Friday 10 March 2023

Charlie Barlow Sings!

Alan Stratford Johns (born 22 September 1925) first came to prominence, here in the UK at least, in the mid-1950s, in a string of small parts in movies and theatre, before hitting the big time as Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow in the long-running BBC police series Z-Cars and its many spin-offs.


Johns grew up in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and served as a deckhand in the South African navy during World War II. After the war, and following a short period working in accountancy, he became involved in amateur theatre. In 1948 he bought a one-way ticket to Britain and learned his craft working in repertory theatre at Southend-on-Sea. One of the first roles he was offered was in a Christmas musical, which he turned down as he felt he did not have the vocal chops. He did, however, stay with the company for almost five years, and during that time changed his name, dropping ‘Alan’ and becoming known, simply, as Stratford Johns.


Early film appearances included a bit-part in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955), and, in 1957, he made his British TV debut in the Associated-Rediffusion series Destination Downing Street, but it was as Barlow that he would become one of the most familiar and popular faces on British television. Charlie Barlow appeared in five TV series, four as the star: Z-Cars (1962–1965); Softly, Softly (1966–1969), Softly, Softly: Taskforce (1969–1972), and Barlow at Large (1971-1975, retitled Barlow in its final seasons). The character appeared for a final time in 1976, in the series Second Verdict.


Johns’s film appearances include 1970’s Cromwell, with Richard Harris and Sir Alec Guinness. Later roles included appearances in the George and Mildred movie, the 1980 big screen version of the popular sitcom, and in Ken Russell’s 1988 films Salome's Last Dance and The Lair of the White Worm. His many stage credits include Daddy Warbucks in the original West End run of Annie, and the Ghost of Christmas Present in the stage adaptation of the film musical Scrooge.  Guest appearances on TV include The Avengers, Department S, Doctor Who, Great Expectations, Blake's 7 and I, Claudius. He can be seen, alongside Clare Grogan and Moly Weir in the video for Young at Heart, the 1984 hit by Scots band The Bluebells. One of his final roles was in the TV series Heartbeat.


Outside of acting, he and his wife (and her aunt) ran a hotel and bar for actors in St Martin’s Lane (which opened during the 1950s and closed in 1976), and in the mid-1960s there was a popular photographer used by members of the acting profession, the Stratford Johns Studio, in Marble Arch. He was also the author of the children's book Gumphlumph, which he read on the children's television series Jackanory and narrated for album release.


But that’s not why we’re here, is it? We are here because, in 1965, he released an album Stratford Johns Sings, on His Master’s Voice. A selection of ballads which, as he himself admits in the sleeve notes, were chosen ‘quite deliberately’ because they were ‘square’. It’s a delight: Johns’ stentorian voice blasts its way through 14 songs, including Summertime, Beautiful Dreamer, and How to Handle a Woman. In other hands it could have been awful; somehow Stratford Johns Sings manages to be charming, if a little amateur and vainglorious. It’s clear, though, that the actor knows his limitations: on the back cover Johns writes about how he has taken singing lessons but that he realises his voice has been somewhat ravaged by too much drinking and smoking. He even enlists his children, offering their opinions on his vocal abilities. The producer of the album goes unnamed, but I’ll lay you a pound to a penny that the man behind this was Norman Newell, one of EMI’s in-house A&R men, whose career I touch on in my book The Velvet Mafia.


Johns died on 29 January 2002: his wife, Nanette Ryder (the daughter of actors Morris/Maurice Parsons and Mona Ewins), who he had married in March 1955, outlived him by four years and two days.


Here are a couple of tracks from Stratford Johns Sings: You Stepped Out of a Dream and You Do Something To Me. Enjoy!


Download Stepped HERE

Download Something HERE

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