My grandad used to play the uke to me when I was a kid – as far back as I can remember. He sang comic numbers, vaudeville songs. As a tiny tot I knew the catchy tunes, jaunty rhythms and daft words, long before I ever thought of playing. My grandad died when I was six, but just before he did, he bought me a little ‘Lark’ Chinese ukulele - £4.50 I think it was! The equivalent of one of those Mahalo cheapies today. That’s where the interest came from, and it has never gone away. Did you think you would keep going this long? From the time I started playing, I knew I was mad about it, and performing seemed the most exciting thing to do. Growing up in the 80s and 90s as a uke player was tough though. Nowadays kids can join a uke group and it’s cool. In those days, you had to go solo, and accept that it was going to be very uncool! Today’s generation of ukers should be very thankful to the USGB and the GFS for keeping a uke community going and tirelessly promoting the instrument through the decades when fashion frowned on it! So yes, I always thought I would play, but I feared that there would be no work of the kind I wanted to do. I thought I’d been born too late for the type of music I was into. They said variety entertainment was dead when rock ‘n’ roll came along, but guess what – I’m still doing a variety act, about 200 gigs a year, mostly in big venues, getting audiences and getting paid! So it isn’t dead, it has just changed and been repackaged.
What is the highlight so far?
There have been many highlights. Working alongside legendary performers is always an exciting experience – not for ‘celebrity’ value – I hate that word anyway – but because you can study how they work, and learn from them. Then there are the special venues that stand out, like the West End theatres – which I get to play once in a blue moon. But perhaps the most memorable gigs for me have been shows that I’ve produced myself. Even if they are small scale affairs, you get a great sense of achievement when you put the whole thing together from scratch. And making my first DVD was a great feeling. Although it’s only 45 minutes or so of performances, it felt like producing ‘Gone With
The Wind’ trying to co-ordinate the cameras, actors, locations, costumes and so on, because it was a new experience. I was proud of the result. Have you made many friends on the way? Yes – fascinating people. Musicians, actors, artists of all kinds. Most showbusiness people are a little bit barmy, but they’re great to have as friends. In this industry we’re used to travelling around, meeting up like ships that pass in the night… Often you work with someone and get to know them, then you don’t see them for five years or so… suddenly one day you work together again and you pick up exactly where you left off. What is your proudest moment? It would have to be getting the humble ukulele recognised by the Music Faculty at Oxford University. When I did my music degree, nobody had ever played a uke for the performance exam. In fact no-one had even played anything ‘non-classical’. So having spent three years showing what I could do, eventually obtaining permission to give a ukulele recital for my finals was a proud achievement. It was in the national press and covered on radio and TV, so I felt that I had really done something to promote the instrument – giving something back in return for the pleasure that the ukulele has brought me! If you could do any event again which would it be and why? Some of the festivals that I have played at abroad have left me wanting more. I spend so much time travelling around Britain, taking the same production to many places, that when I get an invitation for a one-off show somewhere further afield, it’s a breath of fresh air. Sweden, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Italy all have great memories for me of exciting gigs. Hopefully some more offers will come in before too long! What aspect of ukulele playing do you like the most? Well having studied violin and piano formally, I like the way that there is still uncharted territory for the uke: it’s a young instrument. Taking violin lessons, for instance, you have a heavy awareness that 300 years of genius demands you to shape up and conform to what has gone before. Uke players don’t have this weight on their shoulders – yes we aspire to be like our favourites, but we are still writing the rule book and finding our routes a little more.
What are your ambitions?
There’s lots of music I’d like to record – and write. Shows I’d like to put on. I always seem to be so busy with gigs that new projects get put on hold, but like most performers I don’t like to turn work down, after all you never know when it’s going to stop coming in. That’s how entertainers live. But at the moment I have some recordings underway which should be released later in the year – I won’t spoil the surprise! What advice would you give to a new player? Firstly I would show them how to hold the uke properly. It’s the most crucial thing, but hardly anybody teaches it, and most of the problems later on stem from awkward gripping and positioning of the instrument! I’d love to do a workshop on how to hold the uke, but I doubt anyone would turn up – they’d think it was too basic. I would also tell them these three golden rules: Practise slowly, learn to read music, and don’t underestimate Formby!
What luxuries and essentials do you like to take with you?
Essentials – well instruments, and spare instruments – I rarely go anywhere without half a dozen in tow. Often I’m working with uke, banjo-uke, violin and guitar, so I usually have two of each in case a string breaks mid-song! Then of course there’s the phone, and the laptop, because all my work is done on the move. As for luxuries, well… I have simple tastes. I always have a kettle with me and a bag with tea/coffee/milk etc so I can have a decent brew.
What is your top comedy moment?
Comedy seems to follow me around – only the other day, I was waving to someone on the other side of the street, and I accidentally walked into a tree. That got some laughs. But one very funny incident that sticks in my mind was a variety show I did with a well-known comedian. Accompanying the acts was a band he hadn’t seen for twenty years, but he thought they were good the last time they backed him, so he gave them the booking. As a gag, he asked them to pretend throughout the rehearsal, that they couldn’t read a note and couldn’t play anything right. It would be a great wind-up for the artists in the show, or so he thought. Well the musical director nodded and smiled at his request, and sure enough the whole rehearsal was a shambles. Nothing went right, and the singers and acts were highly perturbed and dreading the performance, until our top-of-the-bill comedian walked on stage shouting, “Don’t worry, it’s only a gag – these guys are great players and everything will be fine tonight!” The band looked rather blank at this however, and when show-time came, it became clear that actually they were not participating in the wind-up at all - they really couldn’t play any of the music. Seemingly over the years since they were last seen, they had lost their touch somewhat! They played out of time, out of tune, and I remember when I finished one number they were still playing something for a good few seconds afterwards until I waved at them to stop the ‘accompaniment’… The show was probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve experienced, and I’ve never seen a joke backfire so spectacularly as that one! I laughed about it for weeks. I shan’t name the comedian in question - I’ll just say he rides an ostrich.
What is your favourite book?
Probably ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce, but mainly I read biographies.
What colour is your air guitar?
What is your favourite song?
It changes daily. Today it’s ‘Yesterday’, next week it’ll be ‘Last Christmas’.
Tell me a funny fact about yourself
My middle name is Clifford.
If you won £1million what would you do first?
How do you want to be remembered?
With a smile.
What are you off to do next after you finish answering these questions?
I’m going to have a nice cup of tea while I put some tour dates on my website. TTFN. We'll Meet Again returns! The show is a bright and breezy wartime revue featuring tributes to some of the greatest entertainers of the '40s, such as Vera Lynn and George Formby. Here is a show for everyone who wants to be cheered up in these sombre days, and that means most of us! The cast includes comedy entertainer Steve Barclay, Andy Eastwood, Maggie O'Hara, Mervyn Francis, Pete Lindup and the Martyn St James Band. Produced by Duggie Chapman MBE.