Magazine article The Spectator

A Close Engagement with Music

Magazine article The Spectator

A Close Engagement with Music

Article excerpt

Sean Rafferty tells Henrietta Bredin how an abbot persuaded him to make his first recording

Six minutes to go before the daily live broadcast of BBC Radio Three's In Tune goes on air and the atmosphere is full of a sort of supercharged alertness, of tension expertly controlled by a small team of people who all know exactly what they are doing. The producer asks about a recording of a Handel aria she wants to play later in the programme - it's not here yet, and may only be available on DVD, but it's being looked for, and if it fails to materialise, she's got an alternative as back-up. Two minutes to go and presenter Sean Rafferty ambles into the studio, having been talking to the programme's first two guests in the Green Room next door. He sits down behind the microphone and looks briefly at a couple of sheets of paper then asks: 'What's this about Joyce DiDonato breaking her leg over at the Royal Opera House? Do we know what bone it is?'

There's a brief flurry of activity on the other side of the glass. 'Tibia or fibula?' They'll check and let him know. Ten seconds and counting. A cue light flashes. Then, with that easy intimacy, shared by the best broadcasters, he leans forward, takes a breath, says, 'A very good evening to you, ' and we're off.

Rafferty's voice is a fine and well-tuned instrument that has stood him in excellent stead over many years of broadcasting. 'The first recording I ever made, ' he told me, 'was when the Abbot of a Cistercian foundation in Co. Down said, "That's a good sharp Northern Irish sound you have there. Will you do a reading about the relevance of the habit in the 20th century for us?" So I did, and the monks had to listen to it, in silence, day after day, while they were eating their lunch.' He laughs uproariously, making a sound like bathwater (possibly slightly grubby bathwater) gurgling down the plughole.

An only child, he was on occasion dragged out and scrubbed up to sing Moore's Irish Melodies to his mother's accompaniment at the piano - '"Believe me if all those endearing young charms" was a firm favourite' - and discovered that he quite liked the edginess of performing, the knowledge that something could go wrong. For want of a better option and because 'there was somehow a pressure to do something serious - the notion of studying music or going to a drama school would have been met with black horror' - he studied law at Queen's University, Belfast, and then went into accountancy. When he was stuck in bed with a bad dose of flu one day and realised that being ill was preferable to being in the office 'the penny finally dropped and I realised I had to make a change. By pure chance, I met someone from the BBC who needed a part-time researcher and I got the job. One day, on Gloria Hunniford's Sunday afternoon TV slot, the producer suddenly said, 'Oh god, we're short, you'll have to go on.'

And the next thing I knew I was in front of the camera in a fur coat, on live television, doing an item on Christmas presents for men - how ridiculous is that?'

Ridiculous or not, it was the beginning of a broadcasting career that has taken him from radio's Good Morning Ulster to 15 years of television evening news, right the way through the worst of the Troubles.

I wondered if this was where he developed the reassuring, unflustered approach that is such a marked feature of his style today. 'It was a relentlessly tense, nervous time but you couldn't afford to let it get to you. …

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