Ronnie BARKER (1929–2005)
Actor and comedian
23 Church Cowley Road, Oxford
Ronald William George Barker was born in Bedford in 1929 to Leonard and Edith Barker. Leonard’s work as a clerk for Shell-Mex occasioned a move to Oxford. After living briefly at 386 Cowley Road, they bought the house at 23 Church Cowley Road and remained there 1935–1949. Ronnie attended Donnington Junior School and won a scholarship to the City of Oxford High School for Boys in George Street.
His first job was as a clerk with the Westminster Bank in Cowley. Meanwhile he had joined the Theatre Players, an amateur group which performed at St Mary and St John Church Hall, and set his heart on an acting career. His professional début in 1948 was in rep at Aylesbury. When the company folded in 1949, he returned home to 4 Oliver Road to which the Barkers had just moved, and took a temporary job as a porter at the Wingfield-Morris Hospital (now the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre). In 1950 he was engaged by the Bramhall Players in Cheshire and in 1951 was accepted by the Oxford Playhouse. He soon became their principal character actor and over four years gained experience in a multitude of roles. A young actress starting out with him in the company was Maggie Smith who had also grown up in Cowley. When Peter Hall arrived as Director, he spotted Ronnie’s talent and whisked him off to the West End.
Ronnie soon found a preference for radio and television work, beginning with The Navy Lark (1959–67). Satirical sketches on the Frost Report led to his enduring partnership with Ronnie Corbett in The Two Ronnies (1971–86). The brilliant wordplay of the sketches was written by Barker himself under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley. Porridge and Open All Hours gave further scope for his comic acting. He retired from show business in 1987, partly through ill health. His stature as a comedy legend was already assured and he received several lifetime achievement awards including a BAFTA tribute in 2004.
The connection with Oxfordshire was revived when he and his wife Joy acquired a country retreat at Dean and after retirement ran The Emporium, an antiques shop in Chipping Norton, for about ten years. He died of heart disease in 2005 in Katharine House Hospice, Adderbury. A memorial service of thanksgiving for his life and work was held in Westminster Abbey a year later.
- Sources: Remembering Ronnie Barker by Richard Webber (2010); Ronnie Barker, the authorised biography by B. McCabe (2004); Dancing in the Moonlight; early years on the stage by Ronnie Barker (1993)
- Photographs taken at unveiling ceremony: during the speeches and after the unveiling
- Tribute by Dr Malcolm Graham (PDF)
- Speech by Mike Chew, Chairman of the City of Oxford School Association (PDF)
- Oxford Mail, 5 September 2012: “Blue Plaque honour at Ronnie Barker's former home”
The plaque was unveiled on 29 September 2012 at 23 Church Cowley Road by the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Cllr Alan Armitage, and Mike Chew, Chairman of the City Of Oxford School Association, which donated the plaque. The tribute was delivered by Dr Malcolm Graham.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Actor and Comedian
City of Oxford School Association