The moment Ronnie Corbett refused to don the frog suit, I knew we were in trouble.
The usual suspects had gathered around my kitchen table, but even to the older heads among us, the night had been a sobering lesson, teaching us that the human spirit is never so foolish than when it’s soaped up on coffee. Clarkson had not stopped pouring the Nicaraguan blend all afternoon. By the time we’d cranked the hours forward to six o’clock, the caffeine fizzed whenever it met serotonin in our systems. You have to believe me when I tell you that there’s nothing so excitable as Bill Oddie when he’s tapped up on the roasted beans of Central America.
‘It will be a blast!’ said Clarkson. His bottom was perched on the kitchen work surface, allowing the rest of us an unrestricted view of the fist tight crotch with enlarged knuckles. ‘Come on, guys. What do you say? Where’s that British spirit? Where’s that resilience to see a good job done?’
‘If he mentions Brunel one more time I believe I’ll try to swallow my tongue,’ muttered Stephen.
‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel wouldn’t have sat around waiting to make a decision. He’d have had this job done hours ago. Come on? Who’s with me?’
There then followed much furrowing of brows as we began to comprehend the scale of J.C’s proposal.
In the end, Fry had been the first to declare his willingness to go along with the plan. ‘If only to hasten myself on to my doom,’ he said. Palin had deliberated long and hard before announcing that he too was in. Oddie had already volunteered an hour earlier. Once he’s on coffee, he’s up for anything. He’d announced his decision with a dozen toots on his plastic duck call.
The only real doubt among us was Corbett. I could see that I would need to set him a good example.
‘As for me,’ I said, placing my hand on Ronnie’s shoulder, ‘I’m always happy to put my weight behind the Clarkson bandwagon. After all, it is for charity. Charity makes big men out of us all.’
As soon as I said that, Ronnie piped up.
‘You’re so right, Dick…’ he began. ‘I can call you Dick? Ha! Wouldn’t want to be putting my Dickies where they’re not wanted… As the snooker player said the ballerina. No! Actually, the snooker player never said that at all. I was lying for the sake of the joke, you see…’
‘Ronnie?’ asked Jeremy. ‘Are you in?’
‘I’m in! I’m in!’ he said, cradling his own cup of coffee high against his chest. ‘Which reminds me of something I said to my wife on my wedding night…’
Clarkson groaned. ‘Look, guys. I can’t say how good it is that you’ve all agreed to do this. I owe you all one.’
‘I would never say no to a cause so worthy,’ replied Ronnie.
We all stared at him for a few moments longer, waiting for him to continue as we knew he must.
‘No, that’s it,’ he said. ‘I can see when my rambling monologues are not wanted…’ He ran his tongue around his teeth, looked up to the ceiling, and then down at his cup. ‘But, of course, that does remind me of a joke about a one legged man and a mule. No, it does! He generally coped well with his disability but he found it difficult to find his ass. Ha!’
‘Okay,’ said Clarkson with a withering look directed to the smallest man in the room. ‘I’ve got the gear in the back of the car. Unfortunately, I can only take one of you with me and that will have to be Ronnie.’
‘I can always squeeze into the glovebox,’ said Ronnie as though it needed explaining.
‘Quite,’ said Jeremy. ‘Dick? Can you, Mike, and Bill go with Stephen?’
‘It will be a pleasure to drive such men of enviable talent,’ said Fry. ‘And Richard is always welcome too.’
Now it was my turn to groan.
The race up to Biggleswade was surprisingly tight for most of the trip up the A1. While Jeremy had to refuel his jet car every fifteen minutes, Stephen’s encyclopedic knowledge of the roads of Southern England allowed us to keep a steady pace. At the finish line, Clarkson probably nipped in ahead of us because Stephen had slowed to twenty through the tight streets. Jeremy had clearly interpreted this as a sign of weakness and exploited it to the full. He’d made up two miles to come roaring down the street, the wake from a sonic boom busting many a gusset in the window of Dorothy Perkins.
‘That journey might have cost be seven and a half thousand pounds in fuel, but it just shows you that you can’t beat the power of the jet,’ said Clarkson once the rest of us had bundled out of Stephen’s cab.
‘Is this it?’ asked Bill, looking at the rather drab stage set in the middle of the town square.
‘This is, as you say, “it”,’ said Jeremy. ‘Come on. The kids will be here soon.’
‘Where’s Ronnie?’ I asked, realising that our numbers were light by one Corbett.
‘Oh hell,’ said Jeremy. ‘I’ve left him in the luggage compartment.’
‘I saw my life flash before my eyes,’ said Ronnie as he emerged from the car a minute later. ‘And I never realised I was so short!’
The plan was elegant in its simplicity. Because of her involvement in high level diplomacy between the UK and Russian governments, Kelly Osbourne had been forced to cancel her plans to light Biggleswade’s Christmas lights. Jeremy had stepped in and promised that we’d all be on hand to put on a scene from his favourite book, The Wind in the Willows. Children from the local behavioural treatment centre were due to come along at eight and we would entertain them until nine o’clock when the town’s Christmas lights would be lit, accompanied by a firework display. The fact that we hadn’t rehearsed a thing didn’t seem to discourage Jeremy.
‘Grab your costumes,’ he said, ‘and just remember that this is for children who won’t actually have read the book. It means we don’t have to be word perfect with the original source material.’
‘You want us to make it up as we go along?’ I asked.
‘That’s generally the idea,’ he smiled. ‘Now Stephen, it’s probably best if you play Mole. Dick, of course you’re Ratty. Bill, sorry to typecast you like this, but could you be Mr. Badger? Ronnie, you are born to play Mr. Toad. That just leaves Michael and myself who are going to be weasels.’
‘Typical,’ said Michael. ‘I came all this way to play a weasel. This is “A Fish Called Wanda” all over again.’
‘You’re comparing this great collection of British talent to a small budget film?’ scolded Oddie and he helped Jeremy pull the basket of costumes from the back of the rocket car.
Michael flipped the lid and dragged out the first costume.
‘Perhaps you’re right,’ he said as he examined something green and rubbery. ‘We did have a budget on “Wanda”.’
‘That’s Mr. Toad’s frog suit,’ said Jeremy, snatching the rubbers from Palin’s hands and holding them up.
‘I’m not wearing that,’ said Ronnie. ‘Where are my tweeds? He’s the lord of the manor for goodness sake. Mr. Toad always wears tweeds!’
‘Not in this production he doesn’t,’ said Jeremy. ‘And I don’t think the kids will notice. A green frog suit is as good as I could come up with at short notice. And you’ll look the part once you put the snorkel on.’
‘It was the best I could do for goggles. Look, Ronnie, this is for charity.’
Ronnie fell silent, as did we all except Bill who was wrapped in a large fur coat and was getting into his role by sniffing around a nearby hedge.
‘Look, Jeremy,’ I said, ‘can’t Ronnie be a weasel? You could play Mr. Toad.’
‘He looks nothing like a weasel. He’s too short.’
‘That is a fair observation,’ said Stephen, who had been silent throughout the disagreement. ‘In which case, I could play a weasel, Ronnie could play Mr. Mole, and Michael would then play Mr. Toad. It would, I believe, solve all our problems.’
As ever, Stephen had done it. The man has a brain the size of a subcontinent. And one of the bigger ones at that.
Soon, suits were on, places on the stage were taken, and we ran through a quick rehearsal before the children arrived. Although ours was one of the oddest stage adaptations of ‘The Wind in the Willows’, I thought it had some charm. Stephen managed to ad lib his way through the entire thing, improving on the original in everything he did. Oddie paused at the half-way point to lecture the children on the reproductive habits of badgers, complete with mime. Michael played Mr. Toad admirably and his inclusion of some fish slapping seemed to delight the kids. As for my Ratty, it probably stole the show. I managed to get Stephen’s weasel to sit down for five minutes and we discussed the problems in his personal life and I recounted the time I’d had my vasectomy. The whole thing was wrapped up perfectly by Ronnie who ended the night with a long rambling story about his life with Mrs. Mole and a particularly funny story about his wedding night whose punchline was ‘I won’t mind but you better ask the stoat.’
What more is there to say? Christmas lights were lit and then fireworks played their part. The children were herded back to their behavioural unit and we packed up for the evening.
Later that night, after I’d got home, I was stood looking out over the garden when Judy came up behind me.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ she offered.
‘I was just thinking how lucky I am not to be a rat,’ I said. ‘Could you imagine what it’s like, living and foraging among rubbish. It makes me so very glad to be human.’
‘I thought that would be obvious,’ she said.
‘Not to all of us,’ I said and put my arm around her as we stood and watched a large grey badger frolicking on the back lawn and only occasionally standing on his hind legs and looking remotely like Oddie, that dear and charming man.