As one of the greats of British television comedy, Ronnie Barker would have appreciated a moment of levity at his Westminster Abbey memorial yesterday.
Peter Kay, the star of Phoenix Nights, revealed to the congregation of 2,000 mourners that he wrote a fan letter to Barker, saying that he was his comedy hero and that Porridge was one of his favourite shows.
Barker wrote back in the character of Norman Fletcher, the part he played in Porridge, still residing at Her Majesty's pleasure in the fictitious Slade Prison. "Fortunately, I've been able to keep a clean sheet in here," Fletcher wrote.
"But that's mainly because I work in the prison laundry." Kay told the congregation: "I wrote to him about three or four years ago. I had always been a massive fan and, after a few attempts, I finally wrote a letter and told him how much I liked him.
"And then this letter came one day and I opened it and saw 'Her Majesty's Prison' and I thought, 'Oh my God, they must think I'm the Johnny Cash of comedy [the country music star famously performed in San Quentin and Folsom prisons]'. "But when I noticed it said 'Slade Prison', I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I had a letter from Norman Stanley Fletcher. It meant so much to me and it still does.
"We wrote to each other over a few years and talked about everything. It's not often you get to meet your heroes in life, let alone become penpals with them." Kay responded to the first letter by replying as the Phoenix Nights club boss, Brian Potter, and sending him a nail-file. Barker's final letter arrived last year, Kay said, and he led the Abbey mourners in a round of applause.
Ronnie Corbett, who starred in The Two Ronnies television show with Barker, spoke of enjoying "40 years of unmitigated pleasure" working with him. Among the 2,000 mourners for Barker, who died last October, aged 76, were 1,600 fans who queued outside in the winter sunshine clutching tickets they had won through a ballot.
Corbett added: "This is a truly monumental task for me, to encapsulate, in a few minutes, 40 years of working harmoniously with this dearest of men. Forty years without an argument. Forty years of unmitigated pleasure, thrills and laughs."
Those present included Sir Terry Wogan, Michael Palin, Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry and Dawn French, and Barker's Open All Hours co-star, Sir David Jason. The actor Richard Briers read the Prologue to Act IV from Shakespeare's Henry V, a work which held a special place in Barker's affections.
As a boy, he missed school to see the Laurence Olivier film version, but his headmaster spotted him waiting in the cinema queue. The chairman of the BBC, Michael Grade, read an extract from Barker's 1988 autobiography, It's Hello From Him, a chapter entitled The Gentle Art of Corpsing.
The last word from the service came from Barker himself. His voice was heard in the Abbey in a clip from a recorded interview. He said: "I suppose I would like to be remembered as one of the funniest men people have seen on TV. 'He did make us laugh. God bless him'."
The ceremony was attended by Barker's widow, Joy, his son Larry and daughter, Charlotte. There was no sign of his other son, Adam, who jumped bail last summer and fled the UK after being arrested on suspicion of downloading indecent images of children from the internet. Canon Robert Wright, the sub-dean of Westminster, who conducted the service, said Barker was a family man who was devoted to his wife andchildren, and preferred to live a quiet life when not performing. He added that Barker had "a remarkable ability to find humour in very mundane situations".Reuse content