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Soaring with Laughter

Traditionally speaking, a double act in comedy has a funny-man and a straight-man. The Two Ronnies were different. They were a double act with two exceptionally talented funny men. Ronnie Barker passed away in 2005 at the age of seventy-six. Now Ronnie Corbett has followed him at the age of eighty-six. We’ve lost the second half of one of the best and most popular comedy partnerships in British history.

Where Morecambe and Wise used hands-behind-the-back dancing as their trademark, the Two Ronnies had something simpler: their glasses. It said a lot in a little. Glasses are associated with reading and knowledge, and the Two Ronnies were a very clever act, well-versed in the traditions of the theatre and stand-up. But glasses are also sometimes a target for teasing at school. Comedians often say that, as children, they used jokes to win popularity and escape the bullies.

But Ronnie Corbett was vulnerable in another way. He wasn’t just short-sighted, he was short full stop. He didn’t like that growing up in Edinburgh, but when he became a comedian he took advantage of it. It was a way to turn the joke in, getting the laughs before anyone else could and lifting himself to fame and fortune. You could say he soared with laughter. On The Two Ronnies, he often referred to his lack of height during the long monologues he delivered from a huge armchair. They were an excellent example of his comedic skill and acting ability, as he wandered off the point, seeming to go nowhere and not be saying anything important, and yet remaining in perfect control of the audience and getting laughs.

Not all comedians are good actors. The Two Ronnies were both very actors and could easily have made entire careers for themselves performing straight roles on screen and on stage. Instead, they performed in some of the best comedy seen on British television. On The Two Ronnies, they brought to life some very strange and clever writing. In contrast to a lot of other comedy at the time, they didn’t use crudity or nudity to get laughs. Their sketches could often have fitted in an episode of Monty Python, but their performances gave them a distinctive touch that marked them as something separate. They often relied on word-play or lunatic humour, as in "Four Candles", "Nothing’s Too Much Trouble" and Spike Milligan’s “The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town”.

After their shared series came to end, they acted in series of their own. Ronnie Barker is famous for his chameleon-like switches of character and voice in the classics Porridge and Open All Hours. But Ronnie Corbett had a worthy series of his own: Sorry!. It was excellent but overlooked. He played a put-upon librarian called Timothy Lumsden, who still lived at home with his parents. His tyrannical mother, played by Barbara Lott, continued to treat him like a child and keep him tied to her apron-strings. He had to fight for independence and the right to make his own decisions.

The humour in Sorry! wasn’t crude or slapstick, but relied on the actors’ perfect comedic timing, control of facial expressions and comfort with each others’ performances. It was a gem of a series that deserved a much bigger audience and much more prominence in television history. Perhaps it will still get there. When a great actor or comedian passes away, it’s a chance for both critics and the general public to re-evaluate their career. Ronnie Corbett is rightly famous for being half of the Two Ronnies. Perhaps he’ll now receive his rightful due for his solo work. He was a great comedian and something more: a decent, gentle and modest man who will be remembered with respect and affection not just by millions of those he entertained but by his professional colleagues too.