The true Ronnie

Returning to our screens after a self-imposed exile, Ronnie Barker talks about the highlights of his career...

He was a star on top of his game - a staple of prime-time TV, and critically acclaimed for his unforgettable role in a groundbreaking sitcom. But in 1987, at the age of 57, Ronnie Barker decided to call it a day.

He retired to his beloved antique shop in the Cotswolds, vowing never to return to the spotlight. And - apart from one night when he appeared in a Two Ronnies retrospective in 1999 - he has been good to his word, living without the stresses of TV with his wife of 44 years, Joy.

Now he is back again from the self-imposed exile, playing Churchill's long-suffering manservant Inches in the new BBC drama The Gathering Storm,

The fact that news of his cameo role spread so widely is a measure of the high regard ­ not to mention affection ­ in which Ronnie Barker is held.

So what tempted him back to showbiz? "It's a very worthy film," Ronnie says. "That's the word I picked out as being a description of the film after reading the script ­ which is very good ­ and that's why I wanted to do it."

"The feeling of being on the set was very new and strange to me at first," he confides. "I was a bit nervous about doing it again, but the first day, I fitted in fine once I got there."

The worst part was having to learn lines again. "They're not difficult, but I'm out of practice," he says. "You have to remember that I haven't learnt lines for 14 years. For Porridge, which was an half-hour show, we would rehearse on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening my wife would go through the lines with me and it took me three-quarters of an hour to learn the whole thing, to learn half an hour's script. But I wouldn't like to do that now."

"[Director] Richard Loncraine rang me when I'd agreed to do the part. He said, 'It's a comedy role, but it's not a comic role.' I think he was scared, only ever having seen me do things like The Two Ronnies, that I was going to come on and mug, put gags in all over the place, which worried him. I said, 'Oh good grief no, of course not ­ I know exactly what it is from reading the script.' "

Ronnie's name has become so synonymous with comedy in people's minds that it might come as a surprise to learn that he started out playing serious roles in rep back in the late Forties

But it is for his comic genius ­ in writing as well as acting ­ that he won fame (plus three Baftas and an OBE) with such shows as Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies and Porridge, which are still seen around the world today.

"They've just repeated the whole series [of Porridge, left] on UK Gold, which is wonderful for me, because it's my pension, you see," smiles Ronnie. "They send me money, which is a better way of doing it ­ I don't even have to go in. I wish I'd thought of it before!"

He's rightly proud of the series. "Porridge was the best thing I've ever done ­ that's what I felt was 'the one. I am very proud of it; it was so good at the time and so good to do, you felt it was going to be a success.

"I knew with Porridge from the first episode. It was in front of an audience, which is a wonderful sounding board as to how well it's going. My wife was in the audience for that and she said afterwards. 'This is going to be a big success' ­ and she was right."

But, somewhat surprisingly, inmate Fletcher was not his favourite role.

"Fletcher is the most successful character I've played, and I loved playing him," he says. "But I loved playing Arkwright in Open All Hours the best, mainly because of David Jason, as he was so funny on and off screen, and we had a whale of a time; we did thoroughly enjoy that."

He also enjoyed making The Gathering Storm, but not enough to tempt him back into the limelight.

"As soon as it was in the paper that I was playing Inches in this film, the interest increased and I've been sent two scripts since then," he reveals. "But it hasn't given me the taste for more - I'm straight back into retirement after this."

Well, perhaps not quite. He's currently in Italy shooting the film My House In Umbria, with Dame Maggie Smith and Timothy Spall.

First published:June 22, 2002

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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