Well my friends, we are back on the road as we play out the rest of this year's gigs - this little bunch of Christmas shows will include Basingstoke (tonight) Watford, Nottingham, Blackpool and finally Newcastle (which is not a Christmas show). Since getting back from the Aardman party in Bristol, I have been dipping into the companies biography which I was kindly given and which is pretty inspiring reading.
While there seems to be plenty of work in the diary over the next two years, both at home and abroad, none of us are getting any younger and the fact remains that touring is pretty tiring - especially the longer overseas visits. When I look at some of the old videos of us on youtube, we definitely look a lot older! I remember when I first joined the band in 1995, wearing tuxedos/evening clothes onstage seemed a subversive, ironic thing; a sort of spoof of a real orchestra. Now instead of 'sticking it to the Man' as they used to say in counterculture parlace, we have become 'the Man' - we are part of mainstream entertainment.
This is probably our fifth or sixth time playing the Anvil in Basingstoke (not far from London) and the theatre is modern and the backstage staff all friendly and efficient. As you can see from the picture at the top it was was a wet tuesday and we weren't expecting a big turnout, but we were wrong - the theatre was sold out!
There were also more ukulele players who played with our Christmas 'playalong' than at any of the other shows we've done this year, almost 100. I spied a guy, three rows back, turning the pages of music for his wife, who was the spit of American phiiosopher Noam Chomsky.
And here we are walking out to the signing - Rich displaying his usual bonhomie. Many old friends popped by the desk to say hello - thanks for coming out to see us. Watford tomorrow...
Finally getting a good nights sleep, I woke to find another drizzly day as we prepared to move north to our next gig in Nottingham. I had forgotten to make a note of which floor of the multi storey car park my car was parked on, which meant ten minutes hunting for it. There are four cars/drivers on this short tour: Jamie (tour manager) who carries the merchandise, myself, Ben and Dave, who is in a hire car, as his own car is in the garage. I gave Hester and Leisa a lift - a couple of hours up the motorway to our next gig.
I often see these giant chimneys when I take the train
And so we rolled into Nottingham, the hometown of my favourite crap 1970's band Paper Lace (Billy, Dont be a Hero/The Night Chicago Died) to play at the Theatre Royal.
Hotel view from the fourth floor
The hotel is very close to the theatre in the city centre and so walking distance from the gig and packed with Nigerians - presumably here for a conference at the University - there's a huge student population in Nottingham.
The Theatre Royal has a beautiful facade and plenty of history, but the auditorium inside has been modernised and so is a bit of a disappointment, like something out of Star Wars.
The Ukes check out some of the stickers left by touring companies on lockers next to the stage - there's a lot of people in showbusiness and most of them work on the road.
This was probably one of the best shows on the tour so far in terms of energy levels and audience enthusiasm. It might be something to with the fact that we could see the audience a bit more tonight than our last two shows, certainly, out of an audience of 800/900? at least 100 peeps had brought along their ukuleles and the playalongs are going over really well.
I took some photos of these wonderful old playbills last time we played here and so here's another featuring the great British singer Gracie Fields.
Comfy sofas in this theatre so here's some backstage beefcake for you - here's the blonde...
and here's the brunette.....
Hester leads the way as we walk out to sign
I notice that when it comes to signing, which we did plenty of tonight - Dave sometimes signs his name on By Request next to his silhouette and draws an arrow to it. A couple of times I've tried to wind him up and drawn an arrow from my own name, before he has a chance to sign. Maybe I should get the whole band to just sign their names as Spartacus on the album - that would be a REAL collectors edition.
I woke up to another wet and windy day and checked out of the Basingstoke hotel at midday. The drive to Watford (our next gig) was about an hour - I'd had a pretty terrible nights sleep - no fault of the hotel which was perfectly comfortable. Watford is a pretty bland satellite town of London, most famous for being the birthplace of Elton John and boxer Anthony Joshua.
After dropping my bags at the hotel (in the centre) and spending an hour lying on the bed trying to have a nap, I gave up and went out to the shopping centre to have something to eat and look around. Shopping centres, or malls as they call them in the States, dominate a lot of British towns and it is my patriotic duty as a citizen of this great country to buy as much stuff as possible, use it for a while and then throw it away before buying some more - its almost a national sport.
After stopping off for a bite to eat at Yo Sushi, I continued my morbid meander around town, feeling like some kind of ownerless dog and wound up at St Mary's Churchyard, one of the oldest churches in Watford.
Just behind the church are the Bedford Almshouses (above) constructed in 1580 and still in use, they were built "for eight poor women" according to the sign. I had a wander through the graveyard of the church looking at the gravestones.
A rather sentimental and condescending poem about this poor guy who was abducted and sold into slavery.
And so I wandered back to the hotel and picked up my stuff and set off for the theatre, carrying my stuff alongside the five lane highway (in the rain) until it was time to cross, whereupon I made a timed dash for it. This is the preposturously named Colosseum Theatre, where we have played once before a couple of years ago.
Will and Hester in our dressing room, with a plaque in the background - apparently they recorded the music to the film Star Wars in here as the accoustic is very good.
There was a bit of confusion over our dinner, when the theatre brought out seven vegetarian meals and three pork bellies - its all food to me! Speaking of which, I noticed this story about McDonalds which means I'll have to give them a wide berth on tour for the foreseeable future.
Once again, the show went over well - I sneaked this picture while we were coming back for the encore. While we were signing, a short middle aged man with a strong Italian accent told me that I need to work on my vowels - in the Italian song I sing - Parlami d'Amore Mariu. Instead of telling him to go and learn to speak English properly. I gave him my best rictus grin, looked into his eyes and said "thanks for listening". After we'd finished signing we all went and posed for a Christmas photo - last year I remember we did one by the side of the road in Germany in the snow.
And finally, Hester lent Ben one of her hair extensions, which I'm sure you'll agree make a very fine toupee - I bet he gets all the chicks!
I'm usually a bit jaded when I watch awards shows on tv: that x actor or y actress is 'proud' or 'humbled' by the occasion, or 'honoured' to be there etc etc. So it was a bit of a surprise to be at an occasion where I felt precisely all those emotions!
Will on the ferry (looking good!)
We had been invited to play at a celebration party given by Aardman Animations in Bristol, after they had announced that the founders and CEO's Peter Lord and David Sproxton had given 75% of the company over to their employees (including freelancers) to maintain the companys independence for the future. This is an extraordinary act of altruism and generosity, when you consider thay could have sold the entire shebang to Disney for zillions and pissed off to the Bahamas. The company itself - speaking purely as an observer reflects their ethos: friendly, laid back and bursting with ideas.
They had decided to throw a fantastic beanfest for all their employees and since they are longtime fans of the Ukes - we had played at their headquarters once before - can't remember when, but Hester said she was pregnant and her daughter is now 6 years old.
So I drove down from Buxton with Will to Bristol and we checked into the hotel and then, after something to eat, headed over to Aardman to soundcheck and set up; our changing room was Peter and David's office - all CEO's should have offices like this!
Aardman (in case you haven't heard of them are a huge animation company) and their offices are vast. They have won Oscars four times apparently and their hits include Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit. Here's Richie walking to soundcheck.
Hester has her eye examined by a minature Doug (our sound guy)
George was back in the fold for this gig and so, with the addition of Dave Bowie, we were nine - we don't often play with that many! The stage was set up in the foyer under one of their famous sheep from Wallace and Gromit (I think).
It was a fantastic party and although we got a few people dancing, I think that most peeps were just enjoying the vibe and kept talking - it was a pleasure to play for them all (listening or not). We did two sets and when we came back for the second set, I had the chance to listen to some of David's speech to the assembled revellers/employees: he said that he'd been talking to a friend who'd just come back from the States, visiting some animation place where 'everybody was working their guts out' 'making other people rich'. He then said that everyone at Aardman could work their guts out 'to make themselves rich' - to appreciative whoops from the throng.
Pointing at a slightly incongruous model of a Spitfire airplane hanging from from the ceiling, he said he had been asked why it had been placed there among all the party bunting etc. David explained that he had always loved aviation and recently he had had the chance to go up in one of these venerable aircraft (with an instructor). At a certain point in the flight the instructor passes over control of the airplane with the phrase "Do you have control", to which the junior pilot has to answer clearly "I have control." Since David and Peter won't be there forever, their employees will have control - I thought it a highly appropriate metaphor for the future of the company.
Peter (left) and David (right) came backstage (or more correctly, back to their offices - strewn with our detritus) to say thank you and chat. Neither of them are at all showbizzy or grand and are just basically two low key talented guys. I chatted to Emily, Peter's American PA who told me that when Peter was dithering over getting a new car (price, performance etc) and in the end she had to say to him, "Peter just go into a shop and BUY A CAR!"
The famous Aardman model "Morph" is positioned alongside one of our ukes for a photo op!
Some wonderful comments from employees under this hashtag.
Walking back to the hotel afterwards in the rain, I remembered a conversation with a friend I had back in the 90's - he had postulated than in the 21st century, the nation state would be dead and Globalism would rule: people would no longer say, I'm a British person, I'm a Venezualan or I'm from Kazakhstan. Instead people would say: I'm a Coca Cola person, I'm a Sony person or I'm a Disney person.
With the current political climate, I mused I wouldn't mind being an Aardman person - and Bristol is quite a cool place as well.
Jonty insisted on taking a photo of me at our Dartford gig saying since I was always writing about my colleagues, I ought to appear in my own blog - so here I am. Anyway - we’re off up to Buxton in Yorkshire today and, tired of the endless podcasts I listen to and in a sentimental mood, I spent the journey being serenaded by the long forgotten melodies of Franz Lehar and Ivor Novello - I don’t know anyone else who listens to this sort of stuff (the Ivor Novello playlist on Spotify has zero followers!). I sometimes think I must be a heterosexual trapped in a homosexuals body - I even quite like a bit of Judy Garland too.......
Speaking of which I havent told you about my log - since my car is 10 years old and has a radio but not a bluetooth connection, I have bought a 'log' speaker which does the job perfectly. Richie was the first in the band to get one of these type of speakers and now we've all got one.
And as I predicted, here's me, fenced in by a couple of lorries, going over the QE2 bridge at Dartford where we played only a few days ago.
The journey, which the travel app predicted would take 5 hours, took an extra two and a half hours (7.5 hours in total) which meant I missed the rehearsal I had so carefully left early to attend. On the M50, I couldn't help but admire the facade of this cafe which I passed slowly, in one of the many traffic jams I encountered on the way.
Backstage at Buxton
We've done Buxton many times before and, as Jonty is not doing these gigs, we have drafted in Dave Bowie on bass (real name and an old associate of the band from its earliest days) to do this show.
Despite my tiredness, the show went over well, I notice now that when I am tired, my voice looses its power, and since we ammended the setlist to accomodate numbers that Dave Bowie was familiar with, I sang 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' again with a mellow, nay, almost croonerish voice.
So after the show, it was back to bed for Bonzo (me) but to for long, since I had foolishly agreed to do a local radio interview (which turned out to be at 7am) - in the end, several of the band came along to play a few tunes outside the theatre in the freezing cold, wherupon it started raining - happy days.......