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Interview with John Barry
11:50am Monday 31st January 2011 in News
In 2001, John Barry made a rare visit to his home city. Nick Hallissey tried to contain himself while he lined up questions to ask one of his heroes.
It HAD been easy to remain fairly composed, so to speak, during most of my interview with legendary movie composer John Barry. Until Johnny and Jerry were mentioned. "Y'know, I get together every now and then with people like Johnny and Jerry, and we all agree that we took such different paths to get into this business; it's quite amazing."
Johnny and Jerry? I had my suspicions, but asked anyway.
"Johnny Williams and Jerry Goldsmith," he replied.
That did it. For a movie music buff like me, hearing my all-time film hero name-dropping my second and third choices so casually really was the limit.
The man who gave James Bond his rhythm was calmly chatting about, respectively, the man who scored Star Wars, and the man who scored Star Trek.
This all came about because John Barry, winner of five Oscars, son of York impresario Jack Prendergast, was in town to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.
So, I asked him if he had any hints he could pass on to aspiring composers in his home town. By way of answering, he told me that there were no hard and fast rules. Williams was a pianist, Goldsmith was in a band; all of them had had to make their own luck.
There was always going to be a risk with me interviewing the man once known as John Barry Prendergast.
I grew up wolfing down his film music; indeed, myself and my fiancee would like We Have All The Time in the World to be played at our wedding.
For me, he is George Best, or Neil Armstrong: the hero you always want to meet, but fear you never should for fear of what will happen to you.
But we were fine. He is so genial that it couldn't help but go well. He was flattered by my early compliment (I fought back the urge to cry "gee, Mr Barry - you're swell"), and made a point of ensuring he knew my name. So off we went.
Growing up in York, and playing in the band of the Green Howards, John Barry has gone on to score more than 120 films. Among them are 12 Bond movies, including From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and You Only Live Twice.
Then, there are the more mellow, sweeping compositions for Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves and The Lion in Winter, his personal favourite.
I wondered if there had ever been a film he'd wanted to score, but had missed out on.
"I asked my agent to go after 2001: A Space Odyssey, because I really wanted to work with Stanley Kubrick," he replied.
"In the end, he went with all the classical music, and although I was sorry not to have the chance, I thought what he did was exceptional."
Naturally, you can hear a great many anecdotes in a short chat with John Barry. He told me how Kevin Costner, a first-time director on Oscar eater Dances With Wolves, had left the music entirely down to him, figuring, quite wisely, that Barry knew what he was doing.
I heard that Louis Armstrong was a very poorly man when he recorded my wedding anthem with Barry, and that it was the last thing he ever committed to vinyl. What a way to go out.
Of the Bond magnates Cubby Broccoli and Harry R Saltzman, Cubby was the one to whom Barry would always speak. Saltzman was "very difficult".
Sydney Pollack was "great", working on The Ipcress File was "enormous fun", and Born Free was "very tough".
Now 67, and keen on a low profile, Barry flits between London and New York, with the occasional stop-off to meet his family in Old York. He has his pick of assignments, usually judging what to get involved with on the calibre of the director, and the quality of the script.
At present he is scoring Michael Apted's film Enigma, based on the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park in the Second World War; his next is a London stage musical based on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. His old Bond collaborator, Don Black, is writing the lyrics.
He's not sorry to have left Bond - he parted company with the series after The Living Daylights in 1986 - but he likes where they have gone since. The new incumbent Bond composer, David Arnold, continually refers to Barry as "the Guv'nor", and even asked him for help when he got under way on Tomorrow Never Dies.
"I just think the first ten or so that I did were the great ones, the real classics, as far as I was concerned," he said."But I did recommend David for the job, and he did come to me to ask for my opinions, and I think he's just doing a wonderful job."
Having "emigrated" to London and beyond almost as soon as he was able, does he like coming back to York?
"London was where it was all happening; I did have to go there," he said. "But it's great to come back, to walk around the streets, have a meal and spend a little time here."
He was in town with his wife Laurie and their son, Jonpatrick; in fact the six-year-old follows them everywhere.
"I was not much older than Jonpatrick is now when my dad first carried me into the stalls and showed me this giant mouse on the screen," he said. "I just thought, wow, this is brilliant."
The mouse, by the way, was Mickey.
By the time he was a teenager, Barry could virtually run Jack's Rialto cinema himself, with the help of brother Patrick and sister June, whenever his dad decided he wanted a night off.
He's sorry to see the Fishergate venue as a bingo hall now.
"Just thinking of all the stars and names that dad had there, it is rather sad," he added.
So would the mighty Jack Prendergast be proud to see his son today?
"I think so; he seemed to be during his lifetime in fact, but he was always very critical. He wasn't the easiest man to have as a father, but the conclusion I come to time and time again is that his advice and his criticism were always right."
On the subject of useful advice, Barry did eventually say he could think of a way to help a talented fledgling musician in this city.
"A good agent is vital. Give them the name Vanessa Jones, she's my agent and she is very receptive to new talent," he told me. "Tell them to seek her out - I'll mention to her that I've said this to your paper. Is that all right?"
Fine by me, sir.
By the time you read this, Barry may well be winging his way back to Oyster Bay, his home on an idyllic private island in New York State, where he'll be getting on with Enigma and Brighton Rock.
And taking calls from Johnny and Jerry.
Original article published on July 12, 2001