From The Four Tops, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Graham Nash and John Lydon to Lulu, The Membranes, The Puppini Sisters and Will Young, it’s fair to say we’ve criss-crossed the musical genres on this website over 2016.
This past week was no exception, not least when I spoke to both Jimmy Osmond and John Suchet the same afternoon. From an icon of early ’70s US teen-pop to a revered ITN reporter turned newscaster and classical music aficionado seems quite a leap. But both turned out to be the best of company, and entertaining with it.
I’ll come to Jimmy in my next feature-interview, but first I’ll go a little more highbrow, switching from variety to Verdi and attempting to do what my esteemed interviewee has managed with his chosen subjects – revealing something of the man behind the myths.
Annual trips to the North West are becoming something of a festive tradition for author, broadcaster and former news anchorman John Suchet. And while the Classic FM presenter is installed in Liverpool for this year’s Spirit of Christmas concerts, he’s making a special Monday, December 19th trip to my patch, visiting nearby Preston.
John will be in the city’s Waterstone’s store from around 2.30pm to sign copies of his latest book, Mozart: The Man Revealed, before hosting a Guild Hall concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the evening (7.30pm), The Last Waltz featuring an all-Strauss programme including Blue Danube Waltz, Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and Radetsky March, violinist James Clark directing. But you can also expect great stories from the host about some of the best-loved music of the 19th century and two generations of the Strauss family.
As the programme has it, ‘while steeped in tragedy and feuds’ the Strausses wrote ‘beautiful and enduring melodies at a time of political chaos and upheaval, providing a soundtrack of a Viennese society that danced and drank champagne, seemingly without a worry’. And that fits in nicely with John’s favoured approach to re-telling the tales of his beloved composers,
While he‘ll be talking Strauss that evening, in the afternoon John will be concentrating on a publication marking the 225th anniversary of Mozart’s death, getting beyond the clichés to present Wolfgang Amadeus as never seen before, his latest comprehensive single-volume biography in the style of his 2012 bestseller Beethoven: The Man Revealed.
It’s perhaps what we’ve come to expect from the presenter of Classic FM’s flagship morning programme, yet arguably he remains recognised first and foremost as one of our best-known former news journalists. As an ITN reporter John covered major world events such as Iran’s revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Philippines’ own past turmoil, before coming home to present those national bulletins, including News at Ten.
He was honoured in both roles too, this respected Television Journalist of the Year (1986) and Newscaster of the Year (1996) going on to win a Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2008). Yet these days he’s also recognised as an authority on Beethoven, and in 2001 was awarded a Royal Academy of Music Honorary Fellowship, his past bestsellers also including last year’s Sunday Times bestseller The Last Waltz: The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna.
And what became plain from our conversation was John’s infectious enthusiasm and fascination for his subject matter, my subject having built a reputation for probing behind the public persona and turning sensitive sleuth when the facts are less clear, the results offering gripping, thought-provoking reads, the author bringing an incisive fresh approach to extraordinary lives via rigorous research and plenty of passion.
When I caught up with him at his home in London’s Docklands – ‘in Limehouse, right on the river’, where he moved in around seven years ago, the location fairly handy for Classic FM’s Leicester Square base – John was looking forward to his latest North West visit.
“Very much so. It’s become a fixture in my life. This will be the sixth year running with the Liverpool Philharmonic for this Christmas concert. For some unknown reason they keep inviting me back, and it’s become a highlight of my Christmas every year. It really kick-starts everything for me. It’s hard work – I present my 9am to 1pm show live every morning from Liverpool. so I’m doing radio in the morning, the concert in the evening. But I love every single second of it.”
And this time you’re having a special day-trip to Preston as well, with a book signing followed by an event at the Guild Hall?
“Yes, Saturday and Sunday are at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool with the orchestra, and then on Monday evening – on my evening off – I’m coming to Preston. So I’ll have the radio show in the morning from Liverpool, then I’ll be straight over by car to Waterstone’s in Preston in the afternoon then to the Guild Hall for a rehearsal and the performance in the evening, returning later that night to Liverpool for the radio show the next morning.”
It seems to me that the Liverpool Philharmonic are fast becoming your pick-up band.
“Yes! I’ve even played trombone with them. I can assure you a lot of miming went on! When they discovered I was a former trombonist, the trombone section took me under their wing and we’re all now great friends. I love having a little busk with them!”
Could playing in the brass section ever have become a professional calling for you?
“Well, it was, funnily enough. When I was at school and then at university I wanted to go to the Royal Academy of Music and study the trombone. I loved it that much. But fortunately for the world of music I changed my mind.”
Was there classical music around the Suchet house growing up?
“Not really. We grew up in a medical family. Dad was a doctor and self-confessed ‘tone deaf’. But I absolutely adored and still do adore trad jazz. And when I’m not listening to classical music I’m listening to trad jazz. I play not too bad jazz trombone. I’m a useless classical trombonist but not a bad jazz trombonist. My wife Nula keeps saying, when you retire you’re going to join a jazz band, get back into it, and I would love that.”
Maybe within a couple of years, yeah?
“Exactly. You’ve got it spot on.”
Was trad jazz your first love in music then?
“No, to be honest, classical music came first. At school I was really into it and played on the piano in the evening, learned the violin and then switched to trombone. I was a member of the school orchestra and absolutely adored classical music. I was heavily into Tchaikovsky, but then I discovered trad jazz, got heavily into that, and both have been part of my life ever since, although I didn’t pursue either until I retired from ITN. Then some years later the phone went and I found myself at Classic FM.”
How did that end up being your musical passion rather than following The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, for instance? You were more or less the right age to get swept up by all that.
“I loved The Beatles, although I wasn’t so much into The Rolling Stones. I followed pop music, but to be honest I was always a bit of an anorak when it came to music. I loved the classics then and still do.”
First there was all your published work on Beethoven, and I get the impression Ludwig is still No.1 at the top of your charts.
“He certainly is. I’ve since written about Strauss and the Strauss dynasty and Mozart, and I’m working on a new book about Verdi. I love them all, but Beethoven was, is, and always will be my No.1.”
I’ll play devil’s advocate here and say surely there have been a lot of words written about both subjects before, so why even try? Is it that you offer a more investigative role in retelling their stories?
“Not investigative, but I offer the man as much as the music. I think you’ll find a lot of books on Beethoven and a lot of books on Mozart are all about musicological analysis and the way the dominant chord in the third bar correlates with the blah blah blah!
“What fascinates me is, ‘Was he drunk when he wrote it?’ ‘Was he in love when he wrote it?’ I always try and portray the man as much as the music. That’s the hallmark of my musical biographies – that by the end you’ll know the man as much as you know the music.
“I never lose sight of the fact that we tend to treat these composers as gods, putting them on a pedestal. But they were men. They had to live and pay their rent, eat and drink. So how did they do it? And with Beethoven, how did he do that when he was slowly going deaf? That’s what fascinates me.”
There’s also the 15-part radio series on Mozart you’ve been working on.
“Yes, and I recorded the final one this afternoon, which airs on December 17. And it’s been a real journey. First of all, I had to get the book ready for publication, and then we had this 15-part series, which is repeated on New Year’s Eve from seven until seven – which is amazing!”
Is this just you having the time of your life as a broadcaster, what with the morning show of the past five years too?
“It is! That is the exact right way to put it. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. I’ve spent my life in television news and loved every minute of that. But it was very tense, very demanding and very competitive. Classical music is just altogether gentler. And I’m really enjoying it. I find myself in front of a microphone, smiling, which I never did as a newscaster. It was always grim news.”
With that in mind, in the year I was born – 1967 – you were taken on by Reuters, and pretty soon found yourself covering the Six-Day War. Given the chance, would you ever go back to that Middle East desk or at least take on a role as an elder statesmen and expert commentator on that front? Stalwarts like Jeremy Bowen remain involved. Do you ever watch him and his colleagues and think, ‘That could be me!’
“Yes, but there’s a part of me that says, ‘That was me’ and ‘That’s what I did do’. I reached a stage in life where it was time to move on and let the younger generation come through. I look with envy now – there’s so much news around – but with a smile on my face. I did that, and now I’ve moved on to other things. It’s not jealousy. It’s the thought that this used to be my life.”
I’m guessing your journalistic and broadcasting past helps you with your research into your books, and your meticulous approach to research seems to have paid off.
“Well, yes, funny you should say that. The way I approach writing a biography is like a reporter. I surround myself with the sources of material and I only know the bare outline before I begin writing. I want to be taken by surprise as much as the reader. And I want to try and convey that surprise. I might even find myself writing a sentence like, ‘You won’t believe what happened to him next, because I didn’t genuinely believe it until I found it out’. Rather that than ‘In 1836 he did so-and-so’. That’s too dry.”
To try and put it tenderly, thankfully you’ve made it into your 70s, John, whereas your latest subject didn’t even reach half of that. What do you think Mozart could have achieved if he’d lived a full life?
“Well, honestly, Malcolm, given the short life the output was huge, not least compared to others. Beethoven lived to the age of 56 and wrote nine symphonies, while Mozart wrote 41. And while Beethoven wrote one opera, Mozart wrote the best part of 20. His output was huge. But in my book on Mozart I say that instead of mourning what we lost, we should just be grateful that he lived at all.”
Your love of music was always your leisure-time getaway, but appears to have become your profession as well as your passion now.
“Absolutely – the passion has become a profession, which is lovely. I’m doing what I love.”
Talking of love, I believe you recently remarried.
“I have. I married in July to Nula, and it was a big moving on for both of us. I’m not going into detail, because you know it. We were both in a similar position and just decided, ‘Right, it’s time to close the door and move on. We’ve done that, and it’s lovely.”
Are you still away from home a lot with your work?
“No. I’m not away from home at all apart from this trip to Liverpool and Preston. Other than that it tends to be weekend concerts. But when she can, Nula comes with me. So I travel very little, certainly in comparison to my news reporting days.”
Following his lead, I won’t dwell too much on the loss of John’s second wife, Bonnie, after her well-publicised nine-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. But it would be wrong not to mention, albeit briefly, John’s campaigning to help raise awareness of dementia and the work of Admiral nurses. His autobiographical work, My Bonnie, struck a chord with many of us, myself included while dealing with dementia issues relating to my parents. In fact I’d put it up there with fellow ITV presenter Fiona Phillips’ Before I Forget and Lisa Genova’s fictional Still Alice in that respect.
On the subject of family, John’s father was an expert in his field, while his brother David is a great actor, and his brother Peter’s a success in his career too. Meanwhile, his grandfather on his Mum’s side was a revered photographer, as revealed by David on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? while John’s proved himself as a journalist and much more. Do we take it from all that he was from a driven family?
“No, I wouldn’t say that really. But every day that goes by, I admire my Dad more and more. He was a surgeon, and I really, really wanted to follow in his footsteps but knew from an early age it just wasn’t in me. I went down a different path, but still wish I’d had that in me, because it was such a worthwhile thing to spend your life doing.
“But it wasn’t to be, and it was the same with my brother David and my brother Peter. None of us followed him, which we always think is a little sad. Funnily enough though, I was at his old hospital yesterday, seeing somebody, and he said what a revered name Suchet is at St Mary’s Hospital in London. That was so nice to hear. He’s been gone a long time.”
I guess your parents were very supportive of the direction you took though.
“Yes, very, very much so. Dad never tried for one moment to force me into medicine. He knew it wasn’t in me, and he encouraged me in the career I chose.”
Looking back on those days in television journalism, were you happiest out in the field, such as your work in Afghanistan, or back in the office as the anchor-man?
“Well, I was a reporter for 10 years, in Afghanistan, Iran, the Philippines, and so on, which was an incredible 10 years – watching history unfold in front of you. Then the editor, my boss, made the decision to bring me inside and turn me into a newscaster, and I resisted – I didn’t really want to do it. But it was a good fit, and it worked. So it wasn’t really a question of either/or. I just did one for 10 years then moved on to do another, and being a newscaster is terribly exciting too. You get the same adrenaline rush but there are no bullets flying around.”
Only verbal ones.
And now you’ve successfully moved on to the next stage, but still with that microphone in front of you … still living the life.
“I know, I know, I know! That’s a nice way of putting it.”
So what can we expect if we come along to see you at the Guild Hall in Preston?
“It’s called The Last Waltz, and it’s based on my book on Strauss, which came out last year. And the music will be all Strauss waltzes and polkas. It will be a wonderful evening, with me introducing the pieces and telling the stories behind Vienna and the Strausses. And I tell you, there are stories you wouldn’t believe – of jealousy, rivalry, war and murder. It’s amazing!”
So how have you been able to uncover all those stories that have somehow stayed below the surface for so long?
“Well, that’s a good way of putting it, because I have brought them to the surface.
“I went on a school trip to Vienna when I was 16 and it was the first place I’d been abroad without my Mum and Dad. And I fell in love with Vienna and the music of Vienna and I’ve stayed in love with it ever since. And all my life I’ve been reading up and learning about the Strauss dynasty, 19th century Vienna and the whole history of that wonderful city. It’s Europe’s capital city of music, so it always fascinates me, and I finally put it all together and published a book on the Strausses and Vienna a year ago.
“And now, to be standing in front of the Royal Philharmonic – one of the finest orchestras not only in this country but in the world – talking about Strauss, and then they play that music … I tell you – it’s just beyond words!”
Preston Guild Hall presents The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Last Waltz on Monday, December 19 (7pm), with tickets £28.50/£21.50, or £7.70 for students. An all-Strauss programme includes the Blue Danube Waltz, Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, and Radetsky March. James Clark directs and John Suchet hosts, telling stories about two generations of the Strauss family. For more information and ticket details head to the Guild Hall website via this link or call the box office on 01772 80 44 44.