My hero, the genius who didn’t have to be cruel to make us laugh! QUENTIN LETTS pays tribute to Ronnie Barker as a new book celebrates his unique talent

Puns: Ronnie Barker helped to define my childhood

Puns: Ronnie Barker helped to define my childhood

Behind an official-looking desk sat a thickset, moustachioed man with wavy white hair and a grave demeanour. His eyebrows did a little jump before he began a public appeal-style announcement.

‘I’m squeaking to you,’ he said, ‘as chairman of the loyal society for the prevention of pismonounciation. A society formed to help people who can’t say their worms.’

He maintained a deadpan face despite laughter from the studio audience. Christmas, he said, was a time of ‘grease on earth and pigswill to all men — when the family get together round the fireside, cracking nits, smelling Tories and singing old pongs’.

Ronnie Barker (for who else could it have been?) helped to define my childhood. I suspect that is true for millions of others who were teenagers in the Seventies. We roared at his puns, his word-nonsenses, his daft routines and, yes, at his slightly chauvinist jokes. But how innocent it all now seems.

In my head I can still hear the theme tune to The Two Ronnies. The credits would fade and there were Barker and Corbett sitting side by side as they hailed the contents of ‘another packed programme tonight’.

Ronnie Corbett, who was never quite as stern about keeping a straight face, would say: ‘British deep sea divers with chicken pox — do they come up to scratch?’ Then Ronnie B would say: ‘And we’ll speak to an out-of-work contortionist who says he can no longer make ends meet.’

They would promise us entertainment with Duncan McHoot, the well-known Scots drunkard, who would play Amazing Grace on his breathalyser. He would be followed by the world’s most short-sighted knife-thrower, Rudolpho Colenzo the Second, with his assistant, Zelda the 29th.

Long run on primetime TV: Although Ronnie Barker's friend and stage partner Ronnie Corbett (left), happily, is still very much with us, The Two Ronnies is already ancient history in showbiz terms

Long run on primetime TV: Although Ronnie Barker's friend and stage partner Ronnie Corbett (left), happily, is still very much with us, The Two Ronnies is already ancient history in showbiz terms

It is 28 years since The Two Ronnies ended its long run on primetime BBC TV and, alas, a decade since Ronnie Barker died at the age of 76. He had retired at 58, saying he had run out of ideas.

Although his friend and stage partner Ronnie Corbett, happily, is still very much with us, The Two Ronnies is already ancient history in showbiz terms.

Yet a newly published edition of Barker’s collected writing has brought that era rushing back, at least to those of us who used to wait all week for the familiar theme tune.

We would then spend the next seven days re-telling the jokes the duo had spun, such as the two yokels talking about death. ‘They buried old Jack yesterday, in Shropshire.’ ‘Oh? What part?’ ‘All of him.’ ‘What did he have?’ ‘The shepherd’s pie, I think.’ ‘What were his last words?’ ‘Let me out, I’m not dead.’

How slick and happy Barker and Corbett used to look. To us, they were the pinnacle of merriment, an entirely positive experience. You do not necessarily get that after watching today’s comedians on shows such as Mock The Week.

The new lot are brilliantly quick-witted and, yes, often funny. But somehow they engender a different spirit. Ronnie Barker only ever cheered us up. Satire was not really his thing. He did not make us laugh at, but laugh with.

On screen: Writing sometimes under pseudonyms, Barker produced a vast number of skits, monologues, poems, limericks, comic serials, two-handers and songs

On screen: Writing sometimes under pseudonyms, Barker produced a vast number of skits, monologues, poems, limericks, comic serials, two-handers and songs

As a schoolboy, I watched Ronnie Barker and wanted to be him. I tried to perfect his eye-popping and his little checks of the neck and his comic frown. The man was a genius, I thought.

Reading All I Ever Wrote, this posthumous collection of his work, I would not necessarily change that opinion.

Comedy duo: Barker wrote sketches where all the laughter came out of internal rhymes in sentences

Comedy duo: Barker wrote sketches where all the laughter came out of internal rhymes in sentences

Some of the sketches he wrote are lastingly brilliant. Do you remember the Getting Your Wrongs In The Word Order Society? Its chairman (Barker) looked dolefully into the camera and said: ‘I’ve been asked by the BCB to come a night too long to aim the society’s explains and picture you firmly in the put.’

There were surreal touches. In the allotment sketches, Barker and Corbett played old boys beside a marrow bed. Their one-eyed friend Cyril used to have to pay twice as much as everyone else at the cinema ‘because it would take him twice as long to see the picture’.

This off-beat Barker humour was evident from his earlier days on The Frost Report, when he wrote a sketch about a 34-year-old man in court, (John Cleese) accused of ‘being too tall in Arkwright Street on the morning of the 16th of May this year’.

‘I’ve been this height since I was 18,’ said the man. The prosecutor seized on this, saying: ‘Oh! So you’ve been getting away with it for 16 years!’

Barker wrote sketches where all the laughter came out of internal rhymes in sentences. There was an entire sketch in the form of limericks. There was a sketch about a man who asked an ice-cream seller for a cheese-and-onion sorbet. When told he could not have one, he demanded a packet of raspberry ripple-flavoured crisps.

Another classic was Swedish Made Simple, when the characters’ words consisted of letters (e.g. ‘FUNEX?’ — have you any eggs?).

Presenters: Read today, many of their sketches seem terribly dated. Of course they do. Comedy ages little better than Parmesan cheese

Presenters: Read today, many of their sketches seem terribly dated. Of course they do. Comedy ages little better than Parmesan cheese

Such cleverness, such deftness with wordplay, will never dim. But there is something melancholy about this book, too — just as there was something melancholy about Ronnie Barker the man, as opposed to Barker the performer.

Dressing up as women: The songs would often be the penultimate item in The Two Ronnies and usually involved them dressing up in silly costumes

Dressing up as women: The songs would often be the penultimate item in The Two Ronnies and usually involved them dressing up in silly costumes

The photograph on the front of the book shows Barker at some point in his 40s, his hair already going grey. He holds a cigarette between his fingers, and from his wristwatch you can tell he is in a prosperous time of life.

Precarious, too, though. His brow is corrugated by furrows and there is a darkness round his eyes. You sense that comedy, for Barker, was hard work — and although there are more than 700 pages of close-packed scripts here to prove it, he would quit while only in his 50s. He had burned himself out. He had juggled the words until he could do so no more.

Writing sometimes under pseudonyms, he produced a vast number of skits, monologues, poems, limericks, comic serials, two-handers and songs.

Ah, the songs. They would often be the penultimate item in The Two Ronnies and usually involved him and Corbett dressing up in silly costumes, Ronnie B often as a plump woman. The difference in shape between the two was part of their comedy, the tiny Corbett and the rotund Barker.

He dressed up as Greek singer Nana Moussaka and as Mae West and the audience dissolved into mirth. Barker would then fix them with a stare of surprise and that just set them off all the more.

Read today, many of the sketches seem terribly dated. Of course they do. Comedy ages little better than Parmesan cheese. Characters have names such as Bert and Cyril, Tomkins and Simkins. Who has names like that in modern Britain?

There are references to colour and gender that would never get anywhere near transmission today, and rightly so.

New comedy: To us, Barker and Corbett were the pinnacle of merriment, an entirely positive experience. You do not necessarily get that after watching today’s comedians on shows such as Mock The Week (pictured)

New comedy: To us, Barker and Corbett were the pinnacle of merriment, an entirely positive experience. You do not necessarily get that after watching today’s comedians on shows such as Mock The Week (pictured)

You could make jokes about wife-swapping and secretaries named Samantha and mothers-in-law (how did we know the Bible’s Adam lived in paradise? — he had no mother-in-law) in those days.

It is no great shame that those gags have gone the way of all flesh. But it would be wrong to think of Ronnie Barker as a political comedian. He was not cruel, and there are hardly any references to topical figures in his sketches.

Fuelled by wordplay: Though undeniably often a bit sexist and full of references to busty barmaids and disapproving wives, his material was never smutty

Fuelled by wordplay: Though undeniably often a bit sexist and full of references to busty barmaids and disapproving wives, his material was never smutty

That is one of the most striking things about reading his work now. TV comedy in the 21st century can often be aggressively political, geared towards a politically alert audience of thirtysomethings.

Ronnie Barker’s stuff, though undeniably often a bit sexist and full of references to busty barmaids and disapproving wives, was never smutty.

And Barker was always fuelled by wordplay, never more so than in the sketch Fork Handles, with its long run of misunderstandings at a general store.

He did love shops as settings for his sketches: haberdashers’, grocers’, all sorts of other commercial premises, mostly now disappeared thanks to supermarket chains.

In a way, he got out just in time. Modern life, so plastic, so pared-back in its human connections, would have offered him little inspiration.

The last thing he wrote was a terribly sad play, Mum. It showed an unmarried woman returning to her dead mother’s flat and being haunted by the ghosts of her unkind father and her unfaithful lover.

After all the polished gaiety of the comedy material, we suddenly see a glimpse of a Barker who was shadowed by the unhappiness in life. Perhaps it goes to confirm that theory that all the best comedians are sad.

Yet who else save Ronnie Barker would have thought up a Minister of Poetry, who spoke to the nation in doggerel while wearing a black floppy hat?

While acknowledging the passing years and the inevitability of changing tastes, let us honour his memory and thank him for the many, many laughs.

All I Ever Wrote, by Ronnie Barker, is published by Ebury Press, at £20.

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