The first half of 2016 has seen a great loss for comedy with the deaths of Ronnie Corbett and Victoria Wood. Their considerable influence on the later generations of comedians is undeniable. Their achievements were many and this short article can only touch upon them.
Ronnie Corbett’s career spanned seven decades. His first big break came in the mid-1950s when he performed stand-up on the BBC’s children’s show Crackerjack. Following an offer from David Frost, Corbett joined The Frost Report, a satirical show that ran from 1966 to 1967. It was here he would meet Ronnie Barker and perform in the show’s famous sketch about class roles. Corbett played a working-class man who looked up to Barker’s middle-class man who in turn looked up to John Cleese’s upper-class man. The sketch is a good example of how Corbett used his short stature to his advantage when on stage.
Corbett and Barker gelled and became a duo on BBC1’s The Two Ronnies, which ran from 1971 to 1987. The series had a variety show feel but its surreal elements and sometimes risqué themes differentiated it from other more traditional shows of the time such as Morecambe and Wise. At the height of its popularity the show pulled in 22 million viewers. Corbett and Barker became household names. Unlike Barker, Corbett cherished the limelight and said to one interviewer “I do find the ‘national treasure’ thing very touching.” The show produced many classic sketches, perhaps most notably Four Candles, an effective use of wordplay as Corbett’s ironmonger struggles to comprehend Barker’s unclear request for fork handles, and other items. Corbett had a solo spot in the show where he would begin a joke, which would then diverge into a long-winded monologue.
Corbett also found acclaim in the 1980s sitcom Sorry! which ran for seven seasons. His career trailed off in the 1990s and beyond although his monologues were revived for the Ben Elton show in 2000. The Two Ronnies formed a reunion in 2005, just before Barker’s death. After that Corbett made guest appearances in Little Britain and Extras, starred with Simon Pegg in the 2010 feature film Burke and Hare, and from 2010 to 2014 he starred in the BBC Radio 4 comedy, When the Dog Dies.
Victoria Wood was one of the finest comedic writers and performers of her generation and one of the funniest women of all time. Her repertoire scanned stand-up, sketch, sitcom, song, musicals and drama.
She began her career in the early 1970s, a northern interloper in the disproportionately male and Oxbridge-centric world of comedy. Her first break came while still a drama student at Birmingham University when she appeared on the talent show New Faces. She didn’t make the final but was invited to join Lenny Henry and Marti Caine in The Summer Show.
Wood was a talented piano player and in 1976 she became resident pianist, and wrote songs, for the BBC’s That’s Life, a topical show presented by Esther Rantzen. In that year she met the man she would marry, Geoffrey Durham, and with his support and encouragement she developed a stand-up routine incorporating musical numbers.
Wood first met Julie Walters in the early 1970s and in 1978 they met again on a production Wood had written a sketch for. Wood subsequently wrote a play, Talent. Peter Eckersley, head of drama at Granada Television, asked her to adapt it for television. Wood agreed, and considered it to be her big break. Walters took the lead role and she and Wood would continue to collaborate throughout their careers.
Wood moved to the BBC and Victoria Wood as Seen on TV aired in January 1985. The show featured Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and a host of other regulars. It contained memorable recurring characters such as the snobby television announcer, one-off sketches such as Two Soups- where Walters plays an elderly waitress who shakes so much she spills the soup before she gets it to the customers, a soap spoof Acorn Antiques (to be made into a musical in 2005) and song, the most famous of which is The Ballad of Barry and Freda- Let’s Do It.
In 1998 came further acclaim, with the award-winning sitcom Dinnerladies, written, co-produced by and starring Wood.
Ronnie Corbett 4th December 1930 – 31st March 2016
Victoria Wood 19th May 1953 – 20th April 2016