When I first met the senior British actors in Song for Marion's OAPz choir, emerging from caravans at the production base, or keeping warm in the St Francis church hall, many of their faces were familiar. I recognized the warm and friendly Elizabeth Counsell immediately. After searching my memory banks for half an hour I remembered that Ram John Holder had made me laugh as Porkpie in Desmond's. Anne Reid MBE is, of course, famous for her roles in Dinnerladies, Coronation Street and much, much else. There was definitely something familiar about the lovely Arthur Nightingale. And then there was Barry, who plays the sweet and accident-prone Timothy. Where had I seen him before?
It might have been from any one of dozens of TV roles, including in Minder, Play for Today and Bread. Barry Martin, 85, has been appearing in TV shows and movies for decades, going back to the mid-1950s before I was even born. He's presently appearing alongside Arthur Nightingale in Ricky Gervais's Derek. But it wasn't until I visited Barry at his home in Pimlico a few weeks ago that I grapsed just how remarkable his career as an actor and all-round entertainer has been.
Barry was born in Bethnal Green, the same part of East London that would generate Terence Stamp ten years or so later. His parents, who ran a pub called The Rising Sun, split up when he was young and for a time he was looked after by his great aunt, another publican, across the city in Holland Park Avenue. Barry lived there until he was entering his teens when, as he put it, his mother "re-appeared," and began encouraging him to sing. She knew a singing teacher, Dudley Marcus. Barry was sent to him from age 15 to learn to make the best of his voice.
He left school at 16 and got a job in Wardour Street, the heart of London's cinema industry, as a "barring clerk" - a job that entailed checking the contracts that governed when new films could begin to be screened in particular districts. "Some cinemas were allowed the show the film before others," Barry explained. "I had to check that the dates were correct."
At 18 he was called up to do his national service in the Royal Air Force. "One day I saw a notice," Barry recalled. "It said if you can sing, dance or act you can apply to join the RAF entertainment unit - the Gang Show, as it was called." He auditioned in front his commanding officer - "'Let's hear you, then,' he said. So I sang something and at the end he said, 'Not too bad,' and he sent my application through." Soon he was part of Ralph Reader's legendary performance troupe. "My sergeant was Tony Hancock. Peter Sellars dished out the costumes. Dick Emery was in it. We did shows all along the coast of West Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, Cyprus. There were times when, you know, you had to pretend to be in the air force - but most of the time it was fun."
Once a civilian again, Barry's theatrical career continued in the West End. He showed me mementos from an impessive range of shows he was in, including photographs of him and Bruce Forsyth, with whom he performed at the Windmill Theatre when barely into his twenties. "That was great training for me, because you did every kind of part, and now and then a famous comedia would come and you'd do sketches with them. I did my singing as well. There were two companies, 'A' and 'B', and we did six shows a day."
In the Sixties, Barry appeared on Broadway in the musical La Grosse Valise, a follow up to the hit La Plume de ma Tante. The show didn't take off, but soon afterwards, in 1967, Barry succeed Chaim Topol in the lead role of Tevye in the extremely successful London production of Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty's Theatre. The show also travelled to Newcastle, which made filming Song for Marion a pleasantly nostalgic experience for Barry. He later appeared in The Mousetrap, and a painting of him in one the long-running murder mystery's scenes adorns his front room.
Listening to him reminisce, it's hard to think of a British entertainment legend he hasn't worked with: "Monkhouse I knew, of course. Adam Faith. Roy Castle, he was very nice. Benny Hill. My wife, who was a Windmill Girl, and I were living in Maida Vale when we had our first baby. One day, we were out pushing the baby in the pram and suddenly someone ran up, shotuing at the top of his voice, 'Stop them! They're stealing my baby!' My wife looked at him and said, 'Oh, Benny, do shut up!' She knew him well. She knew what he was like."
I asked Barry if acting has always been the thing he wanted to do. It is, after all, a professional that has its ups and downs and in a career that's lasted getting on for 70 years he must have experienced his share of both. "Oh, I think so," he said. "Once a ham, always a ham, you know! You’re disappointed sometimes, obviously, but it was career I started when I was a teenager and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to change. You get fed up with things sometimes, obviously, but every now and again something really good comes along.
"With scripts, you’re never quite sure how things are going to turn out. You read them and you have a laugh sometimes, but until it starts being filmed it’s hard to know whether it’s going to be really good or not. A lot depends on the director, obviously, and the crew, and how it’s all put together. Actors live in hope all the time, you know."
Barry makes a big contribution to Song for Marion, and seems to have a good time doing it. "Gemma Arterton was very nice and very businesslike as well, as she should be of course. Paul, the director, is quite a character." He, Arthur and Ram spent some enjoyable evenings together after the day's filming was done. "It was lovely, staying right next to the Tyne."
I'd like to thank Barry very much for finding time to see me and for sharing some of the stories from his long and quite remarkable career.