Mr Whatnot: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Mr Whatnot by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
Ronnie Barker's view of working with Alan Ayckbourn on Mr Whatnot
(extract from The Authorised Biography Of Ronnie Barker, by Bob McCabe and published by BBC Books)
Movies may have held an allure, television may have felt most natural, but the theatre kept the offers of work coming in. Ronnie starred as Bob Acres in All in Love, a musical version of Sheridan's The Rivals, before taking on the role of Lord Slingsby-Craddock in Mr Whatnot, by a young British playwright called Alan Ayckbourn.
"That was done at the Arts Theatre. It was about a piano-tuner who never spoke. I don't know if he was dumb, he was a young man, Chaplin-esque really, because a lot of it was physical. And everything was done without props. It was a very strange piece, it was lovely. Very funny. Certain props, action props, were left out. We had a tennis match on the stage and there was no ball. It took a lot of rehearsing. I was the umpire and at one point I'd picked up a newspaper and was reading it and Alan, who was directing, said it would be nice if the ball hit that paper. And I said, "Well, why doesn't it split it right down the middle?" It got a very good laugh. It was very strange and quite surreal. A bit Alice in Wonderland in places - we were having a picnic in the garden and suddenly war broke out, we were attacked by the enemy and we were lobbing buns over the hedge. No props of course."
Ask Barker if the role of Lord Slingsby-Craddock was a prototype for one of his most enduring creations, Lord Rustless, and he answers the question before it's finished.
"Yes he was. Absolutely. He was Lord Rustless mark one, definitely. I did a character at Oxford rep and it was a part that was supposed to be done by a woman and Frank Shelley, who was running Oxford rep and was God there, said, "No we won't play it as a woman, because we haven't any women. Ronnie, you can play it as an old man." So I started doing this old chap and it was very successful and it worked very well. That character stayed at the back of my mind and he became Lord Rustless, because I enjoyed playing him so much. He's also in The Picnic and By the Sea, but he just mutters in those. He's not called Lord Rustless, no-one's called anything. But to me he was Rustless. He was one of my favourite characters. When I did Hark at Barker - that was him, albeit with sketches. Alan Ayckbourn wrote all the links for that show but I don't think he admits it.* He called himself Peter Caulfield, but I don't know whether he would like people to know that was him or not. He liked the character in Mr Whatnot, so he knew what the character was about. Rustless was really giving a lecture to the audience on a subject, such as "communication" or "servants" or something and he would illustrate it with sketches, which enabled me to play lots of different parts."
Lord Rustless did in fact make his first appearance by name in Ronnie's 1968 series The Ronnie Barker Playhouse, before being spun off into 1969's Hark at Barker, and the 1972 sitcom His Lordship Entertains. Although the character he played in Futtock's End was called General Futtock, Ronnie freely admits that this too was Rustless, as was the nameless figure in The Two Ronnies' specials The Picnic and By the Sea.
*Alan was working as a BBC radio producer at the time and wrote under a pseudonym to hide the fact he was writing for an ITV company, which he was contractually not allowed to do.
Copyright: Bob McCabe. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.