Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Remember Ronnie by Knocking Down His Shop

Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Remember Ronnie by Knocking Down His Shop

Article excerpt

Matthew Norman says that Ronnie Barker's memory will be best served by the destruction of Arkwright's store from 'Open All Hours'

It is perhaps the least pertinent sign of the fin de siecle fatigue enveloping it that not a peep has yet been heard from No. 10 on the vexing matter of Arkwright's Corner Shop.

In that happier era when Mr Tony Blair railed against the wrongful conviction for murder of the Coronation Street character Deirdre Rasheed - a grave injustice in the Prime Minister's eyes, rather than a mere anomaly - Mr Blair would have had something to say about the proposed demolition of the Doncaster house in which the Ronnie Barker sitcom Open All Hours was filmed.

Noting that Mr Barker's memorial service at Westminster Abbey this week carried the aura of a state occasion, he might even have intervened to slap a preservation order on the entire area of Balby, Doncaster, scheduled for destruction under plans approved by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

That John Prescott should have sanctioned what many will view as an act of desecration seems a perplexing irony, for no comic actor did more to popularise the speech defect than Mr Barker. Indeed, as president of the Society for the Pismounciation of Worms in that Two Ronnies sketch, he might be said to have blazed the trail for the terminally aphasic public orator upon which Mr Prescott has trundled for so long. So much for gratitude to an inspirational role model.

As Albert Arkright, of course, it was the struggle not to speak the words correctly but to get them out at all that offered Mr Barker such fertile territory. Apart from the grocer's pathological meanness, his unconsummated lust for the breasts of nurse Gladys Emmanuel and his ability to be continually shocked by his lethally explosive till, there was very little to the character but a stammer to make the late Patrick Campbell seem a model of linguistic fluency.

In fact Arkwright was the only major weak link in the otherwise barely broken chain of sheer brilliance that was Ronnie Barker's career. This judgment has little to do with distaste at making merry with a stutter. Many of the most hilarious sitcom moments have revolved around disability (David Brent leaving the wheelchairbound woman marooned on the stairs during a fire drill in The Office; or Edina yelping with joy in Absolutely Fabulous on learning that a friend she hasn't seen for ages has gone blind and won't become aware of her girth).

Admittedly in those instances we are being invited to laugh at insensitivity towards the disabilities rather than the disabilities themselves, whereas with Arkwright the stammer itself is the joke.

Even so, this is no place to indulge the prissiness of what we have come to know as the 'politically correct brigade' (why a brigade, and not a platoon or battalion?

Or even a regiment? ).

The problem with Open All Hours, it seems to me - and it may seem pedantic to dwell on such a minor technicality - is that it was never funny. Like everything else written by Roy Clarke, the standard Radio Times epithet for the comedy is 'gentle'. In this context, gentle is a synonym for 'not'.

Without wishing to go too far down the road of pretension, let alone follow the Jonathan Miller path of reducing humour to a series of graphs and formulae, good situation comedy relies on well-observed truth. …

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