Swallow led to thirst for musical hit

Neil Hannon/ The Divine Comedy
Neil Hannon/ The Divine Comedy

THE idea that a somewhat dated 1920s children’s adventure, Swallows and Amazons, could be adapted into a musical appealing to 21st century audiences is down to the imagination of Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon.

The Divine Comedy frontman is characteristically self-effacing about his part in creating what has proved a hit in the West End and now on tour around the UK.

“My one abiding memory of when it opened in Bristol is that I might have got the ball rolling but my part is dwarfed by the genius of the director and actors,” he says. “Never in a million years could I do what they do.

“The most wonderful part of it was hearing something I wrote without having to be on stage. I could listen to my music live and now it’s going on tour and I don’t have to go.”

The seed was sown back after a concert in 2007 when he was buttonholed by Tom Morris, co-creator of the National Theatre’s War Horse and artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, who invited him to write a musical for him.

“It’s hard to find the right thing to do and it took ages to think of doing this,” says Hannon who admits he never read Arthur Ransome’s book as a child but discovered it when he bought it to read to his daughter, Willow.

He didn’t get an overwhelming response either when he first pitched the idea. “Tom listened to the story and laughed a lot,” he recalls. “I didn’t know him that well and I thought he thinks I am an idiot. To me it seemed a grand idea but I wasn’t sure about anyone else. When Tom began to think about it he thought it was a grand idea too.

“It’s a bit of a plummy kind of thing and terribly old-fashioned and quite unPC in an involuntary way,” observes the son of a Church of Ireland minister in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

“But I thought when you take it apart and put it back together without a lot of the Edwardian gumpf, the characters and the themes and the story are universal. I spent half of the book skipping stuff and because I did quite a lot of that I was constantly turning over in my mind’s eye and making it into a musical.

“I was doing that with every book and film that I was looking at that wasn’t dark and sensual and adult. With a lot of people, especially those from the pop world, there’s a tendency to go intellectual and also I think if it’s thought-provoking and challenging it doesn’t work on stage too much. I have always aimed for entertainment first and make them think afterwards.”

Although best known for recording and performing with pop chamber group The Divine Comedy and its cricket-themed side project, The Duckworth Lewis Method, Hannon has composed music for TV and film including Father Ted and The IT Crowd.

“With Father Ted I did the theme and they asked me if I could dash off some incidental music,” he explains. “I was 24 and hadn’t a clue what I was doing. I just thought it was a laugh and did it all in a day. It turned out to be a cult classic and every series they would come back and say, ‘If you wouldn’t mind dashing off a bit more’.

“The IT Crowd was much harder because by then Graham Linehan knew how to get what he wanted and I just wanted everyone to be happy.

“This was completely different,” he says. By the time he began work with Morris and the playwright, Helen Edmundson, he had composed “a couple of tunes just to get the ball rolling” but found himself in a new experience of a collaborative relationship where he couldn’t afford to be precious about his creations. One of those first songs, called Island Life, never made it into the final show, It ended up on The Divine Comedy’s last album, Bang Goes the Knighthood. “Never waste a good song,” he remarks.

The now Dublin-based artist says he would love to do another musical. “But I haven’t any ideas about what to do for the next show because there so much else to be going on with,” he says, mentioning a mini-opera for the Royal Opera House and a song for a French arthouse movie.

It’s high time too for a new Divine Comedy recording and the Duckworth Lewis Method wasn’t a one-off, apparently. “There’s always new material. I saw a brilliant piece of fielding in Australia the other day and thought there’s a song.”

Swallows and Amazons is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.