Ronnie Barker was probably the foremost British comedian of the 1970s. He created a legacy of programmes such as The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours that have stood the twin tests of time and public opinion. His death on 3 October, 2005 led to a string of tributes from other comedians and an outpouring of affection from the public. His partnership with Ronnie Corbett rivalled even the legendary Morecambe and Wise, whilst his richly drawn characters of Fletcher and Arkwright created comedy icons that have amused two generations of viewers.
Ronnie Barker - His Early Life
Ronald William George Barker was born on 25 September, 1929 in Bedford, England. He went to Oxford High School, where he first gave an indication of his acting talents in various school productions, but at the age of 18 he decided to train as an architect. Having established that this wasn't the career for him, he joined a bank as a managerial trainee. The dream of acting remained however and in 1948, after watching the Manchester Repertory Company in Aylesbury one evening, he sent off an application for a job together with a photograph. When he received no reply he wrote back to the company asking for his photo to be returned. This time Horace Wentworth, the company's director, wrote back asking him to attend an audition. He hired Ronald immediately, but as Assistant Stage Manager in the first instance. This was very common practice at the time, as it was considered to be excellent experience for budding actors. His first stage role was in a play called Quality Street, but it was his comic role as a chauffeur in a play called Miranda that set the direction of Ronald's embryonic career. He was determined to use his talent to make people laugh. However, his father Leonard was extremely unhappy with Ronald's choice of career. He told his son that if he wished to make his money that way he could expect no financial support.
Ronald's career was in danger of drifting as the repertory theatres all round the country started to close. Poorly paid work was interspersed with periods of resting1 and it was looking increasingly likely that he would find himself returning to the banking industry. Later he would describe his experiences in the late 1940s as an 'insecure rut'. However, career salvation was at hand in the form of Peter Hall2 who employed him at the Oxford Playhouse alongside Maggie Smith3. From the very start Peter Hall was convinced that Ronald would become one of Britain's greatest actors, but he saw that greatness being showcased in straight roles. The sheer variety of roles required in repertory, where an actor would often play multiple parts, stood him in great stead in future successes like The Two Ronnies. In 1956, his success in rep brought him to the attention of Alastair Scott-Johnson, the director of a radio show called Meet The Floggits which also featured Anthony Newley and Joan Sims. A regular supporting role followed, together with an unexpected change of name. When sending the cast list to the Radio Times Scott-Johnson decided that Ronnie sounded more friendly than Ronald. Consequently, the first that Barker knew about his new name was when he saw it in the Radio Times that week. His appearances were restricted by the stars Elsie and Doris Waters who were reportedly jealous at the amount of laughs that this unknown comedian was getting. However, the newly named Ronnie Barker had arrived as an actor, and a stellar career awaited.
Early Successes and Important Meetings
Now that Ronnie was in demand he felt more secure, but, having married actress Joy Tubb in 1957, he was even more driven to achieve long term success and security for his family. The first major role of his career was secured in 1958 when he was offered a supporting role in a new radio comedy show, directed by Alastair Scott-Johnson, called The Navy Lark. The stars were Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips and Dennis Price, but within two seasons Ronnie would be second to Pertwee in the public affection and the cast list. His diverse roles included A S Johnson, Lieutenant Commander Stanton, Commander Bell, Lt Parfet and Mr Queeg. He could 'inhabit' any character, no matter how small, and it was this that gave him his incredible range of voices that only Pertwee himself could match.
He was in huge demand during the early 1960s on stage, screen and radio, but his experience of rep made the constant changes of character and script second nature to him. His television work included occasional guest appearances in Seven Faces of Jim starring Jimmy Edwards. When Terence Alexander4 was taken ill just before one episode, Ronnie stepped in and did so well that for the second series he appeared in all the shows and was credited as Edwards' co-star. His West End appearances were to lead to a meeting that was to have a long lasting impact on his life.
Whilst Ronnie was appearing at the Haymarket Theatre he became a regular visitor to an 'actors' pub'. He struck up a friendship with the diminutive barman from Edinburgh, himself a resting actor. The barman's name was Ronnie Corbett. In 1966, David Frost was casting actors for a new series called The Frost Report. Most of the actors were contemporaries of Frost's at Cambridge University including John Cleese and writers Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle. However, he had worked with Corbett before and thought that he would bring something different to the programme. The producer James Gilbert had just finished working on Seven More Faces of Jim and suggested Ronnie Barker could be brought in to provide different characters. As the only two non-graduates in the cast Corbett and Barker struck up a close working relationship and it wasn't long before their instinctive comic chemistry was being remarked upon. However, their fully-fledged partnership was still a few years away.
The Glory Years
His sheer versatility led to Barker being given a showcase series in 1968 called The Ronnie Barker Playhouse where he played six different characters. Then, a year later he developed the character of Lord Rustless for the series Hark at Barker which featured a young actor named David Jason as a centenarian butler. The friendship that the two developed would rival that of the two Ronnies themselves, both on and off screen. By now, Barker was one of the busiest actors on television. In an 11 year period between The Ronnie Barker Playhouse and Going Straight he was the star of 20 different television programmes.
Unknown to everyone else in the business he was now writing for Frost on Sunday under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley. He did this to have his work judged on its merits, because he realised that his own scripts would be judged more leniently than those submitted by anyone else. In the event Gerald Wiley's scripts were lauded by everyone, and David Frost became determined to meet this reclusive genius. Both Frank Muir and Tom Stoppard were suspected of being Gerald Wiley. It wasn't until his second series of The Two Ronnies that the mystery was solved. Barker arranged a party at the end of the series where Gerald Wiley would finally be unmasked. Just before the party he went in to Ronnie Corbett's dressing room to let him in on the secret. Once everyone was gathered together Barker stood up as if to introduce the mystery writer and then admitted that it was in fact his pseudonym. Despite this he continued to write under the name Gerald Wiley for the entire run of The Two Ronnies.
In 1971 Barker was scheduled to present a BAFTA5 award with Ronnie Corbett, but there was a technical hitch and the two of them had to fill in until the problem was solved. The ease and brilliance with which they worked together persuaded BBC Entertainment that they should be paired in their own comedy series. It was a momentous decision for both the BBC and the two men themselves.
The Two Ronnies
In a packed programme tonight, I shall be having a word with a man who goes in for meditation, because he thinks it's better than sitting around doing nothing.
Then we'll hear from the man who attended the Charles Dickens nudist camp. He had Great Expectations but it was a very Bleak House and everyone laughed at his Little Dorrit!
- Another classic Two Ronnies sketch
In order to introduce the new partnership to the screen, two one-off programmes were commissioned. First came The Ronnie Barker Yearbook followed a week after by Ronnie Corbett in Bed. Then The Two Ronnies began the first of its twelve seasons as a staple of Saturday night viewing. Unlike Morecambe and Wise this was not an established straight man and funny man partnership. A very shy man, Barker was not comfortable as himself in front of the camera, so the idea of a comedy routine at the start of the show was dropped. Then the concept of the news items was introduced and both he and Corbett agreed that this would be the perfect start. These news items became one of the most popular parts of the show. During the sketches, 75% of which were written by Gerald Wiley, Corbett and Barker took it in turns to deliver punch lines with perfect timing.
There was a serial that took the form of eight episodes of five to ten minutes each throughout each series. These became famous in their own right. The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town written by Spike Milligan is the best remembered. The Worm That Turned (set in a future where women are the dominant gender and men wear dresses) took every opportunity to make quite provocative comments about the battle of the sexes. There were also three series featuring Detectives Charley Farley and Piggy Malone.
At the end of each show there were musical numbers that pastiched an incredible range of styles from country to opera. In many of the musical numbers, both Corbett and Barker were dressed as women. Unbeknown to the public, Barker hated dressing in drag, but he did it because he knew it would work for the sketches he had written. Finally, each of them had a chance to shine in solo performances. Barker's solo sketches used his incredible ear for dialogue and amazing ability to deliver huge tongue twisting lists of words without pausing or tripping up over them. Corbett was a superb raconteur who told dreadful jokes that were merely a frame for his masterly digressions that brought in comments about his wife and the supposedly tight-fisted producer that he was fated to work with.
Although Ronnie Barker was regarded by most viewers as the star of the show, particularly once he started to enjoy great success away from the programme, it was very much a partnership of equals. Their contrasting comic styles complemented each other perfectly and they kept audiences of up to 19 million viewers entertained for 12 series. However, an indication of Barker's underlying lack of confidence was displayed in his reaction to a sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News. In a cruel pastiche Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith played an old fashioned comedy partnership called 'The Two Ninnies'. The show opened with the two actors sitting at the news desk with the Corbett lookalike giving the traditional greeting:
- Good evening. It's wonderful to be back with you once again isn't it Ninnie?
- No it's not actually. It's a pain in the arse!
This was followed by an explanation of all the euphemisms that they would use for parts of the body as it was a family show. Finally Smith and Jones gleefully parodied the end of show song with cruel accuracy. Many of the younger Two Ronnies fans enjoyed the sketch, and appreciated that it was a dig at the old-fashioned double-entendre comedy that was coming to an end. However it was very hard for Barker to accept and he was genuinely hurt and upset. He wondered why his work apparently attracted that level of dislike when all he had ever wanted to do was to entertain the public.
[the Medical Officer has finished Fletcher's medical, and points to some specimen containers over on a table]
MO: Now I want you to fill one of those containers for me.
Fletcher: What, from 'ere6?
- From 'Old Faces and New Hands'
Fletcher: We could ring up those girls on Top of the Pops. Pan's People. There's one special one... beautiful Babs... can't remember her name!
- From 'A Quiet Night In'
In 1973 Ronnie Barker was given another showcase series, this time called Seven of One. Of the seven episodes, three made it to the screen as fully fledged series. The first episode was Open All Hours co-starring David Jason. The last episode was I'll Fly You for a Quid which became The Magnificent Evans eleven years later despite being the favourite to make the transition to full series at the time. Episode two was Prisoner and Escort co-starring Fulton Mackay and Brian Wilde as prison officers escorting habitual criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher to Slade prison in Cumbria. Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais decided that the idea of a sitcom set in a prison was too fascinating to resist and Porridge was commissioned.
The first episode of Porridge7 aired on 5 September, 1974 and success, both critical and public, was immediate. Barker's co-star was the brilliant young actor Richard Beckinsale playing first-time prisoner Lennie Godber. Much like his relationships with Corbett and David Jason, the on-screen closeness developed into an off-screen friendship. Barker believed that Beckinsale would go on to be one of the great actors of his generation, and was more than happy to mentor him. The script was brilliant, combining broad humour with quite incisive commentary about the rights and wrongs of incarceration. Ronnie Barker's portrayal of Fletcher was, in his own opinion, the high point of his career. It was multi-layered and totally believable, demonstrating the mastery of character that he had developed in all those years in repertory theatre. For three series and two Christmas specials, just 21 episodes in all, Porridge kept up an almost impossibly high standard. Its longevity is amazing, with repeats still getting respectable audiences three decades after it was first shown.
When it finished, a sequel called Going Straight was penned by Clement and Le Frenais to follow the exploits of Fletcher and Godber on the outside. It did not meet with the same success as Porridge, but it was still a well crafted comedy with some excellent performances by the two stars and Patricia Brake as Ingrid, Fletcher's daughter and Godber's girlfriend. It also introduced Nicholas Lyndhurst as Fletcher's son Raymond. The first series was nominated for two BAFTA awards, but, three days before the ceremony, tragedy struck when Richard Beckinsale died of a heart attack at the age of just 31. Ronnie Barker was completely devastated by the news and, when accepting the award for best light entertainment performance, told the audience that his friend's death had taken all of the joy out of the award. No one knows for sure if Barker's assessment of Richard Beckinsale would have been borne out, but it seems likely that British acting lost someone who could have gone on to be an all time great. As Barker said in his autobiography:
When I was rung up and told, I burst into tears because it was so outrageous that he should have died. He was suddenly not with us anymore. So loved, there was a universal grief that went on. The audience used to love him. We got on so well together that we were always glad to see each other in the morning for rehearsals.
Open All Hours
Arkwright: I can see it now written on the side of the van. Arkwright's F-f-f-f-antastic fe-fe-fe-fruity fe-f-f-fudge.
Granville: You'll never get that on the side of one van!
The second major success from the Seven of One showcase was this gentle comedy starring Barker as tight-fisted shopkeeper Arkwright. His character was famous for the stutter that provided a lot of the wordplay humour that Barker enjoyed so much. It was while he was with 'The Famous Players' repertory company that the leading man Glynn Melvyn taught him to stutter. This was tremendously important, because the stuttering was believable and kept within bounds to be used to maximum comic effect. David Jason played Arkwright's long-suffering nephew Granville and Lynda Baron played Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, the object of Arkwright's amorous attentions8. Other cast members included Kathy Staff9 and Stephanie Cole10. Four series were made between 1976 and 1985 but, although affectionately remembered, it never achieved the same level of regard as Porridge.
A Life-Changing Decision
After Richard Beckinsale's untimely death, Ronnie Barker became increasingly worried about his own health. An operation on his vocal chords in the early 1970s had led to him giving up his 40 cigarette a day habit after nearly 25 years of smoking. He had also seen two of his contemporaries, Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper, succumb to heart attacks at an early age.
After 1984 his comedy star was beginning to wane with lukewarm receptions for his final two series,The Magnificent Evans and Clarence. Roy Clarke was the chief writer for The Magnificent Evans with, as usual, a lot of input from Ronnie. However, when he looked back at the series Clarke thought that the flamboyance of the central character was too big a contrast to the rest of the cast. He said as much in a televised tribute shown on the night after Barker's death. In 1988 Ronnie Barker wrote one more series, Clarence, a character that he had long wanted to build a sitcom around. Barker played the title role opposite Josephine Tewson, a regular partner throughout his career. Clarence was a short-sighted removals man who came across as a live action version of Mr Magoo. Unfortunately, the jokes were largely based around mistaken identity, leaving little room for his usual wordplay. Although it had a loyal and very appreciative audience, the rest of the public did not take to the character and after disappointing viewing figures, a second series did not materialise. It caused Barker to examine the possibility that he no longer had good scripts to write. It also redoubled his determination to enjoy as much time as possible with his family without the pressures of fame which he always found uncomfortable. These factors caused him to make the decision to retire in 1988 at the age of 58.
When he announced his decision on the Wogan show, many of his colleagues were convinced that he would be back within a couple of years. Instead he kept out of the public eye almost entirely for the next fourteen years, running an antiques shop in Chipping Norton. An intensely shy man, Barker greatly enjoyed the freedom from the trappings of fame. Despite this more relaxed lifestyle his health problems persisted, and he required a double heart bypass operation in 1996 and suffered a blood clot on his lungs nine months later that nearly killed him.
A Belated Return
After occasional appearances at events like the 1999 Royal Variety Performance, Barker returned to the limelight with a role in the film The Gathering Storm in which he played Winston Churchill's butler, Inches. A further appearance followed opposite Dame Maggie Smith in My House in Umbria. His final television appearances were, fittingly, in a show with Ronnie Corbett called The Two Ronnies Sketchbook. They introduced and commented on a selection of their most famous sketches and attracted large audiences for material that was mostly two or three decades old. It was clear that Barker was quite frail, but no-one apart from family and close friends knew how ill he really was. Heart disease had caused him to become largely house-bound over his last few months and his lack of mobility left him very miserable. He was unable to attend the ITV 50th Anniversary celebrations, where Ronnie Corbett accepted a star on the new British Walk of Fame in London on behalf of both of them. This was the last in a succession of awards for the much loved comedian, whose favourite was the OBE that he received, along with Ronnie Corbett, in 1978. He died on 3 October, 2005 with his reputation, as one of the greatest comic actors that Britain had ever produced, assured for generations to come.
Legacy of Laughter
The sheer range of his abilities as both an actor and a writer would have marked Ronnie Barker out as a genius in any generation. What was clear from the tributes paid to him was that his influence stretched across generations of comic talent. From his own generation, actor Warren Mitchell and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck praised his genius. Protégé David Jason simply called him 'The Guvnor'. Rik Mayall, whose anarchic style seemed to be the antithesis of Barker's wordplay, described Ronnie Barker as his hero. Ben Elton, from the same generation of alternative comedians who ostensibly replaced The Two Ronnies, said:
He lives on in an incomparable body of work which will continue to bring joy to millions.
Peter Kay, one of the most popular comedians in the country, admitted that it was Barker who inspired him to become a comedian and spoke of the great hole that his passing had left.
The other thing that became clear was that the British public could, with amazing clarity, remember the dialogues and monologues that Ronnie Barker wrote and performed. Ronnie Barker wanted to be remembered as a man who made people laugh. His continuing place in the affections of the British television viewers is evidence that he is remembered as that and much more besides.
Its Goodnight from Me.
And its Goodnight from him!