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Doncaster Features: Ronnie Barker on Open All Hours
This is a small excerpt from Ronnie Barker's autobiography It's Hello From Him! published in 1988:
"Parting from Norman Stanley Fletcher, at intervals from 1976 onwards I took to working for several weeks at a time in Helen's Boutique.
You must know the place. It's at Balby, Doncaster, Lister Avenue to be precise. Except that you may think of it as a certain corner shop kept Open All Hours. The BBC used to hire Mrs Helen Ibbotson's shop for a month or so. She went off on her hols and the Beautique turned into cunning old Arkwright's abandon-cash-all-ye-who-enter-here realm.
Open All Hours was great fun to do, and well liked. Audiences of nineteen million and more put it top of the national ratings. A survey established that Arkwright was considered Britain's funniest man. It should be pointed out that the research was commissioned by Bryant & May, seeking hints as to the best type of jokes for their matchboxes!
Despite his stinginess and the terrible way he treated poor Granville, Arkwright inspired a lot of affection. Possibly because I liked the old devil . And his money-making schemes were so small scale and eccentric, the whole neighbourhood shop thing so nostalgic, that you couldn't really disapprove of him.
My aim was to get away from Fletch, make people forget him while Arkwright was there. Arkwright's twenty years older, of course, but if you saw him and Fletcher together in a pub, it should be plain that they're different men. In an odd way Arkwright is less real, though he's very solid, because there's his fantasy vein, the whimsy...
Again, he was created in the scripts by Roy Clarke, write of Last of the Summer Wine and so much else. His stinginess was there from the start, that terrible appetite for money, often in ludicrously modest amounts.
The stammer was laid on from outside. Roy asked me what I wanted to do with this character to whom he'd just introduced me. Looking for ways to make him different from anyone I'd played before, I thought of the stammer learned from Glenn Melvyn, some quarter-century before.
Roy was slightly taken aback, one could see him thinking, "Stutter? I wonder why?", but he told me to go ahead and try it. It was never in the same place twice, that stutter, but it worked. And it was a marvellous comic device as a help with timing - you could hold back on a word for exactly as long as was needed.
A lot of Arkwright was postcard humour, though not the explicit postcards of today. He was innocently sly, mildly ribald - ribaldry for family viewing. Nurse Gladys would be folded over, putting something into the back of her car, and he'd mutter, "Look at that, you don't get a buh-buh ... boot like that on a modern car."
David Jason, Lynda Baron and I had some great times on that series. And filming part of it in Yorkshire - shop sequences there, the rest in the studio - made it even nicer because since my spell at Bramhall I've always been fond of Northern people. They're genuine friendly, witty, and down to earth. Somehow (this will get me into trouble) there don't seem to be as many strange people up north, there are more down to earth, common-sensical folk about.
We'd be there for only three weeks, doing the filmed sequences for two episodes each week. So work went on until midnight sometimes, with shouting, the noise of equipment, and arc lights glaring. But nobody objected, though one chap did ask how long this would be going on for because he had to get up early for work!
The BBC generally found an empty house for sale and that would have the canteen on the ground floor, David and myself sharing one bedroom as dressing room and Lynda using the other. We'd put up posters and silly knick-knacks, make it homier, even though it was just for those three weeks.
Our trio's rapport showed in the spirit of Open All Hours. We were three mates. In the theatre one sees surprisingly little of colleagues, even during a long run. They're all arriving at different times, some needing longer to get ready, then the play's performed and everyone flits away again, wanting to get home.
But on location you all get together at the end of the day, have dinner, crack a bottle or two, relax and laugh. He and I have always had such a rapport; ever since we first met at London Weekend TV in a half-hour comedy called The Odd Job. He subsequently played the hundred-year-old gardener, Dithers, in my series His Lordship Entertains, a show which I have always called Fawlty Towers Mark I, because it was all about an eccentric hotel run by my Lord Rustless character. Then he was in a few episodes of Porridge, and finally the long-suffering Granville in Open All Hours. What a wonderful sense of timing he has, with that marvellous rubber face. What a reliable and professional man to work with. I was so thrilled when he won the British Academy Award for best actor.
Lynda Baron completed the trio. She is marvellous company. She's bigger than Nurse Gladys - not physically, a lot of Nurse Gladys's padding got hung up on a peg in her dressing room, though the splendid bosom is genuine - but Lynda is a bit larger than life, full of energy, a showbusiness person. She's a marvellous dancer, incidentally, and used to be lead girl at the Talk of the Town when it was a cabaret showplace. Very easy to work with, another one who wants to get on with it.
The three of us swapped anecdotes and experiences, teased each other, did a lot of talking and some damage to the vin rouge. Lynda had this stock line when debates started: "No one ever beats me in an argument, so don't try." David and I did try, though!
More on Open All Hours and a video clip.
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