Interview: Ronnie Barker - It was goodbye from him (and it should be goodbye from me)
`I don't think I ever got to meet Ronnie Barker. Yes, he was there. But there was little to distinguish him from the bank manager he nearly became. He can't be like this, surely? I should be sacked, I think, and quite promptly'
Yes, Ronnie was there. Same gorgeously doughy face, same thick black glasses, same silvery hair-do. But I don't think I ever got to meet him. This is a spectacular failure on my part, I know. He gives interviews so frustratingly rarely. I should be sacked, I think, and quite promptly. I would do it myself if only I had the necessary authority, and sufficient funds to retrain as a Norwegian vet.
Still, in mitigation - and upon realising I'm not Norwegian and am frightened of most animals, including my own cat, which I've tried to reverse over for years - perhaps I should add that my expectations were, in this instance, unusually high. I was desperately keen to meet Mr Barker. He was, after all, Porridge and Open All Hours and all those childhood Saturday nights that were The Two Ronnies.
By this, I'm not saying I found him disappointingly "boring". Or am I? I ask him why he is about to close his antique shop. His answer goes: "We've been losing around pounds 200 a week for eight years, and we thought it was fine as a hobby, but suddenly the business has gone right off and we are now losing pounds 500 a week and since we'd retired on our capital when interest was 15 and a quarter per cent, and it's now four and a quarter per cent, our income has been quartered, so I thought if we sold the building for pounds 200,000, I could get pounds 200 a week interest from that, so it would be a net of pounds 700 a week, which buys a lot of groceries, and so I thought, let's do that, because pounds 700 a week is quite important if you exist on your interest, and the lovely cheques the BBC send occasionally, and that is the true reason. Yes..."
He can't be like this, surely? Yet he is. He will even say himself: "I'm really boring without a script."
And this would be fine, if he hadn't written most of The Two Ronnies' sketches himself - so he can't be. It is very muddling, and I am muddled, I admit. Perhaps I could learn to speak Norwegian if I truly tried. I wonder if I would be as frightened of elks?
Initially, it is impossibly hard to distinguish him from the bank manager he nearly became. Everything speaks of it. The daring choice of hotel which, I've just remembered, overlooked the exquisite concrete that is the Westway. The clothes which, today, include those grey, possibly drip- dry, old men's trousers which are, I believe, commonly called "slacks", coupled with those grey slip-on shoes which, I think, are commonly called: "Really Naff Shoes".
He might, in fact, be the most thrillingly unadventurous person I have ever encountered. He could have gone to Hollywood, you know. But he made the one Hollywood film - Robin and Marion - and wasn't much taken with it. "Shot in Spain. So hot. Too damned hot." Most famously, he gave up everything in 1988 (at the height of his powers, some would say) to scale Everest on an unicycle with one of the Spice Girls - Baby, I think it was - while balancing a ripe tomato on his head and singing "The Birdie Song". OK, I did make that bit up. He actually, of course, retired to Chipping Norton to run an antiques shop with his beloved wife, Joy. They were never exactly the Posh and Becks of their time, unless these things count for rather more in Chipping Norton. But why, Ron, why?
"I wrote a lot for The Two Ronnies, then just dried up. Yes, I did, I couldn't think of new ideas. I'd suggest something to Ronnie C - `What about two women in a queue? What about two men on a railway platform?' - and he'd say: `We've done that.' I did do sequels to things. There was the yokel sketch and I wrote about three more yokel sketches, but you can't exist on those..."
But you could have carried on acting, couldn't you? I mean, you were always as much as a performer of other people's lines as a writer of your own, weren't you?
"Yes, but I'd had enough of performing, generally. People do say: `What would it take to bring you back?' Well, if there was a film with Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and if there was a scene in that film where there was a fourth man who had the best part, I would play that part..."
Did you find it easy to walk away?
"Yes. I had no more ambition left."
It didn't bother you when David Jason started to... "Overtake me? No. We always had great fun with that. There was a point when I had 17 awards and he had one, and he said: `I'm going to catch you up', which of course he did. He then said: 'I'm going to pass you now,' which he also did, but by that time I'd already retired, so it wasn't fair really."
And you don't miss it at all? "No. I was glad to go. What a relief!"
He has, he says, always hated being an celebrity, and still does. "If I meet people and they say: `Oh, you're Ronnie Barker,' I'm as nice as I can be to them but, nevertheless, I do avoid them where I can."
He is only here today, he says, because "if your publishers are promoting a book, it's the least you can do." His book is All I Ever Wrote (Essential Books, pounds 17.99) which is, yes, a collection of all the sketches he has ever written. The idea was put to him by the publishers "and I thought it was great, because it would take up less room in the house." Sorry? "I've got all these scripts piled up in cupboards... now all I need is this one book... I'm not expecting to make money out of it." But he is expecting a much neater home. And, funnily enough, this might actually make quite a bit of sense.
I do think that there may be some kind of mad passion for order raging beneath the surface here. He is fantastically particular. He has an immaculate collection of 70,000 Victorian and Edwardian postcards. Time worries him, and when I run over he gets fretful. "I think you had until 4.45pm, and it's now 4.46pm..." He once flirted with taking up golf, but ultimately decided against it because "I thought no, I'm going to love it. I love games of accuracy. I love croquet. So I thought `no.'"
OK, Ronnie, I can understand pulling back from crack, but golf? "I knew I'd get obsessed with it. I knew I'd like it too much. So I made a conscious decision not to do it." That's bonkers, I say. He looks sheepish. He then says he does allow himself clock golf in his garden. "And I made the record in 1992. I went round in 23. There are 12 holes and I did 11 2's and a one. Ha!"
This obsession with absolute accuracy possibly informed his work. He was a brilliant comic actor, but never an anarchic one. His performance as Norman Stanley Fletcher - surely one of the best performances of this kind ever - drew largely on his extraordinary timing. And in his writing, there is great precision, too. His best sketches all rely on verbal error, like the famed hardware sketch - "Four candles? No, fork handles" - or the one that had him as the president of "the loyal society for the relief of sufferers from pismonunciation; for people who cannot say their worms correctly."
Just as Tommy Cooper used to stay up all night mastering tricks just so he could mess them up in his act, you have to be pretty knowing about language to play with it in this way. I put this to him. He says: "Oh yes, I love words." And then, mysteriously: "Are you aluminiuming, my man? No I'm copper-bottoming. I love that."
Still, I don't think I ever really get to grips with him. He is just so deeply elusive. I ask him what he was like as a child, but am not greatly rewarded. "I was in no way extraordinary clever or stupid. I couldn't be more average, probably. There was nothing that stood out. I never won anything."
His father worked as a clerk for an oil company, while his mother was "very much a mother. In those days it was OK to be just a mother. You weren't frowned on if you didn't go out to work. I had a very happy childhood, although not a memorable one especially."
Still, there must have been certain something within him, surely, to make him give up that career in the bank as he did and go into rep. What was it, Ron? "Oh," he replies vaguely. "The magic of the curtain going up, the smell of the auditorium..."
His relationship with Ronnie C began on The Frost Report, of which he also wrote a large part. This wasn't commonly known at first, because he submitted his sketches under the suitably lacklustre pseudonym Gerald Wiley, "so they didn't feel they had to do them just because I'd written them."
His gaff was blown at the end of the first series. "My agent, who was also pretending he was Wiley's agent, said: `I can't go on, people keep wanting to meet you.' So we had to reveal it, although I didn't want to."
Still, he went on to write much of The Two Ronnies as "Gerald Wiley" and, later, used a variety of pseudonyms. He wrote the sitcom His Lordship Entertains as "Jonathan Cobbold", and the sitcom Clarence as "Bob Ferris". A large part of his life has, I think, gone towards obfuscating who he really might be. No wonder he had to give it up in the end.
Still, it seems a terrible waste. Don't you feel that sometimes, Ronnie? No, he insists. "I don't regret for a moment what I did. I loved every minute, but now it's over, people aren't saying: `When are those sketches going to be ready?' I'm as free as a bird."
And what do you do, now you are as free as a bird? "I'm very happy where I live. It's a water-mill in Oxfordshire and we've got ponds and gardens and a lot of land." He can be so boring it is almost fascinating.
Anyway, it must be at least 4.47pm by now, and he is getting exceedingly agitated. "I don't think you started late, did you?" So it's good night from him, whoever "him" might be.
Still, pecker up. I think I would look quite fetching in ski-pants and one of those machine-knitted sweaters with fir trees on them.
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