Friday, 16 November 2018

The end of an era

Sometimes it’s wise not to let your guard down too much. I have had a really wonderful time of late. I’ve had great reviews. Great successes. Good health.

On Monday afternoon, I went to Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street to toast the success of 100 Faces with a pain au chocolat and a cup of tea. I actually wanted a cream tea, but they’d run out of scones and the pastry they gave me instead was miserably stale. Nevertheless, I was very much looking forward to having a relaxed natter, knowing the pressure was finally off.

Nathan called from America in a complete tizzy, “we’ve been evicted!” That’s about all I could hear. My mobile phone (like my computer) is broken, so I can’t hear what anyone is saying unless I put the call on loud speaker, press the phone right to my ear and find an entirely quiet corner.

After a while I ascertained that we were losing our flat. We’ve been given two months to get out. After everything the landlord has put us through whilst simultaneously promising that our long-term tenancy was assured, we are out on our ear. We’ve endured floods. Rats. Broken windows. Black mould all over the ceiling. Promises to fix kitchen cabinets which turned into someone tying all of our draws together with bits of string. We’ve put up with all of that because we knew our rent was low, and we wanted to be no-fuss tenants. And just as we finally find ourselves living in a dry house with a proper roof, we’ve been evicted.

To make matters worse, we have to live out our tenancy in a house covered in dust, with filthy carpets, a wrecked loo and no paint on the walls.

The greatest sadness to me is that our leaving Highgate signifies our being forced to leave London. There’s no way on earth we can afford to stay. Obviously there’s lots to think about. We have discussed the possible idea of going to Hove which feels like the lesser of all evils. It’s horrifying, really, because I feel like a Londoner, and can’t imagine living anywhere else, but this country is going to hell in a hand basket at the moment. We cannot rely on a steady income, and have nothing spare right now to spend on rent. Nathan’s burgeoning career as a knitting guru is hugely dependent on his being able to teach in European countries, and I know we won’t be able to rely on that income stream post-Brexit, particularly after yesterday’s news.

So the situation is bleak, and I am terribly depressed. I feel an emptiness creeping into my body.

As a result of all of this, I won’t be writing this blog for a while. I need to feel upbeat to write, and I don’t much want to be one of those people who does nothing but whinge about the world. We’re all suffering enough at the moment.

Stay safe everyone. We’re in for a rocky ride. Those who voted Brexit now have a particular responsibility to look after people in trouble, so keep your eyes peeled and get those food parcels ready.

Lots of love, and many thanks for reading. It’s been quite the ride, hasn’t it?

Love Benjamin

Monday, 12 November 2018


...And breathe! It’s 11am, and I’m still in bed after a fiendishly busy and exhausting week. Today is my first lie-in for what seems an age, and I decided to wake up naturally to see how tired I actually was.

There is something rather special about being awoken by sunlight. I could feel it on my face, streaming through the windows, and when I opened my eyes I was almost blinded by dusty shafts of light.

It has been a hugely successful week, but one which has moved so quickly I’ve barely been able to drink anything in.

The house is a mess, largely because the sitting room has now been re-plastered and we don’t know whether we can expect someone to come in and paint the walls, so all of our belongings are stacked up in piles in our bedroom, like some terrible scene from one of those programmes about recidivist hoarders.

This week saw the opening of my production of Brass at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Seven Sisters. Having seen a weekend of shows, I’m pinning my colours to the mast and saying I would like as many people to come along as possible. It’s two whole years since the last fully-staged production of Brass, so please don’t simply imagine you’ll catch it when it’s on again. I can’t believe I will have many opportunities to direct the show again, so this genuinely is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It is a stunning production. It looks wonderful. The cast are absolutely amazing. The band sound great. What we’ve created is both life-affirming and deeply moving. Audiences weep openly. I can’t tell you how proud I am of everyone who has had involvement in the show. I have a wonderful family around me of hard-working, dedicated, kind, talented people, all of whom seem to genuinely love the show. The good folk of Mountview have treated me like a prince. It has been one of the happiest periods of my entire life. So, in short, you now have a week to see the fruits of our labours. Please come.

Whilst we toiled away in tech and dress rehearsals for Brass, the production of the same musical at the Union Theatre opened and started busily collecting reviews. It’s done brilliantly. From what I can gather it’s received nothing but four and five star reviews. The quotes have been quite astounding. Michael Arditti in the Express said, "Till's rich, melodious score, its influences, ranging from Marie Lloyd to Vaughan Williams, powerfully conveys the fervour, horror and heartbreak both in the trenches and at home." wrote “The raison d’etre for this version of the story is the powerful and beautiful music that threads throughout as a conduit for truth and depth of emotions. Till has written a score that pulses with musicality and shines from the opening bravura phrases.”

The musical theatre review went one step further and stated “Benjamin Till has created one of the finest ever pieces of British musical theatre.”

All good.

To add a comic level to the proceedings, whilst the two productions of Brass have been bursting onto the London scene, my 100 Faces Film was premiered, officially last night at the wonderful Phoenix Theatre, literally just up the road from me in Finchley, and unofficially at the opening Gala for the UK Jewish Film Festival on the giant screen at the BFI on the South Bank last Thursday. It is a huge treat to see the film as it was designed to be watched, and a little strange, because so much of my work has been for telly, so I’m used to seeing everything on a smaller screen.

100 Faces seems to have been going down as well as Brass. There have been lots of tears. Lots of laughter. Lots of people telling me it’s made them proud to be Jewish. Perhaps the nicest comment came today from one of the 100 faces:

“I feel a new sense of 'jewish' energy today and feel creative and buzzing.”

Exactly as it should be.

Apologies for the radio silence over the last week. I promise to write more often!

Friday, 2 November 2018


We had the sitz probe for Brass tonight. The band is good but I think there was some sort of mix up which meant none of the appropriate sound equipment was delivered to the theatre, so when I arrived our poor M.D. was tearing his hair out!

Fortunately, we have a very good sound designer who managed to rig up a fairly decent sound system which was actually more similar to the usual set up of a sitz, with a line of stand mics at the front of the stage which the singers walk to when they have a line. I think the original plan had been for the cast to wear their head mics and wander about the stage, standing in the places where they would be singing in the actual show: a “bummel probe,” if you like. I actually think this approach would have taken something away from the rather lovely ceremony associated with the cast sitting on chairs and standing to sing, so I wasn’t too fussed, although it would have been good to hear the instruments properly. My careful orchestrations turned into a bit of a wash of sound. It was reverb city up in the band balcony, and the drums weren’t miked.

I left the rehearsal and traveled back on a late night Friday night tube, forgetting how awful drunk people can be. One older woman was so drunk, that, as the doors opened at Kings Cross, she sort of fell out and got her head trapped as they closed again. She literally couldn’t function. I pulled her back into the carriage and asked where she needed to go, and she told me she was going to a place called “Fuck Off”, which I don’t know. I assume it’s on the same line as “Ungrateful Cow.”

Lots of revellers we’re celebrating Hallowe’en, their faces covered in black, red and white makeup. People don’t seem to dress as witches and ghosts with sheets on their heads any more. I think this is a terrible shame. Nathan and I hollowed out pumpkins on Sunday. I thought they were rather good, until I saw a tweet from my choreographer, Simon, who had created the most astounding pieces of art with his pumpkins. He told me that he liked the way I’d used the natural contours of my pumpkin, which was code for “try a little harder next time.”

Sitz ahoy

It’s been a long old week. Yesterday was our last day in the rehearsal studio, so, from now on, everything happens at the Bernie Grant Theatre. The cast are ready and raring to go, so I gave them all a day off before the “sitz” tonight. Sitz is short for “sitzprobe” and it’s one of the most exciting parts of any theatrical voyage, as it’s the first time the cast get to hear the musicians. It’s obviously more scary than exciting for me personally, because these are all new orchestrations, which I’ve not heard before. The band are rehearsing as I write but I’m staying away. No MD wants the composer breathing down his neck in band rehearsals, even if the composer is the director!

I had another nasty-ish accident last night. I was a little shocked and have a few cuts and grazes on my hands, arms and legs but I’m fine. The workmen, who have literally turned the house upside down, managed to break one of the wooden steps running up to the entrance to our flat on account of using the staircase as a basis for a whole scaffolding rig which gives them access to our roof.

The step has essentially broken in half, but instead of replacing it, they’ve got a 2” plank of wood and placed it over the damaged step, thereby making one of the steps 2 inches taller than the rest. Obviously we’re more than used to the feel of our steps, but because we don’t have a motion-sensor light, the staircase suddenly became a health and safety catastrophe last night. In the process of preparing myself to squeeze through the scaffolding on the steps, I lost my footing on the broken step and stacked it big time. It really was most unpleasant. It’s amazing how many parts of your body hit the deck when you go down in that manner!!

I went to see the first preview of Brass at the Union Theatre on Thursday night. It was a little mean of me to go to that performance, but my mate Matt was going and I realised there were limited options for me to see it before my own production kicks off.

The cast were wonderful. There are some brilliant performances and some lovely touches. It’s a difficult and long piece, however, and I think perhaps the creative team underestimated how long they’d need to get things together. I was a little surprised by some of the cuts they’d made, some of the tempi they’d opted for, and some of the parts of the story they’d omitted or not coaxed out of the material. The problem with Brass is that it tells a love story which is quite deliberately underwritten, so unless actors commit to the subtext and you find visual beats to bring these aspects out, you can get half way through act two before you realise what’s going on! The joy about a set of previews is that you have time to hone the material a little, so there’s more time to play. I remember the previews for Taboo. We were changing things all the time. Songs and lines were being cut and coming back in left, right and centre. It was all go.

I’m currently making my way down to Southwark to do a radio interview about Brass, before heading back north to Tottenham. Call me a yo-yo.

It was the tenth anniversary of Coventry Market The Musical yesterday and I did a quick interview on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I still remember the premiere like it was yesterday. They’d put out an enormous red carpet so that everyone could walk from the indoor market itself to the place where they were showing the film. It felt like the whole of Cov had turned out to cheer us all on. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I only wish my Grandparents, both Coventrians, had still been alive to see me celebrating the city which had meant so much to them. Harry Hill, who regularly parodies the film on his shows, did an interview before me. He is, apparently, really fond of it. I rather like that the film has followed me about through my life and that people continue to discover its tatty, tongue-in-cheek magic!