Life

The joy of watching Barry work

The late great film critic Barry Norman pictured on the set of Film '96

“MY DREAM job! Imagine, I was paid to go to the pictures with Barry Norman – a bit like being paid to have tea and cake with Mary Berry, only much, much better!"

So says John Marley, originally from Andersonstown but now living in London, of his time working with the late great film critic, who died last weekend at the age of 83.

A media studies graduate from the University of Ulster at Coleraine, John climbed the ranks from UTV to Noel’s House Party to producing and directing Barry Norman’s BBC television series Film ’96 and Film ’97.

John paid a warm and personal tribute to the man he admired so much.

“Barry was a true gent and very much his own man. We’d happily go along to a screening room festooned in No Smoking signs and as soon as the lights dimmed, out came the pipe and Barry would start puffing away.

"No one ever dared challenge him on it!"

John met all the greats, including heart-throb George Clooney.

"Clooney was booked to be interviewed by Barry. When the day arrived, I was fed up with the women wittering on at the mention of his name.

"I reckoned he’d arrive an hour late with an entourage as is the custom. Twenty minutes before he was due, a golf trolley pulled up at the door, a guy gets out and I think, 'that boy’s familiar'.

"He comes straight up to me, shook my hand and introduced himself – George Clooney. Now that’s style."

Being a producer on a prestigious show with a very honest presenter dropped him into some strange situations and resulted in some tense moments.

"It didn't matter how big the star was, how much the budget came to, if the film stank the place out, Barry would say it – often times to the star or the director in person. And usually I had a ringside seat.

"I recall very clearly a dreadful interview with Bruce Willis at the Cannes Festival. Willis was rude, surly, dismissive and all round unpleasant.

"Barry ended the uncomfortable chat by asking: 'Why do you bother doing these interviews? You clearly don't want to be here.'

"Cue publicist meltdown in the corner of the room. Equally, though I remember charming encounters; a lovely interview with our own Liam Neeson, Barry being utterly enchanted by a self effacing Ralph Fiennes and the day Barry had to tell Hugh Grant that his flies were open midway through a shoot."

It was a two-way relationship of trust. When Norman was invited to give a speech at an Irish Film Industry dinner in Dublin, he turned to his young producer for help.

"He said he needed a good joke to kick off with, something that would poke fun at the English. So I told him the one about God making his masterpiece, the Planet Earth.

"When completed He invited the Angel Gabriel to inspect it, explaining that it was a planet of balance in every way. Ireland caught Gabriel's eye and he asked God ‘Where is that?’

"‘That’s Ireland,' was the reply. 'It will be a land of Saints and Scholars, the people will be wise and beautiful, the land lush, green and fertile, it is the jewel in my crown.’

"'But if it has all this perfection, where is the balance in that, God?’, asked the angel.

"'Oh, wait 'til you see the horrible neighbours I'm going to give them!'

"Barry loved it, used it, and apparently it went down a storm. On his return, he presented me with a large bottle of Bushmills."

Barry Norman was indeed respected and revered and tributes have come from big names around the world.

I had coffee with him when he was working with the Ulster Orchestra on a concert of music from well-known films and, to put it mildly, he was charming, interesting and devastatingly handsome.

He put George Clooney well and truly in the cheap seats.

John recalls the interview Barry Norman had with the Hollywood star.

"Barry asked him what he put his success down to. Clooney replied, ‘Well, Barry, it's actually all down to something we have in common: We both have great TV hair.’

"I can hear Barry laughing at that even now. Rest in peace Barry Norman, you were a gentleman, a true broadcaster and I was lucky to have worked with you."

:: THE MAN IN BLACK IS BACK

All’s well with the world, the Col Saunders or perhaps General Custer lookalike is home again in his usual seat smiling his ever present smile.

There, in the corner of the player's box, he sits, little goatee beard well trimmed and his Stetson firmly on his head come rain or shine.

This is David Spearing, a senior honorary stewart tasked with the job of looking after friends and family of those taking part in Wimbledon fortnight.

Every year someone asks who this dark charmer is: it’s a pleasure to repeat that David is almost 82 and this year is his 44th championship.

When not on duty at Wimbledon, for the last 49 years he has lived Abu Dhabi where he runs his construction consultancy practice.

Lest you think this dapper Englishman just sits there enjoying the tennis, he’s up at 5.45am in time to greet hundreds of people in the overnight queue, directing them to their places, explaining what goes on and then making sure they have their identifying wrist bands.

He’s in demand for interviews with TV crews from around the world and is constantly signing autographs.

A busy morning, then – but only when his guests are settled in their VIP boxes and play starts does he gets a welcome sit down.

Although there have been quite a few hats over the years, the original is on display in the Lawn Tennis Museum and has become as famous as the man who first wore it.

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