Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett met at the Buckstone Club in the Haymarket, London, where Ronnie Corbett was serving drinks between acting jobs. They were invited by David Frost to appear in his new show, The Frost Report, with John Cleese, but the pair's big break came when they filled in for a few minutes during a technical hitch at an awards ceremony in 1970. In the audience was Bill Cotton, the Head of Light Entertainment for the BBC, and Sir Paul Fox, the Controller of BBC1. Cotton was so impressed by the duo that he turned to Fox and asked: "How would you like those two on your network?" Barker and Corbett were given their own show by the BBC.
The show was based on the complementary personalities of Barker and Corbett, who never became an exclusive pairing, but continued to work independently in television outside of the editions of the Two Ronnies. The show was produced annually between 1971 and 1987. It had many notable writers including Ray Alan, John Cleese, Barry Cryer, Spike Milligan, David Nobbs, David Renwick, Eric Idle, John Sullivan, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Laurie Rowley. In addition, Barker used the pseudonym Gerald Wiley when writing sketches.
The show featured comic sketches in which Barker and Corbett appeared both together and separately, with various additions giving the programme the feeling of a variety show. The sketches often involved complex word-play, much of it written by Barker, who also liked to parody officialdom and establishment figures, as well as eccentrics. Corbett appeared quieter, more often acting as a foil for Barker, but remained an important part of the chemistry. Many of the jokes revolved around his lack of height, with him delivering many of them himself: when Barker said that the next part "does suit Ronnie C. right down to the ground", Corbett replied "Mind you, that's not far is it?". Other jokes could be of a sexual nature of the sort found on seaside postcards: for example:
"Tickle your botty with a feather tonight?" (sotto voce)
"I beg your pardon?" (outraged)
"Particularly grotty weather tonight"
Some of the show's material contained elements of surreal or left field humour, in the vein of Monty Python, and was considered edgier and more sophisticated than the more traditional routines of Morecambe and Wise. The duo had formed some time after their peers by which time the comedy world had moved on to satire, absurdist surrealism and the beginnings of alternative humour. Furthermore, there was more comedic parity between the show's two stars, with the diminutive Corbett less of a foil to Barker than Ernie Wise was to Eric Morecambe.
The following list details some of the notably popular sketches that the comedy duo did on the show:"Four Candles" - Corbett runs an old-fashioned ironmonger's store, and is greeted by a customer (Barker) who asks for what sounds like "four candles", which Corbett provides. Barker reveals he misinterpreted what he said, stating that he asked for "fork handles – 'andles for forks", meaning garden forks. Barker continues to ask for other items from a list, very tersely, and grows more and more frustrated as Corbett continues to misinterpret what he actually says. The sketch was written by Barker.
Mastermind Sketch - In a parody of the quiz show, Barker plays the host Magnus Magnusson, while Corbett is a contestant named Charlie Smithers whose specialist subject is "answering the question before last". For example, when Smithers is asked "What is the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage?" he replies with the answer to the previous question ("What is palaeontology?") which is "A study of old fossils."
"Nothing's Too Much Trouble" – Set in an old-fashioned sweet shop, Corbett decides to test Barker's "Nothing's too much trouble" policy, and forces him to perform many tedious tasks to fulfil his order, eventually driving him insane.
"Rook Restaurant" (originally titled Complete Rook) - Barker is a disgruntled waiter in a restaurant that only serves rook, with Corbett and Claire Nielson playing the role of a diner and his wife respectively. The sketch was written by David Nobbs.
"Swear Box" - Barker and Corbett are in a pub which has a swear box and keep swearing during the sketch. The swear words are bleeped out.
"Opticians" - Barker and Corbett play as an optician and his customer, who both have equally poor sight. The sketch was written by Barker.
"You Can Say That Again", - Corbett plays as a man named Bert, who hesitates when speaking, leaving up to Barker (who plays as a man named Charlie) to finishes his sentences.
"Dr. Death" - Barker plays as a GP who has the unfortunate name of "Dr. Death", while Corbett plays as a new patient to his practice whim he tries to sign up to. Throughout his efforts to do so, he has the unfortunate luck of making everything and everyone he touches to inexplicably die.
"The Confusing Library" - Corbett is an individual trying to locate a book in a library that Barker is the librarian of, and who classifies the books by colour, size, thickness and thinness.
"The Confusing Shopping List" - Barker and Corbett play as a customer and shopkeeper, who try to decipher a shopping list written by the customer's wife.
"It's A Duck!" - Corbett plays as a man named Sid who tries to convince his friend George (Barker) that a duck he has bought is actually an Argentinian racing pigeon. The sketch was written by John Sullivan.
"Spanish Bartender" - An English tourist in Spain (Corbett), whose car had broken down, tries to make a bartender at a tourist bar (Barker) understand his situation. Barker's character could only say English names like 'Bobby Charlton' throughout the sketch.
"Crossed Lines" - Barker and Corbett are two men within separate, but adjacent telephone booths, each of whom are having a phone conversation, but seem to almost be in conversation with each other.
Both Barker and Corbett had their own solo sections on each show. Barker would have his own heavily wordplay-based sketch, often as the head of a ridiculous-sounding organisation (for example, the "Anti-Shoddy Goods Committee"). Likewise, Corbett always had a discursive solo monologue in each show, when he sat in a chair, facing the camera, attempting to tell a simple joke, but constantly distracting himself into relating other humorous incidents. The joke itself was normally deliberately corny; the humour came from Corbett's wild tangents, as well as the anticlimax when he finally reached the punchline.
An example of Ronnie Corbett's humour is this short excerpt from a monologue:
It became a tradition of the shows to have a continuing serial story which progressed through the eight episodes of a series. These were often fairly bawdy tales with special guest stars. The very first serial was Hampton Wick (1971) written by Barker, which began as a pastiche of costume dramas about a governess called Henrietta Beckett, played by Madeline Smith, with the Ronnies playing a wide variety of other characters, but had a neat twist ending that turned this notion on its head.
There were four modern-day mystery serials featuring the comic detective characters "Piggy Malone" (Barker) and "Charley Farley" (Corbett). Done to Death (1972), a mystery about a murdered family, featuring Sue Lloyd; Death Can Be Fatal (1975), in which the duo are sent in search of the formula for the Clumsy Drug, alongside Cyd Hayman; Stop! You're Killing Me (1977–78), in which Devon's yokels are murdered and dumped in London, with support from Kate O'Mara as the gypsy temptress, Lucy Lee; and Band of Slaves (1981–82), where an all-girls orchestra is sold into white slavery by a demented Chinaman.
One of the most famous serials was The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town (1976), written by Spike Milligan and Ronnie Barker but credited as "Spike Milligan and a Gentleman". Set in Victorian times, it is a Jack the Ripper parody in which a mysterious figure goes around blowing raspberries at members of the upper classes. The raspberries were done by Barker's friend David Jason. This entire section of sketches was included in Milligan's book "I Told You I Was Ill".
Another memorable serial was The Worm That Turned (1980); Diana Dors guest-starred in this spoof piece of dystopian fiction set in 2012 in which women rule Britain. Male and female gender roles are completely reversed, even down to men having women's names and vice versa. Men are housekeepers and wear women's clothes, and law and order is managed by female guards in boots and hot pants.
In one series this slot was occupied by Sid and Lily, George and Edie, which revolved around two married couples and their daily lives.
The Two Ronnies also starred in two spin-off silent films labelled The Two Ronnies Present..., By the Sea and The Picnic, written by Barker, mainly silent comedies featuring a squabbling upper-class family with a 1920s feel about them.
Another regular feature of the shows was an elaborate musical finale in which Barker and Corbett – often in drag – and company would sing a medley of songs in character, in barbershop, music hall, Gilbert and Sullivan or other styles, with the original words altered to suit whatever comic situation they were portraying. There would also be a cabaret musician or group appearing as a special guest, including Samantha Jones, Dana, Elkie Brooks, Manhattan Transfer, Pan's People, Michel Legrand, Barbara Dickson, Tina Charles, the Nolan Sisters, Elton John, New World, Elaine Paige and Phil Collins, the last of whom also took part in a few sketches.
The show always opened and closed at the newsdesk, which featured the Ronnies as newsreaders, reading spoof news items. This gave rise to the famous catchphrase at the end of each show:
Corbett: That's all we've got time for, so it's "Goodnight" from me.
Barker: And it's "Goodnight" from him.
The programme became one of the most successful and long running light entertainment shows on British television, broadcast in the prime-time slot of 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, and at its peak, was watched by 17 million viewers a show. Following the departure of Morecambe and Wise from the BBC in 1978, The Two Ronnies became the BBC's flagship light entertainment programme, regularly gaining the top viewing figures in the critical Christmas Day audience battle. A memorable Radio Times cover for the extended Christmas issue in 1973 had both double acts appearing side by side.
In 1986, 1987 and 1988 multi-part compilation series titled Twenty Years of the Two Ronnies were aired, which featured the pair picking some of their classic sketches.
The pair made no new shows after Christmas 1987, following Barker's decision to retire from show business. This was unknown to the audience and even the production team – the only person Barker told was Corbett, and they and their wives all went for a meal straight after the recording, keeping it a very low-key affair.
The Two Ronnies was regularly screened in Australia on ABC Television, and was repeated several times. In 1986 the series was reported as being into its second or third airing, and being broadcast in a respectable time slot.
In 1979 a series was made for the Nine Network in Australia under the title of The Two Ronnies in Australia. It was followed by another series in 1986 with six episodes. These episodes contain many of the original sketches done for the BBC, but reworked for an Australian audience.
The show was parodied twice by the Not the Nine O'Clock News team in 1982. One was as "The Three Ronnies", including footage of Ronald Reagan, at the time the President of the United States. The other controversialy parodied them as "The Two Ninnies", a pastiche of their opening routine and a musical routine, using exaggerated innuendo, e.g. "Oh vagina, oh vagina, over Chinatown!" Barker in particular was quite offended by this sketch while Corbett was reportedly amused by it. The latter sketch was written by John Lloyd and Nigel Planer, while the writer of the song was Peter Brewis, who also wrote songs for The Two Ronnies.
The show resurfaced in 1999 for a Two Ronnies Night. Ronnie Corbett also presented a Two Ronnies at the Movies special that same year. In 2000 A Tribute to the Two Ronnies was hosted by Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett themselves.
In 2004 Barker announced that he and Corbett would return to make new episodes, entitled The Two Ronnies Sketchbook. This involved the two sitting at the newsdesk introducing their classic sketches. A Christmas special was recorded in July 2005 due to Barker's failing health.
Whilst the Sketchbook series was transmitted, The Two Ronnies was also the subject of an episode of the BBC documentary Comedy Connections. Ronnie Corbett, producers James Gilbert, Terry Hughes and Michael Hurll as well as writers Ian Davidson, Peter Vincent, David Renwick and Barry Cryer all spoke about the making of the series. Ronnie Barker did not appear, but excerpts from an interview he gave in 1997 were included.
On Ronnie Barker's death on 3 October 2005, Ronnie Corbett is reported to have said that throughout their many years of association there was never an angry word between them.
In September 2006, they were voted by the general public as Number 6 in a poll of TV's greatest stars.
As of 2012, full shows of The Two Ronnies are repeated on ITV3 and Gold. On 24, 25 and 26 December 2006, the ITV3 channel devoted the whole three days to the show interspersed with Ronnie Corbett's reminiscences of the show and Ronnie Barker. On 28 May 2007 many more episodes new to ITV3 were broadcast as well a showing of The Picnic and By the Sea.
Barker and Corbett also made a number of advertisements that appeared on ITV, most notably for British Leyland (Austin/Morris) in 1979 where Corbett played a villain on the run and, "needing some wheels", gets salesman Barker to show him round the Austin Morris range. They did a second ad in 1981, for the "BL Double Bonus" campaign, which featured Corbett playing a tax inspector inquiring as to why Barker is running four cars. They also did a series of ads for Hertz car rentals in the 1980s.
Unlike many comedy performances transmitted before 1980, during the period of widespread wiping of television material, the BBC Archives remarkably retains all episodes of The Two Ronnies in their entirety that were originally transmitted. In April 2007 (18 months after Barker's death), 2 Entertain began releasing The Two Ronnies on DVD in Britain. Series One and Two, including a definitive collection of their Christmas specials with segments from Christmas Night with the Stars, the Old-Fashioned Christmas Mystery and three other Christmas shows, were released on 30 April, 2 July and 29 October 2007.
As of 24 September 2012 with the release of The Picnic, By the Sea and The One Ronnie as part of The Complete Collection, every single episode has now been released on DVD.
The Two Ronnies were released in Region 4 (Australia) on the following dates: The Best of The Two Ronnies Volume 1 on 4 March 2002, The Best of The Two Ronnies Volume 2 on 17 March 2003, Series 1 on 4 July 2007, Series 2 (two discs) on 8 May 2008, Series 3 on 5 March 2009, Series 4 (two discs) on 4 August 2009, Series 5 on 4 March 2010 and Series 7 on 3 March 2011. The Two Ronnies in Australia was released on 28 June 2008 with all-region coding.