It is with great sadness that we report the passing of John Barrie Charnley earlier today. Many residents, as well as holidaymakers, will remember John with great fondness as an intelligent, articulate man, a good listener and one whose kindness and wisdom could be relied upon.
For David and I, John was our first real friend on the island, who gave us so much good advice, suggestions and contacts when we launched a new newspaper on the island, ‘RTN Canary Islands’ in 2005. John always offered us great kindness and support; we will miss him.
In this edition of ‘News from the Canary Islands’ we are republishing an interview that we did with John in the early days of the newspaper. It was part of the ‘Canarian Character’ series, and we know that John loved it! RIP John.
Gran Canaria’s Very Own ‘Peter Pan’ - John Barrie
This island is full of surprises. One of my favourite ‘locals’ is ‘Hollywood Bar’ in the Yumbo Centre, Playa Del Ingles. It was whilst talking to John, one of the owners of the bar, one evening that I realised I was talking to someone very special. John has both a voice and a presence that could only mean one thing - show business. Few people can claim to have worked with a hypnotist, interviewed Nat King Cole, to have had a close association with Peter Pan or been appointed as Registrar and Superintendent of Births, Marriages and Deaths whilst running several of London’s most prestigious discos part time! As you can probably guess, John Barrie is larger than life and it was a privilege to hear his story.
John was born in New Zealand. At the age of 15 he was, by his own admission, “a big boy” weighing in at around 21 stone. It was both his size and outgoing personality, as well as an early talent as a comedian that led him to join a magic show at the age of 15. His talent was quickly spotted and he subsequently joined a hypnotist show with John as the compere. This early success took John to Australia – unusual in itself as he was still under 18 and officially below the age for unaccompanied travel. It presented no problem because it was assumed that, with his build, he was much older that he actually was. It was whilst working in the show in Australia that John was noticed by independent radio and asked to carry out a number of interviews, leading him to hosting his own radio ‘breakfast show’. His highly successful interviews with well-known celebrities such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and Frank Singleton, to name just a few were transmitted across a network of around 182 stations. John was still only 18 years old at the time, and by the age of 22 he had achieved the country’s ‘Best Actor Award’.
John was then encouraged to move to London where many thought he would find more outlets for his obvious talents as a broadcaster. BBC broadcaster, John Snagg, took John ‘under his wing’ and helped him to make contacts in the city. John related how he went for a job as a presenter with BBC Radio – all went well until he revealed that he worked for commercial and not national radio in Australia. In the 1950s, the thought of commercial radio having a foothold in BBC territory was thought to be akin to the end of the world – as the BBC knew it – and so John didn’t get the job! Fortunately for John, this honesty led to better things because he joined both the London and touring companies of J.M. Barrie´s ‘Peter Pan’ working alongside Alistair Sims. John initially took the role of the ‘Black Pirate’, although he later became Alistair Sims’ understudy for the sword fight sequence to name just one role. Not only did he perform in ‘Peter Pan’, but he also became stage manager and director of the production. ‘Peter Pan’ gave John wonderful opportunities to work with actors, such as Donald Sinden, John Gregson, Julia and Margaret Lockwood as well as pop stars such as Davey Jones from ‘The Monkees’. Many actors at that time saw ‘Peter Pan’ not as a pantomime, but as an early introduction to the theatre for young people. Unusually much of the play was unscripted with much ‘ad-libbing’. Later, it became one of John’s jobs to produce a script for the play, which was later used in other productions. John loved it and worked with the show from November to March each year for nine years.
At other times, John was involved with television, theatre and film work. Some readers may well remember the ‘White Tide Man’ from the ‘Proctor and Gamble’ television advertisement or indeed ‘The Wizard of Daz’ – these characters were all played by John Barrie. As well as a continued friendship with Alistair Sims for whom John regularly worked as an understudy, John appeared in a number of well-known films, including Cliff Richard’s very first film ‘Expresso Bongo’, ‘Devil’s Disciple’ with Laurence Olivier and ‘Suddenly last Summer’ with Katherine Hepburn. John’s career also took him to work as a theatre box office manager in several of London’s theatres including the Royal Court as well as administrator of St George’s Theatre.
Suddenly, one day at the age of 47, John had enough of show business. He wanted to do something completely different. He saw an advertisement for an opening in the office of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Wandsworth and decided to go for the job. Initially he worked as an office boy – even cleaning the vaults where the documents were stored. Very quickly, John gained promotion and not only became a Registrar, but also Deputy Superintendent and later Superintendent of Births, Marriages and Deaths for Wandsworth. He loved the job, but the only trouble was that it was very badly paid. He was neither a local government officer nor a member of the Civil Service and, as such, the pay and benefits of this relatively small group of officials appeared to have been overlooked - other than the provision of a morning suit in order to officiate at weddings! John then looked for other ways of supplementing his income and decided to become a DJ in his spare time. Discos such as ‘Waggs’ in Merton Hall, ‘The Dog and Fox’ in South London, ‘Heaven’ as well as ‘Boys’ - the disco that was to become G.A.Y. in Tottenham Court Road were just some of discos that he was involved with.
There have been many surprises in John’s life. One involved a séance in London, in which John was warned of a future trip to Australia that would change his life. Indeed, it did because during that trip he discovered that his mother was really his grandmother, his father was his stepfather and that the young woman he had regarded as his sister was really his mother. Looking back at a somewhat complicated family relationship, John told me that it was his aunt who had had a considerable influence upon his life and encouraged and developed his love of the theatre.
John, now a young 73-year-old, has owned and run ‘Hollywood Bar’ for the last nine years with his partner Tony. He told me that he made up his mind to “retire” in Gran Canaria 40 years ago. For him, the island’s climate is “just about right” and he rarely has the need, or the time, to leave the island nowadays.
With his distinctive voice and commanding presence, John continues to enjoy a fulfilling life in Gran Canaria and continues to meet and entertain many people, who have come to regard him as a good friend. I asked John how much of his life had he planned. “Very little”, he told me. The course of events appeared to be set out in front of him and that he had really just “gone with the flow”. Do call in and meet John and Tony in ‘Hollywood Bar’ and have a look at some of the photographs on the wall!
By Barrie Mahoney