Sunday, July 19, 2009

Quizzical Ronnie Corbett autobio

Last night at the Bowling Club the local Uniting Church held its annual Quiz Night. Our team, give or take a couple of players off the field and a substitute, were last year's winners and we looked to repeat the triumph. Sadly, not to be. We came second by a squeak. I maintain that this was due to dodgy adjudication and scoreboard chicanery. But how can you tell that to the reverend? The desserts table made up somewhat for the humiliation. This is the true meaning of just desserts.

I finished reading the autobiography, entitled High Hopes, of the famously diminutive - and hard working - Scots comedian Ronnie Corbett (b.1930) who was brought up in Edinburgh.

The description of a 1930s Edinburgh childhood is a fine social document in itself. His father was a master baker, and a very good amateur golfer. From him the young Corbett seems to have acquired a lifelong fine-food appreciation, and cooking skills, plus a love of the game of golf. He knew by early high school - during WWII - that his vocation was the world of theatre and he held that vision for years as an aspiring performer from the age of 16. He was soon drawn to the comedic side of theatre, turning his small stature (5'1") to an advantage as the "wee clown".

What strikes the reader is the sheer tenacity of Corbett, moving to London on his own, learning every part of his trade through the 1940s and '50s, working at anything to keep body and soul together. Eventually steady work was forthcoming; club entertainment with Danny La Rue, summer seasons of pantomime. Small film parts started to come along (You're Only Young Twice, 1952), and, in 1957, Rockets Galore ("... a sort of sequel to Whisky Galore") in which he played a Hebridean fisherman alongside stalwarts such as Duncan McRae and Jamieson Clark, and Gordon Jackson - all three of whom your blogger is delighted to have met. In 1951 I took part in an hour-long broadcast from Glasgow's Festival of Britain Exhibition: Jamieson Clark interviewed another schoolboy and me on our responses to the exhibits in the Kelvin Hall. Such is my miniscule showbusiness fame, along with one cast list billing alongside the great Stanley Baxter, in the BBC's Radio Times for a play on Children's Hour. Ronnie Corbett and Stanley Baxter had many appearances together, on stage and on television.

But of course what we all recall best is Corbett with the other Ronnie, the late Ronnie Barker, in their 16-year association as The Two Ronnies, 1971 - 1986. In 1977 the pair got their respective O.B.E. awards from H.M. the Queen. The book tells us that the alphabetical rules for presentation were slightly bent so that they received their gongs as a duo.

The index lists Ronnie Corbett's seven films almost as an aside to his hundreds of live shows and TV appearances: the last film was the 1997 Fierce Creatures which John Cleese wrote but which was not a critical success. Corbett gives very good technical insights into the particular difficulties of the film, and just why it didn't "work". He knows his stuff. He's a even bigger namedropper than me, perhaps because he really has met 'em all, and worked with many. The index has over 500 names! Corbett speaks with humanity and gentleness of nearly everyone, even when remarking on foibles. An exception is his uncompromising mention of the American movie actor George C. Scott ... remember? - the guy who played the title role as (WWII General) Patton. Scott was one of a Celebrity and Golf Pro bunch who were to play a televised golf tournament at Gleneagles. He became so unpleasantly drunk, loud and boorish that the organisers shipped him off home.

A happier incident was when, one season in Bristol, the theatre manager knocked on Ronnie's door. "I've had a call from Cary Grant's secretary to say he's booked seats for tonight, and can he come backstage afterwards?" That's the kind of message you would enjoy. Cary Grant - real name Archie Leach, a Bristol home-town boy - told RC he'd enjoyed the show and they went out for a meal. As one does.

There's plenty more of considerable interest in this plainly written tale. Ghost-written, I think, and none the worse for that. I believe it was compiled from many taped interviews with Oliver Pritchett. The book was first published in 2000 when Ronnie Corbett was 70, still accepting performing engagements, and praise be, at the time of this blog he is still with us.

In his profession here was a giant spanning an epoch, from vaudeville, seaside pantomime and club shows, to the signature small screen monologue: stand-up comedy while seated in an armchair. Big statistic: in its heyday The Two Ronnies routinely attracted a weekly viewing audience in the U.K. of seventeen million, and nineteen million for the Christmas specials. Wow. Bless you.

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