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Remembering Ronnie Barker and the wily Worm That Turned

As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, when we moved to Bletchley in the 1970s, the Buckinghamshire hub where the Codebrakers had helped save Britain’s bacon was a nice and pleasant place to live, and not the chav town/ghost town/poundshop hell/constituent backwater of Milton Keynes that it became. 

Not at all coincidentally, we happened to be twenty minutes from my maternal grandparents in Aylesbury.

Other than the regulation every second Sunday visit to the gramps, for a treat mum, sis and I would often hop on the bus or train to Northampton — or sometimes Bedford, birthplace of Ronnie Barker 93 years ago today, as it happens.

For the record, the statue erected to commemorate the one Ronnie is in Aylesbury town centre. Sitting outside Waitrose in Exchange Street, the bronze shows Barker in character as Porridge’s Norman Stanley Fletcher. Looking up at the new Waterside Theatre, it’s a nod to how his celebrated comic career began. Indeed, the site was chosen over Bedford because Barker made his debut as a professional actor playing Lt Spicer in JM Barrie’s Quality Street, at the old Aylesbury County Theatre in Market Square. The date was 15 November 1948, the day after the new King Charles III was born (and who, on Britain‘s new coinage, has been immortalised by the same sculptor as Barker, Martin Jennings).

Long-demolished, the theatre was next door to where a more contentious statue of another ‘local’ hero now stands – the Earthly Messenger re-creation of myriad David Bowies; the thin bronzed Dame another public figure with an even more tenuous connection to the town than Ronnie B. 

In the 1970s and into the eighties, The Two Ronnies — that’s Barker (the big one) and Corbett (the small one) — were essential viewing on British telly. 

Following the defection of Morecambe and Wise from the BBC to ITV in 1978, The Two Ronnies became the Beeb’s flagship light entertainment programme, regularly gaining the top viewing figures in the critical Christmas Day audience battle, and at their peak commanded over 18 million viewers in the plumb prime-time slot of 8 pm on Saturday nights.

We were most certainly a Two Ronnies household. With their usual format of sketches, solo sections, serial stories and musical finales, they appealed to the whole family, whereas although our parents watched the slightly older Eric ’n’ Ernie, if I recall correctly their ITV shows were broadcast in a weekday slot that just didn’t feel like event TV in the way The Two Ronnies did.

Not only were the pair superb comic actors, but Ronnie Barker penned so much peerless material, and when he didn’t The Two Ronnies could boast a roll-call of Triple-A scribes including Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, David Renwick, and the omnipresent Barry Cryer, who passed in January 2022. 

The scenes often involved complex wordplay, much of it written by Barker, who also liked to parody officialdom and establishment figures, as well as eccentrics. We can hold up brilliantly iconic sketches like 1976’s Four Candles (“no, fork handles”), the Ice Cream Parlour Sketch (1977) which was so good, Little Britain have remade it approximately 482 times; and the Mastermind skit from 1980 where Ronnie Corbett plays the contestant answering the question before last.

Now, who ordered the pink boobs?

But as a kid, I was fascinated most by the continuing serial story which progressed through the eight episodes of a series. In the the vein of Monty Python, these were often absurdist surrealism tales with a host of special guest stars.

Most importantly, because The Two Ronnies formed later than most of their peers the duo were able to incorporate on-trend developments in the increasingly edgy and satirical comedy world, and which pointed the way to a more left field form alternative humour taken to the extreme in the 1980s by the likes of The Young Ones and French & Saunders.

Favourites? The Phantom Raspberry Blower was pretty hysterical for a seven year-old to witness, as was Death Can Be Fatal, a 1975 romp that saw the recurring characters of private detectives Piggy Malone (Barker) and Charley Farley (Corbett) get tangled up in blue with Madame Coqoutte (Cyd Hayman). 

We thought it was so funny, Mum nicknamed Stella, my younger sister, Madame Coqoutte.

Because she could.

Most memorable, though, has to be The Worm That Turned.

The year before she granted Prince Charming his wish and cameoed as the Fairy Godmother in that Adam And The Ants’ video, former fifties film starlet Diana Dors starred as The Commander in the Ronnies’ brilliantly surreal dystopian spoof. 

Always saddled with the busty blonde bombshell roles, Dors’ famous hourglass figure had, understandably, become ever more buxom as she approached her fifties. Or as an Absolutely Fabulous Stone-faced sister might say, “another one’s who’s ballooned.”

No matter, because Diana’s middle aged curviness added to the imposing menace of her role as the bullish leader of the all-female secret police. She received rave reviews for her portrayal, so much so that Madonna — no stranger to throwing her weight around — took it upon herself to channel the despotic character and her minions at a recent MTV Video Awards appearance in New York.

The Worm That Turned was set in a nightmarish future Blighty — 2012 to be exact — and one in which women have gained the upper hand. The once-fairer sex rule the country, and have forced the traditional male and female gender roles to be completely reversed. Men are essentially under curfew, oppressed and subjugated with women’s names, nasty frocks and — even worse — forced to do the housekeeping. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia this dystopic future was first postulated as a Doctor Who episode over a decade prior.

This extreme interpretation of law and order is managed by scantily clad stormtroopers strutting through town in Gestapo-like caps and jackboots and not so Gestapo-like PVC hot pants. The pièce de résistance is The Ronnies in the shape of our downtrodden heroes (or is that heroines?), Janet and Betty, who aim to flee the domination of this fierce feminist state for the macho mining sanctuary of a country called Wales. 

Even more disturbing are the enforced name changes of iconic British institutions: the Union Jack flag is now the Union Jill. Big Ben is renamed Big Brenda, and the Tower of London has become Barbara Castle.

And to think all we needed to save us from them was a mouse.

The terrifying tale tickled me and scared me in equal measure. Of course, aged 11 I was too young to understand its end of the pier campness, or the obvious references to Nazi Germany. Aired in 1980, the year after a certain first female Prime Minister of the UK gained power, it’s easy to dismiss The Worm That Turned as a misogynistic cheap shot, and a backlash against feminism, which begs the question and breaks the fourth wall: which sex are really the worms here — men or women?

At the same time the story could be read as a feminist text because it was subverting the stereotyped male/female roles in a way that highlights the ridiculousness of any gender being the underdog. 

On the other hand, the uniforms the PVC police squads wear are an obvious excuse for objectification. In my mind, the timing speaks volumes, and the serial strikes me as a thinly veiled warning of Feminazi-in-Chief Margaret Thatcher’s dictatorial tendencies. As of to hammer the point home, Dors even wears true Tory powder blue much of the time.

Mind you, they were wrong about Thatcher (snigger).

And is it me in overthinking mode, or were the Ronnies’ roles named Janet and Betty after the UK’s premier Thatcher impersonator Janet Brown and the then monarch of the isles, Queen Elizabeth II?

Whatever the thought process, shortly after Mrs T won her third and final term in No. 10, The Two Ronnies called it a day at the end of 1987. Barker retired from television altogether, opting to open an antiques shop in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire with his wife Joy.

As luck would have it, I was fortunate to meet the great Ronnie B in 1999. He was on the promo trail for his weighty collection of scripts, the self-explanatory All I Ever Wrote: The Complete Works of Ronnie Barker. There were a couple of snaps — which I’ve momentarily mislaid, though they’re on a drive somewhere —taken at a bookstore in Charing Cross Road. 

The book marked a comeback of sorts, and Barker returned to the spotlight when he played Winston Churchill’s valet in The Gathering Storm (2002).

As if he had an inkling he was on borrowed time, Barker also worked with Corbett again to present their greatest hits and sketches from their classic BBC show. The Two Ronnies Sketchbook aired between March and April 2005, and marked Ronnie B’s last public appearance. 

He died later that year, with Ronnie C following in the celebrity holocaust of 2016.

And it’s goodnight from them.

Steve Pafford

Ronnie Barker, 25 September 1929 – 3 October 2005

Ronnie Corbett, 4 December 1930 – 31 March 2016 

Celebrating Aunty Beeb’s centenary, BBC Through The Decades is at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park from October 1 to November 20

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