Ten years on: Ronnie Barker, Pismonouncers Unanimous founder, remembered
One of Britain's best-loved comedy greats
Feature It’s ten years ago today that much-loved comedian, writer and actor Ronnie Barker passed away. By then, despite having retired way back in 1987, he had already won four BAFTAs, a Royal Television Society award for Outstanding Creative Achievement and been made an OBE.
He’d also produced, and written, dozens of classic British comedy sketches for TV audiences that often exceeded 20 million, with one of his specialities being tongue-twisting word play of the highest order.
Born Ronald William George Barker on September 25th 1929, the middle child of three – he had a younger and older sister – Barker and his family moved from Bedford to Oxford when he was four and he was to spend his formative years in the Cowley area of the university city.
It was here that his humour first began to show, initially at the City of Oxford School for Boys, as well as his interest in music; for years he was a choirboy at the St. James church.
Although bright enough to gain the School Certificate early – and thus entry to the sixth form at the age of 15 – the young Ronnie was bored with academia and left within a few months to train as an architect. He soon felt unequal to the task of creating and refining architectural blueprints, though (“I just wasn’t really skilled enough”) and instead reluctantly replaced his sister Vera as a clerk at a local branch of Westminster Bank.
Feeling both stifled and lonely as a bank clerk, Barker joined the local amateur dramatics society; mainly, as he later admitted, to meet girls. His first appearance, playing a musical director, combined both of his early loves – and he was quickly hooked, determined now to somehow make it as a professional actor.
It was not an easy choice to make in post-war Britain with television still in its infancy, theatres struggling and with variety and even music hall slowly dying as its stars faded and the more expensive shows folded. It was a state of affairs Barker was to later affectionately parody on TV, with a gentle side swipe at the BBC’s one-time film guru Barry Norman.
And, of course, things didn’t go easily for the would-be thespian. Barker tried, and failed, to get into the prestigious Young Vic acting school and was allegedly rejected by RADA too. But he was eventually accepted by the Manchester Repertory Company – who were then based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire – albeit only as a helper to the assistant stage manager, with the promise of the occasional acting part. With wages of less than £12 a month, even in 1948, this was pretty poor pay.
That year, though, saw his professional stage debut and by the time he’d taken to the boards for the third time he realised he actually wanted to be a comic actor – “Forget Hamlet, I want to make people laugh!”
It was a decision that award-winning director Peter Hall later called one of “our greatest losses…Ronnie Barker was the great [dramatic] actor we lost.”
Yet acting of any kind was soon a problem for Barker. After being successfully cast as the working class teenager in a public school, in The Guinea Pig, Barker found the Manchester Rep Company shutting up shop completely. The play closed soon after opening, leaving Barker stranded in Rhyl, North Wales.
And so the months before his 21st birthday saw Barker making ends meet as a porter in Wingfield Hospital. It was work he found distressing as he moved around polio patients who were in various states of discomfort. As an antidote to this suffering, Barker adopted the clownish persona of “Charlie” and created, with a young male nurse, a comic duo to entertain the sick whenever the pair of them got the chance. It was, perhaps, the first hint of a concept that was to make his name – and his fortune.