Writer has the steal to pen a song
The folk songs of Northumberland provided the inspiration for Michael Chaplin’s latest play... as well as an opportunity to try something new and rather scary, as he tells Sam Wonfor
MICHAEL Chaplin has been a professional writer for more than two decades.
In that time he’s built up a reputation as one of the UK’s leading TV scribes, listing Monarch of the Glen, Grafters and Dalziel and Pascoe among his many credits.
He’s also a dab-handed playwright whose recent football-inspired effort, with his son Tom, delighted audiences at Newcastle’s Live Theatre.
With all that in mind, you can understand why the thought of him ‘plucking up the courage’ to sit down and put pen to paper is a little unnerving.
But that’s how it was for his latest project, a folk-music-infused radio play which gets its first airing on Radio Four on Saturday.
Set in Allendale, Northumberland, The Song Thief houses Michael’s first ever stab at songwriting… and so his aforementioned trepidation at putting pen to paper becomes clear.
“I was completely out of my comfort zone,” admits the 63-year-old as we talk about the project which couples a return to radio drama after 12 years away, with his debut musical offering.
Mind you, Michael is keen to point out that this is not a production which falls towards jazz hands end of the musicals spectrum.
“It’s a play first,” he says.
“I would describe it as a play with music rather than a musical. The only song, which is sung in full, is the original song we wrote. We tend to use excerpts from the other Northumbrian folk songs we’ve chosen… otherwise it would hold up the drama.”
When Michael says ‘we’ when talking about the songwriting element of proceedings, he’s speaking of Alistair Anderson, the composer, musician and co-founder of The Sage Gateshead’s Folkworks programme.
Alistair was an immediate port of call when Michael realised that the play was going to need a song all of its own.
This is probably a good time for a plot synopsis… Set at the turn of the 20th Century, The Song Thief finds a fictitious composer arriving in Allendale looking for folk music to inspire and feed his own compositions.
“He discovers there is a local shepherd, who used to be the best singer around… but no longer sings,” says Michael, sensibly taking on the plot summary baton and running with it.
“The composer discovers the shepherd once made a very beautiful song which people remember, but he only sang it once – to his wife who has since run off with her lover.
“The composer tries to get him to sing it – but he won’t. It becomes a bit of a tussle. Meanwhile he develops a relationship with the shepherd’s daughter who wants to help him, for various reasons of her own… so there’s a bit of a love story going on there.”
Although the writing of the play and the song was undertaken earlier this year, the notion which resulted in The Song Thief has actually been brewing for a lot longer.
“I first thought about it about 10 years ago,” explains Michael. “I’ve always had a keen interest in English composers from the late 19th and early 20th Century. They were attracted to indigenous folk songs and went around collecting these songs which they felt were in danger of being lost.
“They’d often get around on a bike with a phonograph on their back, stopping and talking to people.
“Gradually they’d get them to sing and would record the songs. Very often they would go back and make a setting of the songs… which would then make its way into concert halls.
“I was intrigued by the process by which these songs which no one knew suddenly became orchestral suites by composers.
“Was what they were doing legitimate? Were they rescuing an indigenous culture… or was it theft?”
All will be explored in Michael’s play, which finishes with shepherd’s elusive song, which provides the answers to the questions thrown up in the 60-minute play and which was the one penned by Michael.
“The song had to feed the particular story,” he says. “There is a back story involving the shepherd’s wife and what happened to them… all is revealed at the end and the song had to reflect that ending, so had to be specific.
“That’s why we ended up coming to the rather scary conclusion that we had to set about making a new song. I approached Alistair and asked him what he thought… he said we should just go for it.”
All well and good you might think. But it wasn’t that simple.
“Never having written a song, I was basically sitting there, thinking ‘where do you start?’” admits Michael.
“But Alistair said the best way to do it was for me to write the first verse so he could work on a basic tune… suddenly it sounded achievable.
“But it took a while for me to pluck up the courage to sit down and write it. The morning came when I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.
“I got an idea for what the narrative might be and after that, it literally took about half an hour or so before I sent it off to Alistair. He came back with the music and I really liked it. It was haunting. Really beautiful.”
Although the original composition provides the play’s figurative curtain call, there are many of the region’s existing folk tunes to listen out for throughout… the selection of which provided Michael with somewhat of a cherry-picking dilemma.
“It was so great choosing all the songs. We had a free rein… there were so many beautiful ones to choose from,” says Michael enthusiastically. “We started by simply looking at songs we really liked. Bonny at Morn, which has been a favourite of mine for some time, is in there.
“We also put in Little Joe, a fantastic song which I found on an album by Megson (the Teesside-born folk duo) a while ago.
“Chris Connel sings that one.”
Ah yes, the cast.
As well as making use of his native region in terms of the setting and soundtrack for the play, Michael also recruited a sizeable slice of North East acting talent too.
Alongside Chris (bound for Newcastle Theatre Royal in September for the most recent hit run of Lee Hall’s Pitmen Painters), are veterans Ron Cook and Donald McBride, as well as Colleen Prendergast and Joyce Gibbs.
“It’s been such a lovely experience from start to finish,” says Michael.
“I loved working with Alistair as he led this innocent through the process. This really was a dream job for me.
“It combines three of my favourite things in the world: storytelling, these kinds of songs and Northumberland… particularly Allendale which I’ve always had a soft spot for.”
And Saturday’s broadcast may not be the end of the story for The Song Thief.
“I’d love to bring it to the stage,” says Michael. “I think the story, the setting and the songs all lend themselves to the theatre. There is definitely the potential there and I’d love to explore that.”
But for now, you can hear The Song Thief on Radio Four on Saturday at 2.30pm.
Never having written a song, I was basically sitting there, thinking 'where do you start?’