Saturday, 30 August 2014

Derbyshire again

I feel like we've covered a fair amount of the country today. As I type this blog I'm in a car speeding through the centre of Derby. Derby!

Derby is where Simon Groome and Goldie from Blue Peter were from. The Blue Peter team used to come up to his farm to go sledging. Derby is also where I failed to win a Gillard award for my film about Watford Gap... But I can't hold that against the place.

This morning we drove down to Guildford, where Nathan was doing a gig singing opera in a marquee. I deposited him outside a glorious house in the middle of a rather beautiful wood, and drove off to look for a NHS walk-in clinic. I've had a dry, tickly cough since Brass finished. It doesn't seem to be going away and I'm not at all into the idea of going on a honeymoon which might involve visiting an expensive American doctor.

The walk-in clinic at Guildford hospital, which was advertised on the internet, turned out not to be a walk-in clinic, and I was sent instead to Woking.

It took an hour for me to be seen, but the doctor I met was very good. Very friendly. She's put me on antibiotics and wants me to have an x-ray when I get back if the drugs don't work because she could definitely "hear something" in my left lung. Great.

I returned to the fancy house in the wood, picked Nathan up and drove North, around London, through the Home Counties and up into the midlands to the delightful Derbyshire town of Belper, where Little Michelle's father, Michael, was celebrating his 60th birthday in his brand new garden.

It was a charming event. Lovely company. Beautiful food. A great fire which we all sat around. Michelle sang three operatic arias accompanied by Ben Holder (our Brass MD, who happens to be her partner... They met at our wedding.) Her voice improves every time I hear it.

The views from Michael's garden are stunning; you can see right across the valley to a dark wood, and a hillside criss-crossed with dry-stone walls. It's almost as though you could throw a stone across the valley. The air is so still and hazy up there. I longed to be walking in those fields. There was something rather haunting about them.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Kate Bush

So, I can't be absolutely certain, but I'm pretty sure Kate Bush just sang Cloudbusting especially for me!

We have just emerged from the musical event of the year, the most hotly anticipated live gig that perhaps there has ever been. Kate Bush at the Hammersmith Apollo.

The air of expectation as we arrived at the venue was quite extraordinary. Everyone was having their photograph taken in front of the sign which said "Before The Dawn: sold out." Ushers were trying to keep people moving, but everyone wanted to savour every moment.

The merchandise stalls were mobbed. I bought a mug. I wanted to honour Kate's request to not take photographs during the gig, so figured a mug would give me something tangible to take away with me.

She came on stage singing the song Lily from the Red Shoes album. I got so excited that tears started spurting from my eyes. Her singing was really rather fabulous. She sang in a robust area of her voice; a blend of re-enforced head voice and a far less familiar chest belt.

Everything started like a rock concert. The band (which included a double drum kit) played from a plinth. Kate Bush stood in front, in a spotlight, belting out some of the more familiar numbers; Hounds of Love, Running Up That Hill, King of the Mountain...

And then everything sort of disintegrated... The band was trucked to the back of the stage, people dressed as fish skeletons rushed on, and Ms Bush appeared in a film sequence floating in the sea whilst performing And Dream of Sheep from the Hounds of Love album. It soon became apparent that she was going to do the unimaginable and perform the entire Ninth Wave.

For those who don't know The Hounds of Love, the Ninth Wave is the album's epic B side; a through-composed psycho-drama sung from the perspective of a drowning woman. And she did the lot. With panache. There were helicopters floating above the audience, huge silks which billowed like waves. At one point an entire house trucked on and Kate's real-life son Bertie sat on a sofa delivering the most surreal monologue about sausages. It was peculiar, amazing, moving, eccentric,  sumptuous, perplexing... All the things you want a Kate Bush concert to be.

Kate herself came across as entirely unpretentious and utterly un-enigma-like. Very warm and friendly in fact. Between songs, she seemed just like someone's Mum. Before the interval she said "we're gonna have a little break now. See you in a little bit..." And off she went, waving like she'd just won the bingo!

The second half focussed mostly on the Ariel album. When you're Kate Bush, you have too many hits to even try to cram in. You don't need to sing Wuthering Heights or Baboushka or This Woman's World. If you chose not to sing a single song from your latest album, no one will complain. The highlight of the second half was almost certainly Ms Bush's live recreation of her duet with a blackbird! On the Ariel album it was audacious enough, but when you recreate, chirp for chirp, the sound of a series of blackbird calls, in perfect time, you are a God. She is a God. I cried again.

Just before the end of the evening she sang a song I didn't know, just her and a piano (which they'd just dropped an enormous tree through). The hall fell silent, and there it was; that familiar Kate Bush ballad sound. Those open piano chords. That voice which jumps up and down octaves. The warm vibrato. The notes which fade to dust but somehow end with a seductive heavy consonant. It was a magical moment, made more magical by her finishing the set with Cloudbusting, the most anthemic of all of her songs. It will take me a long time to forget the image of row upon row of hands clapping in time at waist level, and then, as elation grew, above the head, and then a Mexican wave of people simply standing up because they didn't know how else to show their excitement.

And so the concert ended with everyone on their feet, which I guess can only be called a premature-standing ovation!

And I fulfilled a life-long ambition which no one will ever be able to erase from my memory.

Kate Bush. You have made me the luckiest man on the planet. Not only did you just sing beautifully, you did so on the twelfth anniversary of my relationship with my husband Nathan! Thank you from the very bottom of my heart! What a way to mark twelve years!

Thursday, 28 August 2014


I had a lovely lie-in again this morning. I’m still a bit fuzzy-headed and washed-out, but am slightly better than I was yesterday. I think recovery is going to be a rather long journey this time round, however.
Our bedroom is an absolute tip. There are piles and piles of things heaped on every inch of the carpet. I started to move boxes and suitcases around and found loads of things from our wedding; cards, old button holes, loose bow ties, bits of music, one or two of the more perplexing presents we received, photographs, heaps and heaps of paper work. Just looking at it broke me out in a sweat. It’s almost impossible to know what to do with it. So many people gave us presents which need to be hung on the walls in some way, but there is literally no wall-space in a house which is already filled with my photographs. Then, of course, I found loads of birthday cards, and the silly jokey made-in-China presents that people get for you on these kinds of occasions. They’re great fun for the day of the party: you wear with them, or play with them, or laugh at them... but then what? Where do they all go - except in terrible piles on the bedroom floor?

I threw away two bin bags full of stuff and then stalled and went into town to meet Nathan for a late lunch. On the tube on the way in, a woman sneezed and said “bless me” which I thought was a little eccentric, don’t most people say “excuse me?”I have never really understood the whole shouting “bless you” at strangers when they sneeze. It’s an odd compulsion, and quite intrusive. Surely most people would rather not have their sneezes publicised to the world?
On the way home, I collected our car from Highgate Autos. It’s the first time we’ve used these fellas, and I was hugely impressed by them. Not only did they do us a brilliant deal on the large amount of work we needed doing, but they were friendly and charming. It makes such a difference. They’re situated in a little mews development behind the High Street, which ought to make them the most expensive garage in the world, but they’re really not. I was also thrilled to hear that there’s been a garage on that particular site since 1910, which, I guess is pretty much since the first cars entered London. I love those little pieces of modern history.

I came home, and have started watching the athletics. I’ve no idea which athletics I’m seeing, but I’m thrilled to note that one of the 5000m runners is called Gaylen Rupp! Apparently he’s Mo Farrah’s running partner. As Nathan rightly points out, “of course he’s a fast runner; he needed to run away from all the kids who beat him up at school because of his silly name!”

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


It's been a bit of a non-day, or a "nay" as I like to call them. I had a lie-in, and woke up naturally after dreaming that I'd gone back to my old school to re-take my A-levels. I can only think the dream was a direct response to the new A* grade which arrived for the first time this year, in the process entirely devaluing the A (without a star) I got for my own A-level music!

I spent the afternoon making horrible biscuits to celebrate Nathan's return from France. I didn't set out to make them horrible, but had to use self-raising flour instead of plain flour, which gave the biscuits a curiously fluffy yet bitter taste. I smothered some in chocolate, some in jam, and others in a mix of icing sugar and lemon to disguise the taste. I burnt the rest by mistake, so had to throw them in the bin.

Nathan returned from France with even more pretty pictures drawn with permanent ink on his back. They are absolutely beautiful, but are red raw and angry-looking, and my first task was to rub cream over them which was a curiously unsettling experience.

I'm feeling considerably better than yesterday, but am still utterly wiped-out and fell asleep on the sofa in front of the telly this evening like a little old man. I dreamed that I was lying on a beach in the Caribbean and only realised when I opened my eyes that an angle-poise lamp was shining directly onto my face.

We watched The Great British Bake Off and I instantly became emotionally involved. Some poor chap had his ice cream taken out of the freezer by a wicked woman who said he had his own freezer. I absolutely supported his decision to have a tantrum and throw everything in the dustbin. I'd have done exactly the same thing. In my view, the woman who'd sabotaged his ice cream should have been disqualified, but everyone decided to focus on the way he responded to the situation she'd caused. Frankly, if that had been me, I'd have taken out her pudding with a hammer and a blow torch and seen how she responded to that. I suspect anarchy isn't the way forward for the Great British Bake Off, but it might be worth a go.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Humour bypass?

I used to think I didn't have a sense of humour. I very rarely understand jokes, particularly ones with punchlines which rely on word play. When I was young, my mother taught me how to read someone's face, so that I could laugh politely when they cracked a joke that I inevitably didn't understand. It's only taken me forty years to realise that my sense of humour is triggered by schadenfreude: the humour of cruelty. If someone falls on ice, I chuckle. If someone's skirt falls off mid-dance routine, I laugh. If someone sings out of tune, or gets bow shakes whilst performing a concerto, I often go into hysterics. I've laughed in funerals, assemblies, serious pieces of theatre and many an audition.

Whilst working on Taboo in the West End, I used to look forward to the moments when things went wrong; those times when the props went missing, or the curtain fell off its hinges, or better still when the leading lady went into a low-blood sugar trance and simply sat on stage with an inane smile on her face whilst the rest of the cast covered for her.

Today, schadenfreude was out in force on the streets of London. I sat in the waiting room at the osteopath's whilst an elderly black lady talked obsessively about being saved by Jesus. Readers will be pleased to hear that Jesus rewarded her by revealing her dirty knickers to the world as she stood up. Something terrible had happened to her skirt, which was made of a ghastly man-made fabric which glued itself together as she was sitting on the chair. I followed her along the corridor with the most astonishing view of her underwear. It was like the skirt had become a Venetian blind, which had been pulled up to reveal someone pulling a prune-like moonie at the window. If Jesus exists, he has a great sense of humour.

Later on, I popped into a cafe where they'd just washed the floor. A rather tarty-looking woman with deep attitude arrived wearing pink stilettos. The lovely Russian woman behind the counter, with her dark l's offered the obligatory warning; "be careful of wet floor." Almost instantaneously, the woman slipped and then swore with such venom that she slipped again. I have seldom laughed so much to myself.

On the tube on the way back up to Highgate, we were entertained by a wonderful busker called Tony Sweet. I kept myself engrossed in my iPhone, but was hugely impressed by his chutzpah and courage. Frankly, anyone who makes it their business to cheer Londoners up deserves to make a living, particularly one who does so via the medium of live music. I gave him some money and he instantly spotted me as a musician, which I thought was rather clever of him. In fairness, I was dressed entirely in black, and hadn't brushed my hair, so there was perhaps an air of unkempt coolness about me. Maybe it was the silver elephant I wear around my neck, which more people seem to comment about than anything else.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Bank noliday

I doubt there can be anything more depressing than sitting alone in an empty house on a rainy bank holiday with a stinking cold! Nathan has gone to France to have his tattoo finished and I am trying to recuperate.

As a special treat I took myself to the local Sainsbury but they'd run out of bread and to make matters worse, the rain was so dreadful as I walked there that I became instantly soaked to the skin. What is it about bank holidays in the UK? I eventually found two bread roles which became  soaking wet on my journey home, so lunch tasted and felt as wet as I did!

There is of course nothing on the telly to distract me. In fact, if I have to watch another advert with Nicole Scherzinger laughing coquettishly with a blob of yoghurt on her nose, I'll drive a rusty fork into my right thigh! I think the advert where she casually destroys a Greek temple is the most irritating of the series. Frankly I'm looking forward to the one where they use the blob of yoghurt on the end of her nose as target practice. Slag.

Later in the day I got under the duvet  and basically fell asleep, waking up periodically to look at a tweet, talk to Nathan in France or vomit. Yes, I had a little spate of vomiting which wasn't entirely pleasant, especially when it splashed back in my face. Too much information?

I'm ending the day obsessively watching programmes about Kate Bush on iPlayer. I write a great deal about my love of ABBA, and not so much about my love and absolute respect for the great Ms Bush. That said, I went through a month-long period a few years ago when every blog title was a reference  to a Kate Bush lyric. She's a genius. Beyond genius, really...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Burst bubble

I'm back in London feeling a little like the bubble I've been floating around in since I got married has finally burst! Nathan and I are both full of some kind of gastric bug, I feel a bit hungover and exhausted and I can't wait to get into a bed which doesn't fold up around me like some kind of sandwich toaster.

I'm not at all happy that Brass is over! I would cheerfully have stayed in Leeds for another week to watch the show growing. Enough people with enough clout have now said enough wonderful things about the show for me to be sure that a few London performances with the same cast would turn into something quite special.

Of course the Yorkshire bods are also climbing out of the woodwork, and waking up to what they largely missed, which I find both frustrating and rather unsurprising. The sad truth of our industry - and those with the power to promote it - is that someone else's idea is never going to be something you want to get behind in any meaningful way. That is, if course, until you can ignore it no longer and people begin to ask why they weren't told about it. For this reason, regional BBC stations often struggle to get the backing of the local press. It's possibly also why I've only just received a slew of emails from people suggesting how Brass, or elements therein, might play a lovely part in something they are planning in 2016.  Of course this is all fabulous stuff. I just wish Brass hadn't had to prove itself first!

I had lunch with my family and honorary godfather in a swanky hotel outside Leeds where we were served the most astonishingly bland potato soup and bread rolls which tasted of old saucepans. Fairly unacceptable in my view, but the limitations of the food was more than made up for by the company. It was lovely to see the family and talk to them about Brass and our impending honeymoon, which, it seems, my brother, brother-in-law and godfather are all going to be part of! Philippa, Matt Flint and Sara K came on the mini-break we had directly after the wedding, so why break the habit of a lifetime?

We drove home along the A1, and, at the Blythe roundabout, I remembered that Janet Wood, who sang such a poignant role in A1: The Road Musical had been in the audience for Brass the night before. It was a delight to see her. For those who know my A1 film, Janet is the extraordinary lady who sings about a terrible road accident which left her trapped in an upside down car. We filmed her sequence in a scrap yard by the side of the road, and she sang inside a wrecked car which looked so much like the car she's been in, she had to check the registration plate!

To see her sequence of the film, go to the following link and click on the word Grantham.

We stopped off near Huntingdon to see Lisa and Mark and their extended family. They'd just had the mother of all dramas in the South of France with Lisa being rushed to hospital with chest pains. She's absolutely fine, but missed her flight home and had to stay an extra night over there.

Nathan's goddaughter, Poppy had set up a beauty parlour in the bathroom and in turn all the men present were taken in and royally pampered. Nathan came out looking like a glitter ball, and when my turn came, I was told the concept was Snow White, and that I needed to look "really pretty." I was bedecked in perfumes and lotions, talcum powder and lipstick and I was instructed to put a wig on! I ended up looking like Glen Close in Dangerous Liaisons dragged behind a car on a rope for twenty minutes and then covered in day glow fabrics! Priceless.

Post Brass

I am currently sitting in a kitchen somewhere in an enormous student accommodation block. Half the cast is here with me. The boys have just done an impersonation of the girls singing "Barnbow Lassies" from the show, and the girls have returned the favour by doing "When You're a Pal" in the style of the boys.

More and more of the cast and band are trickling into the party, but at 3.30am, it's surely time for bed?

We've had two sensational shows today, which culminated in the most astonishingly energetic and moving performance by the cast. It was almost as though they were savouring every moment, knowing it could be the last time they perform the show.

The effect on those who saw it was remarkable. The entire audience was up on its feet before the cast had finished singing their final note. The applause lasted throughout the band play out and then on and on until the band was forced to reprise their reprise. When the smoke cleared, there was a scene of carnage in the stalls. There were people weeping into scarves; whole rows of elderly gentlemen with bright red eyes. I've never seen the like.

The wonderful Mark Shenton (musical theatre critic extraordinaire) came to see the show this afternoon and tweeted lovely things about us, which included describing me as having the "most authentically British musical theatre voice since Howard Goodall." An honour indeed. Particularly as I happen to know that Shenton loves Goodall.

- *Guest blog post by Ben Jones

Tom Ramsay. I have won. By a long, long way. Thank you. -

Not altogether sure what that was about. Perhaps I'm drunk. I have had a lovely whiskey. I am very happy and relieved.

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.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Last day in Kent

At 4pm today, our rehearsal period finally came to an end in Sevenoaks. 50 actors and musicians kissed and hugged fondly then went their separate ways screaming "see you in Leeds" whilst a series of vans filled with props, musical instruments and bits of set, chugged off up the M1.

The day was spent rehearsing the cuts we'd made to the show the night before, some of which remain a little painful, but most of which have really fine-tuned and streamlined the piece. I am continually reminded of a somewhat apocryphal story which gets touted by TV commissioning editors when programmes have to be shredded to fit shorter slots. The story is about a rather famous documentary called Feltham Sings, which was initially intended to be a 90-minute show. Its commissioning editor came into a viewing and said, "this is a wonderful documentary, which ought to make you very proud." The director instantly beamed with joy, but the commissioner continued... "However, if you turn it into an hour-long documentary, it'll win every award going." The piece was cut by 30 minutes and won every award going!

The highlight for me was definitely the completion of the show's sitzprobe. We timed out on Wednesday night, so were forced to rehearse the last four songs today. In the meantime the music team had been rehearsing like busy bees, so everything was hanging really well together. When I realised how well our MD Ben Holder was doing without me breathing down his neck,  I deliberately took a step back and avoided listening to any rehearsals of the last song, so that I could hear it sounding as it might in the show.

It sounded awesome. Almost overwhelmingly so. The band are shit hot. The singers are like no ensemble I've ever worked with. And, being brutally honest, the music I've written is bloody marvellous! Obviously I got a little something in my eye, which prevented me from talking to anyone for a while!

A second, rather similar moment, happened when I saw the final sequence of the show on its feet, and the extraordinary work choreographer Matt had done to invoke a battle scene in a ludicrously small space. So moving. Honestly...

We came back to London to a world where we don't get three square meals a day laid on for us, but opted not to prick the NYMT bubble, and instead went to see their tremendous production of The Hired Man, which is stunningly staged and beautifully performed. Sarah, the show's MD is a genius and had scored the piece entirely for actor musicians, all of whom were brilliant. The NYMT can already feel extremely proud of their 2014 season, but they ain't seen nothing yet! The spotlight swings across to us on Monday, and we've set the dial to destroy!

Cutting hell

It's been another seemingly endless day of highs and lows, which has felt so long, in fact, that I wondered if I'd forgotten to write a blog yesterday because last night now seems such a long time ago.

The day started with a full run of the show. Nathan came, as did Philippa and Hilary. Unfortunately I didn't get Philippa's notes as she rushed off to chat to Sara after the run, and by the time she'd re-emerged, we'd hit the ground running with my own set of notes, and then the day gathered speed...

'Cello gate continued, with the return of young William's instrument, which arrived from the luthier with a new G string. Something was still not right, however. William described it as the string feeling loose and asked if I could tighten it, which of course would have been impossible without sending it out of tune. He was right, however; the G string sounded all twangy and loose, and it soon dawned on me that the luthier had put a D string where the G string should have been, and therefore that poor William's instrument sounded more like a sitar than a 'cello! It was an easy enough fix, however. A G string was soon found and fitted to the 'cello.

I wafted about for the rest of the afternoon, sitting in on a sectional rehearsal with the crazily talented brass boys.

The bombshell of the day arrived via email at 6pm. Fortunately I'd managed to convince Nathan to stay for tea before taking the train back to London, so he was with me when the night of the long knives unravelled.

The email was from our producer, Jeremy. The running times of the show had been calculated based on the run, and for all manner of licensing reasons, it became apparent that large cuts still needed to be made. These are the words which would fill any writer with dread. Killing one's babies is horrific in any circumstances. Having to make the cull in the space of a single evening is simply devastating.

There was a period of about an hour where Nathan and I sat, leafing through the script, searching for cuts which would take huge chunks of time out of the script without losing an entire song, destroying the narrative of the piece, or, more crucially any one actor's raison d'être. It's one of the most painful experiences I've ever endured. The cuts needed to be effective - and in order to be effective, had to be brutal.

Nathan and I agreed on 40 cuts of varying lengths, and took our suggestions to the rest of the creative team, secretly hoping that someone would scream "no! You can't possibly cut that stunning piece of writing." Sadly, all but one of the forty cuts were accepted.

The dreadful task was telling the cast, and we met after rehearsals this evening in one of the boarding houses to deliver the news. I felt like an executioner. The cast looked terrified. Sara got upset. I got upset. Nathan read the list of cuts out loud. The cast occasionally gasped, then tried to be brave. It was truly awful.

I hope in the long run that the cuts will improve the piece. I'm pretty sure they will, in fact, but in the short term I'm not feeling too great.

Still, it's something which happens with all new musicals. They're always big blocks of granite which need to be shaped very carefully. For those in the cast who want careers in theatre, this has perhaps been a useful experience, as it's  something which could well happen to them many more times in the future. I'm sure it will never feel as bad as this, however. Poor things.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sitz, fritz in bits

Today has been exhausting like no other. For me, for the entire creative team, for the cast...

I kept away from the main rehearsals and spent my time instead focussing on the band, who are a wildly eccentric bunch. The rehearsals started with a full band call and then the brass boys were sent away to rest their lips. They seemed to spend much of the afternoon playing croquet on the lawn and watching a video of last year's NYMT production of West Side Story. Oh to be a brass player, and to have the excuse of numb lips!

The strings, percussion and keys continued to work into the afternoon, and we hit a good rhythm for a time which felt very productive. That was until we stumbled into the murky waters of what can only be described as "cello gate."

We have a young lad in the band who plays the 'cello. He's immensely talented, but he's so tiny that his  'cello is three quarter sized! Part-way through the rehearsal I was aware of a degree of commotion which ultimately led to both 'cellists in the band rushing out of the space.

A few minutes later they returned, handed William's 'cello to me and told me that it was broken. They weren't wrong. The strings were unravelling as fast as you could tune them up. I've never seen anything like it in my life before and there was nothing I could do to help. William was dispatched to a local luthier who seems to think he can only do a short term fix, and the rehearsal promptly ground to a halt.

In the meantime, young Alice, who is a member of the pastoral team, very kindly went back to London to collect her brother's 'cello for William to use until his own one is returned.

Cut to ten minutes later when the other 'cellist took me aside, thrust her instrument towards me and said "look." Bizarrely, the exact thing had happened to her cello. The g string unwound as you tuned the a string and vice versa. I don't know if it's the temperature of the room we're rehearsing in, or the damp weather, or the ghost of a Leeds Pal having a laugh, but it seems lighting can strike in the same place twice!

It wouldn't have mattered had we not been doing the Sitz Probe tonight, which, for those who don't like pretentious opera terms, is the rehearsal when the singers and band sit down to play through the entire show without actions or any blocking. The band is basically one day off being ready for this particular rehearsal. It usually takes place after all other rehearsals are done, but there's some technical reason why it can't happen on Friday to do with the transportation of set.

I spent much of the sitz rushing about, listening to the music from different places in the room. The acoustic in the space we were in made everything sound insanely boomy, so it was quite impossible to tell what was going on much of the time. Despite this, there was something quite magical about the occasion. The cast got incredibly excited and spent much of the run with their mobile phones in the air recording sequences of music. Sadly, in our allotted rehearsal time, we didn't manage to quite reach the end of the show, which upset me because I've genuinely never heard the last two songs!

Sam Becker and Matt came, as did my friend Di, a wonderful playwright, who gave me brilliant advice at the start of my research period for Brass; "choose your setting before you open up the massive can of worms which is the First World War." And she was right. There are so many documents out there pertaining to the Great War, that unless you refine your search by deciding first where you want to set your piece, you're almost done for! I chose Leeds.

Sam gave me some very well-considered notes after the sitz which were incredibly useful. What that man doesn't know about orchestration and instrumentation isn't worth knowing.

I leave you all with a link which comes from Nathanael, the young lad who plays the role of Henry in Brass. Henry is an actor who is obsessed with Charlie Chaplin (who was apparently my great grandfather's cousin). Anyway, Nate has taken the Chaplin research to his heart, and has written a very lovely song with his Mum to celebrate the fact.

Here it is...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

I am the B

This morning started with ABBA. I love a day which starts with ABBA. Listening to ABBA is refreshing and invigorating. I practically skipped my way up the hill to rehearsals as a result, and kept finding myself doing little dances.

I've dipped in and out of all sorts of different rehearsals today and feel we're slowly getting there, although the cast is now at a stage where new information takes a considerable amount longer to filter through their addled, muddled brains. Their minds are now officially full to the brim with conflicting directions, dance steps, harmonies, costume requirements, rewrites, cuts... They'll get there, they really will, but it will require one final push.

The band are slowly coming together. We have assembled some awesome players. We still need to finesse - and I still need to thin out some of the orchestrations, but we're heading in a rather impressive direction.

Today I came back from lunch and found a mixture of band and cast members jamming with Matt Flint in the rehearsal room. Matt was wearing his tap shoes and was having a "tap-off" with the drummer... It's these moments which genuinely make me feel that the experience of Brass is unlike any other and will hopefully remain in these young peoples' heads and hearts for the rest of their lives.

It's rather nice to be able to drift about a bit. I did a one-on-one session with Tom Ramsey, who plays  Harry in the show, and I think he made wonderful progress with his song.

The key to the success of Brass lies within the show's humour. The more opportunities the cast can find to smile and laugh, the more universal and powerful their performances become. The utterly luminous Rosie Archer, who plays the role of Emmie, dies with a huge smile on her face, which makes her death somehow so much more upsetting.

Every year the NYMT runs a summer school for Swedish musical theatre students, so we're now sharing the school with hundreds of blonde-haired, rather tall creatures. We have our very own Swede in the cast, Sandra Kassman, who is resolutely refusing to speak to her fellow country men. I would be the same. I would feel somehow like they were invading my patch, as indeed I felt when, a hundred years ago, I did a second year with the National Student Theatre Company, only to find five people from my university suddenly in the show I was working on. Much as it was nice to have them there, the NSTC was MY thing. MY little secret...

Anyway, much mirth has been caused by Sandra asking some of the Swedes to teach her a phrase in Swedish, which she has been repeating back to them deliberately badly in the hope she can somehow convince them that she's become fluent in Swedish in the space of two days! I logo forward to seeing the results of her deception.

I'm told all the Swedes want to do is sing ABBA songs. Clearly they have taste.

I uttered a terrible malapropism today when I told Ben and Josef about the time I worked as the acting coach on 28 Weeks Later. In one particular scene I was working with a 12 year-old lad, and in order to get him to gasp convincingly and on queue when his father appeared for the first time as an infected zombie, I stood underneath him and performed the Heimlich manoeuvre.  Unfortunately I managed to get to the nub of the story, but instead of talking about the Heimlich manoeuvre, managed to say that I'd given the young lad the "Hymen" manoeuvre! What the hell am I going to be like as an old man?!

It's clearly time for me to phone my husband to say goodnight and get some shut eye myself. Sleep well, everyone... Or, more appropriately, have a lovely breakfast!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Underscore bore

I sense tonight is gonna be a long night. It's already 1am and I haven't yet finished formatting band parts for all the sequences of underscore in the piece. There's no way on earth that I'll manage to finish this process without making an insane number of errors. There will be badly formatted parts, no doubt, some of which will subsequently go missing in cyber space. These are the times when being a composer has its drawbacks. I am so so tired!

It feels like it's been another long, but productive day, although people are reaching almost comic levels of exhaustion. It is, however, often when actors are in this near comatose state that the barriers are dropped and the magic can begin. Josef and Ben who play Alf and Tom gave me an intriguing sense of what they are both capable of last thing this evening, despite barely being able to keep their eyes open. Theirs is the hardest task in a production of almost epic complexity. They play two young soldiers who may or may not be gay. Nothing is explicit. Nothing is written. Everything is implied or takes place in a series of scenes where neither manages to quite express what he's feeling.

Of course, from my perspective, it's vital that this is played out in a believable way, despite both actors being straight. My dear friend Ellen recently sent me a birthday present of a book of photographs which someone had collated after years of going through junk shops, house clearances and car boot sales. No one now knows who the people in the photos are or who took them, but they show gay, lesbian and trans people in the early to mid 20th Century, just being themselves, really, at a time when just being themselves was not just illegal, but highly risky.

The pictures are hugely moving because they show people in love. Some of the shots are almost terrifyingly intimate. I found the images of mock marriages particularly upsetting. Same sex couples, usually one in drag, smiling happily, hoping against hope. Sadly, same sex marriage was not destined to be a reality in their life times and yet, for those few moments, as the camera shutter snapped, they were entirely free of the shackles of society. These men and women are my absolute heroes. Without their bravery I would not be the man I am today. I would not have been able to sit with Tom and Robin, nonchalantly chatting about my wedding whilst looking at a clip of Sara Kestelman singing "gay, happy wedding day" with a rogue piece of pink blossom flying through the air and attaching itself to her button hole!

It was the arrival of this book which made me determined to treat the Alf/ Tom relationship in Brass with great integrity, in honour of those glorious men and women smiling from its pages.

We had a very amusing moment today which followed on from a set of notes I gave to choreographer Matt. In one of the notes I asked that the quavers in the orchestration of one of the sequences were brought out somehow in his choreography. In response, he noted (jokingly) that he'd send one of the stage managers off to buy me a packet of cheesy curled crisps. He was, of course, making a funny joke about musical quavers having the same name as the famous cheese flavoured crisps. Anyway, this afternoon, the efficient stage manager in charge of reading notes arrived with a packet of quaver crisps asking if she should give them to me or if Matt would rather do so himself! Apparently Matt was laughing so hard that Sara rushed out of her rehearsal to tell him to be quiet!

Keen-eyed Brass audients will also notice Matt's visual ode to ABBA in one of the sequences from the show. I shan't spoil the surprise, but suffice to say, our leading lady Laura gets to channel Agnetha...

Right. Back to the grind stone. There's much to achieve tomorrow!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Long days

It's been another incredibly long, but highly productive day which started and finished with string sectionals with members of the Brass orchestra, and found me flitting about from rehearsal to rehearsal in the middle. At some point in all of that I managed to write underscore and scene change music for the whole of act one. It was mostly a case of copy and pasting, but I still had to engage my brain, which isn't working too well at the moment.

I think we're all getting tired as we push into our final week of rehearsals. I watched one of the cast reaching saturation point in a rehearsal today. Poor lad simply stopped processing information without realising he was no longer functioning!

The highlight of the day was the first little sing-along with the cast and band. We did Barnbow Lassies and When You're a Pal, and everyone went bananas. It's amazing how exciting it can be to hear an orchestra playing a song you've only ever heard with a piano. The cast whooped and cheered and I felt terribly proud... again. I'm doing a lot of that at the moment. It must be my age!

The other highlight of the day was watching young Alex Cardell, who plays Wilfred (a character based on my Great Great uncle from Coventry) taking delivery of the vintage 1930s drum kit he gets to play in the opening sequence of the show. His enthusiasm for the instrument made our decision to find the oldest drum kit we could find absolutely worthwhile. We had a fabulous rehearsal, where we worked our way through the overture and Prologue and Alex proved himself to be a pretty decent  comic actor as well as a flippin' remarkable drummer.

There's not much else to write as I can feel my eyelids slowly closing. But if you're reading this, and you can get to Leeds to see the show, please, please do. It deserves to be seen by the world!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The band

It's been a long old day today, which started with an al fresco knitting workshop with the female members of our cast. Ironically the only really decent knitter in the cast is one of the lads, and he was needed for a military boot call, so the session was led by the fabulous Emma Barry who plays the irrepressible Miss Grimsby in the show. Emma has only just herself learnt to knit, but seems to have one of those brains which makes her instantly some kind of knitting prodigy. The same thing seems to have happened with her tuba playing which went from zero to hero in the three months between rehearsal periods. She is also a very fine pianist and has perfect pitch... Sickening really!

We knitted whilst speed-running lines and when the boys returned, they were sent to the main hall to do line runs with our assistant director Josh. I always love sticking my head into a Josh session. There's always something weird and wonderful going on. Today the lads were all running lines whilst lying flat on their backs. Brilliant!

At noon, rehearsal started with the band, which feels like a really defining moment in the production. The players are universally very fine, which is a great relief. Firstly it means I don't need to re-score anything, and secondly, we don't have the issue of one of the players being weaker than the rest.

Some of them are extraordinarily good. The lead trumpet player in particular is insanely talented and his presence is really lifting the spirits (and the A games) of all the cast members.

The music is now drifting around the corridors. Members of the other NYMT casts sit outside and listen respectfully. There's a growing sense of something really quite extraordinary taking shape.

There was an amazing scene at tea time like something out of the Kids From Fame, when a whole host of musicians started jamming. Presently a load of singers and dancers appeared, and before long the room was full of people writhing about to the beat. If we'd auto-tuned the  output, we could have been in a scene from Glee. You watch talent show after talent show and yet, in that room today was a group of young people who would outstrip the talent base of this year's X Factor finalists in one sing-off. I felt rather like some kind of proud bohemian uncle at a party of hipsters. I'm sort of embracing that identity now. I can offer advice about relationships and careers in the arts, I can name drop, and bore them rigid with theatrical anecdotes whilst not giving two hoots that I haven't a clue what's happening in pop culture right now. It's a perfect blend! It is, however, too late for me to be awake, so I'm off to get some shut eye. And so to bed...

Saturday, 9 August 2014


We were awoken this morning by the mother of all rain storms and it has rained pretty solidly all day, which is something of a first for my birthday. There were little spikes of joy throughout today, but ultimately, despite being my fortieth birthday, it was one of those days which has to be endured rather than enjoyed.

We got soaked literally just running to the car from our lodgings, but as I walked into the breakfast room, the entire cast of Brass, and many of the other NYMT kids in different shows, burst into a rendition of Happy Birthday. I'm always amused to watch people busily glancing around the room to see who the subject of the birthday wishes is. More often than not, they realise they have no idea and merrily continue, inserting a "la la la" in the appropriate slot.

The cast clubbed together and made me a little wicker box which they filled with letters in honour of the letters I've been getting them to write to each other for the past three months. Apparently every single cast member has written something, and they're all beautifully presented, some in scroll form. It's the sort of thing I might save for a rainy day. Sometimes there are days when you need a little pick-me-up.

As they handed the basket over, they broke into a song from the show, "just remember my face, so I can visit you in your dreams. Pack your bags for an adventure and we'll visit all the places that you've never seen!" I instantly realised there was a little something in my eye!

We did a stagger through of the show first thing, and beforehand I gave them all a little talk about the fact that, exactly ten years ago, the first West End show I'd ever directed in my own right had closed. It's a somewhat tragic story really because all of my friends were coming to see it as my thirtieth birthday treat. Because it was cancelled, we ended up sitting in a Harvester on the A1 somewhere, with me feeling so depressed I wanted to slash my wrists. It was the last job I ever did in theatre, and for the next ten years I worked pretty exclusively in film and TV.

So, it felt more than a little strange to be sitting in a theatre watching a stagger through of my first foray into theatre since that disaster ten years ago!

The run went very well. The cast were, as you might expect, too slow on their cues, and diction was not their best friend, but in the three days I've been away, some of them had made wonderful progress with their characters. I now see a shape of something... Something which needs a bit of pruning still... But something which, with the right breeze behind it, could be very special indeed.

There was another little chink of joy when we downloaded the chords from a song called Du Måste Finnas by Benny and Bjorn, which I played for the amazing Swedish performer in our group. Hearing the song sung in its original language was an astonishing treat. And she did it absolutely beautifully.

The afternoon rehearsal was more tiring, and fairly bitty. The boys performed military parades around the school grounds with an army sergeant whilst the girls were split into different groups, none of which seemed to spend very long doing anything. Nathan and I (with the help of Emma in the cast, who played piano) took Rosie (who plays Emmie) into a practice room for a one-on-one session on her two enormous solos. Nathan worked her really hard but the results were really very strong. She has a voice I would happily sit and listen to for the rest of my life.

The cast were then given the evening off and most headed for the pub.

I did some work... Typing up a load of notes from the run-through. And then joined them for a quick cranberry juice. Sara has gone back to London for a much-deserved sleep in her own bed and I think it's just Matt, Josh, Nick the pianist and me from the creative team who are still in Sevenoaks.

I walked to the pub in dreadful rain with holes in my shoes soaking up the puddles. I passed a very drunk young man on my journey; "hello, fellow traveler" he said. As he walked down the road behind me, I could hear his little voice still talking, this time to himself; "walk in a straight man, for Heaven's sake, walk in a straight line or the world will think you're drunk..." A bit too late for that, matey!

Friday, 8 August 2014

The last day of my thirties

I spent a large part of the last day of my 30s booking a honeymoon. I can't believe we've both been so busy that it's taken us this long to get around to it. Our friends and family generously clubbed together when we got married to give us enough money for a very special holiday, and we have decided to take it in San Francisco. Nathan has never been. I went, with Fiona, in 2000, and found the experience truly magical. We're both ludicrously excited. We have five or so days in the city and then we're driving down the Ocean Highway towards LA. It will be a wonderful post-Brass high.

Speaking of Brass, we returned to the mad house late this afternoon after getting well-and-truly caught up in rush hour traffic around the Blackwall tunnel. There's still something very wrong with the exhaust of our car, and to make matters even more perilous, we came within a few miles of running out of petrol. Gah!

I came back for a rehearsal with young Ben Jones, who plays the lead role of Alf in our show. We were rehearsing the trumpet voluntary he plays at the top of the show, trying to shape it so that he can play it with panache. He's a wonderful player who also happens to have an astonishingly beautiful singing voice so I feel rather proud to be bringing his talents to a wider audience.

I was also lucky enough to get a sneak peek of one of the Barnbow Lassies' costumes. The lovely Emily was modelling it in the little costume department behind the theatre space we've been rehearsing in. A pair of wonderful women have sat there every day this week creating little pieces of visual magic.

We've also been sent photographs of the set being built. I'm not altogether sure where this particular process is happening but it looks absolutely fabulous.

The cast all looked shattered when I saw them at the end of the day. They've been working through transitions between scenes today, which is thankless, but incredibly important work when your tech time is limited. This show will take everything out of them both emotionally and physically, but I'm convinced it will prove to be one of the most immersive experiences of their lives.

We went out to dinner tonight. Sara took a couple of us to Cote as a sort of birthday treat, and she presented me with a very special present; a framed original painting by her father, Morris Kestelman, which is a remarkably special thing. I know I shall spend many a happy hour peering into it. The subject matter, appropriately for me, is Stone Henge. It's either at dawn or dusk. The sky is filled with orange specks, and it's a very brooding picture in greys and purples, which she thinks may have been done as a set design. It has made my little room here at Sevenoaks look incredibly beautiful.

And so, at 00.15, I can officially call myself a 40 year-old man, which feels insane really. It doesn't seem like any time at all since I was young Josh's age, working as the assistant director for the National Student Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Festival in 1995. They remain some of the happiest days of my life, and to any of the cast of Brass cast reading this blog, I say one thing... Drink it in, my dear friends. Take mental snap shots. Remember these moments of freedom, creativity, boundless energy and optimism. Take photographs. Write journals. But above all, strive to build a life for yourselves which is full of variation, colour and a million-and-one little snapshots of happiness. Don't make too many compromises but always do the thing you've agreed to do. Be loyal. Never pass up an opportunity because a better invitation comes along. Be honest and open, and if you see someone looking lonely, or sad, make it your duty to cheer them up. Talk to your grandparents and parents about their lives and listen to what they tell you. You will learn a great deal, believe me, and you'll be able to pass their wisdom onto a younger generation. Above all, live your lives. Make every new day a challenge and revel in the beauty of every sunset.

There. That's obviously what being 40 does for you. It makes you reflective!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Trees with names

It's a bit odd being in London whilst the rehearsals continue in Sevenoaks. I did a radio interview at shit o'clock this morning with BBC Radio Leeds. It was super surreal. I went back to bed afterwards so the whole thing now feels like something of a dream. They played some of the Barnbow Lassies song and then asked me lots of questions about the real life Barnbow lassies. It's slightly odd to be considered an expert.

The rain rattled at the windows through the night, and I slept really very badly. At some point I went into the sitting room and sat and stared at the computer for a while, reading an article about the cast of The Big Bang Theory earning a million pounds per episode. That's the sort of figure that ceases to have any meaning.

Young Josh called me at lunchtime to give me an update from the front line. It seems that the female cast (some of whom have learned brass instruments from scratch between the Easter and summer rehearsals) did a mini concert of brass music for the lads last night. I'm told it was rather moving. I'm also told that all music from the show has now been taught to the kids. I feel a little sad that I didn't have the chance to be with the cast when they learned the last number.

We spent some time today on the phone to Talk Talk, who randomly added £126 to our phone bill as an "adjustment." I'm not sure I would have spotted the charge, but Nathan is fortunately somewhat more keen-eyed than me. He spoke to a lad in the Philippines, whose voice kept making him laugh, but the upshot was that Talk Talk randomly added the money to our bill because another D B Till, somewhere else in the world, owed them money. You really have up watch those bastards. Keep an eye on your phone bills, folks...

This afternoon, Nathan and I took ourselves off to the parents in Thaxted where we had some delicious food and watched The Great British Bake Off, which made us very happy.

It's bad news from the parent's garden, however. Their beautiful plum trees have some kind of blight, which has pretty much destroyed every piece of fruit hanging on the tree. On the slightly brighter side, subsequent discussions on the subject revealed that my Mum actually names her trees. You'll no doubt be relieved to hear that Griselda, Benny the Pot, Harvard and Princeton are doing rather well. Interestingly, the plum trees, however, remain nameless. It's little wonder, therefore, that they're doing so badly, surrounded by their crowing neighbours with their beautiful names and long, vibrant branches.

On the way home we got stuck in a traffic jam on the North Circular in a car which seems to have developed a hole in its exhaust. Tiresome.

Day Four. A4.

I'm pleased to say that I was awoken this morning by the gentle tinkle of my iPhone rather than the shriek of a fire alarm. I walked up to the school from our lodging house and had a hearty breakfast in the great hall. Sevenoaks School is a classic example of how the other half live - or rather how the other half are schooled. The facilities are remarkable. There are multiple theatres, scores of practice rooms and a blinkin' Gamelan! How many schools can boast a complete set of Javanese Gamelan instruments?! The inverted snob in me would cheerfully burn the place down, but I realise that this reaction is largely based on envy. My own school - a Northamptonshire comprehensive - had a single music practice room, known, rather unimpressively as “A4.” The A stood for administration. I used to get sent there during music lessons because my presence in the classroom was deemed "too destructive." I’m actually eternally grateful to the teacher who used to send me there, because she encouraged me to play the piano whilst I waited. There was always a pile of music in the corner which had been copied on a carbon bander machine (an ancient form of photocopier which gave you the choice of pink or purple lettering.) This particular teacher played the piano by improvising around chord symbols and she showed me the basic configuration of a major and a minor chord. I figured the rest out along the way and managed to become a pianist without a lesson. That poor teacher woman never got much from me in return, however. She was a dark-skinned creature, with quite a lot of freckles and moles, and very brown curly hair. I remember one particular winter's day when she entered the classroom with a big dollop of snow still on her head. "Miss, you look like a Christmas pudding..." I said. Out I went to the practice room again. Ah! Those were the days.

Today, I sat in our rehearsal room and watched the wonderful Matt Flint choreographing Billy Whistle, one of the songs from our show. He’s remarkably inventive and seems to have the ability to make anyone look like Fred Astaire. The lads responded incredibly well to him, and created something which was deeply moving and incredibly exciting. I flitted next door and found Sara Kestelman working with the rest of the cast on book scenes. The joy about Brass is that the male and female ensembles very rarely meet, so it’s possible to run two full rehearsals separately, which effectively doubles the potential output of a day.

There is some genuinely fabulous work going on. Most of the cast are developing really strong and robust characters, and they continue to retain an almost obscene amount of information in their young brains. The female ensemble are more unified in their sound than most West End choruses.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve decided to take a couple of days away from the mayhem. It’ll be good for me to have a few lie-ins, a few nights in a bed with a pillow that doesn’t condense like a sponge, and more crucially, a bit of time with my dear husband. I realised how devastatingly tired I was when I reached London and sat down in a cafe. I paid the man for my cup of tea and as he handed me the change, I smiled sweetly, and instead of saying thank you, I said a hugely cheery “hello”, like I was starting the transaction all over again. He looked at me like I'd gone completely insane, which, of course, I have.

Anyway, the up-side to being in London was that I got the opportunity to go to the press night of my dear friend Jim’s production of Therese Raquin. I did this with a tiny bit of trepidation as the production manager of Brass recently had a rather nasty accident in the theatre where the show was being performed.

But what a wonderful show. Psychological. Unnerving. Daring. Sexual. Wistful. Adult. Claustrophobic. Thought-provoking. Atmospheric. Like the love child of Tori Amos and Albert Camus. Craig Adams’ score was a thing of great maturity and beauty. The entire piece was more chamber opera than musical; scored for piano and string quartet. But this wasn’t twee music. It was charging. Rolling. Subtle.  A lot of open fifths with very subtle dissonances in the extremities - beautifully performed by an excellent cast and a string quartet of recent graduates from the Royal Academy. Good string writing. Brilliant vocal arrangements. If you like scrunchy chords, get down to the Finsbury Park Theatre, lie back and simply let them wash over you. Bravo Jim and double bravo Craig.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Day three

I was awoken this morning by the grotesque hammering of a fire alarm. It was so loud and so inappropriate that it made me yell. I actually woke up screaming like a small child awaking from a nightmare. It was, of course, a special test alarm to welcome us all into institutionalised living. And when we got outside, a rather pleased-looking janitor type was smirking as all our names were read out. Fortunately we were all out of the building within the allotted time period, so we were, as you can imagine, thrilled beyond words to have passed. I live my life for these sorts of challenges. Knowing that I wouldn't have burned to death in an imaginary fire makes three Grierson nominations and four RTS Awards pale into insignificance!

And how dignified did I feel to be standing in a pair of boxer shorts in front of a field of 17 year old girls?

The sound, though. I can still hear it screaming through my head. It made me want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon and then force-feed them with a sprig of rosemary to whichever inanely-grinning sadist pressed the sodding button.

In an attempt to purge my body of violent thoughts, I spent five minutes after breakfast dancing the Charleston with our choreographer, Matt. In times of great stress, there's little better than a quick Charleston.

We worked our way through the epic prologue this morning. I like to call it the prolapse cus it's given everyone so much shit since we started rehearsing it. With a combination of great patience and a lot of hard work we managed to get through it and I'm pretty sure we're all taller and prouder as a result!

At 1pm, we stopped the rehearsal to mark the 100th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany. We had a minutes' silence, lit a candle, and then Sara, in her inimitable deep voice read a poem. At the end of our ritual I felt obliged to make the cast promise to keep the memory of the First World War alive. I think some of them were quite surprised that I'd actually exchanged letters with First World War veterans when I was a teenager. The First World War is to me what the Second World War is to them.

When I was their age I directed a university production of Oh What A Lovely War. Perhaps when one of them is 40, they might direct the 20th anniversary production of Brass, and pass on the knowledge they've accumulated in the last six months.

This evening's session was largely spent on one of the other mega-numbers, Letters, which was another deeply exhausting experience. Sara, was heard to utter the w-bomb at one stage, which caused much hilarity. Why is an older woman swearing so deeply enjoyable? Actually, I don't know if these young people are just better brought up than me, but I'm quite surprised by how politically correct they all feel. They seem genuinely quite appalled by some of the terms I use. Suddenly I feel like my Grandad. All inappropriate and wee-stained. I'm just not sure he was being ironic. And I'm not yet wee-stained.

Anyway, Letters opened up a right can of worms which meant I was forced to spend 3 hours after rehearsals re-scoring all the underscore passages from the song, and then reformatting all the individual parts. By the time I'd finished, I wanted to gouge out my eyes with a spoon again. Back to the beginning of the cycle!

I can't believe I'm 40 on Friday. If you ever want to feel old, turn forty in the presence of 28 people who are exactly half your age!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Day two

We've been in rehearsals all day today. 9am to 9pm. It's an utterly gruelling schedule, but we're achieving great things. It's been mostly music all day. Song after song. We throw incredibly complicated harmonies at the cast, and basically hope they'll stick. Often there are three, sometimes four musical rehearsals happening simultaneously. We have a music team of four including me.

I walked the corridors of the school at one point this afternoon and heard snippet after snippet of music from the show... It was like the Brass mega-mix! Here a trumpeter practising complicated runs, there a couple of girls running through a duet from the show. It's a little surreal, really, because in these sorts of instances, you begin to get a sense of your own musical language. The little suspensions, and intervals and runs which crop up in my writing more often than others. The cliches, if you like, of my sonic world.

Still, everyone seems very impressed by the music. Part of me feels incredibly relieved whilst the other part thinks "why wouldn't they be impressed? I've worked hard enough at making it sound this good!"

There are still moments when my heart fills with pride, however. The moments when the cast hears a new song for the first time and get excited or moved by it. The moments when they make a point of coming up to me to say how much they're enjoying the music, or the experience of being in the show. The moments when I see Sara and Matt deep in conversation about some aspect of the piece. My show. The baby I've carefully nurtured and carried around for fifteen months!

We came home this evening and the entire creative team watched an ITV documentary about Pals Regiments, which was really very moving. We crammed into a little television room and had treats and snacks.

There was a rather stirring moment when an ancient man, interviewed in the 1990s, was talking about leaving England on his journey to fight in France and how an entire ship of soldiers spontaneously burst into song. Just at that moment I could hear some of the girls from our cast in a distant room singing through the song in Brass where the women wave their men off to war. It felt like such an extraordinary moment of synergy.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Day one

The alarm clock went off like a klaxon in my ear this morning. I was in the deep sleep that only a cold can generate, and woke up not knowing who I was or where I was. All I knew was that I had to get out of bed...

There was some last minute packing to do. It's very hard to know what to pack when you're about to spend the best part of three weeks away from home, in a period which includes a 40th birthday, especially when there's a whole load of reference books and computers and cameras and stuff that you also need to find room for.

Lugging an enormous suitcase across London with a stinking cold was hell on earth, particularly when, at Charing Cross, the handle simply snapped off and I was forced to run for a train like some kind of hunchback with my computer bag around my shoulder bashing against the backs of my knees and threatening to trip me over.

The doors of the train opened at London Bridge which was a scene of utter carnage. It must be a day when a large number of families have decided to go to Brighton or Heathrow because all I could hear from the platform was the sound of screaming children. It was a constant roar. As we pulled away, an Australian lad asked me if the train went to Gatwick, which it didn't. Poor bloke was going to have to go all the way to Seven Oaks on a non-stop train.  A delightful ticket guard very carefully gave him the necessary instructions to get himself back to London Bridge, but taking this wrong train almost certainly meant that he was going to miss his flight.

I reached Seven Oaks at about ten, and limped my sorry suitcase to a taxi which delivered me to the Seven Oaks school, where we are rehearsing Brass.

Day one of rehearsals was a happy affair which involved a read-through of the show's script followed by a series of music rehearsals, which went really rather well. There's a lot of music to learn on this piece; a lot of incredibly intricate harmonies alongside huge swathes of music for the actor musicians.

The highlight of the day today was almost certainly coming across a group of cast members who had formed a miniature brass band and were busking their way through a number of songs from the show. Two of the six musicians had learned brass instruments especially for the production, and they seemed really rather good. It was also rather nice to hear their take on some of the songs. If the songs weren't catchy, they would almost certainly not have been able to busk them. I place a great deal of emphasis on trying to write memorable tunes!

At the end of the day, I was able to work in detail with one of the actresses, taking her through one of the songs in a great deal of detail, which, at this stage, felt like a really strong place to be in.

The food here at the school is really very good. Three enormous square meals a day, which have definitely made me feel a little more chipper, though as soon as this cold clears, I will need to go running on a daily basis, or try to learn not to eat the lovely-looking food.

All is good in the world of Brass.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Can't smell, can't taste...

Today's charming coldy symptoms include a complete loss of both my sense of taste and smell. I was forced to walk through a trail of cigarette smoke earlier on and braced myself for a skinful of the hideous stench of nicotine, but could smell absolutely nothing. Nothing whatsoever. We went to the cafe for lunch and mouthful after mouthful became about the texture rather than the taste of the food. Some mouthfuls seemed saltier than others. That was about all I could discern.

Going back on the tube again was a somewhat daunting experience after the peace and quiet of Derbyshire. I took myself into town to have a pre-Brass hair cut, wishing I had another couple of days to beat the cold before the intensity of rehearsals kick in, which are bound to prolong recovery by at least a week.

I saw adverts today for a new daytime Channel 4 show which advertised itself as "a cooking show with a twist." I wondered if any TV show could be more lacking in twist than a daytime cookery show? Sometimes I wonder how TV execs end up being so riskily risk-averse! Surely it's far more risky to commission show after show which slog the same dead format, than it is to go for something which genuinely breaks new ground; new ground which might actually stand a chance of capturing the zeitgeist!

I think the same about musical theatre. A formulaic juke box musical is never going to be the next Les Miserables. No one would ever have been able to predict that a four-and-a-half hour long show about a nineteenth century French student uprising (performed by the RSC) would break all world box office records... and yet it did, because it was something different.

Isn't it time we all learned to take a few more risks?

And so we've slowly rolled into the period when, each day, another 100th anniversary of the First World War passes. 100 years ago today, Britain was within three days of declaring war on Germany, and Germany (already at war with Serbia) was about to declare war on France and Russia in a tit-for-tat, he-said-she-said, deadly playground game which is so profoundly reminiscent of what is happening right now in the Middle East.

It is, of course, almost impossible to think of a solution to this particular issue, but I do think we're wrong to make it as black and white as saying that Israel is bad, and Palestine is good... And I really feel this is how the British media would have it. Yes, Israel has a powerful ally in the form of the United States, and our natural instinct is to side with the underdog, but I reckon I'd get a bit defensive if my neighbours had gone on record as saying they won't rest until I'm blasted off the face of the earth.

To make matters worse, certain born-again Christians are tragically frothing at the mouth at the thought of Armageddon happening in their life times.  Some non-sensical religious school of thought suggests that the process of the end of the world will begin when the Middle East goes into meltdown, and because they can't wait for the rapture, some American Christians are actually going over to Israel specifically to stir up ill-feeling. There are few words...