Ronnie CORBETT (1930-2016)

Ronnie Corbett This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 275
  • Subject No: 277
  • Broadcast date: Wed 1 Apr 1970
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Sun 29 Mar 1970
  • Venue: LWT Studios, Wembley
  • Series: 10
  • Edition: 19

on the guest list...

  • David Frost
  • Ronnie Barker
  • William - father
  • Annie - mother
  • Allan - brother
  • Anne - wife
  • Maisie Ritchie
  • Bob Law
  • Edward Hardwicke
  • Clive Dunn
  • Danny La Rue
  • Corbett's Follies:
  • Vanessa
  • Beverley
  • Lorraine
  • Gwen
  • Margaret - sister

production team...

  • Researcher: David Carter
  • Writer: David Carter
  • Director: Margery Baker
  • Producer: Robert Tyrrell
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...

It's a Funny Old Life

it's all about the comedy

Life Is Full Of Surprises

Producer Robert Tyrrell reveals some 'cloak and dagger' tactics

Clive Dunn

David Frost

Danny La Rue

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Screenshots and photographs of Ronnie Corbett This Is Your Life

Ronnie Corbett's Autobiography

Ronnie Corbett recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, High Hopes...

In the 20 years I worked with Ron, on The Frost Report, on Frost on Sunday and on The Two Ronnies we only once had a falling out. This happened when we were coming to the end of a series of Frost on Sunday and halfway through the rehearsing, Ron, with the backing of producer Phil Casson, suggested that we should swap roles in one particular sketch.

I was dead against it, because the part I had was obviously the right one for me. Whenever we performed together, the casting was always pretty obvious – we knew which types we played best – and we always stuck to the roles we had in the read-through.

On this occasion Ron was determined to swap so that he could have my part, and I didn't like it at all. For the first and only time in our career together, I got the hump. I walked out to the loo to cool down, then I walked back again, even more annoyed. The whole atmosphere was uneasy and when we left to go home that evening after rehearsals our goodbyes were abrupt.

When I got home I complained to Anne. "I'm being manipulated and I don't like it," I said. All the time I had worked with Ron I was content to be the placid one, to be non-confrontational. I knew how much emotional involvement he put into our work, more than me probably, so it suited me to be the easy-going one. But this time I said "Bugger it."

Anne said I should just let it go, forget about it. This was the end of the series and it was not worth making a big deal about it. So I went back the next day, in a curmudgeonly mood, and carried on rehearsing.

I was right. I was being manipulated. Ronnie Barker, the master of intrigue, and Phil Casson and Anne were all in a conspiracy to get me to be the subject (or victim) of This Is Your Life which, at the time, was presented by Eamonn Andrews. Afterwards, people said it was one of the neatest "catches" that Eamonn ever had.

For some time, during the Frost on Sunday series, we had an unperformed sketch lying around the office, about a man who was paranoid about being featured on This Is Your Life. If the milkman or the postman came to the door he was convinced that it was Eamonn Andrews with the big red book. The tag line of the whole thing was that Eamonn would then suddenly show up and the man wouldn't recognise him.

The sketch had been put on the back burner for some time, partly because we were not absolutely sure of the quality of it, but mostly because we knew it would be difficult to get Eamonn to appear in it because he was so popular and busy.

Anyway, it was the last show of this particular series and they said they had managed to get Eamonn to do the sketch. All the time, their manipulation with the role in the other sketch was so that they could get me into the right part for this one, although, of course, I didn't know any of this at the time.

Eamonn rehearsed with us all day and, while he was there, a rumour went about that he was going to do a real This Is Your Life on David Frost. This was probably a cunning diversionary tactic by Ronnie Barker. I think at one point I wondered if Eamonn might be doing Ronnie or me, but Ronnie said: "Oh, it can't be one of us or we would have told each other." Devious, but it convinced me.

So when, at the end of the sketch, Eamonn said: "Ronnie Corbett, this really is your life," I was truly gobsmacked. It was quite a memorable coup. The set for This Is Your Life was actually hung up in the flies in the studio, above the set for Frost on Sunday so they could just lower it and do the show right there and then. I just hadn't looked up all day.

After I got over the shock, it was really quite sweet and moving. My Sunday school teacher was there, and my sister Margaret came from Australia looking amazing because she was pregnant with her second child and was dressed in a sort of Bluebell Girl's costume, because she had once been a dancer. And my brother Allan was there, just to remind me and everybody else about how, being the tall one, he was able to beat me up from an early age.

David Frost was there, of course, and Danny La Rue. I remember Danny arrived wearing exactly the same tie as me. It was the time of Mr Fish and the kipper tie which matched the shirt. My mum and dad were there and my mum forgot what she was supposed to say, and, off camera, my dad was prompting her, as always, putting the words in her mouth.

David, who has always been a great party giver, had booked the ballroom of Quaglino's – it was still a night-club then – for a party afterwards, so the celebrations continued. Clive Dunn (who had given me one of my very first jobs in that summer season at Cromer) was at the party and found himself seated at the same table as Herbie Flowers who played in the band at Danny La Rue's club. Herbie had just written a song called "Grandad" and was looking for somebody to sing it. It was all agreed between them at that table and soon Clive was spending several weeks at the top of the hit parade with that song.

Actually, I knew Eamonn Andrews pretty well before the This Is Your Life ambush, because I had done three seasons of the children's television programme Crackerjack when Eamonn was the host and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson were the musical guests each week.

Ronnie Corbett's Autobiography

Ronnie Corbett recalls a similar experience of This Is Your Life in his book, The Autobiography of The Two Ronnies, And It's Goodnight From Him...

Nevertheless, it was during the run of Frost on Sunday that Ronnie and I had the one serious argument that I mentioned in the first chapter. We came nearer to falling out with each other than at any other time during our long, happy relationship. It was all about the casting of a sketch. Usually we had no problems about which of us should play which part. Sometimes writers would put RC and RB in front of their dialogue, but even if they gave the characters fictitious names, it was obvious which of us should play which role.

There was a kind of fictional reality to our relationship. Stray too far from it and our comedy would be less effective. For instance - and I'm not a bitter man, it didn't worry me - if there was a girl to be got, guess which Ronnie got her. It got so bad - not, as I say, that I'm bitter about it - that even when we did a wedding sketch, in which Ron was the vicar and I was the groom, it was the vicar who walked off with the girl.

On this one occasion, however, Ronnie and the director, Phil Casson, suddenly wanted us to swap roles in a particular sketch. I was dead against it. I couldn't see a valid reason for it. There was something unusual in the atmosphere, a feeling Ron and Phil were colluding, that I was being manipulated. I strode off to the loo to cool down, but I was still very annoyed when I walked back. The whole atmosphere was uneasy. Our goodbyes at the end of the rehearsal were brusque and strained. It was not at all a pleasant feeling.

When I got home I complained to Anne. 'I'm being got at and I don't like it’.

Anne said I should forget it, it wasn't worth falling out over. I tried to forget it but I was still in a curmudgeonly mood the next morning at rehearsals. This was very unusual. I was the placid one. If anybody was at all pernickety, it would be Ronnie, but his pernicketiness wouldn't be directed at me, it would be directed at somebody who wasn't getting something right on the show. Ronnie wanted everything to be of a very high standard, so he could be demanding, but only for rational reasons. Here I felt that something irrational was going on, and that it was directed at me.

Another of our sketches in the show that week was on This Is Your Life about a man who was paranoid about appearing on the programme. If the milkman or the postman came to the door, he was convinced that it was Eamonn Andrews with his big red book. In the end Eamonn turned up, and he didn't recognize him. Now there was a problem with this sketch. The tag wouldn't work unless it was actually played by Eamonn Andrews, and he was a very busy man. Not likely to be too eager to come in just to play the tag line in a sketch.

The sketch had been hanging around for some time, but suddenly they announced that Eamonn was available. Now what I didn't know was that I had been chosen as the secret subject of that week's This Is Your Life, so I had to play the lead part in that sketch. This meant that Ronnie had to play the lead part in the other sketch, in order that the show should not seem too unbalanced, since it was an absolute principle of our shows that we had, overall, a roughly equal amount of the comedy. I was right. I was being manipulated. My dear friend Ron, my estimable producer Phil and my beloved wife Anne were indeed in collusion, and for the very best of reasons, and there was I being temperamental and suspicious about the whole thing. It must have been very annoying for them.

Even so, it was touch and go. I saw Thames Television vans everywhere when I went to the canteen.

'I wonder if they're doing This Is Your Life,' I said. 'I wonder if that's why Eamonn has agreed to do the sketch.'

Ronnie didn't turn a hair.

'I bet it's David Frost,' he said. 'I'll go and find out.'

He went, came back and said, 'I was right. The rumour is that it is David.'

'Of course, it could be one of us,' I said.

'No, it couldn't be one of us,' said Ronnie.

'Why not?'

'Because the other one would know.'

This was devious, not to say wily. It was quick thinking of a very high order. It was nonsense, of course. He did know. But I didn't have time to work that out. And he said it so convincingly that he saved the situation. So it was a complete shock to me when at the end of the sketch, Eamonn said, 'Ronnie Corbett, this really is your life.'

I mouthed, 'You bastard' at Ronnie. Quite a lot of people seem to mouth that when caught by the man with the big red book.

The sets for This Is Your Life were actually hanging there in the flies, above the sets for Frost on Sunday. If I'd looked up, I'd have seen them. But we weren't doing a class sketch that day, and, since I do have to look up at people quite a bit, I tend not to look up when I don't have to.

The audience for Frost on Sunday got a completely unexpected bonus, an edition of This Is Your Life. They were asked if they were prepared to stay on, and they all did, and loved it. I enjoyed doing it too. The show, of course, was very sweet and moving. My mother and father were there, my mother forgetting what she was supposed to say and being prompted off camera by my father, putting words into her mouth much as he always did. My dear brother, Allan, the tall one, was also present, pretending that he spent most of our childhood beating me up. My sister, Margaret, had been flown in from Florida, very pregnant with her second child. My old Sunday school teacher made an appearance, as did Danny La Rue, wearing an identical kipper tie to mine.

About three years ago they approached Anne with the idea of doing it again. She said 'no', quite rightly.

Ronnie never did the show. He had made Joy swear that, if they ever approached her for him to do it, she must tell him. He just didn't want it done. He was intensely protective of his private life.

Ronnie Barker's Autobiography

Ronnie Barker and Bob McCabe recall this edition of This Is Your Life in their book, The authorised biography of Ronnie Barker...

Showbiz partnerships are often referred to as a marriage. The 'marriage' between Ronnie B and Ronnie C lasted for 22 years. In all that time, you'd expect there to have been arguments, falling outs, negotiations, reconciliations. According to both men though, this was never the case. It was a good, strong marriage, kept alive no doubt by the fact that they always had parallel, and equally successful, solo careers. They never fell out, although they came close once, when Ronnie C had been picked as a candidate for This Is Your Life. During work on Frost on Sunday, a sketch appeared that featured an ordinary man who was convinced that he was going to be on This Is Your Life.

He was an ordinary little man and Josephine Tewson played his wife, saying, "They're not after you, why would they be after you?" He'd say, "I don't know, I think they are after me." He had various funny explanations why he thought that - the man in the supermarket's looking at me oddly - all sorts of things. The tag of the sketch had him saying he was frightened to go out and her replying, "Don't be silly it's only Taffy coming round to see you, you're only going to the pub." There's a knock on the door and Eamonn Andrews comes in as Taffy and they go off down the pub. That sketch came in and I said to the producer that he had to have Eamonn Andrews doing it or the sketch was nothing. He was told Eamonn Andrews wouldn't do it, so we put the sketch aside.

'Then, a few weeks later, Thames Television said they wanted to do Ronnie Corbett's This Is Your Life, and asked, "How do you suggest we pick him up, how do you think we can work this?" Immediately I thought of this sketch and I told them about it and they said, "That sounds wonderful. Of course Eamonn will do it." It was the last of the series and they said this couldn't be better. The producer, Phil Casson, and I were in cahoots and said to Ronnie, "As it's the end of the series we thought we might try Eamonn again. I think he might do it because it's the end of the series and he owes David a few favours." So Ronnie said, "Fine, fine." But he was already cast in another sketch, because one of us played the main part and one of us played the feed part, we swapped round. Phil said, "As you're going to play the lead in the Eamonn Andrews sketch, Ronnie B will have to play the lead in the sketch you've been rehearsing." Now that was a sketch that Ronnie C was very fond of. And so he thought that somehow this was a trick to get him. He lost confidence or something.'

'He fiddled me into a role that was palpably not right for me,' confirms Corbett, 'and took that role for himself. I thought for the first time that this was a mistake, that I should be playing that role, and it was funnier. He was trying to do something funny here. I walked out of the room and came home and said to my wife Anne, "I'm being manipulated and I don't think it's right."'

'It was the only moment that we've ever had that was slightly worrying for him,' says Ronnie B. 'Not for me because I knew what we were up to. But he became distanced from me a bit. He said "Why are they doing this?" And his wife said, "Oh, ride it out. You're doing so well together, the both of you, I'm sure he's not doing that." He was a bit distant. But he did it.'

'We were friends all right, it wasn't a tiff or anything, but I could feel a little distancing. Came the day and we were sitting there and we were all ready and geared up and Ronnie went out to the canteen. When he came back he said, "There are Thames Television vans everywhere." I thought, 'Oh, Christ, why have they showed themselves?' But I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "I wonder if it's a This Is Your Life?" I said, "It must be David Frost. I'll go and find out." I went outside and saw the vans there and walked about for five minutes and went back and said, "It is, it's David. The rumour is that it's David Frost." Ronnie said, "Of course, it could be one of us," and that was the best moment I've ever had of thinking on my feet. I said, "No, it couldn't be one of us." Ronnie said "Why not?" "Because the other one would know." And he said, "Oh yeah. Well that's a relief." I knew I must say something and he fell for it straight away. If he'd thought about it of course he could've said, "Well perhaps you do know," but he didn't. It was such a surprise for him. You could see it on the screen, he turns to me and says, "You bastard." which is, I think, the most frequent word used on This Is Your Life. They usually turn to somebody and say, "You bastard." That was wonderful. It was one of my proudest moments for thinking on my feet.'

Years later, plans to feature Ronnie B on the show would be scuppered when he found a piece of paper his wife had left lying around with an unknown phone number on. He dialled the number and was put through to a researcher for This Is Your Life.

Malcolm Morris biography

Producer Malcolm Morris recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his book, This Is My Life...

One of the joys of thinking up the 'pick up' or 'hit' is to devise as fiendish a plan as possible which will be fun and a huge surprise.

Once Ronnie Corbett was in the sights of the programme everyone knew that the 'hit' was going to be tricky to do because Ronnie was so experienced he could spot a phoney situation and a camera a mile away. We knew we had to tread carefully.

Ronnie was appearing on the David Frost programme, which also included a series of fast changing sketches. The sketches featured Ronnie Barker and David himself. A special sketch was written into the programme with Ronnie as a downtrodden wimp who was obsessed by the idea that one day Eamonn Andrews would hide in his tiny house and jump out at him and shout 'Albert Froggins,' (the name of Ronnie's comedy character) 'This Is Your Life!' and carry him off screaming and kicking to his fate.

The sketch was rehearsed throughout the day with Ronnie playing the scene with Ronnie Barker. The sketch consisted of 'Albert Froggins' looking under tables and behind chairs and then finally opening his wardrobe to find Ronnie Barker hidden there, playing Eamonn.

On the live transmission, with a studio audience, the programme started and they went into the sketch, Ronnie playing it with gusto on hearing some good laughs from the audience. The sketch was nearing its end and Ronnie, with a great flourish, shouted, 'OK Eamonn I know you're in there, come out,' and pulled open the wardrobe doors to reveal not Ronnie Barker but Eamonn Andrews who did predictably say, 'Ronnie Corbett, This Is Your Life.'

Nobody heard any more because there was bedlam from the audience while a stunned Ronnie looked disbelievingly at Ronnie Barker and then David Frost.

'You've done this,' he whispered because he had lost his voice with shock.

They all nodded as Eamonn carried him off.

Roy Bottomley This Is Your Life book

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his book, This Is Your Life: The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book...

Ronnie Corbett was involved in some comedy acting with Ronnie Barker when the Life struck. It was March 1970, and the two Ronnies were on the David Frost programme.

The Life had done so well in the TV ratings that we had invented a sketch in which Ronnie Corbett played a character obsessed with the idea that Eamonn Andrews would one day knock on his door holding the Big Red Book.

With the collaboration of Ronnie Barker and David Frost we came up with a pay-off for the sketch – Frost would arrive with Eamonn; fade out. End of sketch.

What Ronnie Corbett didn't know was that it would be the start of his real-life This Is Your Life. He sat down and covered his face in disbelief when it dawned on him that the whole sketch had been a double bluff.

Clive Dunn's autobiography

Clive Dunn recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Permission to Speak...

Two weeks later I had to return yet again to England, but this time with a bunch of asparagus in my hand luggage. This was a little gift for Ronnie Corbett, now a happily married star and father and absolutely ripe for This Is Your Life.

To be honest there was not many people for whom one would interrupt a long-awaited holiday. The Queen and R. Corbett are a couple of exceptions who leap to mind.

This jolly programme finished with David Frost inviting all the guests to Quaglino's for a cabaret supper, where Danny La Rue sang 'Mother Kelly's Doorstep' and Selina Jones didn't. A good time was had by all...

Series 10 subjects

Des O'Connor | Bobby Charlton | Harry Driver | Twiggy | Honor Blackman | The Beverley Sisters | John Fairfax | Henry Cooper
Jackie Stewart | Jimmy Savile | Arthur Dooley | Wendy Craig | Tony Jacklin | Charlie Cairoli | Richard Evans | Alfie Bass
Jack Good | Joe Mercer | Ronnie Corbett | Colin Milburn | Frankie Vaughan | Lorna Ridgway | Val Doonican
Johnny Speight | Reg Varney | Harold French