From writing a rock musical at 16 to performing on a BBC Play For Today
BLOG NO.9 – IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ BLOG NO.8 FIRST, CLICK HERE
(The tracks at the bottom of the post won’t appear in those getting this via email. Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)
This is nothing to do with my meagre instrumental abilities, which are probably on a par with my blog writing skills, but how music in my life, even before I had left school, went on to help me create small-scale musicals – both amateur and professional – and become involved in many a musical, or shows with music, in my later career.
I actually think my musical beginnings came about because, as a family, we used to get together and sing now and then, and my sister, Betty Wilson (now Betty (Elizabeth) Mears), wanted to be a singer and used to sing a lot. (Her dream didn’t come true, which is a shame because she had a wonderful voice!) My first vinyl single, The Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park, I inherited from her. One of my much older brothers, Tommy (an ex-miner) and his voice were famous up the Working Men’s Club in Stanley, Co. Durham. He was (and still is) a great laugh too!
We had an old upright piano for a while, which I loved to try and play, but that was got rid to make space in our small council house…at least, I think that was the reason. My music skills may have progressed further had we not, and it might have persuaded me to do Music for my CSE exams rather than Geography, which I did just because I knew I could get a good result in it. The instrument I now wished I’d had and mastered was the guitar. Mind you, even once I did get my hands on one, I still could never get my fingers to hit the chords, or my brain to remember them! The keyboard became my instrument.
I soon became to realise that I really liked musicals; this being before it was associated with being gay! The fact I wanted to be an actor was bad enough for some in my old coal mining town, although I don’t think my father, had he been alive, would have had a problem with it. My mam did, but only because it was going to take me far away from home. She was proud of me really. My first musical album was Hair. Good job my mam didn’t know what it was about or the nudity in it! (I’d end up dating someone after seeing them in a touring production of it years later.) My second album would be Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; the original BBC television version, before it became a massive hit. The first live theatre performance I would see, however, would be Godspell, with Robert Lindsay, Jeremy Irons (yes, Jeremy Irons) and Sue Pollard, amongst others, at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. That was me sold. This pretending to be someone else, singing and getting paid for it seemed a great way to live.
Becoming involved with the Youth Theatre side of the University Theatre (later Playhouse) Newcastle every Saturday, it’s at that theatre I got to see my first live performance of Joseph. This would inspire me to write my rock musical, Leaving School at the tender age of 16. In fact, the photo below shows us doing performances of the songs from it at the University Theatre foyer, and, in the background, are photos from their production. To say I stole ideas for my songs from it would be an understatement! My songs, like its, were a variety of music styles, including, like it, an Elvis pastiche. Even so, I look back and wonder how the hell I had the guts to write, direct, perform and tour it around Tyneside with members of the Tyneside Youth Theatre Link. We opened it at the school I had just left – Shield Row Secondary Modern, Stanley – which was quite emotional, both for myself, and two other former pupils in the cast: my classmate, David Hodgson, and my older nephew, David Calvert (now a writer), who would play the 21-year-old teacher of the piece. It’s for him that I recorded both the original and new songs for a belated 40th anniversary edition, which you can listen to below.
As a budding performer of 16 – having already performed with the National Youth Theatre (NYT) in Romeo & Juliet at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, and had my first professional engagement with the University Theatre in Hamlet, with the great British actor, Jack Shepherd; me as the boy player playing the ‘Player Queen’ – I was torn between physical theatre, dance and musical theatre. Not realising at the time they were all interrelated, or that I would go on to utilise the skills from all of them in theatre, tv and film. My physical and later puppet and mask theatre experience would give me the tools to get me my first film work with the Jim Henson Company in The Dark Crystal, and a few years later, Labyrinth. Between these would be 11 month training, rehearsing and filming as Tarzan’s fat ape friend, Figs in the film Greystoke. Who’d have thought?
Before puppet theatre and film, however, there came my time with the NYT, and performing in two of their most amazing and successful productions: The Childrens’ Crusade and By Common Consent. These weren’t musicals, per se, but plays with music, and By Common Consent impressed the BBC so much they made our production into one of their 1975 Play For Todays. This would be the second of the only two productions of the NYT the BBC would televise; the other being Zigger Zagger. For someone who watched Zigger Zagger several years earlier, and read a book on the NYT from Stanley Library only a couple of years before and dreamed of doing the same, this was, indeed, a dream come true; and one I never in a million years would actually have thought would come true! It was after the NYT season that I moved to London in October 1974 to pursue my career. It would take almost two very hard years before anything did happen.
It’s around this time in London – and being very home sick – I started writing my own mining ballads, inspired by my coal mining heritage and by David Calvert’s brother, Alan, who was the last miner of the family and who loved singing them. Whenever I was back up in the Northeast we’d get together, have a drink at the Working Men’s Club and give them all a blast.
Then came several years of theatre touring in musicals around the UK, playing Pinocchio and Paddington Bear amongst others; but I wasn’t happy doing this money-grabbing children’s commercial theatre, and moved into subsidised children’s theatre, starting with the large-scale puppet and mask company, Caricature Theatre (Cardiff) for a year, and then the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre (Birmingham) for two. (Neither exist any longer.) Whilst with these I co-wrote musicals for both. With Caricature it was a show called A Dog Called Samson (1979), and with Cannon Hill, Jack In The Rainbow (1980 – pictured below). A Dog Called Samson would also be done as a BBC Wales production…which I never saw. Jack In The Rainbow would be the last musical I would write, before doing the extra songs I’ve since written for Leaving School.
All this would, eventually, lead to my 30-odd years with the Jim Henson Company, eighteen feature films, The Muppets, Spitting Image, devising two openings of The Brit Awards, as well as other children’s shows for the BBC and ITV; most of which required singing. The highlights would probably be singing on the Dinosaurs‘ album (recorded at Capitol Records in LA!) and the backing track of Muppet Treasure Island, under the direction of the amazing Hans Zimmer…oh yes, and a piece we did for an educational music show called The Ghost Of Faffner Hall, with George Martin (producer of The Beatles), Paddy Maloney (The Chieftains) and Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits). (These stories I’ll cover in my blogs called My Close Encounters Of The Music Legend Kind.)
I look back now – now that my health no longer allows me to perform – and wonder how it all happened? How this working class lad from Stanley, Co. Durham did what he did? But, of course, if you have a talent and a drive it doesn’t matter what your background is. Nothing was going to stop me doing what I wanted to do – what was a burning desire to do – whether I had been successful at it or not! Nor should it stop you if you have the same!
Thanks for reading, and listening, if you listen to the tracks below,
(Should you be so inclined, you can listen to all 22 tracks of the updated version of Leaving School below. They are a right-old mix of the original and newer songs, which we first performed in schools in the Stanley and the Tyneside area in 1974. I must say a special thanks to Julianne Buescher who helped me record some of these for the 20th anniversary cassette (remember those!) in LA when we were working there together in 1993 on the tv series Dinosaurs. Those were recorded on a cassette 4 track, so their quality isn’t quite as good as the newer, digitally recorded tracks, although I have tried to improve them in the remastering. Also remember, these were just done for David Calvert‘s ears originally, and my voice had been affected by my illnesses on some tracks. Some are more successful than others. Still, I’d love to hear what you think in the Comments section below. (Additional lyrics to That Shaded Way by David Hodgson.)