Raid your memories of Ronnie Barker and characters will tumble through your mind as if you were rifling through the picture archive at a casting agent. Butlers, businessmen, blusterers and stammerers, lags and lushes, old farts, young letches, tramps and viscounts, lecturers on every subject from basic Swedish to milk, and spokesmen for clubs and societies that had previously lurked only in a seldom dusted corner of the civic realm of Britain like the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pismonunciation to the Getting your Wrongs in the Word Order Society. His hallmark was accuracy. His craft mattered more to him than anything else in his life.
Barry Cryer first met him in a pub in Leeds while on tour in 1961 and then wrote extensively for him through the sixteen years of the Two Ronnies. He describes the experience as “working for two accountants”. “I mean that in the nicest possible way”, Cryer said on the phone earlier in the week, “Everything had to be absolutely accurate, cut and dried, done and dusted, immaculate. By the time they did the material you knew it couldn’t be done better.”
The Two Ronnies were a double act. And, a very skilful performer himself, Corbett was certainly not just the straight man. But when you watch the re-runs you can see the immense admiration for Barker in his eyes. Constantly on the edge of corpsing at the comic verve of his partner, the smaller of the two – Lower-watha to Barker’s Higher-watha – he gazes in awe as Barker dots every comedy ‘I’ and crosses every ribald ‘t’. Corbett always seems to be the naughty young boy just delighted to be in the company of such a master.
When you look for the comic spark in each of Barker’s performances, whether it was an immaculate miniature in a two-minute sketch or the generous, stoical cynic Norman Stanley Fletcher, you see inside all of them a watchful stillness. You get no sense of the man himself -what did we know about him after all? But you are powerfully aware of his creative presence. It wasn’t ego. Some performers are always metaphorically winking at the audience, reminding us of the personality inside. Not Ronnie Barker. Whether he is driving home a joke in a monologue with the slightly baffled raise of an eyebrow or underlining his comic punch with absolute concentrated deadpan in Porridge, what you sense is the confidence of an observer of the world’s logic. Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, the writers of Porridge, describe being in his company as being with someone who always seemed as if he was thinking about something. “He gave the impression that he was always hiding something of himself. Nothing dark. Just something private.”
When he retired suddenly in 1987 no one really knew why. The story he always told was that Peter Hall had asked him to play Falstaff at the National and he refused because he thought it was too long a commute from Pinner, where he lived, to The South Bank. If he was worrying about the travel rather than being inspired by the work it was, he said, time to give up. But as Clement and LaFrenais say, no one really believed him. He had distilled his life to his priorities, which were laughter and comedy. His life had its boundaries. What he did was what he loved yet he appeared to give it up at the height of his achievement. The watcher no longer wanted to be watched. Perhaps it was his health. When he last appeared on TV, for the Two Ronnies re-union in 1999, he looked gaunt. The toll of the constant trouble with his heart seemed to be showing in the strain on his previously rounded and jolly face. Maybe he feared the loss of his comic control. His greatest skill was the absolute command he had over the use of language, playing dangerously with puns, spoonerisms and a thousand double entendres. His was not the messy genius of Tommy Cooper or the diabolic energy of Ken Dodd, the manic anger of John Cleese or the incipient chaos of Eric Morecambe’s challenge to authority and status. Rather Barker had a flair that was accurate and technically brilliant underpinned by what Clement and LaFrenais call a “catalogue of observation”.
He was an actor not a comic. But he was also a sketch and monologue writer of uncommon brilliance. It was a killer combination. Cyer says that when one of the wordplay monologues would arrive in the Two Ronnies script, he’d read it and think, “Oh there goes Ron again…” And then when you saw it, the sheer accuracy of the character he had hung on the words lifted it to another plane. His technique was unparalleled. Clement and LaFrenais liken his tongue twisting monologues to the tension of watching a tightrope walker. “One tiny mistake, one fluff, and you’re dead, the cumulative effect of the whole thing collapses”. He was part of that very English tradition of word play, nonsense and absurdity that gave us Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Edward Lear’s Hills of the Chankly Bore and the jumblies who went to sea in a sieve and Ogden Nash’s rhyming turtle with fertile. Barker was happiest with in the land of concealed rudeness. As he once wisely observed “the marvellous thing about a joke with a double meaning is that it can only mean one thing.”
While he presented himself as a man who was doing moderately well in chartered accountancy, and as Clement and LaFrenais say the word you would most associate with him is “decency”, his comedy was a saucy seaside postcard view of sex and sexuality in a world where men at cocktail parties still pinched women’s behinds. His love of language produced such falling comic cadences – in an impersonation of Patrick Moore – as “Here is the Sea of Tranquility – here a mountain known as the Height of Absurdity, and here, two craters, known as the Depths of Depravity.” Breasts were omni-present. In the censorious days of the seventies, the nerves of equality campaigners were frayed by their apparent sexism and the Two Ronnies were not on the approved list of those of us who leant toward a more politically correct view of life. But Barker’s personal views, no doubt pretty much in line with any other married man of a time when men had “lady wives”, were less important to him than the sheer scope for naughtiness and word play with English offered by the double-entendre. It was, as Humphrey Littleton often describes his own brand, “blue chip filth”. For Barker knockers, knickers, drawers and cocks offered unbounded opportunities for eight ball juggling with the English language in the pursuit of comic naughtiness.
For all his brilliance at word play however, what will remain in our televisual memories will be his poignant and comic understanding of an ordinary man coping under the pressure of incarceration. Bringing humanity to that least likely ‘sit’ for a ‘com’, a prison, Fletcher in Porridge will be the part that will write his lasting epitaph. In a BBC interview some time ago, he said with a curious wistfulness as if he was writing his own obituary then, that he wanted to be remembered “as one of the funniest men people have seen on television. ‘He made us laugh. He did make us laugh. God Bless him’ ”. There was a certain detached confidence and that characteristic watchfulness in his words. And he certainly achieved that ambition. Goodnight from him.