Graham Payn

25 April 1918 - 4 November 2005


graham~2-sm.jpg (7643 bytes)Graham Payn has a charming voice. Here he is accompanied by Bruce Wendell on the "organ" with wobble and the like. Naturally, the songs are entirely unsuitable. Gramophone, May 1934

Since the publication of volume one of The Better Land, the search for more 'Lost Boys' has continued and we are delighted to have found Master Graham Payn who later became Noel Coward's close companion and friend for nearly thirty years. He has had a distinguished career, but in a special interview for Amphion, Graham Payn, now aged eighty-one, told me how it all began for him as a boy soprano and how it led to his discovery by Noel Coward early in 1932.

Graham Payn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1918 . He had been taught piano from an early age and his teacher found that he had a good singing voice. He started entering competitions and by the age of about eleven had won three singing competitions in a row.

`I was mad about films and I told my mother I wanted to be like Douglas  Fairbanks and be in the films. So we came to England in 1929 when I was eleven because of my voice and got jobs in concerts. I sang in the Kingsway Hall and the Queen's Hall. But I also did a lot of singing in the cinema as they used to put on a stage show in between the films in those days. I often did three, sometimes five, shows a day doubling at a different cinema: the audiences loved it because they liked my voice and it was quite a rare event to see a boy soprano on the stage. I would go on to a great round of applause in my Eton suit and white collar. I also appeared in the variety shows with such people as Elsie and Doris Waters (Jack Warner's sisters), the Weston Brothers, and Tommy Handley and it all used to go down very well. With my mother as manager, I was singing like mad.'

In 1932, when he was fourteen Graham went to the Adelphi Theatre to audition for Noel Coward's new review, Words and Music. 'I knew I wouldn't get long to audition on stage so I sang Nearer my God to Thee and did a tap dance at the same time! Noel was sitting in the stalls and said ''We must have that boy in the show''. So that's how I got into Words & Music.'

I suggested to Graham that despite being so well-known, people had probably forgotten that he has been a top boy soprano.

'Good Lord, yes: it was all such a long time ago. There's nobody alive now. I was a kid and they were all grown up, and they must all be gone - those people who watched me on stage.'

Graham filmed several pieces for the Pathe Gazette including I hear you  calling me and Meadowsweet which both survive in the archives to this day.

'When I was almost sixteen, my mother said that my voice should have broken by now. So she took me to a doctor who examined my throat and told me that my voice had already broken but I was singing in a head tone. It was the technique we used in those days - a floating tone. The doctor said that I had to stop singing at once else I'd never sing again. So I stopped
straight away and had to cancel five weeks' work. I then went back to South Africa where I carried on dancing in the dancing schools.'

The two tracks selected for this CD The Hymn that I sang as a Boy, and As I knelt beside that old Armchair are typical of the songs Graham sang on the stage and which were so much appreciated by audiences of the 1930s.

'I remember making those records, and then one day walking into Marks and Spencer where I heard them being played on a gramophone.'

I feel that both these records capture his boy soprano voice to the full. Having seen the film clips of Master Graham Payn, I can say that he must indeed have had a great stage presence and a real empathy with the audience in a way which is difficult to put over on a gramophone record. Even so, there is a real magic in his voice and wonderful expression, and I can well believe that his audiences loved him.

Graham has been immensely supportive of the Better Land, and is delighted that four of his discs appear - two on volume two and two on volume three.  His work gives a real insight into a lost age.


Additional notes from "The Better Land - Volume IV"

Derek Barsham, Billy Neely & Graham Payn

Billy Neely provides  gems of real delight; Derek Barsham’s artistry is again heard to particularly fine effect. ...Donald Webster, Choir Schools Today, December 2000

On this CD we feature Billy Neely's earliest surviving discs taken from  live broadcasts in the Northern Ireland Children's Hour in 1949, together with his last two recordings, a particularly fine interpretation of Hear my prayer, and the Irish patter song, Kitty my love,  the latter broadcast live on October 7th 1950 in the Light Programme.  It was the last time he broadcast as a boy soprano.

Also featured is one of Derek Barsham's final broadcasts - as the Tsarevitch Feodor in Moussorgsky's Boris Godounov, recorded April 30th 1947.   Two days later, he sang his last as a boy, a few months short of his seventeenth birthday.

Full biographical details for both Derek Barsham and Billy Neely are to be found in the notes accompanying Volume II  of The Better Land.  Their discs also feature on Volume III.  Graham Payn's remarkable story is to be found on Volume II and his records are featured on the second and third volumes.


Graham Payne
(1918 - 2005)
Rest in Peace

by Stephen Beet

Over the past six years it has been my privilege to add to my number of friends the several former boy sopranos who have featured on 'The Better Land' CDs.  It was with great sadness that I learned two days ago of Graham's death at the age of 87.  In the mind of those who have enjoyed his singing on the Better Land CDs he will forever be remembered as the small boy who was filmed by British Pathe in the early 30s and who went on to record the songs recently restored on CD.

I first contacted Graham in 1999 after reading about his life in the 'Daily Telegraph'.   I wanted his permission to use his records on Volume 2 of 'The Better Land' but no-one could provide his address.   Screwing up my courage, I went down to the offices of the 'Daily Telegraph' where I met by chance the former editor, Lord Deeds, in the lift.  He asked me what I wanted and, after he had heard my explanation, said he would go up and 'root out' the Arts Editor.   I was immediately granted an interview and it was agreed that a letter and CD would be sent by them to Graham in Switzerland.

Three days later, I received a call from Graham, thanking me so much for sending the 'beautiful' CD and offering all the help he could.   He gave me a long interview over the phone and promised to meet me on a future visit to London.  I asked if Graham had any photos or unpublished recordings and two days later there arrived bu special courier photos and discs not yet published.

Sadly I never met Graham but he remained in contact up until his final illness this year.  He was a charming and generous man and very self effacing.  His death marks the final break with that generation of boys who sang in Music Hall and on the stage.

The Boys


Copyright © 2015 Boychoirs.org