Between the ages of about eight and eleven I was fully committed to becoming a zoologist, thanks to the collective influence of Willard Price, James Herriot and Gerald Durrell. As a teenager I shifted irreversibly to historical fiction; the predictable mix of Sharpe and Hornblower giving way to Flashman and the incomparable Brigadier Gerard. Unsurprisingly, my first novel was firmly embedded in the genre, and during a post-university ‘gap year’ I hugely enjoyed researching the late regency world in between working as a punt tour guide and playing jazz gigs around Cambridge.
The resulting novel follows the career of an idealistic young man, Will Playfair, from the field of Peterloo through his first year at university, where he becomes embroiled in the Hell Fire Club and the radical political underworld. Banished temporarily to London, his path entwines with that of a beautiful socialite who seems destined to marry our hero’s boyhood enemy, George Montague. Playfair tries to win her love at the same time as saving his wayward friend Tom Fitzherbert from the long arm of the law, a task which takes him everywhere from the backstreets of the East End to the stage of the Theatre Royal… Part of the inspiration for me is the sheer sense of fun which emanates from the regency period: who can resist scenes such as those caricatured by George Cruickshank?
Here’s a quick sample to whet your appetite. Our hero, restrained from fighting a duel, instead finds himself racing his rival across the Serpentine in Hyde Park:
‘Whoever said hell is a furnace has never swum in a freezing lake early on an April morning. The impact took my breath away entirely, and I surfaced with a gasping shriek some three yards from Derriman. For a second we were both stunned into inaction, then we set off across the lake, thrashing with numb limbs at the water which seemed to bite into the very flesh. Twenty yards in, Derriman started to pull away with powerful strokes. I roared my defiance and redoubled my efforts, so that with thirty yards to go Derriman led by only half the length of his body. Spray blinded me and I was swallowing water with every gulping breath, but somehow my arms and legs ignored the impulse to give up.
Every muscle in my body screamed with pain and the cold as we took our last frenzied strokes, and then unexpectedly we were hacking into mud as the lake shallowed out. I leapt to my feet a heartbeat ahead of Derriman, and suddenly the lead was mine as I sprinted the last dozen yards through the water and flung myself at the feet of Kingsley. Derriman crashed down beside me, and for half a minute we stayed there, sobbing for breath and racked with agony. Someone threw a blanket over my back, and more brandy was thrust down my mouth. My hands clutched like claws at the blanket, and then Marcus was there, rubbing me down like a racehorse and shouting something into my ear.’
Writing for Children – ‘Adventures of the Black Violin’.
I recently decided to turn my hand to children’s fiction, not least with my own growing family to keep entertained. I wanted to write something which would tie in my various passions – music, theatre, history and literature, with the potential to expand into a series of books if possible. I’ve always been struck by the timelessness of the violin, the design of which hasn’t been improved for five hundred years. Using a violin as a central character seemed an original and interesting way of delving into the past, so I settled on this as my narrative voice. The violin needed some defining characteristic, though, so the first book sees the violin-maker’s workshop burned down in a terrible fire, which leaves our narrator irretrievably damaged and half-blackened. Rescued by the young apprentice, Antonio, the pair go on to join a troupe of travelling players on an adventure that takes them through renaissance Italy at its most colourful and dangerous…
Here’s a link to a podcast version I recorded during the lock-down: have a listen!
Writing for the stage
As Director of Drama at MCS I have been able to indulge my love of plays. As well as directing some twenty-five productions I have adapted various books for the stage, including Treasure Island, The Odyssey, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and What ho, Jeeves! These are all suitable for school productions, and all featured original music in the performances I staged. In 2014 I collaborated with story-teller Polly Tisdall on a modernised version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which was performed in the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe for a successful week-long run. For the WWI commemorations in 2018 I worked with a group of students on a original production we called Reflections, which followed a number of real-life characters through the conflict. Researching their stories from school and county archives proved fascinating, and a reminder that truth is often as strange as fiction. Another team of pupils joined me in writing the script, resulting in a poignant and memorable production. You can watch a documentary about the whole process here.
My largest projects to date have been five full-length musicals which you can read much more about on the ‘Composer’ page. My parents collaborated on many songs, my father as lyricist my mother as composer, so I have vivid memories of hearing them try out new ideas downstairs once I’d gone up to bed. Here are the lyrics to one of my songs from The Bluestocking, set in an Oxford women’s hall in 1920, where Trixie sings to new girl Mary Mason about the perks of being a female undergraduate:
For that charming girl he met was an undergraduette, unusually witty and bright;
A different sort of date, who can charm and scintillate her lover all through the night,
Quoting from Moliere, Proust or Joyce, epigrams off the cuff!
English or French, give him the choice; a line or two should be enough…
I have written several articles for Drama and Theatre magazine, including an account of a ‘strolling players’ theatre trip I led through the Tuscan hills in the summer of 2016, during which we walked from Lucca to Siena and performed The Knight’s Tale each evening on whatever stage we could find, whether a medieval street corner, a candle-lit courtyard or the backroom of a heaving hostelry. You can read an extended account in my blog post A Tuscan adventure
One of the great joys of teaching is being able to tell people about my own passions. I have given public lectures and after-dinner talks on a number of topics including the life of Ivor Novello, the Regency Underworld, Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, and many aspects of French History in the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. As an historian I am particularly attracted to revolutions and hugely enjoyed researching events in Russia for my musical, 1917, and more recently the jazz underworld of the Third Reich for Swing Heil!
Please get in touch if you’re interested in performing any of my musicals or stage adaptations, or if you would like me to give a bespoke talk on something related to my various interests.
See the link below for a video about my latest writing collaboration, Leave it to Puck! as part of a double bill world premiere alongside Bob Chilcott’s Birdland.