The International Writers Magazine: In Memory

The memorial service of Ronnie Barker

Sacha Markin

And it’s goodnight from him’.
When the passing of Ronnie Barker at age 76 was announced one early October morning last year, I was just one of scores of fans who mourned the loss of an outstanding comedian, television performer and one of Britain’s finest character actors.

Porridge, The Two Ronnie’s, Open All Hours have always been firm favourites in our house as they are in many throughout the country. So it was with much pleasure, although tinged with sadness, I was able to join the Barker family, together with their friends and showbiz pals at a memorial service last month to celebrate Barker’s life and work.

A public ballot had been held to allocate remaining seats in the majestic confines of Westminster Abbey – and I was one of the lucky few fans who, clutching their prized yellow tickets, strode past the clamouring press photographers outside and seated themselves in the Abbey. The number of applications for the public places had been ‘overwhelming and phenomenal’ an Abbey employee told me later on. We, the anonymous admirers, sat patiently in the nave before the service began, leafing through the Order of Service, the back cover adorned with photo reminders of Barker in various character guises.

We reverently watched as Barker’s wife Joy and children, Charlotte and Larry, arrived with their families. Barker’s friend and comedic partner for over 40 years, Ronnie Corbett entered the Abbey with his wife and they were followed by many of Barker’s co-stars and contemporaries – including David Jason, Barry Cryer, June Whitfield, Christopher Biggins and David Frost – who all made their way through the abbey and into a pew. Also spotted were a couple of ‘Goodies’, one ‘Python’ and a certain ‘Nurse Gladys’ – the lovely Lynda Barron. Early in the service, after the bidding, the British veteran actor Richard Briers rose to the front of the congregation to read a passage from William Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, which we were told, had held a special place in Barker’s affections. The story was that Barker had truanted from school as a boy to see the newly released Laurence Olivier film of the play. Unfortunately for Barker, he was spotted queuing at the cinema by his headmaster and was severely reprimanded the following day. But, as Briers remarked, Barker wasn’t bothered as he had seen the film.

The pulpit in the nave was occupied twice during the service. First up was a hilarious excerpt called ‘The Gentle Art of Corpsing’ taken from ‘It’s Hello from Him’ (Barker’s 1988 book) read by the BBC Chairman, Michael Grade, taking his time as chuckles spread throughout the congregation.

Representing the current comedy generation, Peter Kay also took to the pulpit – looking resplendent in a brown pin-stripe suit – and opened his own personal tribute by reading from a letter. The letter had come from Ronnie Barker – writing as one Norman Stanley Fletcher in Slade Prison – after Kay had penned him a letter three or four years earlier outlining his admiration of Barker and in particular, his hilarious series ‘Porridge’. The duo had continued to correspond by post and Kay as remarked: ‘We wrote to each other over a few years and talked about everything. It's not often you get to meet your heroes in life, let alone become pen pals with them.’ The conclusion of his tribute came when Kay invited everyone to spend a minute remembering Barker – and the congregation duly did. Indeed, so did Kay - eyes shut, giggling, lost in his own Barker memory.

In the spirit of proceedings, part way through, we were treated to an audio playing of a quintessential Ronnie Barker monologue ‘The Sermon of Rhyming Slang’. Laughter roared right up to the majestic vaulted roof of the Abbey as Barker’s familiar tones rang out from above us all.

But the moment we had been waiting for arrived when the other Ronnie – none other than Ronnie Corbett who, at the time of Barkers passing, described his friend as: ‘pure gold in triplicate, as a performer, a writer and a friend’ – stepped up to deliver a warm, fitting and funny eulogy to his long-time TV partner. Opening his tribute, Corbett said: ‘This is truly a monumental task for me, to encapsulate in a few minutes 40 years of working harmoniously with this dearest of men.’ Corbett brought to life anecdotes from throughout their careers as one of British television’s top comedy double acts in The Two Ronnie’s (including one hilarious incident of the two on an airport bus), but he also referred to Barker’s modesty and devotion to his family.
Calling Barker ‘Dear Ron’, Corbett continued: ‘Forty years without an argument. Forty years of unmitigated pleasure, thrills and laughs. He provided us with the happiest of times.’ A round of applause seemed appropriate.

Before proceedings were through, the stillness in the Abbey was again interrupted by the sound of Barker’s voice on tape. It was an excerpt from Terry Wogan’s chat show, where Barker announced in the late eighties that he was stepping out of the limelight and into his antiques shop in Oxfordshire. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Barker said: "I suppose I would like to be remembered as one of the funniest men people have seen on TV. He did make us laugh. God bless him." In that moment, the emotion in the Abbey was evident. The silence speaking volumes for the loss of, indeed, one of the funniest men on TV.

And, finally, there was the gentle nod to Barker’s comedy talents as the clergy procession made their way down the Abbey aisle, led by two pairs of vergers bearing four candles. Four candles? Or should that be fork handles? A subtle salute to one of Barker’s classic sketches and a ripple of quiet chuckles was duly noted.
And I don’t doubt that somewhere, somehow, one of them came from Ronnie Barker himself.

© Sacha Markin April 2006

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