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.
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
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".
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!