A RETURN FOR HYMN AND HER

"People up there think I've retired. Some of them even think I'm dead, it's been so long since I've done live concert work in Scotland. Maybe five or six years." So Barbara Dickson didn't need to be asked twice to come to Edinburgh to star in 'Songs Of Praise'.

"I'm not what you would call 'holy, holy' but I do watch the show, usually in my kitchen while I'm preparing my youngest son's tea. That, followed by 'The Antiques Roadshow', is my Sunday early evening routine," she laughs.

It has indeed been some time since the former civil servant from Dunfermline who made her name with a string of hits in the late 70s performed live as such, although she has toured in the musical 'Spend Spend Spend', which came to the Festival Theatre in 1999.

These days she lives in rural peace and quiet between Lincoln and Grimsby with husband Oliver and their three sons, two of whom are at boarding school.

But having been a high-profile pro for 26 years, she gained sufficient respect from Tern Television, the Aberdeen-based independent production company who record 'Songs Of Praise' for the BBC from Scottish locations, that they allowed her to choose her one and only song for the Edinburgh programmes. Two editions of the series were recently recorded at Canongate Kirk - one for screening on April 6, the other for August during the Festival.

"I had to reassure them that the one I selected would be suitable for the occasion. Leonard Cohen's 'Song Of Bernadette' is one of my very favourite songs, written by one of my favourite writers. It'll slot in perfectly, I told them, have no fear.

"One of my all-time favourite hymns, the pick of them all I suppose, is 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind... Forgive Our Foolish Ways'. I'm not into the happy-clappy stuff you hear in some churches or the 70s pop song dressed up in religious clothing. You can't beat most of the Victorian hymns. They tend to be dignified, entirely appropriate for church."
She adds: "I'm not a practising Christian, so to speak, but I do try not to miss church on Sunday. I don't take a bible or hymnary with me, we have sheets of paper with the hymns by the door as we troop in. I pick one up and I sing along with the congregation.

"Put it this way, I try to observe the rules. When I raised a glass of wine to my lips the other day I was asked whether I should be drinking wine during Lent. That was a disapproving 84-year-old mother talking."

While the main part of the 'Songs Of Praise' Edinburgh filming took place in the Canongate, Barbara is actually seen down in Cramond.

"You know, for all my association with Edinburgh I'd never been in this specific church, closest I got to it was looking around Holyrood Palace as a tourist - and I still haven't seen the inside of it as my contribution, along with the guitarist from my band, Jerry Stevenson, was filmed at Cramond village, right next to the water on a brightish but bitterly cold day. We had contingency plans to film indoors at the Botanic Garden had it rained.

"I should have known better. I didn't expect it to be so chilly, so I didn't bring my thermals to wear underneath my coat and trousers. I stood there like a twit, shiverng and sustained midway through the shoot by a bowl of cullen skink in the riverside tea room. Call me a cullen skink girl from way back."

"Way back" takes her to her birthplace, Dunfermline, and to Edinburgh for her three-year civil servant stint in Register House.

"I checked out the place in passing recently and found that it's one of Edinburgh's buildings that has barely changed, in appearance and function. In my time there - I was living in Northumberland Street - I was a clerical officer in the statistics department, registering causes  of death among the Scots. Even then, predictably, the main causes were lung cancer and heart attacks."

Barbara, 56 come September, was also singing to her own guitar accompaniment around the Capital's folk clubs. Three or four quid per gig supplemented her civil service wages.

"I gave up the day job and turned professional in 1968, still as a 'folkie', and it wasn't until Christmas 1975, when I had my first chart hit with 'Answer Me', that I changed my style and switched to pop."

Shivering on a March day in Cramond was no hardship, she feels, if only that the job afforded an opportunity to reacquaint herself with the Edinburgh scene.

"I was beginning to wonder why, in three or four 'nationwide' tours, they didn't include any gig in Scotland. I began to think racism," she says with a wry smile. It's a long time, although I did play Edinburgh in 'Spend Spend Spend'. That was about Viv Nicholson, the woman who won the pools, and I suppose it was a bit off the wall, like 'Blood Brothers' which was very good for me, both in a lengthy West End run and in the provinces.

"I've done some private functions in and around Edinburgh over the last few years, charity events organised by rugby's David Sole. At those I turn up, do the songs and disappear. This time I didn't have the time to visit my cousins in Dunfermline but my oldest friend has settled in Edinburgh, and I hope to be seeing her more often."

She adds: "I really had two reasons to be in Edinburgh last Thursday. Apart from the filming I was one of Helen Liddell's 'unsung heroines of Scotland' along with Eddi Reader, Blythe Duff and company at a function in Edinburgh Castle's Great Hall. So atmospheric. I was thrilled to bits."

Another thrill awaits her. She's going to make an album in June produced by Rab Noakes. "We're going to record all of it in Scotland, a lot of it in a studio in East Lothian, so it's shaping up like an old Edinburgh revisited thing.

"We were both 17 when we first met, one Saturday lunchtime at Sandy Bell's in Forrest Road. The pub was a great haunt for folkies. We've never really lost touch over the years. The album will have a hands-on, acoustic feel. I've gone off lavish production, it doesn't do me justice."

The telly people are confident justice will be done the Sunday she turns up in 'Songs Of Praise'. Meanwhile she asks me to reaffirm that she has not retired. Nor is she dead.

Barbara Dickson is very much alive and well. And grateful for a bowl of cullen skink on a chilly day at Cramond.


"Evening News", March 21, 2003. Interview by John Gibson.

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