by Andrew Billen
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 21 April 1999
For some, getting an interview with John Barry would be like being granted an audience with God. When last year he conducted a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Caitlin Moran, a young journalist from The Times, described the three standing ovations he received as looking, from where she sat, "like praying". Be sure to spot Jonathan Ross among the disciples for Barry's return to the RAH this Friday and Saturday. In his sleeve notes for Themeology, The Best of John Barry, he wrote: "The man's a god!"
John Barry is not God - and his record with women would suggest he is not even a saint - but he is Britain's greatest film music composer. He has scored a record 10 Bond movies and won five Oscars, the last, for Dances with Wolves in 1990, coming 25 years after his first, for Born Free. A further discography is almost superfluous. Two biographies have recently been published, one by the music journalist Eddi Fiegel, who discovered him in her teenage in the mid-Eighties after being poleaxed by his Persuaders and Goldfinger themes. Jarvis Cocker, Iggy Pop, Portishead, Paul Hartnoll of Orbital and Chrissie Hynde are all believers. (Pulp, Hynde and Iggy contributed to a tribute album last year). The classical music world is being converted. Classic FM has named him one of the 10 composers of the new millennium - which sounds a bit much until you get into last year's The Beyondness of Things, the soundtrack, as it were, of the unmade biopic of Barry's life, and ask yourself if it is more or less moving, richer or less rich, than Gorecki or Taverner.
Despite all this, my own image of Barry is not of a Messiah - not even of a composer of a Messiah. It is a confusion of James Bond and one of his loucher enemies, of Roger Moore in The Persuaders and Gene Barry in Burke's Law (although I accept this last association may be nominal confusion). And I am not lightly going to discard these preconceptions. Barry was a Sixties jet-setter, he did share a bachelor pad with Michael Caine, he was married to Jane Birkin and he is a multi-millionaire with places in Chelsea and Oyster Bay, Upstate New York.
We meet in the bar of what was once the Hyde Park Hotel where I am reassured to see he orders a rum and Coke. In no other respect, however, is he the sleazy-slick lounge lizard of my fantasy. Thin, white-haired, dressed in a collarless shirt and a tweed jacket, he looks almost ascetic. Only his deep voice is opulent: silky Yorkshire but guest-starring the odd Americanism, such as "gotten" for "got".
John Barry - his original surname, Prendergast, already jettisoned - arrived in Soho from Yorkshire in 1958, leader of his own rock and roll band. The John Barry Seven collaborated with Adam Faith on his first hit, What Do You Want, and in 1959 Barry got to write the score for Faith's movie Beat Girl. A few films later, he arranged Monty Norman's James Bond theme for Dr No and did so so successfully that he became a Bond fixture. The route from Faith to Connery plots the course of Britain from The Six-Five Special to the full horror of Swinging London. And he was just the epitome of that, wasn't he?
"God," he says, "I didn't think so at the time. We didn't even know it was the Sixties. I mean, Mike Caine and I can reflect on it now but at the time ... I suppose we knew something was happening, pre-Beatles: the movie industry was happening; the music industry was happening."
Barry was happening. He had married Barbara Pickard, an electrical store worker from Scarborough, in 1960. She bore him a daughter, Susie. In a sneak preview of social mores to come, he left her for the Swedish au pair. Ulla gave him a second daughter, Sian, and returned to her homeland. Fortunately, Barry's little black book contained numbers for Shirley Bassey, Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling. "Barry was a big ladies' man," Caine said, pot to kettle. By now, surely, Barry must have noticed things had changed a bit from the wartime York of his childhood?
"Oh, that was for sure. There was just a kind of new-found freedom. We were all earning. We were the new crew with money. We all had our independence. We were shopping at Turnbull and Asser. We had the sports cars."
And the E-type wife, I say, quoting Newsweek, which reported that after marrying Birkin in 1965, he "drove off in his E-type jag with his E-type wife". She was 17, young enough to climb on to the bonnet of the jag and mouth "I love you" through the windows. He was 31, old enough to know better. "I don't think Jane Birkin would like to be called an E-type wife," is his reply.
A third daughter - Kate - a second divorce. Nights with Ingrid Boulting, the "Biba girl". In 1969 he wed Jane Sidey. Fiegel calls the marriage short-lived (1), even by his standards, presumably. Did he mean his vows? "Of course. I came from a family where marriages lasted for ever. I've a brother and sister who are happily married, aunts and uncles, grandpas and grandmas going right back on both sides with a whole history of complete marital fidelity and longevity. But I went to a convent school and then to St Peter's, the oldest school in England and probably the strictest, and then I worked for my father for three years, which was strong discipline, then three years in the Army. I'd had all the discipline I needed in my life. By the time I came out of the Army and formed a group, I guess you could say I went happily mad ... I think it reads a lot worse than it was."
In 1978 he married his fourth wife, Laurie, 24 years his junior. Yet this marriage endured and four years ago they had a son together. He calls her the "glue" of the deal, "very strong and a fantastic mother".
But we have jumped forward, and I mean to loiter in his impossibly hectic heyday. "I remember," he says, "going to a restaurant in LA in the Seventies with Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement [writers of The Likely Lads] and we were talking about those times and Ian said, 'I can't think how the hell we did all the work we did.' I said, 'I know! One year I did eight movies and I still had a good time. I think it's called youth.'"
And self-discipline. Barry emphasises the rigour of his childhood at his two Catholic schools, the first run by nuns so sadistic that when the Luftwaffe bombed them he was thrilled. When I ask if he ever spoke to his parents about his unhappiness he laughs and says you didn't do that to parents in York in the Thirties and Forties. Jack Xavier Prendergast was a handshaking rather than a hugging father, but John noted his devotion to the cinema chain he owned and to his family, with whom he preferred to share his spare time. Later, during National Service, Barry too chose to work rather than socialise. In a storehouse in Cyprus, he taught himself to compose by correspondence course. Barry's libido ran loose in the Sixties but his work ethic was too well-trained to abscond with it. He would get up at eight and work till one, walk to the King's Road, take a long lunch, perhaps a siesta, and get back in front of the piano before the evening parties started. And it was drink rather than drugs? "Absolutely. Italian restaurants, Italian wine. It wasn't even as boozy as people pretend. We weren't hitting the whisky bottles."
It helped that he was quick. He wrote Born Free in 12 minutes and Midnight Cowboy in 20. Sometimes it took longer. In Caine's autobiography, he recalls being kept awake, off and on, till dawn one night. He found Barry slumped over the piano having just finished Goldfinger.
With the self-discipline came the self-confidence to endure criticism. Harry Saltzman, the Bond producer, hated the Goldfinger theme and much of the rest of what he came up with: "Harry would start with, 'This is crap!' And it went downhill from there." The knocks toughened him - although Caine, who met him on Zulu, says he was tough anyway. By Prince of Tides in 1991, when Barbra Streisand phoned to say she had been listening to his theme again and "was hearing something else", Barry could tell her this was one of the most joyless professional experiences of his life and quit.
His will is clearly flint but it is applied to a world he knows is just as hard. The innocence of his childhood ended, he says, with the bombing of his school and the news that his elder brother's best friend had been shot down over Germany. The puzzle is how this wartime Yorkshire dourness becomes transformed into the romantic melancholy of his work. The archetypal Barry melody is not a bumptious James Bond theme but The Ipcress File music played on a Hungarian dulcimer and interrupted by Harry Palmer's bachelor coffee grinder. The tune is called The Man Alone and it finally leads to that great tone poem to aloneness, The Beyondness of Things.
"I guess I'm attracted to those things," he says. "Somewhere in Time is about the sense of loss. Out of Africa was most certainly about loss. Dances with Wolves was."
And Born Free? "Well, that was really a parody." Otherwise it's sad music? "It comes out that way. Music comes out of the man. I don't know how you can separate yourself."
In America in 1988 Barry underwent surgery for a ruptured oesophagus. "I was given the last rites. When I came round after the first operation, there was this priest hovering over me. It was like a 13-hour operation, and then I had three more operations over a period of 18 months."
I ask if his slow recovery, which was followed by a renaissance in his career with the Oscar for Dances With Wolves and then the renewal of having a baby son, had brought him back to God. "I don't think I ever went away," he says. "I mean, once you are born a Catholic and you go to a convent, you don't. There was a time in my late teens prior to going in the Army, but once I went to Egypt, when the trouble [over Suez] started there, and then in Cyprus I came back."
At first this surprises me, for no traces of Catholic guilt attach to his regular visits to the register office. Then, however, I remember that his choice of book on Desert Island Discs was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis; and this was in 1967. Barry has a new album out this week, a jazz score inspired by Chet Baker called Playing by Heart (Decca), the soundtrack to a movie of the same name. His next project, however, is inspired by a book on Celtic wisdom, Anam Cara, by Father John O'Donoghue.
So does he still go to church? "On my own. Not when services are on. In my own time, to Brompton Oratory or Farm Street. I get great solace in it. I maybe go three times a week, for half an hour. My son was christened at Farm Street and he's called Jonpatrick. It is just something I can't imagine being without. You say, 'Why do you go?' I can't imagine not going, especially after the illness ..."
It hits me that the link between the stubborn Yorkshire playboy and his yearning music must be the same Church that dominated, terrified but subliminally inspired his youth. One Sunday, he tells me, he got up early and heard the Pope's official photographer interviewed on television. "And the interviewer says, 'What's his Holiness's favourite piece of music?' And I'm expecting him to say Beethoven's Ninth or something and he says, 'The soundtrack from Dances with Wolves.' I just went crazy."
A spiritual discussion is not what I had prepared for when I knotted my flashiest tie to meet John Barry this morning. Getting his photograph taken, however, the world races back into focus. Did we catch that TV drama the other night? The theme? A straight steal from The Beyondness of Things. "I'm going to sue the bastards," he says. Exit á Kempis. Enter, to a bass line of wah-woahs, Goldfinger.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 21 April 1999
June, 2011: We have been contacted by John's third wife, Jane Sidey, who has informed us that contrary to the reference to a "short-lived marriage" in Andrew Billen's 1999 article "Dude Barry was a lady-killer", the couple were actually married from 1969 to 1978, making it his second-longest marriage. We are happy to put the record straight.