International Writers Magazine: In Memory
FITTING FAREWELL TO RONNIE
The memorial service of Ronnie Barker
its 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 Britains finest character actors.
Porridge, The Two Ronnies, 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
Barkers 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 Barkers wife Joy and children, Charlotte
and Larry, arrived with their families. Barkers friend and comedic
partner for over 40 years, Ronnie Corbett entered the Abbey with his
wife and they were followed by many of Barkers 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 Shakespeares The Life of Henry
the Fifth, which we were told, had held a special place in Barkers
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 wasnt 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 Its Hello from Him (Barkers
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 Barkers 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 televisions top comedy double acts in The
Two Ronnies (including one hilarious incident of the two on
an airport bus), but he also referred to Barkers 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 Barkers voice on tape. It was an excerpt
from Terry Wogans 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 Barkers 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 Barkers classic sketches
and a ripple of quiet chuckles was duly noted.
And I dont doubt that somewhere, somehow, one of them came from
Ronnie Barker himself.
© Sacha Markin April 2006
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