I thought Dad was dying in our arms: Ronnie Corbett's adoring daughter on his terrifying collapse in a restaurant
Sophie Corbett has her eye out for a quirky, colourful hat to wear to Buckingham Palace next month when she goes with her father Ronnie to collect his CBE from the Queen.
She’s so proud that her dad, who touched us all with his joyous brand of humour as one half of The Two Ronnies, is to be recognised for his services to comedy – proud and mightily relieved.
A fortnight ago, 81-year-old Ronnie was rushed to hospital after he collapsed in a Chinese restaurant while celebrating his New Year honour with his his wife, Anne, 78, their daughters, Sophie, 43, and Emma, 44, and four grandchildren.
Family man: Ronnie Corbett and Anne with Sophie, front, aged six and Emma, aged seven
‘I thought we’d lost him,’ says Sophie. ‘I think we all thought that. It was up there as one of the most terrifying experiences for all of us, ever.’
Today her expressive brown eyes, which are so like her father’s, swim with tears when she talks about his collapse. Ronnie, she says, is her family’s ‘rock’. She can’t imagine life without him. Doesn’t want to. Won’t.
‘We’re not ready for that,’ she says. ‘We love him hugely and we’ve been loved hugely by him. He likes us to feel safe. He can’t die. He’s not allowed to. He’s not like anyone else I know. None of us want to see our rocks vulnerable, do we’
Ronnie was recovering from a knee replacement operation when he and Anne met the family in the restaurant in South-East London to celebrate his CBE on New Year’s Day. Family, you see, has been a cornerstone throughout Ronnie’s glittering 60-plus years in showbusiness and the restaurant is where they’ve met for Sunday lunch since the grandchildren – Tom, 22, Tilly, 14, Dillon, also 14, and six-year-old Billy – were in nappies.
‘We’d just had a gin and tonic, we
don’t go in for champagne, and were ordering the food when Dad said: “I
really don’t feel very well at all. Someone needs to take me home. I
feel cold and shaky.”
Shock: The comedian's wife was shaking and welling up when she witnessed her husband's collapse
never heard him say anything like that before. I said I’d take him and
went to bring my car around to the front. When I looked through the
window his face was on the table. He’d collapsed, passed out, in the
middle of a packed restaurant, and Dad is such a proud man.
his knee operation he didn’t like limping in front of people so he’d do
exercises in the car so it wasn’t stiff when he got out.
I saw him like that I was terrified, really terrified. My Mum and
sister were crowded round him and the children looked so frightened –
except for little Billy who didn’t understand what was going on at all,
so he kept asking where the soy sauce was for his special fried rice.
‘Emma and I talked to Dad saying: “We
love you. Come on Dad. Don’t go. We’re here.” We just kept talking. We
thought we’d lost him. Then he came round. I’m not sure how long it was.
He had gone a very strange colour.’
of course, is one of showbusiness’s more recognisable faces.
Inevitably, his collapse attracted attention that busy lunchtime.
felt people were gawping,’ says Sophie.
'He laid back and went off again. That’s when Mum
started shaking and her eyes welled up with tears.'
‘And there was my proud Dad
who’d passed out. There were two people sitting by the door who were
really cross that people were still queuing while Dad was like that.
They wanted to shut the restaurant to stop people coming in.
thought: “You’re getting it. This is a really private moment in a
really busy place.” I don’t know who they were but I’d like to thank
An ambulance arrived within minutes.
‘Dad said: “I need to sleep. I’m going
to go to sleep.” The ambulance lady said: “Lie back and rest on your
wife and go to sleep.” He laid back and went off again. That’s when Mum
started shaking and her eyes welled up with tears. My sister said to me:
‘They’d got Dad
and laid him on the floor. I was holding Mum and trying to talk to Dad.
That’s when I truly thought we’d lost him, but again he came round.
ambulance people put him in a chair, which was when I knew he was back
with us because he rolled his eyes as if to say, “bloody hell, how
embarrassing” as they wheeled him out and he waved to us from the back
of the ambulance. That was such a relief.’
Cult duo: The Two Ronnies ruled the roost on the BBC for many years with their brilliant comedy show
Ronnie was taken to Croydon’s Mayday Hospital and later transferred to the nearby private Shirley Oaks Hospital.
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Dark side: Though he was all smiles on screen Sophie says grumpy TV character Victor Meldrew was modelled on her Dad
is a feisty, funny woman with a huge sense of style. She has part of
her beautiful, glamorous mother about her in her high cheekbones and
part of her father in her dark colouring. Bought up in a household where
good manners were paramount and ‘flash’ was a dirty word, she’s a
grafter and, like her father, impeccably polite.
was always determined that, despite his wealth, his children should
work for their livings so, after this interview, actress Sophie is
dashing off to do a voice-over in the West End. But it’s fashion that’s
Given a childhood that was peopled by the likes of Danny La Rue, who was a dear friend of her parents, along with the late Ronnie Barker, his wife Jo, Sir David Frost, Jimmy Tarbuck and Sean Connery – and her father’s own eclectic taste in colourful jackets – it’s probably inevitable that a sense of glamour has rubbed off.
Classic comedy: Ronnie (right) with longtime partner Ronnie Barker in a sketch from their television show
Today, she designs a stunning bohemian clothes range called Marvin and Maud (marvinandmaud.com), and turns heads when she walks into the London hotel in which we meet, wrapped in a beautifully draped coat and a pair of bright red stilettoes – topped off with a Panama hat.
I know from the many times I’ve interviewed Ronnie how dear his children are to him – including the son Andrew he and Anne lost at just a few weeks old – and Sophie is clearly just as fond of her father.
But, like him, she speaks with an absolute honesty, providing a fascinating insight into the realities of life with one of comedy’s biggest stars. As she says, her dad is ‘only human’ and she loves him with his flaws, not despite them.
‘I remember Dad saying to me once, “every comedian has a dark side” but he’s not nearly as complicated as some. Many don’t stay with their families but it’s obvious how important family is to him. We’re like the Sopranos – more so.
‘He does get impatient though. It’s not ego, more that he can get impatient because he’s so used to being treated like he’s a legend – which he is. He never has to queue and flies first class everywhere.
‘When he gets cross he gets really cross. It can be over silly things, for example, if there is a driver taking him somewhere and they hit a traffic jam and Dad thinks he should have taken another road.
‘He gets cross if things aren’t right. He’s a perfectionist. Mum’s been with him for more than 45 years and will just say, “calm down for goodness sake”. Victor Meldrew was really based on my Dad.
Long-running partnership: A young Ronnie (right) with Ronnie Barker at the start of their careers
‘David Renwick, who wrote The Two Ronnies, also wrote One Foot In The Grave. He said to Dad: “I always thought about you, Ronnie, when I was writing some of that script.” And he partly is that character – impatient – because he does everything so right.
‘But, when his temper goes, it’s a pretty quick thing. I think great people should be allowed to lose it. There are times we can all throw our toys out of the pram.’
Sophie was bought up in the South-East London suburbs with her sister Emma in a privileged home. She loved every minute of her childhood.
‘I can remember Dad tucking us in at night,’ she says. ‘He’d bunch the pillows behind our heads, tuck us in really tight and say: “I’m going to tuck you in like a pea in a pod.”
‘I’m sure he was away more than I remember, but we knew heloved us. When we were little I was Tittymouse and Emma was Butterball.
‘I think losing Andrew [he died from a congenital heart condition] had a huge impact on how we were brought up. We were protected so much. I’m sure they were terrified of losing us. I think our childhood was so idyllic, it was coming to terms with the reality of life once we left home that was tough.
‘I think every child wants their parent to be proud of them, but Emma and I had to achieve a lot, because Dad’s done so much.
What I was brought up to think of as normal wasn’t normal – your Dad being on prime-time Saturday night television, living in a five-bedroom house with a pool.’
Again, she flashes a wry smile.
‘I had a shock when I left home. It’s the frustration of trying to live up to what you had and trying to make your home feel like it did when you grew up because that’s what you’re used to.’
Her first years of independence were a struggle. There was a disastrous marriage, and a failed relationship with her son Dillon’s father, Mark, who remains a close friend. She lives near Brighton with her younger son Billy’s father, singer-songwriter Gordon Grahame.
‘I think I married at 22 because I was trying to be perfect. I remember the marquees in the garden. I wore one of Vivienne Westwood’s first wedding dresses and Jimmy Choo made me my shoes.
‘I stood there and thought: Oh God, what am I doing I think Dad knew. He said: “You don’t have to say yes until you’re at the altar.”’
The marriage lasted 18 months and when Sophie confessed her unhappiness, her parents were understanding and supported her.
She says: ‘After all, it’s Dad who is in the public eye. That’s where he loves to be and where he’s never stopped being.
‘He and Ronnie B used to be really shocked when they got standing ovations and when Ronnie B died and cabbies kept lifting their hats to Dad in London, he’d cry. He was really touched.
‘I’ve said to him: “You don’t get it do you You’re a legend.” It’s lovely that people love him so much.’
Lovely, too, that he’s so cherished by his family.
‘He is,’ she says. ‘I’ve told him: “It’s fine that everyone wants a bit of you, but so do we – you’re so precious to us.”’
And after the terrifying events of a few days ago, more precious than ever.