Remembering a Stupid Boy made good – a tribute to Jimmy Perry

Mister Write: Jimmy Perry in his scriptwriting heyday

Mister Write: Jimmy Perry in his scriptwriting heyday

The following tribute started out as a re-write of my respectful nod to Clive Dunn on these pages in November 2012, Permission to Pay a Tribute, Sir. But today I’ve adapted it to mark the passing of the man who created Clive’s most memorable on-screen character.

While the great actor who played Lance Corporal Jones made it to the grand old age of 92, Dad’s Army creator Jimmy Perry went one better, bowing out over the weekend at 93, having beaten cancer three times along the way. And his departure seems to finally mark the end of a special era for British comedy and family entertainment.

For many years we’d seen the Dad’s Army crew steadily bow out, something starting far too early with the death of James Beck (who played loveable spiv Private Walker) in 1973, aged 44, just five years after Bud Flanagan, who sang Mr Perry’s memorable theme song. Edward Sinclair (Mr Yeatman, the verger), followed in 1977, and by the mid-80s we’d not only lost Talfryn Thomas (Private Cheeseman), but also key quartet Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson), John Laurie (Private Frazer) and Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey).

That’s where I came in, so to speak, as in early 1986 this 18-year-old reared on Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum got to meet one of his heroes, having the privilege of spending a couple of days in Jimmy Perry’s esteemed company on a course he hosted at London Media Workshops for around a dozen budding comedy scriptwriters.

I was the most junior by a fair few years, but found Jimmy perhaps the youngest of the lot in his boyish enthusiasm, full of great stories and truly inspirational in helping me start out towards my career goal.

By that stage he was around three-quarters of the way through a successful eight-year run with Hi-de-Hi! and still full of ideas, a five-year run writing You Rang M’Lord? ahead of him. But it was Dad’s Army that this sixth-form student wanted to know about – despite the fact that I was barely five months old when Jimmy and co-writer David Croft oversaw the first day of filming – and inspired me to apply for that opportunity.

I guess I was at a crossroads. My A-levels were coming to an end and I wanted to earn some money straight away and start living life rather than entertaining the idea of university at that point. I kind of knew what I wanted to do. It was just a case of finding the right path to get there. A series of BBC interviews followed, this scribbler eager to get in somehow, happy to start in any role he could at Portland Place or Wood Lane in a bid to be in the right place at the right time to pass on scripts of my own.

Taking Charge: The Dad's Army crew on the attack (Photo: BBC)

Taking Charge: The Dad’s Army crew on the attack (Photo: BBC)

Two of my schoolmates did the same as cameramen, both proving a success in their respective fields. But I didn’t have the technical proficiency. So when I saw this course, and it involved a chance to meet a scriptwriting legend, I felt I might finally be on my way. But while Jimmy’s passion ensured that dream stayed with me, I quickly learned I was up against it, and didn’t have the confidence to break through at that stage.

It was a closed shop as far as I could tell – jobs for the boys, something underlined in Jimmy’s own assessment of the Beeb around then. As he put in his autobiography, A Stupid Boy (Century, 2002), ‘For over 25 years I worked in the middle-class, rather snobbish environment of the BBC. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it suited me down to the ground’.

While Jimmy came from a comfortable social background (‘We were so middle-class, our housemaid was not allowed to put the dustbins out until after dark’, he wrote), he was no snob. And despite my humble beginnings there was always a somewhat aspirational sid eof me. Neither of our families had any time for the more ‘common’ strands, and Jimmy – like myself – clearly didn’t want to follow the crowd.

As it was, I was more a real ale leftie than the champagne socialist Jimmy felt he was. Okay, so I was 30 miles down the A3 from his native Barnes and this private-schooled son of an antique dealer wouldn’t have been allowed to play with a council tenant like myself if he’d been born 44 years later, but we had a bit in common. That said, I was more or less happy to be discovered in the background while he – brought up on a rich diet of classic cinema and variety theatre – ‘just wanted to get up on that stage and show off’.

As he put it in A Stupid Boy, he wanted to ‘be an actor, be a comedian, be anything as long as I was in that limelight’. As it turned out, it would take me a while to get the material I needed, but Jimmy showed me the way, despite my initial disappointment of not getting there straight away.

One thing I did learn from that course was that personal experience led to Jimmy coming up with so many great scripts, starting with his adventures in Watford (the family moving there during the war to live above a family member’s antiques shop) in the Home Guard as a wet-behind-the-ears ‘stupid boy’ (his father’s exasperated expression at his lad, who readily admitted, ‘I can really be a bit of a nerd’) leading to Dad’s Army (1968/77).

Then – having initially received his call-up over Christmas 1943 – he served in Burma with the Royal Artillery Concert Party, inspiring It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974/81). Beyond that, post-demob and RADA training, he had a spell as a Butlin’s redcoat in Pwllheli, leading to Hi-De-Hi! (1980/88). So while his dream of becoming a successful actor never came to fruition, he found his salvation in creating such memorable characters, helping gather wonderful casts, and knocking out so many great storylines.

Shut Up: Windsor Davies as Sergeant Major Tudor Bryn 'Shut Up' Williams in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (Photo: BBC)

Shut Up: Windsor Davies as Sergeant Major Tudor Bryn Williams (Photo: BBC)

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum wasn’t so much to my liking, but had its moments, not least thanks to Windsor Davies (still with us at the age of 86, I happily add), so good in his role as Battery Sergeant Major Williams.

And while my modern sensibility suggests plenty of great Asian actors could have played Rangi Ram, Michael Bates was brilliant and at least born in India, fluent in Urdu, and a former Gurkha. Besides, Jimmy insisted there was no ‘blacking up’, telling The Telegraph’s Neil Clark in a 2013 interview for his 90th birthday, ‘All Michael wore was a light tan. He was never blacked up!’ Similarly, he dismissed allegations of that series being homophobic, suggesting shouting at soldiers that they were ‘a bunch of poofs’ was what sergeant-majors did. ‘That’s how they talked!’

I also felt the early series of Hi-de-Hi! had their moments, although I’d moved on by then. finding it a bit obvious in places. Again though, the quality of the casting and acting often shone out. As for You Rang, M’lord? I’ve not seen enough to offer an opinion, just seeing another show with more or less the same cast as Hi-de-Hi! commissioned, steering clear. An Upstairs Downstairs pastiche said nothing to me. That said, it was clearly a labour of love for Jimmy, brought up on his father’s tales of his own father’s days as a butler, ‘below stairs’. Meanwhile, David Croft – who also served in the Royal Artillery, although he didn’t meet Jimmy until many years later – knew from his mother’s stories from her days as an actress between the wars all about ‘upstairs’ life.

But back to Jimmy’s finest moment. For while a few of those Perry and Croft sitcoms lost their edge over time, Dad’s Army shone out, in no small part due to its creators writing believable, memorable characters and finding an amazing chemistry through the actors they assembled.

Thirty years ago I listened in rapture as Jimmy reminisced about so many golden comedy moments, awestruck in his presence at Rodney House, Dolphin Square, SW1. We also got to write our own sitcom, and while that (perhaps predictably) came to nothing, it was enough being in the presence of the man who brought Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Walker, Godfrey and Pike to our screens.

One topic we did discuss – one I brought up – was a mutual love of Will Hay films, Jimmy recalling the influence of Hay and sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott on his own work, stripping that successful formula back to its component parts – the supposedly-superior bumbler and supposedly-inferior clever one, supported by bungling old men and wet-behind-the-ears young ‘uns. I’ve seen various different takes on that formula since, but the strength of Perry/Croft collaborations was that you could perm any of those great characters and get the same result in the right hands – comedy gold.

There was a Will Hay link through Clive Dunn too, a former POW from a theatrical family having cut his cinematic teeth as a youth in Boys Will Be Boys and Good Morning, Boys, long before his TV break in the late ‘60s. And it will always be his Dad’s Army role he’s best remembered for (give or take his 1970 novelty No.1 chart hit with Grandad), turning Jimmy’s vividly-drawn character, Lance Corporal Jack Jones, local butcher and ageing ex-serviceman, into someone so many of us grew to love over that next decade … and beyond.

There have been times over the years when Dad’s Army became something of a byword for lazy BBC scheduling, just ‘another bloody repeat’, barely off our screens. But thankfully it was that rather than the lesser alternatives. For while the world has changed immeasurably since Walmington-on-Sea’s Home Guard stood down, it still sits comfortably, generation after generation still getting that quintessentially British humour. Timeless. And we have Jimmy Perry and David Croft to thank for that.

Warden Hodges: Bill Pertwee in his trademark role, wondering what Napoloeon's up to (Photo: BBC)

Warden Hodges: Bill Pertwee in his trademark role, thinking about ‘Napoloeon’ (Photo: BBC)

Later in 1986, the year I met Jimmy, we lost Janet Davies (Mrs Pike) at the age of 59, but thankfully there were no further departures until Colin Bean (Private Sponge) in 2009, followed by David Croft in 2011, then within six months of each other Clive Dunn and Bill Pertwee, who appeared not only as Warden Hodges but in all four of Jimmy’s BBC series. Now, with Jimmy’s passing, Frank Williams, who played the vicar, is the only senior still around, although thankfully through Ian Lavender (Private Pike) we still have at least one ’stupid boy’ bringing up the rear.

More to the point, through my Dad’s Army DVD box set, my signed copy of A Stupid Boy and related Bill Pertwee books, and those TV repeats (still, after all these years), the story continues, those nine series over nine years (80 episodes in all) and spin-off radio shows lasting well beyond their expected shelf-life. And they’re as pertinent nearly 40 years after that final episode when the platoon disbanded and Jones married his ‘lady friend’ Mrs Fox (played by Pamela Cundell, who outdid Jimmy, passing away at 95 last February).

As Jimmy put it in A Stupid Boy, ‘I never did become a famous film star or a great comedian, but I like to think I’ve made people laugh and reminded them of the time when this dear country of ours stood alone against the most evil regime the world has ever seen’. He certainly did, with great moments in all his shows. And for Dad’s Army alone he deserves his place among the realms of the comedy and writing legends.

Dream Team: Jimmy Perry and David Croft

Dream Team: Jimmy Perry and David Croft, on song together

For this website’s 2012 tribute to Clive Dunn – which formed the basis for this feature – head hereAnd for a link to Neil Clark’s 2013 interview with Jimmy Perry – marking his 90th birthday – for the Telegraph, head here.

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Drawing from experience – the Michael Foreman interview


War Boy: Michael Foreman with a depiction of himself as a lad (Photo: Damien Wootten)

War Boy: Michael Foreman with himself as a lad (Photo: Damien Wootten, for Seven Stories)

It’s been 55 years since Michael Foreman’s first book was published, yet this genial, engaging septuagenarian author and illustrator retains a major passion for his creative endeavours.

Perhaps best known for his evocative drawings in works by former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo and Monty Python actor-turned-writer Terry Jones, he’s rightly revered in his own right too, for books such as 1989’s autobiographical War Boy, his heart-warming portrayal of a Second World War childhood.

Last week Michael visited Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery, which is currently hosting his Painting with Rainbows exhibition, on loan from Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Seven Stories, the national home for children’s books. And just beyond the 13,500 year-old ‘Poulton Elk’ in the Discover Preston gallery, he held court with a sell-out audience, sharing the inspiration behind many of his stories, including – rather aptly – 1971’s Moose.

If you missed that event and haven’t seen the exhibition yet, you have until November 6 to pop in and learn more about the Suffolk-born artist’s amazing career. And if you’re not likely to get to the North West for a while, next stop is the Chatham Historic Dockyard maritime museum in Kent, with more locations lined up beyond that.

Painting with Rainbows sheds light on many of Michael’s colourful characters and the creative world seen in a wealth of publications since his 1961 debut, Cold War pacifist fable The General (put together with his first wife, Janet Charters) and 1993 environmental tale Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish. There’s also original artwork, props, films, books and activities, designed to encourage visitors of all ages to become part of Michael’s storytelling world.

But the fact that Painting with Rainbows is doing the rounds isn’t a sign of him letting up, work-wise, as I learned first-hand from the 78-year-old. In fact, he’s currently concentrating on a book centred around the many air-miles he’s amassed in his career, Travels with my Sketchbook, a proposed publication seemingly complementing 2015’s wonderful A Life in Pictures.

“It covers similar ground, but it’s all about the places that gave me the ideas – a travel book using all the drawings I did along the way. It’s a very complicated thing to put together, not least as there’s so much you have to leave out! I have to leave it very much to the publisher and the editor.”

Sign Time: Michael meets a fan in Preston - the blogger's eldest daughter, Molly (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Sign Time: Michael Foreman meets a fan at the Harris – the blogger’s eldest daughter, Molly (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

As well as catching him talk about his work at the Harris in Preston, I caught Michael for this interview at his home studio in Putney, South West London, ‘just the other side of the river’ from a past base in Fulham and ‘slightly further from Craven Cottage’. So you can already tell he’s a keen football fan, with evidence of that in the exhibition too.

“My tribal team in Norwich City, the nearest professional team when I was a little boy. I’d save up my newspaper-round money to go there as often as I could. Then I moved to London and had the choice of every team there, going to whoever had the most attractive opposition.”

For a spell in North London that involved alternate weeks following Arsenal and Tottenham, since which it’s been Fulham and Chelsea.

“When my sons were growing up, Chelsea won more often than Fulham, so they became devoted fans. And we can walk to both from here. But I’m thinking of going back to Wimbledon when they return to Plough Lane, getting generally disenchanted with the Premier League, where players come and go and don’t give a toss who they’re playing for really.”

Michael was, however, fired up about visiting the city that brought the world Preston North End, or ‘Tom Finney country’ as he put it. Did he ever get to see Sir Tom play?

“I did, at Stamford Bridge, and got his autograph at Stanley Matthews’ 55th birthday party, getting them both to sign the menu! Matthews on the right, Finney on the left!”

Despite his love of literature, it was more about oral storytelling for Michael as a lad, not least via the large cast of characters he met in his Suffolk village, Pakefield, as told so evocatively in War Boy.

“My father died a month before I was born, just before the War, and my mother ran the village shop, which was full of servicemen. They missed their home life and tended to make our Mum their Mum, and me their little brother. They’d tell me all the stories they knew and about where they came from.”

Foreman's Gallery: The Painting with Rainbows exhibition during its run at Seven Stories (Photo: Damien Wootten)

Foreman’s Gallery: The Painting with Rainbows exhibition during its run at Seven Stories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Photo: Damien Wootten, for Seven Stories)

Beyond its Newcastle, Preston and Chatham runs, Painting Rainbows is set for further stops in East Anglia and the West Country, still to be confirmed, the latter region well-known to this highly-travelled author, a homeowner in St Ives, Cornwall, for many years.

“We downsized in St Ives and now have builders in, so haven’t been able to go there for a while, which is very frustrating. But I have two sons in Cornwall, and grandchildren who are Cornish. And my boys have been going there since they were very small.”

Skimming through the shelves at my house the morning I called him – even without going into the other Michael Morpurgo books he’s worked on – I got my hands on a number of picture books carrying his name and with scenes of St Ives in the illustrations. Those range from the ones he co-write with ‘the other one’ (Morpurgo) like Dolphin Boy (taking me back to my early years seeing Beaky the friendly dolphin swim with holidaymakers on Porthminster Beach), to the Soggy books with Philip Moran.

Then there are his own titles, such as Saving Sinbad and The Cat on the Hill, the latter a big hit with my daughters in earlier years, who would point at St Nicholas’ Chapel on The Island and ask, ‘Cat on the Hill, Dad?’ You can also add to that the story anthologies, like The Little People’s Pageant of Cornish Legends with Eric Quayle. Not far down the road was the location for Cornish poet and writer Charles Causley’s The Mermaid of Zennor, with Foreman illustrations, and this fine artist (so to speak) even transported the Alice in Wonderland tales to his beloved Penwith peninsula. In short, he’s not one to be typecast. You can tell its his work, but he’s certainly no one-trick pony.

“I was lucky, because I didn’t study illustration, but fine art, and back in the day the first thing you had to learn was how to draw, having to know anatomy and so forth. That enables you to take on a wider range of work, and my early days involved working for newspapers, having to be up with what’s happening in the world and able to draw virtually any situation. And that’s been a Godsend, meaning I can duck and dive between different kinds of books.”

What’s more, I’m still discovering new (to me) Michael Foreman titles, and at the Harris learned about The Tale of Ali Pasha, based on the true story of a 21-year-old seaman caught up in the hell of Gallipoli during the Great War, who befriends a tortoise.

“That’s a case in point – the story of one of the bus drivers who came in to my Mum’s shop, of him as a young man.”

(Copyright: Michael Foreman - A Life in Pictures, Pavilion, 2015)

(Copyright: Michael Foreman – A Life in Pictures, Pavilion, 2015)

So how many books has he illustrated? Did he lose count long ago?

“I’ve lost count, but it’s around 300, I think.”

As it turns out, Michael’s eldest son Mark followed his lead, this senior university lecturer in illustration in Falmouth also a published writer/illustrator. How about his younger lads?

“One’s a commercial diver in Cornwall, but was always the wild one, always surfing! His little girls love the ocean also, and it’s become his element. Then my youngest son’s a graphic designer for Mulberry, with fashion shows in London, Paris, New York … he’s a bit of a globetrotter too.”

Is your wife Louise an artist or writer?

“No, she’s just someone I fancied in a bar one night in Covent Garden! Actually, she’s virtually my manager, my agent, and everything, and was trained as a secretary so she’s brilliant at all that.”

As for his own wanderlust, what arguably grew out of a Royal College of Arts scholarship travelling America, sparked something of a passion for environmental issues and conflict resolution the world over. And I put it to Michael that he’s an old hippie really.

“I predate the hippies really!”

More beatnik territory?

“Well, it’s kind of Ban the Bomb, you know.”

And that message hasn’t changed?

“Well, it just gets more alarming, doesn’t it. It’s just horrifying, all over the world. You see every day children in terrible situations.”

(Copyright: Michael Foreman - War Boy, Pavilion, 2006 edition)

(Copyright: Michael Foreman – War Boy, Pavilion, 2006 edition)

Perhaps the world needs a few more of those ‘rainbow doves’ of his, more than ever right now.

“Yes. I just don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Books like the Bosnia-set A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, the Chile-set Mia’s Story, and his most recent publication, The Seeds of Friendship, tackling the refugee crisis, seem to sum up Michael’s world view.

“That’s very true, but having the opportunity to write my own stories I’ll have maybe three or four ideas at any one time and go with the one I feel most important or most pressing, which tends to be the one you’re most concerned about.

“Also, these are stories I find aren’t really being written by others enough. There are plenty of stories about cuddly things and silly things – snot, poo and bogeys. They tend to do rather well, with drawings looking like they’ve been done by children who can’t draw very well. Scribbled. But I think there’s a need for something else.”

Without getting too analytical, I wonder how much of a part in his interest in those fleeing war comes from his own unsettled start to life, growing up in a time of peril and ruin. The previous war had damaged his own father’s health, and he lost his uncles. And but for the love of his mother and so many around his Suffolk village, he might well have ended up shipped off elsewhere himself, a refugee boy and evacuee.

“That’s very true, and several of my schoolfriends were evacuated from cities to places they thought would be safer, when in fact it wasn’t really much safer. But many of them stayed and I’m still in touch with them. In fact I had a message from one yesterday, who I hadn’t seen for a long time.”

(Copyright: Michael Foreman - War Game, Pavilion, 2006 edition)

(Copyright: Michael Foreman – War Game, Pavilion, 2014 edition)

Having mentioned his uncles’ sacrifice in the Great War and his love of football, that brings me on to War Game, Michael’s re-telling of 1914’s impromptu Christmas Truce football match between German and British troops in No Man’s Land. And among the Harris exhibition’s drawings are several of football games across the world – from Ellis Island, New York, to the Yucatan. Is this sport as a unifying force?

“Absolutely, and will be more apparent in the next book, with a little section about football around the world – on street corners, beaches … Wherever there’s a ball, there’s a game.”

Michael loves his music too, and when I mentioned a photograph of him playing saxophone in the exhibition, he told me he played trumpet in a jazz band at art school, a period in which he got to know the likes of artists David Hockney and Sir Peter Blake, plus Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

“I’ve seen Charlie this last year, bumping into him in Chelsea. I knew his wife as a lodger. We were at art school together, with Charlie at another but coming round to see the girlfriend!”

Michael’s travels have taken him from the Arctic to China and from Siberia to New Zealand, co-creating a book in the latter nation with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, based on traditional Maori legends. Then there was work with Madhur Jaffrey in India, Edna O’Brien in Ireland, and many more, for an artist who has also illustrated classics by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

Back in Cornwall, he also illustrated Daphne du Maurier’s Classics of the Macabre in 1987. Did he get to meet her?

“I did actually, because we had to sign that edition together. She died shortly after that, so it was very fortunate I did see her at that point.”

It’s not all been success, and apparently legendary children’s writer Roald Dahl was unimpressed with Michael’s ‘fat Willy Wonka’ in his illustrations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As he put it in A Life in Pictures, ‘I had to redraw all the fat Willies. Roald turned to Quentin (Blake) after that. The rest is history.’

(Copyright: Michael Foreman - War Game, Pavilion, 2014 edition)

(Copyright: Michael Foreman – War Game, Pavilion, 2014 edition)

He certainly clicked with ‘the other one’ though, Michael Morpurgo, for whom the love and respect is clearly mutual. Mr Morpurgo writes some lovely things about him in the foreword of A Life in Pictures, and Mr Foreman certainly loves working with such a great writer. Does that help the ideas come into his head on that first read?

“Yes, you get them as you read it. He writes good pictures in his stories.”

Yet it appears that Michael took a little persuasion to realise War Boy might be more than just a story for his own children. Was there similar reticence suggesting A Life in Pictures for publication?

“No, it’s flattering really. I’m just grateful there are publishers around who do such a nice job. The idea of doing War Boy was through me boring a publisher with stories from those days. He said, ‘Write them down!’ So I did.”

It turns out, according to Michael Morpurgo’s foreword to A Life in Pictures, that the Devon-based author’s A Medal for Leroy, Farm Boy, Rainbow Bear and Billy the Kid were the Suffolk lad’s ideas too, although his namesake’s not taking the credit.

“Sometimes, talking to Michael during one book, we talk about what we’d like to do next, and we’re not sure who had the initial idea. It just kind of grows through discussions.”

When it comes to the writer/illustrators of today, I can think of maybe only two contemporaries who can match him – namely Shirley Hughes and Judith Kerr. When I mention this, he tells me only saw Judith a few days before. Does anyone else spring to mind for him?

“That’s a difficult one, because there aren’t many – I’m older than most of them! But someone like Chris Riddell, because he can really draw. I remember seeing him when he was a student in Brighton, knowing then this was a talent. So he’s the obvious one.”

Learning Curve: Michael with a young fan and competition winner at the Harris Museum & Gallery, Preston (Photo: Joan Fussell)

Learning Curve: Michael with a young fan and competition winner at the Harris Museum & Gallery, Preston (Photo: Joan Fussell)

Michael has worked closely with Terry Jones since the early ‘80s, including the two of them travelling together in France. There seemed to be a special kinship there from the start, even though Michael describes Terry’s reaction to some of his work as ‘he stares at it like a child staring at a dead pet’. Yet that partnership is now seemingly in doubt following the sad announcement of Terry’s dementia diagnosis.

“He rang a while ago, within the last six months, saying he couldn’t be doing any more writing, because he couldn’t find the words. That was a real shock.”

I mention that there’s a lovely photograph of the two of them together in A Life in Pictures, and they look like brothers.

“That’s true, and I feel a bit like that with the other Michael. Quite apart from the work we do together, there’s a bond.”

Is Michael a keen reader?

“Frankly, life’s so busy and full, finding time to read when not researching something, so reading for fun is a real luxury. If I’m going on a journey I tend not to take anything to read, because I like to daydream.”

War Game was made into an animated film, as was 1996’s The Little Reindeer. Any others in the pipeline?

“No, although I’d like the call from Mr Spielberg! But just looking at my bookshelves I feel that’s a lot of work. Whatever else comes along is just jam on it really.”

Beach Combing: Michael Foreman takes in his exhibition (Photo: Damien Wootten)

Beach Combing: Michael Foreman takes in his exhibition (Photo: Damien Wootten, for Seven Stories)

Will he go to see Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest when it hits the big screen?

“I haven’t been to the cinema in around 10 years. I don’t like all the popcorn. I like to watch things quietly, away from the crowds. But I like Raymond. I’ve known him a very long time.”

One of Michael’s art school mentors was painter and pioneering author/illustrator Edward Ardizzone. I mention him in the same masterful company as Ernest Shepard, the illustrator of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books.

“Yes, and particularly Ardizzone and the drawings he did during the war. I like reportage drawings as well as those of the imagination. They were old school, they were taught properly and made a very good record of where and when they lived.”

Among Ardizzone’s tips to his young Suffolk student was one about the best way to draw horses. He’s since mastered that, but is there anything he still struggles with?

“All sorts of things, including one I’m doing at the moment. Every book has its challenges, such as getting characters to be consistent all the way through. You look at what you did the day before and think you could do that better, and hope you see these things before they get printed. Then it’s too late.”

In A Life in Pictures, Michael writes about fortuitously meeting art tutor Tom Hudson in his village. Is he a believer in fate, serendipity, faith, whatever he wants to call it?

“I’m not sure if I believe in it, but it certainly turned my life’s direction. It was just extraordinary.”

Drawn In: Michael Foreman meets his young fans at Seven Stories (Photo: Damien Wootten)

Drawn In: Michael Foreman meets a few Tyneside visitors (Photo: Damien Wootten, for Seven Stories)

If that chance had never come about, does he think he could ever have happily worked as a full-time fisherman, be it in Suffolk or Cornwall?

“Well, one of my brothers did, and then went into car maintenance. But I’m such an impractical character. I couldn’t really have made a living out of anything other than this. It was just about meeting that man, that day.”

Michael writes so evocatively of his beloved Cornwall, from his very first holiday there with his young family in 1961, the year of The General, staying in Nancledra. And he was soon hooked.

“Well, Cornwall is a magical place, one I first learned of from Pop the sailor, a friend of our family during the Second World War, who was from Mevagissey and told me stories of smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks. So yes, I still settle down in front of Poldark on a Sunday evening and take in those wonderful coastal vistas and crashing seas. You know from going there yourself what a magical place it is. It’s timeless. Apart from the pasties and tourists and everything, you can set all kinds of stories there. The landscape doesn’t change. It’s stunning in places.”

I think you proved that by having the Mock Turtles in your depiction of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books on the shore at Marazion.

“Well, yes! Very observant!”

Michael’s former studio home in St Ives previously belonged to renowned artist Ben Nicholson, former husband of acclaimed sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth.

“Ben moved to Switzerland with his new wife, renting the house out to another painter. When he died, his second wife wanted it to go to someone sympathetic to the property, leaving the keys with a local gallery owner. That’s how I got to see it. It was a tumbledown shack really, but that was the deal when it was bought – that the studio would be rebuilt.”

Family Favourite: A long-time favourite for the blogger's daughters (Copyright: Michael Foreman - Cat on the Hill, Andersen Press, 2005 edition)

Island Purrfection: A favourite in the blogger’s household (Copyright: Michael Foreman – Cat on the Hill, Andersen Press, 2005 edition)

While Michael only moved to St Ives in the early 1980s, I wondered if he heard many tales about the previous generation of artists in town.

“Some were still there – like Terry Frost and Roger Hilton, but Ben Nicholson had moved to Switzerland with his new wife after he left Barbara Hepworth.”

Did he find any hidden artwork when the studio was renovated?

“The builders found what we’re convinced is a little ‘Hepworth’, a stone off the beach she cut, put a hole in the bottom, ready to be mounted. But we can’t get provenance on it, so just kept it!

He may not be getting down to St Ives quite as much now, but he told me his five and three-year-old granddaughters love listening to his stories, as was previously the case with his sons and then his older grandchildren.

“Yes, and they also give me ideas for stories. When our boys were smaller, just by seeing what they did and what they were interested in and got excited about, would give me ideas.

“I was one of three brothers and had three sons, and now we’re blessed with granddaughters, with quite a different reaction. And all my grandchildren are a delight.”

  • With thanks to Joan Fussell and all at the Harris Museum & Gallery, Preston; Victoria Martin at the Harris Library, Preston; Stuart Ellis at Seven Stories; and Hannah at Pavilion Books.
Rainbow Painter: Michael Foreman (Photo: Damien Wootten)

Rainbow Painter: Michael Foreman (Photo: Damien Wootten, for Seven Stories)

For writewyattuk’s 2014 feature on Seven Stories, Once Upon a Tyne, head here, and to see what’s on at Newcastle‘s national centre for children’s books in the coming months, including the new Michael Morpurgo – A Lifetime in Stories exhibition, head hereMeanwhile, for information about exhibitions and events at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, head here.


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The Magnetic North – Liverpool Central Library

Magnetic Presence: The Magnetic North, live at Liverpool Central Library. From the left - Erland Cooper, Hannah Peel, Simon Tong (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Magnetic Presence: The Magnetic North, live at Liverpool Central Library. From the left – Erland Cooper, Hannah Peel, Simon Tong (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

You’ve got to love the kind of concert where the band puts a bottle of whisky at the front of the stage for their sell-out audience to share. Now that’s what I call intimate.

What’s more, at around half past eight on Sunday evening, their special guest speaker told my daughter he’d wait until I got back from the toilet before he started. There’s service for you.

That was Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the revered screenwriter and children’s author, whose praise for The Magnetic North’s second album so impressed the band that they invited him along to kick off the proceedings in his home city.

A clearly-chuffed Frank gave us two readings from The Unforgotten Coat, his heart-warming 2012 tale of two Mongolian refugees in Bootle, and also shared evocative first-hand memories of leaving his Liverpool neighbourhood – ‘I honestly thought I was middle-class until I got to university’ – for a brand new home in Lancashire’s countryside.

In his case it was Prescot in the early ‘60s, while two decades later and around 10 miles further south in ‘Skem’, The Magnetic North’s multi-instrumentalist, guitar guru and elder statesman Simon Tong – best known for spells with The Verve and live with Blur and Gorillaz – had his own formative new town days.

Hence the wonderful Prospect of Skelmersdale LP, a collection of evocative story-songs relating to and inspired by Simon’s former home ground. And while there’s no doubt the local development corporation’s utopian idyll proved somewhat flawed, this album is no knocking project, with real love and nostalgia across its 12 tracks.

On Reflection: Frank Cottrell-Boyce reads from The Unforgotten Coat (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

On Reflection: Frank Cottrell-Boyce reads from The Unforgotten Coat, as Framed by McCoy Wynne.

It wasn’t all London-based Simon’s work though. He despatched bandmates Erland Cooper and Hannah Peel to West Lancashire to see what they could unearth, the pair knocking on doors and meeting all manner of creatives and older residents as part of the writing process. The results are stunning, live and in the studio, as was the case for their debut long player, Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North, similarly inspired by a band member’s childhood – in that case, Erland’s.

Four of those Orcadian tributes were lovingly aired in the Central Library’s Picton Reading Room, a suitably-splendid setting (with great acoustics) for a compelling night, part of the Get it Loud in Libraries initiative which previously brought Frank Turner and Wolf Alice to the same impressive venue, and for whom this punter has previously enjoyed top nights at Lancaster Library featuring the likes of Robert Forster, The Thrills, Ian Broudie and James Walsh.

Simon, Erland and Hannah’s quality musicianship and songwriting were augmented by four more fine players (Eddie on drums, Jo on cello, Antonia on violin, and Guy on oboe and clarinets), while a backdrop of archive film clips and photographs was skilfully honed by Liverpool’s McCoy Wynne, setting the tone from the start. And the band played themselves in with Prospect’s opening three songs, neatly blended with documentary footage – Jai Guru Dev, Pennylands and A Death in the Woods all showcasing Erland and Hannah’s spot-on harmonies.

At that point, Erland thanked us for making it out on a wet, autumnal Sunday night, producing the afore-mentioned water of life in a successful bid to break the ice, insisting it was Orkney tradition that ‘where there’s no bar, bring whisky’. It worked, and by the time they’d finished the more laidback Betty Corrigall from the first LP and the catchy Signs from the second, the bottle was empty, something of an orderly queue having formed as someone dolled out tots into paper cups. ‘Seriously?’ asked Erland, taken aback but somewhat proud.

The brooding Hi Life followed from the Orkney album before relaxed Hannah’s cheery monologue about making the Prospect platter, leading to tongue-in-cheek grumpiness from Simon and a rather curt, ‘Hurry up’. Spoken interlude over, the talented Ms Peel launched into a poignant Little Jerusalem, the imagery behind so fitting, then the dreamy but celebratory Sandy Lane, the woodwind and string trio coming into their own.

Hannah also painted a vivid picture in describing her two naked bandmates braving the elements one wild day on Orkney, Simon again tight-lipped while Erland voiced his own version, involving his co-singer scotching on the deal, so to speak. An atmospheric blast through an ultimately-triumphant Bay of Skaill followed, while the strings helped intensify Prospect’s Remains of Elder.

Loco Motion: The Magnetic North, live in Liverpool (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Loco Motion: The Magnetic North, live in Liverpool (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

That took us neatly on to a personal highpoint, Hannah displaying efficiency with a hand-crafted music box on finale Old Man of Hoy, another surging powerhouse and pure delight.

When Simon and Hannah returned, the latter reminisced about student days in Liverpool and a late-2001 candlelit city vigil commemorating George Harrison’s departure, inspiring her sweet arrangement of Run of the Mill from 1970’s All Things Must Pass. And then it was time to say goodbye, Erland leading us into the similarly-reflective, truly apt closer, Exit.

For this site’s April 2016 feature/interview with Simon Tong of The Magnetic North, head hereAnd for our feature/interview with Frank Cottrell-Boyce from March 2015, head here.

To learn more about The Magnetic North and their past catalogue, head to their website, or keep in touch with them via Facebook and Twitter

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Beyond The Beautiful South – in conversation with Alison Wheeler

Southern Comfort: The South, with Alison Wheeler out front, and Dave Hemingway on her shoulder

Southern Comfort: The South, with Alison Wheeler out front, and Dave Hemingway on her shoulder

After a successful few years revisiting a classic song catalogue while spreading the word about 2012 LP Sweet Refrains across Europe and the UK, The South are ready for a three-week autumn tour and are keen to talk about a brand new album.

What’s more, a band formed from the remnants of The Beautiful South remain resolute that they’re not just here to play those old ‘solid bronze’ hits all the way.

The outfit Paul Heaton formed after dissolving The Housemartins made 10 studio albums and had more than 20 UK top-40 hit singles between 1989 and 2007, selling 15 million LPs. In fact, their first greatest hits album, 1994’s Carry On Up The Charts, was one of this nation’s fastest-selling LPs, staying seven weeks at the summit and 18 weeks in the top 10.

But while Heaton and co-writer Dave Rotheray went their own way 13 years later, co-vocalists Dave Hemingway – on board since the start – and Alison Wheeler – who replaced Jacqui Abbott in 2003 – eventually returned with drummer Dave Stead as The New Beautiful South, their band also including Damon Butcher and Gaz Birtles (keyboards and brass since the very beginning).

In time they became The South, and while Stead then moved on, there’s clearly still a lot of love for this nine-piece outfit, not least judging by sales for a 20-date schedule between the middle of this month and late November, as I put to Alison.

“Yeah, and we’re really looking forward to getting out and about. Last year, we were busy but it was very weekend-orientated, so we never really got a chance to hang out. This time we’re really looking forward to getting on that tour bus, three weeks on the road, having a real laugh, meeting friendly faces and new ones too.

“When the weekend dates came up last year, as a Mum of two, I thought, ‘Brilliant! I get to look after the kids in the week then get away and play at being a pop star at the weekend. But there’s a groundhog day element when you get back on that train on a Thursday or Friday, and some of the boys especially found it quite taxing after a while.

“Saying that, you get a really good atmosphere at weekends. People are ready to kick off the shoes, have a laugh. The way we’re doing it this time is much more of a bonding experience though.”

Sweet Refrains: Alison and Dave's good as gold stage presence (Photo: The South)

Sweet Refrains: Alison and Dave’s good as gold stage presence (Photo: The South)

Is this Alison making up for lost time? I get the idea The Beautiful South party ended too soon for her, after just four years with the original band.

“Yeah, it really was. I had the rug pulled from under my feet. You work so hard all that time to get somewhere, finally the door opens, then they close it again.”

I’m sure you could understand it though, not least for Paul Heaton after all those years.

“Exactly, he wanted to do something different and didn’t think it fair to keep everyone waiting, so made a clean break. But it was still the honeymoon period for me. No matter what they threw at me, I was ready. I then went into limbo for a couple of years. But thankfully the original drummer (Dave Stead) had decided that was enough – this was what he enjoyed doing. So we went ahead and reformed.”

Was Jacqui Abbott, on board from 1994 until 2000, a hard act to follow when Alison joined in 2003?

“Well, I followed the band anyway, so I was aware she was a very big singer, as was Briana (Corrigan, 1988/92) before her. They all brought their own ingredients to the band. The hits people still want to hear are the ones Jackie was singing, so it was nerve-racking to sing them. But it’s testimony to those songs that they’ve stood the test of time and people are willing to listen to me.

“I also think I’ve put my own spin on them now, and people who see us don’t really differentiate over who sang which.”

On stage, there seems to be a somewhat psychic relationship between Alison and Dave Hemingway, who comes over as something of a reluctant front-man live. They complement each other.

“It’s surprising how shy he is, particularly before going on stage.”

510fougwwtlI enjoyed The South’s 2012 album, Sweet Refrains, not least tracks like Pigeonhole and Second Coming. Is there new material coming, and when’s the next album out?

“I’m deadly keen to get another album out. It’s been way too long! We’re playing new stuff on this tour and that’s exciting, and hopefully we’ll get something together – whether it’s an EP or an album – at the beginning of next year.

“We’re trying to target Europe as well, play more festivals, let people know we’re out there. You still come across people surprised to hear we’re still going. It just shows the mechanics of being heard can be a slow process. We’re also getting new fans on board through festivals – young and old alike – that’s really sweet.”

So is The South a full-time job? Alison is after all also playing with The Topers, and has recorded children’s songs and dance tracks.

“The Topers is an old university band of mine. We were all friends. They’re all highly professional in their own careers, so we’re doing it purely for fun now. It gets me out of my comfort zone, not least as I play bass and sing, something I’ve never done on stage – like rubbing your head and tapping your foot at the same time for me!

“I write children’s music as well, and that’s purely a passion. Having children, your goalposts move. Life seems to be purely for the fun of it as there’s no financial reward for it. I wish it was more full-time. There’s never enough work for me. The boys are knocking on – yet I’m the youngest and still have the energy!”

That seems to be the way of things. The days when musicians would concentrate on one band and have multi-album deals seem to be long gone. You have to diversify to survive.

“Yeah, long gone. I used to work at record companies before I joined The Beautiful South and the whole industry has changed. I really feel, having had kids, I’m enjoying the journey now, and I’m really fortunate to be in a band like this where I get to perform and enjoy it. To try and start again I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be, trying to work out which avenues to go down. Auditions via NME and Melody Maker don’t appear to exist anymore.”

That’s true. So what would have been the advert that made you sit up and take notice back then?

“I knocked on as many doors as I could when I started. In fact, when we reformed the original members said they didn’t want to take anyone on board who didn’t already have a connection with another member of the band.

North Facing: The view from The South at Preston's 53 Degrees in May 2014 (Photo: The South)

North Facing: The view from The South at Preston’s 53 Degrees in May 2014 (Photo: The South)

“That was really important. There was already chemistry and history. So I put forward a guitarist I was in a band with when I first came to London, and the reason I joined them was through an ad in the NME. That was Phil (Barton), who co-wrote Sweet Refrains, and is an established part of the band now.

“We’ve been together in a band for years, so it was really nice to give something back to a guy trying all his life in music, finally finding an avenue to perform and write rather than just play small bars in London, which was what we did for years.”

And judging by the songs he wrote for Sweet Refrains, he very quickly proved his worth.

“Yeah, and he’s got a lot of material to spill still, I’m sure!”

Outside the band, 44-year-old Alison has a daughter about to turn 11, and an eight-year-old son. Do they come and see her perform?

“They were a bit unsure about me going on tour, but two years ago came to a Rewind festival in Henley, a real fairytale setting in front of 30,000 people, all singing Rotterdam at me. I was fortunate enough to find them in the crowd, my daughter on my husband’s shoulders. And afterwards she told me, ‘I get it. I understand why you do it.

“Now they send me off with a blessing when I leave the house, knowing full well I’m lucky enough to do something I enjoy. Not many people are that fortunate. I went to university and I was 30 before any doors opened.”

Red Shoes: Alison leads the way with her bandmates from The South

Red Shoes: Alison leads the way with her bandmates from The South

There must have been part of you at Henley that day hoping the crowd behaved and sang the radio version of Don’t Marry Her.

“Ooh, she knows! And I’ve explained that I sing the right words but the rest of them might not! That’s one of the joys of those songs, and you get so much from watching people sing or shake their head at me!”

Talking of family (and children, arguably), Alison is part of a nine-piece band with a big crew these days. I’m guessing there aren’t so many women involved. How does she cope?

“When I first joined The Beautiful South, it was a real education. These guys had been in music all their adult lives. There was something quite interesting, and liberating to see four grown adults acting like children – in a good way. They hadn’t been stamped on or downtrodden like the day-to-day rigmarole of earning your keep.

“It took me a while to wind down from a full-time job, trying to get on in music. I was very serious but eventually learned life isn’t so serious. You’ve got to enjoy yourself, which was their whole approach to life.”

Did you have to become an honorary bloke on the road?

“Definitely! When you start on a tour everyone’s really polite, everything’s in its place, but three weeks on it’s like a cesspit. But what are you going to do with a chemical loo and 13 men?”

Briana's Days: An early NME front cover for The Beautiful South, featuring Paul Heaton and Briana Corrigan

Briana’s Days: An early NME front cover for The Beautiful South, featuring Paul Heaton and Briana Corrigan

I was lucky enough to see a very early Beautiful South gig in 1989, at which point Alison was still studying A-levels. Did she ever get along to see the band before joining?

“The first time I saw them was at a V Festival. I remember Jackie wearing a heavy-knit jumper, singing Rotterdam. But when I got the job I realised I had four of their albums – they were just one of those bands. I didn’t realise I’d accumulated so many of their songs over the years. They were a British mainstay, and like everyone else I was a fan of the hits who bought the albums along the way.

“Actually, I think that worked to my benefit. If I’d been an uber-fan I might not have managed to gel with the band. They wanted me to meet everyone and make sure we all got on, especially after Jackie and Briana had left, making sure the one female in the band was comfortable. And I was fortunate enough to have just the right balance of appreciation.”

As she mentions Briana again, I get on to the band’s original co-singer’s duet with Dave Hemingway on A Little Time, which brought them their sole No.1 single and will forever remind me of my own circumstances in late 1990 before embarking on a nine-month world trip. And I put it to Alison that she’s part of a band for whom so much of their music served as a soundtrack for relationships. In short, she must see a lot of dreamy-eyed moments in audiences during those songs. Do fans tend to relate a few tales to her?

“They do, and those songs speak to so many people – Paul’s take on the relationships of a man and woman or any other relationship. And I remember when A Little Time came out. It was one of the first real groundbreaking music videos, winning so many awards. It’s a brilliant song … although I do feel like I’m on helium when I’m singing it!

“Briana has such a high voice. And I have to make sure I don’t spend every evening in the pub with the boys, or I’ll end up singing like Barry White!”

Are there songs you have to grit your teeth and try and get through after so many live renditions over the years?

“It’s not so much that. It’s just the keys really. Jacqui and Briana were chalk and cheese on the scales. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. But I enjoy Rotterdam (or Anywhere), Don’t Marry Her and Perfect 10 and the moments where it all makes sense why you’re doing it, people in the audience glowing with enjoyment. It’s just magical.”

Have you a favourite single or album track that was maybe overlooked, not least from those last three Beautiful South albums, which didn’t see the wider adulation of the earlier ones?

“I thought Superbi was a really great album, and one of the songs I don’t sing, The Mediterranean (from 2000’s Painting it Red) evokes such emotion. I love listening to that. Unfortunately I didn’t get to be that person who sang Don’t Marry Her or Rotterdam (both from 1996’s Blue is the Colour), one of those questions that gets thrown at me every day! But again it’s testimony to the songs that people still enjoy hearing them.”

Post Beautiful: Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, beyond The Beautiful South

Post Beautiful: Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, beyond The Beautiful South

What were your university covers band, Melt City, like?

“Ha! Well, two of the guys from The Topers were in Melt City. That changed my past really. I was at Cambridge studying Japanese on a four-year course, but joined in year one and it was so much fun and awoke something in me I’d kind of buried. I’d gone down the academic route and forgotten about performing. It made me realise that if you enjoy doing something … The prospect of going to Japan for a year made me panic.

“But Cambridge was a different world and it was about the people you messed with, from all walks of life, and although we never got paid we got to sing at some amazing events, on the roster with bands like The Pasadenas, Sunscreem and D:Ream. All great experience. It really gave me a taste for giving it a go. I then changed course so I could do more with a band, told my parents, and when they stopped shouting at me …”

Alison did compete her studies though.

“Yes, I did Japanese and Law, and even sang in Japanese, doing a few tracks still floating out there somewhere, but then they gave a me a contract and that’s when I pulled it apart!”

I believe when you got to London you were in a band called Junk, later renamed Treehouse, with lots of gigs around Camden and Islington.

“Junk was with Phil (Barton), and we then changed our name to Treehouse for legal reasons. I was described as ‘Billie Holiday meets Scary Spice’! Phil wrote some very strong heavy rock songs back then, and maybe my voice changed the tone of them.”

There was a little more success with her next band, all-girl combo Virginia, who made a few BBC radio appearances, made an album, and even scored some US Billboard chart hits.

Ice Babes: Alison during her days with Virginia, as featured in Ice Magazine.

Ice Babes: Alison during her days with Virginia, as featured in Ice Magazine.

“Yes, I was the youngest, but we were hardly girls! More like Crosby Stills and Nash. We’re still friends, and the producer (Ian Shaw, founder of Warm Fuzz Records) now lives in Key West and has the catalogue, and keeps promising he’ll revisit the second album as a fun project, finish it off.

“Through all that I got to meet Nick Heyward. I had mad hair then – purple, blue, green, orange, and no one would employ me. I was wearing a wig instead, equally embarrassing. But Nick said to me there was an agency recruiting for record companies and I felt that would be spot-on – seeing the other side of the business. Temping meant I could do auditions. I went along and that led to me meeting a woman who introduced me to a (gospel) choir, Citizen K, and that in turn led me to meet Dave Hemingway.  So it’s all serendipity really, and all worked out.”

Did she click with ‘Hammy’ straight away?

“Well, he’s a shy character, so it’s hard for that to happen. He keeps himself to himself. But he’s lovely, like a brother to me, exceptionally funny and dry, and very clever. I also tried to keep up with him on the drinking regime too, but I wouldn’t recommend that!”

Does she still get called ‘Lady Wheeler’ by her fiercely working-class band, mocking her Trinity College, Cambridge days?

“Yeah, they always call me ‘Mi’ lady’! But I’m from the Black Country, so I wouldn’t call myself posh!”

Is it just that you’re not remotely from Hull?

“Do you know what – Hull’s more of a fashionable accent than the Black Country! Mum and Dad are from Birmingham, but then moved out to a small town.”

Dave’s based in Crewe these days, while Alison’s in London, and the whole band seems fairly scattered.

“Yeah, we’re kind of split all over, and Damon, our keyboard player, now lives in Ireland. So again, going on tour for three weeks works for him. But through the power of the internet you can almost record separately then patch everything together.”

Finally, I worry about Dave Hemingway. Winter approaches, and as far as I know he’s not taken his coat off on stage for years. To paraphrase my old Mum, will he feel the benefit when the next cold snap arrives?

“Oh my God! Sometimes you wouldn’t believe the state he’s in when he gets off stage. He’s literally collapsing, and we’re there with cold towels as he’s over-heated. He’s going to have to think about more modern fibres that whittle away the sweat!”

Touring Party: The South, caught live (Photo: Drew West Photography)

Touring Party: The South, caught live (Photo: Drew West Photography)

To revisit this website’s interview with Dave Hemingway, from April 2014, head here.

Tickets for The South at Blackpool Viva (Friday, October 21) are available from the venue box office on 01253 297297 or via this linkFor more about the band and the rest of their tour dates, visit The South’s official website. You can also keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter links or go to their YouTube channel.


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Kodiak Island –The Golden Section (Musical Bear Records, 2016)

Golden Guise: Kodiak Island in live action (Photo copyright: Kodiak Island)

Golden Guise: Kodiak Island in live action (Photo copyright: Jo Bartlett)

The digital version of the debut long player from Kodiak Island is set to sweep in on the web-surf this weekend. And as befits the album’s title, those shelling out should quickly get the bigger, aesthetically-pleasing picture.

The Golden Section carries on where vocalist/guitarist Jo Bartlett left off with her most recent solo platters, Upheaval and 9 by 7. This time though, she’s with a band, namely fellow ex-Bluetrain survivor Richard Handyside (guitar, flute, backing vocals, and production), Mike Muggeridge (bass) and Gareth Palmer (cajon, percussion, backing vocals).

Why Kodiak Island? I could be flippant, blow the dust off an old joke and say, ‘Alaska’, but I can see where they’re coming from. Besides, an island that is home to Kodiak bears and king crabs conjures up a far more enduring image than Winnersh Triangle might (come to think of it though, that does sound pretty intriguing).

While letting on that the name was inspired by Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man and its Richard Thompson soundtrack, I’ll go deeper and suggest correlations between the music and the name. There’s an Americana influence for starters, and like the island itself it’s all some distance from the mainstream (as befitting a place far removed from its parent state, the union’s most remote). But forget the geographic analogies and parallels for now. Let’s concentrate on the music.

First thing I’ll say is not to expect a power-pop four-piece, for everything appears measured, at least in a tapered-back ‘less is more’ sense. It’s never safe, yet there are no over-played histrionics – just honest, semi-acoustic fare. If you like labels, the band suggest psychedelic or indie folk, and I can see that. And if you know Jo’s back-catalogue, you kind of know what you’re getting into.

At the risk of suggesting another geographical link, opening track Frozen in Time – as heard in a more meditative form on Upheaval – sees us off on something of a journey, the under-stated vocals propelled by a driving cajon beat suggesting a ride into the unknown, taking me back to Bluetrain. In fact, it could almost be a signature tune for that long-lost indie outfit. And across the tracks there’s certainly the feel of a rediscovered album, re-recorded and given fresh vitality.

Remembered Days carries on that vibe, its Billy Bragg meets Rodney Allen feel reminiscent of those ‘80s jangly roots – more so than recent JB projects – while Known World is part Fleetwood Mac, part Go-Betweens, its main riff reminiscent of the latter’s splendid 1988 single Was There Anything I Could Do?

14102156_1023917224349289_1041991769635771589_nFellow reworked Upheaval cuts Spanish Steps and Take Me To Water – while they work well in acoustic format – also stand out with a full band, Mike’s bass plod under-pinning a proper group vibe on the former, while it’s all a little more trance-like (can I add ‘trance folk’ or ‘trip-hop folk’ to that earlier description?) on the latter – a dreamy, Portishead-esque effects-driven track edging towards and beyond a bluesy guitar break (seemingly recorded in the next room).

Next up, luscious bass, acoustic guitar and Jo’s higher-register vocal – stretched but never over-taxing – punctuate The Sooner, another catchy single, building to a fitting percussion and flute-fuelled finale. Invention is clearly a hallmark here, and what could be just a light strum on the album version of further single Rowan and Rose receives extra lift via lush chord changes and timely diversions. For me it conjures up images of darting down sun-baked back-streets towards open countryside, a psychedelic premise kicking in.

We’re back to the shoreline for the pensive yet somehow joyous Counting Ships, in what appears to be something of a hymn to absent friends and lovers, again with a laid-back other-worldly feel. And as re-nailing songs seems to be a recurring theme – keen to see them afforded wider appeal – on this album we have a fresh take on It’s Jo and Danny’s The Real Thing. It fits perfectly too, and I’m all for this song finally breaking, not least with that poignant ‘Summer left, and it took me’ line.

That takes us neatly to show-stopping ’70s psych-disco stomper Second Around Time, Richard’s flute suggesting optimism ahead, that Hues Corporation bassline and Crosby Stills & Nash feel (from rocked boat to Marrakesh Express, perhaps) inspiring a mighty conga towards a carnival of delights. Some enchanted evening, indeed. Again, Jo’s voice is relatively constrained, a welcome antidote to all those talent-show squawkers over-projecting for the sake of it. For it’s the band doing the musical talking here. And from geography to geometry, like The Golden Section itself, this whole journey is pleasing to ears and eyes alike.

Stage Presence: Kodiak Island live (Photo copyright: Kodiak Island)

Stage Presence: Kodiak Island live (Photo copyright: Jo Bartlett)

For this site’s January 2015 review of Jo Bartlett’s 9 by 7, head here, and for July 2014’s feature/interview with Jo, Highways, Islands & Magic Moments, try this link

To order a digital copy of Kodiak Island’s The Golden Section, check out these iTunes7DigitalAmazon and HMV links. There’s also a CD version, priced £5 plus p&p, available by messaging the band on their Facebook page or hassling them at gigs. And to keep in touch with Kodiak Island, not least with shows currently being lined up to promote the album, head to the same source.

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Present company accepted – having words with UB40’s Jimmy Brown

Nine Time: The current UB40 line-up, with Jimmy Brown second from the right

Nine Time: The current UB40 line-up, with Jimmy Brown second from the right

You probably know about the legal dispute rocking reggae behemoths UB40, two factions of the band at odds with each other over the use of the name. But while all that rumbles on, the show goes on for the five remaining members of the original group, and drummer Jimmy Brown has no doubt he’s in the right camp.

Taking time out before a late rehearsal ahead of the band’s UK autumn tour, Jimmy confirms there’s also a new LP on its way, promising something conveying the spirit of the first three UB40 albums, before 1983’s Labour of Love – their tribute to the reggae pioneers that first inspired them – took them to a whole new level of popularity.

A bit of recent history first – original lead singer and youngest Campbell brother Ali left in 2008, and six years later was joined on the live circuit by two more ex-members, performing as ‘UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue’. Amid a war of words between the camps, that prompted their old bandmates to begin legal proceedings to stop them using the name, with the dissident trio’s arguments that UB40 had ‘no real prospect of success at trial’ subsequently rejected at a court hearing in March.

In a bid to be balanced here, I’ll add a few lines from Ali’s group’s website, where we have, ‘We would not want anyone to confuse Ali, Astro and Mickey’s band with the band that carried on using the name UB40 after 2008 made up of other founding members and new members they tried to replace us with in their attempt to trade off the reflected glory of the success of the original line-up. Only with Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40, reunited with Astro and Mickey can audiences get to experience the closest thing to the sound of the hugely successful original line-up of UB40 as all the hits are played.’

Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with the original five, older Campbell brother Robin feeling ‘morally and legally we are the only UB40’, not least having continued to record and tour after Ali left. Furthermore, he stresses the strength of the rhythm section – Earl Falconer (bass) and my interviewee Jimmy (drums) – who are for Robin, ‘the backbone of UB40’s sound’.

As it turned out, a judge ruled that brothers Robin and Duncan Campbell and the rest of the original band had ‘a realistically arguable basis’ for their claims, with the case now due to go to trial. But while all that simmers on, Jimmy is just eager to get the case done and dusted so the band can concentrate fully on the music again.

In the current line-up, he’s joined by fellow co-founders Robin (co-vocals, guitar), Earl (bass, vocals), Brian Travers (saxophone and keyboards) and Norman Hassan (percussion, vocals). Then there’s Duncan (lead vocals) and Tony Mullings (keyboards), who both joined in 2008, plus Martin Meredith (saxophone) and Laurence Parry (trumpet, trombone), each on board for the last two decades.

Having talked about the formation of the band and 1980 debut LP Signing Off in depth with sax supremo Brian on these pages in August 2014 (with a link here), I concentrated on Present Arms with Jimmy, 35 years after its release, suggesting UB40 were on a creative and confident high at the time.

ub40_present_arms_1_445“Well, some people think Present Arms was our best album, even though a lot love Signing Off. I think the second album was heavier and darker, and we really did go for the jugular. Then there was Present Arms in Dub, the first dub album that made the charts and the first taken by shops like Woolworth’s and mainstream record-sellers. In some ways, musically, that was our best work, I think.”

During a period when dub music was the exclusive preserve of grassroots reggae fans, accustomed to buying Jamaican imports, UB40’s stature among British audiences was as good as assured by that. As for the original album, Present Arms included the band’s fourth and fifth top-20 hits, the empowering Don’t Let It Pass You By/Don’t Slow Down double-A side followed by anti-Margaret Thatcher anthem, One in Ten. And Jimmy has no doubt, all these years on, a lot of the themes explored there remain just as relevant.

I’ve said it many times – people who spoke against Thatcher at the time, they were right. You can see it. To destroy the welfare infrastructure of a country and put everyone against each other in this dog-eat-dog capitalism was never going to work. Now we have a situation where the whole global financial system is completely insolvent. It’s not working, and normal people have to pay the price. It’s wrong – simple as that. Yes, we’ve been vindicated over the years.”

There was a similar political awareness with the debut album and third LP UB44 in 1982, and the band remain loyal to their working-class, socialist roots, as seen recently when they came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn at a joint press conference with the Labour Party leader. And Jimmy has no doubt that the band remain in tune with their down to earth roots.

“When you keep your family and the people you knew close to you, that keeps your feet on the ground. I’ve been with my wife since before the band, and we have four kids. That’s the thing that’s important in your life. All the rest is superfluous when it comes down to it.”

Talking of family, I mention a photograph in Q magazine in the ’80s of the band’s touring party. They weren’t a combo to travel light – it was like a small nation on the move.

“We still are to some degree. We’re a big band, with a big crew, and we make a big sound! I don’t think about it, but we’re constantly surrounded by each other, like a proper gang. That’s really empowering. To get on stage with a bunch of grown blokes where we’re all 100 per cent focused on achieving the same thing, it’s a great feeling. And I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to be in a band like that.”

61m3gup44clSigning Off was still in the charts when the second album came out in the summer of 1981. And while UB40 were arguably more professional, harder even, the spirit remained. So, go on then, Jimmy – who was responsible for the words in One in Ten, not least ‘Nobody knows me, but I’m always there. A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care’?

“Erm … that was me.”

The reason I ask is that the credits always read ‘UB40’, despite Jimmy being one of the main songwriters from day one. In hindsight, would he have gone about that another way, particularly in light of recent legal headaches?

“Exactly the opposite. The only way you’re going to get any longevity as far as friends are concerned is if you share everything equally. We stick to that to this very day. Nobody gets any more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter what you contribute. Everyone has to share, because in the end we’re a bunch of friends, with some more talented than others, and everyone needs protecting. I think if you want to make a band last, give everyone an equal share in it.”

In fact, by the end of 1980 the band had formed their own record company, DEP International, with all eight members owning an equal share.

As it turned out, that following year saw major social unrest across the UK, including rioting not far from the band’s doorstep in Handsworth, and in London’s Brixton and Liverpool’s Toxteth – all inner-city areas with large immigrant communities. And amid volatile times, One in Ten was as evocative of that era as The Specials’ arguably more celebrated No.1, Ghost Town.

“People were more engaged, I suppose. Then again, perhaps they weren’t – a lot of people have been disenfranchised since. And for me those who are really engaged now are those supporting (Jeremy) Corbyn. They’re the new generation of those who want to engage again in politics. Retail therapy is over. People are suffering. There needs to be a big change, and one way or another there are going to be some profound changes over the next few years.”

While Labour of Love, the first of their three volumes of re-interpreted classic reggae song LP collections, saw UB40 take the music they loved to new audiences around the world, beneath it all the band lost little of their political bite – rallying against apartheid, for example. And the band’s world view doesn’t appear to have shifted since, perhaps still following Bob Marley’s ‘stand up for your rights’ ethos – and this from a band who were key components of many anti-fascist protests in their formative days.

“In the really early days, before most people had even heard of us, we did Rock against Racism, as they put on gigs all over. That’s where we got our name from. They’d advertise a gig and say ‘UB40s half price’. If you were on the dole you could get in for half. That’s where we picked up on it really.”

Furthermore, this was a band – like the city they grew up in – that was truly multi-cultural, rather than just a band of right-on white boys pretending to understand Jamaican culture and the struggle.

“Absolutely, and I realise now what a privilege it was to live in an area where you could sit on your front doorstep and see the four corners of the world go by. It’s transformed us. It always has been for me, and I’m proud of that aspect of Britain. We were right in it. The people next door had a blues (party) every Saturday night and we were just there – mates together. We’d play with the Irish kids and the kids from Antigua, St Kitts, Barbados … They were the people you were in class with. That’s what cemented the relationships.”

Campbells' Kingdom: UB40 in live action (Photo: Martin Porter)

Campbells’ Kingdom: UB40 in live action (Photo: Martin Porter)

Jimmy knew fellow band members Earl, Brian and Ali from Moseley School of Art, but – as it turns out – from earlier too.

“We knew each other from the age of 11, and Earl was born in the same maternity hospital as I was. We had the same friends. Actually, there used to be a lot more arguments within the band than there are now. We get on really well now, and part of that was the negativity that came with Ali – which was quite damaging for the band. We’ve got a much more positive vibe now.”

I’d avoided talk of Ali until then, but it’s inevitable we’re heading that way. I carry on as we were for now though. Was Jimmy ever likely to go down the road of his artistic studies – lecturing in art or something along those lines?

“Not really. I don’t think any of us were particularly academic. But we were creative. It’s hard to tell if I could have held down a normal job. It would be a test!”

As I understand it, Robin Campbell worked in a factory. Did Jimmy ever have a job outside music?

“I had a couple of years where I did work, but hated every second. And I wasn’t very reliable.”

Was there a flashpoint when he saw a band or heard a record and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do?’

“I think because we were creative we always had the idea of doing something. We went to art school together, and if you can paint, chances are you might be able to play an instrument or write something.

“Possibly the catalyst would have been seeing Bob Marley and the Wailers at the local Odeon in about 1976. That was quite a profound experience. It’s like when you have a baby – you don’t really realise how profound the changes are until you can look back afterwards, seeing the effect it had. But it was such a monumental experience to see such class, dark and raw as well – that beautiful element of class players and a music that’s got such a rawness and simplicity to it.”

Jimmy's Office: UB40 drummer Jimmy Brown in action

Jimmy’s Office: UB40 drummer Jimmy Brown in action

For all that, at one point they were just a group of young lads practising in a basement. Was there a point when Jimmy realised they were actually pretty good at what they did?

“I suppose we were always arrogant enough to think we could do something other people might be interested in. And we could really feel the vibe, locally, if anyone ever came to our rehearsals. Being so young, we had lots of friends coming in and out all the time, and it was obviously having an effect on people, coming to hear us play in this cellar. You could just feel we were offering something different.”

When UB40 got together, it was a happening time for British music, despite that difficult social climate, or maybe even because of that. As well as their homegrown spin on reggae, there was the Two Tone bands’ homegrown spin on ska, and the post-punk and indie ethos. In short, it was a creative era.

“Yeah, the punk era was really healthy, and it was during that time Steel Pulse had the very first (UK) reggae album to make the charts, Handsworth Revolution. We were never punks, but the whole environment around all that meant something. It was quite a middle-class movement, and we weren’t really part of that, but there was a generosity of spirit around that crossed over into other genres, and reggae really benefitted from that.”

Did Handsworth Revolution make Jimmy realise a bunch of working-class lads from Birmingham could actually make it?

“Absolutely! They were inspiring. You have to tip your hat to Steel Pulse as the original British reggae band. We couldn’t follow them, where they went, as it was more rootsy, but we wanted to as far as we could. We weren’t a rasta band and didn’t really have that spiritual element. But we admired Steel Pulse, and it wasn’t so much a Handsworth revolution as a music revolution.”

Were they good mates with other bands? Or were they in their own bubble?

“At the time, there was a reggae band on every street corner in Birmingham. But I think our multi-cultural aspect helped us stick out above the others.”

Sax Appeal: Brian Travers gives it some welly on stage with UB40 (Photo: Martin Porter)

Sax Appeal: Brian Travers and the UB40 horn section give it some welly (Photo: Martin Porter)

Time to throw in a question about the ‘change of jockey’, not least as current lead singer Duncan Campbell apparently turned down an offer to sing for UB40 in 1978, leading to little brother Ali stepping up instead.

“I think he thought he was better than the rest of us! He was always kind of middle-aged. You always have that old-fashioned mate who thinks he’s 50 when he’s only 15. Duncan was like that and I think he thought we were just a bunch of layabouts and wasn’t that bothered back then! But he was in my class at school, so when Ali left we didn’t have to go out of our gang to replace him. That makes us really, really lucky. If it had been a different situation maybe we wouldn’t have been able to survive. That allowed us to keep that integrity of the sound.”

It’s been three years since the last LP, Getting Over the Storm, and the extensive tour that followed, the band playing to around 200,000 UK fans and selling out all over the world. Now the next chapter’s on its way, is it likely that the new LP will be called Over the Storm or even 5-3 Victory (he asks, showing a red flag to the bull)?

“It’s hard to talk about music, as words aren’t very good when it comes to describing something you listen to, is quite abstract, and you either enjoy or you don’t. But I feel our approach to this album was to go right back to the beginning and make an authentic reggae album, not cross over into anything else. We wanted a pure reggae album from the original influences that brought us to write Signing Off and Present Arms, during that period, which creatively was our best period.”

It’s been a busy summer with festivals and so on, and now there’s a 22-date UK tour. Will you be airing a few new songs?

“I’m pushing for it, but some of the others are saying they’re not really ready. I’m hoping there’ll be at least one new tune though.”

Eight Mates: The original UB40 line-up

Eight Mates: The original UB40 line-up

Since 1980, UB40 have managed 39 UK top-40 hit singles and 26 top-40 albums, three of those singles and two of those LPs topping the charts, the band spending 238 weeks in the top-40 singles charts and 293 weeks in the top-40 album charts. And in selling more than 100 million records, they’ve become one of the most successful ever groups from these shores. That said, it wouldn’t be easy to get all those hits in one set and finish a show before midnight.

“Well, that’s the thing! We’ve got 500 songs we’ve recorded. It’d take days if we were to play all those. We have to whittle them down, but we don’t want to be like a cabaret band. We could just play hits, but I don’t think that’s wise. In the end we want to play new music and some of our more obscure material, rather than be dictated to by just crossover stuff.”

And does Jimmy think he’ll be able to have a proper chat with Ali, Astro and Mickey any time soon?

“I haven’t got a problem, and never really did. I can’t talk for anybody else but personally I haven’t got a problem. He f****ed up, but if he were to realise that and apologise, I ain’t going to hold a grudge. Life’s too short. It upset a few people, and obviously I can’t talk for his brothers. Also, Brian helped Ali write his solo album, having no idea he was planning to leave. He feels he was a bit conned by that.

“But it’s a big band and it’s just one of those things. If he realises he acted a bit of a tw*t, I don’t see any reason why we can’t at least talk.”

ub40-logoUB40’s tour started last weekend at Leeds’ 02 Academy and runs through to a finale at Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion on Monday, October 31. For ticket details head to, or www.ub40.globalYou can also visit the band’s official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages to keep up to date with all things UB40.

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Dreams stay with you – in conversation with Mark Brzezicki

Big Country, 2016. From the left - Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Big Country, 2016. From the left – Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Four shows into Big Country’s latest anniversary tour, Mark Brzezicki was back home this week, between dates at Holmfirth’s Picturedrome and The Warehouse, Falkirk. And three decades after his primary band’s commercial peak, he can confirm there’s still plenty of love out there for a group continuing to go down a storm on the live circuit.

There was an earlier five-piece incarnation of the band guitarist Stuart Adamson formed after leaving influential Scottish punk and new wave outfit Skids, its members including future Runrig member and SNP MP Peter Wishart on keyboards. But despite several months rehearsing in a disused warehouse in Dunfermline and a couple of early gigs, Adamson wasn’t sure he had the right mix until the arrival of Mark on drums and Tony Butler on bass.

Soon, the line-up was honed down to Adamson, fellow guitarist Bruce Watson, Brzezicki and Butler. So, I ask Mark, how did a band with such a strong Scottish identity end up taking on a Slough-born son of a Polish immigrant and a West London bass player from a Ghanaian family?

“Well, we’re like the bumblebee – it should never be able to fly and should never really have happened, but it did. All by chance, like a cork in the ocean caught by a current, finding itself on an island you wouldn’t expect.”

Very poetic, and I could leave it there, but a more revelatory explanation follows, albeit involving a few more twists and turns … and plenty of casual name-dropping.

“It’s a long story, basically a chain of events after answering an advert in Melody Maker when I was around 18, saying ‘Phil Collins/Bill Bruford style drummer wanted’.

“I taught myself, playing covers with a band called Silver Stream, which included two blind players. They taught me a lot – guiding me, pulling me up on a lot of things, like tempos and levels and that it’s not about how I look but how I sounded.

“We were playing chart covers in the ‘70s, high volume or low volume without slowing down, all those skills, around Surrey and Middlesex, with residences around West London. We played the Target pub on the A40 – now a McDonald’s – and around Hayes, Harlington, Islington … working men’s and ex-servicemen’s clubs, all that.

“But I wanted to do something original and the reason I played drums in the first place was Phil Collins. He was instrumental in everything for me. I adored his playing. He’s the greatest player living for me. I was listening to prog rock, fusion, jazz funk, and the king of all that for me was Phil, particularly with his other band, Brand X. And my current band project, ESP, is kind of my version of Brand X to Big Country’s Genesis!”

Air Time: A promo shot of On The Air as a four-piece (Photo sourced from Mark Brzezicki's Facebook page)

Air Time: A promo shot of On The Air as a four-piece (Photo sourced from Mark Brzezicki’s Facebook page)

We’ll get on to ESP later (you probably perceived we would), but first Mark tells us about an inspirational visit to an iconic London venue, featuring Phil Collins’ side-project.

“I’d been to see a band – at random – at The Roundhouse, with a friend, and that was Brand X. That was a seminal moment – it changed my life. It floored me how good Phil was. I was only 16, but wanted to play like him, be successful in a band playing interesting music, not run of the mill.

“Then came this ad in Melody Maker, which happened to lead me to The Who’s studio at Shepperton, to audition for Pete Townshend’s brother Simon’s band, which already included Tony Butler on bass.”

Mark got the job, joining a prog rock band he felt were ‘as good as Rush’.

“It was for a fabulous prog rock band, ahead of our time, so good as musicians. We even had the Genesis road-crew come and see us at the Red Lion in Brentford. And as I was working with Simon Townshend I got to meet his brother, who was working on a solo album, Empty Glass, using a drummer called Simon Phillips, who couldn’t make it because of another session for Toto, I seem to recall.

“Pete asked me to fill in, and I ended up doing subsequent albums with him, right up to his latest. And on the way I also worked with Roger Daltrey, and still play with Simon, also working on his latest album.”

If you’re wondering where Big Country come into all this …. be patient – Mark’s on a bit of a drum roll.

“By then we were On the Air, a power-rock outfit borne out of that original five-piece prog band – featuring Simon, Tony and myself. By then Simon had discovered punk and an energy to the guitar – as his brother had – so switched from keyboards. I didn’t really embrace the punk thing too much. If I was going to play like that I wanted to be more like The Police – more of a ‘muso’, more thoughtful.

“But it was with On the Air that we supported the Skids and met Stuart Adamson. Then, when Tony and I played with Pete at a Right to Work march gig that year at Brockwell Park, we met Stuart’s (and the Skids’) manager, Ian Grant, who said the boys had made some demos but weren’t happy with the set-up, Stuart wanting a new rhythm section.

“Ian asked if I’d be interested in going along with Tony. We said we’d already met, went to the studios and were joined by representatives of Phonogram, who thrust a contract under our noses. We signed … and the rest is history.”

A string of successful albums, singles and tours followed, Mark on all bar one of eight Big Country studio albums before lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Stuart Adamson’s alcohol-related death in late 2001, aged 43.

Watson Guide: Jamie and Bruce Watson out front with Big Country (Photo: Gordon Smith)

Watson Guide: Jamie and Bruce Watson out front with Big Country (Photo: Gordon Smith)

It took a lot of soul-searching before the band decided to resume, but a 25th anniversary reunion in 2007 involving Brzezicki, Butler (as lead vocalist) and Watson led to a new LP and tour. And that was followed three years later by Mike Peters of The Alarm joining, along with Bruce’s son Jamie Watson on guitar.

Four years ago Tony Butler left, replaced initially by Simple Minds bass player Derek Forbes, and while Mike Peters departed in late 2013, Simon Hough – previously with Denny Laine’s band – soon took his place. And now, as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of their most successful LP, The Seer, the band comprises Mark (drums, vocals), fellow co-founder Bruce (guitar, vocals), Jamie (guitars, vocals), Simon (vocals) and latest addition Scott Whitley (bass).

“It’s fabulous. Every album has its challenges when you’re revisiting material. I don’t tend to play my music after it’s recorded, so it’s like opening an old chest, learning about myself. It’s more intricate than I remember. You evolve as you get older, adding more to your arsenal, but I was always ahead of my time, doing stuff no one else was.

“It’s a different story for Bruce, playing without Stuart’s input, but his son Jamie’s a great player and they’ve worked out compromise parts. Not only are they playing the parts between Bruce and Stuart but on the records there are overdubs and embellishments, adding third or fourth guitars. They work very hard on that.

“Likewise, Scott has to learn the parts of Tony, a brilliant bass player, and Simon has his own challenges – the writing was never done in the traditional way of a lot of songs in the charts. We were a unique band, lyrically and tonally.

“Stuart would have been the first to admit he was a guitarist that ended up singing. But he got very good at it, loved and cherished. Simon brings a flavour and texture that Stuart had. It’ll never be the same, but he does an amazing job.

“Coming to Big Country (from the Skids) Stuart took the spotlight and was fundamentally a guitar hero who sang, like Pete Townshend or Eric Clayton. But while we moved around on stage a lot, Simon doesn’t try to replicate that. He’s more measured, sensitive to the respect shown to Stuart – he’s not trying to be him.

“We had Mike Peters before, and he was his own man, wonderful with it. But he was more Bono-esque, climbing things, rallying everyone, more of a front-man. What Simon’s brought is the spirit of Stuart in his vocals and delivery, but he’s not climbing PA towers or whipping audiences into a frenzy!”

The Originals: Big Country in 1983. From the left - Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki (Photo copyright: Mercury/Virgin EMI Records)

The Originals: Big Country in 1983. From the left – Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki (Photo copyright: Mercury/Virgin EMI Records)

What about the inevitable criticism about carrying on without Stuart?

“I’ve no time for the cynics. We’ll never get Stuart back, so it’s a case of never doing it again or just getting on with it.

“There are a few bands in that situation, like Queen, who also have the original drummer and guitarist. I know Roger Taylor and Brian May well through working for the Prince’s Trust. They face the same problem getting someone to sing for them. They had Tom Chaplin from Keane when I worked with them. He was incredible. I’ve never known such an amazing version of Queen. But the way they see it is that it doesn’t really matter who sings – the songs speak for themselves.

“It’s the two original members that matter – as with myself and Bruce Watson. And as Bruce put it, it doesn’t really matter who sings with us either – it’s just the new Dr Who. You don’t get put off it by who’s out front.

“It’s not like Marillion without Fish or The Jam without Paul Weller. We lost a member and I won’t tolerate bias against us in that respect. This is the nearest you’ll get to hearing Big Country live again and it’s a privilege to play those songs. We’re celebrating Stuart’s life by playing his songs.

“We do it for all the right reasons and always had this unwritten rule that if we were going through the motions and the spirit’s not there, we won’t do it.”

Have you got good memories of the recording of The Seer?

“Yes, we did it with Robin Millar, an awesome producer. As with the fellas in Silver Stream, he’s very restricted with his vision, but consequently has incredible hearing and an ear for musicality.

“While our previous producer Steve Lilywhite’s pedigree was with U2, XTC and so on, Robin’s was with the likes of Sade. He offered a different feel, texturally not so pounding or heavy, with ambient drum sounds. We were one of the first to do that, along with Phil Collins.

“When I revisited the album there were some beautiful songs, like Hold the Heart, and Robin steered us through with the textures, with side-sticks on the snare, something quite prevalent in Sade’s music. I played more measured on The Seer, which was far more song-driven.

“There was a lot more bravado in those days. We were young, over-excited at times, with everything powerful, loud and fast, coming out of punk. But we were lucky enough to have a five-album deal that proved a great snapshot, seeing the band grow, and you can see how it evolved from The Crossing onwards. A lot of bands these days don’t get the chance to have that career progression with a record company. It’s nice to stand back in hindsight and see that band development.”

51m9cloms7lThe Seer also involved Kate Bush, another artist Mark has got to know.

“I’m very blessed to be recognised as a good drummer, among so many others out there, but along the way I’ve met many people and been invited on many sessions and to make many records in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including work with both Midge Ure and Ultravox. And I knew Kate through being good friends with Midge. When he lived in London we had Friday fish and chip socials, and part of that set – our extended family – was Kate.”

It was a creative period for Kate, between her wonderful Hounds of Love (1985) and The Sensual World (1989) albums.

“Absolutely. She was so contemporary, very different to the time – like the female Peter Gabriel for me. Not only a fabulous individual artist, but also with this great voice, which suited Big Country. It was great working with her. She immediately got us. I just wish we did more with her. She had a very busy schedule, but at least gave us the time to sing on The Seer.”

As it turned out, The Seer became Big Country’s best-selling studio album, reaching No.2 in the UK,  with Look Away an Irish No.1 and their biggest UK single, reaching No.7.

“I never know what’s going to be a hit. I do my job, let it out to sea and hope it does something. I normally have different ideas of what should be released, but was pleased with Look Away, which was very typical Big Country but slightly different from the likes of In A Big Country, in 6/8 not 4/4. And it’s a main-stop of our live set to this day.”

All these years on, Mark remains busy on the recording scene, and in more recent times I’ve been more aware of his work Bruce Foxton, Russell Hastings, and From the Jam. In fact, listen to a song like Sense of Summer, the closing track on 2012’s Back in the Room, and you’ll hear a quintessential Jam feel underpinned by Mark’s highly-recognisable drumming footprint.

“That’s nice of you to say so. Yes, I worked on Bruce’s last two solo albums, the latter charting, the likes of Paul Weller and Wilko Johnson playing. It’s a great experience, working with Bruce and Russell, who writes great songs. I love them to bits and love Bruce’s bass playing – he’s a British icon in that respect, and I’m honoured to work with him. I did seven years with From The Jam when Big Country hadn’t quite come back, and remain in contact with the guys.”

Actually, Mark was previously involved with Bruce Foxton in a project called Casbah Club back in 2004, also featuring Simon Townshend and Bruce Watson. And the impressive Brzezicki CV also includes stints with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Pretenders, Nik Kershaw, and a reformed Thunderclap Newman, among others.

Mark also featured on The Cult’s Love in 1985, leading to a live reunion with Ian Astbury, Billy Duffy and co., celebrating that LP 25 years later. And in 1984 he worked with Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known as Frida from Abba.

Studio Trio: Mark Brzezicki, Bruce Foxton and Russ Hastings during the recording of Back in the Room

Studio Trio: Mark Brzezicki, Bruce Foxton and Russ Hastings during the recording of Back in the Room

“I worked on her album Shine, for which Stuart Adamson wrote a track. I did artwork for the LP too, although the record company rejected that, wanting something more ‘power-‘80s’, involving fluorescent green and pink gloves!

“I drew the band – in a very personal style – in the recording studio, including Steve Lillywhite, Tony Levin, Simon Climie, and Kirsty MacColl, who sang backing vocals. Benny and Bjorn played as well, so it was amazing to play with what was pretty much Abba without Agnetha.

”Stuart wrote a song called Heart of the Country, which Pete Glenister plays on, using an Ebow, replicating his style. It was going to be one of our songs but Stuart gave it to Frida.

“Steve Lilywhite produced the album, and Phil Collins played on her previous LP, leading to me being invited over for the next on his recommendation. That was amazing in itself. I don’t try to be Phil, but we have a similar sound, and I adore his playing.”

We also got on to another band he’s featured with over a long period – ‘60s survivors Procol Harum, after I happened to mention Mark’s music hero Phil Collins and I lived in the same Surrey village – just outside Guildford – during a period in which he was juggling his solo career with work for Genesis and Brand X.

We were barely a quarter of a mile from each other … as the crow flies, albeit with me on the other side of the railway track. Phil was also a regular in the local pub – run by the parents of a good friend – and I recall tales of Eric Clapton visiting too, even known to play the spoons. And that turns out to be Mark’s cue to (majorly) out-namedrop me.

“I was with Procol Harum for 17 years, and Eric played with us when we played our regular Chiddingfold and Dunsfold shows. Me, Gary Brooker and Jeff Beck … sorry, I’m name-dropping again, and Paul McCartney once said to me, ‘Mark, never namedrop!’

“I’d do those Wintershall shows with Gary, Andy Fairweather Low, Eric Clapton on guitar, Jeff Beck guesting, and Dave Bronze on bass. And we had a fantastic time. I feel very blessed with that kind of friendship within the music business. But I do gravitate back to Big Country. That’s my band. With everyone else I’m guesting.

image004“It’s my musical home and, along with Simon Townshend’s band, the one I grew up in. It was as if I was adopted by three other people … or we all adopted each other. We became a very close unit at a key age – with Bruce Watson still a teenager then – through travelling, seeing the world, not seeing family, all that brings. They became my family and remain very special.”

Are you still in touch with Tony Butler, now he’s in the West Country?

“Yes, and I’ve just played on his new solo album, going down to visit. He’s playing fantastic and in good shape. It was lovely to see him, and very emotional to play with him after this hiatus. They’re all my musical family and friends. If I get to see them, that’s awesome. If I can play with them, even better!”

Talking of family, Mark’s brother Steve, based in the south of France, is a session musician, ‘a fabulous bass player’ as he put it. In fact, he tells me one of his original Big Country drum kits is down at his place. The brothers have also worked together, including a past tour with former Marillion frontman Fish. And I’ve since read elsewhere that Mark actually played in his formative days in a band called The Flying Brzezickis with two of his brothers. So where did the music come from in your family?

“My Dad was an opera singer. He was an engineer, but his love was opera singing, so I grew up with that. He had a beautiful voice and made a few records – 78s, vinyl – in the ’50s and ’60s. having trained in Italy.”

There’s one more project that’s kept Mark busy of late – as briefly mentioned earlier – his prog-rock outfit ESP, alongside fellow Simon Townshend stalwart Tony Lowe, with debut LP Invisible Din just delivered.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, a little more like Genesis, reflecting my own background and love of all that. I sing lead on two songs, and Tony Lowe half-produces and half-plays. It’s very ‘70s but with today’s sort of twist, a kind of Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd feel. And when Bruce Watson’s touring with the Skids next year, I’ll be out with ESP.

“The prog stations have started to play it and I’m getting a lot of interest from America, particularly drum magazines. Drummers will love it, as will all those who like good music and have an eclectic taste. It’s not outwardly commercial but there are some very catchy songs. Of the guys on the album, some were in King Crimson, and all great players. There’s also David Jackson, David Cross, Steve Gee, Phil Spalding …”

albumfront-copyIt’s clearly a labour of love for a musician whose past projects have included prog-related work with the likes of Steve Hackett and Steve Howe.

“Yeah, very special.”

Meanwhile, time marches on and there’s a big birthday due for Mark next June, his 60th. I’m guessing there are no retirement plans though.

“Yeah, I don’t feel that’s really my age, but I’m very proud of what I’ve seen and wouldn’t change anything. It’s given me that experience, and for me the greatest music for drummers has already been done, in the ‘70s – from disco to fusion to prog rock – and my head’s in that area for what inspires me still. For me it’s all a little too taught-at-school and going through the motions now.

“Music’s lost its way with a so many of the old recording studios now gone. It seems that everyone does it at home now. So many drum parts are now sampled or programmed, moved around on a screen so you lose that feel. It’s like there being too many channels on TV – it’s quantity over quality, and I’m not seeing the quality. Before, people were discovering music, playing without too much technology, grabbing the drumsticks, gritting their teeth, finding their own style, right or wrong, even holding the sticks wrong.

“Think of Keith Moon, not playing a hi-hat, very uncouth the way he played, while BJ Wilson in Procol Harum – a friend of Keith’s – never really played songs twice the same way. He’d kind of explode in different areas, each and every time.

“From John Bonham’s unique sound to Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Stewart Copeland, one of the last of those real original styles – I love those players. But I’m not hearing that anymore. I read the magazines and check people out but it’s more about some homogenous school of drumming. I see it when we do these big shows. I’m not knocking the drumming, but they’re such a product of the machine. I’m a bit of a dinosaur with lots of drums, but the small kits today just don’t do it for me. There’s a real lack of invention, and on Jools Holland’s show every week you’ll see the same kit with a different drummer.”

Finally, it’s 15 years in December since Stuart’s passing. I’m guessing you still think of him often.

“There were different phases of our lives together on the road, but we also liked our distance, and were around 400 miles from each other. I’d probably see more of Tony while Stuart would see more of Bruce, but we were so much in each other’s pockets at times that we enjoyed our space away from each other, only in touch when it was time to get together again as a band – like going back to school.

“When Stuart moved to America it got even more protracted, having to go out there to rehearse and do demos. The point I’m making is that he had a new life by then, writing with (US country music artist) Marcus Hummon. I did end up playing and touring with them, including his last tour, but Stuart became out of sight, out of mind and it became increasingly difficult to do the daily running when there was a time difference and you’re organising flights and so on.

“I still think of him a lot though. It’s like losing a brother. I think of him at odd times – it may be a view I see or hearing a guitarist I really like or songs he was influenced by which I got to love. I’m reminded of Stuart every time I go up to Scotland and every time I play my drums and when we strike the first chord of any Big Country song.

“I’m reminded of him all the time, and I do miss him, but I feel the story of Stuart’s still there because we’re keeping the Big Country story alive. And that’s important for the cynics out there who don’t see the bigger picture.”

Rear Guard: Mark in live action with Big Country (Photo: Mark Brzezicki's Facebook page)

Rear Guard: Mark in live action with Big Country (Photo: Mark Brzezicki’s Facebook page)

To revisit this site’s feature/interview with Mark’s fellow Big Country co-founder Bruce Watson from October 2014, head here.

Big Country’s The Seer 30th anniversary tour resumes on Friday, September 30th at The Warehouse, Falkirk, carrying on through October, November and December, towards a Friday, December 30th date at PJ Molloy’s, DunfermlineFor full details and all the latest from the band visit or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to the ESP page on Facebook, and another to Mark Brzezicki‘s own page.

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