Ronnie Barker, ideas thief?

Writers air their gripes

Ronnie Barker had a poor reputation for stealing ideas from fellow comedy writers, a new book claims.

Many contributors to the Two Ronnies complained that the comic – who also wrote under the pen name Gerarld Wiley – would pen sketches based on their original ideas, without crediting them.

And they felt that his material was too often chosen to go into the show, while theirs was overlooked, because he was the star of the show.

Even some of the sketches for which Barker was to become most famous – the Spoonerism speeches in which he muddled up his words – were taken without credit, according to the new biography Remembering Ronnie Barker.

David Nobbs – who went on to write the Reggie Perrin shows – said: ‘As time went on he wrote more and more and we felt it wasn't a level playing field any more because he would take an idea - and both Dick Vosburgh and I suffered this - and write more sketches using the same premise.’

Another writer, Ian Davidson, added: ‘We were all chewed off, especially Dick, who wrote this wonderfully ingenious sketch based on Spoonerisms which became a real winner.

‘The next year there was this [similar] sketch, written by Barker; no one had ever asked Dick for another one. It was one sketch, but it was the same damned idea, and it was Dick’s idea – although there is no copyright on ideas, so you can’t really argue on that basis. But the decent thing didn't come into it. That was our gripe. Among writers, taking an idea and doing it yourself is unforgiveable.’

Vosburgh’s widow Beryl agreed, telling author Richard Webber: ‘Dick was absolutely furious. He phoned up about it and was told an idea was transferable. He also asked for half the money and what's more he got it.’ But Dick wouldn't quite let it lie – and sent a jokey telegram which said: ‘Ronnie Parker, you're a brick.’

Writer Bernard McKenna experienced a more direct lifting of his material, when a sketch he wrote for a TV series called Hark At Barker resurfaced in Barker’s film The Picnic. ‘I got straight on to my agent and after several weeks I was paid,’ he recalls. ‘Ronnie said he thought he’d written it. We all knew what we’ve written and for Ronnie to say that, you feel like saying, “Come on.” But there was no protest and I got paid.’

Although most of the writers’ recognised Barker’s genius in contributing sketches such as Four Candles, they felt that there was a bias towards using some of his weaker material at their expense. David Renwick, whose subsequent credits included One Foot In The Grave, explained: ‘Writers can be fairly embittered and there would be occasional rumblings in the BBC bar about Ronnie B’s strike rate on the show compared to their own.’

Two Ronnies producer Terry Hughes said Barker – who was commemorated with a new statue in Aylesbury, Bucks, last week – was not motivated by money in taking ideas and following them up with his own scenes, but by ‘filling up the programme with the best stuff possible’.

And he said that although some writers may have been ‘bitter’ that their work wasn’t used, there was no favouritism towards Barker’s scripts: ‘It was all about what’s the best material, regardless of the source. Writers may not agree but we didn’t think any other way,’ he said.

Published: 4 Oct 2010

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