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Barbara: 'Being famous almost sent me off the rails!'

As she prepares to sing at the Open House Festival, Barbara Dickson looks back on her career and reveals why Belfast will be emblazoned on her mind forever

By Una Brankin

Published 22/08/2015

Barbara Dickson says she has an “eclectic sound”
Barbara Dickson says she has an “eclectic sound”
Barbara Dickson in Band of Gold
Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson

Barbara Dickson OBE still has lots of tousled chestnut hair but it's not quite as huge as it was in the Eighties, when she sang I Know Him So Well with Elaine Paige. The tall Scot dwarfed Paige in the famous video for the song from the musical Chess, and both wore deeply unflattering shoulder pads.

These days, Barbara (67) prefers a more casual look, as befitting the "organic folk" sound she's bringing to the Open House Festival in Bangor this Monday.

"It's radically different to what people think I do and quite difficult to describe - it's not for an audience in long frocks," she says in a strong burr. "I play guitar and piano and sing and I have a keyboard player.

"We do all the traditional stuff I'm known for and stuff from Caravans, and I also do songs I wrote with Gerry Rafferty - even a Bob Dylan tune. I'm not one to blow my own trumpet but I'd describe it as eclectic."

She's calling from Edinburgh, where she's house-hunting, having moved from her home of 40 years in Lincolnshire, with her husband Oliver, a television director. Her Scottish lilt is surprising; whereas Elaine Paige's singing voice comes through in her chatter, I can't hear Barbara's slightly deeper vocals at all throughout her conversation.

A quick blast on her website and on YouTube, however, and that beautiful, clear delivery is instantly recognisable. So how come, she has a much lower profile than Paige nowadays, after selling multi-millions of records, and having massive hits in the Seventies and Eighties with Another Suitcase In Another Hall, January February, and I Know Him So Well, as well as starring in the popular Nineties TV series Band Of Gold?

It's clear that the two women are very different - one a middle-class Englishwoman who never married or had children, and who has been described as highly strung; the other a working-class Scot and mother-of-three who insists she is no diva.

"I don't like networking - it's not curmudgeonly; it's just the way I am," Barbara explains. "I don't want or need to build my career or network. My profile is not great nowadays, but I don't try to get publicity. I see all these desperate middle-aged people on TV trying to make comebacks and I think 'just go home!'"

She recalls, with disdain, how her former manager tried to get her to do a Tina Turner-style dance routine in the middle of her act. She refused point blank.

"Yes, my management were frustrated with me," she admits. "They wanted me to go and live in the US once but I said no. They did get me to do some things I didn't want to do but I knew what was right for me - I always did, since I was 17.

"You do all the things for them you don't want to do, you make a lot of money and then you have to live with yourself. I knew where to draw the line."

Not networking was never a problem for Fife-born Barbara, who dislikes the phoney side of show-business. Like former BBC broadcaster Selina Scott, she always avoided glitzy events in her heyday.

"I don't go to parties and I don't get invited to them," she asserts bluntly. "I was invited to a big one about 12 years ago and I turned down the invitation. I don't like big groups of people and being trivial. I'm working class and I don't like making middle class small talk and chewing the, fat with a glass in one hand and a canapé in the other.

"I prefer one-on-one conversations or just sitting quietly wherever I go. For holidays, I like Mauritius. It's civilised and there aren't people shouting everywhere."

Another reason the singer/songwriter doesn't like parties is her partial deafness and unilateral tinnitus, a ringing in her left ear. Although she can still hear musical frequencies and tune her guitar, she can't hear the ticking of a clock and has to turn her head if someone whispers or speaks quietly on her left side.

Many musicians - including Coldplay's Chris Martin - have the same condition, from exposure to loud music without ear protection, but Barbara's isn't industry related.

"Mine came from an injury I got from being in a low-flying plane and then swimming in the Mediterranean and getting an earful of water. It started suddenly in 1973 and never went away, but I'm so busy, I don't notice it all - it doesn't bother me. I know it causes some people stress to have this rushing train sound in their head but I just see it as a noise in my ear and get on with it. It's a neurological problem, not an ear problem. I'm stuck with it but it's not life-threatening.

"The deafness is in the same ear. It's age-related, like eyes. Inevitable. A lot of people speaking all at the one time and all that crashing sound on hard surfaces at parties is difficult for me. I've to get people to speak clearly but my mother had a bigger problem. She was profoundly deaf and had to lip-read. My problem's trivial compared to her."

Born in Dunfermline in September 1947, Barbara was brought up in the Church of Scotland but describes herself as a "natural Roman Catholic", who loves the tradition of the Mass and the liturgy of Catholic worship. She credits her parents with her intense work ethic.

Her father was a cook on a tugboat and her mother, from Liverpool, was a very good singer, although she didn't work professionally.

When Barbara left her job in the civil service as a teenager to move to Edinburgh to pursue her career in the folk scene, alongside the likes of Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty and Aly Bain, her parents didn't approve.

"They were very upset, my mother especially, because nobody did that, leaving home for no reason," she recalls. "I was not going to university. Until the day she died, at 90, my mother said how hurt she felt but I wasn't going to live my life for her."

She hit the really big time with Chess in the mid-Eighties. Her duet with Elaine Paige, co-written by Abba's Benny Andersson, stayed at number one for four weeks. Barbara and Benny hit it off immediately.

"I'd met Benny and Bjorn Ulvaeus three years before that at a record convention when we were on the same label - I love them both. Benny Anderson started out in folk, as an accordion player, and he has an orchestra that do all this other stuff separately from Abba, but he can put his heart and soul into a tune, without any orchestration or the huge production Abba had.

"I think of him as a folk musician done well. The whole Mamma Mia phenomenon escaped me but he is massively talented. If you can play a tune on a single guitar, it's usually a good one."

Stardom inevitably brought its challenges. Barbara has admitted to fame almost driving her "off the rails", and still maintains her dislike of it. "I didn't really like starring in theatre with my name in lights. It's too arduous. I get too bogged down in it and doing eight shows a week is too much. I used to keel over and have to be carried out.

"I'm too serious for it - I have to come on and perform as if my life depended on it. If I'd kept it up, I'd have burned out. If there was a small cameo as a granny I'd do it but I don't know of anything like that. I don't fancy being on TV - I'm not into light entertainment. I don't fit into that."

"Saying that," she adds, "I just got on with it. I'm pragmatic and realistic - you have to play the game if you have a record out but I didn't enjoy being famous. The good thing about it now is that people know who I am. And will come to see me, even just out of curiosity. People love I Know Him So Well."

Her performance in Bangor on Monday is part of a nationwide UK tour. She's coming over in the car with her husband and staying overnight in a hotel outside the town, close to the home place of actor Jamie Dornan - "A fine advertisement for Irish manhood," she declares.

It's her first time in Bangor but she has played in Belfast on several occasions and has friends in the city.

"I remember coming over for things like the Queen's Festival in the mid-Seventies, when no-one else would come to play. I'm not trying to sound heroic; it was a weird situation but I thought, why would anyone want to blow me up? I'm just here to cheer up people!

"The place was devoid of touring acts and it was terrific to play Belfast. It's emblazoned on my mind forever. I had wonderful receptions. I remember playing Maysfield Leisure Centre the night Northern Ireland beat Spain in the World Cup.

"There was someone on the wings waving at me to tell me and I was thinking 'What the hell is going on here?' He said, 'I think you should tell the audience the team has won. Of course, they went mad at the news. It was a useful thing to announce to them. Great memories.

"I usually stayed at the Europa," she adds. "It was like some extraordinary war time hotel in the Middle East or somewhere, with all the journalists milling around and the actors and musicians in this sort of siege mentality."

Also an accomplished actress, the versatile Barbara appeared on The Two Ronnies, and starred in the musicals Blood Brothers and Spend, Spend, Spend, and Taggart and Band Of Gold on TV. Playing live music is her vocation, however. She last performed in Ireland in 1987.

"I made an enormous effort three or four years ago to play here and the agent David Hull has been extraordinarily helpful. I don't like playing in huge sterile venues; this church in Bangor is perfect for the sort of organic folk tunes I do."

When she's not touring or recording, she likes to spend time with her three as yet unattached sons, Colm, Gabriel and Archie, who cook for her.

"They're all into cooking - I marvel at what they can put on a plate. I don't like cooking; I got fed up with it. Oliver's okay at it and I don't mind whipping up a pudding - there's no pressure with that. I do like eating but I want someone else to cook dinner.

"I'd rather do needle work. I can cross-stitch and I like making cushions and so on. And I love crosswords and good Scandanavian and French dramas. I watched Downton until Matthew died. I loved it at the beginning but these things go on too long in my opinion. There's too much money involved.

"Father Ted and Fawlty Towers got it right, ending when they did. We like Game of Thrones too."

Although she judged a recent Young Chorister of the Year competition, Barbara has turned down a TV talent show, the name of which escapes her.

"I said 'No, I don't judge anybody', and I don't think I'd have anything positive to say about the type of person that goes on those shows. I prefer an open-mic set up for singers starting out.

"I used to get letters asking for advice on how to succeed in the business. I remember this woman asking how to make her six year-old into a pop star. It was more about her than the child."

A long-time admirer of James Taylor and the Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, Barbara prefers original contemporary folk to "diddly diddly", which she believes has had its day. Her sons have inherited her musical talent.

"I've no grandchildren yet, thank God," she dead-pans. "None of the boys have settled down yet - I told them not to do that too quickly. Younger people take longer now. We grew up much quicker.

"They're all musical and artistic; there are no doctors or lawyers in this family. The youngest one is a professional musician; the middle one's a very good singer, and the eldest is a stage manager. They get it from both sides - there's a long line of actors on Oliver's side."

Oliver commutes to the BBC's Birmingham studios for two weeks at a time for Doctors and a new series, The Coroner. It was his decision to move to Edinburgh, which is logistically handy for his wife's gigs.

She loves flowers and is looking for a house with a nice garden.

"I like to stand with a trowel and give people instructions on where to put what. I'm mad for flowers but I'm not into back-breaking gardening. I am doing more walking since we moved here - it's lovely to be back walking around the city aimlessly.

"It's a whimsical thing. I'm never in a hurry. Edinburgh is the most beautiful city, no disrespect to Belfast. The architecture is beautiful and the people are very, very nice. It's a very culturally strong city, like Belfast.

"I don't get asked for my autograph now but people speak to me all the time," she concludes. "I'm like the Queen Mother here - people are very kind and it's very benign now; not OTT. People like me and at my time of life, that's lovely."

  • Barbara Dickson will be at Bangor Abbey on Monday (Aug 24) as part of the Open House concerts for the final week of the festival

Diverse and dynamic highlights at the Open House Festival

With more than 100 events taking place in 36 different locations in and around Bangor for the duration of August, the Open House Festival is presenting a dynamic programme of handpicked music and arts in very special venues.

This year, as well as music, film, comedy and spoken word events, the festival is introducing food and theatre to its repertoire. And there will also be a diverse range of art, photography and print exhibitions running throughout the month.

In addition to gigs in Bangor Abbey featuring Barbara Dickson on Monday, Joan Armatrading, on Tuesday, August 25, and Ian McCullough, on Thursday, August 27, highlights include a gastronomic tour of the town and a series of specially selected site-specific films, such as a 30th anniversary screening of The Breakfast Club in a school assembly hall.

There’s a 1920s inspired festival ball on August 30 in the Marine Court Hotel and a picnic party on August 31 in the town’s Walled Garden to celebrate Van Morrison’s 70th birthday. There’ll be theatre in pubs; music in clubs; comedy in schools; a host of pop up food events; and a festival community choir, which will be performing at several events throughout the month.

The town is also welcoming artists from America, Spain, Holland, Ireland and the UK, some of whom will be familiar names, and some you might not have heard of — yet. Bangor Culture Day for amateur artists of all varieties takes place as part of the festival today.

See openhousefestival.com

Belfast Telegraph

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