Saturday, 23 August 2014

Gladys Stumps

...And so the audiences finally picked up for Brass this evening after a fairly disastrously attended matinee which probably upset the cast a little. A cast needs a good-sized audience to keep things chugging along at a decent pace. Laughter, applause and a sea of engaged faces are vital.

I think it's a shame that more performing arts students from Yorkshire haven't seen the show. I'm also disappointed that members of Yorkshire-based brass bands haven't bothered to come, despite being told about the show. Our audiences have been almost universally on the older spectrum. Certain slightly bluer jokes are falling flat because they're going entirely over their collective heads. And very few audience members are tweeting their thoughts about the show afterwards. This seems so odd to me. Our wedding generated 12,000 tweets in the single hour it was broadcasted, so to go from that to one or two feels rather odd.

That said, audiences are being torn apart by the piece. Many people seek me out afterwards, often openly weeping, to tell me what an astonishing tribute it is to the people of Leeds, and today a gentleman from Germany sidled over to tell me he'd come all the way from Berlin to see the show based on his love of my films. Apparently he started following me in 2005 when I made Hampstead Heath: The musical. I was remarkably touched. I was also reacquainted with some of the performers from A Symphony for Yorkshire which felt very lovely.

The cast are getting better and better and hit their stride for the first time tonight in a quite remarkable way. There is not a weak link amongst them. Today I decided to pay particular attention to the ensemble cast members and saw nothing but genuine commitment and exquisite acting. Hats off to Matthew Eliot Ripley, who moved me very greatly in the Letters sequence.

I also learned today that the remarkable Emma Barry hasn't been credited in the programme as Gladys Stumps, the pianist in the pit who accompanies the first five minutes of the show. Emma also played piano for a lot of my one-on-one rehearsals, so if anyone reading this needs the services of a highly competent pianist/ MD/ actor/ singer, get in touch and I'll sling her in your direction. I see it as a failure on my part that I failed to notice this over sight when proof-reading the programme. Sometimes theatre people become so obsessed with protecting their own egos that they fail to notice the enormous dents they're making in other people's!

Right. It's too late to be writing. Have a happy night and if you're reading this from somewhere near to Leeds, there are still a couple of tickets left... SO COME!! It will change your life. Honest!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Second performance

We had our second night of Brass tonight, which was rather poorly attended; a fact I find deeply frustrating. A big news day in Bradford meant we narrowly missed out on BBC TV coverage yesterday, which would have got the word out and pretty much assured us of decent houses. Of course, if the houses are quiet, the cast begins to think the show isn't going as well as it has on previous performances. The truth being, it was a very good show which very much built on the levels that were set last night. Some of the cast were quite spectacular. It goes without saying that there were a few second night jitters; a couple of lyrics could have been spit out a little more clearly, and a follow spot operator plunged poor Laura into darkness in the middle of her big song, but I was overall incredibly happy. I subsequently found out that poor Laura had bashed her head on a lamp backstage and couldn't remember being on stage for the majority of act two! Slightly worrying...

Anyway, the lack of audiences tonight has made me convinced that we need to bring Brass down to London, so that reviewers and bigger audiences can appreciate everyone's amazing work. At the moment they're all at the Edinburgh festival. Get down to Leeds you sods! See something classy!

I woke up this morning feeling decidedly dodgy. I didn't get enough sleep, and had a couple of meetings this morning which I had to get out of bed for. We had breakfast with Meriel in the market, and then a meeting with the BBC about a potential telly project up in this neck of the woods.

I returned to the theatre and fell asleep on the floor of the stalls. I'm basically wiped out! I didn't even have the energy to walk down Briggate to Marks and Spencer's! I'm sure it's nothing that a good night's sleep won't sort out.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Up and running

It's way too late to be starting a blog! I've only just returned to the lodgings which I left at 7.30 this morning. Between then and now I've spoken on Radio Leeds with Robyn who plays Tats in the cast, finished teching the show, done a flash mob on Briggate, watched and noted a full dress rehearsal of Brass, met  Nathan, my brother Tim, my brother-in-law, John, Meriel, Tash, Anthony and my agent, premiered the show which I spent the last year writing, received a bunch of flowers, gone to an opening night party, and drunk tea in a hotel somewhere near the train station.

By all accounts Brass was a triumph. The cast were amazing. There wasn't a single person who didn't raise their game. The orchestra played brilliantly. The audience responded really well. There was lots of weeping, and a fair amount of laughter.

Frankly, I'm too tired to be objective about anything. I feel an overwhelming sense of relief and pride. I'm proud of myself. Proud of the cast.

My only sadness is that the audience wasn't larger. It was an okay sort of house, but when you bother to bring something like Brass away from London - where the critics and audiences are - the region itself has to show its gratitude by actually showing up! Audiences, I'd say, were largely made up of out-of-towners. Boo!

Also found out tonight that our wedding has now officially been shortlisted in the Guardian Edinburgh Film and Television Awards TV moment of the year category. We don't have a hope in hell of winning. We're up against my mate Julie Hesmondhalgh's death in Corrie, the moment when the stammering lad delivers his speech in Educating Yorkshire, Jeremy Paxmon going head-to-head on Newsnight and Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision! We're very much there to make up numbers and it's one of those ridiculous things where the general public has to vote... Still it's nice to have a nomination. For those desperate to vote, it involves down-loading a free app, which you might need to delete again if you don't want information about the festival!


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

One day more

I think today was perhaps the most challenging of all days on Brass, largely because I'm now juggling so many different balls that my head has started to cave in.

I'm simultaneously frantically emailing mates at the BBC to try and secure some publicity for the show whilst being in the slightly unenviable situation of having to make large cuts to the orchestrations of the in order to meet the very specific acoustic challenges of the venue. Time constraints mean that I'm having to make the cuts based on hearing the songs just once in the space so the pressure is beyond intense. I'm desperately trying to carry out the work with a big smile on my face, but worry that the smile isn't quite reaching my eyes! Of course, at the same time I'm also having to keep my eye on the show's book, but those with a primary interest in the script tend to want to talk to me when the songs are happening, which is, of course, when my other hat is on, so I feel torn into little pieces!

The main problem is that I don't have an assistant, or a supervisor or anyone I can actually talk to, or whinge to when people like Nathan and Philippa are not about. That sounds tragic doesn't it? I'm just knackered. Everyone's knackered.

Of course all of this will pale into insignificance by the end of tomorrow when we'll have performed a beautiful piece of theatre which will make everyone laugh and cry and think and dream. The cast are sensational. Genuinely. They come alive when the band begins to play and make me beam with pride.

On that note, I'm off to bed, or more precisely I'm off to watch a programme which looks at whether a vegetarian diet is better for a person. Obviously I'm hoping the answer will be a resounding yes! One of the talking heads experts has just suggested that a vegetarian can expect to live five years longer than a meat eater. Get in! I'm not sure all vegetarians eat as much cheese as me, but I guess being a non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian goes some way to counter-balance the high level of stress associated with my occupation!

That said, I'm drinking a whiskey tonight. My good mate Ted gave me a bottle for my birthday. It's really peaty and smooth and it's going down a treat!


Today was a long day. A very long day. We've been in a technical rehearsal for Brass, which is, by everyone's standards a hideous but necessary evil, which made me very grumpy at one stage.

The problem with Brass is that it starts with an astonishingly complicated prologue, which lasts eleven minutes and jumps about from musical style to musical style. Furthermore, it's predominantly in 7/8, which, for those who aren't in the know, is as complicated a time signature as it's possible to get (in the simple sort of writing that I do these days.) I don't really know what was going on in my head when I wrote it. An irregular metre seemed a really good idea to demonstrate a city descending into the chaos of war, but it was never going to be an easy option when it came to performance. Emma B, who plays Grimsby, asked me if I was particularly angry when I put pen to paper. I oughtn't to have been. I wrote it at the end of the week that I got married!

So, in short, the prologue took most of the day to tech, and made everyone, particularly me, feel excessively miserable. Still, in the last session of the day, we charged our way through the piece towards the middle of act one and as a result I feel that we're on the right course. I left the theatre feeling quite upbeat, which is very different to how I was feeling when we took a break for tea.  I called Philippa in a terrible state...

At lunchtime I took young Josh and Huon who plays Bickerdyke to Leeds Minster to see the various plaques to the Pals on the walls there. It's really quite moving to relate our piece to actual people. The thought that, for every soldier who features in our piece, there were another 20,000 men who died in the conflict, is a rather chilling one, and furthermore, that 100 years ago, Huon, and all our male cast for that matter, would have enlisted, been conscripted or gone to jail as conscientious objectors. Each one of those fallen men had a story; a parent, a sibling, a partner, a best friend...

Right, before I enter some kind of maudlin coma, I should get to bed. We start early tomorrow and have a rather full day, as you might imagine! My bed has a plastic sheet on it. I woke up this morning entangled in it. Matt warned me that it was a little like sleeping on a packet of bacon and I had no idea what he meant until I got in. It sort of rustles and creaks in the night, like something you might take camping. I think my Grannie had awnings above her windows which were made out of the same material. It's all rather 1980s. Pass me the video camera!

Sunday, 17 August 2014


There was a bit of a panic this morning as I rushed around the house throwing my belongings into a suitcase, trying to work out what I'd forgotten to pack. I must have switched the kettle on seven times without actually make myself a cup of tea!

I reached King's Cross in good time for my train and was amazed to be charged 2p for a plastic bag in WH Smith, which they couldn't actually provide! There was not a single bag in the entire shop. To register my discontent, I asked for a refund, which took forever. When they proudly handed over the 2p, I demanded it went into the charity pot!

I spent some time looking at the departure boards, and for some reason drifted into something of a romantic reverie at the concept of train leaving London and going all the way to Inverness.

I find train stations in general hugely romantic places, largely due to the frantic and dramatic displays of emotion which tend to be found within. Quite a number of people clambered into my carriage to say goodbye to loved ones. The little old man sitting behind me was informed by his daughter that his son would come and find him on the train in Grantham. "Good luck Daddy" she kept saying. He was at least 90, and an alarming thought crossed my mind that she was perhaps thinking she might never get to see her old dad again.

Another woman ran along with the train, waving at her friend with a big smile plastered across her face. She stopped running and promptly burst into tears, which was a really very moving sight. I guess when making a piece about the First World War, you become all-too aware of the significance of waving people away at train stations.

There was a caged budgerigar in my train compartment, which felt a little weird. It chirped its way through the journey in a most disconcerting way which was somehow less disconcerting than the enormously fat woman who spent the entire journey complaining that the air conditioning had broken in our carriage. After I'd listened to her for a few hours I wanted to shake her and say "loose weight, love... Then heat will not be your enemy." She looked like a cross between a tank and a pillow.

I arrived in Leeds in a rain shower. The weather seems utterly incapable of deciding whether it's summer or winter. I wheeled my suitcase to the student accommodation in some kind of monsoon, which instantly became sunshine and blue skies.

Our little bedrooms are rather lovely. I sat on the bed in a pool of sunshine feeling really very content, before strolling across to the theatre with young Josh.

We turned up at the City Varieties to discover the set in place and lots of lights being focussed. Everything looks majestic. The set design is remarkable; simultaneously capable of looking like a munitions factory, a front line trench, and the barn in Bus Les Artois where the Leeds Pals were billeted.

I got extremely emotional looking at the stage, seeing the lights isolating different areas of the set, with hazy smoke drifting through the slats of wood.

It's wonderful to feel like a spare part. I genuinely mean that. Everything is very much in hand. The technical directors are wandering around, peacefully doing their thing. From tomorrow, our brilliant stage manager will run the technical rehearsal and Matt will make sure everyone is standing in the right place. I am only really here to smile and tell everyone what a great job they're doing. And I won't have to lie because the team is sensational.

The cast have been banned from seeing the theatre until it's in a decent state, but I found Andrew, Alex and drummer Ben waiting outside, so took them on a little tour of Leeds, down Briggate to the minster, via the Corn Exchange and then along the canal back to the train station. I felt very proud to be showing them around.

We had supper in Bella Italia and then returned to the theatre for a very chilled-out evening session. I adore the silence that descends on a theatre in the latter stages of a get-in. There's a spine-tingling air of anticipation: almost as though the theatre starts to look forward to what is coming. It made all the hackles on the back of my neck stand on end.

Tomorrow, this very special atmosphere will give way to something really very different, when the actors pour into the space and the technical rehearsals begins...

Three days now, and counting...

Day off

We had a lie-in this morning. The first for I don't know how long. I also had a bath: a long, fabulous bath. I feel like a new man. All bit it a rather old new man!

We had lunch in Muswell Hill at the greasy spoon before dropping off a load of photos at Snappy Snaps. The pictures I was developing cover a relatively short period from Easter to the rehearsals last week. I stood in the photo shop watching the pictures flashing up on a screen, and got a little teary as I remembered all the fabulous days I've had this year. Trips to Avebury, Albert, Cambridge and Derbyshire. It has, without doubt, been the best year of my life - and it seems to have lasted an absolute age... So anyone worrying about turning 40 should maybe bear this in mind!

From Muswell Hill we went to Brent Cross, that ghastly shopping paradise off the North Circular, which seems to be particularly popular with homosexuals, Asians and Jewish people. I bought ten T-shirts as a result of Nathan threatening to put me in a sheep dip at the end of yesterday because everything I was wearing smelt so horrible!

From Brent Cross, we drove to John Lewis in central London where I bought a Poole Pottery vase. I actually collect Poole pottery from the Planets series they brought out ten or so years ago. This year they brought out a set which are decorated with poppies, obviously in response to the anniversary of World War One. Because I'd spent the afternoon thinking what a wonderful and magical year it had been, I felt it was a special way of remembering this fact.

We came home for food and telly, and I made good luck cards for cast members; a process which seemed to take forever, but for a bunch of people who have worked so hard on my behalf, I'd pretty much do anything.

I'm so excited about going up to Leeds tomorrow. It's one of my favourite cities in the world, and I can't wait to see how it welcomes us and how the cast takes to it. Our production manager very kindly sent me a picture of the set in situ at the theatre and it is beyond beautiful.

Brass is now much bigger than me, with scores of people, all over the country, working hard to breathe life into it. It seems so odd to think that, just a year ago, it was a few scribbled notes of research on my computer.