RONNIE CORBETT’S COMEDY BRTAIN

Across two episodes, Ronnie Corbett takes us on a personal journey through comedy. As he leads us down memory lane to celebrate the highlights of his own extraordinary career, he hooks up with a Who’s Who of British comedy to share anecdotes from the frontline of the laughter business.

Drawing on his best-loved work within the Two Ronnies, episode one focuses on the magic of double acts, and episode two on the craft of solo performance.


BEHIND THE SCENES

It’s Tuesday. Late afternoon. I’m sitting at my window desk on the 16th floor of the ITV Tower. The setting sun is painting the sky with the full Pantone range of reds. The Thames is a beautiful inferno of reflected light. It doesn’t get any better than this. The phone rings.

“Hello Nic. It’s John Cleese here, calling from Miami”.

I was wrong. It does get better.

One of television’s fundamental laws is that, when making a celebrity-based programme, there will always be a chasm between the list of participants you wish to get, and the list of participants you actually get. As a young assistant producer I was responsible for casting a show called Celebrity Babies for Sky One. Top of the wish-list was Posh Spice. Top of the actual list was Tina Hobley from Holby City. You get the idea.

It would appear, though, that given the right set of circumstances this law can be broken. The right set of circumstances goes by the name of Ronnie Corbett. When I started this project I drew up my wildly optimistic wish-list. Incredibly, every single person on it agreed to take part. For Ronnie. Such is the respect that he rightly commands within the comedy world.

There were two big challenges to overcome with this series. Firstly, removed from their brilliantly crafted scripts, comedians are just normal people. They don’t wise-crack their way through each day. In fact, they tend to be overly cerebral and rather serious people. Putting two comedians together to discuss comedy had the potential to be massively anti-climactic. What it had to be was funny.

Secondly, we didn’t have very long with each comedian which meant that, without careful handling, this could easily have strayed into ‘talking head’ territory. Unremarkable and bog standard. Which, of course, wouldn’t do.

The key was to take a documentary approach, allowing our scenes to revolve around real-world situations. This would give each chapter a different feel and, if I came up with the right ideas, would provide a ‘stage’ on which each of our contributors could play to their comedic strengths. The hope was that this would squeeze good mileage out of the little time we had with them.

Miranda Hart (one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet) was completely in her element walking in the footsteps of Morecambe & Wise. Stephen Merchant was initially rather less enthusiastic about the idea of ‘dressing up’. But once he embraced it, we struck gold. Matt Lucas totally ran with the idea of recreating a Little Britain radio sketch. In fact, it was his decision to cast Ronnie in the role of Vicky Pollard. And thankfully David Mitchell, David Walliams, Ken Dodd, Rob Brydon, Dara O’Briain, Harry Hill and The Mighty Cleese all brought something very special to their particular piece of the jigsaw. As I said, we got the entire wish-list.

Having solved the performance side of the puzzle, the next challenge was archive. From a programme-making perspective, archive would provide easy bonus laughs. But what I most definitely didn’t want was to make a ‘clip show’. So what could I do to make our handling of this material more interesting? And how could I ensure that the clips – some of which dated back to the 1940s – would feel part of something contemporary? Once again, inspiration struck at my desk on the 16th floor. Looking out at the National Theatre. Observing its vast, empty, flat surfaces. Surfaces crying out for colour, for decoration, for… projected video clips of selected highlights from the pantheon of British comedy? Cha-ching!

After numerous graphics tests and an awful lot more thought, we had our look. And all-hail the ITV graphics team, who were painstaking in their support of a director’s ‘vision’. Having spent years on the receiving end of requests for “minor tweaks” from execs and commissioners, I was very much aware of how much pain my requests for things like “more rain over the billboard” could cause. But the guys delivered every time.

Along with so many others, I grew up watching Ronnie Corbett. To have the opportunity to work with him was an enormous privilege. If I’m honest, it wasn’t always easy. Ronnie has more experience of making television programmes than I will probably ever have, but those experiences lie primarily in studio-based multi-camera shows. You turn up, you record for ten minutes, you have ten minutes worth of great material. Documentary simply doesn’t work like that and, at times, the contrast between our expectations of a shoot did cause flashes of tension. But our two worlds came together on the very last day of filming, in Studio 6 at the BBC – where the Two Ronnies was recorded and where Ronnie had agreed to recreate for our documentary one of his most brilliant monologues.

 

To be sitting a few feet away from him as he leant forward in that famous chair and rolled back the years was very special indeed. To direct him in that scene was an extraordinary thrill. But out of all the marvellous moments that this series generated, the most touching came in the cutting room, when Ronnie called up, having just watched our edit of that monologue scene. “Wonderful, Nic. I have tears in my eyes”. A direct quote from Ronnie Corbett CBE.

It doesn’t get better than that. Not even when John Cleese rings you up from Miami.

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Series Producer/ Series Director/ Edit Producer: Nic Guttridge
Camera: Jay Dacey
Duration: 2 x 60mins
Production company:ITV Studios
Network: ITV1
First broadcast: August 2011 at 9pm

 

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