I once conducted a newspaper poll to find Northern Ireland’s favourite after-dinner speaker. Michael Barnes came first by a street. Nobody else was in the running.
In fact, long before the results came in I knew he was the odds-on choice for a discerning public with his cultured voice and charming manner, not to mention a wealth of original stories.
Barnes, who died four years ago at the age of 76, was at his very best when his subject was his beloved Grand Opera House, which he rescued at least twice when it was declining rapidly and seemed destined to be nothing more than just another city cinema.
He had a tiny office backstage at the theatre, but he did most of his business with the Press and agents in the stalls. On any given afternoon you could find him walking around the historic old place checking that all was well with the carved elephants on either side of the stage.
I once caught up with him when he was standing up there all alone by the footlights, treating row upon row of empty seats to some lines from Shakespeare in a way that would have done credit to a performance at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was his way of relaxing and thinking of what might have been.
Michael, who was of course synonymous with the Belfast Festival and played a major role in turning it into an international event, was something of a frustrated actor too.
A Londoner from Peckham who graduated from Oxford University with a degree in history, he became a lecturer at Edinburgh University, but always had a hankering after a career in drama. He stood out in plays and revues produced at the famous Festival Fringe and did in fact spend a season or two at a theatre school.
“However, learning huge dollops of script wasn’t all that appealing,” he once confessed to me. “So when I came to Queen’s University in Belfast as a lecturer in the early 1960s I saw another way to be close to the arts and the theatre — a way that removed the awful fear of forgetting my lines.”
What he meant was the vacancy at the festival in 1973 to take over as its director.
Predecessor Michael Emmerson had enjoyed such a fairytale success in putting on the Belfast Festival at Queen’s that there was a reluctance out there by obvious candidates to succeed him. Barnes was prepared to take the chance, however, and in his own way became another mighty local celebrity, both in the role of director and eventually as the general administrator of the Opera House too.
Barnes had already demonstrated his talent for promotion by launching the Queen’s Film Festival and was an obvious choice as the Opera House’s artistic chief.
During his 20 years at the helm of both the theatre and the festival, he brought the cream of the performing and musical worlds to Belfast. This bachelor, who at times could be crotchety and gruff, but was always a gentleman with charisma, retired in 1994 when no longer in the best of health.
My first encounter with Barnes was in the Opera House. I had just flopped into a seat in the half-empty circle at an afternoon matinee soon after his appointment when there was a tap on my shoulder.
“That’s my seat,” he informed me quietly. “It will be mine from now on whenever I am in the theatre. Please remember that.”
And he moved me to another row further back. But you couldn’t take offence when Barnes was telling you off and we became the best of friends.
Which was just as well, for years later I did Barnes a huge favour. I had already interviewed Rolf Harris, whom Michael had booked for a Christmas pantomime three months ahead, when I discovered that the Scott Brothers next door in the New Vic Theatre were putting on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs too.
Two pantomimes running side by side was unthinkable so I broke the news to Barnes one afternoon in the Opera House stalls. He didn’t even blink or flap. He picked up the telephone and there and then cancelled Rolf and booked a stage version of The Sound of Music for Christmas instead.
And that musical turned out to be one of his huge successes at the theatre.
While I like to think my timely piece of advice about pantomime schedules played some little part in that Christmas hit, Snow White packed them in next door too — so maybe I had done the Scotts a favour too.
Michael was a loner who didn’t make friends easily, but he came alive standing up on the stage of the Opera House in the spotlight at special occasions, talking to a packed audience.
I could have listened to him all night. There has never been another after-dinner speaker to compare.
Let me finish with a little story about one night at a pantomime when my daughter Zara was a babe and took fright at the monster up there in the show. We thought we would have to leave until Barnes loomed at our shoulder, took Zara by the hand and led her out into the foyer.
He sat with her on his knee for ages, telling her the whole traditional story, monster and all. By the time the interval arrived not only had she lost her fear of giants and ghosties, but she had made a new friend too.