Andrew Dickson

‘I grew up in Richmond, near London, in a loving musical family. My parents and one sister played fiddles, the others piano and flute, and there was always music, especially at Christmas. I started ukulele at 11 and guitar at 12, which became my main instrument. Aged 13 I did a term at the Spanish Guitar Centre in Leicester Square learning Classical; it took them that long to realize I was doing it all by ear, so that was the end of my formal training. I think I’ve gained most of my musical skills through friends and osmosis.
When I started writing my own tunes, they became more interesting to me than the pop music of the day, though I loved Joan Baez, and Skiffle. I judged music by its drivability, meaning that if I enjoyed driving to it, loud, which I did a lot of, it was good. My Great Aunt Marjorie had published several books “demythetising” music, making it more accessible for children. She wrote songs and invented the Tonic Solfa family with Father Doh and Mother Soh, predating my similar quest to erode the inherent elitism in most music. I trained to teach at Coventry College of Education in the 60s when Folk Clubs became very popular, and because I could play more than three chords people decided I was a beatnik and a great guitarist. I found a teriffic singer, Jenny, and we spent two happy college years playing the Midlands Clubs as ‘Andrew and Jenny’. I learnt how to show off and sang the rude and funny songs while she did the beautiful ones.
When I left college I found that everyone in the audience at my local Twickenham Folk Club could play at least as well as me. I learned to play the piano, and then worked in a Special School for Maladjusted Teenagers (as they were then called) for two years, which was great—child led education as it should be—then I got into Theatre in Education. My friend Sue Birtwistle and I started the first TIE Company in Scotland working in Edinburgh schools through the Royal Lyceum Theatre, promoting the use of Drama as a teaching method. As writer/actor/teachers we devised programmes on a variety of subjects which we took into schools as Characters and then involved the children in the action. They weren’t consciously performing, but becoming involved and thus learning about the topic by Doing rather than Reading about it. After two years of much pioneering fun I did another two at the Cockpit Theatre in London making TIE programmes with many city schools.
Having worked in Edinburgh, I got to work for many of the companies I admired from the Festival, fringe companies such as the People Show, Joint Stock and Theatre Machine. From the Three B’s in Bridlington to the Peoples Palace in Borneo I worked as actor, musician, composer, director and writer for many including The Crucible Sheffield, The Liverpool Everyman, Nottingham Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse, two years touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company, two years as Artistic Director of the Young National Trust Theatre and seven Edinburgh Festivals. I did seventeen shows with the great poet Adrian Mitchell, including three of the Greek Myths (40 songs) in Japanese in a huge tent in a Tokyo park for Japanese children. Adrian also wrote The Wild Animal Song Contest for Ken Livingstone’s Year of Peace when he was leader of the GLC, which we toured round London parks in a double-decker. The whole side of the bus came down to form a stage, and we ended up in the Children’s Field at Glastonbury competing with U2 in the next field—hard work but very exciting.
Working in the world of theatre I bumped into film director Mike Leigh. I had written music for the Crucible’s 10th anniversary, a production of Caucasian Chalk Circle by Brecht, in which Mike’s best friend was playing the lead. He asked me to do the music for his film Meantime, and that was the start of a relationship in which I did a further five of his films. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done yet the most rewarding. Mike supervised virtually every demi-semi quaver, but it was great having that much collaboration. I would start by writing tunes to a rough first edit of the film, from which Mike would select one out of ten. I would then do ten variations on that tune, and he would select one of them. I then had to choose a small ensemble to record, often using harp, viola and double bass. Unlike the current trend in film to employ wall-of-sound/end-to-end noise, thus negating the audience’s need or opportunity to use any imagination, Mike and I both love, and use a lot of, silence. The positioning of the music is painstakingly chosen and though I have worked with Directors who leave me completely alone, I much prefer collaboration.
In between Mike’s films, which were generally about two years in preparation, I was able to do community projects, like a play called The Symondsbury Marys, which was a secular nativity play in the Tithe Barn at Symondsbury. I first came to Dorset to work with Anne Jellicoe in Community theatre, on Howard Barker’s play The Poor Man’s Friend, in 1981. It had political overtones and I always prefer working on theatre with a purpose, fun and relevance being my main priorities. It was about a boy who was hung for setting fire to hemp in Bridport’s main industry of the time, ropemaking for the hangman’s noose—otherwise known as the “the Bridport Dagger”, or “the poor man’s friend”. It was a huge, wonderful surprise for me working with a cast of 120, writing harmonies for that number of people, and seeing the joy they discovered in performing. Only recently have people become aware of the fact, now that TV has discovered it, that singing in choirs is good for the soul and can significantly help with loneliness, stress, self-confidence and Dementia. The play came at the beginning of a whole movement of Community Theatre, in which I continued to be involved, with Entertaining Strangers by David Edgar in Dorchester, and then five others, one in Burton Bradstock. Then in 2016 I wrote the music for The Tempest of Lyme at the Marine Theatre, an adaptation linking Shakespeare’s Tempest to the history of Lyme Regis directed by Clemmie Reynolds. I’m working with her again in London on a project based on Theodora of Byzantium, an amazing woman who lived in the year 500AD in Constantinople, who started life as a child prostitute, and ended up, by marrying the Emperor of Constantinople, the most powerful woman in the Roman world, changing many laws which discriminated against women at the time.
I’ve had amazing luck throughout my working life, often due to the people and places I’ve encountered. I’ve been commissioned to write several pieces of musical theatre, one for the Somerset and Dorset Theatre Company run by Kate Geraghty called Feed the Birds, and more recently Flea, a Ukulele Opera based on a Flea Circus, with a 22 piece ukulele chorus, a band, and a cast of a hundred plus. It was all sung, and performed here in Bridport at the Palace. I strongly believe that simple instruments like the ukulele, harmonica and autoharp—all producing instant results—should be taught at an early age, instead of more traditional and challenging ones like violin and clarinet, which can wait. I have a huge collection of instruments from around the world which I am happy to share with anyone who is interested, and one day hope to initiate a ‘Music Hub’ in which to house them where all can come and play. At the moment I’m lucky enough to be writing music for my daughter Kitti’s wedding. And, alongside various awards, my greatest achievements in life are my three wonderful children, Jim, Kit and Micky.
I began teaching guitar when I was 15, and have continued with many other instruments ever since. I discovered early on that ‘Tone Deafness is as rare as Genius’ and that, if you’ve got a heartbeat and a vague sense of pitch, then you are musical. Which means everybody. It’s a natural human condition, and not the preserve of a talented elite. Music, along with the other crucial Arts subjects, has been far too marginalised by recent governments and it is high time that music was a priority for all teachers in training. I’d simply love others to share in the great discovery of enabling their fellow human beings to access their innate musicality and their own singing voice, which, in a merry way, has been one of my main motives in life.’