Thinking big

Dame Barbara Cartland

Ronnie Barker


Ronnie Barker OBE

Ronnie Barker OBERonnie Barker was born in the 'Black Tom' area of Bedford at 70 Garfield Street. It is a small terrace house that was already home to five adults (his parents, grandparents and aunt) by the time Ronnie came along in 1929. I know this because I researched and placed a plaque commemorating his link with Bedford in December 1995.

Ronnie Barker had already retired from public life and was running an antique shop in Chipping Norton High Street by the time I contacted him. I wanted to send him a copy of the Bedford calendar, confirm his place of birth and see if he would agree to have a permanent memorial linking him with the town. He wrote; "Thank you for your letter. I of course would be honoured to have the plaque placed on 70 Garfield Street, and so, I know, would my late father and mother."

I checked with the house owner, Anthony Gayle, if he would mind having a plaque on the wall of his house. He wrote back: "I have lived here for 20 years and was planning to move, but now I'd like to live in the same house as the wonderful Ronnie Barker. Please go ahead, you have my permission."

That just left the local council's involvement. I wondered if they would be as enthusiastic to have a link establishing the town with the celebrated comedian. They wrote to say: "Under planning law Schedule 3 Part 1 Class 2A: the sign may not exceed 0.3 square metres in area, must not be illuminated and may not have lettering larger than 0.75 metres in height. Providing you abide with these regulations, the erection of a plaque will be permissible."

Ronnie Barker plaque proofIt was the first in a number of opportunities they had to link the town with Ronnie, each of which they were to turn down (this included encouragement from the Comedy Statue Society to erect a statue - which Aylesbury Council jumped at).

I chose green as the colour for the plaque and worked with The Royal Label Factory in creating a simple design that would be striking, long-lasting and approved by Ronnie. Alongside, is the design that we signed off. It is 15 inches across, cast in aluminium and finished with a dark green background with white letters, border and logo. The Factory didn't charge that much, just over £100 plus VAT, and I wonder if that was to do with the fact that they were also based in Chipping Norton, a few hundred yards from Ronnie's shop.

My plan for the erection of the plaque was not altogether altruistic. I thought that it would provide publicity for the Bedford calendar and planned to have it unveiled when the calendar was in the shops. This worked to an extent, the local papers did make the link, though my appearance on TV's local news programme didn't. The TV people asked if Ronnie would come along but he wrote back to me to say: "I couldn't possibly be present on the occasion of its unveiling. It would, to me, seem too boastful, and I would be embarrassed. Especially now, as I have retired. I wonder if you can understand my shyness and reluctance to show myself - I do hope you can. I think the design is excellent - and one day I will creep there, unobserved, to see it."

Picture of Ronnie Barker plaqueI certainly could understand not wanting to be in front of camera. I have never liked doing it and my performance on the snowy day of the unveiling was underwhelming. However, we did manage to get Ronnie Barker's aunt and cousin along and gave the interviewer a chance to (successfully) try a split screen trick.

A few more of Ronnie's relatives phoned me up after the programme including a cousin, Grenville Gordon Barker, who told me of his POW days when he grew close to one of his German guards who shielded him. Grenville likened him to Mr Mackay. I passed on these contacts to Ronnie.

Ronnie Barker signatureRonnie wrote back to me a few months later kindly enclosing a couple of signed copies of his saucy postcards book. One of which I kept and the other I auctioned off to raise money for the Survival Guides which you'll see mentioned elsewhere on the site.

Did Ronnie ever come back to revisit his birthplace and see the plaque? I don't know. His real memorial are the TV programmes he helped create - that is his great legacy. Though maybe curiosity did get the better of him and he did indeed "creep there, unobserved, to see it."

Read more about Ronnie, and see another view of the plaque

Ronnie Barker plaque on the wall

News clip on Ronnie Barker plaqueClose