Memoirs of a Music Man - Part Six: Frankie Howerd - the famous singer's fan

Written by Robin Nelson.


On the day Janet Baker was due to give her recital in the series of Marlborough College Subscription Concerts, the phone rang.  It was her husband, Keith. Was this the "I am sorry to say that due to a heavy cold…" moment all concert promoters dread? "

I am wondering if you are able to tell me the colour of the back wall of the stage in your Concert Hall?  I am trying to help Dame Janet choose a suitable dress for the occasion. "I struggled for a descriptive phrase…dirty brown, murky brown-green…my wife prompted me… "Faded Taupe" I answered.

Two of her regular followers called on us in the afternoon with husband Keith.  A man in a pork pie hat spoke up with a familiar sounding voice:  "I’m told there’s a chance of a cup of tea here" he said:  it was Frankie Howerd, a member of her fan club.

Janet Baker was a charming and graceful guest, delighted with our daughter’s dolls house and on the way to the recital wrapping her white fur coat round our daughter to protect her from the cold.  She gave a stunning recital with pianist Geoffrey Parsons.

Having toured and admired the College Chapel and heard about the annual choral concert, she made a kind offer:  "I suppose you think that if you wanted me to be one of your soloists you wouldn’t be able to afford my fee.  Well, if you chose a work that I really liked I am sure I could come and sing for what you could afford."

A few months later I plucked up courage and rang the Baker residence.  Husband Keith answered and I went through the conversation we had had in the Chapel.  Dame Janet was entertaining a member of the royal household and couldn’t therefore come to the phone.

"And what work do you have in mind, Mr. Nelson?"  So I told him we had chosen the Mendelssohn Elijah and I had heard her sing "O Rest in the Lord" on CD...A little pause, a short cough, and then:  "That is not one of Dame Janet’s favourite works!"  And that was that.

Frankie Howerd, a lover of the voice, came to adjudicate our House Song Competition at my invitation.  This was something of a mistake at a time when the Competition was a rather wild and unpredictable event.  After a while, having made no notes at all, he turned to me:  "I don’t want to do marks and comments and that kind of thing.  You can sort that out for me and I’ll go on and tell them a few stories and announce the winners."

I quickly asked the music staff to help me allocate the marks without any fear of a partisan judgement: meanwhile his lame joke about the privy at the bottom of his garden was greeted with embarrassed titters.

The pessimism of our Treasurer in my first few years with the Subscription Concerts turned to genuine delight and by the 1990’s we were able to go for two big names each season and try themed programmes, such as an all French line-up, which included the choral concert.

Somehow the pianists always seemed to be the tricky ones:

Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich was a case in point.  He asked for the bottoms of the legs of the piano stool he had chosen to be sawn down an inch to achieve the height he wanted.  Then, halfway through his recital, he asked me to come onto the stage to deal with his complaint about a note on the piano needing immediate attention…an impossible situation.

Peter Donohoe played a long and uncompromising programme, difficult to play and difficult to listen to.  This included a number of the esoteric Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen, a real switch-off for the students attending.  At 7.25pm he had pronounced his hands were too cold and demanded a bucket of hot water to plunge them into.

We were lucky to get Alfred Brendel.  His agent rang to ask if I could fit him into our programme as an extra - he needed a launch pad for the all-Beethoven programme he was shortly taking all over Germany.

I agreed and it was a sell-out.  Our Steinway Grand was pushed to one side and he played on his own modest little Boudoir Grand, transported from his home in Dorset.  It was a magical event: his encore piece was Fur Elise, and he made it sound different - a little stress here and a slight pause there made one listen with fresh ears.

Each new season brought up the question as to whether outgoing monies would be balanced by sufficient income.  I remember arriving at the Memorial Hall, particularly before the first concert, and anxiously calculating audience numbers.  Was the season going to be a success and more importantly to me how many boys and girls were present?

In the very early years concerts were on Sunday afternoons, chosen as a time when parents would attend with their sons before returning home, possibly after a privilege weekend.  The Memorial Hall would have been a warm alternative to the fairly Spartan conditions back in house, before the advent of brew rooms, central heating, TV and all the rest.

With increasing academic pressures and the advent of project work it was really hard to get the students to realise what an incredible series of concerts was sitting on their doorstep.  Music scholars were expected to attend and first year students, class by class, as a taster.  Beyond that, how could we persuade?

Even with the interaction of Richard Rodney-Bennett with our singers and John Harle with the Brasser Wind Band, attending their evening performance was a bridge too far for students who had already given up their afternoon.

Gradually the little parties after the concerts lost their relevance…girls needed to be chaperoned back to house and again the Sunday evening workload was on all their minds.

The visits of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Choirs of St. John’s Cambridge and Christchurch Oxford were all set up in the hope it would appeal to instrumentalists and choral singers in the College and they did succeed to an extent in bridging the divide between performers and audience, old and young.

At the interval of a concert given by The English String Orchestra in the Chapel one November evening an elderly man approached me.  It was after a fine performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with soloist Philip Langridge.

“I believe you are the Director of Music here,” he said inquiringly, and went on:  “I was sitting pretty much in your place when I was a pupil here some forty years ago.  Benjamin Britten was conducting the same music, and at the front of the orchestra stood the commanding figure of the tenor Peter Pears.  I remember hearing the work very vividly, because it was to plant in me a life-long passion for classical music.”

It was a touching moment, and even in my most cynical moods after that I would recall it and think that maybe a particular artist or concert had fired up some of the many pupils I encouraged to attend this splendid concert series.

Long may it continue!

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