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”
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As a performer Megg has starred in four West End Musicals; BUDDY, BLOCKHEADS, I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD plus SPIKE MILLIGAN AND FRIENDS and supporting roles in others.
Megg was in the first cast of the show BUDDY that ran for twelve years in the West End, London and it a was a real energy busting roller coaster of a show. At the audition she was asked if she could play any musical instruments and she told them guitar and violin... however she hadn’t in fact played violin since she was at school. Then on the first day of rehearsals she was told to bring her ‘fiddle’ to discover she was being featured as a fabulous fiddle playing country artist with a country band.
Megg says: ‘A good fiddle player I am not so I was totally freaked to have a solo in the number and at my first attempt to play it the cast roared with laughter’ I had to practice a lot... and in the end I played on the cast album too.....which incidently happened to go Platinum...probably no thanks to me’
BLOCKHEADS was the story of Laural and Hardy and Megg played Stan Laurel’s mistress Mae Daelburg. Life was never easy with Mae.
Megg played Alice twice in I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD. Once in at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue with Ben Cross and Diane Langton and then at The Edinburgh Festival with Gretchen Cryer the writer and original Broadway star.
SPIKE MILLIGAN AND FRIENDS started as a tour of the country that ended up in the West End with Megg playing second on the bill to Spike.
Megg says: ‘ This experience is actually worthy of a chapter in itself I first met Spike doing a recording session for a musical he was writing with Ed Welsh...and we got on really well, thus leading to the show. I learned a lot from Spike about ‘how to improvise ‘ on stage. He used to announce me by saying ‘ Brought up by the Nuns and brought down by me.....’
And at the Royal Command performance we did of the show he called Prince Charles ..’Trainee King’
Before moving to London from Scotland Megg acted with PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE, ROYAL LYCEUM, PERTH REP , DUNDEE REP and she also did various Folk tours as a singer/songwriter working with Scottish Folk bands such as FINN MACUILL and hosting and singing on TV series like STOVIES with Alistair Mac Donald also SOUNDS OF SCOTLAND that featured acts like RUNRIG, THE MACALLMANS or BARBARA DICKSON.
However she did not want to be totally defined in that genre and eventually she moved to London to try her hand at musicals.
Her first major break through on arriving in London was to land an understudy role in FIRE ANGEL which was a multi –million pound rock opera of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE choreographed by ARLENE PHILIPS and directed by BRAHAM MURRAY. This lasted for exactly six weeks in the West End but in that time Megg’s understudy role turned into a major part when the star dropped out. It was during one of these performances she was spotted and asked to audition for a show that went into rehearsals just after the closesure.
Ironically it was a gig singing in Gaelic as a solo performer at the LONDON PALLADIUM for an amazing Celtic ice ballet with JOHN CURRY ; so the Scottish Folk connection was perfect for that.
At the time she was also in a couple of bands 'FLICKS' and 'GIRL FRIDAY' which was Megg’s attempt at being a punk and as she says...
‘ We had a single out that John Peel loved ‘ TUNING IN’ but basically I looked too wholesome to pull it off ...’
However the wholesome image plus a great interest in pop music and songwriters led to her Presenting and singing on various network TV series of the time ..POP QUEST being one. This was a quiz program that was recorded at Yorkshire TV as live. Megg Presented it with MIKE READ.
After that came GET IT TOGETHER that she presented with ROY NORTH and OLLIE BEAK..one of her favorite owls.
Plus others BEST DISCO IN TOWN, STOVIES, GATHER ROUND, MUSICAL JOURNEY plus guest spots on several others, POP GOSPEL, SONGBOOK, POP THE QUESTION and a few TV specials such as GIRLS FOR GERSHWIN, GRETCHEN CRYER SPECIAL.
In three weeks our show ‘The Drummer Boy of Waterloo’ premieres in Aldeburgh with Jubilee Opera, at the Jubilee Hall and I have to say I am beginning to feel very excited...
Its actually the weekend of November 7th and 8th.
“Having the chance to ‘do’ animation voices is like most things in the business and depends on lots of luck and being in the right place at the right time plus also having the ability to actually do the job.
My chance to do ‘ Voices’ came while I was performing in the West End. A good friend from BUDDY had hooked up with a musician and producer who specialsied in voice–overs and just happened to need an actress who could play ‘crazy’ American kids and Moms in a cartoon series called BAMBOO BEARS.
I was given a ‘try-out’ gig but I was strangely qualified to do the job since I had been born in Canada and lived in the US as a child...so I had a good ear for the accent....”
Interestingly this was just at the start of the Canadian and US animation companies recording their voices in the UK because it was cheaper. ( UK companies often record their voices using American accents too for the world market )
Even the popular UK series 64 ZOO LANE was redubbed in US accents for FOX TV and Megg was one of the two actresses that revoiced it.
Cut to the present day and Megg has now voiced hundreds of animations.
As part of a team of four voice-artists KATE ROBBINS, BOB SAKER and DAN RUSSELL of CHARACTER DEVELOPMENTS... (all songwriters and musicians by the way) Megg voiced MEME’S GANG and the series MEME AND MR. BOBO playing her regular characters OLGA and BIG MIKE plus MEME’S MOM and others as necessary.
Since most cartoon series are done in huge batches the scripts are sight read and the characters are dished out on the spot depending on what’s needed...
“It’s brilliant fun but not for the faint hearted.... I’ve discovered silly things like my ‘dog’ barking skills are more suited to being a terrier rather than a labrodour for instance....and you must feel completely happy swapping from one voice to the other as you will certainly end up at some point ‘talking to yourself “
Her animation series include fifty–two episodes of TITEUF playing EDDY and other characters such as Titeufs Mum and some of the other kids.
NINI’S TREEHOUSE playing OOPAGOGO was a very tricky series to voice’.
The scripts did not sync with what was on screen so I used to have to watch the sequence through..... get the gist of the script and improvise the voices and reactions watching the screen.... No wonder OOPAGOGO was green. So was I by the end of 84 episodes.
It should also be mentioned that Megg did some voices on THE WILLOWS IN WINTER narrated by VANESSA REDGRAVE.
As an independent producer for BBC Radio 2 Megg has written and produced music documentaries.
Megg set up NO LIMIT PRODUCTIONS as a one man band audio-production company to do commissioned production music, special recording projects, voice-overs and talking books.
When Independent Radio production really took off she was well placed to tender for radio programes and as a freelance producer for BBC RADIO TWO she has written and produced two music documentaries so far. One called BUBBLEGUM looking at the teeny bop pop music of the seventies and another ARE WE DOWNHEARTED NO! looking at the life of WARTON DAVID and his son who were both hit songwriters in the early years of the twentieth century.
NO LIMITS also became known for doing high quality audio show reels and their services were in demand from HOBSONS and LIPSERVICE in particular. At the present time she is currently in development with other projects for BBC RADIO 4.
She has also co-produced with JOHN FAULKNER two musicals at the Edinbugh Festivals under the banner KUMQUAT THEATRE PRODUCTIONS , a review CITY LIGHTS and I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING ON THE ROAD with Broadway star and writer GRETCHEN CRYER resulting in a tour as a co-producer of COWARDY CUSTARD with the SWEDISH NATIONAL THEATRE.
In 2018 Megg has joined LFT Productions as creative director tasked with the job of delivering the LITTLE FIR TREE PROJECT. This was an exciting initiative that links the Arts and the Environment with the aim of increasing awareness of the importance of trees in our cities, complimenting the Woodland Trusts inner city tree planting strategy, and cutting down pollution in and near our schools.
At the heart of it is a new family musical called LITTLE FIR TREE based on the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Fir Tree, re-imagined by Megg Nicol & David Stoll which was premiered in London as part of the 2018 Christmas celebrations.
Coinciding with there was also a launch of a ten-week environmental project with workshops for primary schoolchildren supported by the WOODLAND TRUST.
Based in London, Megg is committed to giving back to the Songwriting community that has supported her career by leading workshops such as THE BIG DEMO LISTENING EVENT, SONGSHOP & TALK TO MY MANAGER to give developing songwriters commercial opportunities for their work to be heard.
She also lectures on the postgraduate MA Music Management Degree at London College of Music and has sat on the Songwriter’s Executive of the BRITSH ACADEMY OF SONGWRITERS COMPOSERS AND AUTHORS for many years. Currently she serves on the committee of management for the MEMBER’S BENEVOLENT FUND of PRS FOR MUSIC.
Her first publishing deal was with SPARTA FLORIDA with a song she co-wrote with HAL SHAPER.
"I’ve been writing songs since I got my first guitar at fifteen, but I didn’t get paid for doing it until my third year at Drama College in Edinburgh, when the score hadn’t been sent with the parcel of scripts for an end of term semi-musical production of John Arden’s ‘THE ROYAL PARDON’ . Apparently the publishers had none left and to re-order would be too late. Seeing the director was in a tight spot I volunteered to compose new music to go with the original lyrics and played them to her at the next rehearsal. The director was highly delighted and bought me a bottle of wine...result!
I had no idea at that point that you could actually make money doing what I had just done. I was simply being helpful.
Then in my first radio play for Radio 4 as an actor in CORRESPONDENCES with Marius Goring, I over heard the producer saying they couldn’t get clearance for a song they wanted to use in the play. I cheekily asked what the song was and went home and wrote a new song with the same sentiment. The producer liked it, recorded the song with me singing and this time I got actual money and a contract.
Suddenly, the penny dropped, people needed specially written songs for all sorts of things and producers didn’t always know who to ask to do the job."
Fast forward till now and Megg’s got hundreds of songs under her belt written for BBC and ITV including lots of children’s programs such as LISTENING CORNER.
This daily program ate up lots of material and she often presented it as well as writing the music and scripts.
‘ The show was such a delight to do, especially if it was with someone who had a jolly sense of humour like MICHAEL ROSEN for instance . In that case we presented the program together and I wrote music to some of his fabulous poems and we sang them’
....And there were many others too such as HOPSCOTCH, JIGSAW, KNICKITY KNACKITY, all long running series plus LETS SEE and GATHER ROUND.
Perhaps the most ground breaking was being included on the songwrtiting team of YOUR MOTHER WOULDN’T LIKE IT . This was a naughty teenage light entertainment program that prided itself in doing funny and outrageous sketches that often inlcuded spoof Pop songs. The show was very popular and won a BAFTA in the 'Best Light Entertainment and Drama' Category.
In fact Megg made children’s music a specialty and she has written and produced numerable “Edutainment” products. Such as KID STUFF RADIO, THE SING N” DO SERIES and INSTRUMENTS OF THE ORCHESTRA. Scripts for the animation series THE SECRET LIFE OF BENJAMIN BEAR.
Writing for the theatre has always been important to Megg and in 2015 she collaborated on her first opera with David Stoll co‐writing the words and music for THE DRUMMER BOY OF WATERLOO a children’s opera that Premiered in Aldeburgh with Jubilee Opera.
THE DRUMMER BOY OF WATERLOO is a new children’s opera, commissioned for the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The photos here are by David Herman from the production by Jubilee Opera.... the world premiere.
The opera tells the story of Edward Drew a young lad, who was apprenticed to work in a northern textile mill when his mother died. He’d never known his father, but his father was a soldier, who’d gone to fight Napoleon in France.
Life was not easy at the mill and the children often had to work more than ten hours a day but eventually Edward made friends and settled down.
There was music in him, and the machines had rhythm of their own. Inside his head that rhythm didn’t stop even when the machines did. Edward could often be found drumming on anything he could find from crates to tabletops.
When Edward heard that the army needed boys to send drum signals on the battlefield, and that he would be suitable, he was very excited. However, the mill owner had other ideas; to him, the children were simply machinery to be worked until they were of no more use.
How Edward escaped, and what happened to him at Waterloo, is the story of this opera.
"The music of Nicol and Stoll was easy on the ear and very evocative of the action." Martyn Harrison - Seen and Heard International
"Megg Nicol and David Stoll have composed an attractive and highly effective work that deserves to find a secure place in the repertory of children’s opera. Everyone involved in this auspicious world premier is to be warmly congratulated." Gareth Jones - East Anglian Daily Times
"...Megg and David have created a work which, I'm sure, will enter the repertoire and will be enjoyed by performers and audiences alike for years to come” Chris Butler - Head of Publishing & Rights for the Music Sales Group
"The music is skilfully composed, with a variety of styles and an acute sense of what will work on stage" Gareth Jones - East Anglian Daily Times
"We (Jubilee Opera) were very proud and honoured to be able to give The Drummer Boy his first outing" Jenni Wake-Walker (Director)
Click here to read more about the world Premier.
Drummer Boy of Waterloo photographs courtesy of David Hermon.
Megg wrote ANOTHER ONE FOR THE ROAD with playright David Ian Neville for THE SCOTTISH YOUTH THEATRE which was a political play about the Jarrow March and the Peoples March for Jobs. The songs and music were performed by the cast within the show, with their own rock band.
WASTELAND WARRIOR again was written with David Ian Neville as a contender for HIGHLAND QUEST, the project backed by Cameron Mackintosh for the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness.
The story is set in the normally tranquil Highland town of Lochmuir as the fruit picking season begins. The same traveller family has helped in Donald McIntyre’s farm for over forty years; and they have become friends. But this year there is trouble brewing; as Kieran, the charismatic wayward son of traveller Tipp O’Donnell has brought a radical element to the group that severely disrupts the McIntyre family, the harvest and causes havoc the local community.
HIGHLAND FLING was an ‘alternative Scottish’ two woman show for Triple E-Productions in Sweden, that Megg wrote and performed with Christine Mckenna to full houses in Stockholm.
She also wrote songs for SPIKE MILLIGAN AND FRIENDS, the West End show and tour that was performed, by special request, as a Royal Command Performance for Prince Charles at The Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.
TO YOUR GOOD HEALTH was a children’s show written and peformed with Bernard Shaw and commissioned by the SCOTTISH ARTS COUNCIL.
LASTEST: Megg and David have recently had in 2018 two staged concerts of LITTLE FIR TREE a family musical they wrote inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name.