aged librarian who lives at home with his mother. "He was a sort of Walter Mitty – he pretended to be bold and worldly but really he was just a timid mother's boy," wrote Corbett in his autobiography, High Hopes (2000). "I received a lot of letters from librarians saying: 'We are trying to improve the image of librarians and we're not sure Timothy Lumsden is a step in the right direction'."
And then there were the late-career comedy turns in which Corbett gamely subverted his national treasure status. On Ricky Gervais's sitcom Extras in 2006, Corbett played himself snorting cocaine with fellow actors in the loos at the Baftas. In Little Britain Abroad, Corbett appeared as unwitting suitor to Matt Lucas's grotesque exhibitionist Bubbles DeVere, who stripped off and attempted to seduce the 76-year-old in his Monte Carlo villa.
Corbett was born in Edinburgh, the eldest of three children of William, a baker at McVitie’s who worked night shifts for 29 years, and his wife, Annie, who worked in a telephone exchange. Ronnie was educated at the Royal high school, and after leaving took an office job at the animal feeding stuffs department at the British Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. By then, though, he had a sense of his true vocation.
“There was no history of theatre in the family,” he said once. “It wasn’t until I got a part playing the dame in my local church youth club pantomime at 17 that it all burst out of me. I thought: ‘Hang on, I’ve got something here’.”
He joined an amateur dramatics company during his national service in 1950 and subsequently moved to London to start an acting career.
He married Anne Hart in 1965, and had two daughters, Sophie and Emma, as well as a son, Andrew, who died of a heart defect at six weeks.
Corbett's first big break was doing standup on the BBC children's TV show Crackerjack in the mid-1950s. But he was also becoming a stage star. In 1963 he starred opposite Bob Monkhouse in Rodgers and Hart's musical The Boys from Syracuse at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He accepted an offer by David Frost to appear in The Frost Report (1966 - 67). It was there that he met Barker, and the two men formed a bond: they were two grammar school boys who had not been to university, surrounded by writers and actors who were mostly Oxbridge graduates.
Apart from being a satire on the sclerotic British class system, the sketch traded on Corbett’s size, which he had been self-conscious about his height ever since his doctor recommended stretching exercises when he was 15. He recalled asking a girl to dance with him when he was in his teens. She looked down at him and said: “If you weren’t so short, you’d be quite good-looking.” The remark devastated him. “I felt like I’d been cut in half,” he said.
In the late 1960s he gave a revealing interview in which he said: “Being small is a bit like being Jewish – you always feel you’re being discriminated against. I mean, could you see anyone employing me as a bank clerk or consulting me about an insurance policy? Whatever I did to seem dignified, they’d think I was the teaboy.” But at least he could play that sense of discrimination for laughs.
During the late 1960s, Corbett started to get film work. He appeared in the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1966), and the film version of No Sex Please: We're British (1973).
Corbett was destined to become more famous on the small screen. After No, That's Me Over Here!, he appeared in two follow-up BBC sitcoms by the same writers, Now Look Here (1971-73) and The Prince of Denmark (1974).
After The Two Ronnies and Sorry! finished, he was never to repeat their successes.
In 2000 he revived his armchair monologue routine on Ben Elton’s TV show, his still-innocent humour standing up well among younger, swearier and more political comedians.
He was reunited in 2005 for one last time with Barker, who in 1987 had retired from showbiz, for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a series of six programmes of sketches from The Two Ronnies, with new introductions by the two stars. The last episode was broadcast on Christmas Day that year, Barker having died in October.
The one Ronnie carried on. In 2010 he took a role in the John Landis film Burke and Hare. In his 80s he starred in the cult hit When the Dog Dies (2010-14), a BBC Radio 4 sitcom written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent (who wrote Sorry!).
Corbett celebrated his golden wedding with Anne in 2015. For many years he lived in Surrey in a house adjoining a golf course, where he could indulge his passion for the game. He was appointed CBE in 2012. “I’ve had a very happy life and although I have had tragedy,” he said once, “I’ve never suffered from any darkness.”
He is survived by Anne and their daughters.