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Ronald William George Barker OBE (September 25, 1929 – October 3, 2005), popularly known as Ronnie Barker and (as a writer) Gerald Wiley, was an English comic actor and writer. His best-known appearances were alongside his long-time comedy partner, Ronnie Corbett, in the very popular TV variety show The Two Ronnies; as Norman Stanley "Fletch" Fletcher in the sitcom Porridge and its BAFTA award winning sequel Going Straight; and working with David Jason in 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 well-loved performer.

Beginnings

Barker was born in Bedford in Bedfordshire. He had two sisters and the family moved to Oxford when his father, a clerk for Shell Oil, was relocated, when Barker was four 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 Oxford High School and at 16, 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, at the time under the actor-management of Frank Shelley, as an actor and stagehand, at £2 10s (£2.50) 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."

Success

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. 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. He starred with David Jason as a bumbling aristocrat in the sit-com Hark at Barker. Both he and Jason are widely recognised as having excellent comic timing and delivery, which accounts for their enduring popularity. Jason appeared in several episodes of Porridge, and co-starred as the assistant to Barker's stuttering shopkeeper in the sitcom Open All Hours, written by Roy Clarke (who also wrote Last of the Summer Wine). Both Porridge and Open All Hours originated as part of the Seven of One series.

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 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. Open All Hours ended up running for four series with Barker playing the tight-fisted Arkwright. David Jason was nephew and errand-boy Granville.

Barker was also an accomplished comedy writer. He provided a good deal 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 (most famously "Gerald Wiley"), so that his work would be considered on merit. His other credits include the (almost) silent films Futtock's End, The Picnic and By The Sea, the sit-coms His Lordship Entertains 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.

Barker made occasional TV appearances since his 1988 retirement, most notably to play Winston Churchill's butler—a "straight" role, but with opportunities for comic asides—in the BBC drama The Gathering Storm in 2002. This was followed up by a role in the film My House in Umbria in 2003. In 2004, he was given a special BAFTA award and announced his return to television—in early 2005, six months before his death, he reunited with Ronnie Corbett to present The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a clip show of their sketches along with newly recorded introductions. Also recorded later was material to introduce clips of their Christmas shows. This was for a 2005 Christmas Special, The Two Ronnies Christmas Sketchbook, his last television appearance.

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.

News of his death made headlines all over the United Kingdom and in countries with significant populations of migrants from the UK. 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".

Personal life

Barker married Joy Tubb in 1957 and they had three children: two sons, the actors Adam (b. 1967) and Larry (b. 1960) 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 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".

He had a private funeral, followed (despite being a humanist rather than a Christian) by a public memorial service on 3rd March 2006 at Westminster Abbey, at which Richard Briers, David Jason and (from standing on a crate!) Ronnie Corbett read, a recording of Barker's rhyming slang sermon was played, and the choir processed in behind four candles!


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