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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
Obituary: Ronnie Barker
Ronnie Barker
Barker was one of Britain's greatest comedy talents
For more than 20 years Ronnie Barker was one of the leading figures of British television comedy.

He was much loved and admired for his appearances in the long-running series The Two Ronnies, with Ronnie Corbett, as prison inmate Fletcher, in the series Porridge, and as Arkwright, the bumbling, stuttering, sex-obsessed shopkeeper in Open All Hours.

Born in Bedford in 1929, Barker went to school in Oxford, became an architecture student and even toyed with the idea of becoming a bank manager, the archetypal middle-class profession he would later parody so effectively in his comic sketches.

However, he joined Aylesbury Repertory Company in 1948, while still in his teens, before taking to the West End stage at the invitation of Sir Peter Hall, where he appeared in Mourning Becomes Her in 1955.

Masterful wordplay

He appeared in several more plays, and also broke into radio. He was in 300 editions of The Navy Lark as A B Johnson.

Ronnie Barker first worked with Ronnie Corbett in The Frost Report and Frost on Sunday, programmes for which he also wrote scripts. In 1971 they teamed up for the first Two Ronnies.

Ronnie Barker
Barker was the inimitable Fletcher in Porridge
In all, there were a dozen series. At its peak, more than 17 million viewers watched what had become a national institution, and the show was also admired abroad.

The scripts relied on masterful wordplay and impeccable timing, and Barker wrote many of them.

Barker himself, however, was among many viewers who regarded his portrayal of Fletcher in Porridge as the best work he ever did. The series ended in 1977, and was followed by the less successful Going Straight, about Fletcher's return to civilian life.

Open All Hours, with David Jason, which ran for several series, was the work which Ronnie Barker probably enjoyed most. He also played - less successfully - a Welsh photographer in The Magnificent Evans and, later, a short-sighted removal man in Clarence.

Comic chameleon

He wrote three films without dialogue - A Home of Your Own, Futtocks End and The Picnic.

Ronnie Barker won a number of awards. In the late 1970s he was three times the British Academy's best light entertainment performer, and in 1975 he took the Royal Television Society's award for outstanding creative achievement. In 2004 Barker was honoured with a Bafta tribute award and celebration evening for his contribution to comedy.

Ronnie Barker
One of Britain's favourite comic talents
Barker was a man of contradictions. He never liked sex or obscenity on television, but there was no shortage of frisky gags in The Two Ronnies.

Equally convincing in an overall, uniform or frilly frock, one of comedy's great chameleons was less happy when asked to walk on stage and play himself. He was modest about his writing skills and often submitted his scripts under pseudonyms, in order for them to be judged on their own merits.

Able to deliver the great tongue-twisting speeches required of his characters, Barker pronounced himself "completely boring" without a script.

And when he considered that his own scripts had begun to decline in quality, he left showbusiness in 1988 to open an antique shop near his Oxfordshire home.

Resisted

As well as citing a decline in health for his reason for retiring, Barker said he always felt he should quit while he was ahead, and he had no further ambitions.

He resisted all calls back from retirement, until he felt compelled to write a play for his actress daughter Charlotte, in 1998. The play received poor notices, and Barker's name was only added to the bill at the behest of the director.

He finally gave in to public demand in 2002, delighting millions of viewers with his first TV drama appearance in more than a decade, as Winston Churchill's manservant, in The Gathering Storm.

Three years before, he had enjoyed a Two Ronnies Reunion Night on BBC One. Barker joined Corbett to introduce the best of their sketches, and the hardware shop "Four candles - Fork handles!" set-piece was judged the most popular by a television audience of millions.

Earlier this year the two actors once again reunited for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, for a six-week run that proved popular with audiences.

Viewers rediscovered the pleasures of the duo's tightly scripted routines, and proved that while Corbett's golfing jumpers had passed their sell by date, the pair's impeccable delivery and the comic chemistry between them had a longer lasting appeal.




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