Review – Toma Fund Presents Eurovision Reunited, The Sage, Gateshead, 11th April 2012

Eurovision ReunitedAn unlikely charity inspires an unlikely event in an unlikely location on an unlikely date – but what a combination! Toma Fund’s Eurovision Reunited was a great show and it would be fantastic if it could become an annual event.

Toma FundThe Toma Fund is a charity that supports children, teenagers, young people and their families in the North East and Cumbria who have been affected by a diagnosis of childhood cancer. It is dedicated to the memory of Jordan Thompson and Sophie Atay who were cousins who died of childhood cancers in 2007 and 2010. The fund is run by Jordan’s mother Andrea, who, together with fundraiser Sue Lawrence – a Eurovision fan, came up with the idea of having a concert at the Sage in Gateshead of previous Eurovision winners and performers, with all the proceeds going to charity.

The concert was held on Wednesday 11th April. The choice of a midweek date was, in a sense, both the strength and weakness of the event. Strength, in that it meant the likelihood that the acts would be available was much greater – at the weekends they would more than likely have previous work commitments. Weakness, because it was harder for people other than locals to attend without taking time off work. This actually meant that many Eurovision fans from abroad who would have liked to attend simply couldn’t. The location – Gateshead – was also not advantageous as far as overseas travellers were concerned – flights to Newcastle are considerably more expensive than to London, and there are fewer of them.

Still – who am I to quibble about these things. With some judicious adaptation of the “working from home” concept, and a couple of half-day leaves, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to attend, together with our German friend JP, who has a weekly show – Radio International – on Dutch radio about Eurovision, and indeed on which you can hear me every month or so, rambling on about something Eurovisiony. So the three of us were very privileged to get backstage and post-show-party access to record some interviews for the radio show and to hob and to nob with the great and the good.

Nicki FrenchWe got lost trying to find the hotel and arrived at the Sage later than we hoped, so our window of interviewing opportunity during the sound checks had passed. In fact on arrival we were escorted to the Artists’ Dining Room where they were having their pre-show meal. A word about the Sage – it’s a glorious building from the outside, with massive airy public spaces and the Concert Hall is a stunning piece of modern architecture. However, I was surprised how drab the backstage areas are! There are (I think) two main dressing rooms where lots of people share, and a few others for individuals or groups but there would be no room if you wanted to go cat-swinging as well. The Artists’ Dining Room was grey and featureless – apart from an open canteen area and some big tables. Still I am sure it fulfils its purpose.

Linda MartinMany of the artists were having their dinner and it seemed extremely rude to interrupt them, but two we spoke to were Nicki French, who is preparing for a new theatre role in “Guilty Pleasures”, coming to a theatre near you soon, and Linda Martin, whose cup is currently overflowing with the job of mentoring Jedward for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. I can tell you from our chats with Linda that she is very excited at working with Jedward – she admires their ability to learn and soak up new ideas like a sponge, as well as their commitment to their fans. She’s thrilled with the song “Waterline” – as soon as she heard it, she knew it was the right one – and they are also planning something spectacular for the presentation in Baku. She couldn’t say what, precisely, but she assured us we would all go “wow” in a very big way.

Brotherhood of ManAfter the artists had dispersed back to their dressing rooms we thought we’d try our luck with one of the big names. Tentatively we asked Brotherhood of Man if they would mind giving us an interview, and no question, we were invited into their dressing room, even though they were in the middle of getting ready for the show, and gave us loads of their time. We reflected back on their success of 1976 and they came up with their memories of the time; we talked about their subsequent career, how important their Eurovision win was in terms of their career, right up to the present time with with their current touring show, The Seventies Story. We also established that they weren’t from the Isle of Man! I was able to tell them how “Save Your Kisses For Me” cheered me up when I was in hospital aged 15 – shortly before the 1976 contest – and they said that they had spoken to so many people who associate the song with a significant event in their life. They were charming, funny and generous with their time – a real pleasure to meet them.

Sheila FergusonHanging around the corridors outside we bumped into one of the presenters – Sheila Ferguson, one time lead singer with the Three Degrees. She was dressed stunningly, in a gorgeous black evening dress but I thought she looked anxious and concerned about things. I thought perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt her at this point – but no sooner had he seen her JP instantly asked if she would give an interview and she beamed with delight and said she would love to. She was really funny – quick witted, eloquent, warm and friendly too. I reminded her of her TV sitcom, Land of Hope and Gloria, in 1992, and she was very proud of the fact that she was the first black woman to have the star role in a UK sitcom. She now lives in Majorca, and in fact had a flight back at 5am the following day. But her conversation was peppered throughout with hilarity and we spent the entire time laughing through the interview. A memorable moment came when JP referred to the Three Degrees song “Dirty Ol’ Man” as “Dirty Ol’ Bag” by mistake! I said one of my favourites was “Year of Decision” and she said she always hated that song!

Anne-Marie DavidWe spoke briefly to Mr Johnny Logan, and to Miss Anne-Marie David, two Eurovision legends. The time and situation wasn’t really right for interviews with them though. We spoke to “Captain” Russ from Scooch, who was very happy to do an interview except that he didn’t know where the rest of his group were. Later on we met “Head Stewardess” Caroline, but then Russ was absent – and neither of them had seen “Head Purser” David. The fourth member, Natalie, had just had another baby, so she was described as being on “breast-feeding leave”. Bobbysocks to the rescue! Hanne Krogh and Elisabeth Andreassen were both eager and happy to talk to us and gave us a hilarious interview which talked about their careers and the night when Victory finally was Norway’s, but also involved a considerable amount of flirting between the four of us and which involved some – I can only describe it as – “breast action” from Ms Andreassen, which made me blush from top to toe. “My wife and your husband are watching!” I said; “they should be pleased for us” was her slightly bizarre reply. Later on that evening, Ms Krogh was last seen at the after-show party standing up and proposing a toast to everyone and getting really rather emotional about it all. I think it had been a long night.

BobbysocksMeanwhile, backstage, time was running out, and we had to get to our seats to see the show. It was great. For me, the two stand out performances were when Anne-Marie David sang Je suis l’enfant soleil, her French entry from 1979, and Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan singing their winning Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids from 1994 with a stunning purity and simplicity. But everyone was in great voice and turned up the entertainment knob to the top notch. With two songs from Anne-Marie David, Johnny Logan and Linda Martin, and one from everyone else, the evening flew by. Co-hosting the show with Sheila Ferguson was a bespangled Christopher Biggins, as irreverent and cheeky as you would expect.

scoochAfter the show, all the acts (bar one) sat at a row of desks in the foyer and virtually the entire audience trooped by them, one by one, chatting, getting signatures, photos, buying CDs and so on. It was a great opportunity for the fans to meet the acts, and it was again very generous of the acts to give their time so generously. We joined the back end of the queue to get a couple more interviews. At last all of Scooch had found each other, so we were able to talk to them about their careers and what they are doing now – which appears to be a lot of theatre. Black LaceDavid – who is local to the north-east – was also extremely happy to announce that he had got married the day before. I resisted the temptation to say he finally had something to suck on for landing, sir. We also spoke to Ian and Dene from Black Lace, who were a good laugh and very down to earth. Later at the aftershow party, they would somewhat bizarrely sing Agadoo with a karaoke machine to their own backing track.

Josh DubovieWhich takes us on to the aftershow party, where we interviewed Josh Dubovie – the second time I’ve interviewed Josh as it happens – and he is very much looking forward to getting his first CD with his own compositions released later this year. It will be very interesting to hear what Josh’s own stuff is like. He very politely turned down our offer to suggest any words of advice to Engelbert Humperdinck! The last performer we met and interviewed was Scott Fitzgerald, known to Eurovision fans for coming second with “Go” to Celine Dion (with whom he apparently still exchanges Christmas cards) in 1988, but known to the rest of the world as one half of the duo that sang “If I Had Words” to the tune of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. A very friendly and chatty Scot, he’s now living in Rotterdam, and he confessed that the Gateshead concert was only the second time he had sung “Go” in public, the first time being on the Eurovision stage.

Scott FitzgeraldAnd so the party wound to a close, but not before Nicky Stevens of Brotherhood of Man proved herself to be a right party animal, doing Tina Turner and Whitney Houston on the karaoke! An amazing night – full of great entertainment and the thrill of meeting and talking to all these people. It would be wonderful if this could become an annual event – maybe it could become a part of the April “preview party” circuit – and also to continue raising funds for this very worthy cause. I’m not sure when the interviews will all be broadcast but I am sure you will be able to find them through the “show archive” section of the Radio International website.

Review – Cinderella, Lighthouse Theatre, Kettering, 23rd December 2011

CinderellaSecond Christmas show of the season and it’s off to the Lighthouse Theatre in Kettering for their production of Cinderella. If the mark of a successful pantomime is how much the children enjoy it, then this one is a winner. I have rarely seen such unbridled delight in a theatre packed with under-10s. Barely any conversation between the characters misses the chance to involve the kids – I’m sure “what do you think, boys and girls?” must be the most commonly found grammatical clause in the script. The little boy to my left spent the evening apoplectic with excitement, and the huge and largely deserved round of applause at the end was down to how much the evening had been geared to the kids.

Neil HamiltonIf there’s a slight reservation about this, it’s possibly that the adults were perhaps not so lured into the script as they usually are in a pantomime, especially in the first half. I feel the key to a really successful panto is that while you’re keeping the children on a constant simmer of entertainment, every so often you need it to boil bubbles of adult innuendo to keep the grown-ups engaged too. A lot of the first half was very scene setting and it wasn’t really until after the interval that the script seemed to remember there were adults present too. Mind you, when the adult innuendo did appear, some of it was delightfully near-the-knuckle; the type that actually makes you catch your breath before you laugh as you remember the family company that surrounds you!

Christine HamiltonIt’s rather a nice joke to have Neil Hamilton as Baron Hardup and Christine Hamilton as the Fairy Godmother. You wouldn’t describe either of them as “actors” per se, but actually their commitment to the show is palpable. CH bounces visibly as an excited fairy who can’t wait to Do Good and is enormously keen to engineer a Happy Ending; Tony Howeswhilst NH bumbles ineffectually against the onslaught of the Ugly Sisters, but in a benign sort of way. CH has a smile and an enthusiasm that spreads more joy than you would reasonably imagine, and NH’s interfacing with the custard pie department is both funny on a superficial level and strangely rewarding in a natural justice sort of way.

Millie BanksTony Howes’ Buttons connects with the kids in a head-on engagement of rude noises, funny faces and playground abandon. I could personally have done with a slightly more sophisticated interpretation of the role – but 200 screaming appreciative kids can’t be all wrong. Millie Banks is a beautiful young Cinders with a great voice and a warm stage personality. She scrubs up well as Princess Crystal and it’s no wonder Prince Charming falls for her.

Stephen McCarthy Cinderella’s vicious step-sisters are played by Stephen McCarthy and Gerry Tebbutt; two delightfully over-the-top performances laced with a dash of utter filth. In fact there was quite a lot of groping going on at one stage, which kind of made me wonder about their moral upbringing. I’m sure at Gerry Tebbuttone point one of them referred to their stately home as Hardon Hall by mistake. They pitched the balance of quite hard-hitting brutality and farcical ludicracy very nicely. One of them actually reminded me of one of my old Headmistresses.

Danny Young In the role of Prince Charming Danny Young just about gets away with it by virtue of his cheeky charm, although he appears to be dressed in a costume way too big for him. I did however like his scene where he danced with all the young ladies at the Royal Ball – mainly because instead of it being a rather formal Cinderella Waltz type affair, it was a cool disco dance that updated it very effectively.

Nicki FrenchEurovision’s own Nicki French gives a super performance as a cross-dressing female Dandini who thinks – erroneously – that she might herself be in with a chance to win over the Prince’s heart, and who provided the show’s strongest musical content including the treat that is her version of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

The structure of the show is a little imbalanced as most of the laughs and best scenes are after the interval, which is well worth holding on for. Whilst this is a relatively modest production in terms of staging, costume and effects, it’s bang on the money if you simply want to give your kids some Christmas fun.

The Real Chrisparkle meets Nicki French!

Nicki FrenchIn the first of an occasional series of interviews, I recently had the pleasure to interview the one and only Miss Nicki French (Total Eclipse of the Heart, Eurovision, Annie, and much more) for the Home Composed Song Contest website and I hope you enjoy our chat.

RealChrisSparkle: It gives me great pleasure to introduce to the visitors to the Home Composed Song Contest website the one and only Miss Nicki French! Hi Nicki, how are you doing? Is this your first contact with the Home Composed Song Contest?

Nicki French: Hi Chris – lovely to be here, and thanks for asking me! Yes, this is ‘virgin territory’ for me, so please be kind….

RCS: Of course I will be kind! I guess, as a singer, you hold the skill of song writing in high esteem?

NF: Oh definitely!! I try to write songs, and have done a few that have gone out to the public, but I’m in awe of those who find it so easy! I’m better at co-writing I think – but it’s a great feeling when something works.

RCS: I bet it is – I certainly couldn’t do it! So when you’ve co-written songs in the past do you tend to do the lyrics or the music, or doesn’t it work that way?

NF: A bit of both – the rhyming tends to get a little beyond me from time to time!! But generally I think of a few phrases – of both words and music together – for a song, then work from that.

RCS: Do you have a favourite song that you wrote or co-wrote?

NF: Ooooh that’s difficult! There are a few on the ‘French Revolution’ album that I’m pretty proud of – but I wasn’t the main writer on those really. I don’t know – they all tend to be quite different I think – but hey, perhaps the best one is yet to come…. watch this space, as they say!

RCS: That sounds very promising! How closely do you work with songwriters in general? And have you worked with any Famous Names?

NF: Well Katrina and I did write a song together some years ago, which we entered for Eurovision! That was back in the days when anyone could submit a song to BASCA. It didn’t get past the first round though unfortunately! I’ve worked with Hussein Ramadan quite a bit in past years (I often use his studio to record vocals), and we’ve discussed recently the prospect of writing together. Hopefully that will happen quite soon.

RCS: Fingers crossed! Did you get to meet or work alongside Jim Steinman at the time of Total Eclipse of the Heart?

NF: Not then, no – although he DID send a message via the record company (Love This Records), saying he loved our version, and wished me continued success, which was amazing! A few years later though, just before Eurovision 2000, HE approached ME to record a couple of tracks for his new company, Ravenous Records. There then followed quite a surreal experience – I was recording the vocals in London, he was then listening to them over in the States via a ‘down the line’ type setup, making comments and suggestions, and we did two songs that way – ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ and ‘Lovers Again’! It was strange having the executive producer commenting by remote – but it seemed to work! Sadly he couldn’t commit to working with me for at least another two years, so nothing really came of it. A great experience though. As my ex-husband said to me at the time, ‘You’ve always dreamed of being a backing vocalist for Meat Loaf – now you’re singing LEAD vocals for the man who MADE Meat Loaf’!!!

RCS: How fantastic to have that endorsement from such a major figure in modern music! It’s a shame nothing further came of it but it’s still a real honour. Maybe we have the new Jim Steinman lurking undiscovered in this year’s Home Composed Song Contest! Some previous contestants have gone on to extend their careers in song writing, maybe within the framework of the Eurovision Song Contest. Have you got any advice for aspiring songwriters?

NF: All I can really suggest is that they should never give up trying. We all know of so many people who have been writing songs all their lives, with limited success, then that one break comes – and everyone wants them to write for THEM! Also, accept that what may be the perfect song for one person or act won’t be right for another. That’s not to say you should write specifically for one style or act – but be careful you choose who you think it suits best. Then again, I’ve had times before where I’ve been given – or have written – a song that I think makes a great ballad, then someone else will take it on and it becomes a dance-floor filler, so I guess it’s always good to have someone else’s opinion too!!!

RCS: Total Eclipse is a good example of that – Bonnie Tyler’s version was always regarded as a classic, and then you came along and recreated it in a totally different style and showed how it can be done! Thinking back to the “older” songs – it’s now twelve years since you graced the stage in Stockholm and sang “Don’t Play That Song Again”. Do you still enjoy performing that song?

NF: Oh, always! I’m frequently surprised at what a great reaction it still gets – and I love singing it to an enthusiastic Eurovision audience particularly!

RCS: Don’t be surprised – it’s such a feelgood song! I think everyone knows you are a great supporter of the Eurovision Song Contest. How did you enjoy this year’s show? What did you think of the songs? Any favourite songs or performers from this year?

NF: I really did enjoy this year’s Contest, not least because I was there the night before the Final (performing on the Euroboat)! I thought it was all SO well put together this year, and the standard was pretty high too. I have to say, I absolutely loved Romania’s entry (‘Change’) – Hotel FM performed at the UK’s Preview Party in London, which I co-hosted with Paddy O’Connell, and I decided then and there that it was my favourite! There were some really good performances all the way through – I even have to hold my hands up and say I enjoyed Jedward!

RCS: I think Jedward surprised many! I did too, although I really didn’t think I would. Those preview parties are fun, aren’t they! Would you like to have another stab at performing in Eurovision yourself?

NF: Oh absolutely, definitely – just tell me where!!! I would dearly love to be a part of the whole Eurovision experience again. I hated being officially ‘the lowest ever placing’ for the UK until (thankfully) Jemini came along, and would love the chance to do better. I would LOVE a nice big ballad to get my teeth into….!

RCS: Well let’s get those writers out there onto it! So whilst anticipating your next Eurovision entry, what else have you been doing in recent years?

NF: Well, I’ve been trying to move more into the theatre world, as well as keeping up with the live singing gigs. I was part of the UK tour of ‘Annie’ the musical for nine months, which was great fun – playing seven different roles, most of which required me to wear varying degrees of hideous wigs! In previous years I have taken part in a couple of pantomimes in the UK, and this year am set to play the character of ‘Dandini’ in Cinderella at Kettering, Northamptonshire. Nicki French in BrazilHopefully I will be off to do a short tour of shows over in Brazil towards the end of October – I always love going there, as I get to work with a live band, and Nicki French is quite a big name over in Brazil, which is rather nice! Apart from that I’ve just been working on my house – it’s never-ending of course! Oh, and I suppose I SHOULD really say ‘and taking time to sit and focus on writing songs at the piano….’!!!

RCS: That’s a very varied output! Don’t worry about the house – as soon as you’ve finished DIY it all starts over again, like painting the Forth Bridge. Theatre is one of my main interests – how do you find the change from “straightforward singing” (if I can call it that) to performing in musical theatre?

NF: I absolutely loved singing in ‘Annie’ because it was I was required to do a more ‘classical’ style of singing. I was using my soprano voice, and could do that with a cold, fever – anything! As Nicki French the singing artist, I’m known as more of a ‘belter’ – but I enjoy both. I tend to warm up my voice in a more classical sort of style, but then – anything goes (ooh, cue for another show)!!!

RCS: Ah yes – I’m sure you’d be excellent in a Cole Porter show! So do you have any new songs out at the moment? Any records we can buy? (he says, showing his age!)

NF: Ha ha! Me too!!! Well there are two quite recent tracks that are available – ‘Love to Call My Own’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’. The first is quite a solid, club-type number, and the second has quite a Latin-American, salsa-type feel. They’re quite different – but have both been pretty popular I believe. Both these, and I think all my previous releases, are available from Amazon/itunes etc. I’m hoping to go into the studio and record a few more tracks very soon – although with the trip to Brazil looming, then panto, I’m not quite sure when we’ll get the chance to sort it! By the way, thanks for the compliment – a stint in the role of Liz Imbrie in High Society would do me VERY nicely, thank you! Someone else mentioned about the possibility of putting on a production of ‘Gypsy’ recently – and wanted me to play Mama Rose – imagine that!!! WOW!

RCS: That would be great! And yes, I can definitely see you in High Society – or how about Kiss me Kate?! And as for Gypsy… that could lead to great things! Good luck for fitting all that in – I’m sure a tour of Rio will prepare you well for the audiences in Kettering! Finally have you got any message for the composers and indeed the voters in this year’s Home Composed Song Contest?

Dame Nicki FrenchNF: Well, first I’d like to thank them for reading this interview all the way through! Thank you as well Chris – you’ve been very patient!!! To the composers I would say I wish you all the very best of luck – and keep persevering! If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world, and that lucky break IS just around the corner! To the voters – I recommend listening to a song at least three times. Some of the best songs I’ve sung and/or listened to have not grabbed me on the first, or even second, hearing – and many times my opinion has changed dramatically by the third listen. Don’t ignore your initial instincts, however give things a CHANCE!!! Good luck to everyone!!

RCS: Thanks very much Nicki for giving up your time to talk to us and we look forward to seeing you in panto and hopefully some new shows soon! And best of luck for Brazil too!

NF: Thank you so much!