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Well done Network for releasing the Ronnie Barker Collection on DVD - an amalgamation of two series of 'Hark at Barker' (from 1969 and 1970) and the 1971 series 'Six Dates with Barker'. Obviously, the age shows, the first series being in black and white, and the whole thing having a modest budget and yet someone as classy as Ronni Barker can always make something special happen. Barker was a legend of British comedy, not to mention a great actor, and, despite the very 70s feel to the humour, this is as strong today as ever. The series focuses on Barker as Lord Rustless, a doddery old gasbag, every bit as comedic and well observed as his later, more famous characters such as Norman Stanley Fletcher and Arkwright the Shopkeeper. He is ably backed up by an impressive comedy army including Josephine Tewson, David Jason and Ronnie Corbett - all hinting at future glories as each of these actors joins Barker in some of his finest moments of the 70s and 80s. Also, watch out for Michael Palin, Valerie Leon, and Christopher Timothy. Note should also be made of sterling regular performances from Frank Gatliff as the butler and Mary Baxter as the cook, joined in series two by the gorgeous Moira Foot as Effie the maid. Scripts are contributed by none other than Barker himself and members of both Monty Python and The Goodies. Indeed, many of the shows provide prototype versions of many greater successes. Each show sees Lord Rustless pontificating on any number of issues, interspersed with sketches in the Two Ronnies style and showcasing Barker's great comic acting. Like other British TV comedy greats - such as David Jason and Peter Kay - Barker can take on a variety of roles and become a completely different person. His personas in this show are each as different and effective as Jason is in varied roles such as Delboy, Granville, Pa Larkin and Frost and Kay is as Brian Potter, Max the Bouncer and Geraldine McQueen. Ronnie Barker was a legend - it's as simple as that, and whilst this series is not as well remembered as his work in 'The Two Ronnies', 'Porridge' or 'Open All Hours', it remains a solid piece of classic comedy entertainment. In it's rarity it is a special treat for all Barker fans. Check it out.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was Ronnie Barker's second sitcom ( his first being the comedy
anthology series 'The Ronnie Barker Playhouse' ). It cast him as 'Lord
Rustless', the doddery old buffoon ( based on the comedian Fred Emney )
who lives at Chrome Hall, grows mustard and cress for a living, and
seems to be fond of women and having a tipple. His staff includes the
pompous butler 'Badger' ( Frank Gatliff ), a toothless Cook ( Mary
Baxter ), the spinster secretary 'Mildred Bates' ( Josephine Tewson ),
the 'between-floors parlour maid' Effie ( Moira Foot ), and a 100
year-old gardener called 'Dithers' ( an unrecognisable David Jason ).
Effie never spoke ( only whispered inaudibly ), while Dithers' dialogue
was pure Worzel Gummidge-style gobble-de-gook.
Ronnie later described 'Rustless' as his second favourite character, the first being 'Fletcher' of 'Porridge'.
The show was the creation of Alan Owen, and grew out of an episode of 'Playhouse' broadcast on 10/4/68 entitled 'Ah, There You Are'. Owen was unavailable to write the series, so the job went to Alan Ayckbourn ( under the name 'Peter Caulfield' ), later to become acclaimed as one of Britain's finest playwrights.
The show was ground breaking in two notable respects; firstly, Lord Rustless' habit of addressing the audience directly ( a device later known as 'breaking the fourth wall' ), and the interruption of the plot with sketches ( some by Ronnie himself under his 'Gerald Wiley' alias ), many of which would be remade for 'The Two Ronnies'. The second season had a different theme each week, such as 'Law', 'Cooking', 'Do-It-Yourself', and 'Music', with Rustless trying his hand at each but failing dismally.
Two series were made in all. Having viewed these recently, I found much to enjoy, even though it had not stood up as well as I had hoped. The sketches were the best part of the programme, standing out like raisins in an undercooked scone.
Ronnie stayed with L.W.T. for 'Six Dates With Barker', and then it was off to the B.B.C. for 'The Two Ronnies', 'Seven Of One', 'Porridge', and 'Open All Hours', every one a classic.
But the end of 'Hark At Barker' did not mean the end of Lord Rustless. Ronnie resurrected him - and his staff - for 'His Lordship Entertains' in 1972. It was an altogether different show; the sketches were gone, Ronnie wrote the scripts himself, reformatting the concept so that Chrome Hall was now a country hotel. There was location filming, and other characters got to interact with Rustless and co. Ronnie later described it as 'Fawlty Towers Mark One'. Not a trace of 'Entertains' survives in the B.B.C. archives, which is indeed unfortunate as it is the better show. Luckily, the scripts are to be found in Ronnie's book 'All I Ever Wrote'.
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