A Family Connection

The Barrow Poets

by Harry Dobermann

THE Barrow Poets were a band of musicians and performers whose mission statement was that poetry is written, not only to be appreciated in silence but also to be enjoyed in the company of others. They performed in pubs in the 1950's and '60's before expanding to concerts halls, radio and TV in the 1970's. Patrick Wymark was in at their origin, and through one of their members Jim Parker there was a family connection which continued into the 21st Century.

The Barrow Poets began in 1951 as a group of students from London University. Wanting to take part in the Festival of Britain, the students, reputedly supported by Patrick Wymark who was then President of the Dramatic Society, came up with the idea of performing and selling poetry from a street barrow. When the London County Council refused to grant them a street license, they decided to perform in pub saloon bars, with folk music providing interludes to the poetry. Although Patrick Wymark was had departed to the Old Vic School by this time, it is likely that the concept would have had his firm support. For several years they were sponsored by Flowers and Whitbread's Brewery under an Arts Council programme called Plays and Poetry in Pubs. As their popularity grew they began regular performances at the Printers Devil in Fetter Lane, filling a large room to overflowing. In 1967 the Brewery sponsorship was curtailed thanks to the economic freeze, but the poets had built up enough of a following to appear regularly in the basement of the Sir Christopher Wren pub in the old Paternoster Square (where the title sequence for The Power Game was filmed. The Barrow Poets also appeared at concert halls and street festivals. In 1963 they recorded the first of several albums, An Entertainment of Poetry and Music for ARGO records. the album was reputedly recorded at a private house with egg boxes used as sound insulation.

Members of the collective included Gerard Benson, code-breaker, actor and instructor at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Together with fellow Barrow Poet Cicely Smith, he was one of the instigators of the Poems on the Underground Scheme in 2013, and was named Poet Laureate of the City of Bradford. Other members included Manx poet and artist William Bielby-Wright, (inventor and player of the "Cacofiddle") his wife, musician and manager Susan Baker, Christine Shotton, actress and instructor at the Central School, Heather Black, John Naylor, and William Gardener.

There was no typical Barrow Poet's performance but reviews indicate that audiences could expect a combination of vulgarity, wit and tenderness. They might see Gerard Benson and William Bielby-Wright performing Love in the Blackout by Vernon Scannell, and other poems by W.B. Yeats or Robert Graves, Susan Baker performing Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess on the violin, Heather Black recounting poems by William Blake and Alan Garner, all supported by piano and woodwind from Jim Parker.

Parker joined the group after having been an oboist in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and also having played with the London Philmharmonic. Parker had ambitions to compose and brought a more intricate range of music than the traditional folk tunes which had supported the poetry. In 1976 he composed the music for the Granada TV anthology series Red Letter Day which included the classic Jack Rosenthal comedy Ready When You Are Mr McGill. Jim Parker went on to compose further scores including the Tales Of The Unexpected episode A Stranger In Town, Wendy Toye's remake of her 1952 film, The Stranger Left No Card. Parker also scored the BBC House of Cards trilogy before landing the 20 year gig scoring Midsomer Murders. Coincidentally, this series starred Jane Wymark as Joyce Barnaby (with Tristram Wymark appearing in one of her final episodes as a guest suspect). Parker's idiosyncratic theme for the series is played here by Celia Sheen on the Theremin.

John Nettles as Inspector Barnaby with Jane Wymark as Joyce Barnaby

The Barrow Poets continued performing on and off into the 1990's, with their last show reckoned to be around the year 2000. They made several radio appearances in the 1970's and 1980's, and the middle class ribaldry of The Pheasant Plucker's Song became a Top Ten single in Australia.

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