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Ronnie Barker, 76; Star of British TV Comedies 'Porridge' and 'Two Ronnies'

October 05, 2005|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Ronnie Barker, the English comedian who starred in British Broadcasting Corp. television shows including "The Two Ronnies" and "Porridge," has died. He was 76.

Barker died Monday at his home in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England, of heart problems, the BBC announced.

"Ronnie was pure gold in triplicate -- as a performer, a writer and a friend," Ronnie Corbett, Barker's co-star from a dozen series, including the one that bore their first names, said in a statement.

Born in 1929 in Bedford, near London, Barker was best known for his comedy partnership with Corbett.

The two first worked together in the 1960s on the satirical TV show "That Was The Week That Was" presented by David Frost.

In 1971, they began a TV comedy series called "The Two Ronnies," which ran for more than 15 years.

Of all their programs, Barker said he was proudest of his performance as repeat offender Norman Stanley Fletcher in the comedy series "Porridge," which aired from 1973 to 1977.

The Fletcher character spent his prison time clashing with wardens and extricating himself and his cellmate Lennie Godber from trouble.

"I would say 'Porridge' is one of the greatest British sitcoms ever made," Times of London comedy critic Steve Armstrong told Sky News. "It dictated the way we see prison."

Barker was also a skilled comedy writer, creating many of the sketches for "The Two Ronnies."

He used the pseudonym Gerald Wiley -- initially unknown even to the cast -- so that his writing would be accepted for its quality rather than because of his star power.

The comedian's British humor, however, did not translate well for Americans.

When Los Angeles' PBS station KCET-TV Channel 28 telecast 26 episodes of "The Two Ronnies" in 1978, a Los Angeles Times reviewer commented:

"Unfortunately, their humor doesn't travel particularly well.... If you're unfamiliar with British geography, British slang, regional bumpkins or other assorted butts of British humor, the punch lines tend to fall with a mysterious, befuddling thud. You might want to make the rough analogy of Johnny Carson laying a basket of Burbank jokes on an uncomprehending crowd in Sussex."

After Barker's retirement in 1987, he returned to television for a Christmas special of "The Two Ronnies" in 1987, another special in 1999 and an appearance as Winston Churchill's butler in a 2002 television program, "The Gathering Storm."

Last year, after Barker received a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, he and Corbett returned to British TV screens with a new series consisting of fresh and old sketches.

Barker earned three other BAFTA awards, the British equivalent of the Oscar.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Joy, and children Adam, Larry and Charlotte Barker.

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