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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 October 2005, 04:12 GMT 05:12 UK
The special genius of Ronnie Barker

By David Sillito
BBC Arts correspondent

The Two Ronnies
The Two Ronnies formed 20 years after Barker started his career

The writers and producers on the Two Ronnies used to mark scripts to decide what was included on the show.

Some got an A, or a B+, some a C or a D.

One writer regularly emerged with the best marks, the mysterious Gerald Wiley.

No-one knew who this comic genius was, and there were frequent attempts to reveal his identity.

One day, Ronnie Barker stood up at a dinner and announced that he was Gerald Wiley. Barry Cryer and the other writers did not believe him.

The only reason he had hidden his identity was because he had wanted his material to be included solely on merit

Barker was a great performer, a man with hundreds of voices and characters - surely he couldn't be the best writer as well?

He was, and the only reason he had hidden his identity was because he had wanted his material to be included solely on merit.

Private man

Looking back on his life, it is a story that seems to define this quiet, private man. He actively avoided the limelight.

He was not a frequenter of "showbiz parties", his private life remained private and when he felt that the material was beginning to dry up he quietly retired to run an antique shop in Chipping Norton.

In many ways he was like another great and often overlooked comedy performer Stanley Baxter

But working with him could be tough.

He had been a performer for more than 20 years before he teamed up with Ronnie Corbett in the Two Ronnies, and he knew what worked and what made people laugh.

The routines on the show were often daft, knockabout stuff but to anyone who studied them it was plain how carefully they were rehearsed and structured.

Lasting power

In many ways he was like another great and often overlooked comedy performer, Stanley Baxter.

It was the show and the performance which mattered, and in the 1970s and 1980s the stars often had rather more power over their output than they do today.

His surprise reappearance on BBC1 in 2005 in a Two Ronnies show that featured highlights of their best sketches confirmed that he had created something that had a lasting power to entertain.

We might not have laughed at every joke but there was never any question of turning over

An audience of 7.9 million on a Saturday night was proof enough.

However, it was not the 17 million they had sometimes brought in, in the 1970s. And that is a big part of what this is all about.

The affection surrounding him is also wrapped up in an affection for a lost TV era.

Richard Beckinsale and Ronnie Barker in Porridge
Porridge's Fletcher was one of Barker's most well formed characters

His comedy is a reminder to millions of a time when there was only one TV in the house and everyone seemed to watch the same programme.

We might not have laughed at every joke but there was never any question of turning over.

I might have been only 10 years old but the seemingly never-ending serial about a "phantom raspberry blower" seemed just a bit too daft to laugh at. Nevertheless you always held on to see the funny song and dance at the end.

Ronnie Barker is like Eric Morecambe or Bruce Forsyth, an entertainer everyone of a certain age seemed to like, and you could share with almost anyone you met.

His ability to write and to disappear in to a character and create so many comic personalities made him a very special form of entertainer

The joke about confusing four candles with "fork handles", or the Ministry for Sex Equality, or anyone one of hundreds of others could be mentioned as highlights, but it was the quantity and quality of his output over so many years that made him stand out.

Sixteen years of The Two Ronnies and the continued repeats of Open All Hours and Porridge reflects a man who understood comedy and worked at it until he reached a point when he feared the standard could drop.

Not all the characters were as well formed as Fletcher or Arkwright, but his ability to write and to disappear into a character and create so many comic personalities made him a very special form of entertainer.





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