NEWSLETTER - June 2005
PC: The IN OTHER WORDS TOUR was a great success. Did you enjoy playing live again?
WR: It was an enormously enjoyable and enriching experience - one about which I feel really nostalgic ( as I write it's almost exactly a year on from when we first toured ). It was also highly nerve wracking. I remember walking on stage at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre for our final rehearsals and seeing so many acres of sound and stage equipment, I instantly thought Pink Floyd must have reformed and then I realised that this was just for us. It was also heavy on the nerves because the show itself was an attempt to do something different - fusing spoken and sung material in that particular way - and we had no idea as to how people would react. Tim and I both felt in our bones that this format would work but until it's tried and tested before an audience, you just don't know. Fortunately, audiences seemed to love the structure and had no problems whatsoever in making the shift from a full on eight piece band moment to a single unaccompanied spoken moment.
I remember playing the first date at Manchester Opera House and just knowing that, artistically, all our combined effort had been worth it.
At the same time, of course, I knew that there was still a lot we could do to enhance and improve the show. But what was important was that, despite the rough edges and slightly shaky moments, the show that we tried to create was there.
PC: You had some very accomplished musicians accompanying you and Tim (Firth) on the tour and subsequent appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.
WR: Well firstly, it was brilliant to have Andy (Roberts) musically directing and playing lead guitars again; also, in the first part of the tour, to be working with Dorie Jackson who'd sung with us the previous year when we played Shropshire and Galway. As you know, Dorie wasn't able to do the whole of the tour and, whilst we were all sad to see her go, the great consolation was that Loreto, who had also been with us in Shropshire and Galway, could join us. I loved working with such superb female singers and some of my richest memories are of hearing Dorie or Loreto or Emily at the soundcheck when I'd be messing round with some, as yet, unformed musical idea and they'd just pick it up and join in, contributing the kind of harmony lines that would just have me beaming inside with awe and admiration at the apparent effortlessness and taste of their musical skill and vocal tone.
When we were first putting the band together for this tour, we approached Mark Featherstone Whitty at LIPA ( Liverpool Institute For The Performing Arts ) to see if there was any way in which some of those superb students of his could become involved. For some time I'd had the idea that we should be working with younger musicians. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being ageist here. But it did seem to me that, with Andy and myself having achieved what we might politely call veteran status, and even the perennially boyish Mr. Firth beginning to boast the odd sliver of grey temple, it might keep us all on our musical toes if we were to work with some young hooligans. Mark put us in touch with Arthur Bernstein at LIPA and, following a couple of auditions we were able to invite Emily, Gavin, and Vidar to join us. It was such a joy for me to work with all of these players, every one of whom is such a consummately gifted musician/singer that I kept wondering why they allowed someone like me to be in the band! I just kept clinging on to that old adage of 'surround yourself with the best and it can only make you better'.
Listening back to some of the live recordings, I just marvel at the level of musicianship that the Lips and the whole of the band brought to the show. It was wonderful to go on stage with this rock solid outfit; to know that you could entirely rely on the musical skill that was assembled on that stage.
Apart from anything else, I am still amazed at how everyone could manage to second-guess me and stay in synch when I'd sing a completely wrong line or wrong verse! I can still see the look of utter bewilderment in the eyes of Gavin and Vidar and Andy's tolerant smile of terror as I somehow managed to mangle a sixteen bar section and miraculously get seventeen and a half bars squeezed in there!
I'm more than aware of how good my fortune was in working with all these terrific players - and damn nice people. And let me not forget, when talking of musicianship, I wonder if, like me, there are many people who just thank whatever they believe in that as well as being the wonderful writer he is, Tim Firth is such a beautifully creative piano player.
PC: THE SINGING PLAYWRIGHTS shows at Edinburgh also proved a huge hit, with great reviews and responsive audiences.
WR: Whether it's with a play or as part of the Bookfest, the Film and TV Festival or doing the show with Tim and the band, I always love playing Edinburgh. I've always had a very special affinity with the City. My first plays were presented at the Fringe back in 1972 but, even earlier than that, I'd fallen for the place. Way back in 1967 when I'd been running the Green Moose Club in Liverpool, two lads from Edinburgh turned up one night and asked if they could do a floor spot. Davey Johnstone and Titch Frier proceeded to musically tear the place apart. I became great mates with Davey and Titch and, through visiting them up in Edinburgh, met all kinds of other people on the music, poetry and drama scene. From then on, we spent every Hogmanay in that beautiful city. And so, whenever I go back to play Edinburgh, in whatever capacity, there's a kind of reconnection that goes on, a sort of plugging into one's own history (to paraphrase John McGrath - himself a long time resident of that once reeking City.
When we were there last year, Tim was asked by one of the papers to keep a diary of his time at the Festival. The piece is now on his website (timfirth.com) and if you want to know more about a few of the obstacles we had to overcome, then do take a look.
One real non-musical delight that came from last year's Festival was seeing the work of a young writer called Ben Schiffer. He and his director Matt Torney hustled Tim and me to go and see their lunchtime offering which turned out to be a lovely production of a fine, tender and vicious play about a group of kids, superbly played by a marvellous cast. Later in the year I was asked to act as a mentor in connection with a series of short BBC plays which were to be written by writers new to television under the banner Brief Encounters. I was able to introduce Ben to the producers and his short film Hot or Not has now been shot and will be transmitted later this year.
Along with producer David Pugh, Tim and I also established a writing prize called The WR Foundation Prize which was intended to provide the successful writer with funds to stage his/her play at this year's Fringe. In the event we didn't feel that we'd found an outright winner and chose instead to split the prize between four different authors. Some of this work will be on view at this year's festival.
PC: Are there plans to reproduce the Singing Playwrights show in any format in the near future?
WR: We'd love to do the show again and doing so is not beyond the bounds of possibility. There's still some talk about the possibility of filming it for TV transmission and festival appearances are being discussed. The inescapable fact, though, is that it's an expensive show to tour. We have talked about a scaled down show which we could then take into the smaller theatres. But I'm not really that keen on doing it that way. I think it's going to be a question of 'watch this space.'
PC: The radio 2 'LIVE FROM LIVERPOOL' show was a great success and went down a storm at the Rawhide club. Mike Harding said that he'd had more requests to replay your tracks than almost any other artist. That must be very satisfying for you, especially coming from a 'folk background'?
WR: Did Mike really say that ? Mind you, smooth-tongued flatterer that he is, he'd say anything just to get a bite of a melting lolly-ice. But, yes, if that's the case then that's very gratifying. I was always a bit sheepish about presenting the music from Hoovering The Moon as being in any way folk music. There's certainly no doubt that that kind of folk DNA is at the core of all my work. But with the recent music I didn't want to be confined to the kind of arrangement, orchestration and style that would make it qualify for the 'folk' tag. But if it's being accepted in this way then I'm delighted.
PC: We talked in the last Newsletter about investigating the release of OUR DAY OUT and DANCIN' THRU THE DARK. Has there been any progress with these investigations?
WR: Unfortunately, little progress has been made on this particular front. I've tried to do what I can to push things along but, with both titles, there are complications and, whilst I'd dearly love to see both titles commercially available, (not least because it would make redundant, the efforts of those thieves who currently operate with apparent immunity, flagrantly selling pirated copies through outlets such as e-bay), this is not something that is solely within my control. Both the BBC and Palace Pictures/BBC Films (respectively makers of Our Day Out and Dancin' Thru The Dark) would have to take the initiative in this and although we've pressed both I'm afraid there seems to be little action. At this year's BAFTA Best Screenplay judges meeting I did apprise Nik Powell ( Palace Pictures ) of the fact that copies of Dancin' were being widely traded on an illegal basis and that therefore he might want to use his best endeavours to secure a commercial DVD release. So far, though, I've heard nought.
I'm not having a crack here at those who buy these illegal copies. I well understand that the vast majority of such purchasers would buy legitimate copies if these were available. What I do object to, though, are the manufacturers and exploiters of such pirate copies. Yes, I can certainly afford to live without the royalty percentage that would normally be payable to my company for the DVD sale of any title. But that does not prevent me from being wholly opposed to the concept of DVD/Video piracy. I'm sure that there are many many people who could afford to have their cars out of use for those periods when their owners did not require them. I can't, however, see such owners being very happy if they were to see their vehicles being driven away and used without payment by some uninvited driver.
Regardless of my own position in this, I am all too aware that the same thieves who exploit and profit from my work, will be doing exactly the same with the works of other authors, authors who may not be in the same fortunate position as myself and for whom some small royalty payment could make the difference between being able to pursue life as a writer or having to find other work to support the meagre income that the vast majority of writers earn.
I think my keenest contempt is reserved for those pirates who indulge in the kind of self-righteous cant with which they justify their actions by claiming that they are providing some kind of public service. Well if this is the case, then fine - perhaps in lieu of the royalty that a legal distributor would have to pay, these pirates could pay the equivalent sum into a nominated charity.
Now, what chance of that!?
PC: The feedback to wr.com's guestbook is very rewarding and sometimes extremely moving. Lots of visitors credit you with providing life-changing moments for them personally, what is your reaction to this?
WR: One of the things about the site that's taken me quite by surprise is the amount and the depth and range of the contributions to the guestbook. I note what you say about those contributors who suggest that their lives have been affected or even changed by contact with my work. Whilst this is certainly flattering, I don't, in all honesty, think that I can take the kind of credit that such generous contributors think is my due. I suspect that such correspondence comes from those whose character and personality would have led them to make decisions and personal changes, even had they never encountered my work. It may well be that something in my work has helped to articulate a particular need or help provide a sense of direction but, as I say, I think that, by and large, such things probably happen in spite of, and not because of, any work of mine. All of which, makes me sound somewhat churlish in the matter - which I'm not, it's just that it's rather difficult to take on board the idea that you might have had some actual effect upon the life of someone you've never met.
PC: I know that people who came to the shows last year also showered you with wonderful comments. As a writer, did you anticipate this response from audiences when putting pen onto paper?
WR: Never, in my nuttiest dreams, would I expect to be even drizzled, let alone showered, with praise. Of course, it's lovely when it happens and, frankly, it's much nicer to have someone be kind and complimentary, rather than damning and hostile. Fortunately, in the case of the 'In Other Words' tour and the Edinburgh 'Singing Playwrights' run, Tim and I received far far more of the former than the latter. When one is putting pen to paper, though, the last thing on one's mind, is how the work will ultimately be received. At the time of writing, I'm just far too consumed with the business of writing itself, the problems that have to be solved, the aims that have to be realised, the vision that has to be made real. At such a time, there just isn't any kind of room for thinking about what will happen once the work is out there. And, apart from anything else, even if I had the time and space to reflect upon the possibilities of any praise that might lie ahead, sheer superstition dictates that it would be the wildest folly to do so.
PC: Where do your ideas come from?
WR: Chipping Norton, Bromborough and, on occasion, underneath a small rock that stands in my garden. Or, in other words, I haven't got a clue. Once I've written something and after some time has elapsed, I can begin to look back and see where some of the ideas may have been born. But this does not answer the question of where ideas come from.
Increasingly these days, it does not seem to be enough to say that one's writing comes from one's imagination but I've got no better answer. I know that before I wrote plays like 'Educating Rita' and 'Shirley Valentine' I didn't have the faintest idea that I would ever write such plays. And, as I said during some of the Edinburgh shows last year, 'Blood Brothers' began with a mental image of a mother and a gaggle of children - like, "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/She had so many children she didn't know what to do" But, in my mind, this woman and her children were, quite incongruously walking along the verge of the A580, the arterial road that runs between Liverpool and Manchester, a road along which you don't see pedestrians. Now where the hell did that come from? I haven't got the vaguest idea. But I do know that that's one of the things that led to 'Blood Brothers'. So was seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time on TV playing, 'Hey Joe'. But how and why these things led where they did ? Who knows ?
PC: We have recently announced (on wr.com) that an agreement has been reached between WR Ltd and Granada which will allow release of ONE SUMMER. I'm aware that you have been working hard behind the scenes for a long time to allow this to happen. Does this mean you will be beginning work on the film version in the very near future?
WR: Frankly, I don't know whether I will or won't be working on the proposed One Summer movie project. This is one of a number of things I'm currently considering but can't yet say whether I'll be working on this or one of those 'other things'.
PC: I noticed that the MCPS/PRS magazine ran an article acknowledging how innovative your musical show JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE, RINGO & BERT was recently. That must have felt good after all these years?
WR: It was indeed rather flattering ( and therefore pleasing ) to see JPGR&B mentioned in this way. For me, at the time of writing it ( 1974 ) JPGR&B arose quite naturally out of the kind of work that was then being done at the Everyman ( as well as at other regional theatres ) where the influences of Brecht and Littlewood held sway and where the music of the street, of the folk clubs and the pop charts and the pubs could be used as a central and potent element in the making or the producing of the plays that were being done. When it came to writing the Beatles show I just took what we'd been doing at the Everyman for some time and mixed that with my own passionate feelings and knowledge for all things Beatle, added whatever I liked from a stunning catalogue of Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison ) songs - and then tried to write what Adrian Henri later called a contemporary musical Greek tragedy.
PC: Finally, its great seeing HOOVERING THE MOON in the shops on the shelves between folk greats like 'Rusby' and 'Simon'. The CD is selling well - any plans for further music projects?
WR: I don't have any immediate music projects in mind but certainly hope that there will be others in the future.