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I didn't get where I am today...

The actor John Barron's time at PGS was brief but did not go unrecorded
25 Feb 2022
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Inset: John Barron. Main photo: pupils between the wars.
Inset: John Barron. Main photo: pupils between the wars.

Not a lot of people know that the actor who played the booming, egotistical, tyrannical, cliché-loving boss C.J. in the original (and best) Reginald Perrin television series, once attended Portsmouth Grammar School. But while John Barron’s television acting career was long and memorable, his PGS career was a very brief one.

John Netterville Barron was born on Christmas Eve, 1920, and brought up by his actress mother. He attended Edinburgh House School in Lee on the Solent from the age of ten until fourteen. The school was given its name by a Scottish headmaster who had taken over the former Royal Naval School in Manor Road.

Barron started at PGS in September 1935 - the same year that future author and film director James Clavell was admitted. The Headmaster during their time was the autocratic Canon Barton, who, unlike C.J. at Sunshine Desserts, managed to lead Portsmouth Grammar School to expand and thrive.

The boy could not decide what he wanted to do with his life. His absent father was recorded as being a farmer, but there was no indication that he wanted to follow in that particular furrow. His mother, exasperated by the boy’s indecision and ignoring any advice not to put her son on the stage, persuaded John’s godfather to pay his fees at RADA, where he started in 1938. And so he embarked on his acting career in repertory companies, but this was soon interrupted by wartime service in the Royal Navy as a Lieutenant. Following demobilisation, Barron returned to directing in rep, but was offered more substantial roles in the West End.

In the late 1950s, Barron landed his first regular television role in Emergency Ward 10, the first successful British soap. He went on to feature in many well-known television series of the next three decades including The Avengers, The Saint, Softly, Softly, Timeslip, Doomwatch, Shelley, To the Manor Born, All Gas and Gaiters, Crown Court, Potter, Yes, Minister, Whoops Apocolypse, and of course The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

As Reggie’s boss "C.J.", Barron portrayed a character type that is probably familiar to us all. His catchphrase, “I didn’t get where I am today by….”, caught on across the country. This simple phrase gave the writer, David Nobbs, infinite possibilities. “I didn’t get where I am by engaging in hanky-panky, willy-nilly,” was a particularly notable example. Another of Barron's memorable roles was as an insane, right-wing fundamentalist adviser to the President of the United States in Whoops, Apocolypse (which doesn't end well).  

Despite being an ardent supporter of the Conservative party, Barron became active in the actors’ trade union, Equity, and served as president for four years. Film work included The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Jigsaw (1962) and Hitler – the Last Ten Days (1973). He died in 2004 shortly after appearing in a programme celebrating the Reginald Perrin series.

John Barron’s seven months at PGS, which according to his record ended prematurely due to ill-health, clearly made its mark. His entry in a TV Times directory dating from the 1970s cites the school as his sole alma mater, though he commented that his education suffered because of the many changes of schools he experienced. Nevertheless it seems that he was proud of his association with PGS and recognised that in some way it helped him get where he got.

(Sources: The Life and Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996) by R. Webber, TV Times directory (undated), I didn’t get where I am today (2003) by David Nobbs.)

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