Ronnie Corbett: ‘Comedy’s in my soul’

Legendary comedian Ronnie Corbett tells TV Times magazinewhy he loves everything about modern comedians – and why he’ll never retire!

What was it like meeting the new brand of comedians?

“It was lovely. I know them all and they’re very dear and very welcoming. Miranda is a truly funny person and a clever actress. I first saw her eight years ago at the Edinburgh Festival when she was assisting Helen Lederer. She was playing quite a small role, but she was very funny even then.”

What were some of the differences in your day?

“Ronnie Barker and I spent a lot of time doing the shows and prepping the material. With a lot of shows now you all come in at lunchtime and you record the show at night, whereas we rehearsed all week. They seemed to spend a lot more money on it in those days too. I think we knew that both Four Candles and the Mastermind sketch were very funny when we rehearsed them and we were really fortunate to do some very clever bits of writing.”

What else has changed?

“One strain on people is that they are making it big much younger, so they’ve got a long route in front of them. Coming into it so quick you must think to yourself, ‘…am I really fully prepared for everything that might happen?’ Ron and I were theatre artists for a long time. I wasn’t really on television till The Frost Report when I was about 36 – now people are quite big names by the age of 20.”

Was that an advantage in the long run?

“Possibly, I certainly felt easy with myself, as did Ronnie. The Frost Report was live, which used to frighten John Cleese, but we were fully equipped to do it – we were confident and good at learning our words. We’d spent time in the ranks and we’d all been promoted to officers in the business!”

But you are a big fan of comedy today?

“Yes, comedy is an ever-changing picture. Situation comedy is always going to be more attractive than somebody standing, being clever on their own. Stand-up is trendy now. It’s nice to see Lee Mack putting a different twist on it on his Saturday night show, like Rob Brydon does on his programme, moving away from purely stand-up. Michael McIntyre is very, very good too. He presents himself so cleverly that he’s almost in a sketch. He’s not bashing jokes at you, he’s being in situations and dashing about physically on the stage. He’s hardly doing stand-up, he’s doing runabouts!”

And, of course you have worked with several of today’s top comics such as Ricky Gervais?

“Yes, I’m close to a lot of contemporary comedians largely through my interest in the Edinburgh Festival. I’ve seen a lot of people there in their early days and I enjoy them very much indeed. Before I did Extras my wife said, ‘Are you sure?’ but I was never in doubt about it. That was a big success and I enjoyed working with Ricky and Stephen Merchant so it was very nice.”

Were you and Ronnie a double act?

“No, Eric and Ernie were a double act, but Ronnie and I were a partnership. There is a difference. A double act is a lifelong thing and they never appear apart, but Ron and I did other things.”

So what was the secret to your partnership?

“You have to be simpatico on everything, about taste and attention to detail. It is very, very fortuitous if it happens. You meet somebody at the right time in their life and the right time in yours. Ron was a repertory actor and I was in nightclubs and we came together, both brought different things to the relationship and it worked.”

Any thoughts of retiring?

“No, I enjoy working – it keeps your mind and limbs active. When you’ve been at it all your life you’re always thinking, making judgments and having opinions because it’s in your soul – comedy is in your very being and it’s inside you.”

*Ronnie Corbett’s Comedy Britain screens on ITV1 on Saturday