Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Diamond structures

I saw an advert today for a “diamond structure” school, which seems to be a co-educational school where boys and girls are taught separately. As a bloke who went to a co-educational comp, whose friends were almost exclusively female, I can’t imagine anything much more soul-destroying than this.

On one hand, I’m aware that there’s some evidence to suggest that girls tend to flourish in single sex learning environments, but, in an era of gender fluidity and redefinition, I’m not sure there should be a place for single-sex teaching. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that single sex schools possibly exacerbate some of the issues which young people have with gender and sexuality. Girls become exotic to lads in a boys’ school and they can develop unhealthy and unrealistic interests in them if they don’t have the opportunity to view them as peers or equals. It is also surely exponentially more complicated to discover that you’re trans in a single sex environment. Or, for that matter, gay. In my experience, young gay men are often drawn to the company of women.

The news has been filled with stories about the gender pay gap in the NHS. Women, on average, earn less than men, despite there being more women working in the NHS. My first issue with this headline is that I can’t see how the two halves of the statement are linked. It may well be, for example, that there are more top level male surgeons working in the NHS, so by saying that, because more women work for the NHS, their average salaries should be the same, we’re entering a land of nonsense. These sorts of figures can only work if we compare like with like - and, even then, there are issues. Bruce Forsyth had fifty years more experience of fronting light entertainment shows than Tess Daly when they started presenting Strictly together. Should they have been paid the same wage for doing the same job? I don’t personally think so. Of course it would have been utterly outrageous if they’d replaced Brucie with a young male presenter who’d still earned more than Tess, but even then, it might just turn out that the new lad had a better agent!

In my view, experience has to count for something. In this respect, I get rather depressed when I see actors with twenty years’ experience working in the ensembles of West End shows on the same wage as drama school leavers. I get frustrated for my own career that my experience as a composer never seems to be taken into account when it comes to negotiating pay. My weekly rate as a freelancer has never exceeded what I was paid in 2006 and yet, since that point, I’ve been nominated for, or won, more than twenty major awards!
If the news report I was watching is to be believed, the real-terms pay gap issues in the NHS appear to boil down to women taking time off to raise children. One female GP actually had me shouting at the TV when she started complaining that, by taking three years out to have babies, she’d effectively earned £100,000 less than her husband who is also a GP. But here’s the question? Why should someone who takes three years out of a job, and has three years less experience than someone else (regardless of gender) be paid the same? It just doesn’t make sense to me. No one puts a gun to someone’s head and tells them they have to have children. If you decide to have children, you end up with a financial hit of some description. The angry GP on telly could have opted to go back to work herself and expected her husband to take the three year pay hit instead.

Look, I know we’re not there yet. Despite my argument, there are still dodgy things at play here. Men still get promotions over women, women can still be be under-confident when it comes to even putting themselves up for more senior roles, and I’m sure there are plenty of instances where women with the same amount of experience as men end up with lower pay. All of this is wrong. But these are the things we need to be turning our attention to instead of throwing misleading statistics and headlines about, which makes the problem seem utterly insurmountable. Good things are happening across the board in terms of equality. And yes, we need to keep chipping away at the corners, but let’s keep a simultaneous eye on the big picture.

And the big picture, in my view, is Northern Ireland and the fact that we now have a single corner of the British Isles (including the Republic of Ireland) which doesn’t allow abortion and doesn’t allow same sex marriage. Both rights are being blocked by the DUP, who are holding the rest of the UK to ransom as a result of Theresa May’s repugnant decision to get into bed with them to protect her tenuous grasp on power. It’s probably not relevant that two women are responsible for blocking full equality, but it is noteworthy, particularly as Theresa May - when it suits her - makes much of her feminist credentials. She was all over #MeToo, largely, one assumes, because it was a safe campaign which no one in their right mind would have been critical of.

I don’t suppose I’m asking for much more than a little perspective. I think the world would be a much better place if we took a deep breath and realigned ourselves.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Badby and Leamington

I was in the Midlands all day yesterday. The older I get, the more of a sense of belonging I feel when I’m in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. The accents are recognisable. The landscapes feel right. The houses are built from familiar stone. I can overhear the names of towns and villages and have a clear sense of what they look like. I can drive without a map...

The day started at Daily Bread in Northampton, which is a sort of whole food warehouse. It used to strike fear into my heart as a child because it meant my mother was buying wheat germ and carob and all the healthy things I used to hate eating. These days, of course, it’s an absolute Mecca. I was able to buy vats of smoked paprika, garlic powder and dried cherries and cranberries. Nothing has changed about the place: not even the smell, or the yellow price labels on all of the produce.

I met my parents there before taking them on a whistle stop tour of my favourite Northampton haunts including the amazing Magee bakery up near the football ground and the Vintage shop down towards the Mount.

We lunched in the village of Badby, famous (to me at least) as the source of the River Nene. We were somewhat surprised to note that the landlord of the pub we were in was Merlin, the cocktail waiter, from Channel 4’s First Dates.

Badby is a beautiful, red sandstone-built village which nestles in the stunning, undulating West Northamptonshire countryside. As my Mum pointed out, “it’s every bit as beautiful as the Cotswolds, but you don’t have to share it with anyone!”

Badby is well-known locally for its ancient woodland, a site of special scientific interest. It is one of the most lovely spots. Pools of silvery, dappled light glowed on fields and fields of blue bells which were just going over, but wonderful enough to realise that, a week ago, they would have been spectacular.

We walked through the woods and stared for some time at the mysterious ruins of a Tudor dowager house in parkland beyond, highly frustrated that we weren’t able to get closer to properly explore.

From Badby, I travelled to Leamington, listening to the Film Programme on Radio 4, which was presented by a woman and featured lengthy interviews with a female critic, a female director and a female screen writer. A lone man’s voice appeared at the end of the show - to talk about the sorts of perfumes that Femme Fatales would have worn in the golden era of Hollywood! If I’m honest, it felt a little arch. But then I wondered if this is how women always used to feel when radio programmes featured nothing but men’s voices. I am a great believer in equality, so I would like to have heard a few more men and, if honest, fewer questions about how it feels to be a woman working in the film industry. Having listened to Woman’s Hour on the way up to Northampton, I rather felt I was being bashed over the head with female interviewers asking women how it felt to be a women, when I’m pretty sure most of the women I know who write screenplays and compose music would far rather talk about the things they’ve written.

I was in Leamington to assist on a quiz at law firm where my dear Auntie Gill had worked in the 1960s. You see: you go back to the Midlands and immediately become subject to these sorts of coincidences! The first person I spoke to from the firm had attended the same school as my Mum.

The quiz took place in a marquee and was fairly uneventful until the sun started setting. It melted into the most glorious, bright orange fire. As it dropped, I suddenly became aware that it was perfectly lightning the face of our quiz master, Lesley, who has red hair which began to glow majestically. It was one of those moments which felt suspended in time, the sort of wistful, nostalgic light which somehow took me straight back to my childhood in the 1970s. Rather wonderfully, it also suddenly started raining. I don’t know how this was possible because the sun was shining so intensely, but the smell of rain filled our nostrils and we could hear a pattering on the roof, followed by a distant clap of thunder.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018


I met someone last night who’d been to school with a girl called Philippa Bucket. Say it out loud. It struck me what a fabulous drag queen name hers would have made. 

...Speaking of bad drag queens, Nathan and I are presently on our way back from Brighton, where we’ve been watching Philip and Daryl performing in a play called Another Fine Mess, which is essentially the story of a Laurel and Hardy tribute act. The piece was written thirty-two years ago and touches on issues relating to HIV and AIDS. It’s rather intriguing to see a piece which was written in an era where being HIV positive was a death sentence. Things have moved on so much in that regard that the story occasionally felt like it was lacking bite. It does, however, stand as a stark reminder of those dark days in the 1980s which should never be forgotten. It was beautifully acted by all three performers.

We were treated to an open mic night in the pub afterwards from a gaggle of ancient LGBT-ers, each, seemingly, more decrepit than the one before! One old gent performed with a Zimmer frame. (No joke!)

We had a terrible car journey down to Brighton. We left at about 3pm, so should have got there with hours to spare. As it happened, we rushed into the theatre almost as the actors appeared on stage, and I’d driven like a boy racer down the M23! The problem was that they’d closed a section of the M25, so, as a result, we spent hours seemingly crawling in ever-decreasing circles in places like Uxbridge. It was deeply depressing, and it further enhanced my belief that London’s infrastructure is entirely broken. One little adverse gust of wind and the house of cards tumbles.

It was great to be in Brighton, though. The weather was balmy and the Fringe Festival was in full swing, so everyone seemed very jolly. We got a couple of bags of chips and wandered down to the sea front, staring at the moon’s reflection in the velvet black water.

We drove home listening to Imogen Heap’s 2014 album, Sparks, which is a fairly magnificent sonic adventure, perfect for a long car journey, with halogen motorway lights flashing overhead and stretching into the distance like giant dragon tails.

Monday, 21 May 2018


Today marks the second and last day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is a fairly minor festival which celebrates one of the milestones in the story of Moses. In Israel, it’s celebrated on a single day, but in the diaspora, for some reason, it’s a two-day festival, which means, after taking Shabbat into consideration, we managed to poll three days of singing on the trot in the synagogue. And once we get into those choir stalls, we basically never shut up, so there’s been a phenomenal amount of material to learn! Today’s service was particularly epic. We were in the building for four solid hours! I don’t mind in the slightest, however. It’s always great fun and it’s wonderful to be able to turn up and simply sing without having to worry about organising people.

I was horrifically late to the rehearsal, however. London ceases to work when a simple thing goes wrong. This morning “points failure in the North Acton area” meant I had to abort my tube journey and literally run, in a suit, to Queensway from Lancaster Gate. I arrived looking like I’d fallen into the Serpentine.

The great news about Shavuot is that it’s traditionally celebrated through the consumption of cheese. Any festival, in my view, which allows a person to gorge himself silly on cheese has to be a good thing. Quite whether kosher cheese has much to write home about, however, is another matter. I asked the rabbi if they made kosher halloumi and was assured they did, but I’m fairly convinced it would turn out to be pretty tasteless!

Because meat and dairy can’t be cooked together, you can always be assured that a pescatarian won’t find any nasty surprises in a quiche served up on Shavuot. A veggie has to be a bit more careful, however, because Jewish people tend to love their fish, and fish IS allowed to be cooked with dairy. There’s even a kosher tradition of eating salmon lasagne, which sounds profoundly minging if you ask me!


I saw something rather extraordinary on Friday morning. I had a meeting in Hampstead, near the Royal Free, and was walking along Fleet Road, when I became very aware of a large amount of squawking and screeching in the trees above my head. I looked up to see two magpies in deep distress...

I’ve traditionally had fairly complicated feelings about magpies, largely, I assume, because I’ve always been a little bit superstitious. One for sorrow and all that. I can’t bring myself to entirely listen to the rational side of my brain which mocks me, saying, “you’re entirely cynical and critical when it comes to religion, but you won’t walk under a ladder, have peacock feathers in the house, or see a single magpie without saying, “hello Mr Magpie, where’s your wife?!” So, I suppose any bird capable of making a grown man nervous, should be respected, and, furthermore, I’ve always quite liked the fact that magpies mate for life. I think they’re known as being supremely intelligent animals as well. 

Anyway, yesterday, these two magpies were in a state of high distress. I’ve actually not seen anything like it before. It was really quite painful to watch. They seemed to be dive-bombing a man on the other side of the street - flying really close to his head, before landing on the window ledges of nearby houses, hissing, spitting and yelling.

I crossed over the road to see if the man needed any assistance. It was starting to resemble a Hitchcock horror movie.

On reaching the other side of the road, I realised the man was holding a fledgling magpie. He had his hands cupped protectively around the bird. It turns out that the bird had tried to leave its nest, taken a dive into the unknown and promptly dropped like a stone onto the street below. The man had stopped the traffic, picked up the creature and carried it to relative safety.

But then what? He wouldn’t have been able to get the poor bird back into its nest and bird’s parents wouldn’t have been able to pick it up from the pavement and make it fly, regardless of how stressed they were. In the end, the man decided to put the baby magpie in a nearby bush: elevated enough to keep it away from foxes, but heaven knows if it would have been enough to save its life. I sincerely hope so.

The parental instinct is so deeply powerful. I knew long before I’d seen the cause, that those two birds were in a state of desperation and panic and it’s really made me think about animal welfare. When it suits us, it’s easy to ignore the uncomfortable fact that animals have the capacity to feel - physically and emotionally. Of course, as a life long vegetarian, I can feel smugger than most on this subject, but I’m not vegan, and the dairy industry, in particular, can be a very cruel one. Cows have their babies taken away from them way too early, so that the milk starts flowing and our insatiable need for milk is satisfied. 

My breakfast cereal didn’t taste so good this morning...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Loud noise

As I get older, I find myself dealing less well with loud noises. I’m not sure I’m alone in this regard. When I’m quizzing, it’s always the very oldest quizzers who shout that the music’s too loud. I’ve never quite understood how someone can be half deaf and still find a noise too loud.

I sincerely hope that the same thing isn’t happening to be because I was always a little bit sensitive to noise. My days of going to loud gigs and clubs and things are well behind me, thankfully, but, in my day, I have shoved large quantities of tissue paper into my ears to protect myself from songs being played so loudly I want to vomit. I suppose composers are likely to be a little more noise sensitive, aware of the catastrophe which would be caused by their gong deaf. I can’t imagine how bewildering it must be not to be able to hear.

Anyway, somewhere between Camden and Euston, there lies a section of track which the tube trains literally squeal their way over. It’s a metallic, grating noise. The sound becomes louder the longer it lasts - and it always lasts a good ten seconds longer than my ears can deal with - to the extent that I’m usually forced to cover them, whilst silently screaming. As the noise happened today, I looked around me. Most people looked completely unconcerned. A young couple opposite were still talking to one another, which I found absolutely astounding. It was only the little old lady in the next door carriage who, I could see through the window, was recoiling in horror.

I wonder if that’s a thing?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A day of two halves

My life today was split into two sections which really couldn’t have been any more contrasting. The first part was spent visiting Holocaust survivors, all of whom had gathered for an afternoon of tea, cakes and klezmer music, stunningly and authentically performed by the London Klezmer Quartet. The band is fronted by the coolest singer with the deepest voice, who performs in Yiddish whilst playing an upright bass. It doesn’t get much better than that! I think she might have been Australian.

My new friend, Ivor, who’s in his late 80s, took me aside and said “what do you think the future holds? It doesn’t matter for me. I’m reconciled to that. I’ve only got a few years left. But what sort of world am I leaving behind?”

I thought for a while, before telling him that I felt the world worked in 100-year cycles and that, sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if another world war might be around the corner. If I’ve learned nothing else from survivors it’s that they don’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything. Vera used to routinely describe herself as a victim rather than a survivor. Sometimes I think a war is the only way that we’ll learn genuine compassion again and discover the difference between that which we want and that which we need. Another chap told me he’d arrived in the UK after the war with “a blanket and a cardboard box.”

Chillingly, I also saw my first concentration camp tattoo today. I was chatting merrily to a woman about music, and she suddenly raised her sleeve and showed it to me. It was faded like an old bruise. An ancient scar which had somehow never managed to heal. I don’t quite know why the moment hit me so hard, but it sent me into something of a spin.

The second half of my day was spent in the shiny, soulless surroundings of Canary Wharf, where I was running a quiz on the top floor of one of the skyscrapers there. The views, as you might imagine, were astonishing. The sun slowly set as I asked my questions. I remember looking across at one of the teams who were sitting in a glorious pool of late evening sunlight, and glancing behind me to see the sun sinking behind a building. And then it was dark. I’m not sure I was aware of anyone turning the lights on. I delivered the quiz in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, periodically losing my balance, and peering down on the matchbox DLR trains snaking along Meccano tracks, whilst waiting for the blast of vertigo to cease.

The two worlds couldn’t have been more different. There I was, surrounded by besuited city slickers, nibbling on olives and fancy, purple carrot sticks, when, just two hours before, I’d been drinking tea from a mug in a 1960s community centre talking to people who’d literally witnessed the worst things that human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Why don’t we learn?

Leam and Cable Street

Yesterday was a hugely inspiring day, most of which was spent back in the Midlands. I was up at shit o’clock to do a telephone radio interview about the Em album. I wasn’t sure the presenter had been particularly well briefed, despite my speaking to a researcher for the best part of an hour the day before. She opened by announcing that I’d written a musical about meeting my brother for the first time, and then, when I pointed out that the musical was actually about my Mum’s experience of having a baby out of wedlock in 1965, she said “and I’m right in thinking that your Mum is no longer with us?” I was so surprised I started burbling, “no... she’s here. Very much so. Well not actually here on the phone...” hysterical!

I was in the car by 8.30am and on the road to Coventry in glorious morning sunshine.

I met brother Tim from the train station and we had a lovely baked potato for lunch in a dive of a cafe just round the corner. It was there or the local Harvester (which, it turns out, is no longer a Harvester - my Grannie will be turning in her grave!)

We went to Stoneleigh where we were met by a very lovely film crew from the BBC’s Midlands Today programme. Stoneleigh is the village where my Grannie and Grampa lived for thirty or so years and are now buried. Tim met my (his) Grannie just once. I’m told that she was never aware of his existence. My mother went to Liverpool to give birth in secret. Only her father, apparently knew. Anyway, Tim met our Grandmother for the first time when she was in the latter stages of dementia, and the conversation was apparently going round and round in circles before my Grannie suddenly grabbed Tim’s hand and said “I know who you are, you know...” Perhaps she did know after all.

Anyway, Tim had never seen their grave before, so I took him there and we did a little interview with the telly people. It must have been a very curious experience for Tim, staring at the grave of two people he’d never known but who’d given him half of his DNA.

From Stoneleigh we went to Leamington to look at the house where my Mother was living when she found out she was pregnant with Tim. We then did a longer interview in the square where they filmed the new version of Upstairs Downstairs. I’m told Napoleon also lived on the same square during the winter of 1838/9.

The crew vanished in a puff of virtual celluloid and Tim and I had a wander around the town in the raging sunshine, ending up on a bench by a lovely fountain by the sparkling river Leam.

I dropped Tim off at the station in Cov before driving to Northampton where I met a wonderful old fellow who I’m hoping will appear in 100 Faces. His name is Sidney and he fought at the Battle

Of Cable Street in 1936, when a group of Jewish people, communists and dockers prevented Oswald Mosley and his brown shirts marching through the streets of the East End of London. It is a legendary event and I have a large, framed John Allin print depicting the riot on the wall in our sitting room. I have been searching for someone who was there since starting on the project and always been unsuccessful to the extent that I actually wondered today whether Sidney was the last man standing... Just meeting him was a treat and hearing his stories filled me with great joy. As I left, I grabbed his hand, and thanked him profusely for what he’d done for our country. He seemed genuinely moved. I was overcome with a sense of how tragic my generation is for getting all uptight on Twitter, and thinking we’ve made a massive political statement by signing an online petition, whilst men like him, 80 years ago, were risking their lives apparently just so that we could sit on our arses and whinge about being offended.

Friday, 11 May 2018


It’s funny what we tell our kids, isn’t it? It must be very difficult as a child to work out fact from fiction. That said, I’m always telling my friends off for not bringing their children up to believe in magic. “What is life without Santa Claus?” I ask them, remembering the magic of Christmas morning and the complicated narratives I created when I’d started to realise Santa didn’t exist but was desperate not to let him go! I’d even managed to convince myself that there must be a local committee of people who selected a Santa each year to represent the town. This was still somehow more believable than the idea that my parents were spending huge sums of money on me altruistically.

As I walked down to the tube this morning, I passed a mother talking to her son: “no darling, giants live forever...” And I wondered at which point her son would realise that she was talking bull shit! Actually, I think children already know. You see them looking at their parents with that “I know you’re lying, but I really want this to be true” sort of look. It’s all harmless enough... Cut to the child having night terrors twelve hours later! When it’s dark, those charming fantasy conversations suddenly take on a far more sinister quality, when the shadows of the trees outside seem to caress your window and the house begins to groan and rattle as it settles down for the night!

Complicated things: the minds of children.

It’s Eurovision week this week. Gay men all over the world are dusting off their collections of flags, and chopping crudités. Llio asked me last night why Eurovision was so popular with gay people and I had to really think about my answer. Gay men love escapism and glamour, and I guess Eurovision has become a thing that gay men “do”. But it goes far deeper than that. Eurovision is OUR contest. I don’t just blithely call it the gay men’s World Cup. Yes, we know it’s silly, and camp, and it’s certainly not high art, but it matters deeply to us, because it carries an important message: namely that it’s okay to be different. And it’s this core message which hits us at a very young age, long before we realise WHY we’re different.

I am one of three gay brothers, only one of whom I grew up with, and the one thing which unites us all is Eurovision. All three of us loved the contest, long before we realised we were gay.

And, of course, Eurovision has been a platform for LGBT grand statements for many years, from Paul Oscar and Dana International in the 90s, to Conchita Wurst in 2014, and now, of course, Ireland, who have chosen to accompany this year’s entry with two gay lads dancing out a charming love story. I was a little horrified to hear, therefore, that rainbow flags were being confiscated at the stadium on Thursday’s semi final, although very grateful to the EBU for removing China’s right to broadcast the contest after they tried to censor Ireland’s song.

The China issue proves that Eurovision is still surprisingly powerful and not afraid to flex its muscles and, as a result, its fiercely-guarded message of unity, hope and love can be deeply threatening to oppressive regimes. It was the one thing which terrified Russia during the Cold War, to the extent that they organised their own competition for communist countries.

Long may it last!

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Low bassy rumbles

I walked along Parkland Walk yesterday to Julian’s studio. I’m told it was the second hottest day of the year and it certainly had that glorious, dusty, 1970s vibe. The last few weeks have been perfect growing conditions for flowers and plants. We had a shock of hot weather after all the snow, and then some serious rain, followed by this patch of sunshine. Everything, from nettles to cow parsley, is therefore incredibly tall.

I went to see my parents in Thaxted on Saturday and the oil seed rape was head high. We had the most delightful stroll around the fields behind the village, amazed that it was still light at 8pm. There’s a sudden tipping point at this time of year where you realise that the days are endless. It always makes me panic a little. It forces me to look back on the year and wonder what I’ve achieved and whether it’s enough. Enough by my standards? Anyone else’s standards? Welcome to the world of the freelancer. 

We went to Julie’s on Sunday, to help her plant strawberries and tomatoes in her allotment. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about digging earth. It not only gives your muscles a work out, but, whilst creating life for plants, you become incredibly aware of other life. Worms. Butterflies. Spiders. Woodlice. Centipedes. Snails. Insects I didn’t know the name of and haven’t seen since my childhood. All playing their important role in the fragile ecosystem. I refused gloves in favour of getting my hands truly mucky. At one with the earth which will eventually swallow me up.

It was a joy to see Parkland Walk being used by so many people yesterday. Old people in canvas hats, striped T-shirts and ill-fitting canvas shorts, joggers wearing luminous running gear, which glowed violently under the sun, families with kids on bikes, the fathers barking orders about not going out of sight on the long path. All the while, the birds whistled and chirped down on us all. They knew it was an idyllic scene and wanted in!

I can’t think of many journeys to friends’ houses which are this nice. I didn’t see or hear a car for 40 minutes.

I was recording low bassy rumbles on Fiona’s new album, which I’m predicting will be a hypnotic masterpiece full of drones, chants, loops, mantras and suspended 9ths. It was an honour to be part of it.

I was thrilled to discover that Julian’s wife, Carla is Preggers Plays Pop, and, if the old wives’ tales are correct, I’d say she was carrying a girl. We had a picnic of cheese and bread in the garden with Vic Matthews, who arrived in the afternoon to record some ‘cello.

After Fiona had finished in the studio, Nathan and I went back to Crouch End to meet up with the gang, and James Fortune, of whom, it strikes me, I don’t see nearly enough. He’s working on a musical at the moment at the National, a place I’m resigned to never working! When all the reviews came in for Brass, suggesting that the show ought to be done by the National, I duly sent the CD in to Rufus Norris, who said he’d pass it on. I was fairly embarrassed, therefore, a few months later to receive an email thanking me for the “script” of my “play” and saying that they couldn’t give me feedback, but that the “play” didn’t quite work for the National and had I thought about sending it to the Royal Court or the Bush Theatre instead? For those who don’t know the ins and outs of British Theatre, the Bush and the Royal Court are exponents of new British theatre rather than musical theatre! I give up!

Friday, 4 May 2018

Low maintenance

I think hot weather brings out somewhat bizarre behaviour in people. This evening, whilst waiting for a tube, an elderly gentleman wearing a bowler hat and a high viz jacket, moonwalked his way down the platform to the tube map. He did it without any form of ceremony, which made everyone who saw it out of the corner of their eye wonder if they’d actually seen it at all!

I received three hugely bizarre emails as well today from Jewish people wanting to be involved in 100 Faces, one of which came from someone who was plainly having a psychotic episode, which I found very sad. I’d asked him which year he was born in, to which he responded, “I can't remember but computer says 1931. We settled at Buda in 1385.” Some time later in the email, it got even more peculiar, “A well-known member of my Family inspired Mr Till to name his son Benjamin (what you know well) When Queen Victoria was dying, Her Majesty beautifully praised him.”

It’s so difficult to know how to respond to an email like that. It’s probably more harmful to engage but at the same time I really want to know that whoever sent it is okay and not suffering in some way.
The rest of my silly emails came from people who plainly hadn’t properly read the emails I’d sent to them. There’s a limit to the number of times you can repeat yourself in writing. I often hear Nathan huffing and sighing from his desk when he reads emails from people who are being similarly nonsensical. He gets scores of emails every day asking for pattern support, many of which come from people who simply haven’t read his emails or knitting patterns properly. One woman even emailed him to ask for help on a piece of knitwear designed by someone else! It makes me continually tell myself to be as low-maintenance as possible.

Dangenham Polling Booth Quizzes

I walked into the polling booth yesterday without any sense of who to vote for. Obviously there was never any risk of my voting Tory, but choosing between Labour and the Lib Dems was like a vegetarian being asked to chose between chicken and fish. Homophobe or anti-Semite? And yes, I appreciate that the Lib Dems no longer have a homophobic leader, but I’ve never really forgiven them for having one in the first place, and there is that sense that by voting for them, even in a seat where they’ve traditionally done well, you’re sort of chucking your vote away. In the end they felt like the lesser of two evils, so I went Lib Dem across the board. What clinched it was a video which did the rounds yesterday of Corbyn talking with such vitriol about Israel that I felt it would be almost impossible for him to convincingly claim to be anything other than a massive anti-Semite.

A Lib Dem and a Labour activist were sitting, like gnomes, on deckchairs outside the polling station. I was rather pleased there were no Tories sitting there. Tories don’t bother to come round here. They know better...

I’ve seen two plays in two days. The first, on Wednesday night, was at the Noël Coward theatre, and was called, rather simply, Quiz. Written by James Graham, it tells the story of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire “coughing” scandal, where Major Charles Ingram and his wife Dianna “cheated” the show out of £1,000,000. It’s a very cleverly written piece which examines the court case: the first half, from the prosecution’s perspective and, the second, focussing on the defence. The audience actually gets to vote, twice, on whether they think the pair are guilty. There are keypads for everyone to press and the results come up on screens behind.

It’s a deeply thought-provoking piece and one has to assume that it’s based on truth. I had no idea, for example, that ITV had edited their own evidence tape and then destroyed all the original footage. There are also a series of moral questions which crop up throughout the play. If ITV are happy to create a lottery system where scores of ordinary people are spending thousands and thousands of pounds phoning up the hotline number to become contestants on the show, is it really so bad that a syndicate of people came up with a way to cheat the system? I felt very similarly about Nasty Nick on Big Brother. At the end of the day, you’re playing a game, for good telly, and, actually, the scandal brought a huge amount of publicity to the show when its ratings were flagging. Even if the Ingrams HAD meant to cheat (and the jury is out on that question) was it really any worse than any of the stuff which was going on behind the scenes on the show?

Last night, I went with Ben Mabberley to see Made In Dagenham, performed by third year students from Mountview School at the Bernie Grant theatre in Seven Sisters, which turns out to be a rather charming space. The show was being performed, rather well actually, by a mix of actor-musician students and people on the “straight” actors’ course (as opposed to the musical theatre course - I have no idea whether they were gay or straight, although straight acting students are probably more likely to be straight!)

It was a great production of what I consider to be a deeply flawed show. I felt that it was a missed opportunity when I saw it in the West End. The central character doesn’t sing enough. We never get the impression that the story is actually being told through her eyes. Cameo characters appear, sing songs, and then vanish again. There’s a whole sequence with the Prime Minister which really shouldn’t be there (despite the lad who played the role last night being supremely talented) and even the death of a central character lacks impact.

Worst of all, however, is the way the lyrics scan. It is unacceptable to have lyrics which stress all the wrong syllables. It’s almost impossible for actors (and audiences) to make sense of sentences where the stressed syllables of the word land on soft beats of music... and vice versa. It’s rule number one about song writing and it shows laziness, or worse still, arrogance or lack of awareness, on behalf of the writers. It’s something I don’t always spot in my own writing, so, every time I write a song, I get Nathan to check it over, to iron out the words which don’t stress properly. And whilst Brass languishes without a West End run, and hastily written nonsense like Made In Dagenham gets performed by amateur groups across the country, that makes me incredibly angry!

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The story of Shone!

I am rather pleased to announce that Shone with the Sun has been nominated for the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Award. Readers of this blog will possibly remember that the song Brass made the shortlist last year. It didn’t win, but it did receive a commendation. I trust it’s not always going to be a case of “always the bridesmaid and never the bride” but, even if it is, I’m rather proud that the same show has spawned two nominees.

I’m also rather proud to report that playwright Arnold Wesker is listed as an official writer on this particular song. He loved Shone with the Sun and actually played a demo of it on his Desert Island discs in Radio 4. The song was also sung by Rosie Archer at his memorial.

It was actually first written in 1998. Twenty whole years ago. We wrote it as an entry for Eurovision, but it was deemed “too classical” to make it to the final selection. Arnold’s original lyrics was called “Came with the Sun,” but I got into my head that this sounded a bit smutty, so suggested “shone” instead!

A year or so later, the song was picked up by a record label who wanted to explore the idea of Arnold and me being offered a publishing deal, but at the time, I secretly knew that we weren’t the right combination of writers to turn out convincing pop tunes. Arnold’s lyrics tended towards poetry and what I wrote was always too theatrical. Predictably, the deal fell through, and Shone languished on a bottom shelf, feeling a bit sorry, for itself for more than ten years.

I dusted it off again in 2010, under pretty awful circumstances when I lost a court case which was triggered by an unscrupulous choir mistress refusing to pay me for a set of songs I’d written. She claimed they were “unperformable” which was short hand for the fact that she didn’t have the skills to teach the songs to her choir. Sadly, the judge - who turned out to be an amateur drummer in a pub band - agreed with her. It was genuinely one of the bleakest days of my life, and, in order to pay my court fees, I was forced to organise a concert. It was a somewhat humbling experience.

When Arnold found out about the court ruling, he immediately sent me a cheque for £250, and, at the concert, we performed several of the songs I’d written with him, including Shone, which was sung with great beauty by Katina Kangaris, who’d done the original demo.

We also performed the whole of Four Colours, the work which that neurotic choir mistress had so blithely said was “unperformable.” Four Colours was subsequently released as a successful charity EP, and the song Yellow gets performed by choirs all over the place. It was even performed - by Ali Jiear - at our wedding. Unperformable? My arse!

When it came to writing the show Brass in 2014, I knew I wanted to include Shone. The song is about the death of a relationship, and therefore could easily have been about the death of a loved one, so I actually built the story of the show around the song, imagining the singer to be a woman who’d just lost her husband in action.

After writing the full show, I asked Nathan to have a play with the words of Shone, just to bring them into focus a little and make them specific to the character and the story I was telling. I then re-worked the song to give it more theatrical and dramatic bite. I didn’t want it to feel like a juke box show number, crow-barred into the piece.

And that is the story of Shone with the Sun. It’s funny how one song can trigger a life-time of memories, and I’m so relieved that it finally found its place. It’s still my best selling piece of sheet music on my website. I’m told it occasionally turns up at auditions for drama schools, which makes me very happy.

Arnold Wesker, of course, was nominated for countless awards as a playwright during his life time, but never as a lyricist, so I’m rather thrilled to have facilitated his first nomination in this respect. When it gets performed at the ceremony, I know he will be looking down at us, smiling proudly. To quote him on Desert Island Discs talking about the song, “I’ve included it because it reminds me that I had a talent...”

The other great song writing news, of course, is the fact that ABBA are back in the recording studio and that, by the end of the year, there will be two brand new songs by the band to enjoy. I find the news almost too exciting for words. First Kate Bush performed live for the first time since 1979. Then ELO went on tour. And now, the third part of the holy trinity arrives!