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Obituary: Derek Barsham

14 February 2020

Stephen R. Beet writes:

DEREK BARSHAM, who died on 1 January, aged 89, was the last of the once well-known boy sopranos who brightened the airwaves during the dark days of the Second World War.

Derek’s musical career began at the age of eight, when he joined the choir of St Stephen’s, Enfield. He was offered a place at St Paul’s Ca­­thedral, but the war prevented his accepting it. The captain of the 1st Enfield Boys’ Brigade, Dr Leslie Ridge, however, noticed his poten­tial, and a singing teacher, Percy Jack­son, confirmed the quality of Derek’s natural soprano voice, which required no further training, save for the im­­provement of breathing.

Late in 1943, aged 13, Derek was auditioned by the BBC, and, on Christmas morning, he sang carols on Children’s Hour; early in 1944, he was asked to record “buffer music” for use between programmes. He then signed a contract with Decca to record Stephen Adams’s “The Star of Bethlehem” and “The Holy City”, accompanied by the organist Fela Sowande. The session lasted all day on account of air raids, and he had narrowly escaped being killed by a doodlebug when cycling to re­­hearse. Christopher Stone, writing in Record Review, was enthusiastic: “You have here . . . a real big win­ner.”

Derek regularly appeared in Children’s Hour which was broad­cast live before the six-o’clock news, and once the timing of his solo was suddenly changed to conclude the programme. He was later pre­­sented with the broadcast disc by “Uncle Mac”, and told that it had been a sig­nal to the troops in Normandy. After another broadcast, he was whisked off to a secret location to give a concert to “several military gentle­men” one of whom, turned out to be Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

Convinced that the boy’s voice would soon break, the BBC recorded a Victory in Europe programme one year before the event, which included “Land of Hope and Glory” with the BBC Chorus. This was played im­­mediately after Churchill’s victory speech. He was then asked by Sir Sydney Nicholson, organist of West­minster Abbey, to sing at a special victory service. Two weeks before the event, Derek nearly died of peri­tonitis, and, it was thought, aged 15, he would never sing again. But he was soon reach­ing top Cs with ease, and his singing career re­­com­menced. Dur­ing 1946, he broadcast several times with Dr George Thalben-Ball, re­­corded more discs, and made appearances with the stars of the day, includ­ing Richard Murdoch and Tommy Handley.

Aged 16, Derek was working in a bank, but took leave to rehearse Mussorg­sky’s opera Boris Godunov, in which he sang the part of Fyodor, son of Boris. This was broadcast live on the Home Service and repeated three days later, on 14 February 1947, to open the new BBC Third Programme. He also sang at the in­auguration of the United Nations, after which he was inter­viewed by John Ellison for the pop­ular radio show In Town Tonight.

At the age of 17, he said goodbye to the airwaves. His last record, “I’ll walk beside you”, was accepted as a wedding gift by Princess Elizabeth.

Derek rested his voice for several years and then, in 1952, became a full-time entertainer under the name Derek Mann. He moved to the US and eventually became a cruise director.

In later years, his fame as a boy soprano was revived after the re-release of his records on CD; and he returned to London to give a series of charity concerts, including two at the Savoy Chapel, and an ap­­pearance in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Derek Barsham was born in En­­field, Middlesex, on 2 October 1930, and died on 1 January, in Cape Cod, after an illness that had ended his long career. He is survived by his second wife, Barbara.

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