In the seventies, The Two Ronnies were a double act at the top of their game. They were firm friends, equal in both name and comedic talent, but one major difference separates them today (no, this is not leading to a height joke).
Ronnie Barker was of course enjoying great success alongside their partnership with his own solo projects - notably in the form of timeless sitcom Porridge, and the equally classic Open All Hours, both of which were born out of the same series of showcase pilots - but Ronnie Corbett's own solo work has not remained nearly as appreciated, despite similar contemporary success.
Oddly, it is arguably Corbett who was the bigger name as their partnership began, fronting comedies such as The Corbett Follies and, from 1967, starring in No - That's Me Over Here!, a sitcom created and written by Barry Cryer and pre-Python Graham Chapman and Eric Idle for LWT.
But let us first wind back a little further, for it was broadcasting legend David Frost who had first brought the two comic actors together, as part of his troupe of performers in topical comedy The Frost Report (1966).
Frost had spotted Corbett's potential early on. Ronnie had started out performing in youth clubs and clocked up a number of small film roles before becoming a regular guest on the children's morning variety show Crackerjack!. Frost had attempted to nab Corbett for The Frost Report shortly after his break into television, but at the time Ronnie was signed on to star as Will Scarlett alongside James Booth and Barbara Windsor in the new Lionel Bart musical Twang!!. He had no choice but to pass up on the offer.
From the renowned composer of Oliver!, the 1965 musical, a spoof of the story of Robin Hood, is infamous in the world of theatre for the sheer scale of its failure, going no small way to cost Bart his considerable personal fortune. But Corbett admitted, and we as observers can only concur, that the production's tragedy was television comedy's gain. It proved something of a lucky break for the littler Ron, for the premature end of Twang!!'s run in the West End allowed him to join The Frost Report cast after all, and ultimately led to the formation of his double act with Ronnie Barker.
If Twang!! had been the hit everyone had hoped and expected, Ronnie C would may well have enjoyed a career far more on the stage than television; perhaps never even knowing Barker, but certainly never launching their double act, nor becoming part of one of the most iconic sketches in British comedy history: The Frost Report's 'class sketch'. A crossroads in British comedy history indeed.
Much of that first sitcom, No - That's Me Over Here!, is missing believed wiped, but the (complete) surviving third series (1979) - and no fewer than two successors - offer a fascinating glimpse into often-overlooked comedy territory: for this is Sorry!, Corbett's later and much more well-known BBC series, in prototype.
Ronnie stars as Ronnie (self-named, as was customary of star vehicles at the time), a put-upon office worker, husband, and son to a domineering mother. But whereas Sorry! focused on that latter relationship in its rawest form, No - That's Me Over Here! is much more about Ronnie's tribulations in the workplace, his domestic married life, and cold war with his colleague and troublesome next-door neighbour.
The show (also produced by David Frost) has at times an air of surrealness that only members of the Flying Circus can capture, yet the premise is as traditional as it gets. Described as 'a man short in stature, but big in ideas', Ronnie tries desperately to work his way up the corporate ladder, all the whilst fumbling and coming unstuck in the face of an unending series of comedy situations.
Running for three series and twenty five episodes, No - That's Me Over Here! was a hit in no uncertain terms. Airing its last episode in December 1970, the following spring saw the debut of The Two Ronnies on the BBC, and the cementing of both stars' relationships with the corporation.
Later that year, the first of two series of Now Look Here... aired on BBC One. Once again created and written by Graham Chapman and Barry Cryer, although it does not ever seem to have been explicitly promoted as such, the series was a prequel to the earlier ITV comedy, starring the same co-leads - Rosemary Leach as Ronnie's wife, Laura, and Madge Ryan as his mother - with exactly the same relationships and dynamics between them, and Ronnie even employed by the same firm.
However, as a prequel it does not focus on Ronnie's career or marriage to Laura, but their first meeting, romance, and - crucially, foreshadowing Sorry! by a decade - his struggles as an ageing mummy's boy to break the apron strings and gain some independence.
Running for fourteen episodes in its own right, Now Look Here... proved successful enough to spawn its own sequel. In what can be seen as being set after the events of both Now Look Here... and No - That's Me Over Here!, The Prince Of Denmark (1974) would only run for one series, but followed the couple in a joint change of career when Laura inherits a pub.
Again, the series was written by Cryer and Chapman - on paper perhaps an unlikely duo (who have been described as a 'daring pairing'), but who wrote together consistently in Chapman's time away from the Python troupe.
Interestingly this latter sitcom shared a producer (Douglas Argent) with Fawlty Towers - it was perhaps the fact that John Cleese and Connie Booth's classic sitcom rocked up just a year later (1975) that killed any chances of a second series for The Prince Of Denmark.
Collectively hugely successful, these three comedies have perhaps suffered from just that - being three. No doubt their split between two rival broadcasters also played a part in quashing the possibility of repeats to sustain interest, but beyond that it is impossible to say quite why they are so lesser known than their younger cousin. Perhaps they simply came at the wrong time. Perhaps they suffered from diminishing returns. Perhaps Sorry! simply wiped them off the map.
For whatever reason, it is that successor series that is now the most feted of Ronnie Corbett's sitcom work. Created and written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent, the pair were part of The Two Ronnies regular writing team when they learned of the BBC's plan to find a new solo vehicle for Corbett.
Seemingly seeking to distil the angst of the overbearing mother and suffocated son that had been one of many strands in those prior formats, the pair promptly set about writing, secure in the knowledge that they knew how to write for the star better than almost anyone. However, by the time Ronnie had seen their script the wheels were already in motion to produce an alternative project. Conflicted, he sought advice from his comedy partner and friend. Barker told him: "I think [Sorry!] is the best thing that has been written for you in the sitcom world."
And it was on this advice that Ronnie Corbett pressed forward, requesting that the planned pilot be cancelled and, in exchange, he would appear in a full series of Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent's sitcom. And so it was that, in 1981 on BBC One, Sorry! finally made its debut.
Telling the story of Timothy Lumsden, who at 41 years of age is still living at home with his battleaxe of a mother (Ronnie was actually 51 when the series began, and only 10 years younger than his on-screen mother), Sorry! perfectly cast Barbara Lott as matriarch Phyllis ('All joints at this table will be carved!' she shrieks at her son at dinner, 'Elbows!'), with William Moore as his downtrodden and regularly vague father, Sidney, whose character became most famous for coining the catchphrase that came to define the show: he would invariably declare 'Language, Timothy!' at a time when no obscenities were being uttered.
A neurotic librarian who is extremely awkward with women and doesn't have much of a social life, Timothy usually finds that his younger sister, the much stronger willed Muriel (Marguerite Hardiman), is the only one in his corner - regularly begging him to break free of their mother's apron strings and make his own way in the world. Unfailingly, a combination of his fears and his mother's manipulations pulls Timothy back before each episode comes to a close.
Where the likes of Now Look Here... had put Ronnie (the character) in frequent combat with his demanding, manipulative mother, Sorry! dials the emotional blackmail up to eleven, well into the realms of cruelty.
Indeed, it's quite a bleak concept put in such bold terms, but whilst the series inevitably requires a certain suspension of disbelief, it also delivers a surprisingly cosy feel; it has been described as 'cherished', which is a perhaps unusual way to talk about a comedy that includes such darkness, but it does have an inherent sweetness too.
There is in fact something about the series that's almost a little bit 'Disney': from Barbara Lott's wicked stepmother-style performance to Timothy's fantastical daydreams, the darkness is punctuated by many shafts of light.
Sorry! is a domestic sitcom with a twist as fantasy elements played a key role in the show. Timothy's only real joy in life is his amateur dramatics group, and - unable to escape his mother in life - Timothy escapes via his imagination, often stemming from whatever the group are rehearsing at that particular time.
The Series 2 episode Every Clown Wants To Play Hamlet sees Timothy (who, in his amdram production of Hamlet, has been relegated to 'prompter') reimagine himself as the Prince of Denmark (not the publican). His bewildered father materialises before him and cries in a ghostly fashion:
"Hamlet! Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder!"
"Who hath done this bloody deed?!" declares an outraged and confused Timothy, to which he is predictably chided:
The catchphrase, Ronnie Corbett's affable nature and this novel spin on a traditional sitcom formula made for a winning combination and almost immediately the show began proving its worth with excellent viewing figures.
By Sorry!'s second series in 1982, the show was pulling in an impressive 10 million viewers. The comedy that followed Sorry! in its time slot was a little-known sitcom called Only Fools And Horses, which only averaged 9 million viewers. While both are viewing figures television schedulers can only dream of these days, at the time, the BBC thought it a rather weak number and came close to axing Only Fools And Horses entirely.
Almost stopping in its tracks what has since become one of the most beloved series in British comedy history perfectly illustrates what a powerhouse of a sitcom Sorry! was becoming, and Ronnie Corbett adored every minute of it. He was a big fan of performing to live audiences; that special bond shared between a small TV studio audience and the cast of a sitcom was something he particularly loved.
Peter Vincent would later recall: "I think he enjoyed the studio, because Ronnie, he's completely at home with an audience. He understands audiences, and you can feel that sort of affection coming across from Footlights as it were."
Ronnie would even share the burden of the warm-up, entertaining Sorry!'s audiences between takes.
"Timothy Lumsden was quite near Ronnie Corbett", the star later admitted. It made it easier for him to jump between himself and his character. In a less experienced, and a less warm comedic actor's hands the story of Timothy would have been far too dark and depressing for a family sitcom, but with little effort Ronnie managed to walk that thin tightrope between the tragedy of the situation and the light-hearted knockabout quality of the performance that the series required.
Enjoying audiences larger than thirteen million viewers across its seven year run, storylines had to become grander and in later series the writers built on the audience's familiarity with the entire Lumsden family.
One particular episode - literally entitled It's A Wonderful Life, Basically - sees Timothy wish that he'd never been born, and the story of the Hollywood Christmas classic is played out almost in full as we see Timothy consider his own existence. In its more sincere moments Sorry! becomes a sort of lighter, fluffier Reggie Perrin (a sitcom straining under immense pressure), a parallel that has been drawn with No - That's Me Over Here! as well.
Sorry! also began to take on a continuing story arc, none more so than Timothy's ageing making the original core situation harder to sustain, and the emergence of two key love interests in the final two series. The first, Jennifer (Wendy Allnutt), he eventually lost to his mother's meddling ways, despite their plans to get hitched. After being jilted, Timothy commits himself to a monastery and the series appears to be winding down.
Ian Davidson candidly admitted: "I don't think anybody decided that Series 7 would be the last, but there was a suspicion in our minds that it was about time, and some of our ideas were getting pretty outrageous by then!"
Deciding that the series required a happy ending, the writers (alongside Ronnie) looked back across all of the previous episodes to find the perfect woman for the not-so-young Lumsden; they were keen for her to have been a character whom he had previously met in his series of adventures. Eventually they settled on the lovably eccentric Pippa (Bridget Brice) - who crashes into his life once again and eventually sweeps Timothy off his feet, literally, when she whisks him away from his ghastly mother in a hot air balloon. All with When You Wish Upon A Star playing in the background - it's straight out of a fairy tale.
After 42 episodes (an auspicious number in the world of comedy), Sorry! came to an end. Fantastical, charming and funny, Ronnie Corbett's most famous solo outing is gorgeous piece of eighties nostalgia, and a sitcom with nothing whatsoever to be sorry about.