A plate of shortbread arrives, and Ronnie Corbett pauses for a second or two as he regards it out of the corner of his eye. He continues talking (or ‘blethering’ as he calls it) about High Hopes, his autobiography, but he’s still distracted by the shortbread, analysing it, surreptitiously passing judgement.
Corbett was born and raised in Edinburgh, the son of a master baker and confectioner, and one legacy of this is an inability to pass cake shops and bakeries without checking the glaze on the pastries or the moisture of the sweetmeats. He pauses again and, as he extends a hand to the plate, the chunky gold ring he is wearing glints in the morning sunlight. He takes a bite and nods. ‘Not bad. Mm. Maybe a bit underfired, as my dad would say. And a bit blond. I don’t mind the dusting of sugar and the crumbly texture, but I have to say it is very ‘short’ shortbread, if you know what I mean.’
The comedian flicks the crumbs off his butter-coloured, double-breasted suit, leans back and shoots his cuffs; his cufflinks are porcelain and have pictures of golfers on them. The ring on his finger, I now see, has a large ‘R’ on it. ‘When I bake bread or make cakes,’ he adds, his voice strong and sonorous, his cadence mildly Scottish, ‘I always think of my dad. I force myself to roll up my sleeves, put my apron on and make sure everything is done properly.’
His father, William Balfour Corbett, was a severe, strong-jawed Presbyterian who would park his car in a garage three miles from home so that he would have to walk there and back for it every day – good discipline. ‘I always wanted to impress him,’ Ronnie Corbett recalls. ‘But he was not the sort of person to ever show he was impressed.’
We are in the panelled library of Greywalls, East Lothian, a house by Lutyens which is now a hotel. Corbett has suggested we meet here because his house, which is next door, is full of guests: his two daughters, both in their early thirties, and his three grandchildren. He has another house in Croydon, Surrey, but the East Lothian one is where he and his wife Anne like to spend their summers – mainly because it overlooks the grand and ancient Muirfield golf course and, beyond that, the Firth of Forth. He’s very close to his daughters, then? ‘Yes, Emma lives in Caterham and Sophie lives in Streatham.’
No, I mean… I see from the grin playing across his asymmetrical features that he knows just what I meant.
Corbett will be 70 in December, but you wouldn’t guess it from his brisk and sprightly manner, his clear hazel eyes or his smooth tanned skin – though his hair is suspiciously dark. He dresses nattily: stripy, open-neck shirt, pink silk handkerchief in breast pocket, cornflower-blue socks. ‘One thing I learned from my Aunt Nell,’ he says, ‘is that because of my height it is really important for me to be immaculately neat and well turned out all the time.’ His aunt had to tailor his school uniform because his parents couldn’t find one small enough to fit. He recently found a group photograph from his time at the James Gillespie School for Boys. He is seated on a chair, fourth from the left in the front row, the only one whose feet do not touch the ground.
His father was 5ft 6in, so young Ronald wasn’t too concerned about his height, but by the age of 14, when the other boys in his school were into long trousers, he became slightly concerned. Aunt Nell paid two guineas for a course on How to Become Taller, which combined positive thinking with stretching exercises, but it didn’t work. Ronald Balfour Corbett grew to 5ft 1.5in, then stopped. He was never bullied at school, but his size did present problems when he started dating. ‘A little man and a taller lady is basically comic, so you have to have a lot of savoir-faire not to let it be so.’ At dancehalls he developed a way of working out a girl’s height before she stood up. ‘I still remember that walk across the floor towards the target, my courage draining away, as I imagined the mutterings of the girls – “He’s coming this way”.’
In 1965 Ronnie Corbett married Anne Hart, a glamorous 5ft 8in singer, and something of a West End star. Was she his first love? ‘There’d been girlfriends before then. Romances. There was a nurse whose name I cannot for the life of me remember. Isn’t that awful! I’ve got a feeling it was Sheila. But I never felt that I was all that… tasty. Not very confident.’ Those were more puritanical times. Did he believe in sex before marriage? ‘We certainly didn’t cohabit in those days as quickly as couples do now. Perhaps on a Friday night, you might stay over somewhere, and go home on Saturday, or even very early on Saturday morning. But I think sex before marriage was with caution and care.’
Presbyterianism was a big influence. ‘We were very serious church-goers, yes. College Street Church. We used to have a long walk there, every morning, 11 o’clock, then back home for lunch, or probably dinner as it was called then, and off again to the service in the evening. It was knocked down years ago, and I no longer attend church, actually.’ His Christian values didn’t prove a handicap in showbusiness. ‘I’ve not encountered much ruthlessness, actually. I was fortunate, really, that things just seemed to proceed in a gentle way. I mean, I was obviously manoeuvring and planning and thinking ahead.’
He certainly was. He had his first taste of the stage at 16, when he played the wicked aunt in a church youth club production of Babes in the Wood – ‘I really put everything into that wicked aunt, never had a female been so villainous.’ After that he would hang around the stage door of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh and ‘escort’ the stars back to the Caledonia Hotel. ‘I had the autograph book with me as a pretext, and I suppose it was more a case of me tagging along beside them rather than escorting them, but they would usually let me blether away down the Lothian Road. They would listen to me telling them how I was going to be an actor, too. They never brushed me off and sometimes they gave me advice.’
Ambitious though he was, Corbett decided the theatre would have to wait. At 17, on leaving the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he took the Civil Service clerical officers’ exam, largely to stop his mother worrying about his future. He joined the Ministry of Agriculture in Edinburgh and dealt with the rationing of animal foodstuffs, but knew he wouldn’t have to do so for long because his National Service was coming up. His one worry was that he wouldn’t pass his medical because of his height. As it turned out, the RAF doctor rejected him because of the deviated septum in his nose. Corbett pleaded to be allowed to join. ‘I knew perfectly well that if I didn’t get in, people in the street would whisper, “It’s obvious why they didn’t accept him. You know, throw the small ones back in.'”
The doctor eventually relented, and Corbett was commissioned as a pilot officer, though he never actually flew. His CO suggested he wear the full ‘number one dress’ at all times so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a cadet. ‘It didn’t bother me. I suppose I quite liked the man. He probably thought, “I’ll save the boy some embarrassment.” It’s not easy to pick a tiny person and give him authority.’ After National Service, Corbett moved to London and supported himself as a barman in the Buckstone Club. All the actors and directors of the day would use the club, and Corbett would try to catch their eye. Eventually he was noticed and landed a job in a vaudeville show at the Stork Club in Streatham, but he was pelted with crusty Viennese rolls – ‘a cruel fate for a baker’s son’.
From there he graduated to Winston’s nightclub in the West End, where for five years he was Danny La Rue’s straight man. That world of camp theatrical glamour must have been intoxicating after his dour Scottish upbringing. ‘Yes it was. The public absolutely adored Dan. He looked fabulous as a man, and even more fabulous as a woman… The camp thing is very seductive. Naturally a lot of people came to see the shows who, you know, felt simpatico to him. I suppose he was a torchbearer, really, for the acceptability of being honestly, outwardly gay.’ Did Corbett identify with the camp world to the extent of questioning his own heterosexuality? ‘Er, no, but I’ve always been very easy with the gay world, deeply comfortable. I was brought up with it and I completely understand it, and it is not in any way suspicious or objectionable to me. I mean, one was brought up really feeling all the cleverest people in the business are gay. One thinks of Novello and Rattigan and Coward. And after working with Dan I felt part of their little corner.’
At this point in his career, Corbett says, he eradicated his Scottish accent, to avoid being typecast as the ‘the wee one in the kilt’. He didn’t want to be patronised, he says. He wanted to be suave. ‘I obviously know I am short, but I’ve always been the last person to be aware of it, and my style of work is like that: a short man acting and performing like somebody who’s a great deal taller. I don’t feel small. But yes, I was patronised. In those days, if you were little, you had to be a comedian like Norman Wisdom or Charlie Drake. Someone who was always being hit on the head or falling over. A sort of sizeism still exists in casting today. Even the smartest, most inventive directors still perceive people in terms of their size. If I say, “I rather fancy playing that part Nigel Havers plays,” there is no way that directors would see me playing it. They wouldn’t cast me as a viscount, for instance, even though there are plenty of short viscounts.’
To overcome prejudice, Ronnie Corbett has had to be more driven than other comic actors. His height might even have given him a competitive advantage. If he could live his life again, would he want to come back as a taller person? He frowns, takes a sip of coffee and looks away. ‘It may sound odd, but I don’t think I would want to be taller. Actually. I think it’s been the cornerstone, really, of what I’ve done. It has formed my personality. I may have changed the way I speak but I never became another person. I just slowly worked away at becoming for others the person I always saw myself as being.’
While working at Winston’s, Corbett made a pact with himself that if he hadn’t made it as a big-time entertainer by the age of 36 he would pack it in and ‘go into another part of the business, be an agent or manager or something’. By happy coincidence, in 1966 he was invited to join The Frost Report, which proved a lucky break, as his co-stars were John Cleese and Ronnie Barker, and the team also included future members of Monty Python. He cherishes the memory, but recalls a clash of cultures. The Ronnies had both spent 17 years learning how to be professional entertainers, always memorising their lines and arriving on time for rehearsals. The embryoic Pythons, fresh from Oxbridge, were very blasé.
‘They all came from privileged backgrounds,’ Corbett remembers. ‘John Cleese would always turn up late and unshaven in a taxi, looking flustered because he hadn’t learnt his lines. Graham Chapman and the others would sit around talking about how they were giving television a go for a couple of years before going back to medicine or law. They’d stumbled on entertainment as a by-product of their education, so it was a bit of a hobby, a bit of a plaything. I suppose Ronnie B and I were a bit resentful, but it did give us a sense of solidarity. Our shared attitudes made us very comfortable together.’
The Two Ronnies ran from 1971 to 1987, won an audience of 17 million (19 million for the Christmas specials) and became a national institution; the two comedians were appointed OBE in 1978. The format of the show was unvarying. It opened with them sitting side by side reading spoof news items (‘First, traffic news. A juggernaut carrying treacle has overturned on the M4. Drivers are asked to stick to the inside lane’). There were sketches, and a slot in which Ronnie Corbett, wearing his Lyle & Scott cardie, would sit in an old armchair and tell a shaggy-dog story. There was lots of cross dressing and ribald seaside humour and the show would always end with a musical number and the ritual exchange: ‘So it’s goodnight from me’, ‘And it’s goodnight from him’, ‘Goodnight’.
Barker was the dominant partner, not least because he wrote most of the shows, with the exception of Corbett’s rambling monologue (which was written by Spike Mullins). Corbett was the placid one who avoided confrontation. Why did he never try writing his own material? ‘I can fiddle about with things when I’m working, then come off and write them down. But I only ever want to perform other people’s material, really. I wouldn’t know how to start writing, and I suppose I’ve had a calmer life because of it.’
When The Two Ronnies were lampooned by Not the Nine O’Clock News, they knew the writing was on the wall. Ronnie Barker announced his retirement and went off to run an antique shop. Corbett still has dinner with him every so often, but the two were never that close. ‘We were friendly, but not friendly in the way that Eric [Morecambe] and Ernie [Wise] were,’ Corbett recalls. ‘Stress and high blood pressure had a lot to do with Ronnie B’s decision to retire. There’d been other comedians around who’d died younger than they should have done, like Tommy Cooper.’
Sorry, a sitcom in which Ronnie Corbett had starred for seven years, was axed by the BBC at the same time as The Two Ronnies came to an end. Corbett felt ‘a bit solitary for a while – prematurely pruned’. Everyone assumed that he would retire, too, and join his friends Tarbie and Brucie on the pro-celebrity golf circuit. Instead he hosted Small Talk, a dire programme on which children supplied 30 minutes of undiluted precocity. He has since redeemed himself slightly with appearances on The Ben Elton Show and a role in Fierce Creatures, John Cleese’s ill-fated follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda. But mostly the twilight years of his career have been devoted to after-dinner speaking, his one-man cabaret show, and pantomime.
He hasn’t given up hope that he will yet be cast in a serious drama. ‘Now that I no longer do The Two Ronnies, directors have forgotten that I’ve played a cockney or a viscount or a lord chancellor quite effectively in short episodes on the television. They don’t see that I’m back. Back again, fighting a little man’s battle to play a variety of parts.’
Ronnie Corbett’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 75, while playing a round of golf. His mother died in 1991 after suffering from Alzheimer’s. Now that Corbett is approaching 70, does he find himself brooding upon his mortality, wondering if he will die in the same manner his parents did? ‘Well I’m still quite agile, touch wood. I don’t have hip problems, heart problems, or anything like that. I’ll probably have a prostate problem first.’ He’s worked it all out, then? ‘Worked it out, yes,’ he chuckles. ‘I have no fear of getting old, or fear of going, really. My biggest worry is losing my mind, or my wife losing her mind. You know, Alzheimer’s or dysphasia. She can’t stop herself worrying about everything – everybody and everything. She’s always been like that. She gave up her career to bring up our daughters. Very protective. Since Andrew died.’
Andrew was their first child, born in 1966. ‘He died from a serious heart defect when he was six weeks old. I still think about him a lot. When you consider he would have been 34 now. You can’t believe how this tiny little soul really just didn’t survive. Now, of course, I suppose they might have done something about it, but the heart, the surgeon told me, was the size of a fingernail. We brought him home for a day, struggling, his colour changing, and we had to take him back to St George’s. It was really just… terrible. Terrible. ‘I still feel the odd tear coming to my eye. The same happens when I talk about Tom, my 11-year-old grandson. He’s dyslexic, bless his little soul… I do get emotional, and cry at odd times. Yet I have got a bit of a steely interior. I blow hot and cold, I think that’s it. I have a short temper. Quick to turn and quick to cry. I say it, I get it over and that’s it. All forgotten.’
It’s true. He had a spectacular wobbly recently when he refused to get in the brand new Renault Espace that GMTV had laid on to take him home after an appearance on the Lorraine Kelly day-time show, because it wasn’t a limo (one was provided). Ronnie Corbett can be admirably self-deprecating, jovial and self-aware, but he is also, it seems, fundamentally insecure. It is possible that he suffers from an inferiority complex which he disguises with comic bravado. He has a tendency to build himself up. ‘Yes,’ he will say. ‘I did two very very successful pantomimes around that time. Stanley Baxter and I played the Ugly Sisters’ or, ‘Actually, though I say so myself, I am a skilful mingler.’
The feeling of inferiority is partly social, you suspect. ‘No one ever said anything,’ he muses, ‘but there might be a feeling in the family that my mum’s side was just a little more genteel than my dad… I think I am class-conscious in the sense of liking things to be classy and elegant, as in high quality. I suppose I’ve always been interested in refinement. When I met Princess Margaret early in my career I felt I should raise my game a little.’ She asked how he had sprained his ankle. He didn’t want to say he had fallen going to the outside lavatory at his house in New Cross, so he said he had fallen off a horse. His friend Simon Parker-Bowles (former brother-in-law to Camilla), has acted as his social tutor, he says. ‘He’s a very kindly, very gracious person. Not at all snobby and I suppose he has given me a confidence boost.’
Until recently Corbett drove a Rolls-Royce, until ‘I decided it was nice to drive but no longer nice to be seen in.’ It is nearly lunchtime, dinnertime as it used to be called. ‘Excuse me,’ Corbett says rising from his chair. ‘I must go for a pee.’ That’ll be the start of his prostate problem. He laughs. ‘The prostate problem, yes.’
We meet again in the walled garden, designed by Jekyll. We can smell the sea from here and just about hear the pock of a golfball being struck on the 13th hole. Seagulls are crying overhead, and there are cabbage whites fluttering around the lavender borders. As we contemplate the distant Lammermuir Hills, I ask Ronnie Corbett if he still feels Scottish. He does, he says, in the way that Sean Connery, his old friend and Edinburgh contemporary (he used to date Corbett’s cousins), does. Is he involved in Scottish politics, as Connery is? ‘No, no, I’m not a Nationalist, I don’t really see the point of spending millions and millions… on a new…’
Did he attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament? Corbett squares his shoulder and shakes his head at the memory. ‘No I didn’t. I was a bit miffed that I wasn’t invited, actually. Bit put out… I’m not deeply liked by Scottish people in the way that Sean is.’ The pathos is unbearable. We part company with a hearty handshake and Ronnie Corbett strides off, barrel-chested, leaving me feeling that I’ve just said goodbye to a proud and dignified man who is still fighting, as he has always had to, a little man’s battle.