The sounds of raucous laughter and guilty whispers of sexual innuendo have been echoing around the The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room since the cast and creative team first met in January. Amongst the revelry, Bellowhead’s Pete Flood has brought together the sounds of the eighteenth century to create the musical backdrop for the production. We caught up with him to find out about the process.
What’s it like working on Fanny Hill?
It’s brilliant, really pleasurable actually. It’s quite different to a lot of the theatre that I’ve done before. I’ve worked with companies like Fevered Sleep where the team have taken a devised approach, starting from nothing and building something, whereas Fanny Hill is very definitely something and it’s just a matter of shaping into what you want it to be.
And it’s just really funny! Everyone is always cracking jokes and goofy around, it’s very entertaining. There’s never a moment where the cast are flagging or working at half mast, everyone is always full of energy! The other day we worked into the night and I was sat at the back, slumped over my piano, and the cast were still bursting with energy and really on it. The focus is brilliant and this amazes me.
It always strikes me that musicians are very much specialists and for an actor its seems that the thinner you can spread yourself, in terms of having choreography skills, language skills or musical skills, the better you are. So, as a musician, when I walk into a room full of actors I feel totally inadequate. These people do everything well!
You’ve been a member of the band Bellowhead for over 10 years and you have a background working in Theatre but how have you found yourself as the Musical Director on Fanny Hill?
I think Tom Morris recommended me actually. Tom knows me from way back when we worked at the Battersea Arts Centre together. The last thing I was involved with there was a puppetry production of Stravinsky’s Soldiers Tale. The music for this is hugely complex and we did it with a full cast of musicians with me leading it from behind a drum kit. We didn’t use a conductor as we wanted the piece to feel loose and fir the musicians to really know the music. It had a kind of rough and ready feel but was one of those pieces where everything gelled and came together. That’s where I first worked with Tom and I guess started me down a theatrical route.
Have those initial experiences at Batersea Arts Centre informed how you’re working on Fanny Hill?
I like to throw lots of ideas at a wall, for a number of reasons. If you take an approach of “this is how it is” or “this is how its going to be” when working on something creatively you’re narrowing your focus to the point where its not fun anymore. And keeping things fun is very important. For instance there’s a huge amount instruments in the rehearsal room cupboard which I dragged out and got everyone to mess around on just to see where they led, and that’s really important to me. The other thing is when you’re creating theatre you’re never quite sure where music is going to be needed so if you have a pool of possibilities it stands you in good stead.
What can audiences expect from the music of Fanny Hill?
We’re taking a lot of folk songs from the eighteenth century. Ros has got huge reams of tunes, some of which I’ve written some of which are old folk tunes that I’ve adapted. There are loads of Broadside ballads and I work with these a lot in the music I make with Bellowhead so I’m really familiar with this kind of approach. Its great searching for this kind of music, you can go to the Bodleian Library of Broadside Ballads online and search for songs about burning witches for instance, or put in the key word disease and it comes up with hundreds of tunes.
Michael has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all kinds of things, the first time we met he was singing all kinds of Broadsides that he was familiar with. So we’re performing a few of his ideas. Then we’re also going through books like The English Dancing Master by John Playford and Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy which are full of interesting tunes. When For Ayr I Take My Mare is one we’ve adopted from here which we perform during one of the shagging scenes…it’s incredibly euphemistic!
Describe a particular day in the Fanny Hill rehearsal room.
I tend to sit at the back and keep quiet until I’m needed! Ros, who’s our main instrumentalist, is hugely capable and doesn’t really need me to butt in. But when it comes to a song I like to get involved.
It’s definitely not a completely new experience to working with Bellowhead. Its about ensemble work and collaboration. I am very much not one of those people who come into the room and announce “I am the composer, what I write must be!” I like being in a room of people who are open to ideas and pitch in – and that’s the Bellowhead way of working. I’ll sit down and come up with an arrangement, then go into the rehearsal and take the flak and something great will emerge out of that. If there wasn’t that give and take we wouldn’t be the band we are. It depends on people saying “no, that bit’s crap, how about this idea instead”.
Have you found anything particularly challenging so far?
Well I had to completely rewrite a piece in a Baroque style yesterday afternoon on short notice, and that was quite a test! It certainly tested my counterpoint skills and Scarlatti would be shocked by it!
But the whole business of being a vocal animateur, that’s really not my comfort zone at all. In previous productions I’ve worked on you’d have dedicated animateurs who would go away and teach a piece to the choir. On Fanny Hill I’m doing it, and I’m a crap singer! But actually having done that, maybe my crappiness has been a good way of encouraging others to get involved because they know they can’t be as bad as I am.
What are you most excited about at this moment?
I’m really excited about the beginning of the second act specifically. There’s a thing that happens which I think is going to be brilliant…and I’m not going to give that away!
I think you get a sense of how a show is going to turn out when you’re working on it and I think with Fanny Hill consistently I have thought this is going to be really, really good. So I’m hugely excited about the moment when I’m sitting in the theatre waiting for the performance to start. The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is like controlled insanity and the music of it is hugely eclectic. I can’t wait to sit back and watch it.
The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
Bristol Old Vic Theatre
5 Feb-7 Mar