Ronnie Barker, 1929 – 2005
Ronnie Barker was one half of legendary comedy duo – The Two Ronnies, but he was more than that, as we will see, he had a long and varied career, much of which is often forgotten about and of course he was not just a performer, he wrote both in his own name and under pseudonyms such as Gerald Wiley.
As an actor he appeared in some of the greatest British sitcoms of all time , i.e. Porridge, Open All Hours. After his retirement he made guest appearances in a number of smaller, non-comic parts.
Born 25th September 1929, Ronald William George Barker, in the town of Bedford to parents Leonard (known as “Tim”) and Edith (known as “Cis”) Barker. He had two sisters: elder sister Vera born in 1926 and younger sister Eileen born in 1933. His father was a clerk for Shell-Mex, and as a result of his job the family moved to Church Cowley Road in Oxford when Barker was four.
Barker attended Donnington Junior School and then the City of Oxford High School for Boys. It was at school that he found he had a talent for humour and developed his musical ability by singing in the choir at St James’s, his local church. Barker gained the School Certificate, affording him entry to the sixth form a year early. Feeling that education would be no good to him in later life, he left school as soon as he could.
On leaving school Barker trained as an architect, but gave it up after six months, as he felt that he was not skilled enough. He took his sister Vera’s job as a bank clerk at the Westminster Bank (after she had left to become a nurse). Harbouring dreams of becoming an actor, he took up amateur dramatics, although initially he just saw the pastime as a chance to meet girls. For 18 months whilst at the bank he worked as an actor and stage manager, making his first appearance in A Murder Has Been Arranged as the musical director of the play-within-a-play. Eventually he gave up his job to become a professional actor.
Barker met Joy Tubb in Cambridge while she was a stage manager for two plays he was in. They married nine months later in July 1957 and they had three children: two sons, Larry (born 1959) and Adam (born 1968), who became an actor, and one daughter, Charlotte (born 1962), who became an actress. Larry was named after Barker’s idol Laurence Olivier.
Barker was noted as a heavy smoker until 1972, when he gave up the habit after having a pre-cancerous growth removed from his throat. In 1978 Ronnie Barker was awarded the OBE.
An avid collector of antiques (he owned an antique shop to which he retired in 1987), books and posters and amassed a collection of over 53,000 postcards; he produced several compilation books of them including Ronnie Barker’s Book of Bathing Beauties, A Pennyworth of Art and Sauce.
In 1996, Barker underwent a heart bypass operation, the following year he survived a pulmonary embolism.
Having opted not to have heart valve replacement surgery, Barker’s health declined rapidly, after the recording of The Two Ronnies Christmas Sketchbook. He died of heart failure at the Katherine House hospice in Adderbury, Oxfordshire on 3rd October 2005, aged 76, with Joy by his side.
Ronnie Barker’s early career was in theatre. Success here enabled him to move into radio, where he made his first appearance in 1956, playing Lord Russett in Floggit’s. Whilst he went on to play many characters he became best known for playing lookout Able Seaman ‘Fatso’ Johnson and Lieutenant-Commander Stanton, in The Navy Lark, a navy based sitcom on the BBC Light Programme, that ran from 1959 to 1977, in which Barker featured in some 300 episodes. He also featured in the show’s radio spin-off The TV Lark as Fatso Johnson, a camera operator, and as a trainee chef in Crowther’s Crowd in 1963, and had roles on Variety Playhouse.
His first acting job on television was in Melvyn’s show I’m Not Bothered. He appeared in various roles in the comedy series The Seven Faces of Jim from 1962, alongside Jimmy Edwards and June Whitfield, as well as parts in Bold as Brass and Foreign Affairs (as the Russian ambassador Grischa Petrovitch). There were also dramatic parts in A Tale of Two Cities as Jerry Cruncher in 1965, as well as single episode roles in The Saint and The Avengers, in which he played Cheshire, a cat lover.
Comedy was never very far away as he appeared in comedy films such as Doctor in Distress (1963), Father Came Too! (1963) and A Home of Your Own (1965).
In 1966, Barker got his break with the satirical sketch series The Frost Report, having been recommended for the show by producer James Gilbert. The show starred David Frost, John Cleese and Barker’s future comedy partner Ronnie Corbett, whom he had met in 1963 when Corbett was the barman at the Buckstone Club near the Haymarket Theatre, and the two became friends. It was whilst appearing in the Frost report that Ronnie Barker featured in the now legendary class sketch with John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett.
After the first series, the special Frost Over England was produced, winning the Golden Rose at the Montreux Television Festival. With a second series of the show announced, Frost, recognising their potential, signed both Barker and Corbett up to his production company David Paradine Productions. As part of the deal Barker was given his own show in 1968, The Ronnie Barker Playhouse, which comprised six separate, thirty minute plays. Barker starred in each piece as a different character. After two series of The Frost Report on the BBC, David Frost moved to ITV after helping to set up London Weekend Television. There, Frost hosted Frost on Sunday, with Barker and Corbett apearing with him and again performing sketches on the program. Barker began writing sketches for the program under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley. For this show Barker and Corbett played a greater role than on The Frost Report. Barker would continue to use the Gerald Wiley pseudonym when writing future sketches.
In 1969 Barker was able to produce the film Futtocks End which featured no dialogue and only “grumble[s] and grunt[s]”; Barker played General Futtock in the film and also wrote it.
Much like seven of one in later years The Ronnie Barker Playhouse had been designed to find a successful idea for a sitcom, and an episode “Ah, There You Are” by Alun Owen, introducing the bumbling aristocratic character Lord Rustless, was chosen. The character returned for the 1969-1970 series Hark at Barker as the main character; Barker wrote for the show under the name Jonathan Cobbald. As Wiley he wrote the 1971 series Six Dates with Barker. Despite Barker’s success on ITV, LWT’s programme controller Stella Richman opted to fire Frost’s company Paradine and as Barker was contracted to the company rather than the network, he lost his job, as did Ronnie Corbett.
Soon after, Barker, Corbett and Josephine Tewson performed a sketch about Henry VIII at the 1971 BAFTAs, with Barker playing Henry. Barker ans Corbett also had to keep the audience entertained for eight or so minutes as the show was stopped because of technical difficulties.
Their performance at the award show made an impression on the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton and Controller of BBC One Paul Fox, who happened to be sitting in the audience. Not knowing they were both essentially unemployed, although still contracted to Paradine, Cotton signed the duo up for their own show together, and a series each on their own.
Barker and Corbett wishing to avoid being remembered primarily as a duo, felt they could not work in the same way as a conventional double acts such as Morecambe and Wise, and so each maintained their solo careers as well.
They each were given a one-off variety special; The Ronnie Barker Yearbook, featured a sketch for each month of the year, although because of time constraints the first two had to be cut.
Barker also reprised his character Lord Rustless in the sitcom His Lordship Entertains in 1972. Barker wrote all seven episodes, again with the pseudonym Jonathan Cobbald.
The show that Barker and Corbett did together was of course The Two Ronnies, a show that regularly attracted audiences of 15 – 20 million and made the two men household names. It aired for 12 series from 1971 until 1987. Under the pseudonym of Gerald Wiley Barker wrote three quarters of the material for the show including the famous “four candles” sketch.
There were two runs of a stage version of The Two Ronnies in 1978 and 1983, with an eight week run during 1979 in Australia.
The Australian version came about after, receiving a tip off from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Barker and Corbett opted to move with their families to Sydney, Australia for a year. Whist there they also produced a six episode TV series The Two Ronnies in Australia for Nine Network. The show comprised material not yet shown in Australia from The Two Ronnies and new content targeted more towards an Australian audience. They returned for a second series in 1986.
Ronnie Barker also starred alongside his friend Ronnie Corbett in two short and mostly silent films The Picnic (1975) and By The Sea (1982).
In 1980 they appeared in the short-lived American variety show The Big Show; the two were glad the show did not last as they objected to the use of canned laughter by the American networks.
Barker also made his name in some of Britain’s best loved sitcoms, Porridge and Open All Hours. In 1976 Barker appeared as Friar Tuck in the film Robin and Marian.
Other sitcoms included the series of Pilot Episodes (from which came Porridge and Open All Hours) Seven Of One, Going Straight, The Magnificent Evans and his final sitcom upon announcing his retirement Clarence.
Upon his retirement Barker opened and ran an antiques shop called The Emporium in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire.
Just over a decade after retiring, Barker was persuaded to make occasional appearances on TV again. In 1997 he appeared with Ronnie Corbett at the Royal Command Performance, driving on stage in a motorcycle as the Two Fat Ladies and in 1999 he was reunited with Corbett for Two Ronnies Night on BBC One, and the following year for A Tribute to the Two Ronnies.
In 2002, director Richard Loncraine persuaded Barker to appear as Winston Churchill’s butler David Inches in the BBC-HBO drama The Gathering Storm and then cast him in the larger role of the General in the TV film My House in Umbria in 2003, alongside Maggie Smith (whom he had, early in their careers, advised to give up acting as he felt she would not be a success). In the same year, he briefly reprised his role as Norman Stanley Fletcher in the spoof documentary Life Beyond the Box.
Following the success of Ronnie Barker: A BAFTA Tribute, Barker wanted to return The Two Ronnies to television and the BBC commissioned The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a clip show of their best sketches along with newly recorded introductions. These were recorded in one day due to Barker’s declining health and aired in 2005.
In July of the same year he recorded what would be his final TV appearance The Two Ronnies Christmas Sketchbook, this aired in December 2005 after his death.
Barker received several lifetime achievement awards. He won the Royal Television Society’s award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in 1975. Sir Alec Guinness presented him with a lifetime achievement honour at the inaugural British Comedy Awards in 1990, while he received another such honour at the BBC Centenary Programme in 1996. In 2004 he was given a special BAFTA lifetime achievement award at Ronnie Barker: A BAFTA Tribute, a televised celebratory tribute evening. In 2005, he and Corbett were part of the first 100 people given stars on London’s Avenue of Stars. Previous awards included the Variety Club of Great Britain Award in 1969, 1974 and 1980, the Radio Industry Club Award in 1973, 1974, 1977 and 1981.