Comedian and actor Ronnie Barker (Ronald William George Barker) was born on 25 September 1929 in Bedford, England, and moved to Oxford at the age of four, as his father, Leonard, was working in the area. A fan of theatre from his early childhood, when World war II closed most theatres, and radio comedy became his primary medium of entertainment.
He studied briefly as an architect on leaving the City of Oxford High School, but that failed to inspire him, so he took work as a clerk in a local bank.
His stage ambitions crystallised on a trip to watch the Manchester Repertory Theatre production in Aylesbury. Ronnie enjoyed the production so much he contacted the company to ask for a job. His first letter went unanswered, but, undeterred, he wrote again – this time snagging himself an audition.
Company Director, Horace Wentworth hired him on the spot – but not as an actor. Like many people beginning their careers in Rep, Ron began as an Assistant Stage Manager (ASM), the posh theatre name for a general dogsbody and scapegoat.
Over time, he began to play small roles with the company, making his stage debut (as Ronald Barker) in Quality Street in 1948, at the age of 19. In a production of Miranda he got his first chance to try comedy, and he was thereafter always attracted particularly to that side of the profession.
He continued in straight theatre for several years, until he landed his first radio part on The Floggits, in a regular, supporting role. It was at this point his name was changed to “Ronnie” – but not by Ron himself. Director Alastair Scott-Johnson thought that the diminutive sounded friendlier, so that’s how he billed the actor – Barker wasn’t even aware of his new name until he saw himself billed in the Radio Times.
He didn’t last long in this role – not because he wasn’t good – he was. Unfortunately for Ronnie, he was getting more laughs than the two stars, Elsie and Doris Waters, and that didn’t go down at all well with the ladies in question.
He returned to the theatre and played in several productions, before he was offered a part in the TV show I'm Not Bothered, staring Glenn Melvyn. This new medium was fast taking off, the show offered him both the chance to gain experience, and to write comedy material for the first time – he wrote three scripts and was paid £50.00 for each (very good money in the 1950s) but the writing credit went to the show’s star.
In 1958 Ronnie made his big screen debut in the film Wonderful Things! And landed a supporting part in a radio show that was to star Jon Pertwee – The Navy Lark. This was Barker’s first smash hit, and although Pertwee found himself swiftly having to share the limelight with Barker, it was the beginning of a long-standing friendship – the pair were often almost paralytic with laughter making the show, their senses of humour being closely aligned.
By the early sixties, Barker was working regularly on radio and in small TV roles, and was still appearing in the West End. His prominence on TV began, however, when he was called on to fill in for actor Terrence Alexander playing a villain in one of a series of plays starring Jimmy Edwards. His short-notice performance was so good, he was called back to co-star in the second series.
In 1966, Ronnie became a regular on the satirical weekly show The Frost Report – the breeding ground for two majorly successful comedy shows. It contained regular sketches starring John Cleese, Barker and Ronnie Corbett, and its writing team included Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Ronnie also wrote material for the show, although he’d never be credited – he always wrote under a pseudonym, so that his colleagues wouldn’t feel obligated to use his material.
1968 saw Barker starring in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse – his first top billing. This was a series of plays like those he’d co-starred in starred in with Jimmy Edwards, in which he played a different role every week. This was followed by two series of a show called Hark At Barker in 1969 and 1970, and Six Dates With Barker in 1971, Ronnie’s last series for ITV.
Barker’s connection with the BBC began in 1971 with the an old fashioned sketch series like Morecambe and Wise, destined to become the most loved of its type on TV in the 70’s and into the 80’s, with audiences of fifteen million for each show. Reunited with Ronnie Corbett, The Two Ronnies ran from 1971 to 1986, and gave Barker the opportunity to show off his multiplicitous talents. Whether it was tongue-twisting, singing tortuous lyrics or, risqué humour or dressing in drag (something he always loathed) Barker was consistently brilliant, and his complexity was offset by the quiet, laid-back affability of Corbett. Barker wrote about 75% of the show’s material, under a variety of aliases.
Between shows, however, Barker continued with solo projects, and 1973 saw Barker’s most successful series of weekly comedy plays, Seven of One. One of these plays, Prisoner and Escort showed the journey of a small-time criminal to a remote jail. The criminal’s name was Norman Stanley Fletcher, another concerned a northern shopkeeper called Arkwright, so this series spawned Barker’s two best loved and most enduring characters.
Porridge, the prison comedy featuring the hard-bitten, cynical Fletcher, and his cell-mate, the naïve and endearing Godber (played by the tragically short-lived Richard Beckinsale) established Barker’s credentials as the king of British Comedy beyond doubt. Three hugely popular series, and a feature film were followed by the less successful Going Straight, in which Fletch tried to make a life for himself ‘on the outside’, still haunted by Godber, now his son-in-law.
Totally different, and no less brilliant, was the penny-pinching, dictatorial and lascivious stuttering shopkeeper, Arkwright, in Open All Hours, the show which followed Porridge, and that finally turned actor David Jason into a star.
A quieter character, the gentle, almost blind Clarence in the series of the same name, followed the end of Open All Hours. Whilst as beautifully characterised as Barker’s other personae, this series failed to capture the public’s affection in the same way. It didn’t flop, but nor did it soar.
Then, in 1986, Barker dropped a bombshell – he was retiring from the entertainment industry. The deaths of Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper, both from heart attacks, were suggested as the reason for this, but Ronnie himself said "The reason I retired was that the material was getting less good. I'd run out of ideas. I was dry of sketches. Plus, I'd done everything I wanted to do. The situation sort of pushed me, goaded me into asking, ‘Well, haven't you done enough?’ And I had."
Everyone expected him to return. Nobody thought that an antiques shop in Chipping Camden would fulfil him, but apart from very occasional guest appearances and interviews, nothing had been seen of him since, until he played the part of Winston Churchhill's butler in The Gathering Storm in 2002 - another one off.
Barker succumbed to ongoing heart problems on 4th October 2005.