Simon Broughton talks to English playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot and many other successful shows, about his love of music
Writer Lee Hall was born in Newcastle. And it’s not hard to see how the city’s popular culture has influenced much of his work. He was learning violin at school, when, aged around nine, he heard a group playing Irish music. “It was incredible. I spoke to the lead fiddler and he said you should come to Comhaltas, the Irish cultural house. It took place in this monastery in Newcastle and we got taught by Father Alban every Saturday afternoon. He’d start us off on a few reels and would then go off and marry people and come back and see how we were getting on. Kathryn [Tickell] also came along. She already played pipes and fiddle, but wanted to learn Irish music. I remember her coming back from a trip to Shetland and showing me how to play the fiddle behind my back.”
Thanks to Alistair Anderson, Tickell and others, the reputation of Northumbrian music has grown. But back then it was popular locally. “The Bridge Hill Hotel had this folk club and there was a thriving scene. The High Level Ranters were mini stars to me. We had their records at home. My parents weren’t into folk music, but they identified with the High Level Ranters because they were local people singing local songs.”
“My first bit of culture was seeing music like that. At fleadhs and competitions, you’d see that the best piccolo player was a bus conductor and that extraordinary artistry and ordinary life were not separated in that culture at all. That’s what music has been like for the last seven millennia and it’s only now that it’s been somehow professionalised.”
Hall’s school violin teacher was of a different persuasion. “She saw the music of the Irish reels in my violin case and said ‘What are you doing with these?’ I said I go on a Saturday and play these reels. She said ‘not with a school violin, you don’t,’ and she took it away. She said it would ruin my technique. It was a weird sort of prejudice.”
For his playlist, Hall has picked Kathryn Tickell’s track ‘Rothbury Hills’ from her Best Of album. “I think it is a tune written originally by Jack Armstrong who was an official piper to the Duke of Northumberland. He was famous for his slow airs of which this is one. I also believe Jack was originally a miner and would have been about the same age as the Pitmen Painters of Ashington who I’ve written about. It’s all part of a rich seam of working-class creativity in the north-east of which Kathryn is such a champion. She’s been exemplary in bringing on the next generation of musicians and seeing it as a continuum.”
Two of Hall’s most successful works grew out of these working-class roots. The Pitmen Painters, a brilliant play about miners becoming painters, premiered in Newcastle in 2007 and has since played at the National Theatre in London, on Broadway and around the world. Billy Elliot, about a young Geordie boy’s passion for ballet, was originally a film and then a hugely successful musical with songs by Elton John.
Hall has very fond memories of his local record library in Wallsend. “They had this amazing collection of pop, jazz, classical and world music. Now I know a bit more about it, I can see it was very well curated and managed. I borrowed loads every week. I learned a lot. At that time there were these record companies – like Nonesuch and Ocora – going out and making these amazing ethnographic recordings. I got into Alan Lomax’s recordings of American music and, through him, the traditions of all these other countries.”
When he went to Cambridge University to study English, he transferred his allegiance to the local record library there. “I remember in my first year at Cambridge hearing the Paris concerts of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I couldn’t believe my ears; it seemed like the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. I also saw the Sabri Brothers in North Carolina. It was a community gig and I was the only white face in the place. People were running up and putting money on stage.”
Another record Hall found in Cambridge was of a Peruvian brass band. Sadly he hasn’t been able to identify the original recording, but says that the band on Smithsonian Folkways’ Mantaro Valley disc has the same sort of character. “It is the energy of the thing I adore. Often in the theatre, if music is too polished as in a concert, it doesn’t really work. I’m often in a kind of fight with the musical people to make it rougher. So something like the Peruvian music seems very theatrical. It conjures up an event and place that it wouldn’t do if it was more slickly performed.”
Hall had seen the South African theatre group Isango a few times in London before going to work with them in Cape Town. “They integrate music with everything they do,” he says. English-born Mark Dornford-May took his knowledge of the European theatre canon to work in a South African context. “We were going to do a version of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle – an African version, with a Rwandan background. South Africa and Canada are the only places where Brecht is out of copyright and the Brecht estate is a nightmare and don’t let you touch anything. So this seemed a great possibility.” Sadly the financing didn’t work out, but thanks to Isango’s musical director Mandisi Dyantyis, Hall got a great introduction to Xhosa choral singing. The track Hall has selected for his playlist is a traditional Xhosa lullaby performed by the Isango ensemble.
“Britain is such a literary place and drama is taught from a literary point of view which is only half the story. More and more I’ve realised that music and theatre are inseparable,” says Hall. “All those Greek plays were sung, Japanese classical theatre traditions are all sung and the Indian ones as well. There’s this blip of European theatre from the last 150 years dominated by realism. So my journey as a dramatist has been a journey through music. Most drama I do now has music at its heart.”
His final track is from Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali who he heard on the radio last year. “I was struck by the amazing combination of something from a very strong tradition with that psychedelic guitar sound and her singing on top. I think I’m always interested in new and surprising sounds. I went to see her at the Barbican.”
Hall admits that he feels music very directly, very physically. “I think it’s under-used in British theatre, although my generation has absorbed the influence of more physical European companies. But music is the most direct way to affect people emotionally. It’s like magic.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #120 (August/September 2016). Subscribe to Songlines.
One of the tracks Lee Hall selected for his playlist was Noura Mint Seymali’s ‘Eguetmar’.