The Very Best of John Barry with the RPO

 Friendship Matinee: RPO’s The Very Best of John Barry: Alison Jiear and Lance Ellington (guest vocalists), Tommy Pearson (presenter), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nic Raine (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9.2013. (JPr)

As part of its charitable remit to offer increased access to the arts, the Royal Albert Hall has launched Friendship Matinee – an annual concert with a discounted ticket price of just £5, exclusively for charities and those supported by community and voluntary groups. It will be a one-off performance held annually for people of all ages who otherwise would not get an opportunity to visit the world famous venue. The first one involved the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s  ‘The Very Best of John Barry’, a special performance paying homage to the late great film composer, featuring many of his famous scores including the James Bond theme.

Lucy Noble, Head of Programming and Education at the Royal Albert Hall, has commented on this new initiative saying: ‘Prince Albert’s legacy was to offer access to the arts and we’re staying true to this with Friendship Matinee. We’re committed to providing opportunities for those who wouldn’t normally get the chance to visit the venue and are thrilled to have the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on board for the first show. We hope as many charities, local community groups and organisations are able to get involved as possible’.

In the end several hundred took up the offer of the cheap seats for the afternoon matinee and there was an encouraging show of hands when presenter Tommy Pearson asked who was making their first visit to the Royal Albert Hall or who was hearing an orchestra live for the first time. He announced a number of prominent local organisations were present including the Salvation Army, the London Irish Group, Open Age, Greenfields Children Centre and the Abbey Centre. He reminded everyone how the RAH is held in trust for the nation so ‘Everyone, including all of us here today, owns a piece’ and that this was the ‘first time in 142 years it has held a Friendship Matinee concert.’ The concert was arranged in association with the ‘Silver Sunday’ organisation that began by celebrating the older residents of the City of Westminster, helping them get out and about, to meet new people and generally have a fun time – and now there are often events throughout the UK.

The highlights from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s tribute to John Barry was the perfect choice for the first Friendship Matinee as there was a chance that most of the audience would have seen one of the films for which he wrote a score, especially since he composed the soundtracks for 11 James Bond films between 1963 and 1987, and had also arranged and performed the ‘James Bond Theme’ for the first film in the series, Dr. No (1862). Discussing Barry’s Academy Awards Pearson said how Barry had been ‘only nominated seven times in a 40-year career and had won five times’. He said that was a good hit rate but none of these were for Bond. (In case you are wondering with which films he won his Oscars they were  Born Free (1966) – Best Original Score and Best Original Song; The Lion in Winter (1968) – Best Original Score; Out of Africa (1985) – Best Original Score; and Dances with Wolves (1990) – Best Original Score.)

There could be no better choice than Nic Raine to conduct John Barry’s music as he worked for him for about 20 years, having first met him and been taken for a boozy Covent Garden lunch and been told by the great composer ‘I’m going to enjoy working with you – you like a drink!’ In a 75-minute concert the amplified Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played, with their usual consummate skill, some of the orchestra scores of Zulu, The Quiller Memorandum, Chaplin, Dances with Wolves, Out of Africa, Midnight Cowboy, Body Heat and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.Barry collaborated with a number of people on the title songs for the films he scored and these ranged from Leslie Bricusse and long-time collaborator Don Black, to Duran Duran. The always-excellent Lance Ellington (from the Strictly Come Dancing house band) sang the themes from Thunderball, The Living Daylights and A View to a Kill. Alison Jiear had the hard task of banishing thoughts of Shirley Bassey from my mind while belting out the very familiar songs from Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. It is to her credit that after a nervous start – to use modern phraseology – she made them her own. Tommy Pearson explained how ‘Goldfinger’ was ‘quintessentially John Barry’ because of its ‘catchy tune, screaming brass and sassy vocals’. He later said how ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ caused Bond producer, Harry Saltzman, some consternation because of Don Black’s suggestive lyrics that include ‘Touch it’, ‘Stroke it’ and ‘Caress it’. I suspect that in RPO’s full John Barry concert there would have been more comments and anecdotes like this and this could only help an audience’s enjoyment of the music.

I do hope the lighting was a little more subtle for the proper concert as it was sometimes inappropriately garish and, for instance, a very vivid purple with flickering white spots served for both Midnight Cowboy and Diamonds Are Forever. I suspect money is the problem but a programme like this would benefit from some projection of scenes from the relevant films onto screens around the hall because – truth be told – without anything to look at John Barry’s slightly repetitive non-vocal scores do not really ‘go’ anywhere, sounding like the musical equivalent of waves rolling onto a shoreline time and again before the tide just ebbs away.

Nevertheless all present – including the two oldest audience members at 100 and 102! – seemed to thoroughly enjoy this first Friendship Matinee and I am sure would come again if they could.

Jim Pritchard


For future concerts with the RPO see their website


For more about ‘Silver Sunday’ visit the website