- Category : Comedian
- Type : GP
- Profile : 4/1 - Opportunistic / Investigator
- Definition : Split - Small (10,33,34)
- Incarnation Cross : JX Serendipity
Ronald William George Barker, OBE (25 September 1929 – 3 October 2005), was an English actor and comedian, best known for his roles as Norman Stanley Fletcher in the British comedy television series Porridge, as various characters in the British comedy television series The Two Ronnies and as Albert Arkwright in the British comedy television series Open All Hours.
His skills as a character actor, his love for and facility with the English language, and his gift for comedy made him a much-respected performer.
Barker was born in Bedford in Bedfordshire. He had two sisters; Vera (his older sister) and Eileen (his younger sister). The family moved to Oxford when his father, a clerk for Shell Oil, was relocated, when Barker was two years old. He took to writing plays for his family and neighbours, and often sat in the audience of The Oxford Playhouse, his local repertory company, dreaming of fame.
Barker attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys, in Oxford, and at sixteen he left and took a job as a bank clerk - but the theatre called. He wrote to the Aylesbury Repertory Company in 1948 and his show business career began. Barker then went on to join the Playhouse Theatre, Oxford, at the time under the actor-management of Frank Shelley, as an actor and stagehand, at £2 10s per week.
The two appeared together there, in Ben Travers's A Cuckoo in the Nest and, subsequently, in a number of other venues and roles. In 1993, Barker dedicated his autobiography to Shelley, whom he called one of the "three wise men who directed my career; without men like these, there would be no theatre."
He then worked as an actor and assistant stage manager with the Manchester Repertory Company, but was soon spotted by Sir Peter Hall who gave him a West End role. His first radio appearance was in 1956; he went on to play a variety of minor characters in The Navy Lark, a navy based sit-com on the BBC Light Programme (still available on tape and frequently rerun on BBC 7). He later returned to radio in the BBC Radio 4 sketch show Lines From My Grandfather's Forehead. He acted in the films Father Came Too! and The Bargee. On television, he wrote and performed many satirical skits in The Frost Report, notably a series of trios which he performed with Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese. From 1961 to 1963, he starred in the three series of Faces of Jim. He starred with David Jason as a bumbling aristocrat Lord Rustless in the sit-com Hark at Barker. Jason appeared in several episodes of Porridge, and co-starred as Granville, the errand boy and nephew of Barker's stuttering shopkeeper Arkwright in the sitcom Open All Hours, written by Roy Clarke (who also wrote Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances). Both Porridge and Open All Hours originated as part of the Seven of One series.
The Two Ronnies
His BBC television comedy sketch show with Ronnie Corbett, in The Two Ronnies, lasted from 1971 to 1987. This show saw both Barker and Corbett performing various comedy sketches and musical numbers. The programme became one of the most successful and long running television comedy shows ever on British television which at its peak averaged around 17 million viewers.
Seven of One: Porridge and Open All Hours
Porridge ran for three series, two Christmas specials and a film, produced in 1979. Barker privately regarded the series as the finest work of his career. It was followed by the spin-off sitcom Going Straight which, while not as popular as Porridge, did win BAFTA awards. The first came at a time when Barker was grieving the early death of his co-star Richard Beckinsale, and Barker tearfully paid tribute to Beckinsale in his brief acceptance speech. The Open All Hours pilot episode was broadcast in March 1973, and ran for four series between February 1976 and October 1985.
Barker was also an accomplished comedy writer. He provided many of the sketches and songs for The Two Ronnies, and contributed material to many other radio and TV shows—often under a variety of assumed names. A typical example is the sketch Nothing's Too Much Trouble. Most famously, many contributions for The Two Ronnies were submitted by a mystery writer called Gerald Wiley. Wiley had first gained credit for his work on the Frost on Sunday show, but no one had ever met him. His status as a recluse became well known among the comedy writing fraternity, to the extent that it became almost a challenge to discover his identity. Frank Muir and Tom Stoppard were both accused by members of the writing team, including Barry Cryer, before one day, Wiley said that he would reveal himself at a Chinese restaurant. No one believed Barker at first, when he stood up and announced it was him, particularly as he himself had turned away scripts credited to Wiley. Barker admitted that he carried out this deception because he was afraid that his ideas and scripts would not be judged on merit otherwise.
His other credits include the (almost) silent films A Home of Your Own (1964), Futtock's End (1970), The Picnic (1975) and By the Sea (1982), the sit-coms His Lordship Entertains, The Magnificent Evans and Clarence, the plays Rub A Dub Dub and Mum, and the LP A Pint of Old and Filthy. Straight roles were few and far between, though he did put in a dramatic-comic turn as Cheshire in The Hidden Tiger episode of the 1960s classic series The Avengers and as Friar Tuck in Robin and Marian.
Retirement and return
In January 1988, following the 1987 Christmas Special of The Two Ronnies and the broadcast of Clarence, Barker made an appearance on the chat show Wogan, where he announced his intention to retire from showbusiness, stating that he had "no further ambition" and that he should "quit while he was ahead". Following this, he announced that he would open and run an antiques shop at his home in Oxfordshire. He resisted all calls to come out of retirement virtually from that point onwards. Barker sold his antique shop in the late 1990s.
In 1999, he reunited with Ronnie Corbett for a Two Ronnies night on BBC1, where they introduced a selection of their best and most-loved sketches. In 2002, he appeared as Winston Churchill's butler—a "straight" role, but with opportunities for comic asides—in the BBC drama The Gathering Storm. This was followed up by a role in the film My House in Umbria in 2003. In the same year, he briefly reprised perhaps his most famous role of Fletcher in the spoof documentary Life Beyond the Box. In 2004 he was given a special BAFTA award and announced his return to television; he reunited with Ronnie Corbett to record The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a clip show of their sketches along with newly recorded introductions. These were shown in March and April 2005.
On 5 August 2005, another, final special - The Two Ronnies Christmas Sketchbook, was recorded with new introductions featuring clips from their previous Christmas special shows. This was to be his last television appearance, and sadly, he knew this, as he mentioned to Corbett. This led to an early recording of the special. The show was aired in December that year.
Corbett appeared before the start of the show paying tribute to "Ron", and that Barker informed him of his illness, leading to an early recording of the show. The studio audience weren't informed about Barker's illness or decision, and were therefore confused as to why a Christmas episode was being recorded in August.
He was voted amongst the top 20 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders in a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian.
Ronnie Barker married Joy Tubb on 8 July 1957 and they had three children: two sons, the actors Larry (b. 1960) and Adam (b. 1967) and one daughter, the actress Charlotte Barker (b. 1963). He retired to Dean, a hamlet near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire to run an antiques shop in late 1987. He died in a local hospice from heart failure on Monday 3 October 2005, aged 76, with his wife by his side. His catchphrase ending from The Two Ronnies provided the perfect epitaph: "Goodnight From Him".
News of his death made headlines in the United Kingdom and other countries. Ronnie Corbett said that throughout their many years working together there was never a cross word between them. He also commented that Barker was "pure gold in triplicate - as a comedian, writer and friend". His family kindly gave permission for his stage play, Mum, written for his daughter Charlotte, to be adapted for radio. Broadcast in 2006 on BBC Radio 4 as an Afternoon Play, adapted and directed by Neil Cargill, it starred Maxine Peake in the main role alongside Barker's old Porridge collaborator, Sam Kelly, and received very favourable reviews as a "poignant" and "moving" work - a real eye-opener to those who knew only his pure comedy.
He had a private humanist funeral in Banbury, followed by a public memorial service on 3 March 2006 at Westminster Abbey, at which Richard Briers, David Jason and Ronnie Corbett read, a recording of Barker's rhyming slang sermon was played, and the choir processed in behind four candles, a reference to the Two Ronnies' most famous sketch.
His life and work was honoured at the British Academy Television Awards in 2006.
1969 to 1970 Hark at Barker
1971 to 1987 The Two Ronnies
1972 His Lordship Entertains
1973 Seven of One
1974 to 1977 Porridge
1981 to 1985 Open All Hours
1978 Going Straight Norman
1984 The Magnificent Evans