Here’s part two of our Nick Barnes interview giving the lowdown on the changes in journalism, arguing at Accrington, BB King and the first time he met ALS.
ALS: You were really determined about your chosen career, was it always an ambition to be where you are now?
NB: I grew up watching Blue Peter and watching the BBC and I thought “I want to work for the BBC”. It was never anything specific, I never narrowed it down to “what” in the BBC, I just wanted to work for the BBC so when the bank manager throws it you when you’re at university and you’re desperate for your overdraft and he says “What are you going to do?” and I said “I’m going to work for the BBC”, I never said I hoped, I said I am going to work for the BBC. It was total fate that it happened, I didn’t have anything to go to after university which is typical of me, I had made no plans whatsoever except to go home and see what happened and then it was a friend who asked if I would be interested in doing travel broadcasts for the AA (the road people not the other ones) and through that the boss of BBC Radio Devon asked if I fancied doing some work for them on the technical side, which I did, and that was the foot in the door.
I’m from Exeter in Devon and my family are from Cornwall but I went to university in Kent. I was always looking at a staffing job in the BBC which are really rare so you applied for anything that came up and that’s how I ended up at BBC Cumbria. I love The Lakes and the Cornish landscape is almost exactly the same as the Cumbrian landscape. In fact, many moved from Cornwall to Cumbria because they had transferrable skills from the tin mines.
ALS: Did you have a team in Devon?
NB: My dad is from London and was a Spurs fan along with his dad so as a kid I grew up as a Tottenham fan until I was about 15 or 16 when I actually started going to watch Exeter and so became a regular at Exeter and would go and watch them until I went to university. I’ve got a group of friends in a Facebook group and we talk about Exeter. I don’t get to many games obviously because I’m working. Then when I went to Radio Cumbria I wasn’t covering the football so I used to go and watch Carlisle as a fan. I used to do interviews with Clive MIddlemiss who was the manager at the time so when it came to me actually doing the football I knew people at the club.
ALS In a nice bit of symmetry, with you being a Spurs fan as a kid, how was your first experience of commenting on a Sunderland game?
NB: I was covering Carlisle Utd and at late notice John Cairns who was the Sunderland commentator at the time couldn’t make it so they needed somebody midweek to cover Spurs v Sunderland in the League Cup. My boss said “The summariser is called Martyn McFadden, from ALS”. So that’s how that game came about we were both in the little press box. I was completely lost in the dark on that one. Martyn was having to point at players’ names on the teamsheet while I was commentating so I knew who they all were! After the game players were coming out and I had to do interviews but I didn’t know who they were! So, I did the classic “Bit of level mate, can you give me your name for the tape?” of course it was Dariusz Kubicki and he was good, in fact couldn’t be better. So that was my first Sunderland match.
ALS Were you working for Radio Devon when you did your first ever interview, which was with BB King?
NB: Yes, when I was working for the BBC I was doing technical stuff and the boss said if I wanted to take the next step up in the BBC then I should go into reporting and you really need to practice interviewing. The first thing I saw was that BB King was going to be playing at Exeter University and so I wrote to his press office and I got a phone call back from a woman who said he’s sometimes touchy about these things, he’s a bit hit and miss about whether he does interviews, but we’ll let you know on the day. So, I heard nothing but got a phone call on the day saying that BB King would talk to me. I was told I had 15 minutes with him and his assistant painted him as a bit of an ogre actually but when I got in the dressing room there was no entourage, just him and his guitar, and he sat down and talked. There was no time restriction at all, we could have sat and talked for hours. I’ve still got the reel to reel recordings and have listened back and I’m just embarrassed by it but it’s a lovely thing to have. There’s a friend of mine who’s a Sunderland fan, he’s an American military judge but he’s latched on to Sunderland; he listens to the commentaries in court sometimes and sometimes adjourns court so he can listen. Anyway, he says I should send it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it’s BB King talking and in England too. When I did the interview it was 1987 and that was just before his song with Bono and U2 when he really took off. If that interview had been 6 months later, I don’t know if I would have got it.
ALS How close are you and Benno?
NB: Gary Bennett and I have come on a journey together; the very first match we did was a friendly at Kilmarnock and we walked into a bar together and everyone started singing his name and thinking “Who the hell is that next to him?” but over the years we have built up a fairly loyal following. That relationship you build up on air is so important. We’re like a married couple, we’ve been together 16 years, we live in each other’s pockets, we travel together; we’re basically doing everything together. We knew each other from when Gary played for Carlisle for six months so when I needed a summariser when I came to Sunderland I called Benno who had just lost his job as Darlington manager.
ALS Obviously your voice is well known but has Netflix meant you’re recognised in the streets more?
NB: I think even before Netflix, maybe Twitter or maybe before that I would be going into supermarkets and people would recognise me. The Netflix thing has pushed it wider, suddenly people who don’t go to the game recognise you so now I’ll get a tweet saying “I saw you in Morrissons buying a…” You’ve got to watch what you buy! It’s strange though because if I go back to Carlisle I still get people in the street stopping me and remembering me as the Carlisle commentator. I think that’s because that was a great spell for Carlisle, they got to Wembley in the Bob-a-job trophy and that’s why I think the Checkatrade is so important for Sunderland because if Sunderland get to Wembley I know it will be a fantastic day out. To go back to the fame thing though, it’s very difficult for me to go anywhere now and not be recognised. The worst one is when you’re on a train down to London to cover a match and you have to walk down the carriage to the buffet and you walk through a carriage full of Sunderland fans, but then there was this one journey down to London. Benno got on at Durham and doesn’t say a word about anything all the way down until we get to King’s Cross and I walked past this guy pulling this huge suitcase and he had these enormous woolly earrings and had flamboyant hair and everything. I said to Benno, “I think that’s Boy George!” and Benno just responds matter of fact “Oh yeah, he got on at Durham”. I looked at him and said, “And you didn’t think to mention it?” to which he replied “No, Rita Ora got on and Warwick Davies”. He had sat there in complete silence for the whole journey and never mentioned any of this.
ALS And of course the tweed marks you out
NB: Yeah I can’t go out without tweed on now. I’ve always worn jacket and tie for the game because it’s a mark of professionalism. I’m representing the BBC; how you look is how you are approached by the manager. I always wanted to look professional. Because I’ve always liked tweed I started wearing it. I think there’s a perception that I’m a posh Southerner, I’m clearly not from Sunderland, I’m clearly not from the North so tweed and being Southern marries itself. It became something that people always identified with me.
ALS Part of the issues with being known is that people are going to disagree with you, how do you deal with that?
NB: The thing about Radio is that people can become really pedantic, I had one guy recently pull me up for saying “the longer ball”, telling me it’s the long ball. And then when we played Man City U21s I got someone asking me why I keep saying Man City instead of Man City U21s and it’s just because I get a bit fed up saying Manchester City U21s all the time. Then a few nights later I heard somebody phone in to the radio show with Marco and they were criticising a player, saying he was rubbish. Marco defended him and said he was actually a decent player, but the caller was insistent he was rubbish. Marco asked if he had played professional football, which of course he hadn’t and Marco came back and said “I don’t come into your workplace, sit next to you and tell you you’re doing a crap job so what right do you have to call in to this show and call him a crap player?” and that’s the issue with us commentators people will happily sit there and criticise you and call you a crap commentator, but I’m never going to walk into their office and say “You’re a crap accountant” but that’s what you have to accept. One of the interesting things for me about Netflix was when the commentary goes over the footage, how accurate it is. That’s not me flying my own flag but I was relieved to see that what I was saying was actually what happened. I got a barrel load of abuse after the Wimbledon game and was accused of not knowing what I was doing. I watched back and matched my commentary. It was absolutely spot on. That said I was at Accrington and during the match these three ladies turned round and told me I got a player’s name wrong. I probably had, it was an Accrington player and you make mistakes sometimes. I leaned over and said, “To be honest it’s radio so nobody will ever know.” They started chuckling away and carried on bantering with the commentary box during the match. Some will come on Twitter and say “I wish those ladies would shut up” whereas others will come on and say they are loving it. Twitter gives people a voice but that voice is not always used in the most fair and considered way.