FESTIVAL OF CHICHESTER: World War One drama with former Flying Picket
Slindon-based former Flying Picket Gareth Williams reunites for the Festival of Chichester with the playwright who prompted the band to get together in the first place.
Gareth and his fellow ex-Flying Picket David Brett will be offering John Burrows’s new play Stony Broke in No Man’s Land (June 25-27, Vicars’ Hall).
John was the author of One Big Blow, an acclaimed play about coal miners and their brass band which he wrote for 7.84 Theatre Company in the early 1980s, and it was from the One Big Blow cast that the group Flying Pickets emerged, paving the way for their massive Christmas number-one hit Only You.
“We were doing this play going up and down the motorways, up and down the country,” Gareth recalls. “It ran for two years, and while we were travelling all over the place on the motorways, in the back of our transit van we started singing just to entertain ourselves. And really, it just started from there as a little bit of a party piece that we would do. We would sing the odd song.”
And so their a capella style was born.
“The first time we actually appeared as the Flying Pickets was in Deptford where a local band had had their equipment stolen. It was a fund-raiser for them. It was quite funny: the band with no instruments was helping out the band that had had their instruments stolen!”
It was perfect timing: “This was the time when the alternative cabaret scene was just taking off. Every pub had a cabaret room at the back, and we formed really out of that.”
The term flying picket would become a household expression just a year or so after their big hit when the miners’ strike gripped the country: “But I believe the term flying picket had actually been used earlier in a dockers’ strike. But One Big Blow was about miners, and we were all left-learning. Then, when the miners went on strike, we found we were very much in demand.”
The irony, as playwright John points out, is that his play reflected the 1974 miners’ strike which the miners won. “The play was very celebratory, the idea that no one could touch the miners,” John recalls.
By then, the Flying Pickets were riding high: “It happened very quickly,” Gareth says. “We had only been going about a year when we had the hit. In a way, it spoilt it for us because the objective when we started used to be a second-rate club act. If you think of Shirley Bassey as being a first rate, we would have been very happy to be in the second tier.
“It meant we very much enjoyed the live show. We were not so much a music show as a comedy act. It was six singers without a backing track taking turns to be the lead singer and sending up whoever was singing the song... and in a way sending up pop music at the same time.”
The trouble was they couldn’t put the comedy on record: “Our manager just said ‘Sing a straight song’. We did Only You. It was David Brett, the other chap in our play (at the Festival of Chichester) who arranged it, and it was a hit all over Europe. We also went to Australia and Hong Kong.
“We were at our peak really for a good couple of years, and then we were constantly being chased for a second hit and a third hit, which rather reduced the importance of the live shows and we lost touch with the comedy.”
For Gareth, it became less enjoyable: “When I left after seven years, there was only one of the originals left.”
As for the play, Gareth and David play two jobless ex-Tommies busking on a London street who tell in words, song and music the story of Private Percy Cotton and the love of his life, bogus-spiritualist Nellie Mottram.
On 11 November, 1920, the Unknown Soldier was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey. But was it a genuine act of recognition and gratitude by Lloyd George’s government? Or a calculated display to diffuse the pain and anger of a country grieving for nearly a million dead?
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