A Close Engagement with Music

Sean Rafferty tells Henrietta Bredin how an abbot persuaded him to make his first recording

The Spectator, 8 August 2009

Six minutes to go before the daily live broadcast of BBC Radio 3's In Tune goes on air and the atmosphere is full of a sort of super-charged alertness, of tension expertly controlled by a small team of people who all know exactly what they are doing. The producer asks about a recording of a Handel aria she wants to play later in the programme - it's not here yet, and may only be available on DVD, but it's being looked for, and if it fails to materialise, she's got an alternative as back-up. Two minutes to go and presenter Sean Rafferty ambles into the studio, having been talking to the programme's first two guests in the Green Room next door. He sits down behind the microphone and looks briefly at a couple of sheets of paper then asks: 'What's this about Joyce di Donato breaking her leg over at the Royal Opera House? Do we know what bone it is?' There's a brief flurry of activity on the other side of the glass. 'Tibia or fibula?' They'll check and let him know. Ten seconds and counting. A cue light flashes. Then, with that easy intimacy, shared by the best broadcasters, he leans forward, takes a breath, says 'A very good evening to you' and we're off.

Rafferty's voice is a fine and well-tuned instrument that has stood him in excellent stead over many years of broadcasting. 'The first recording I ever made,' he told me, 'was when the Abbot of a Cistercian foundation in Co. Down said, 'That's a good sharp Northern Irish sound you have there. Will you do a reading about the relevance of the habit in the 20th century for us?' So I did, and the monks had to listen to it, in silence, day after day, while they were eating their lunch.' He laughs uproariously, making a sound like bathwater (possibly slightly grubby bathwater) gurgling down the plug-hole.

An only child, he was on occasion dragged out and scrubbed up to sing Moore's Melodies to his mother's accompaniment at the piano - '"Believe me if all those endearing young charms" was a firm favourite' - and discovered that he quite liked the edginess of performing, the knowledge that something could go wrong. For want of a better option and because 'there was somehow a pressure to do something serious - the notion of studying music or going to a drama school would have been met with black horror' - he studied law at Queen's University, Belfast and then went into accountancy. When he was stuck in bed with a bad dose of flu one day and realized that being ill was preferable to being in the office 'the penny finally dropped and I realized I had to make a change. By pure chance, I met someone from the BBC who needed a part-time researcher and I got the job. One day, on Gloria Hunniford's Sunday afternoon TV slot, the producer suddenly said "Oh god, we're short, you'll have to go on." And the next thing I knew I was in front of the camera in a fur coat, on live television, doing an item on Christmas presents for men - how ridiculous is that?!'

Ridiculous or not, it was the beginning of a broadcasting career that has taken him from radio's Good Morning Ulster to 15 years of the television evening news, right the way through the worst of the Troubles. I wondered if this was where he developed the reassuring, unflustered approach that is such a marked feature of his style today. 'It was a relentlessly tense, nervous time but you couldn't afford to let it get to you. I know it's a cliché but a woman said to me once "You're in my front room every night" and that is a huge responsibility. Getting the tone right, knowing when to lighten up a little - and you were flying by the seat of your pants a lot of the time. News would come in while you were on air, someone would thrust a piece of paper into your hand and you'd just have to grab it and carry on. The tragedy and horror never became mundane but it was a part of everyday life.'

Two things kept him, and many others, going. A keen delight in language - tied in with a black humour 'that just got blacker and blacker' - and music. 'The Belfast Festival kept going all through the Troubles; hardly anyone cancelled. Musicians, actors, everyone came. I don't mean that we were pitifully grateful but our appreciation was very finely sharpened. There was an astonishing woman called Daphne Bell, who ran the Ulster College of Music on absolutely nothing - no grants, borrowed instruments, teachers who she coaxed into working for an absolute pittance. She talked me into singing with a madrigal group, which I wasn't wildly keen on at the time. But it turned into nearly 25 years of total bliss. We met every Monday night to rehearse and I'd browbeat people with lovely houses into having us give recitals. Singing in a small group like that is both physiologically and mentally incredibly refreshing and stimulating. You become part of the architecture of making music and there's nothing better than that.'

This close engagement with music is certainly a key part of what makes him such a sympathetic interviewer. He is swift to give credit to the backroom team who make In Tune possible - 'They are consummate professionals and it makes for an ideally relaxed atmosphere' - but his depth of knowledge, though lightly worn, is clearly evident. He does his research, making cryptically indecipherable scrawls on the notes to which, on air, he rarely refers. 'It breaks the concentration,' he says, 'if you're talking to someone and then look away. They think you've gone back to some sort of formulaic questioning, so you can end up with a formulaic answer.'

The programme alternates interviews with live performance and dealing with that gear change is quite a lot to ask of people. 'I think one of the reasons they're prepared to do it,' says Rafferty, 'is because the conditions are terrific. We've got a technical team who can get a better sound balance than some of those guys have on their own CDs, so they know they're going to sound pretty damn good.' And he has the ability to make people feel relaxed but to keep them on their toes with the occasional unexpected line of questioning. He makes sure that seasoned interviewees don't become complacent and he can cajole a response out of the most reluctant or inexperienced, handling things with particular skill when nerves or an imperfect grasp of language threaten to sabotage the conversation.

When he talks to the more glittering musical stars he likes to help listeners understand some of 'the effort that goes into producing these sublime sounds'. The encounters on In Tune are short but intense and what he loves most is 'the young talent, people who haven't been heard of. There's such an exciting rising generation of young players and singers, and they move me much more than the established performers.' Now that's typical Rafferty.