When, in March, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett were billed to reappear on the nation's television screens with The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, there was some derision among the professional critics. They had to eat their words when the first of the six episodes of this selection of old sketches drew eight million viewers - 35 per cent of the audience. Almost a quarter of these viewers had not even been born when The Two Ronnies was first broadcast, in 1971.
Ronnie Barker was, in the first place, a master of television sitcom. Drawing on his background of serious acting in the theatre, he convincingly portrayed characters ranging from the lecherous old Lord Rustless in Hark at Barker and His Lordship Entertains to the stammering shopkeeper Arkwright in Open All Hours and the wily jailbird Fletcher in the hugely popular Porridge. But at the same time, with Ronnie Corbett, he formed the rotund half of the double act whose show The Two Ronnies ran for 15 years, brought to an end only by Barker's decision to retire from show business. He also wrote much of the duo's material, showing a fondness for Spoonerisms and double entendres, which owed much to music hall: "Your game, milady," the butler would say. "Your nuts, milord."
Like many great performers, the on- and off-screen Barker were two different people. "I've always known I haven't a personality of my own," he once said. "I have to be someone else to be happy. That's why I became an actor, I suppose." This was reflected in his policy of declining personal appearances.
The straitlaced Barker was born in Bedford, in 1929, the son of an oil-company clerk. The family moved to Cowley, in Oxford, when he was four and, on leaving Oxford High School, he studied for six months to be an architect but realised his mathematics and physics were not good enough; he became a bank clerk instead. He caught the acting bug through his involvement with amateur dramatics and, after 18 months, decided to leave his bank job and turn professional. Barker worked in repertory theatre for seven years, making his professional début as Lieutenant Spicer in J.M. Barrie's Quality Street (1948) at Aylesbury, and subsequently treading the boards in Manchester and Oxford.
The theatre director Peter Hall, working with the Oxford Playhouse company, took Barker with him when he moved to London and the actor made his début there as both the Chantyman and Joe Silva in Mourning Becomes Electra (Apollo Theatre, 1955). He followed it with further West End roles as the Farmer in Summertime (Apollo, 1955), a Gypsy Man in Listen to the Wind (Arts, 1955), Mr Thwaites in Double Image (Savoy, 1956), various parts in Camino Real (Phoenix, 1957), Robertoles-Diams in Irma La Douce (Lyric, 1958), Bob Acres in All in Love (Mayfair, 1964), Lord Slingsby-Craddock in Mr Whatnot (Arts, 1964) and Birdboot in The Real Inspector Hound (Criterion, 1968).
Among his classical roles with the Royal Court Theatre during those years were Perigord in Nekrassov (1957), Nikolai Triletski in Platonov (1960) and Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). He also played Alf Always in Sweet Fanny Adams at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (1966).
Such a solid grounding in theatre gave Barker a springboard to other media - although Peter Hall, for one, might have wished he had stayed on the stage. ("He's the great actor we lost," Hall is quoted as saying. And, significantly, "The measure of his comedy was that he was absolutely true.") When he moved into radio, it was as Ronnie rather than Ronald - his director changed his name in the credits without his knowing. He played the Lord of the Manor, Lord Russett, in Floggit's (1956), the series that brought Elsie and Doris Waters's stage characters of Gert and Daisy to radio as owners of a village store.
He was also in radio's longest-running comedy show, The Navy Lark (1959-77), as the lookout AB Johnson, who would tell Jon Pertwee's Chief Petty Officer: "You're rotten, you are." Johnson's alter ego, Lieutenant-Commander Stanton, was acted by Barker, too. In 1963, the cast moved on to dry land to operate a commercial television station in a spin-off radio series, The TV Lark, and Fatso Johnson operated Camera One. On radio, Barker also played Ronnie, trainee at a school for chefs, in Crowther's Crowd (1963), which starred Leslie Crowther and June Whitfield.
But it was on television that Barker achieved his greatest fame. Although he had taken serious character roles in series such as A Tale of Two Cities (as Jerry Cruncher, 1965), The Saint (1966) and The Avengers (1967), his forte for comedy soon had him typecast on the small screen. He played the gormless son Ron in the first television version of the popular radio sitcom Take It From Here, featuring the Glums family - an episode in the BBC television series Six More Faces of Jim (1962). Written by the original partnership of Frank Muir and Denis Norden, it starred Jimmy Edwards and June Whitfield repeating their radio roles of Mr Glum and Eth. Barker was also a regular in Edwards's Northern brass band sitcom Bold as Brass (1964) and in the Cold War comedy Foreign Affairs (1966) he played Grischa Petrovitch, the commissar's slightly pro-British assistant at the Russian embassy in London.
The actor's pairing with the dimunitive, Edinburgh-born Ronnie Corbett in The Frost Report (1966-67) began a 21-year screen partnership that would bring him as much fame as the sitcoms he was still to make. The BBC programme was a satirical show starring David Frost, formerly of That Was the Week That Was, and the team who went on to found Monty Python's Flying Circus. As two grammar-school boys among a largely Oxbridge crowd, Barker and Corbett gravitated towards one another and were soon performing sketches together. Frost Over England (1967) featured some of the best items from the series and won the coveted Golden Rose at the 1967 Montreux Television Festival. Barker and Corbett also appeared in Frost on Sunday (1968-70), after Frost switched to ITV, and Barker contributed scripts, submitted through his agent under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley because he wanted them to be accepted on their merit.
The BBC signed the duo to appear in their own series after its head of light entertainment, Bill Cotton, watched them and another of the Frost team, Josephine Tewson, providing entertainment at the 1971 Bafta Awards ceremony, at the London Palladium. They did a Henry VIII sketch, with Barker as Bluff King Hal, Tewson as all six wives and Corbett as Wolsey.
As a result, The Two Ronnies (1971-86) was born and became an immediate hit with viewers. More than 15 million regularly tuned in to watch a cocktail of comedy sketches, playlets, songs and parodies, a long-winded Corbett monologue and a singing star, sandwiched between the opening and closing news summaries. This "news" would include supposed previews of the show's sketches, such as: "The Romford girl who took the Pill, washed down with pond water, and was today diagnosed as three months stagnant." Or: "A 50-year-old doctor who claims that smoking takes years off your life. He says that if he hadn't smoked when he was younger he'd now be 63."
A regular feature of the show was an investigation by the detectives Charley Farley and Piggy Malone, a lunatic's answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and Barker usually performed a musical number in drag, until his wife eventually asked him to stop. Another regular character, Dr Spooner, transposed initial consonants and even middle syllables: "I dashed out and tumped into a jaxi." At the end, the pair would sign off: "It's good night from me - and it's good night from him."
There were two filmed television spin-offs: The Picnic (1975), which won the Golden Rose at the Montreux Television Festival, and its sequel, By the Sea (1982). The pair also travelled down under to make The Two Ronnies in Australia (1987).
For most of The Two Ronnies' run, which totalled 12 series and 94 episodes, Barker wrote 75 per cent of the material, under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley. The quality of this helped to ensure a consistently high standard and viewers continued to tune in to the Barker-Corbett double act. "It's a marriage," said Barker:
People refuse to believe that we don't have rows, tensions, private wars. It's a strange thing after so many years but we never have. Actually, it's even more amicable than a marriage - wedlock without the bad patches. Our sense of humour and perception of what's good and what's rubbish are uncommonly in tune.
One of the writers of the other 25 per cent was Barry Cryer, who had also written for Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. "It wasn't like writing for Eric and Ernie," recalled Cryer. Morecambe and Wise played, on the whole, themselves. Barker and Corbett, when not behind their "news desk", were playing other characters:
You could write almost anything knowing these two would do it brilliantly. Because they weren't a double act; they were two men who worked together and had their own careers.
Cryer saw Barker as "an actor who was brilliant at comedy", Corbett as "the comic who was a pretty good actor".
Throughout the years of The Two Ronnies, Barker also enjoyed success as the star of half a dozen BBC sitcoms. He had already had three ITV series. The Ronnie Barker Playhouse (1968) of half-hour single comedy plays included Alun Owen's Ah, There You Are, introducing the character of the decrepit Lord Rustless. The ageing earl, who often walked round his estate wearing pyjamas and a smoking jacket, was later featured in Hark at Barker (1969-70), written by Barker himself under the pseudonym Jonathan Cobbald. He made a further series of comedies each of a different theme in Six Dates with Barker (1971), which he wrote as Gerald Wiley.
At the BBC, Barker revived Lord Rustless in His Lordship Entertains (1972), with the stately Chrome Hall transformed into a hotel. Seven of One (1973) provided him with another chance to portray a range of characters in different comedy plays and included Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's Prisoner and Escort. The following year, this was turned into the series Porridge (1974-77), with Barker starring as the old lag Norman Stanley Fletcher, consigned to Slade Prison, in Cumbria, on a five-year sentence for robbery. The workshy prisoner cynically exploited the system with great cunning and was usually one step ahead of the "screws".
The character of Fletcher was one of Barker's great comedy creations, attracting audiences of more than 15 million, and Porridge continued to be repeated long after its three-year run. Barker was ably supported by his co-stars Richard Beckinsale (as Fletcher's cellmate, Lennie Godber), Fulton Mackay (as the ferocious Chief Officer Mackay) and Brian Wilde (as the milder Warden Barrowclough). A sequel, the six-part Going Straight (1978), featured Fletcher and Godber trying to adjust to life after being released from Slade Prison.
By then, Barker's Northern shopkeeper, the rude, penny-pinching Arkwright, notable for his stammer, had already been born in Open All Hours (1976, 1981-85). The sitcom began with one series on BBC2 and, after finding a mass audience through repeats on BBC1, switched channels five years later and achieved ratings almost as high as those for Porridge. Arkwright bullied Granville (David Jason), his nephew and overworked assistant, and lusted after the buxom Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron), who lived across the road in the Yorkshire street where the writer Roy Clarke's comedy was set.
In between series, Barker made The Magnificent Evans (1984), another Clarke sitcom of bullying and lust. He played Plantagenet Evans, a Welsh photographer who has a lens for the ladies and puts upon those with whom he works, notably Willie (Dickie Arnold) and his fiancée and assistant Rachel (Sharon Morgan).
Barker's last sitcom, which he wrote himself under the pseudonym Bob Ferris, was Clarence (1988). He played a short-sighted, inept removal man, Clarence Sale, who underwent a trial marriage with a ladies' maid, Jane Travers (Josephine Tewson), and was frustrated by a bolster down the centre of their bed. Clarence was screened at the same time as Barker's surprise announcement, in 1988, that he was retiring at the age of 58. "I had run dry," he said later:
I had completely run out of ideas and it scared and panicked me. I was always able to write scripts but, you know, I couldn't think of a single thing to write about. It was a very weird sensation. I had seen friends of mine start burning out. No one wants to see a 70-year-old on television who can't remember his lines. And also I had lost interest.
This came shortly after Barker had turned down Peter Hall's offer of the role of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I and Part II at the National Theatre. "My first reaction was that I'd hate the traffic every night," he said. "I knew then that I shouldn't be in the business." On television, Barker had taken occasional opportunities to draw on his theatre background, acting Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1971) and Henry Ormonroyd in When We Are Married (1975), but he was in demand as a comedy actor.
He was never given a star vehicle in the cinema, apart from the 1979 film spin-off of Porridge. After making his big-screen début in the short The Silent Witness (1953), he was a supporting actor in pictures of the 1960s and 1970s such as Doctor in Distress (1963), Father Came Too (1963), The Bargee (1964), A Home of Your Own (1965) and The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971). He also played Friar Tuck in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian (1976) and starred as General Futtock, a character not a million miles from Lord Rustless, in Futtocks End (1969), a silent comedy that he wrote himself.
In retirement, Barker indulged his passion for Victoriana, collecting postcards, illustrated books and prints and running an antiques shop in Oxfordshire, at Chipping Norton. He returned to television just occasionally, in 2002 as the butler to Albert Finney's Winston Churchill in Richard Loncraine's film The Gathering Storm, and in 2003 as the General opposite (his old friend from Oxford childhood days) Maggie Smith's Mrs Emily Delahunty in the same director's adaptation of William Trevor's My House in Umbria. A play, Mum, he wrote for his actress daughter Charlotte, was performed at the King's Head, Islington, in 1998, but was so badly panned he was put off writing altogether.
He was reunited with Ronnie Corbett for Two Ronnies Night (1999), A Tribute to the Two Ronnies (2000) and, this year, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook. The two, Barker rather a shadow of his younger and larger self, were filmed in front of a studio audience sitting behind the familiar desk to introduce some of their classic sketches - the Mastermind sketch in which Corbett's specialist subject is answering the penultimate question, the "Four Candles" sketch in which Barker tries to buy fork-handles from an ironmonger's . . .
During his career, Ronnie Barker won Bafta awards as Best Light Entertainment Performer in 1971, 1975 and 1977, and last year he was honoured with a Bafta lifetime achievement award for his contribution to comedy. Among his published books were It's Goodnight from Him (1976), the autobiography Dancing in the Moonlight: early years on the stage (1993) and All I Ever Wrote (That Still Exists) (1999), and collections of vintage postcards from his own collection: Ronnie Barker's Book of Bathing Beauties (1974), Ronnie Barker's Book of Boudoir Beauties (1975) and Sauce (1977).
Anthony HaywardReuse content