Barbara Dickson: I never thought I would be killed playing in Belfast during the Troubles

Celebrated singer and actress Barbara Dickson is back on the Belfast stage this week. The Scottish performer talks to Richard Purden about playing in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, her friendship with Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty and why she rates Belfast singer-songwriter Anthony Toner as one of the best in the business

Folk legend Barbara Dickson is making a welcome return to the Belfast stage
Folk legend Barbara Dickson is making a welcome return to the Belfast stage Folk legend Barbara Dickson is making a welcome return to the Belfast stage

BARBARA Dickson has been many things during her 60-year career. She began in folk as a teenager in Scotland and by the mid-1970s found mainstream success as a pop star and later an actress.

But Dickson's passion for the folk tradition has never waned and she remains a central figure in the genre. This month she returns to Belfast for a special event at the Grand Opera House where she will share the stage with home-grown talent Anthony Toner.

Both musicians have built a strong bond after touring regularly over the last seven years. “Anthony is a fantastic singer-songwriter,” says Dickson. “He didn’t turn professional until relatively recently which is a bit of a shame because he is a wonderful writer.

"I wish he had been performing all his life because more people would know about his work. The Road To Fivemiletown is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard – he is a man of letters so the lyrics are good.

"Other than in folk music and writers like Karine Polwart (Scottish folk singer) lyrics are very poor at the moment. It’s often about people in their bedrooms."

Dickson has seen many changes in Belfast first visiting before the Troubles and continuing to travel for performances during the many years of conflict: “I played in Belfast a long time before the Troubles and continued to go during them and after in places like Newtownabbey and at the Sunflower Folk club which is a fantastic venue."

I ask her is she ever felt in danger during the Troubles. “I never thought I would be killed," she reflects. "I wasn’t playing for either side – why would you exploit the enjoyment of your community? You really had to just get on with it.

"Some of my band refused to go and I was very unsympathetic towards them. I played at a leisure centre that was later burned down, I remember one night when Northern Ireland beat Spain in a World Cup game (in 1982), I thought a bomb had went off but it was the reaction as millions of cheers and hands went up in the air."

In 1976 Dickson scored a top 10 smash with the country-tinged Answer Me. Her distinctive voice went on to define a string of radio-friendly classics, among them the evocative 1980 hit January February and her No.1 with Elaine Paige, I Know Him So Well.

“I don’t like to be identified with I Know Him So Well," she says of the song written by Tim Rice along with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba.

“I don’t take ownership of it because really it’s an Abba song, that’s the way I feel, but with the other songs, I do feel they are my songs like January February or Caravan (Song) and others. I’m mindful that people have a huge fondness for those songs.”

Accompanied by Nick Holland on piano and vocals, the pair will perform a selection from Barbara’s back catalogue as well as more recent releases and songs from her career in musical theatre: “I do things like Caravan and Another Suitcase In Another Hall (from Evita)."

Her career in musical theatre began with Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert. Its evocative interpretation of Beatles songs helped introduce her to an even wider audience.

Russell, who she first got to know on the folk scene, would invite her to play the now iconic role of Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers. She was a perfect fit for the role.

“My mother was Liverpudlian,” Dickson explains. “Willy’s background and my own were not dissimilar. She was a fantastically good character to play.

"Willy was so good at writing female parts and of course, there was also Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita."

Barbara Dickson's varied career includes topping the pop charts and West End musicals
Barbara Dickson's varied career includes topping the pop charts and West End musicals Barbara Dickson's varied career includes topping the pop charts and West End musicals

Dickson would go on to play another fascinating female character, Yorkshire housewife Viv Nicholson (in Spend, Spend, Spend) who became a £150,000 football pools winner in 1961 with her husband.

Nicholson was a media sensation at the time and later appeared on The Smiths' artwork for Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. Nicholson told the media she would "spend, spend, spend" and eventually died in penury.

“Viv was quite involved with the show," remembers Dickson of the musical, in which she starred in on London's West End from 1999.

"She was still alive at the time and we spoke at rehearsals. The thing is she was utterly committed to the road she went down. She travelled through life at 100 miles-per-hour and hit a brick wall. The tragedies in her life she seemed to take on the chin, she was an extremely strong and hot-headed person, not particularly wise but she was an interesting character to portray.

"It was a dreamlike picture. I played the more reflective middle-aged woman while another actress played her as a younger woman.”

Away from music and acting Dickson has a deep Catholic faith. Although not raised a Catholic it was something she was drawn to from an early age. “My dad was Church of Scotland and quite Protestant in his outlook," she explains.

"I married a very lapsed Catholic (television director Oliver Cookson). My husband was not observant but I led him back and now all of my family go to church (Dickson has three sons).

"We moved to Edinburgh about eight years ago and attend the Cathedral (St Mary’s).

"It’s a very peaceful place and the sort of place you go if you have troubles or something like that."

Scotland’s capital is where Dickson's career began, meeting the likes of Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty on the folk music scene.

“I remember seeing Gerry and Billy at Liberton Tennis Club, they were around a lot and I got to know Billy very well from those days. He was a good friend," she recalls.

"Gerry had been around the pop world and didn’t really plug into the folk scene until he got together with Billy in The Humblebums. It was all quite informal in those days, there was no top and bottom in the folk clubs. It was a real community in the true sense of the word and people were members of the clubs."

Dickson continues to play songs written by the late Rafferty in her live set and keeps in touch with her old friend Connolly.

“He is always fantastically buoyant and upbeat considering he has Parkinson’s. I am concerned all the time with how he is doing but he is fine at the moment and in good form. He lives in America and has some warm weather. We just laugh and I try to cheer him up."

Barbara Dickson and Anthony Toner are at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on Saturday March 18. Goh.co.uk