Friday, 1 April 2016

Learning Lessons from the Giants

Who are the true greats in comedy? The word great is bandied about a lot so let's be careful here. Clearly any sane list should include Peter Cook, Ronnie Barker, Peter Sellers and Eric Morecambe. Leonard Rossiter (dressed as Rigsby) might somehow worm his way into that A List. They are the Kings and Dukes of Comedy. But not far behind, the Earls and Counts of comedy must surely include Ronnie Corbett. He is up there with the Frankie Howerds, Bob Monkhouses and the Eric Sykeses.

An awful lot about Ronnie Corbett will already have been said. But this is a blog about sitcoms and writing, so let's say a couple of things about that.

Ronnie Corbett was naturally funny, brilliant performer with amazing charm, surprising range and a fantastic diminutive stature that provided easy jokes on the way to harder ones. But he was not a writer. People don't like to mention this sort of thing as we now live in an age where people like to believe the magic people on TV come up with all of this stuff (on the spot in front of three cameras whilst interacting with actors). And for I reason I can't fathom, the press doesn't like to ruin that illusion.

Mr Corbett himself would've been puzzled by all this, I'm sure. When you're doing a juggernaut weekly TV show, with a monologue, as well as sketches, you need material. You need writers. And The Two Ronnies had some of the best. This why, sketch for sketch, I'd probably choose the Two Ronnies over Morecambe and Wise.

Corbett evolved his own chatty, jokey style that was unlike anything else - but the words were written. Just like Frankie Howerd's routines were. They just didn't look it. Because the writing and performance were working in perfect harmony.

And when you look back at Sorry!, which ran for seven series from 1981-88, you won't find an overlooked classic. You will find a show that was very watchable at the time, spawning a household catchphrase (Language, Timothy!), entertain millions of people over the course of 42 episodes. This, we should remember, is no small thing.

Sorry! was written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. They had written for The Two Ronnies and Ian Davidson had been the Script Editor in 1978. Along the way he came up with a popular vehicle for a much loved mainstream sketch actor. The Two Ronnies was also a place where the likes of John Sullivan (Fools and Horses), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) & Andrew Marshall (2.4 Children) and David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin) got some TV comedy miles under their belts. Add up the numbers of episodes of TV sitcoms written by his crowd alone (remembering to include John Sullivan's Just Good Friends, Dear John, Citizen Smith and The Green Green Grass, (and those other shows by those others writers)). We have hundreds, possibly thousands, of episodes of TV enjoyed by millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Some of these episodes are truly great. Many other episodes are just watchable and enjoyable. Again, no small achievement.

We really love to celebrate 'the greats', and 'the classics' and wonder how we'll ever achieve those heights again - and remake them assuming we won't. It seems odd to me that we don't really do the things that brought about these classics. Armstrong and Miller have run for a few years on BBC1. But not Mitchell and Webb. (Why not?!) Tracey Ullman's show has been on at 10.40pm. This huge sketch comedy shows are the launchpad for huge sitcoms. Is it any wonder we're not getting these big, crowd-pleasing, mainstream sitcom hits when we just expect them to appear out of thin air?

But I digress. For now, let's celebrate the late great, but tiny, Ronnie Corbett. I wear this T-Shirt today for him.

And let's have a listen to Matt Berry and his band playing the theme from Sorry! (in memory of Ronnie Hazlehurst who died back in 2007).


  1. Good piece as always. Minor quibble, it sounds like you're crediting Davidson and Vincent with the creation of Brittas Empire - only 5 episodes according to IMDB.

    1. Quite right. Good spot. I read my sources incorrectly - and so I've deleted that bit as it's not necessary for my argument. Thanks!

  2. Not sure I'll give you Leonard Rossiter in the A List. Brilliant, but perhaps not the range of the others. If you want Rossiter I give you Alastair Sim.