The BBC wouldn’t pay me enough for jazz, says Paul Barnes
- Credit: supplied
Paul Barnes says he had to stop doing his BBC Radio jazz programme The Late Paul Barnes because the pay was too poor
At 11.00 pm on Saturday, May 12 this year Anna Perrott went on the radio and said, 'You may well be wondering where the Late Paul Barnes is. As the song has it: He ain't gettin' any younger, and he's decided these late nights were becoming a bit too much for him. So he's hung up his headphones and asked me to say on his behalf 'pip, pip' and thanks for listening.'
Everybody thought I'd retired. Wrong. I resigned. I wrote those words for Anna to help the BBC soften the sound of the slamming door.
For two hours each week I presented a programme of jazz and classic popular music, 'rhythm and rhubarb of a superior sort'. Think of Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown performing the Gershwins' Embraceable You, or Claire Martin's version of Irving Berlin's Say it isn't So with Richard Rodney Bennett. You get the picture? It had to be one of the best jobs in broadcasting.
So why did I give it up? One reason was the derisory pay. For nine years I delivered the complete package: research, knowledge, music, presentation and paperwork – for peanuts. For the last five years the pay was unaltered: £159.50 per show.
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The programme was shared by seven BBC stations: Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Northampton and Three Counties (Beds, Bucks and Herts).
Now divide £159.50 by seven. Each of the stations was getting a two-hour trouble-free programme for £22.79, less than the cost of a round of lattes for the likes of Woman's Hour's pitifully underpaid Jane Garvey (£150,000 per year, and counting) and the sisterhood of producers, researchers, secretaries and hangers-on.
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'The Late Paul Barnes' was quite literally a one-man show. The music came from my own collection; the rhubarb was home-grown, made up as I went along, though I did sometimes cadge a stick or two from other people, like Philip Larkin who once said, 'I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz.' He wrote shrewdly and wittily on jazz for the Daily Telegraph, a superior class of rhubarb that I sometimes borrowed, but I always gave him credit.
The programme's reach was far wider than East Anglia. Here's Valery who lives in Connecticut: 'You have given us great pleasure with the music you have played from your collection and the information you have given about the various musicians, singers and composers. You certainly helped me to appreciate jazz. Before I started to listen to your program I was somewhat ambivalent about it, and where else will I be able to hear words such as 'quid' and 'wireless' and 'gramophone records'?'
That would perplex the BBC regional types because they seldom if ever listened to the show. Was it a case of 'pearls before swine'? The pearls were actually behind them. And what pearls were on offer! Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Karrin Allyson, Artie Shaw, Stacey Kent, Harry James, Humphrey Lyttelton, Duke Ellington, Diana Krall, Martin Taylor, Jacqui Dankworth, Fats Waller, Stan Getz, Jelly Roll Morton, and hundreds more.
'Educate, inform and entertain,' said John Reith, setting out the first fine principles of broadcasting in 1922. Reith was the BBC's founding father.
'Follow the bouncing ball,' said Eddie Harvey from the Johnny Dankworth orchestra. He'd written Teach Yourself Jazz Piano. This was in 1976 when I worked on Today, presenting the Saturday morning edition. We planned a feature based on the book and needed a guinea pig to be coached by Eddie. I found her in the newsroom, a serene young sub-editor with a lovely voice who owned up to playing 'rusty classical' piano. Her name was Julia Somerville. Eddie coaxed her into a daintily syncopated twelve-bar blues. Forty years later I included that feature in the Saturday night programme. Educate, inform and entertain.
In 2011 I won the award of 'Jazz Broadcaster of the Year', a fluke, of course. But an award is an award. Paul Gambaccini handed it over at a reception on the House of Commons terrace. Worth a word to the papers, I thought. Radio Norfolk kept mum. It got into the EDP only because I told the paper myself.
Why was I soft enough to carry on? Because the music mattered; judging by their letters and emails an intelligent and appreciative audience agreed. An even bigger potential audience remained unaware that the programme existed, because the BBC hardly lifted a finger to help us find each other.
Now that jazz is off the agenda, the BBC's regional wiseacres have come up with a startling novelty, something never before attempted on local radio: a phone-in punctuated by pop records. John Reith would be bursting with pride.