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James Galway: New TV documentary looks at the music star

The Belfast-born legendary flautist on serious accident that brought him closer to God, his great relationship with second wife Jeanne and why he told the PM he’d love to come back home... but can't afford to

By Una Brankin

Sir James Galway - Jimmy, to his friends - has a mischievous sense of humour to go with his impish face and twinkling eyes. Throughout our chat he frequently breaks into the chesty chuckle that you can hear often in Being James Galway, an intimate and entertaining documentary airing tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland.

Filmed on tour and at the flautist's beautiful home in the Swiss Alps, the programme is elegantly narrated by actor Jeremy Irons and includes praise and insights from long-time acquaintance Melvyn Bragg, who profiled Sir James on an edition of the South Bank Show, featuring his legendary performance at the Waterfront in 1999 with his American wife Jeanne, a fellow flautist.

Having sold more than 30 million albums, the flute virtuoso continues to tour the world, performing to packed houses and giving masterclasses to the next generation of world-class flute players.

But despite living in the lap of luxury, overlooking lake Lucerne, the Belfast-born star admits he'd like to come back home.

However, as he tells the Prime Minister David Cameron in the documentary, he "can't afford it". It's a gem of a clip, as Cameron's lofty figure looms in the doorway of a changing room backstage at the BBC, while Sir James, with his back to him, is too busy practising his flute to notice Jeanne in conversation with the PM.

When he's given the nudge, he looks up in surprise, holds out his hand, and has the PM chortling within seconds. The thing is, though, he's deadly serious about the Tories' fiscal policies.

"My brother lives in Manchester and I still have a whole crew of relatives in Belfast but I couldn't afford to come back to the UK because of the taxes - and they change the law every five minutes," he complains, down the line from Switzerland. "It's not to the advantage of the people. I would like to come home but if I did, I'd live in the south. It would be more practical for me.

"This tax on mansions - what's that all about? And Poll Tax? I'm telling you, that Margaret Thatcher was one thick-skinned lady. She tried it out on the Scots first before us. She was thinking ahead."

There couldn't be a more marked contrast between the Galways' privileged Alpine lifestyle and the east Belfast docklands of young Jimmy's childhood in the 1940s, which is depicted by the BBC with happy, black and white family photos. Encouraged by his musical parents, the young bandsman got his first taste of the good life at 16 when he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and went to stay with his teacher.

"We had a bicycle outside our house in Belfast; he had a Rolls-Royce," he recalls when the cameras follow him down the street in salubrious south-west London where he once lodged.

"My parents would have thought my house here was rented; they would not have believed that I own this place. My mother was funny; she kept asking when I was going to give up 'all that running around' and come home to a nice job in England. She played the piano; my dad played the accordion - Strauss waltzes all the time."

Too poor to afford driving lessons in his youth, Sir James reckons if his parents had lived to see him being chauffeured around in a limousine, they'd have thought he'd stolen it. James Galway senior, a shipyard riveter, and Ethel Galway, a mill worker, did live to see James playing as principal flautist with the Berlin Philharmonic - "the most amazing time of my life", he says - after studying at the Paris Conservatoire.

As Bragg confirms, Sir James took a huge risk leaving the famous orchestra to go solo, in a fit of pique after his boss wouldn't let him have a day off to perform at a "lucrative" event. Of course his decision paid off when he had a global hit with his version of the John Denver classic Annie's Song in 1978.

He first heard the song when he was recovering from a serious accident in Lucerne, in which a motorcycle hit him at full force, and married to his second wife, Annie, the daughter of a local architect. He doesn't dwell on the smash in the documentary but remembers the impact vividly when I ask him about it.

"I was hit with a Yamaha 750 and thrown up into the air and down again," he recalls, half Belfast, half Yank in his delivery. "I was conscious the whole time. I broke several bones including both my legs but the pain didn't come immediately, probably because of the shock."

The trauma brought him closer to God and to this day, he wears a cross around his neck to remind him of the divine.

"I was always a bit spiritual - my talent is a gift from God, there's no doubt about that at all. It's my job to look after it and polish it, to give enjoyment to others, and to make the giver proud.

"But as you get older," he adds, "you become more spiritual and accidents bring people closer to God or a higher power. There's nothing like a good scare to make you re-evaluate your life. I was grateful for the gift that experience gave me. Now I have a good relationship with God and an even better one with people.

"I always say a prayer before a performance but I do my own thing - it's very difficult to find a church worth going to. I know my own thoughts on life. I like going to Westminster Abbey or St Paul's Cathedral - the little churches and chapels are a bit more preachy and commercialised. I don't like modern, happy-clappy ones."

Now a 75-year-old grandfather of two, Sir James is currently in good health, having had another scare in his 50s when it was discovered that both his right coronary artery and left descending artery were severely blocked, leaving him at high risk of a heart attack. Surgeons cleared the blockages and inserted two metal stents.

Since then he has been eating healthily and has been given a clean bill of health, but still suffers from nystagmus, a rare eye condition which has no cure. The disease affects the muscles in each eye, pulling them from side to side. Those darting peepers are usually shielded by large round glasses but he counts himself lucky not to have been wearing them when he fell face-down on some stairs at his villa a couple of weeks after his 70th birthday. He broke both his arms and feared he'd never play the flute again, but believes he "was saved on those stairs".

He reads the Bible most days and quotes it, he laughs, to his four "heathen" children from his first marriage - two sons, Stephen and Patrick, and twin daughters, Lotti and Jenny, who keep out of the limelight and have given him "a hard time" for missing school plays.

"Looking back on my career, my family would have been better off if I'd stayed at home and taught," he muses. "But I wouldn't change anything - except I'd be more generous with my time for my family and friends.

"We always spoiled the children, though. They went to the best restaurants and they wore fancy shoes at £300. I was content to have shoes with no holes in them."

He's better shod these days and favours a dark silk dinner jacket with a peacock print for his performances, appropriate for one who openly states he's still the best flute player in the world. He's so charming and accomplished, he gets away with his supreme confidence, which is also counteracted by his down-to-earth, good-humoured nature.

His undeniable genius has brought him many of the trappings of wealth - he has a swimming pool, library, wine cellar and studio in his villa, where he and the equally sunny Jeanne dine and play endless games of backgammon on a balcony overlooking the lake and mountains, and their gorgeous garden, which is full of Sir James' favourite roses.

The couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary last year.

He once bought her a Porsche for "putting up with me", along with a Bentley, as an investment. They met at a New York musical convention in 1978. Bowled over by his talent, Jeanne invited her fellow flautist out with some of her friends and they ended up playing flute duets in her kitchen. When he returned to the city a couple of years later, he remembered her and asked her out.

Very much his right-hand woman, Jeanne acts as her husband's manager, accompanying him on every tour.

"It's very much a 24-hour relationship but it works very well," he says when I wonder about them living in each other's pockets.

"We do fight but when we do, it's quickly resolved. We're very compatible. I think the secret is not to hold grudges and to just get on with it. Life's too short. We're very good at hanging out together."

Their easy cameraderie is evident in the film. At one point Jeanne stops to admire some jewellery in a shop window. "Yeah nice - come on," deadpans Sir James, walking on and making her laugh. As they say back in his home town, he knows the value of a pound, and has looked after his own finances since he saw his wealth beginning to diminish under portfolio managers - "I wanted to shoot them," he admits.

Yet, for all his wealth - and his 20 golden flutes - he doesn't live an extravagant lifestyle. When not touring or teaching at the local convent, he's up at 7.30 or 8am for a day of reading and practising for four or five hours, followed by dinner and a movie at home. As a fan of Jeremy Irons, he was delighted that the English actor agreed to narrate tonight's documentary.

"He's one of my favourite actors - I've watched all his movies. I love the one about him and the kid in a caravan, Danny, the Champion of the World, poaching pheasants. He's a very special actor - he only takes on scripts he's really interested in. I've got to that stage too - I don't like promoters telling me what to play. I'm too old for that! I like to choose my own material."

He names BB King and Liza Minnelli among the most exciting stars he has shared a stage with.

"It's mind-blowing to see performers like that in action," he enthuses.

"And Ray Charles singing Georgia On My Mind at the White House, that was one of greatest moments. Clinton was President at the time, I think. I never accompanied him on the saxophone but he was always talking about music.

"He told me that one day he would go to South America and play in a jazz club there, and a year later he came on the line and said, 'Remember I told you where I'd play some day?' And wasn't he in one, with a fantastic singer in the background. That blew my mind!"

For all his famous friends and international acclaim, Sir 'Jimmy' has never forgotten his roots. He proclaims Danny Boy as the best tune in the world and ends this fascinating documentary, and this conversation, ruminating on his national identity.

"Being from Northern Ireland is a very difficult thing, because on the one hand you're as Irish as anybody, but you have a British education thrown in," he concludes. "It doesn't stop me enjoying the Irishness I have inherited. I'm Irish, and it's Ireland, and there's nothing you can do about that."

Being James Galway is on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight at 10.45pm and again on BBC Four this Friday at 8pm as part of a night of Irish music. For details, visit www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/irish-landscape-and-music

Notes on Sir James

"He has the charm of the devil" - fellow flautist William Bennett.

"Jimmy has had this great love affair with the flute. He's totally infatuated with it. His last breath will be a blow into the flute" - writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

"He is the ultimate virtuoso, totally unique in his style" - Riverdance composer Bill Whelan.

"'The Man With The Golden Flute' is a good marketing strategy and the label stuck, but it is not character revealing of him as an artist. The first time I heard him play in New York, I was blown away" - Jeanne Galway.

"(After Annie's Song) he was accused of selling out by some of the snooty critics just for doing crossover with classical. It got up their noses that he did it on the flute. It was snobbery gone crackers. What's the problem?" - Melvyn Bragg.

"He took a big risk when he walked away from the Berlin Philharmonic to go solo. The flute is not a (guaranteed) instrument for success. It does not plumb the depths, like a violin. Where's the heart and soul in a flute?" - conductor and composer Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

"Everybody knows me here (in Lucerne). It's a full-time job being me" - Sir James himself reflects on life in his Alpine idyll

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