Obituary: Paul Ryan

    The Cardiff-born West End cabaret singer, arts critic and Ciné Lumière interviewer and translator has died at the age of 69


    I interviewed Paul Ryan (who has just succumbed to cancer at the age of 69) on behalf of Jazz Journal in the summer of 2019. We chatted outside a café at The National Theatre with actor Jack Shepherd (Wycliffe), with whom we were both on nodding terms, at an adjacent table. I filed the subsequent piece as Paul Ryan: Renaissance Man and I see no reason to amend that description as he did, indeed, have a firm grip on a multi-stringed bow.

    Fluent in French, he secured a freelance position at the Institute Français in South Kensington, more or less 25 years ago, when the live theatre housed within the building had just been converted into a cinema specialising, not unnaturally, in French films. To attract maximum PR the films would regularly be accompanied by the director and/or principal actors, and Paul would interview them on stage, translating as he went. As a lifelong French film buff I was a regular at the venue – known now as Ciné Lumière – and I soon fell into the habit of chatting with Paul after the gig. For the thick end of 20 years I thought this was Paul’s only source of income and boy, did I get a wrong number!

    I also collect second-hand books and at regular intervals I visited two or three tables laid out in a West End Street adjacent to a theatre stage-door. Over the years I got to know the proprietor and one day, out of the blue, he asked if I knew Paul Ryan. I allowed that I knew a Paul Ryan, a French translator. That’s the fella, said the bookseller, he sings in local pubs and buys lots of books on songwriters. Primed with this intelligence I braced Paul the next time we met and he confessed it was all true.

    Within weeks serendipity took a hand: the old Regent Street Polytechnic had become the Regent Street Cinema and on Wednesday afternoons they ran vintage musicals, one of which, 1944’s Belle Of The Yukon, was reasonably rare and hadn’t in fact, surfaced for several years. Both Paul and I were aware that the score boasted two standards, Like Someone In Love, and Sleighride In July, both written by the team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and both performed by Dinah Shore. It was a given that we’d both be at the screening and sure enough we met there and beguiled several hours chatting about popular song and songwriters.

    Soon after that I reviewed a gig that Paul did at Crazy Coqs and soon after that I did the interview mentioned above. I learned he was born in a downmarket area of Cardiff (Splott) in 1953, the son of an electrician and a silver-service waitress with strong connections to music hall. Leaving school at 15 in 1968 he took a job in a local branch of Dixon’s whilst also working part-time as an assistant lighting technician at the New Theatre. Two years later he was singing and dancing in a local am-dram company and two years later, in 1972, he was working as dresser to Ernie Wise, and on the road with Morecambe and Wise.

    A year later he was back working full-time at the New Theatre as a fully-fledged lighting technician. By 1978 he was in London, initially Notting Hill Gate and working as a freelance arts critic for the Guardian, Observer and Irish Times. In 1996 the theatre on the first floor of the Institute Français became a cinema and Paul became the freelance translator and interviewer. He eventually interviewed some 500 actors, writers and directors, the cream of the French cinema industry. Around this time he also translated the popular TV series Columbo for French television. He next turned to writing, producing the well-received Marlon Brando: A Portrait, amongst other titles.

    Finally, the section of his life that will most interest jazz followers: In 2005 he began singing informally with pianist Kenny Clayton, drawing his repertoire from The Great American Songbook. His laid-back jazz-inflected baritone soon became popular with discerning audiences and in a short while the duo were getting paid by venues such as Crazy Coqs, Pizza Express, The Pheasantry and Ronnie Scott’s. In 2016, during a gig at The Pheasantry, Paul recorded 16 standards, accompanied by Kenny Clayton on piano, Eric Guy on bass and Mike “Ozzie” Osborn on drums. Blame It On My Youth was released on Bell Records and sold reasonably well considering that the title song, which was typical of the content, was written in 1934 by Oscar Levant.

    Recently, Paul teamed up with a much younger pianist, Jamie Safir, and they had been selling out jazz clubs in the West End. Earlier this year they released an album Love, Look Away, which you can hear on YouTube. You can also see Homage To Paul Ryan on that same YouTube; it highlights his interviews on stage at Ciné Lumière with people such as Catherine Deneuve, Juliet Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, etc, and explains much better than I can, why I choose to call him Renaissance Man. The West End jazz scene is the poorer for his passing.