Judy Garland et al at Quaglino's in the 1960s, the London restaurant where Tommy Watt's first band played. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Meet the parents: Romany and Tom by Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt

The musician’s heart-wrenching memoir of his parents’ long, unhappy marriage.

Romany and Tom
Ben Watt
Bloomsbury Circus, 368pp, £16.99

In April 1958, the BBC screened a documentary called Now We Are Married, which took a “light-hearted look” at the routines of three couples. It was presented by the theatre writer Richard Findlater and his actress wife, Romany Bain, and began at what appeared to be their home, a pebble-dashed suburban house. In the first scene, Findlater was shown leaving for work in his coat and hat, his wife having carefully placed his newspaper in his hand. In the second, viewers saw Bain, elegant in a roll-neck sweater and dark trousers, closing the front door behind him. “I’m an average housewife,” she then said to camera, tilting her chin a little, as if half expecting a fight.

The film spoke of order and contentment: here was a happy couple fulfilling their allotted roles with aplomb and, in the case of Bain, not a little glamour. But nothing was as it seemed. In 1958, Bain was in the throes of a passionate love affair – sometimes it was as debilitating as flu – with Tommy Watt, an immaculately dressed bandleader with exuberant manners and a fondness for the pub. Oh, yes, they had tried to break it off, their respective spouses having found them out. Yet it had been no good. “These last two weeks have been intolerable, unproductive, desolate, blank and quite untenable,” she wrote to him in September 1957. “No work, no love, no nothing.” So, they had continued. It was 1962 before they were free to marry, by which time Bain was carrying her fifth child (her first with Tommy). This baby grew up to be Ben Watt, the musician best known for being half of Everything but the Girl.

In the days after I finished reading Watt’s beautiful, faithful memoir of his parents, Romany and Tom, I pressed it evangelically on friends. It had made me bawl roughly every 30 pages and I predicted it would do the same to them: Watt’s account of his parents’ old age is so full of pity, his slow realisation that he and they had in some sense always been strangers so plangent. As he notes, we know our parents only in the “downhill” stretch of their lives; the golden years happened before we came along.

What tore at my heart, though, was his parents’ relationship with one another. Rom­any and Tom is the story of an increasingly rare thing: a long, unhappy marriage. Forged in the heat of lust and a certain kind of postwar escapism – the Rada-trained Romany is as thwarted a character as you will ever meet, her career having come abruptly to an end when she gave birth to triplets in 1954 – it was doomed from the start by drink and muddled expectations. Yet it survived for more than 40 years. Watt acknowledges the stoicism and devotion in this: his mother stroking his father’s hand as he lies dying. He also understands the fear; she never left her embittered husband, perhaps because she could not bear to fail at marriage twice. He feels the bleakness of it, too, missed opportunities still darkening the room like shadows: “A little murmur escaped from her closed mouth . . . and with it, the tiny moment of tenderness was compromised. . . until it looked more like an evolved tolerance, and on her face was written a faint watermark of disappointment at how it had all turned out.”

How did it curdle, their love? Slowly, Watt tacks back. At first, their lives are full of possibility. Big-band jazz is on its way out but it isn’t so long since Tommy was playing Quaglino’s, recording for George Martin, even picking up an Ivor Novello award (won in 1957, for his composition “Overdrive”). There is hope. As the work dries up, however, the uncompromising Tommy decides he would rather be a decorator than make like Ronnie Hazlehurst, the king of music in the BBC’s light entertainment department, and Romany is left to pick up the financial slack. She works as a journalist, using her theatre contacts – she had been at Stratford with Gielgud – to bag a series of syndicated interviews with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Envious, Tommy returns to drinking. Lonely, Romany joins him. They’re watched by their own one-woman Greek chorus. In the flat downstairs is Eunice, Romany’s mother and, as Watt has it, “her conscience”. His account of his grandmother is very funny indeed.

This is such a rich book, smoky social history – the smog, the strides, the holidays at Pontins – deftly punctuated with some wonderfully unlikely show business vignettes (there are walk-on parts for Romany’s father, the Rev George Bramwell Evens, a children’s broadcaster who stole her name for his nature programme Out With Romany, and to Dick Clement, who gives Watt a preview of the first episode of Porridge). Thanks to the age gap between Watt and his elder half-siblings, he is both an only child and a brother to four, a complex and lonely position, especially once he is marooned with the warring adults. He captures beautifully the unease of the second family – its near-permanent state of truce – without ever passing judgement on its members and connecting his own troubles to their treatment of him.

Most impressive of all is the book’s near-perfect structure. Sly and seamless, its abundant layers offer one of the most complete depictions of a marriage I’ve ever read. Exquisitely restrained, Watt’s technique is to withhold until the right moment. What timing he has! We do not see Romany and Tommy falling in love until the final stages of the book, by which time the drama of their collision feels as necessary as air. Its intensity makes the rest of the story bearable, as it must once also have done for them.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser