Britain’s pyramids of talent

It’s a bit pants in the UK at the moment …

What with Brexit and the general incompetence of the people supposedly in charge, Britain, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom – whatever this hell-hole is called – is a total dog’s breakfast.

We Brits don’t seem to do anything well these days. We don’t actually manufacture anything apart from weapons of mass destruction and 35% of the government’s tax income is generated by the financial services, those vile banking people who cause disasters every few years.

Now we know that the biggest disaster will be when the bankers decide to move their business to Paris or Frankfurt or Dublin, and all that tax income disappears with them. Then we really WILL be up the creek without a paddle in a barbed wire canoe.

But there IS good news.

We Brits are brilliant at describing in great detail how terrible everything is. Very articulate people write persuasive newspaper articles, blogs, vlogs, podcasts etc or rant and rave on radio phone-in programmes. We are the best at telling each other that we’re the worst in the world.

Best of all, we write songs about the awfulness of everything, we write plays about it, and of course we write stories and novels about it.

Because that’s what we Brits are really good at. Singing, acting and writing. I mean really good.

I have some first-hand experience of all three of these areas of artistic endeavour.

First, the singing part.

I am, or at least I used to be, an OK singer and a very average guitarist. More than forty years ago, when I first moved to London, I joined a band. One of the other members of the band was a young woman I was very interested in. If I hadn’t been interested in her, I don’t think I would have got involved.

The band didn’t get very far but the relationship with the young woman was much more successful. Her name was Dede Brewer and later this month we will have been married for forty-seven years.

But let me take you back to those days in the early seventies, when anything seemed possible.

Our band was called the Solid British Hat Band, a truly awful name that didn’t make any sense at all. For a start, in the original line-up, I was the only British person, the other three were from the United States, South Africa and Brazil. Dede was the American and the South African was a guitarist called Michael Klein. The Brazilian was a brilliant 16-year-old guitarist called Lucy Turnbull, and she was half-Scottish.

This is what we looked like.

The Solid British Hat Band, circa 1970. From left: Dede, me behind her, Michael Klein, Lucy Turnbull

When she went back to Brazil, Lucy became quite famous. Wikipedia describes her as ‘the foremost woman electric guitarist in Brazil’. You can find out more about the modern Lucy here.

When Lucy left, she was replaced by Gillian Dickinson, who had spent most of her childhood living in the West Indies. Sort of British, but not very. This is what the new line-up looked like:

Me, Dede, Gillian, Mike.

Anyway, we worked hard at trying to make some decent noise, and gigged as much as we could, developing an electric folk sound which wasn’t too bad. At the time, there were some very successful singer-songwriters who played acoustic guitar and sounded thoughtful and folky, people in the USA like James Taylor and Neil Young (before he got loud and rocky) and here in the UK, Cat Stevens, who was my personal favourite. He was a London Greek boy whose real name was Steven Georgiou, and who later called himself Yusuf Islam.

As you can see from these photos, I tried unsuccessfully to copy his appearance. I was even more unsuccessful trying to copy his song-writing style.

00 CAT

The one thing you learn when you start performing on the bottom rung of the music circuit – in the back rooms in pubs, community centres, village halls, the occasional outdoor event – is that there are an awful lot of good singers and musicians out there, and ninety-five per cent of them are never going to make it big. The music scene is a kind of pyramid, with the Adeles and Ed Sheerans at the top, and a huge triangular mountain of talented and maybe just less lucky people holding them up.

The people at the top of the pyramid have worked hard to get themselves noticed, they’re a little different from the rest and maybe they got lucky. But I think it’s the existence of this pyramid of talent that makes the standard so good.

So, I gave up my ambition of being a music mega-star. The world hardly noticed.

Then, by accident, I turned my hand to acting.

In the mid-1970s, I was working at International House, a private language school in London, and I was asked to join the theatre group that had started there. The group was called the English Teaching Theatre, it was the brainchild of IH founder John Haycraft and the idea was to provide an accessible stage show for learners of English.

For a couple of years, the ETT was just a summer season thing, only doing shows in London. Then John Haycraft made some kind of deal with the British Council for the group to do a tour of Germany, and put together a team of teachers and musicians to prepare for it. This was when I joined. The initial plan was to rehearse for three months, then go to Germany and after that, who knew?

In fact, the ETT continued touring for twenty-nine years, doing more than 250 tours to 55 different countries.

When the theatre took off as a touring outfit, two of the original tour members, Doug Case and me and another teacher/performer called Hazel Imbert, formed a company and oversaw the writing of material and the directing and production of the show.

With Hazel and Doug in our office in 1988.

It was soon clear that this was not an initiative that would work with teachers alone. For one thing, the contracts we were able to offer performers were short-term, usually between four and twelve weeks. Teachers don’t want to work for such short periods, and who can blame them? Actors, on the other hand, are used to being offered contracts like that. So, very soon, we were advertising for actors who could sing and, hopefully, also play the guitar.

And that’s how I came to meet a lot of actors. Over the nearly thirty years we were on the road, we must have auditioned three or four hundred actors, and employed about a hundred of them.

Ian McShane, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in the ETT Astronauts sketch.

There are an awful lot of actors in Britain. Equity, the actors’ union, has 40,000 members and another 5,000 who are considered student members. At any time, as many as 75% of them are out of work. Also, according to The Stage, the newspaper of the theatre industry, only one actor in fifty earns more than £20,000 a year from acting, and three quarters of actors earn less than £5,000 a year from the trade they trained for.

Who on earth would want to join such an underpaid, overcrowded profession?

The answer is a lot of very talented, dedicated and hard-working people. I am full of admiration for all the actors I worked with, hardly any of whom went on to be household names, but almost all of whom are still plugging away at what they do best and what they want to do.

They form another great British pyramid of talent – and at the top are a group of talented, hard-working folk who again maybe got a stroke of luck that propelled them to success.

A few years ago, I stumbled into the world of writing.

In my late sixties, I was accepted on the Masters Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. I was the oldest person on the course, and I had already published more than thirty titles for the English language teaching market, but It soon became clear that I was way out of my league as a writer of fiction. My stuff wasn’t bad, but the stories and plays written by my classmates were incredible. The longer I spent on the course, the more impressed I was by what they wrote. And the great thing was, I didn’t feel the least bit jealous of their talent. Really! I make a decent living out of the writing that I do, and I was mightily impressed not just by their talent, but also by their enthusiasm and optimism.

Here are three of them at a party.

Three people from my Creative Writing class: Miranda Roszkowski (left), Michael Button (right) and Victoria Richards

I truly hope they all become incredibly rich and famous, but I kind of know that most of them won’t. Yet another pyramid of talent, another career path that offers bleak prospects for those who choose to follow it.

Once again, the stats don’t look good. These days, just one in ten authors earns a living from writing alone, a drop from 40 per cent just a decade ago. The average annual income of those who consider themselves professional writers is just £11,000, far less than the minimum wage. Even worse, the top five per cent of authors earn nearly half of the income of all professional writers, and almost all of the most successful ones are writers of fiction.

That doesn’t stop hundreds of people wanting to join that bandwagon every year. And why not? It’s good to dream. We don’t produce much STUFF in Britain, but we have pyramids of singers, actors and writers to entertain us as the post-Brexit fog descends, so please, arty types, keep on churning stuff out. We need it so much more than weapons of mass destruction.

Happy New Year!

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