There are a few ways to make me smile: saying ‘Fork Handles’ or ‘G-Granville, f-fetch a cloth’ are just two.
Ronnie Barker, one of my all time heroes, has died. It’s the sort of news that immediately sends you back to your childhood.
A friend and I used to have a competition to see who could let the other one know about a celebrity death first. It was a little sick but it stemmed from the fact that she and I both defined our lives in terms of the TV programmes and catch-phrases we grew up with.
Over the past few years more and more of the familiar faces have been passing away and apart from anything else it makes you feel old, nostalgic and mortal.
I don’t know how well Ronnie Barker is known internationally – certainly he’s very well known in Australia and New Zealand and I don’t doubt his shows (The Two Ronnies, Porridge, Open All Hours) are on endless loop on PBS in the USA. Barker appeared with John Cleese on the Frost Report before Monty Python, and was a radio actor before that, appearing with Jon Pertwee (among others) in ‘The Navy Lark’.
Apart from being one of our greatest comedy actors he was also one of the most talented writers around. Famously, the Two Ronnies show used to receive scripts from an anonymous writer (Gerald Wiley?) who was eventually persuaded to turn up for an end-of-series dinner. Turned out it was Barker – he didn’t want his work to be accepted simply because it was by him.
He retired at the top years ago leaving us wanting more, and citing the examples of Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper – both of whom died of heart attacks on stage (I remember seeing Tommy Cooper collapse) – as the way he didn’t want to go. Barker received a lifetime achievement award from BAFTA last year – as he put it, a ‘get ’em before they die’ award. It was clear he wasn’t well and he had himself, and us, in tears as he accepted it.
Last year a poll of British TV viewers for the favourite comedy sketch of all time came up with ‘The Hardware Shop’ (or ‘Fork Handles’ as it’s more commonly known). You have to see this sketch performed by the Two Ronnies – it is so much funnier than reading it. But if you can’t (Amazon have DVDs) then here it is:
In a hardware shop. Ronnie Corbett is behind the counter, wearing a warehouse jacket. He has just finished serving a customer.
CORBETT (muttering): There you are. Mind how you go.
(Ronnie Barker enters the shop, wearing a scruffy tank-top and beanie)
BARKER: Four Candles!
CORBETT: Four Candles?
BARKER: Four Candles.
(Ronnie Corbett makes for a box, and gets out four candles. He places them on the counter)
BARKER: No, four candles!
CORBETT (confused): Well there you are, four candles!
BARKER: No, fork ‘andles! ‘Andles for forks!
(Ronnie Corbett puts the candles away, and goes to get a fork handle. He places it onto the counter)
CORBETT (muttering): Fork handles. Thought you said ‘four candles!’ (more clearly) Next?
BARKER: Got any plugs?
CORBETT: Plugs. What kind of plugs?
BARKER: A rubber one, bathroom.
(Ronnie Corbett gets out a box of bath plugs, and places it on the counter)
CORBETT (pulling out two different sized plugs): What size?
BARKER: Thirteen amp!
CORBETT (muttering): It’s electric bathroom plugs, we call them, in the trade. Electric bathroom plugs!
(He puts the box away, gets out another box, and places on the counter an electric plug, then puts the box away)
BARKER: Saw tips!
CORBETT: Sore tips? (he doesn’t know what he means) What d’you want? Ointment, or something like that?
BARKER: No, saw tips for covering saws.
CORBETT: Oh, haven’t got any, haven’t got any. (he mutters) Comin’ in, but we haven’ got any. Next?
(He goes to get a hoe, and places it on the counter)
BARKER: No, ‘O’s!
CORBETT: ‘O’s! I thought you said ‘O! (he takes the hose back, and gets a hose, whilst muttering) When you said ‘O’s, I thought you said ‘O! ‘O’s!
(He places the hose onto the counter)
BARKER: No, ‘O’s!
CORBETT (confused for a moment): O’s? Oh, you mean panty ‘o’s, panty ‘o’s! (he picks up a pair of tights from beside him)
BARKER: No, no, ‘O’s! ‘O’s for the gate. Mon repose! ‘O’s! Letter O’s!
CORBETT (finally realising): Letter O’s! (muttering) You had me going there!
(He climbs up a stepladder, gets a box down, puts the ladder away, and takes the box to the counter, and searches through it for letter O’s)
CORBETT: How many d’you want?
(Ronnie Corbett leaves two letter O’s on the counter, then takes the box back, gets the ladder out again, puts the box away, climbs down the ladder, and puts the ladder away, then returns to the counter)
CORBETT: Yes, next?
BARKER: Got any P’s?
CORBETT (fed up): For Gawd’ sake, why didn’ you bleedin’ tell me that while I was up there then? I’m up and down the shop already, it’s up and down the bleedin’ shop all the time. (He gets the ladder out, climbs up and gets the box of letters down, then puts the ladder away) Honestly, I’ve got all this shop, I ain’t got any help, it’s worth it we plan things. (He puts the box on the counter, and gets out some letter P’s) How many d’you want?
BARKER: No! Tins of peas. Three tins of peas!
CORBETT: You’re ‘avin’ me on, ain’t ya, yer ‘avin’ me on?
BARKER: I’m not!
(Ronnie Corbett dumps the box under the counter, and gets three tins of peas)
CORBETT (placing the tins on the counter): Next?
BARKER: Got any pumps?
CORBETT (getting really fed up): ‘And pumps, foot pumps? Come on!
BARKER (surprised he has to ask): Foot pumps!
CORBETT (muttering, as he goes down the shop): Foot pumps. See a foot pump? (He sees one, and picks it up) Tidy up in ‘ere.
(He puts the pump down on the counter)
BARKER: No, pumps fer ya feet! Brown pump, size nine!
CORBETT (almost at breaking point): You are ‘avin’ me on, you are definitely ‘avin’ me on!
BARKER (not taking much notice of Corbett’s mood): I’m not!
CORBETT: You are ‘avin’ me on! (He takes back the pump, and gets a pair of brown foot pumps out of a drawer, and places them on the counter) Next?
CORBETT (really close to breaking point): What, dishwashers, floor washers, car washers, windscreen washers, back scrubbers, lavatory cleaners? Floor washers?
BARKER: ‘Alf inch washers!
CORBETT: Oh, tap washers, tap washers? (He finally breaks, and makes to confiscate his list) Look, I’ve had just about enough of this, give us that list. (He mutters) I’ll get it all myself! (Reading through the list) What’s this? What’s that? Oh that does it! That just about does it! I have just about had it! (calling through to the back) Mr. Jones! You come out and serve this customer please, I have just about had enough of ‘im. (Mr. Jones comes out, and Ronnie Corbett shows him the list) Look what ‘e’s got on there! Look what ‘e’s got on there!
JONES (who goes to a drawer with a towel hanging out of it, and opens it): Right! How many would ya like? One or two?
(He removes the towel to reveal the label on the drawer – ‘Bill hooks’!)