At 17, I was full of myself, bags of confidence, lots of chutzpah and ready to roll. I hadn't really found out what life was like, nor the fact that you'd really hit the bottom of the ladder, not the top of it. Having sat S-levels a year early, I'd finished school but was too young to go to university. I was told there was a job going at the local theatre, the Golders Green Hippodrome, working as a stage hand - nine pounds, seventeen and eight pence a week and all the Tiller girls you could eat!
The Golders Green Hippodrome was the second biggest theatre after the London Palladium and sat 3,000 people. I fell in love with the sheer variety of the theatre, somewhere a man would be putting on a beard to play King Lear, a pretty dancer would be squeezing into a gorgeous costume and someone else would be tuning up a tuba. The glitter and glitz hit my adrenalin button. Although my first production was just an ordinary pantomime, Hughie Green in Jack and the Beanstalk, it transformed me because suddenly I realised I wanted to work in entertainment and didn't want to be an executive.
It was what went into mounting showbusiness, not appearing in it, that appealed so strongly. The first thing I got to do was sweep the stage - and not just once but over and over again because, with dancers, if there is anything left behind they can fall and hurt themselves badly. It's a good discipline, you learn to start at the bottom and if the stage isn't swept the whole thing can go to pieces. It taught me not be afraid of the small, menial jobs. Today a lot of people think they should start halfway up and reach the top reasonably quickly. They have no patience to stay and learn things.
I learnt a lot about systems at the Golders Green Hippodrome: if you don't do everything in the right order at the right time, it ain't gonna work - and what's more, the audience will see. I learnt how important small, physical things are in making large enterprises work. Precision is important for cooking, too. It's a chemical process and if you don't do it properly it will taste awful.
I was a big lad and in the theatre they needed big lads to pull on all the ropes because there was no electrical systems - it was rather like working on a sailing ship, all hemp lines and pulleys. When West Side Story came out on tour for the first time I became fly master. There were no moving sets, it was all flown. Nobody had ever put this show on lines before, but I devised it. There was something called the "Krupke" flat which weighed three tons. Initially we couldn't get it an inch off the floor, let alone fly it. We ended up with 18 men pulling on ropes, it was very dangerous because there were no safety systems. If somebody had lost their grip it would have come down like a guillotine and chopped the actors in half.
I was just 17 and running this team - all of whom were older than me. That's always been the case until recently. Now I'm so old it's not possible to be older. Always volunteer, never take no for an answer, never assume that something will work - so always check and never expect gratitude; are other important lessons from my time at the Hippodrome. Now it's my advice for success in broadcasting and I suspect they are rules for life. I was ready to do anything because that's the way you discover new things, and when they want to get rid of six out of seven, you're the only one left because you're always ready to go the extra mile. I'm always up for it. I've had such an eclectic career because I'll volunteer for anything.
That year was a definitive time for me. In my internal image I'm still 17 and I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not. I still instinctively refer to adults and forget that I'm nearly 60 and a grandfather. What's happened to me, which is quite extraordinary, is that I found myself joining what at the time was a vaguely eccentric end of public life, entertainment, but in the 35 years I've been in it, it has turned into the largest single economic and intellectual force in the world.
The electronic media has taken me from the edge to the centre of the world. I've been surfing along on this wave without really noticing, and now I've found myself on the beach - but it's been a hell of a ride. I'm stepping down from my day job as programme controller of Classic FM. It's a health issue. Not that I've gone gaga, or am not of any use to anybody. Three serious doctors have said, "If you want to live much longer, stop now." So what do you do? It's difficult to quit when I'm always volunteering, and don't ask me what it's like because I don't know yet. I'm not off the train yet - but somebody's pulled the communication cord. It's life, I don't believe it goes on forever. I'm very content with things. I'm enormously grateful for what I've had, done, been and seen. I'm a Muslim and we are taught to accept the will of God, which helps to take the downhill as well as the uphill. I don't mean that I am a deeply, warmly spiritual person but I am at peace with myself about slowing down. As Gandhi said: "It's better to light one small candle than to rail against the dark." That's my view too, and I hope I've lit a small candle or even two.
Michael Barry will continue to broadcast his daily recipes on Classic FM at 10.35am.Reuse content