So here we are in the ninth week of ‘lockdown’. The Zoom rehearsals are wearing a bit thin and it would be so nice to see our band, Lot 49 , in person again and hear us all playing in the same room....together.
Our guitarist, Max grins at the screen and tells us that he is doing some blinding riffs...But of course we’ll never know. ‘Hey Great Max, sounds fabby!’
Basing it on my own efforts at guitar playing on Zoom, I own up , my guitar has been wildly out of tune, and also out of sync, but since I’m on ‘ mute’ I just keep smiling and I try to look as if I’m singing the harmonies. I am actually doing that, but they sound pretty bland, and as long as my mouth keeps moving everyone assumes that I am singing. (Chortle chortle) The truth is the screen is frozen and the sound is breaking up, but hey we’re still in it...and we’re having a go ...Whoopee!
It isn’t unknown for us to crack open a bottle of wine or two during normal rehearsals, so wisely that tradition has been kept up and I’m pleased to say that on a Sunday, as we link up on line, the wine still works very well.
BUT this Sunday I had an extra treat. I was asked by Geoff our other guitarist and mandolin player if I would like to sing four songs ‘live’ on the roof of a ‘ Shed’ in the Mews behind his garden, for the surrounding neighbours.
You bet....what fun...of course I’d love to. Although, I should mention that I am a little scared of heights, but hey, how high can a shed be? I kept that bit to myself. The ‘shed’ turned out to be a studio shed , so a bit bigger and higher than usual, but happily it had a flat roof. I have to admit to being slightly nervous as I climbed the ladder with my treasured Taylor guitar, but what a view, and being amongst the trees felt very much like they were giving me a huge hug.
Below me in the garden next door sat Geoff , who was all set up with his guitar plugged in and looking happy. Beside him (socially distanced of course ) was keyboard player Jon Hall, who you may have heard of from a band in the 80’s called Kissing the Pink. He’s a lovely man and great player. He set my mike and the amp on the roof and the three of us just played. The songs we chose were all old favourites that everyone knows....and the neighbours were kindly appreciative.
As we threw ourselves into the first song a few friends gathered in the mews and some windows were thrown open, (I didn’t see any close...whew) so basically it was just plain fun.
Could a ‘Shed Tour’ be the answer to socially distanced future gigs.??
Another body blow for creatives in the music industry took place a couple of days ago, the second one in a matter of weeks. The first was at the end of January when the Government announced that is has ‘no plans’ to comply with the EU Copyright Directive after the country leaves the European Union via Brexit. This has huge implications for the music industry.
As the UK Council of Music Makers said, ‘Without this Directive, creators will be entirely deprived of any means to get a fair remuneration in the online environment: the market will be entirely driven by the commercial interests of free-riding tech giants’
But the irony is, that it will be the UK creatives who are not protected, when it was the UK music industry representatives like BASCA who helped shape the EU Copyright Directive in the first place. In fact they were the most vocal in support of it.
As Andrea C. Martin, CEO of PRS for Music, said, ‘If our creator community is not going to benefit from the same level of protection as those in Europe, we urge the government to set out clearly and quickly how it will ensure the UK remains an attractive home for creative businesses and their rights.’
The next body blow to our industry came two days ago following the publication of the Government’s EU negotiation mandate on 27 February, that the UK will not be seeking to participate in the next Creative Europe programme, due to start in January 2021.
It would seem that this is due to Brexit and sadly we will be losing the funding that Creative Europe provided of €74m to the UK in 2018 towards our TV and film companies.
Equity has called for the government to address the shortfall in funding and is demanding an increase in spending on the arts budget to 0.5% of GDP.
Maureen Beattie (Equity President) reminded us in her open letter to the Prime Minister in the latest Equity magazine; the creative industries contribute £101.5 billion to the economy...’Growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole’. In other words we matter...hugely.
She asked the Prime Minister the question ‘ How will you support the workers who bring such kudos and Wealth into the UK?
Well, we would all dearly like to know the answer to that one!
So why am I getting so worked up about it? Since I work in both Music and Theatre to me this is a double threat.
Everyone knows that funding a theatrical production for instance has always been a risky business , but things are getting tricky...not impossible, but tougher. And when the money is tight everyone suffers.
Theatre has always been imaginative when it comes to making do, or seeing another way of doing things. That’s great but it would be a pity to completely compromise standards. But if there was ever a time to think outside the box it is now.
This certainly works well in the case of The National Theatre of Scotland with it’s tag line ‘ Theatre Without Walls’, but then they have proper funding coming from Creative Scotland. But just how do smaller companies survive when there is such competition for funds?
During Christmas 2018 with the family show I composed and wrote with David Stoll called “ Little Fir Tree’ we just about managed it, by happily aligning ourselves with an inner city Tree Planting Project supported by The Woodland Trust and also through establishing LFT Productions whose philosophy it is to ‘... Bring Forest Magic to the Inner City. In that way we were able to set up Tree Awareness workshops in schools and at the same time get good publicity for the staged concert at Kings Place. In this way everyone was able to benefit and we also got a good mixed demographic in our audience.
The question is, where is the future funding coming from? Sean Egan , journalist for the ‘Stage’ mentioned a couple of years back that support from local authorities had crashed in the past three years , down 21% according to Arts Index and it is set to fall further.
Competition for funding from Trusts and Foundations has greatly increased and the Art Index reports corporate giving over the last three years has fallen 36%.
So how do Theatre Companies react to these circumstances and who is paying the creatives to create, or indeed paying the performers to perform?
Co-productions are one answer of course, and many theatre companies are doing just that, but it’s easier to say than actually do. It takes time to establish a relationship. It doesn’t just happen overnight. My concern is that if all organisations are stretched we are all going to suffer from lack of funds.
It stands to reason that if the old ways of working are becoming redundant, then a new way of thinking must emerge.
Am I open to new ideas.? Yes...I really am, so please send them my way!
Photo - New Strictly dancer Johannes Radebe.
On Saturday, I really Iucked out. I was at the Strictly Studios in Elstree as the guest of my good friend Kim Appleby. And of course because she is who she is...we had front row seats. So thank-you Kim!
In fact the front row was turbo charged with special people. To one side of me was Will Bayleytt’s Mum. If you watch Strictly you will know her son is the Gold Medal Paralympic Athlete who dances with Janette. They gave an amazingly moving performance on Saturday night, which saw the pair go straight to the top of the leader board and I can tell you first hand, his parents were over the moon!
Next to them was Cheryl (Cole), looking ultra trim and glamorous. Could we be looking at a potential celeb dancer for next year perhaps??
On the other side of me was Kim of course and then two of Alex Scott’s friends (Football pundit, dancing with Neil Jones) Her friends were from the Arsenal Woman’s Football Team. Fortuitously, they had brought several packets of sweets with them that they were happy to share with us, which as it turned out was a good thing.
By now you will have guessed that I am a big fan of the show. Seeing the pro dancers close up and personal was a treat and they are every bit as fabulous in the flesh as on TV. I was completely knocked out by the new dancer Johannes, dancing with Eve Price. (Coronation Street) In the Pro routine at the top of the show on Sunday past he was dancing in five inch heels...yikes!
My respect for the show is total. But now, I have a new respect for ‘the audience’ too. Being in the audience I can tell you, is a full on experience. You don’t just get to sit there and take in the show. No Sir,…you have to work!
After surrendering our mobiles to security staff we went into the studio at 4:30 in the afternoon. By the way, you may not believe this but many people had actually slept over night outside the studios to get their coveted seats.
Anyway we were all seated at 5:30 pm and after five hours of animated happiness and lots of clapping, not to mention the numerous standing ovations, we all trooped out again at 10:30 pm, exhausted from all that smiling.
That said we did get a twenty -minute break in the middle to stretch our legs and have the tin of water and a biscuit supplied by the BBC. We had been warned that ‘hospitality’ was thin on the ground so we’d actually taken the precaution of stuffing a sandwich in our handbags; which you definitely can’t pull out in the front row of Strictly.
But hey, am I complaining, absolutely not. It was a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing the best live show on T.V. The Strictly Dancers and the Celebs absolutely rocked it and they totally deserve the acclaim they receive for all the hard work they put in. And supporting them to achieve the highest standards is an excellent back stage crew, that make Strictly Come Dancing, the hottest ticket in town.
Every year as the date of September the 11th rolls around, I think of my own strange ‘other worldly’ experience as I reluctantly found myself in a re-enactment documentary being filmed just nine months after the terrible tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York.
My agent Jacque rang up to send me for an audition to which I was not anxious to go. I was to be considered for the part of the senior Flight attendant who went down on United Airlines Flight 93 in Philadelphia on its way to San Francisco on September 11th 2001. Apparently I looked just like the girl involved. This special documentary was to go out on ITV prior to the anniversary.
I was not enthusiastic. I intensely dislike documentaries with bits reenacted. I phoned my agent back to tell her that I didn’t I want to go for the interview. I felt that this film was being made too soon after the tragedy while emotions were still running high and I was concerned about the stress it might bring to the relatives. This was not a job for me.
However, Jacque told me that I had got it wrong, that in fact the relatives of the passengers on Flight 93 wanted the story to be told and that they had already filmed the interviews with them in the States.
So, against my better judgment, and to keep my agent happy, I agreed to go to the audition secretly hoping that there would be someone else more suitable to play the part than me.
As I walked through the door to the audition, the assistant to the director handed me the script to read over in the waiting room before going in to meet the director. The script was a transcript of a conversation made to a loved one in the last half an hour before the flight came down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The air hostess was called Sandy Bradshaw and she was asking her husband for ideas on how to stop the hijackers. She then began telling him how much she loved him and thanked him for being a great Father.
Two minutes later the director’s assistant came back into the room and asked if I was ready to meet the director. I said yes, and took a deep breath, and nervously followed behind. As I entered the room, I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Chris, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the director, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the actress ---the one you asked about-- Megg Nicol”
“Amazing, you look so different---of course I had forgotten you were an actress ”,
Chris looked embarrassed. The assistant looked totally confused.
“I guess you know each other--”
“Oh, yes we do, Chris lives in my street .....he’s just never seen me looking smart before. Well I guess I can go now, you wouldn’t want to be working with your neighbour, I totally understand. I got up to leave.
“No, don’t go--” said Chris “You might as well read the script, at least---since you‘ve come for an interview”
I hesitated. “OK, but you don’t need to give me this job, I wouldn’t be here if you’d known who I was, if you see what I mean”
I picked up the script and began to read it out loud. But it was weird, it didn’t feel like reading a normal script, it felt strange, as if “I” had temporarily stepped aside and the words were “speaking “ themselves. I was feeling every word ...as if I was living it.
When it came to the last few lines I could hardly get them out I was sobbing. The emotion beneath the words burned in my heart for the ones she was leaving behind. I stopped reading. We were all visibly moved.
“I’m so sorry”, I stammered searching for a tissue.
“No, that was just right---thanks for coming in to see me”, said Chris kindly.
I was glad the interview was over. Three days later my agent rang up to tell me I’d got the job. I still felt very uneasy about the whole thing but since I knew and trusted Chris, I agreed to do it
For those of you who might not be familiar with the story of United Airline Flight 93-- Newark to San Francisco. It was the fourth flight to be hijacked on September 11th, 2001. What made this flight different from the other three was a decision reached by the passengers about forty minutes into the air to bring the flight down after they had learned on their cell phones that they were likely to be flown into a building as the fourth plane in a series of suicide missions.
The filming was being done at a small airport near Bournemouth. I met the cast early Sunday morning, as we boarded a coach in London that would take us to the location. I was slightly relieved to find that we all felt similarly apprehensive, the most nervous of all being the four guys who would play the “hijackers” who thought we might not speak to them! As we exchanged chit chat about the people on the flight I was stunned by the strange coincidences involved. I met “Sandy Bradshaw” the flight attendant whose cell phone conversation they had used as an audition piece for the job. She looked perfect for the part. I was cast as Deborah Welsh the senior flight attendant in charge and my colleague in First Class was Wanda Green (her real name being Wendy Brown). Everyone was extremely friendly.
Reality struck as the coach pulled into the airport hangar and we saw the plane that would be our base for the next few days. After lunch, we tried on our air hostess outfits and went into the make up caravan for the make-up artists to see what work they needed to do to affect similarities to the “real” people. They had photos of all the people on Flight 93 in the caravan. Amazingly, as we walked through the door
they were able to tell who we were playing by just looking at us.
In my own case as I looked at the photos on the wall. I saw one of myself in a “T” shirt that I couldn’t remember having taken. Then on a closer look I realised the photo wasn’t of me at all but Deborah Welsh; the person I would represent. If I needed confirmation that I should be there, this was it, I was ready.
A properly trained air stewardess demonstrated what would be expected of us aboard a normal flight. The sort of things as a passenger you would take for granted, like greeting people and checking their names off the list, showing them to their seats, safety checks, announcements, serving breakfast; the full routine. The difference being that I was “standing in” for Deborah, a poor substitute for the real thing taking boarding cards from passengers aboard Flight 93.
It was a beautiful day and I was working in First Class with Wanda Green. There were ten passengers in First class and I know where each one of them sat. One passenger Mark Bingham was late, he had apparently overslept and his friend Matthew had driven him crazily through Manhattan to Newark to make the Flight. I helped re-open the door for him and let him on the plane. He sat in aisle seat 4D, just across the aisle from Tom Burnett, husband of Deena and father to three girls. Wanda Green served him a welcome drink of orange juice. He could have had champagne.
The hijackers boarded separately. Ziad Jarrah sat in 1B to the right, in the very front seat near my station. Ahmed Al Haznawi a twenty-year-old student from Saudi Arabia sat in 6B to the right and Al Nami and Al Ghamdi sat together on the left in 3C and 3D. They were all in their twenties. There was nothing unusual about their behaviour at that point.
Just after Wanda and I had served breakfast, which everyone had happily tucked into, Flight 93 was near cruising altitude. It was then that a message came
through from United Control Tower warning pilots in the air of potential “cockpit intrusion”, translated as; some passenger might try to seize the plane.
It was a few minutes after 9:a.m. as our flight left the East Coast and hundreds of miles behind us that the World Trade Centre was in flames. At this point Flight 93 had now reached 31,000 feet and was flying at 515 mph.
Suddenly, 40 minutes into the flight, three of the hijackers stood up, put on red bandannas and killed passenger Mike Rothenburg in 5B directly behind Mr.Burnett. It all happened so quickly and now they were heading my way. I was standing between them and the cockpit of the plane. There was no escape. They were screaming for the key to the cockpit, which I had secured in my pocket some 35 minutes before. I struggled as one of them grabbed my hair and waved his knife threateningly.
Although I was terrified, I wouldn’t give in, not for the safety of my passengers, my husband, the plane, my life. I screamed till it hurt, then fell to the floor.
Three young actors with red bandannas were standing over me, one helped me up and the other apologised for hurting me. I walked out onto the boarding ramp for some air, it was all over. I was alive but Deborah Welsh was not.
Over the next few days I witnessed actors delivering their lines from the transcripts of conversations held on mobile phones during the final 40 minutes of that tragic flight. Most passengers were aware that it could be the last time they had a chance to share a moment with their loved ones.
These people were united in a terrifying ordeal. Yet determined that the plane should not become a missile in the hands of fanatics, they hatched a plan. Not fueled by hatred, or revenge, but through concern that if they didn’t try to bring the plane down themselves many more innocent people might die.
Sandy Bradshaw who had been trained never to spill coffee over anyone was now standing in the galley kitchen in Economy pouring boiling water into large jugs. They waited till the plane was flying over open fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then Todd Beamer gave the now familiar signal, “Let’s Roll” and some of the passengers stormed the cockpit armed with boiling water.
At 10:06 the radar screen at Air Traffic Control in Cleveland went blank. United Airlines Flight 93 had disappeared from the screen. Thirty-seven people united for short period of time defiant in the face of death, an ordinary cross-section of travelers sharing a common fate. They have been hailed as heroes and certainly they acted with amazing courage. However none of those thirty-seven passengers would have described themselves in that way.
In the forty minutes between the hijacking and the plane crashing there were some extraordinary transformations, many moments of enlightenment. Thanks to modern cell phone technology, these moments have been preserved for us to consider. Although the contents of the conversations were unique in themselves each one was carrying the same message.
There was only one thing that was important. That “something” was more important than life itself. Something that no person could take away, but something when given away, more of it would flood into your life. When there was nothing left, when all the outer layers of the personality had been tossed aside. When the ego had become silent and still, there was only one thing remaining, transmitting across the airwaves and radiating like a precious beacon above the skies in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And that was “Love”. Love sharp enough to cut through the fear and transcend all evil.
When I was asked to play the part of Deborah Welsh I had been frightened about what I might find out aboard that flight. Worried that the horror would be too much and that I might blur the boundaries between being ‘just myself’and an actress and access energy I’d rather not experience.
However, I did “feel” the energy and to my astonishment the experience was quite overwhelmingly positive and not at all what I was expecting. Love was by far the strongest emotion on that flight and with it came an extraordinary peace as the passengers accepted their final destiny.
When the documentary was broadcast, thanks to the sensitivity of the director Chris Oxeley the message of “love” came across loud and clear. In a small and humble way, I do believe I was meant to do that job simply perhaps to act as a “voice” for those who could no longer speak for themselves, so people might understand a little of the spiritual aspect to their story.
I leave you with the words that Patrick Welsh spoke at Deborah’s eulogy, which to me say it all.
“As we think about Debbie and our loved ones lost, the transformation from their tragedy is not found in the smoldering rubble and scarred skyline of our great city. It’s not found in the broken walls of our proud Pentagon. It’s not found in the charred crater of courage and those gentle fields of Pennsylvania. Our transformation is not found in the murderous malevolence of madmen. Tragedy transforms us through Divine rescue of boundless love and unlimited compassion. It’s in our ability to care for one another that separates us from the monsters that wound us. Our care for one another has forever transformed us. That is Debbie’s legacy, the world’s legacy”
Versatility has always been an essential ingredient for a career within the Arts but the ability to think outside the box is even more important today.
So when one opportunity goes cold you are already thinking about the next one. Of course that means that you have to be alert and aware of trends within the industry as well as having the foresight see into the future.
When I was lecturing on the MA Music Management and Artist Development degree at London College of Music as I introduced myself I would always say to the students.
‘I guess you might be wondering, if I am so successful, why I am actually lecturing to you guys. Well, the answer is simple, I am here to pick your brains and to learn from you, because you are the future and if I want to continue to do the job I love, I need to know how you think and what’s important’
Usually this made them laugh, but I was deadly serious.
Weirdly the current climate of seeming chaos is not such an unfamiliar one to anyone involved in Entertainment and we are better equipped than most to deal with it. Our industry is full of ‘ duckers and divers’ and personally ....I’m proud of being one of them.
One of the most valuable things that a lecturer at Drama College ever said to me was.
‘In the Theatre dear, always remember the word ‘NO’ doesn’t exist. If someone says ‘ can you ride a horse? juggle ? tap dance ?......the answer is always ‘YES’. Then you bloodywell learn how to do it!’
(I took his word for it and actually I once got a West End role that involved tap dancing by doing the one and only tap dance step I knew wearing a huge grin and giving it lots of welly)
And now? Well, I’m not about to give up now am I? Of course not. There’s lots going on and this is when ‘thinking out of the box’ is essential.
So what’s out there? Where does the next opportunity lie and who are the ones trying to make things happen and take those chances?
Clue...they are young. They are talented. They have a passion that lies beyond making money. They meet in a warehouse in Dalston and they try out their Art. It’s not safe...it’s a bit messy. You can make mistakes and they are all willing to listen and learn. I am probably the oldest person there and I only qualify because I have spoken to various inanimate objects as part of my career as a Children’s TV presenter and now I want to know what gives inanimate objects life.
This is ‘Puppet Jam’ , a group of people who are breathing life into Puppets , objects and ideas, who want to share their passion with others.
You will hear more about them soon.