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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

24. My reading life (2) [March 2010] Ronnie Corbett: 'And it's goodnight from him'

I picked up Ronnie Corbett’s Autobiography of the Two Ronnies in an Opshop for $2.99; it would have been a bargain at twice the price. [Those readers of my blog who know me well be a little astounded by this revelation, and will be saying to themselves: ‘He bought a book at an Opshop – who could believe it! It’s so out of character.’]

And it’s goodnight from him is an evocation of one of the golden eras of television comedy –the 1970s and 1980s – and an account careers of two of the most popular comedians of that era: Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. The book is also a loving tribute to Ronnie Barker, who died in 2005.

In all these two performed in 96 episodes of The Two Ronnies, from 1969 till their last show in 1987. In its heyday The Two Ronnies had a weekly audience of two million viewers in England alone. Both got their start in television through the entrepreneurial David Frost and The Frost Report. [The photo above, of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett is from a sketch upon class, and aboutr who looks up to whom, and who looks down on whom.

Each program began with the two Ronnies as newsreaders, with items like the following:
There was a very nasty accident in Ipswich this afternoon. A lorry jack-knifed on the M1 and rolled over, coming to rest between the houses of Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr and Mrs Ball, Ipswich residents. The driver was trapped inside the cabin for two hours. Luckily he was dragged out by the Smiths.

[That’s perhaps one measure of just how memorable their comedy was. That joke didn’t appear in the book; it’s one I’ve remembered from 30 or so years ago.]

After the ‘news’ they’d then summarise what was to come. A typical example:
And in tonight’s program we hear about two men whose visit to a ball bearing factory almost ended in disaster: one man lost his bearings and the other lost his sense of humour.

The fifty minute show was composed of sketches, monologues, a serial, regular features (such as a pair of folk/country singers), guest singers and dancers – in short, it was a variety show. It ran from 1969 till 1987. Throughout its 96 episodes it bookended by the opening news reading and by Ronnie Corbett’s closing monologue.
This closing monologue was a much-loved element. Corbett was a tad over five feet tall. He would sit in a gigantic chair, his legs dangling down, and would (seem to) effortlessly chat with his audience. In fact, the monologues were brilliantly scripted – half by Spike Mullins. They had a meandering style, full of digressions.
Here’s a brief example of the kind of digression:
`For some time now my wife's had this ridiculous idea that I'm playing too much golf. Actually it came to a head at about eleven thirty last night. She suddenly shouted at me, "Golf; golf, golf, all you ever think about is bloody golf!" And I'll be honest, it frightened the life out of me. I mean you don't expect to meet somebody on the fourteenth green at that time of night.'

And it’s goodnight from him is an entertaining read, a celebration of two lives in show business. Towards the end Ronnie C. reflects: We were blessed to have been able to create such a legacy of family entertainment, to have been a part of making it.

Theirs was an era of ‘wholesome family entertainment’. [Their show was accused of containing ‘too much violence’ – by none other than the starchy ex-school teacher, the born-again Mary Whitehouse, a ‘self-appointed arbiter of taste on television, which she felt to be riddled with sex and violence. If she thought that then, what would she think now? If she were alive today she’d be turning in her grave.’]

But unlike Benny Hill, that master of the single entendre, the Two Ronnies rarely blurred the clean-fun line. When their jokes were blue, they were only faintly blue, and never – or certainly hardly ever – offensive. Whole families would sit around the tele on a Saturday night, knowing there was something there for everyone, and knowing they needn’t worry that the children would be corrupted or that grandma would be offended.

Corbett is a great raconteur, and Baxter was a great writer and great actor. Corbett was adept at ‘being himself’; his outgoing persona seemed very much in line with the ‘inner person’. Ronnie Baxter was the opposite. Corbett describes him as an intensely private man, one who could never simply ‘be himself’ in public. When he was required to appear in public, he managed by doing what actors do best – by adopting a role. Mostly, though, he avoided situations where he was expected to ‘be himself’.

Several of their best –loved scripts - such as the Class sketch from their Frost Report days, their famous Four candles, Mastermind and Ronnie B’s mispronunciation sketch, along with several of the monologues – are reproduced in full in the book. And we get insights into the creation of many of these.
Ronnie C’s account of Ronnie Baxter’s final year of life I found deeply moving. He quotes the eulogy he presented at the funeral:
He was a dear, dear man, a wonderful friend, a talented artist, and whatever else we could say, you could guarantee that it was always going to be a very, very good night from him.

How do we – any of us – sum up our lives? What overall accounting do we make, what final judgement do we permit ourselves? Ronnie Corbett ends this autobiography as follows:
When I look back over our careers ... I think we must have had ... well balanced lives. Our work never took us over, never drove us mad, never turned us to drink or drugs. We enjoyed our grub. We loved and enjoyed our wives and families. Our whole lives were really led in a very calm and measured manner. We were temperate.
And of their friendship, he wrote:

... we allowed each other space, we didn’t intrude upon each other’s privacy. It was, truly, a very British friendship.

Such old-fashioned values. Barker was a private person, and though he and Corbett were close friends and professional colleagues for over 40 years, they ‘didn’t intrude upon each other’s privacy’.

I recall a teacher I knew over 25 years ago. ‘Carl’ was a very handsome, very fit person – he taught Phy. Ed. His best mate, ‘Tom’, was Head of the Maths Department. They were close friends both inside and outside school; both followed the same footy team, and would spend every Saturday afternoon together ‘at the footy’ during the footy season. It was a very Australian friendship, a very Australian-male friendship. When Carl’s wife left him, he kept a stiff upper lip, and told nobody – not even his best mate. His ‘anguish’ was played out in the privacy of his own body – he developed severe ulcers and became very ill. It took him three months to break the silence and tell his best mate.

Privacy and secrecy are bedfellow. In all of our relationships we dance the dance of intimacy, now drawing closer, now drawing away. For some of us, the closest we get is a very ‘comfortable distance’. Like Eleanor Rigby, we venture out ‘wearing the face that we keep in the jar by the door’.

As I read Corbett’s book, I thought a lot about friendship, and about the nature of ‘performance’. For Ronnie Barker, performance could only take place when he wore one or another of the masks. Ronnie Corbett, on the other hand, seems genuinely comfortable with ‘being himself’.

Corbett’s reference to Britishness reminded me of a scene from Zorba the Greek. Zorba tells his English friend:
You have everything. There’s only one thing you lack. A little madness. Without a little madness, a man can never cut the chains and be free.

The lives of other great comedians of that era – Peter Cook, Graham Chapman, Tony Hancock – weren’t so balanced; these comedians weren’t so lucky. All three succumbed to alcohol and depression and self destructiveness. Their lives were neither calm nor measured. Maybe their work did drive them mad, did take them over.
Performance is dangerous ground. Ronnie Corbett is one of the lucky ones who seems to have come through sane and apparently unscarred.

I enjoyed reading this ‘autobiography’ of the Two Ronnies; I chuckled often, had a good belly laugh now and then, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole book. It’s a comfortable and pleasurable read, and great for nostalgia buffs.

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