British comic legend Ronnie Barker, best known as one half of the hugely popular double act “The Two Ronnies,” died Oct. 3 in London. He was 76. He had suffered from heart troubles for some time.
“The phrase ‘national treasure’ is bandied about with diminished discernment these days, but if Ronnie Barker wasn’t a national treasure, then nor are Stonehenge and the spire of Salisbury Cathedral,” wrote Brian Viner in the Independent.
A performer with exquisite comic timing, Barker wrote many of his own scripts under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley and was immensely fond of amusing wordplays. In one hilarious and endlessly repeated “The Two Ronnies” sketch Barker plays a luckless character that goes into a store and asks for fork handles but is given four candles.
Born in Bedford, England, Barker trained as an architect but he soon packed it in and reluctantly got a job at a bank. All the while, the young Barker was religiously listening to British radio comics such as Tommy Handley and pining for a pop at the big time.
His chance came when he joined the Manchester Repertory Company in the late 1940s. Making his pro debut as Lieutenant Spicer in J.M. Barrie’s “Quality Street,” Barker went on to join the Oxford Playhouse in 1951 where he learnt the trade alongside Maggie Smith.
He continued to pay the bills through his theater work but made his name in 1959 as Able Seaman Johnson in the BBC’s hit radio show “The Navy Lark.”
In 1963 the portly Barker met the diminutive Ronnie Corbett at an actor’s bar in Soho, and three years later they started their fruitful working relationship. Brought together in 1966 by David Frost, the duo performed satirical sketches on “That Was the Week That Was” alongside Frost and John Cleese.
The first “The Two Ronnies” show went out on the BBC in 1971 and was immediately a smash hit. The show blended news desk items, monologues and musical numbers. “Ronnies,” which always ended with the trademark sign-off “It’s good night from me” (Corbett) and “It’s good night from him” (Barker) ran for 12 series over 15 years and attracted some 20 million viewers at a time.
Leading the tributes flooding in from comics across the world, Corbett said of his old pal, “Ronnie was pure gold in triplicate, as a performer, a writer and a friend. We worked together since 1965 and we never had a cross word.”
Despite the phenomenal success of “The Two Ronnies” Barker pursued his own career. He hit gold again with “Porridge,” a sitcom about prisoner’s small victories over the system in which he played jailbird Fletcher and “Open All Hours,” a sitcom based in a Yorkshire corner shop. Barker won three Bafta awards and was honoured with an Order of the British Empire with Corbett in 1978.
Barker retired in 1987 and enjoyed a quieter life with his wife in the Cotswolds. They ran an antique shop which Barker joked “loses money every week but it’s a hobby. It’s cheaper than skiing and and safer at my age.” He lived his life by the mantra, “I think it’s better to make people laugh than cry.”
He was briefly drawn out of retirement in 2002 to play butler to Albert Finney’s Churchill in the award-winning HBO TV drama “The Gathering Storm” and again to play a general in “My House in Umbria.”
Barker is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.