Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Dear Sir Arnold

I knew the day would come at some point and I've dreaded it for some time. Yesterday, at 6.50pm, actually whilst Fiona, Nathan and I were talking about him on Sandy Heath, my mentor and dear friend, Sir Arnold Wesker, died.

He'd been ill for some time, suffering from Parkinson's disease. When I last saw him, just under a year ago, he was a little unstable, but very definitely a man I still recognised. I feel a little guilty not to have seen him closer to the end, but there again, grateful that I never saw him fading away. In my mind he will always be the great writer. The barrel-chested ox. The man who taught me integrity. The man who went to jail for his anti-nuclear stance. The great working class playwright who was praised by Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons today. The bloke who liked it when I called him 'Nold.

It was Arnold who encouraged me to carry on writing music when all I wanted to do was direct theatre. I first met him in 1996 when he took up an invitation to watch my graduation piece at Mountview School. I had directed a show called America Hurrah by a New York playwright called Jean Claude Van Itallie. Arnold was astonished by how much music I'd found in Van Itallie's words, and I explained that I'd trained first as a composer at York University. We exchanged letters - countless letters - and I sent him a tape of my music: just a few odds and ends I'd recorded whilst studying. He sent me one of the lyrics he'd written for a show called Letter to a Daughter and asked if, "just for fun," I'd set it to music.

And the rest, as they say, is history. 'Nold gave me my first professional commission and in the process, introduced me to Julie Clare, and the ripples just kept expanding. If I hadn't met Julie, Julie wouldn't have met Sam, and, taking everything to its logical extreme, Nathan probably wouldn't be a knitter... Life would have been very different without Arnold.

Arnold supported me at every stage of my career. Every new project was sent to him, often before it had been officially screened or released, and I'd eagerly await the email or letter which told me what he'd thought of it. He always kept me on my toes.

We did countless projects together. In the olden days we wrote shed loads of songs. We actually came within an inch of getting a record deal and wrote an unsuccessful Eurovision Song Contest entry together. More recently, I interviewed him at length on camera for BBC London, taking him back to his childhood home as part of films we were making for the Oranges and Lemons project. He commissioned me to write a title song for his World Service radio play The Rocking Horse. And he even performed on my requiem, bravely singing the words written on his mother's gravestone just weeks after his own daughter, Tanya, had passed away. His words will always live on in the song Shone With The Sun from Brass.

He never held back either with his praise or his criticism. He wanted me to better myself and encouraged me to "kill my darlings" - those beautiful songs and speeches which get in the way of story-telling and push a piece of art into a piece of indulgence. Or art, as we used to say, with a capital F. He felt our wedding was a little indulgent. He thought Hattersley didn't quite match the Radio Ballads of Ewan McColl but he played A1: The Road Musical to anyone who'd watch it and he loved the Requiem with a passion and wanted the world to hear it. He anonymously bought countless copies of the CD on Amazon, unaware that all of his orders were coming through me. He sent copies to people in Sweden, Japan, the US and the Czech Republic. That was the kind of man he was. When I lost a court case, 'Nold sent me a cheque through the post. That was 'Nold. Generous. Loving. Deeply loyal. Principled. He never suffered fools.

He believed that everything we did together should create a buzz. On one occasion he made Julie and me perform songs from Letter to a Daughter to the workmen who were setting up the Edinburgh Assembly rooms a full five weeks before our run at the festival started. We'd go on mad-cap trips around the country to meet potential backers. As we drove, I'd teach him English folk songs and he'd teach me songs in Yiddish. They were happy, optimistic, music-filled days.

I cried myself to sleep last night and the tears came again whilst Glen Close sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in Sunset Boulevard at the ENO, which we were lucky enough to see tonight. It felt right to be in a theatre.

I feel a little sad that the Brits don't dim the marquees of their theatres when key figures in our noble industry leave the world like they do on Broadway. I would have been proud to see the lights dimming in the West End for Arnold tonight.

Just before we entered the theatre, I received an email from Arnold himself, which made my blood run cold. For the briefest moment I wondered if it had all been a mistake, but the email merely carried the details of his funeral.

Arnold is survived by his wonderful wife and brilliant cook, Dusty, so named because Arnold thought her hair looked like gold dust. She is the inspiration for Beattie in Roots, which is surely the most iconic role he ever created.

'Nold always used to say that, had he had a musical bone in his body, he would have wanted to be a composer. He had a great passion for music. Perhaps that's why he took such an interest in me. The most perfect words he ever wrote were in his autobiography. When I read them for the first time, they struck such a chord that I immediately asked him to write them out on the inside cover of my copy of the book:

"Never stop anyone from singing. Stop their singing and you stop up their joy."

Sir Arnold, I loved you deeply and I shall miss you bitterly. You will never ever be forgotten. Thank you for being a part of my life.

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