Review: The Authorised Biography of Ronnie Barker

Among today’s generation of comedy fans,  Ronnie Barker is considered more a bit passé. From one avuncular half of the Two Ronnies to the stammering Arkwright of Open All Hours, he’s firmly identified with the gentle, even twee comedy of a time long passed.

But to only associate him with such inoffensive drawing-room humour is to do him a great disservice. Not only is he one of this country’s greatest comic actors, as even the most cursory viewing of Porridge will prove, he’s also a supremely gifted sketch writer. Examples such as the Two Ronnies’ classic Fork Handles might have become a little too familiar from overexposure, but his body of work demonstrates an unequalled gift for manipulating the English language.

For all this, though, the one thing Barker is not, is a comedian. He has no carefully defined persona – nor should he, for that would spoil the near-anonymity that allows him to assume any role thrown at him – and he allows no glimpse of his true self to emerge through his work. That’s the thing with the wordplay at which he is so skilled: it’s the most impersonal type of comedy around.

Little is known, too, of his fiercely guarded private life. Married to the same woman, Joy, for 45 years, he was never in the last showbizzy, as proven by the way he could simply opt to vanish from the spotlight to run a Cotswolds antique store as soon as he decided the entertainment rat-race was no longer for him.

It must be a Herculean challenge, then, for any biographer to uncover anything about such a reticent personality. And even though this tome is authorised by the man himself, Bob McCabe struggles to find any great revelations.

Instead, we get a well-worn catalogue of theatrical anecdotes, told with all the passion of a building society’s hold message. Even when these tales do threaten to be interesting, they are so shorn of detail and emotion that they fail to connect. As an impoverished young actor, for example, Barker walked home from Penzance to Oxford, with five shillings (25p) to his name, sleeping in hedges along the way. Yet that bald  statement fact is pretty much all the book says on what must surely have been a formative experience.

There are odd little tidbits of information like that scattered through the book. That Ronnie Corbett was working in a pub when the two first met and had to stand on a crate to see over the bar; that Barker was offered starring roles in Some Mothers Do Ave Em, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin and I, Claudius; and that contrary to his denials at the time, his retirement was brought on by a health scare involving his heart.

The few interesting episodes that have occurred in his steady life, such as his contributing sketches to Frost On Sunday under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley so as not to receive preferential treatment from his co-stars, have been well-documented before, so the book can ultimately only offer trivia, not insight.

Instead, we get an exhaustive catalogue of every appearance in his professional, and amateur, career; a catalogue of long-forgotten stage outings, all of which are covered with long cast lists of actors, unfailingly mentioning any other work they would later find fame with. It’s comprehensive, sure, but no more engrossing than reading a CV.

McCabe’s dry writing style doesn’t help, and it’s combined with an unfortunate, if only occasional, tendency for the clodding phrase. Trying to compare Baker to the Victorian sideshow barkers, he clumsily writes: ‘Perhaps, then, Ronnie was born to be an entertainer – a Barker born to be a barker. He certainly wasn’t born to be a banker, although Ronald William George Barker does sound a bit like a banker’s name, doesn’t it? It’s somewhat appropriate then, that one of Ronald Barker’s first stabs at employment was, in fact, in a bank.” Thud.

But you get the impression the author wasn’t exactly given a lot to work with, other than a pile of cuttings. When Barker does contribute, it’s always to say how marvellous everything was: “I enjoyed that”, he says of recording some old music hall songs. “I enjoy most things. There’s not much I didn’t enjoy, really.”

Finding such simple pleasures no doubt makes him a contented, well-balanced, polite, genuine, generous man; all hugely important assets in life. But it doesn’t make for a particularly fascinating biography.

Whatever happens, Barker always keeps his head screwed on. At one proud moment when he was presented with a lifetime achievement award, instead of being overcome with emotion he had the presence of mind to tell the applauding audience: “Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, please sit down” – thus making sure the TV audience knew he was getting a standing ovation even though the cameras were trained on him.  And he admits as much.

 You see. he’s the consummate pro. And consummate pros never dish the dirt, more’s the pity.

Maybe, one day, a cache of vitriolic Ronnie Barker diaries will be uncovered. But in the absence of that, and on the best evidence of this unexceptional biography, that kindly, relaxed and charming image he exudes on television seems to be a fair reflection of this singularly unassuming star.

The Authorised Biography Of Ronnie Barker is published by BBC Books at £18.99. Click here to order from Amazon at £11.39

Steve Bennett
November 17, 2004

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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