Carolyn Hitt Reviews 'Barry John – The King' BBC ONE Wales Friday 8 March 9pm

7th March 2013

Barry John - The King BBC ONE Wales Friday 8 March 9pm


By Carolyn Hitt


It is more than 40 years since Barry John retired. On the eve of the Scotland game this week, a new BBC Wales documentary explores the life, career and abdication of The King.


I've seen a preview. It will make your heart sing. There is archive of positively supernatural rugby skills. It will also make your heart ache. There is recollection of the pressures that provoked this most premature of sporting goodbyes and a poignant contrast between past glories and the present.


But most of all, amid all the oblique footage of Pontcanna pubs, I hope it reminds one generation of and introduces another to the extraordinary talent of Barry John.


There is a beautiful slow-motion sequence underscored with Baroque piano in which the fly-half glides through the opposition with such will-o-the-wisp sorcery he might as well be invisible. Every defender is rendered clumsy and bewildered, grasping thin air.


It really is a magical display. Particularly to those of us more used to the tiresome sight of muscular behemoths thundering into contact rather than ghosting through the gaps.


Barry's brother Alan explains how his sibling's slight physique shaped his style of play from childhood. "Barry was small. He had to use his head and his swerving more than anything to get out of trouble."


His teacher H R Williams describes his pupil's special gifts lovingly. "Balance, judgement, pace... an unusual talent," he smiles. "His timing was immaculate, I so admired that in him."


Mr Williams recounts the tale of how Barry joined Llanelli as a 17-year-old, where the Tanner Bank faithful would chant the name of the teenage number 10. "He was a member of the team that beat Australia. The difference between the two teams that day was Barry with his elusive running, pinpoint kicking - he would supply what was required at the time."


Derek Quinnell - who married Barry's sister Medora, creating one of the great Welsh rugby dynasties in the process - reveals how his young brother-in-law made an instant impression on the older Scarlets. "He knew how to read a game. Experienced forwards, internationals...they recognised the main theme was to get the ball to Barry."


We see archive of his Welsh debut against Australia in 1966, head bowed through the emotion of the anthem. Although Wales lose the game, Barry wins acclaim for his stylish performance.


And as he is soon paired with another emerging talent, a new era of Welsh rugby begins. We hear the classic anecdote of When Barry Met Gareth. "You chuck it, I'll catch it," says the nonchalant, plimsoll-wearing number 10 as the debutant scrum-half is desperate for some in-depth preparation on the playing fields of Trinity College Carmarthen. The latter's fears are immediately dispelled.


"When I heard those words I knew this guy was the guy I wanted to play with," says Gareth. "There was a confidence about that statement that I knew that no matter how I threw it to him he would catch it. We only improved as we got to know each other better. People would say, ‘Why did you go blind then?' And Barry would say ‘Oh telepathy! I know exactly what he's going to do and he knows exactly what I'm going to do'."


Not that many other people knew exactly what Barry was going to do. He could even confuse the Kiwis. Gareth recalls his half back partner's seismic impact on the 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand, where All Black brute force was undone by Cefneithin creativity.


"He decided to run a ball that most people wouldn't have because they were all there defensively waiting to devour him," Gareth says. "I can only describe it as mesmerising - waltzing through, scoring a try and the opposition applauded him. As he scored the try they turned round and they clapped him."


John Dawes, captain of those victorious Lions, adds: "Because they hadn't believed what they'd just seen. He's the only one who could do that. He was a genius."


Ray "Chico" Hopkins embellishes the legend of Barry's physical feats with details of his special temperament.


"He'd say, ‘Don't worry about the game today. I'm on the field. Nothing will go wrong. I'm here. I am God and I will see you alright.' And he'd joke about things like that - ‘Tell the bloke in the baggage don't worry about washing my jersey today no-one will come near me.' He was walking on water. Everything he seemed to do was like royalty. And that's why he had that name The King."


It was the All Blacks, of course, who crowned him rugby's monarch - the ultimate compliment from the quintessential rugby nation. But his reign would bring unbearable pressures as the game's first true superstar endured the spotlight without any of the support system today's icons take for granted.


More than four decades later, Barry does not dwell too deeply on the tipping point of his retirement at just 27. "I realised it had changed," he says simply. "I took a few months to try and handle it because apparently I was some kind of celeb. I didn't know how to behave like a celeb, I still don't. And that was it."


The documentary's most telling insights come from Jan John, the wife Barry is amicably separated - though not divorced - from. The gentle, elegant mother of his four children, recalls the intense scrutiny, as fans rang the house relentlessly and turned up to gawp through the windows on a Saturday afternoon. "Everybody wanted a piece of him. He enjoyed it to a certain degree but I think it became a problem after a while."


On March 25, 1972 on the final whistle of Wales v France, the King abdicated at the height of his powers. Not even his coach had an inkling it was coming. "I didn't know he was going to retire straight after the French game," says Clive Rowlands. "I thought he was having another year. The next game was Wales v All Blacks, 1972. And I'm convinced that they were terrified of Barry John. They must have had parties everywhere in New Zealand when Barry John retired before Wales played New Zealand."


There was no cause for celebration closer to home. And the reasons behind Barry's exit from the game - and the subsequent impact on his life - have been debated in rugby circles ever since.


"He finished and Gerald and I went on another six, seven years," says Gareth. "Years later - because he wouldn't admit it - I said ‘You do miss it don't you? He said ‘Yes'."


It is one of several poignant moments in the programme. There are uncomfortable moments too. Though he his cheerful throughout - with flashes of the wit that characterised his charismatic younger self - Barry cuts a lonely figure.


Certain questions are insinuated but never directly asked, nor really answered. John Dawes explains why they shouldn't go there. "He'll talk to you about sport, even about politics if you like, but he won't talk about himself."


The nearest Barry gets to dropping his guard is on the subject of regret. "Any person who's got no regrets must be a nutter or a liar. Everybody has regrets," he says. "It's how we look at what we do regret that matters - what's the impact. Not on you as such, but on others. I don't worry about myself so much. It's about other people. People you love, family and people like that...Right let's go."


And with that he's off. To me, it feels appropriate. Why should we try to pin him down? His opponents never could. Let The King remain as elusive as he was on the field of play.

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