In 1975, when I was 22 and living in a bedsit in Birmingham on little tins of mince, I saw a documentary on television. It was about a reunion of the members of the Manchester Children’s Choir who had made a record of Nymphs and Shepherds by Henry Purcell with the Hallé orchestra in 1929.
Now I watched a lot of television while I was on the dole waiting for my career to get going – The Cedar Tree, Crossroads – but something about that documentary stayed with me. I have a list on my office wall where I jot down ideas for films and plays, and for many years the last thing on that list has been Nymphs and Shepherds.
I had always known the record; I’d heard it on the radio at home in Lancashire, where I grew up, and I knew a little bit about the day the children had done the recording. I knew that they had been trained to sing without their natural Lancashire accents and that they had travelled to the Free Trade Hall in special trams and been given pink ice-cream.
But it never came to the forefront as a project until I was approached by the Manchester International Festival, to see if I had any ideas for a theatre piece, preferably something that would have direct relevance to Manchester. I immediately said, “Well, there was that day when 250 children sang with the Hallé orchestra in the Free Trade Hall, you can’t get much more Manchester than that.”
But somewhere in the back of my mind was this elusive memory of the 70s documentary. I could only summon up vague scraps – middle-aged people talking about this wonderful day when they’d made a record, and one man sitting outside a factory talking about the joy of singing. But my overriding impression, oddly, was of sadness and regret.
Then I saw the documentary again – the festival found it. Crikey – so much for my alleged powers of observation. Nothing I had remem- bered was in there. For a start the interviewees who to me had seemed on the point of
death they were so elderly (they were in their 50s) now appeared youthful and vibrant (I’m 61), and they had nothing but positive things to say about their time in the choir. But there was something melancholy about one man I remembered – Joe. He is filmed sitting outside his workplace, eating a sandwich. The interviewer asks him if he’s happy, and he doesn’t really answer the question. But his face lights up when asked to say what singing means to him. “It’s an expression of joy,” he says. And that is what I had remembered.
So the spine of my play became the story of ex-choir members Tubby (played by Michael Ball) and Enid (Imelda Staunton) – both single, both lonely, who meet at the reunion. Tubby has not heard the record for years and it does something to him that only music can – it gives him an emotional jolt that propels him to try and have one more grab at love.
That Day We Sang had ten performances at Manchester’s Opera House but I didn’t want that to be the end of Tubby and Enid. I thought it could have another life as a film. So I took the idea to the BBC. Trying to describe my film wasn’t easy. In the end I gave up – though after seeing Michael serenading Imelda Staunton in Tubby’s back garden after a chip-pan fire, I said that basically it was Moulin Rouge in slippers.
I want That Day We Sang to be a treat for the audience this Christmas. I’ve crammed in everything I could: singing, dancing, children, trams, chip pans – and, if you look closely, there’s even a bit of snow!
That Day We Sang is repeated on Thursday 20th August at 9.00pm on BBC2