Michael Barnes OBE (1932 - 2008):
Michael Barnes was one of the most significant figures in the arts world in Belfast and Ulster generally - and the leading arts promoter - for over two decades, a leader among those who not only helped maintain a vibrant arts life in Belfast and beyond, but in many ways to expand it and lighten some tenebrous and dangerous years in a troubled city. He accomplished this principally in two roles: as Director of the Queen's University Festival, later the Belfast Festival at Queen's, which he led from being a small concern in virtual stasis and red figures to a major international event; and as Director of the Grand Opera House, Belfast, where he turned an venerable theatre slated for demolition into one of the most popular venues in the region, again attracting the best international as well as local performers. Though these to an extent intertwined, they were essentially separate and it took a remarkable talent to execute them simultaneously and so successfully.
Michael James Barnes came from Peckham, south London. He won a scholarship to Alleyn's School, Dulwich, south-east London, where he was awarded all the main prizes in history and verse, and proceeded to Wadham College, Oxford, where he graduated with first class honours in History in 1954. He was extremely active in the Wadham Drama Society, of which he was Secretary, and where he was able to indulge and display his enthusiasms for opera, musical comedy, acting, and theatre, whether producing and writing for the stage or appearing on it, both of which he did to high acclaim. In 1956 he moved to Edinburgh University as assistant lecturer in modern history; he was an early contributor to the now world-famous Fringe festival in that city.
He arrived in Belfast in 1961 having been appointed Lecturer in the Department of History. He was a popular teacher, his tutorial classes particularly, but his projected PhD thesis on Richard Brinsley Sheridan was never completed (although he published an occasional article), in large part as he was unsurprisingly very interested in the arts life in the University and the city generally. In 1962, a student, Michael Emmerson (later manager at RCA Red Label classical records) founded an arts festival in Queen's University, of which Barnes was an enthusiastic supporter, and when in 1968 Emmerson opened a Belfast branch of the National Film Theatre, it was based in Queen's with Barnes as Chairman of the Film Sub-Committee. The Queen's Film Theatre began in a lecture theatre, with seats designed for students sitting upright, taking notes on pull-up desks. It was the first cinema in Ulster to show films on Sunday (though subject to certain conditions) and flourished; now usually known simply as the QFT, it still occupies the same site in Queen's University, though unrecognisable from its origin - with two screens, the latest in projection technology, and the cineaste's every comfort from luxurious seating to a spacious bar area, and an elegant Victorian entrance instead of a narrow foyer off an bleak alleyway full of bins, which contained some at least of the rubbish there.
Emmerson left the Queen's Festival in January 1971. His successor, appointed in the summer of that year, stayed only until early 1973, at which point the Festival was in an uncertain state: in the words of a future Vice-Chancellor and President of Queen's (that is, the CEO), himself a principal supporter of the Festival, it had no staff, a large deficit, little credibility and even less hope. Barnes, by now promoted Senior Lecturer in History agreed in 1973 to try to revivify it; the University, supportive, facilitated his new dual rôle as he was still a full-time academic. The Festival of 1973 (held as would become usual in November) was a success, artistically as well as financially (yielding a surplus for the first time since 1969) and its upward trajectory had commenced.
The Queen's Festival became under the Directorship of "MJB" (his highly capable deputies always at his elbow) the second-biggest arts festival in the British Isles - only the Edinburgh Festival surpassed it. Its international reputation was earned to a large extent by Barnes himself. He had a very keen eye and ear not just for outstanding talent in development; his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the arts covered virtually every branch, and his winning personality was undoubtedly key to persuading international stars, ensembles and companies to come to a festival which was, after all, based in a city which had an all-too-negative reputation internationally.
This was no negligible problem. Several artists and companies declined invitations to Belfast because of its "Troubles" though there was one threatened outright cancellation, in 1981, when in the wake of an actual cancellation by the Royal Ballet, the Scottish Ballet, too, considered cancelling their visit to the Festival; the actors' union, Equity, had been advising its members that such cancellations would not be considered by them breach of contract, given the serious situation prevailing in Northern Ireland at that time. Barnes and a representative of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland went in person to Glasgow, where Barnes was able to assure the company that they would be at no personal risk in Belfast, and managed to dissuade them from cancelling. This was significant not just for its own sake, but for the positive signal it sent to other performers - a negative signal might well have had serious consequences not just for the Festival but for any arts promoters in Northern Ireland, not least the Grand Opera House, Belfast, of which Barnes was already Director. As it turned out, this problem never arose again.
The roster of names Barnes attracted to the Festival was sparkling. The Royal Shakespeare Company's visit was an annual fixture; Laurence Olivier took the National Theatre (with such actors as Lynn Redgrave, Billie Whitelaw and Albert Finney) across the Irish Sea and the Abbey Theatre of Dublin appeared with Siobhan McKenna; other actors to be seen included included Colin Blakely, the Ulsterman, Ian McKellen, and Barry Foster; the "Guinness Spot" was one of the most popular venues, drawing jazz performers from both sides of the Atlantic, whether Humphrey Littleton or Dizzy Gillespie; some even travelled from the United States specially to appear at the Festival. There was a Folk Club for Irish traditional music, an annual Tyrone Guthrie Memorial Lecture, to commemorate the celebrated theatre director who had strong Ulster links, was delivered amongst others by actor and director Anthony Quayle and Jonathan Miller, the theatre and opera director, author and television presenter. Classical music was represented by soloists such as Sviatoslav Richter, Yehudi Menuhin, Jorge Bolet, John Lill and Janet Baker, and from Ulster, James Galway, Barry Douglas and Heather Harper; ensembles such as the Beaux Arts Trio of New York; and as well as the province's own Ulster Orchestra, others from Detroit to Manchester to Moscow, including the legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, who concertised on three successive evenings under their celebrated Music Director, Kurt Masur (a special limited-edition sweatshirt was produced to mark this visit; one was presented to the Orchestra who displayed it in their museum).
Light entertainment was represented by such as Victor Borge, Richard Stilgoe and television gastronome Clement Freud, whose show not only demonstrated recipes, but also let the audience eat them. Actor, writer and television programme-maker Michael Palin visited every second year, partly as a personal tribute to Barnes whose friend he was, and his distinctive one-man shows he declined to perform anywhere else, explaining that they "couldn't be better than at the Belfast Festival". The QFT was a significant venue, often offering themed programmes. In 1975 the film "Death Race 2000" received its European premiere there, in 1985 it hosted the world premiere of "Defence of the Realm", with guests its director, David Drury, and one of its producers, David Puttnam. Other visitors from the cinema world included Alan Parker, Nicholas Roeg and Theresa Russell.
The foregoing glimpse is not to ignore many other outstanding figures from Ulster to appear. However, one criticism of the Festival occasionally voiced was precisely this international emphasis to the disfavour of emerging local talent (other critiques could be less cogent, including one bizarre assertion that a Festival originating in, based in and to a large extent funded by the University held too many events on its premises to able to properly call itself the "Belfast Festival", which of course it never did tout court). Against this must be set the many achievements of the Festival which illuminated a city all too often used to its well-known problems, and put it on the international map for the best reasons
One year, the Festival programme included a picture of Barnes, as usual in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke, but looking much more serious than his usual genial, benign mien; it was captioned "Michael Barnes worrying about money." This was not entirely flippant. Barnes once estimated that of all major arts festivals about whose funding he knew, his had to recoup the greatest proportion of expenditure at the box office. One move occurred when Belfast City Council became a funding partner, and the name of the Festival accordingly was altered to reflect this, though partly because Barnes wished to put the name of the city more emphatically on the international arts map, while still reflecting its origins in Queen's University, which was still providing most of the venues and all of the staff. A range of corporate sponsors helped to complete the picture, which was even so to be re-drawn each year. The University management was very supportive of Barnes personally, and one Chairman of the joint Festival-University Finance Committee would later recall his annual meeting with him to discuss this. He later quipped that the optimistic Barnes' budgets, presented in the form of accountancy estimates, served not only to take the "gloom" out of that "gloomy science", but a lot of the science as well. But Barnes was Barnes, and for him all cheques were duly signed by an institution which recognised his outstanding achievement for University, city and province year after year.
Michael Barnes' other major accomplishment in Belfast was as Director of the rejuvenated Grand Opera House. An architectural jewel from the Victorian age, designed by the leading theatre architect Frank Matcham, the New Grand Opera House and Cirque first opened on 16 December 1895, under the proprietorship of Joseph Warden. But by the 1970s, the Opera House, the only really suitable venue for opera, ballet and Christmas pantomime especially, was rather beleaguered. The destructive bombing campaigns of the 1970s affected it physically - it was situated directly across a narrow street from the Europa Hotel which was at the time the most frequently-bombed building in Europe - as well as commercially. The House was closed and the site put up for sale in 1972. That the building would survive was for a time in doubt, though fortuitously the introduction of the statutory listing of buildings of architectural merit in Northern Ireland meant its preservation, while the Arts Council (narrowly) voted the funds to retain the Opera House as a performance venue, partly because the only alternative, an entirely new purpose built theatre, would have cost far more.
As to who was to be Director, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education for Northern Ireland - that is, the effective funder of the Arts Council - decided that the post need not even be advertised if Michael Barnes could be persuaded to take the job on, along with his Queen's Festival post. He was; and the University, again supportive, facilitated this dual rôle, initially seconding him for two years, though he eventually and regretfully relinquished his academic post. The first season of the new era of the thoroughly restored Opera House opened with a Gala Evening on September 15, 1980, which ushered in a busy and varied programme, with many performances sold out. Comedians, such as Rowan Atkinson, Tosca produced by Opera Northern Ireland, Brian Friel's play Translations with Ray McAnally and Liam Neeson, and Cinderella, the first pantomime at the Opera House since 1971 and whose attendances averaged 97 per cent, were some of the highlights of a hugely successful first season.
The Opera House throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s continued to provide very varied and highly popular programmes of events which drew large and sell-out audiences. Among many other highlights were the Royal Flanders Ballet, a Mozart opera cycle by Opera Northern Ireland, a recital by the internationally renowned tenor Carlo Bergonzi, and, rather less mainstream, the Aterbaletto company of Italy who performed eight one-act pieces one of whose musical instrumentation included a typewriter.
But bombing campaigns again threatened the Opera House and two very large explosions close by, the first in December 1991 and an even bigger one in May 1993, while not thought to be aimed at the Opera House itself, nevertheless seriously damaged the building; at one point it was thought that would have to be demolished. But it survived and flourished to return as one of the magnets of Belfast city centre. By September the House had re-opened and the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards were held, drawing many luminaries headed by Lord (Richard) Attenborough. As one prominent historian put it, the success and successes of the Opera House represented "the most striking and visible sign of the city's refusal to die...it has shown a capacity for stoic endurance, adaptation and creativity."
Michael Barnes was striking in appearance, very tall, rather willowy with very long hair and matching beard; this plus his fame made for a well-known figure "about town". He was aware of his appearance: photographed in a small group at the reception to mark the opening night of the 1983 Festival and asked his name by the scribbling photographer, Barnes replied in his rather languorous voice, "I'm Johannes Brahms", the famously long-bearded composer whose sesquicentenary it was. Of his familiarity, a story he enjoyed telling about himself was of an occasion when, having ordered a taxi home, he walked out of the Opera House and into a waiting car with an illuminated sign on its roof. Giving his address, he received the reply, "Sorry, Mr Barnes, this is a police car."
Sadly, Barnes' health deteriorated not long after his retirement in 1994 and he lived for some years in a nursing home on the outskirts of Belfast, where he was frequently visited by the many friends he had made in Ulster. He once had been delighted when someone observed to him that he had spent more of his life in Ulster than outside it. It was much to the province's benefit.
|Born:||31 October 1932|
|Died:||14 May 2008|
Wesley McCann; Professor Sir Peter Froggatt; Chris Spurr
Obituary The Times; Lyn Gallagher, The Grand Opera House, Belfast, Blackstaff 1995; The Wadham Gazette; BM Walker and A McCreary, Degrees of Excellence, Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies; private information; private publications; personal knowledge
© 2022 Ulster History Circle