RONNIE BARKER 1929-2005
An appreciation by George Hummer
The death of Ronnie Barker has come as a shock to the people of Chipping Norton. He didn�t glad-hand along the High Street. It wasn�t as if he had a favourite bench in a favourite pub. He was the town�s proof that an extremely famous person could like it here as one of us.
In fact, he lived in a secluded period house on the fringe of the hamlet of Dean with his wife Joy. When he retired in 1987 at the height of his fame and popularity, it was at first taken as a joke when he announced to the media that he intended to open and run an antique shop in Chipping Norton. But there it was, The Emporium, run personally by him and Joy. Songs from the shows of the 1920s and 1930s played, sometimes from the turntable of a wind-up gramophone. If the words of the song were indistinct, there was a good chance you could follow them from the sheet music that liberally decorated the place. On a centre table old handkerchiefs were encased in transparent envelopes, all of them washed and ironed by Joy. Walking sticks in the corner offered a choice if you were looking for the one that would go with that song, and top hats, some in their boxes, gleamed from the shelves. Burlington Bertie, anyone Dolls, toys, bits of silver, china knicknacks � you could assemble a whole alternative world in just that one shop.
Ronnie himself, in his shop, was nothing like Arkwright of Open All Hours. He was always busy, frequently down in the cellar where he carefully washed and cleaned his pieces before putting them on show. When he emerged from there, he lacked the patter of a sales assistant. The famous eyebrows seldom flew up and down. His lips shaped a gentle smile in the shop, not a flashy one for the cameras. In The Emporium he was serious about his alternative world, pleased to offer bits of it to perceptive customers. Unlike Arkwright, he didn�t offer many moments of opinion or emotion, and you would have to guess that someone who owned an antique shop was a natural, small c conservative.
On the other hand his work as writer and performer gave more than a glimpse of the man who gloried in the saucy seaside postcard. He had collected more than 40,000 of them, and redundant duplicates were for sale in The Emporium. In 1985 we were offered a more public glimpse when he appeared at The Theatre Chipping Norton for the only time. Headlining the tenth anniversary appeal, he topped the bill for two shows of Old Time Music Hall. He took us back to the end of the pier, about 1930, and he was superb. The box office took �3000.
Ronnie�s connection with The Theatre was generally unperceived but long-running and sincere. When Tamara Malcolm and her husband came up with their scheme for live theatre in Chippy, Ronnie was one of the friends who urged them to go ahead with the project to make a Salvation Army citadel into a genuine professional theatre that could establish a national reputation. In the background, as the scheme took shape, he continued to encourage them and let the world of show business know that they had his support. He was, however, too big a star to appear as Dame in the annual pantomime, as many people hoped. He would have swamped fellow performers and The Theatre with his fame, and after he had left, the shows coming in could not have failed to disappoint.
But at two critical points, his support was crucial to The Theatre. The first was the tenth anniversary appeal already mentioned. The Theatre had to improve its facilities or wither away. Tamara approached him to be patron of the appeal. He protested, but agreed. When some members of the appeal committee tried to thank him, he said, �I don�t think it will do much good, you know. I�m not the Queen. I�m not even a queen.� He protested in vain, and his name on the letterhead made a big difference, especially when he demonstrated his support with those music hall performances. Little more than ten years later, he came in with an offer of help when The Theatre had the chance to buy property that would allow it to upgrade facilities. He let it be known that he approved of and supported the purchase of 7 Goddards Lane, and then the application for Arts Council, lottery-funded grants that finally completed the �dream theatre� for the town. In gratitude to him the No.1 dressing room was lettered with his name and a gold star.
There was always the chance that you might catch sight of him in town, wavy silver hair, those glasses, wearing one of his trademark striped jackets in ice cream colours, the touch of a Home Guard strut in his short stride. He didn�t stop when spoken to and divulge show business gossip. He would smile and answer a greeting with one of his own, and pleasantly but firmly demur if asked for his autograph. A nice, modest townsman with things to do with his time. We will miss him.