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Barker, Ronnie (1929-2005)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Barker, Ronnie (1929-2005)

Ronnie Barker once said "'I think it's better to make people laugh than cry", and ' - with his playful use of language as one half of The Two Ronnies and his acclaimed characters, especially Arkwright in Open All Hours and the triumphant Fletcher in Porridge, he proved himself the most accomplished comic actor of his generation.

Born in Bedford on 25th September 1929, Barker spent six unfulfilling months studying architecture after leaving school. He then worked as a bank clerk while performing with a local amateur dramatic group. After failing to join the Young Vic Theatre School, he successfully auditioned for the Manchester Repertory Company (based in Aylesbury) by reading in six different accents.

As an actor in weekly rep he joined the Oxford Playhouse. There, he met Peter Hall, in whose productions he quickly established himself on the London stage. He also played a seven-year role in the BBC radio series The Navy Lark (1959-77) as Able Seaman Johnson.

He made his television debut as a waiter in the serial Sailor of Fortune (ITV, 1956-57) and played regular supporting roles in three series starring Jimmy Edwards, beginning with The Seven Faces of Jim (BBC, 1961). BBC producer Jimmy Gilbert recommended him to David Frost for The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67), where he worked with John Cleese and, for the first time, with future long-term comedy partner, Ronnie Corbett. The grammar school boys hit it off immediately.

The partnership continued with Frost on Sunday (ITV, 1969-70) where Barker began contributing to the programme under the pseudonym 'Gerald Wiley'. This allowed his work to be considered on merit. Wiley's sketches were accepted, with Barker managing to keep his secret from everyone involved, until he finally invited the Frost team to a Chinese restaurant and confessed all. He continued to write throughout his career under the pen-name and a host of other bogus names including Jonathan Cobbold and Jack Goetz.

He showed his versatility as a Russian ambassador in the sitcom Foreign Affairs (BBC, 1966) and guest starred in two classic television series, The Saint (ITV, tx. 4/3/66) and The Avengers (ITV, tx. 25/11/67). Returning to comedy, he played a host of roles in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse (ITV, 1968) and in a similar vein in Six Dates with Barker (ITV, 1971). Sandwiched between these series was the sketch show Hark at Barker (ITV, 1969-70) where he presided over the topical proceedings as Lord Rustless, a role he had been perfecting for a number of years,. The character had first appeared in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse and would be seen again in the sitcom His Lordship Entertains (BBC, 1972). The previous year he had been perfectly cast as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (BBC, tx. 26/09/71).

Teamed with Ronnie Corbett, Barker entered his golden period with the long-running, award-winning The Two Ronnies (BBC, 1971-87). 'Gerald Wiley' initially wrote 75 per cent of the show's material, including all the serials (the Phantom Raspberry Blower saga being particularly memorable). Barker's verbal dexterity with spoonerisms and pismonounciation was showcased in his monologues and sketches. The show ran for 12 successful series plus also two of Barker's 'grumble and grunt' silent movies The Picnic (BBC, tx. 1/1/76) and By the Sea (BBC, tx. 12/4/82) written under the double pseudonyms of Dave Huggett and Larry Keith.

Considered by Barker to be his finest creation, 'habitual criminal' Norman Stanley Fletcher first saw the light of day in Prisoner and Escort (BBC, tx. 1/4/73) one of seven comedy pilots under the banner Seven of One (BBC, 1973). Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Porridge (BBC, 1974-77) became one of Britain's greatest situation comedies. Sentenced to prison for five years, Barker's wily old lag ("there was plenty of me in there - not that I break into post offices, of course") was forever looking for little victories over his fellow prisoners and the prison staff. The role fitted Barker like a glove with three successful series, a film version (d. Dick Clement, 1979) and a spin-off series, Going Straight (BBC, 1978) which picked up the story after Fletcher's release. Fletcher won Barker BAFTAs in 1975, 1977 and 1979.

Also from the Seven of One pilots came the successful Open All Hours (BBC, 1976, 81-82, 85). Written by Roy Clarke, Barker played Arkwright, a tight-fisted and lustful corner shop-keeper. Another well judged characterisation by Barker, even Arkwright's stutter - taught to him by his comedy mentor Glenn Melvyn - was never used for cheap laughs. Between the third and fourth series Clarke penned another character for Barker, Plantagenet Evans, a flamboyant, chauvinistic Welsh photographer, but The Magnificent Evans (BBC, 1984) was too exaggerated and far removed from the 'truth' of Porridge and Open All Hours. Barker returned to Arkwright for one more series, bowing out with audience figures of nearly 20 million.

In 1987, Barker announced his retirement from professional life due to heart problems. His sitcom swansong was Clarence (BBC, 1988) written by 'Bob Ferris' (Barker), in which he played a short-sighted removal man who had begun life in an episode of Six Dates with Barker. By the time it was broadcast, he had taken up a new career, running an antiques shop in Chipping Norton.

He emerged from his retirement to appear as the butler to Albert Finney's Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm (HBO/BBC, 2002) and as a general in the film My House in Umbria (d. Richard Loncraine, 2003). He also returned to two of his greatest triumphs: briefly as Fletcher in the mock documentary Life Beyond the Box - Norman Stanley Fletcher (BBC, tx. 26/12/2003) and, after a star-studded BAFTA tribute in 2004, he said his final television goodnight with Ronnie Corbett in The Two Ronnies Sketchbook (BBC, 2005).

Ronnie Barker OBE died on October 3rd 2005.

Graham Rinaldi

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From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Runaway Railway (1965)Runaway Railway (1965)

Four bold kids foil a pair of crooks and save a threatened railway

Thumbnail image of Frost Report, The (1966-67)Frost Report, The (1966-67)

Topical comedy show, a successor to the more famous TW3

Thumbnail image of Open All Hours (1973-85)Open All Hours (1973-85)

Ronnie Barker stars as stuttering skinflint shopkeeper Arkwright

Thumbnail image of Porridge (1974-77)Porridge (1974-77)

Ronnie Barker goes behind bars in the definitive prison sitcom

Thumbnail image of Two Ronnies, The (1971-86)Two Ronnies, The (1971-86)

Hugely popular sketch series uniting Ronnies Barker and Corbett

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Corbett, Ronnie (1930-)Corbett, Ronnie (1930-)

Actor, Presenter