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Brian Perkins. An Ear for Beautiful Sounds.

John Robert Brown

"I'll have to read the seven o'clock news in a few minutes. I'll phone you back afterwards. Is that okay?"

The speaker is Brian Perkins, news reader, continuity announcer, and notable target of a vivid, hilarious and totally spurious, thuggish personality, bestowed upon him by the brilliant Dead Ringers comedy team.

Now Perkins is in the news himself, having reached 60, the age when the BBC requires its employees to become freelance if they are to continue broadcasting. One of the facts that emerges in the press reports is that he was formerly a professional double bass player. Accordingly, I ask for an interview. He agrees, so here I am setting up the tape machine.

Born in New Zealand, Perkins began his broadcasting career in the 1960s, in Christchurch. Taking what he has described as a menial job after leaving school, he went along to the Broadcasting Service in New Zealand to ask whether they had any vacancies in the gramophone library. They said, "No, but have you ever thought of being an announcer?" Just like that.

Coming to Britain in 1964, he began announcing and news reading for the BBC a year later. He studied music part-time and in 1969 returned to New Zealand to play the double bass with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Nine years later he was back in Britain. Brian Perkins has been with Radio Four ever since.

I turn on BBC Radio Four to listen to the news, concentrating as never before on the sound described brilliantly by Quentin Letts in the Telegraph as a "grandfather clock of a voice, both smooth and stentorian, soft yet gloomily authoritative."

Moments after the news ends, my phone rings. It's a strange juxtaposition, hearing this beautiful voice, which for years has emanated from my radio, immediately coming from the telephone.

We begin at the beginning.

"Actually I started on the cello," he explains. "My mother was a violinist. She then changed to viola and subsequently became a viola player. She became a professional violinist quite late in life, and joined the New Zealand orchestra. Then she came to Europe in 1965 or so, and ended up playing the viola in the Concergebouw orchestra. She was there for a number of years.

"So there was music in the family. Initially she tried to get me to learn the violin when I was about five. But I think I preferred going outside and playing Cowboys and Indians, so I didn't actually start playing the cello until I was about fourteen or fifteen. Two or three years after that I had the opportunity of trying the bass, and took to it."

Did he have lessons?

"The man who was to become my stepfather was a bass player. He was a Dutchman who had been in the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and he emigrated to New Zealand in the early fifties and played in the National Orchestra, as it was then."

"I was just drawn to the bass. I felt comfortable, sitting on the stool behind it. I was still very aware and conscious and keen about the contribution that a bass makes to the overall sound. Mind you, the bass sections are generally much better than they used to be. I've always had favourite bass sections from orchestras around the world, the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic. They all play what they call the German Bow, with the big frog, rather than the French style. That gives you the potential of far more bite to the sound, if you can play it well."

I ask about his own instrument. He's had the same bass for over thirty years. It's American, made in Los Angeles in 1948 by Paul Toenniges. "I bought this off an American player who was in the orchestra in New Zealand," he explains. "I used to play on a five string bass in the orchestra. I have an aversion to those extensions. I don't think they are as good as a proper five-string bass."

I ask his views about the link between the quality of tone in instrumental playing and a attractive speaking voice. Surely it's no accident that many musicians respected for their beautiful tone production, from Jack Brymer to Jane Manning, have lovely speaking voices?

"Regardless of the instrument - percussion apart - the result that you are aiming for is like the result you get from the spoken word. How many times have you heard people, when giving instructions, say "make it sing", "make it speak"? So the analogy between voice and instrument applies, no matter what instrument you are playing. You can go on from that and say that people who have percussive and unattractive voices may not make a pleasant sound. I don't know; perhaps that's going too far?

"If you can appreciate, hear, and understand beauty in sound, wherever it's coming from, you have a good head start in making the sound on the instrument. In other words, if you've got a good ear for beautiful sounds - and not only for getting things in tune - that must help you in the playing, whatever the instrument.

Surely his move into the freelance world will increase the opportunities for music making?

"My bass playing, I'm afraid, just goes in fits and starts," he says. "There's a little chamber orchestra I often play in. Sometimes it's just strings, usually with just one bass, sometimes made up to small classical orchestra instrumentation. So that's fun. And I play chamber music, again for fun."

Will he be doing more?

"Like everybody, I suppose, I look back on my life and wish perhaps that I'd done more in music, or stayed in the orchestra and not decided to come back to broadcasting. Because that's a really strong love, it never leaves you. But on the other hand, playing in an orchestra on a regular basis you can get quite cynical. The gloss quickly wears off with touring. So I think that I've had the best of both worlds. I was only in the orchestra about six years, not a great chunk of my life really, but the interest and the love of music has been with me for years.

"It was a very good one-hundred piece orchestra, up to the standard of a lot of the provincial orchestras here. We had good visiting conductors. During the time that I was in it, Antal Dorati came, Vaclav Smetacek came, Charles Groves, Alceo Galliera, Walter Susskind, people of high calibre. Soloists Vladimir Ashkenazy, Isaac Stern, Karel Ancerl, Jacqueline du Pre - the time when she came was getting near to the time of her last appearance in public before her disease."

We move on to discuss likes and dislikes. He tends not to listen to the standard repertoire pieces, he says, although he still gets enjoyment from hearing great performances. "I love the Czech Philharmonic playing music from Dvorak, Smetana and Janá#225;…ek," he says. AThey can convey that, just as the German orchestras can express the big symphonies of Bruckner and Brahms and Mahler. The same applies with the Vienna Philharmonic. It could be said the British orchestras are more versatile, that they cover the whole repertoire extremely well. Whereas the other orchestras tend to confine themselves more to the repertoire of their home country. I suppose that's changing now, but it's still a generalisation you can make.

"I like the roots of our musical culture, Mozart, Bach, Haydn. I don't like going back much farther than that. There are beautiful sounds that I can appreciate from composers like Monteverdi, but the one thing I have an aversion to is the playing of instrumental music on so-called period instruments." He laughs. "I don't like that at all. We were talking about beauty of sound, and I just find that it grates. Some of them are now even playing the symphonies of Brahms and even later, in what they claim is an authentic style. I can't appreciate that at all. It seems to be an unattractive sound and a rather frenetic approach, in many cases, something that's not pleasing to my ears."

Does he mind giving his opinion? It seems not. "People can only write and say "I disagree with you", or "shut up". I'm in good company. One has heard Sir Neville Marriner saying more or less the same thing. He just couldn't abide it. The purpose of playing these pieces is to play them with a beautiful sound and in tune. It doesn't sound music to me. I've got some recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos by a Viennese group called Concentus Musicus. Nicholas Harnoncourt founded it, actually. The playing, particularly the wind playing, is terrific, people playing on antiquated instruments. So you have to be a little bit sympathetic, but I don't really like it."

And his appreciation of contemporary music?

"Well, who am I to say this, but I like the more melodic exponents of contemporary music, people like Taverner and Gorecki. The real contemporary people, the Harrison Birtwhistles, I don=t like at all. Works of that ilk I just don=t find appealing. I went to a Prom a couple of years ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a great orchestra, with a great brass section. They played a piece by Elliot Carter. They played it extremely well, but to my ears it was just absolutely meaningless. It went through my mind that I thought people had stopped writing music like that. Not appealing at all."

Inevitably our conversation turns to the future. Will he be doing more playing? Do other musical activities, such as composing or orchestrating, have any appeal?

"It's no good having regrets in music, or in life, because the answer is, "If you think that, why didn't you try to do it?" But I've always loved the orchestration of people who have composed light music, and the way that they have arranged for the orchestra. One of my idols is Sidney Torch. Some of the arrangements that you still hear on Friday Night is Music Night are still absolutely pristine, still glistening with newness, which is a good test. I have always had a soft spot and an affection for that .I think those composers are enjoying a rediscovery, because there's quite a lot of time devoted to them, on Radio Three even, now. I'm pleased about that."

Will he continue to be heard on BBC radio?

"I'm still doing this on a freelance basis. I just turn up when I'm required. I'm not all that keen about getting up at four o'clock in the morning any more, but you've got to do that to be on the Today programme, there's so two ways about it. It's nice to be on it, so you've got to take the rough with the smooth. Now I am freelance, I can do other things outside the BBC, if they come to my notice.

"The Dead Ringers thing is good fun. It's an honour to be lampooned in such a way. I don't mind, but I have to keep reassuring people that I'm not out to take over the world, and I'm not in possession of dangerous weapons, I don't ride around on a big motorcycle! Too many people, when they retire, they think that's the end of the opera, they pull down the curtain, and they've got nothing. I've been lucky, doing two things that started out as an interest, and developed from there.

I've had the best of both worlds."

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