Monday, 12 January 2015

That Day We Sang

"I have bit of life still owing and I am more than just my name"
This was a delight from start to finish. It was like Dennis Potter with all of the singing but none of the psoriasis. It was very Victoria Wood, with arguments over yoghurt flavours and missing boxes of Matchmakers, and songs about Berni Inns ("Fancy words like garni - that just means they bung on cress") and the problem with being called Enid. One song even featured her immortal line from The Ballad of Barry and Freda - "Let's do it".

"Nymphs and shepherds come away..."
In 1929, the 200-strong Manchester Children's Choir recorded Purcell's Nymphs And Shepherds with the Halle Orchestra in the Free Trade Hall. This was a very big deal for those young boys and girls, some of whom lived in slums and came from troubled backgrounds. They were brought to the door of the Free Trade Hall in specially commissioned trams. Most of them remembered the occasion their whole lives long, which is why one of them organised a reunion of the choir during the 1960s. Victoria Wood watched a documentary about this reunion in 1975, while she was living off the dole in a bedsit, and That Day We Sang is the musical that resulted many years later. Initially a stage show, it was turned into a film by the BBC for Boxing Day.

The story focused on Tubby and Enid, two fictional members of the choir. They don't remember each other from being children and meet at the reunion as if for the first time. The reunion ignites a spark in their seemingly drab everyday lives, and a spark between each other too. They start to realise that they are missing out. They want to rediscover the joy that singing (with two Gs) awoke in them. Manchester is at the height of the swinging sixties, but they are stuck in a timewarp, living alone or with a lodger, working in dull office jobs, dreading decimalisation, and eating their lunchtime sandwiches with a boring regularity in the Piccadilly Gardens. Tubby is Mr Affable, and has cared for his mother all his life, after they were abandoned by his father. His mother has recently passed away, leaving him rather lost. Enid is shy and nervous, and is having an illicit affair with her uncaring boss, but the relationship is merely seedy, with none of the passion she deserves and dreams of. (It is subsequently destroyed in a hilarious scene broadcast over the office intercom.) Tubby is played by Michael Ball, and Enid by the wonderful Imelda Staunton, who we regularly listen to reading the Gruffalo on a CD in our car, and who - thanks to her stature, curls and ability to mix neurosis with occasional moments of exuberance - would be the perfect actress to play my mother in a film about her life.

The choir is run with military precision by a stern lady called Gertrude Riall and Mr Kirkby, an ex-soldier with Basil Fawlty-esque shrapnel in his leg. They aren't anywhere near as nice as Gareth Malone, but face the same issues as any modern choirmaster -  kids not turning up, other kids mucking about at the back, and bad pronunciation from all of them (there is an H in "Flora's holiday", the children are reminded - "We want all that pride in coming from Lancashire, we want the spirit of Lancashire, but not the accent."). It's quite surprising that a woman is in charge of the choir at all, since apparently the Halle's chief conductor in the 1920s Hamilton Harty (lots of Hs there) sacked all of the females in the orchestra when he took over, claiming that a lady could not possibly manage the touring lifestyle of a musician. Go figure.

Flora's holiday?
My parents were at university in Manchester in the 1960s, and I always have a sense that they too, like Tubby and Enid, were missing all of the fun. Manchester in 1969 is very different to 1929, with the trams gone, the Free Trade Hall bombed to rubble but the Arndale Centre not yet built. Another 40 years on, and it's very different again - the trams are back, the Arndale Centre was bombed to rubble by the IRA, and the Halle now play in the state of the art Bridgewater Hall.

The construction of Bridgewater Hall began in 1993, coincidentally the same year as my last - and only - visit to Manchester's city centre. I was living in Sheffield at the time and went over for a crazy afternoon with a friend, who was from there and wanted to show me around. I remember being hugely impressed by the scale of the city, its cosmopolitan feel and cultural offerings - it felt like the proper sort of place that Sheffield could never be.

It's strange, given my parents' attachment to Manchester, that I had never seen the city centre before. We had made several trips to the suburbs with my family over the years - we had relatives in Sale, friends in Didsbury, and my dad was always keen on attending his own annual reunion - the convocation dinner of his hall of residence, Dalton (now Dalton-Ellis) Hall in Victoria Park. But as far as I can recall, we never left the outskirts. Probably because small kids and a big city are a bad mix. Or we were always on a tight schedule en route to see grandparents in the Lake District. Whatever, all I can remember are long afternoons walking round the grounds of Dalton Hall playing pretend games of tennis (no racket, no ball) and being very, very bored, while Dad was otherwise engaged.

Victoria Wood, in a documentary about the making of That Day We Sang (called That Musical We Made) sits at the BBC playing people the tinny recording of Nymphs And Shepherds on her phone, which makes it sound even tinnier. And the strange thing is that hardly anyone remembers it. "Come on Eileen!" her frustrated voiceover encourages a baffled looking Kevin Rowland while Dexys Midnight Runners are waiting to appear on Terry Wogan's show. Instead, everyone in the green room at Radio 2 remembers O For The Wings Of A Dove, recorded by 15-year-old Ernest Arthur Lough at around the same time. I don't know if Nymphs And Shepherds stuck in her memory as a Manchester local and O For The Wings Of A Dove - sung by a London chorister - in everyone else's as some sort of North-South gramophone divide. (None of these people were around in the 1930s, but the records were played for decades afterwards.) However, I'm so glad that Nymphs And Shepherds stayed with Victoria Wood, though how she translated her memories into giant pantomime prawn cocktails, Ryvita ("Be cautious - they shatter!"), a doorman with a limp and a song called Happiness Street is a secret at the heart of her great genius.

As a little aside:
In 1986, a choir of 12 year old girls from my school made this record for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson after our music teacher won a song competition on That's Life. It hasn't yet achieved the fame of Nymphs And Shepherds. But just in case Victoria Wood wants to write a musical about it, here it is on You Tube.
My school was not responsible for the sleeve artwork.

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