Derek Barsham

Derek Barsham (Derek Mann) The Boys' Brigade Boy Soprano

When I took up disc K1113 I said to myself -"Good lord - another boy soprano - and singing The Holy City - doesn't everyone know there's a war on?" Yet, as the turntable swung round, so did I - completely. It's a real,  big winner. ...Record Review, April 1945

Derek Barsham sings in the most delightful manner. His tone is unforced, even and lovely. His diction is perfect and he shows the restraint of an artist. Why, even the old Holy City seems to be less whatever it was than it used to be. The absence of lush, of emotional rubato and tone-surging is - well, it’s a revelation. ...Record Review, April 1945

It was a brilliant idea to cast Master Derek Barsham as the Tsarevitch Feodor, and the scene in which he appears were the most successful in the broadcast. Of the two scenes which Decca have so enterprisingly chosen to record, the second begins after the Czar has calmed the frightened nurse and child and Feodor plucks up enough courage to sing the Parrot Song. Much moved, Boris draws the child to him and tells him how he longs to see him on the throne of Russia. Norman Lumsden makes an impressive Boris: but of cause, Master Barsham steals the show. ...Gramophone 1947

Master Barsham tends to mouth his words in his anxiety to pronounce them clearly and in consequence his singing lacks some of the artlessness that should be its special attribute. But if Boy Sopranos will sing love songs written for men, they are bound to sound arty rather than artless. The songs themselves (Passing By & Silent Worship) are melodious; the Handel air taken from a forgotten opera 'Ptolemy' is very beautiful indeed and the record should give pleasure to a great many people. ...Gramophone August 1948

'Last night I received an e-mail from my friend in England who had recently been told that you had taken an advert in a magazine asking my whereabouts. Well, here I am!' And that was how I found Derek, who is now in Cape Cod, U.S.A.

'After my voice had changed (when I was nearly seventeen) I took various jobs, and although I worked during the day, my evenings were taken up with engagements, either after-dinner speaking, acting or singing. In May of 1968 I turned fully professional with the majority of my work in Cabaret in London hotels.

'In 1970 I performed on the P & O Canberra. I was then offered the job as Cruise Director for Royal Viking Line and remained at sea until 1997 when I came back to the business on land. I am now a principal baritone for the Cape Opera and thankful to be in good shape and still working professionally at the age of sixty-nine.

'I read once that I was the only person ever to sing professionally all four solo parts of the Messiah: Soprano as a boy, Tenor when my voice returned, the Bass part later, and when the contralto fell ill on stage, I sang the contralto part.

Derek Barsham was born in Enfield, London in 1930 and started his professional musical career at the age of 13 when he first broadcast on Christmas morning, 1943. His career as a boy soprano spanned over five years with over fifty broadcasts and nine recordings for Decca. He was the first boy to take the part of Feodor in Boris Gudunov. This broadcast was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.

'From the time I was eight years old I was a choir boy. As a young boy I was regularly beaten up by the bullies who did not like choir boys. I fought back as best I could but never complained. I probably thought it could only get worse: it did! My dad eventually got me to tell him how I got the bruises. Falling off my bike no longer held water. My father wrote to Mr. Hird, the headmaster who put a stop to the problem.

'However, not to be deterred, the gang would wait for me in a line across the road before my house. There I ran the gauntlet and leapt to the safety of my back garden. On coming in the house my mother and I were shocked as a brick came flying through the front window. Soon after that, I left Chase Boys' School and went to Enfield College. Years later, I entertained at Pentonville Gaol and, as I looked at my imprisoned audience, I saw one of the boys who had made my life a misery. He did not recognise me or my name. When I left the boys' school, Mr. Hird wrote in my autograph album, "Always be a man." When I eventually became a full-time professional artiste I wanted another name as nobody could ever get Barsham right. So I chose Mann. I cannot win, people still ask me to spell it.

My choirmaster felt that I had a 'nice little voice' and the next thing I knew I was singing in the choir of St. Paul's Cathedral. This lasted only a few weeks as war broke out and my parents were not happy with me going up to London twice a week during the war. I then joined the Boys' Brigade and was heard by Dr. Leslie Ridge, the Captain of the First Enfield Company. He was a collector of recordings by boy sopranos, and he heard me singing in the Sunday morning Bible Class; and that very morning he came back to my house and asked my parents if he could, at his expense, take me to a voice trainer and see what he thought. Percy Jackson, a local man, listened and said the only thing that needed to be improved was my breathing. So I sang and breathed heavily for two months. I have never had a singing lesson in my life. (My critics might well say, "We know that!") Percy Jackson was a fine coach and I have a lot to thank him for.

'Dr. Ridge wrote to the B.B.C. requesting an audition. Uncle Mac replied, and in November of 1943 I went to Studio 3a at Broadcasting House and was heard by him. He seemed to like my voice and with him I made my first broadcast on Christmas Morning 1943 on the Home Service.

'I broadcast many times and the B.B.C. always dreaded my going on the air. One department head said, "We get letters by the hundred from choirmasters and mothers telling us they have a boy who sings a lot better than Derek Barsham".

'One day, when I was due to broadcast for Uncle Mac on Children's Hour, I was going to rehearse with my coach, Percy Jackson who lived six miles from us. I was to be at his house at 8 o'clock in the morning. The journey took me about twenty minutes on my bicycle. I had gone about a mile when I suddenly realised I had left one of the pieces on the piano. So I quickly turned round and fetched the music. As I was cycling back with a couple of miles to go, I heard a terrific explosion and saw a tower of smoke rising into the air ahead of me. Within what seemed like seconds, ambulances and fire engines were flying past. I kept going to be stopped by a cordon of police and A.R.P. wardens at the top of Percy's road. Several houses were ablaze a hundred yards away. Fortunately, Percy's house was at the other end. But had I not forgotten my music, Uncle Mac would have had to find another artiste - I would have been at the very spot the V2 landed.

'On a couple of broadcasts I preceded the six o'clock news. Uncle Mac would close by saying "Goodnight children everywhere". The chimes of Big Ben would ring out and then the famous V sign's ominous call to the Nazis that victory in the end would be ours. After one of these broadcasts I remember Uncle Mac saying to me, "Derek, do you realise that by the time we close the programme there are probably a hundred million people listening to us all over the world". I never forgot that; it made me realise what a responsibility and privilege it was to broadcast, especially in the dark days of the war.'

One of the Children's Hour broadcasts survives featuring Derek, and we are also pleased to include a fine disc of his predecessor,
Master Denis Wright (whose story is told in full in Volume One of The Better Land) with the B.B.C. Children's Choir singing a selection of well known hymns. It will raise a lump in the throat of many war-time children as they hear, once again, the evocative voice of Uncle Mac introducing the record with his "Hello Children". It is as if we are entering a different world

Derek's film career was crushed by his very religious manager. He found out that the film (For You Alone) had a scene where a married man was having an affair with another woman. He would not allow Derek to be associated with anything that might damage his image.

The concerts were many. One such was on Whitsunday 1945 when Derek appeared at the Dome, Brighton with Albert Sandler and his trio.

'In Bedford, I recorded a
Victory in Europe broadcast, one year before the actual event! I sang Land of Hope & Glory with the B.B.C. Chorus. It was to be played immediately after the announcement that hostilities had ceased. I was coming home from a game of soccer on my bicycle on June 6th 1945 when I heard my voice coming from the radios of the homes along my street. People were waving at me as I sped by.

'Soon after that, I received an invitation from Sir Sydney Nicholson at Westminster Abbey. He asked me to sing with the choir at a special service. Two weeks before the event, I took ill and nearly died with peritonitis. After I recovered, he made me a life member of the Royal School of Church Music. Imagine my surprise to see you having used its magazine to find my whereabouts.

'Dr. Thalben-Ball was instrumental in making me able to harmonize naturally to any piece of music I heard. I broadcast with him several times, and he often let me sit by him on the organ while he played. He used to change into dance pumps for his marvellous pedal work. It was like watching a tap-dancer, especially when he was playing Bach.

The programme Derek mentions was On Wings of Song broadcast at 6.15 on Sunday evenings. The Brighton Argus reported that:

On Sunday evenings beginning on 31st March (1946), six programmes featuring boy sopranos will be given in the Home Service. The three boy sopranos to be featured will be Derek Barsham, Trevor King of Ipswich, and Eric Theaker, from Mansfield who has appeared with such success in the last two Christmas programmes of the Kentucky Minstrels.

Sadly, no records exist of Eric Theaker who was trained by Denis Wright's choirmaster, Mr. Harry Smith. He died some years ago but is remembered in Mansfield as a truly remarkable boy who had a radiant face when he sang and a marvellous empathy with his audiences.

'I took part in the Boys' Brigade Physical Phantasmagoria in the Royal Albert Hall in May 1946. The place was packed. There was an Indian Club team; the whole Brigade Company did Indian Clubs except me. In the centre was a large six-foot tall diamond-shaped box. Inside it was a lift. There were two men inside the box, and at the very end of the Indian Club exercise it went dark and a big spot light came on the centre and out of the diamond box I arose with two very sweaty gentlemen trying to get me up there level with the microphone, and I burst forth into the song The Star of God. It was filmed by the newsreel and I was presented with a copy of the soundtrack on disc. A year later, I sang it again over the B.B.C. World Service, and was told that it was heard in the United Nations. I would have been sixteen-and-a-half by then: my voice lasted until I was sixteen years and nine months.'

Derek's live broadcast of The Star of God is included on the C.D. It has never before been issued.

'After I had done the second broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall, the commentator, Wynford Vaughn Thomas, came back to the dressing room for a previously arranged interview. I followed him outside into the rain where the B.B.C. van was parked. I asked him what programme this was going out on. "In Town Tonight", he replied. I had always dreamed of being one of the people to feature. When I eventually arrived home that night, my dear Mum was in tears. She knew that it was a dream come true for me. When I told Wynford Vaughn Thomas of my ambition, he laughed and said "You have just sung in the Albert Hall on a world-wide broadcast to millions of people and you tell me that that was nothing in comparison to being on In Town Tonight!" I met him years later and he always reminded me of that eventful rainy evening which was for me full of sunshine.

Sadly, as is always the case, it all had to end one day. And on February 10th 1947, the London Evening News reported that the
Golden Voice is Saying Good-bye to the Air.

Sixteen-year-old Derek Barsham of Enfield, whose voice is known to millions of radio listeners, will give his farewell broadcast as a boy vocalist this week. As Derek's voice is on the verge of breaking, he has been advised to rest it for two years, but before doing so he will take the part of Theodor in the Russian opera "Boris Godunov", which is being broadcast in the Home Service on Wednesday, February 11th and in the Third Programme on Friday, February 14th.

"I owe everything to my doctor friend", said Derek. "Not only did he give me my chance as a singer, but when I was critically ill, he saved my life."

On November 7th, 1947 the Enfield Gazette & Observer (copied by the Daily Mirror) reported that

"Amongst the wedding presents to H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth on view to the press at Buckingham Palace is a "gift from the 1st Enfield Company of the Boys' Brigade - a gramophone record of the song "I'll walk beside you."

It will interest our readers to know that the record referred to is Derek Barsham's and in the opinion of many it is a masterpiece amongst boy soprano records. The record was sent "as a token of our loyalty and respectful congratulations to H.R.H. on the occasion of her forthcoming marriage; and it is our humble desire that it may afford particular pleasure in the happy circumstances of November 20th."

Her Royal Highness graciously consented to accept the record, and in doing so sent a most gracious message of warmest thanks to all members, which will be prized by them for many years.

Dr. Ridge received a personal letter of thanks from Princess Elizabeth which it would not be etiquette to quote.

Additional notes from Volume III

Billed as ‘The Boys’ Brigade Boy Soprano’, Derek Barsham was born in Enfield in 1930. His first broadcast was for Uncle Mac on Christmas Morning 1943, aged just thirteen. It was the start of a very long career which ended when he was almost seventeen in 1947. Many broadcasts followed and also recordings for Decca.

Derek inspired many during the war, and his singing of Land of Hope and Glory, just prior to Churchill’s V.E. Day announcement, although lost from the BBC archives, is still well remembered. 

Derek Barsham - Royal Albert Hall - 3 May 1947
(Click on photo to enlarge)

Derek was the first boy to sing the part of Feodor in Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov, broadcast on February 4th 1947 in the new Third Pragramme, and recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Stanford Robinson. An excerpt from this and fifteen of Derek’s fine records feature on the second and third volumes of The Better Land.

Derek’s final appearance as a boy soprano was at the Royal Albert Hall on May 3rd 1947, where He sang The Anchor Song during a World Broadcast. It was recorded by Decca two days later and features on volume two. Here we include the hymn Father who hast made us brothers, the very last wax Derek cut on May 3rd 1947. Appropriately it was the song that had led to his discovery in the Bible class, five years earlier, by his friend Dr. Leslie Ridge, who had heard his voice rising above the others.

Derek is now a professional baritone and came to London to launch the Better Land Volume Two in April 2000.

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.

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