First Aldeburgh − then Madame Galina was performing for Madonna, Kate Moss, Jude Law and The Queen
PUBLISHED: 02:37 17 April 2017 | UPDATED: 02:45 17 April 2017
Iestyn Edwards is coming to the Aldeburgh Bookshop and INK Festival at The Cut, Halesworth
And now for something completely different. Iestyn Edwards was in the same year at London’s Guildhall as Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, but he wasn’t cut from the same cloth, really. Iestyn was a good variety turn in the making, with a ballerina called Madame Galina fighting to get out…
Er… the basics. (Just go with the flow)
Iestyn Edwards, adopted son of East Anglia, has made a name for himself as ballerina Madame Galina – adored by Libby Purves and Joanna Lumley.
He’s sung for the Queen, and entertained the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (and nearly got shot… in Portsmouth).
How did it start?
“My early experience came from touring from age four with my father, country and western singer Terry Edwards. I was often on variety bills with a troupe of all-singing animal puppets, featuring an emu that belted out Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better while a giraffe behind it took its knickers off.
“I was his gimmick. I was the boy brought up out of the audience. I would sing a song called Please, Help Me. I never saw the comedy of it until someone pointed it out.
“The village halls would be renamed Ponderosa for the evening, and people changed in the loos into cowboys and squaws, and called themselves Running Moon Water. If they’d come in the Ford Cortina, that was ‘the covered wagon’. They’d never ask for gin. They’d ask for liquor, and point at the gin optic. It was insane. And all talking in fake American accents.”
When did you start singing?
“I started singing along to The Lonely Goatherd one Christmas morning. They bought me the record and the singalong book to The Sound of Music. By five in the morning, my mother’s crushing up her Temazepam to put in my Ribena. No, that’s not true, but they had to stop me. So I learned to sing from that. They realised I had a voice.”
Tell us about mum
“My mother was a failed operatic singer who blamed me for ruining her diaphragm when I was born, because I was such a big baby! They’re both still around.
“She still works front of house at the South Bank, doing cloakrooms and ordering taxis at the Royal Festival Hall. At 87! She’s called Eirwen. It means snow-white. It’s beautiful.”
What happened next?
“I had my formal training as a Hammerstein Chanter at Southwark Cathedral…”
Woa! Hammerstein Chanter? Well, it seems that American librettist, theatrical producer and theatre director Oscar Hammerstein II so adored the singing there that he left a legacy which supports two choirboys.
“…at Southwark Cathedral, where I was given three Cadbury Cream Eggs by the Bishop of London for my top As on Easter Day and often tripped on the hem of my surplice because my mother rinsed it in Blue Whitener and it blinded me.”
I’m sensing trouble ahead… You went to The Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Is it true you got ejected for giving your creation Madame Galina, the cod ballerina, her debut during the rag week revue?
“Basically, yes. My voice hadn’t developed.” One of Iestyn’s teachers was married to comedian and actress Joyce Grenfell’s musical director. He said Iestyn was a good variety turn, but the young man didn’t realise it, as there was no London scene as such. The ballerina act and the singing of Noel Coward’s work was hysterical. “I was upset at being asked to leave, but there was that positive side.
“We had Bryn Terfel in my year, so the rest of us just slotted in where we could. He was going home every weekend and earning, from a concert on a Friday and a Saturday, I think it was half my grant cheque for a term.
“Madame Galina was me making my mark at college. I was doing it as a complete gag, but it brought the house down.”
Iestyn first came to Aldeburgh in 1985, on holiday, “and completely fell in love with the atmosphere of it, the views of it. I didn’t come for golf, for sailing or singing; I came for its haunted feel…”
He then came as often as he could.
He’d house-sit in the Aldeburgh area, and then rented a one-up, one-down house behind the Cross Keys pub for £35 a week. He wrote material and set about putting himself “out there”.
Iestyn hired the church hall in Aldeburgh, to stage his show. That was in 1999, probably. He also appeared at Thorpeness Country Club, further along the coast.
“I put on in embryo what has become my full evening double bill: the first half, me – sort of stand-up anecdotes and singing. Second half: Madame Galina and her cod ballet masterclass.”
Of that church hall date, he says: “That had about 11 people in on the first night, but the word went round.”
There was a spark…
Broadcaster and writer Libby Purves, who lives in Suffolk, saw him at Aldeburgh and would prove key. And when he performed at a party at Thorpeness, he caught the eye of club booker Emily Latham, who arranged for him to audition for Club Kabaret in London.
“Within a week I was on a West End stage. There was Jude Law to my left, Kate Moss to my right, and Madonna on a table at the back.”
Things were never the same…
He won Busker of the Year, and then the As Seen on the Big Breakfast Edinburgh Special. Ruby Wax featured him in a BBC Three series, and there was Madame Galina’s Whirlwind Guide To Ballet for Channel 4.
The Libby influence…
Libby Purves arranged for Iestyn to sing (as himself) at a sea-related evening of poems, prose and song. He sang the emotional songs The Death of Nelson and Tom Bowling.
Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord, was there. It led to Iestyn singing to the Queen and others on Trafalgar Day 2005 – in the Great Cabin of HMS Victory.
“The Queen started the applause and said ‘What a beautiful, sad song.’”
A verse had to be dropped because of time constraints, but Iestyn was booked by the First Sea Lord for the next year, too.
“He said ‘Her Majesty ticked me off, Iestyn, for not letting you sing longer, because she said your singing was so lovely. Are you pleased?’ I said ‘You could have told me that a year ago! That could have been on my CV for a whole year. No, I’m not pleased!’”
Weren’t you nearly shot at en route to Portsmouth and The Queen?
He and harpist Louisa were running late, got a bit lost, and, it seems, went past a security checkpoint. A soldier apparently knelt, ready to shoot out the tyres. “I said to Louisa ‘Stop! I think they’re shooting at us!’”
All this brought him to the attention of Combined Services Entertainment…
Between 2006 and 2010 he went to Iraq once and Afghanistan three times to entertain the troops as Madame Galina. (It had started with crossed wires: he’d gone to audition “for what I assumed would be recitals of light classics for officers’ mess nights at the Hilton, Park Lane”.
Scary, then? “Oh god, yes. I was terrified. I was in a rocket attack. There was shelling. The first night I was there, I was woken up by the bombing of the train station. There were Italians killed on the road.
“There was hardly a time when we weren’t hearing something. Communications went down... there were casualties just about the whole time.”
The Diana influence…
Suffolk-based actress Diana Quick first came to see his show in about 2001. She offered some advice and has coached him.
Iestyn admits always “being in mortal fear of Diana Quick’s judgment”, but also hugely grateful.
“She’s been very, very brilliant at saying ‘No, you can’t do that. I don’t care about your standing ovation.’ She’s such a fantastic actor. The voice is spectacular, and she knows how it works and how to put it across, and she’s also adorable to me.
“When she’s pleased, she does giggle and find it funny. She’s been so supportive. There’s a toughness but such a kindness about her. I’ve been so lucky with her – and Libby.”
Away from East Anglia, and back again…
Iestyn moved back to London in about 2000 because he had so many gigs in the capital and really wanted to get himself to Edimburgh. More recently, he found himself living in Brighton, “which I hated. I started to refer to Hove, down the road, as Snape.
“I thought to myself ‘Ah, that’s what’s bothering you. You want to go ‘home’’. So I saw I could afford a little place above The Kitchen in Thorpeness, which is where I am now.”
He’s been back on our coast for a couple of years now. It’s bijoux, “but I’m used to studio living. People think they need much more space than they do. Look at all those wild walks outside, or the beach.
“I get out for hours a day. It’s so inspiring. People think I’m a bit nutty because they always see me talking to myself because I’m always rehearsing lines.”
The love of East Anglia
“I still am stunned by the beauty of it. I’ve discovered, from getting lost in Thorpeness, the most beautiful walks – walking to Leiston, past the pigs. The piglets had little coats on. And the other day some horses escaped from the heath and decided to join in with the ladies’ four golf, which was hysterical.
“I love the winters. And the North Sea is very bracing; sorts out all ills, going in there.”
What does he like?
“I love people’s stories. I love to sit in the café in Solar in Leiston, particularly when there’s a group of women who do an exercise class. They’re marvellous characters. I’ve coincided my walk to Leiston to listen to them and it’s fantastic. Their discussion of Brexit chimes a lot with mine.
“I love reading. I’m very quiet. I love books and libraries. I love the radio, particularly Radio 4. Very simple. I love comedy.” Heroes: Joyce Grenfell and Victoria Wood.
See him, read him, hear him
He’s written a book: My Tutu Went AWOL! What Happens When You Perform Drag Ballet in Iraq (published by Unbound.co.uk)
It’s got a local launch at The Aldeburgh Bookshop at 6pm on Friday, April 21. Libby Purves will introduce Iestyn’s comic account of taking his Prima Ballerina to entertain the troops.
He’s doing a one-man show at the INK Festival (The Cut, Halesworth) on Saturday the 22nd, too.
“Attack is the best form of defence, so I say ‘Smile, darling, it’s a night out,’ when I’m doing my first dancing. And one of the first things I say, when I look at the audience, is ‘It’s like doing hospital entertainment in here.’ So they sort of tend not to dare. Touchwood, I’ve not had much that’s bad. She’s so daft, anyway.”
Iestyn reads out an email from Joanna Lumley, who says “You just caused a bow wave of happiness and silliness wherever you go. A true and fabulous diva with the voice of an angel.”
“Lovely quote. I know she’s written it carefully! But that is what I like to give – happiness and silliness – and I think it disarms people.”