BARBARA DICKSON : FRIGHTENED OF FLYING... BUT NOT OF FLYING HIGH

Although Barbara Dickson has made many guest appearances with the top names in show business, she never loses sight of one fact - the audience are her guests, and it's up to her to make them feel at home.

The note in my diary read, "Meet Barbara Dickson. 10.30 a.m. at her office, South-West London." I've since added, "An out-of-the-blue, bitterly cold day, but a very warm, down-to-earth lady."

I arrived early and found myself in a tiny office where a girl called Florence was hugging her coat around her. The heating had failed! "Is the heating not working?" Barbara called as she arrived wearing a bright smile, tinted spectacles, a warm jacket, grey trousers and boots. In her wake came Frances, her company secretary. She immediately got on the phone to arrange some television rehearsals for Barbara.

"I picked Frances up on my way here and the choke on my car flooded," Barbara was saying. "I don't like the sound of the brakes either. It is cold, isn't it? Couldn't we get some more fires from somewhere?" She turned to me. "So nice to meet you. Sorry about all this." She then had to speak to Frances, who was making signals at her. "Yes, tell them I'll need three days' rehearsal."

Minutes later, Barbara picked up an electric fire and we all moved into a warmer and more elegant office. We settled down and one of the first things we talked about was the nomadic part of her work, which seems to find echoes in the titles of her hits, "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" and "The Caravan Song" from the film "Caravans".
Towards the end of last year Barbara and her band of talented musicians played a hugely-successful 40-date nationwide tour, ending up at the Albert Hall. There, I watched her hold an audience of all ages and walks of life in the palm of her hand.

Although touring is never profitable, Barbara can think of nothing more worthwhile than coming face to face with her audience in an atmosphere she described as being "almost like having a lot of people sitting in my front room." Certainly, Barbara does create that kind of intimacy in concert. As she observed, there's a lot to be said for spectacular, on-stage theatrics, but that's not her scene. Yet it is the key to her approach to appearing on television.

Barbara delights in playing television concerts and thoroughly enjoys guesting on such prestige shows as "The Two Ronnies". But she's reluctant to do a series of her own because she feels that television tends to present most singers in much the same way.

"I don't really want to have sets with things fluttering above my head while I'm singing," Barbara remarked. "It wouldn't suit me or my music. I'm very obssessed with being an honest performer. I like to present what I am and what I do in a very straightforward way. The best setting for me is the concert setting. On television I must, at least loosely, present what I would be like in concert.

"The show I do is very much on a person-to-person basis. I like to communicate with the audience, tell them little stories about my songs and take what they already know about me a bit further. Hopefully, they'll feel it's a personal experience for them, because it is for me."

The personal experience of meeting Barbara reveals that her accent still reflects that she was born in Dunfermline where her parents sent her to piano lessons to channel her youthful aptitude for music. She now plays the piano by ear and stopped having lessons at the age of 13 when she taught herself to play the guitar, again by ear. "That was really when I started singing and accompanying myself," Barbara remembered. "But I didn't push myself in that direction. I didn't have the sort of confidence that makes a pushy kid get up and say, 'Listen to me.' I thought it was ghastly to be like that - in fact, I still do!"

It's Barbara's feeling that entertainers worth their salt are usually spurred into their profession by the gentle, subtle encouragement of other people. Her gentle persuaders were a group of friends, who, when she was 17, were with her at a folk club where the proprietor issued his weekly invitation, "Does anybody want to sing?" "Why don't you sing?" Barbara's friends whispered to her. "I'm too nervous" she whispered back. "That's ridiculous" was their reply. "You'll sing that song you've sung to us." And Barbara heard her companions announce, "Our friend here will sing."

"I was terrified," she recalled. "But after I'd done it once I was fine." After a while, Barbara left Dunfermline to go to Edinburgh, where she worked at the Registrar General's Office by day and sang in folk clubs by night. Barbara was obliged to resign her job when offered a six-week singing engagement in Denmark. She returned from that trip feeling that the world was her oyster. Admittedly she soon found herself temporarily on the dole, but now she had committed herself totally to making a career as a singer.

With the support of her parents, Barbara managed to survive until she moved to England to investigate the folk scene there. After four years of working in English folk clubs, her friend Willy Russell asked her to appear in his musical play "John Paul George Ringo...& Bert". And the rest, as they say, is history. A star was born. Fame and fortune were hers.

Within months of the show's closing, Barbara had a hit with "Answer Me". Ever since then her professional life has followed a successful pattern of live concerts, recordings and television work, with as much in-between time as possible spent writing songs for her albums, including "You Know It's Me". But songwriting is a solitary business and Barbara is a very social person.

"I'm writing constantly, but it's quite a battle," she said, and laughed. "I almost have to box my ears all the way to the piano. I feel there's much to be said for giving the definitive interpretation of a song written by someone else. But from a personal point of view the ultimate satisfaction is to create a song of your own and sing it well."

Barbara has a great sense of humour and is not an intense person, until it comes to her passionate concern for conservation and the effects of human greed. "I can't bear the idea of mankind making any person or animal less fortunte than himself suffer because of all sorts of greedy Western ideals," she said. "Because of that, I am especially concerned with the Greenpeace movement which tries to stop whaling, to stop seal culling, and to stop the dumping of nuclear waste in the sea.

"I get very angry that whales, such magnificent creatures, have to end their days suffering the indignity of being cut up on factory ships. To me, any cruelty or indignity inflicted on man or animals is madness."

Barbara has never written those feelings into a song because she feels most songs of that character sound sanctimonious or schamltzy. She'd rather spread the word verbally, but not in a soapbox manner. She has, however, unequivocally expressed her deep-rooted fear of flying in her composition, "Plane Song".

"I can't be convinced that flying is a good idea," Barbara smiled. "I know statistics prove it's safer to fly than cross the road, but I can't accept it! I don't really like the air. I feel safe on the ground, and in the water. I like boats, swimming, anything at all to do with water. But I just can't stand being above the clouds."

Barbara also loathes having her photograph taken, which must surely strike a chord in those of us who feel the same, and wonder how we'd cope if it were part of our job to have publicity photographs taken for an album cover and concert programmes. How does she cope with the ordeal?

"At one time, if I was being interviewed and a photographer was there, I was frightened of saying, 'Please don't take my picture.' But now I do say it. Every picture I've seen of myself that's been taken when I didn't want it to happen has been ghastly. I've also had the experience of people holding up a picture and saying, 'You used to look like that.'

"My mother, who is the greatest expert on me and what I look like, has said, 'That is a very cruel thing to do. You never looked like that. It's a poor picture.'"

In other words, if the situation and setting is wrong, the camera can lie. "If someone takes an awful picture of you, you mustn't say, 'Oh, no, do I look like that?'" Barbara went on. "You don't look like that. And if it is awful I don't see why it should be put in the papers. It should instantly be put in the bin."

Obviously, Barbara has some pictures taken when she's in concert. But she feels happier, and thinks the results are better, if she faces the camera at photographic sessions where people who know her and care about her are on hand to help her relax. This makes the whole ordeal much less painful.

There seems to be little else Barbara dislikes, unless it's large parties where everybody stands around making mindless conversation. She loves meeting new people, but in small groups where she can really get to know them.
"I like to talk to people on a one-to-one basis and find out about them," she told me. "This has special meaning and importance for me in my kind of work.

"I'm in an occupation where I get to meet lots of different kinds of people, but usually don't have the opportunity to take any of the relationships further. When I get the chance to sit down and have a good chat to someone, I really love it.
I also love special occasions when I can dress up and go out to a premiere or something. But I'm not a nightclub person, and definitely not a lounge lizard."

Indeed, Barbara generally prefers to spend her free evenings in her London home, either with her feet up in front of the telly or having dinner with a few friends. And how does she choose to spend her free time between her busy tours?

"Most people like to spend their holidays in sunny faraway places and to have a complete change of scene. But I really must admit that I like to spend my holidays comfortably at home, or for a change, to go once a year to a health farm. To me a week on a health farm where you can relax, have massages, swim, watch television, write letters and just have time to think, is the nearest thing to heaven I can think of.

"It's a bit like being in hospital, with all the time to relax, to eat good food, to meet new people but without being ill. It's lovely."

Better than flying certainly! But with Barbara's manager now discussing plans for her to work in places as far-flung as Europe, America, Australia and the Far East, it rather looks as if she'll be taking off into the blue skies much more often.

Nevertheless, professionally speaking, she finds the idea of exploring new territory very appealing, and Barbara wants to take off in a very unexpected way - not as a singer but perhaps as a presenter in a Radio 4 direction.

"It's difficult to envisage someone like me doing something so very different like that at the moment. I'm very interested in all sorts of things, and being born with the gift of the gab - I really have kissed the Blarney Stone, you know - I haven't looked back since."

Still looking forward, Barbara said "I don't make predictions about my life. I'm fairly modest in the way I see my career. I hope to go on improving all the time, continuing to do much the same as I've been doing, but more and better. Let's face it, I'm in a very privileged occupation. I'm able to do what I love doing and get paid for it.

"If I was able to go on doing it for the next ten years or whatever it would be absolutely wonderful."

It seemed time for me to make my exit, leaving Barbara free to return home to keep a pressing engagement with a half-written song. Not that she appeared anxious to go! Shaking my hand, as I prepared to take my leave, she said, "It's been really lovely talking to you. Oh! You're absolutely frozen. I am sorry. I hope it was worth it."

It certainly was.


"My Weekly" magazine, 1981
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