Python past made Neil Innes the go-to man for Georgian musical satire
- Credit: Archant
It’s not often you get to talk to a pair of collaborators while they are in the midst of creating a show. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Matthew Townsend and Neil Innes about the highs and lows of recreating Georgian England in song
With BBC4 recently celebrating the off-colour joys of Rude Britannia and Victoria Coren-Mitchell exploring what it takes to be a Bohemian artist, it seems that wayward creative spirits like Henry Fielding, William Hogarth and Richard Brinsley Sheridan are currently the flavour of the month.
The Victorians’ puritanical distaste for their forebears seems to have vanished as once again we embrace the satire and earthy humour which shaped a cultural golden age. It was a time when Parliament and the people sought to wrest control of the nation away from royalty and nobility.
This return to the world of A Harlot’s Progress, Tom Jones and A School For Scandal bodes well for a new musical being readied for production by Suffolk-based theatre-producer Matthew Townsend and former Python musician, Neil Innes.
The pair are working together on a new satirical musical The Rake’s Return or Ipso Facto which sets our current economic woes against the world of political corruption during the Georgian Regency as depicted by Hogarth.
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Matthew said: “It’s a collaboration between myself, Neil and Graham Baker and it’s very much a Suffolk project. We all live in Suffolk. It’s been developed here with workshops and small audience try-outs at the Snape Maltings and Wingfield Barns.”
He said that it has taken five years to get The Rake’s Return to a position where it can now go in front of an audience.
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He said that although it is still a work in progress, they are at a point where they are now fine-tuning the structure of the piece and Neil is putting the finishing touches to the songs and the music.
As a result Neil has been in a recording studio in Martlesham with a group of singers to create a professional recording of the show as it currently stands.
The basis of the play is centred round a mythical meeting between social commentator and artist William Hogarth and dispirited novelist Henry Fielding.
Matthew said: “The source material is a comedy by Henry Fielding which dates from round about 1740. Fielding started his career as an actor/manager and was a very successful writer of farces and comedies. But, as you would expect, his savage wit cut too close to the bone and (prime minister) Robert Walpole closed him down with the Theatres Act. This was probably the first example of state censorship. It was then that he became the novelist that we all remember him as.
“It was at that time he began his campaign, with his half brother John Fielding, the blind judge, to try and clean up Covent Garden. I was reading Dan Cruickshanks’ book on Georgian London recently and it was extraordinary because he made it clear that what we take to be the wealth of our Georgian heritage was based on the sex industry.
“The money that was made from sex at that time is mind-blowing. It is no exaggeration to say that the sex workers in London were generating the same amount of revenue as London Docks. It’s staggering.”
The pair are completely fascinated by the world into which they have fallen. At the moment they are living and breathing Regency England. Neil says that for him the
comparison between London then and London today is crystal clear.
The man who has been helping to forge those links is fellow Suffolk resident Graham Baker, writer and director of such Hollywood blockbusters as Alien Nation and Beowulf. He has been adapting the original play and was responsible for bringing Neil and Matthew together.
Matthew said: “At the very beginning, when I was taking apart Bernard Miles’ adaptation and was asking: ‘Where do you find a musical satirist?’ Graham pointed out that there was only one and that’s Neil.”
Innes explained: “When I heard that Graham had suggested we put Hogarth into this mix then I became very interested in doing it because we had a visual element. Then, as we have progressed, I was very keen for Fielding to be in there too because he’s got every right to have his story told as well.”
Matthew is also intrigued by the fact that Fielding the dramatist was deliberately put out of business by the prime minister and the government of the day because they had enough of having their tail being tweaked.
“Yet Hogarth, who was just as subversive, was allowed to continue because art wasn’t seen as dangerous. He just produced funny pictures. But actors walking around, saying lines, drawing attention to government wrong doing? ‘Oh dear no, that has to stop.”
The pair said that although the creation of a new musical has been a labour of love, the length of time it has taken to get all the elements in place has taken them a little by surprise.
Neil said: “Creating a musical from scratch is a Herculean undertaking. It’s been years of writing, re-writing, re-writing again. Everything takes time. It’s not a question of man hours, we’ve all got other things to do, but we keep coming back to it and every step we take brings us closer to something that’s as good as we can make it and is more fun.
“It’s taken something like five years to get to this stage. We’ve just had a recording session so we can get the music and songs on CD but before we committed to a studio session I just wanted to have a go at polishing a particular double scene with one couple upstairs and another downstairs. One is the old bent justice trying to seduce the heroine while the wife is trying to get off with the sailor downstairs. At some points they are singing the same lines. It became a bit like a cryptic crossword for me, so I thought that I would like to have another go at cracking it before we went into the studio.”
He said that staging a studio recording proved to be a valuable learning experience, giving them a window on the show which they never had before. “You get so close to the material that you can’t see the wood for the trees. So Matthew found the money to come to Planet Music in Martlesham. We brought in some proper singers, rather than just me warbling away, and it’s been a fascinating experience because, for me, hearing other people sing the songs has given me a different slant on the narrative.”
Neil said that new work on the show goes beyond tweaking the existing songs. “In January I wrote a new number because we thought we needed a better song for the heroine’s maid because she had evolved into a more interesting character than she was. That’s something we have been doing with these revisions…we needed to strengthen the characters, make them more complex, more like real people.
“It can take up to ten years to get a show right for the stage. You are constantly going back to the premise – constantly trying to find the voice of the characters. Nothing good happens very quickly. I think a true work of art is created when someone has taken pains to get it exactly right. That’s when everything works.”
For both Matthew and Neil the joy of creating The Rake’s Return or Ipso Facto is to draw parallels between the world of underhand dealings which flourished in Georgian society and the way the our world continues to work.
Neil seizes this theme as he explains: “What links all the elements of this play is that we have an interior, an exterior and an ulterior. To my mind this makes politicians ulterior decorators. They try and influence the way we see superficial surface detail without changing the fabric of the building, which is what we are as a society.”
But, they agree that entertainment is the main aim of the piece. “So we have farce, some songs, historical background and topicality, so there’s a rich mix,” Matthew says.
Neil then adds: “Also, we don’t want to lecture our audiences. Too many plays lecture people these days. It’s as if people don’t have brains and can’t work it out for themselves. It’s a bizarre kind of arrogance which suggests that can’t let people find their own way through a piece of work – just in case horror of horrors – they don’t come to the conclusions we want them to.”