The premiere of a new concert called When This Lousy War Is Over is being staged next month to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
Specially commissioned by Birmingham Town Hall & Symphony Hall, it will have two performances on Remembrance Sunday, November 9, before a London premiere the following day.
And the two-hour show will be played entirely on ukuleles.
George Hinchcliffe, the founding director of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain back in 1985, has been researching the music of the period to offer an internationalist, pacifist perspective on the war.
It was a time when war made life so unbearably hard that some people just had to laugh, and sing… and play the ukulele.
“Many of the 20 songs in the concert are about the First World War, but although the term has only been used recently, it is also about world music of the day,” says George.
“I think people will find the show funny, interesting, thought provoking, entertaining... and touching.
“All you can do with something new is to run it up the flagpole and see if it people will salute it, but I think they will.
“When the audience leaves, I think they’ll say ‘that was entertaining but I also learned something new about the period’.”
As well as songs from the trenches and well known ditties of the day, the performance will also include lesser-known tunes brought over by soldiers from China, India and Africa, along with political and pacifist songs of the time.
George’s research into the pre-war origins of songs like Has Anybody Seen A German Band? has been helped by the fact that many of his orchestra’s 120 concerts per year are abroad.
Members of his team have also researched their own family histories.
“There are eight people in the orchestra at any one time from ten of us, with another five working in the office and so on.
“So that’s 15 of us relying on the orchestra to pay the bills.
“It’s wonderful that this piece has been commission by THSH.
“The Birmingham concerts might be recorded for archive purposes, but we hope to be playing it for four years and to be able to take it to countries from Sweden to China, where we played earlier this month.”
One of the pieces in When This Lousy War Is Over will be by George Butterworth – who set the poems of AE Houseman to music before being killed at the age of just 31 during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
“He was a very promising composer whose work The Banks of Green Willow is often used as a substitute for the one minute’s silence,” says George. “It would not be a good idea if we avoided that.”
George notes how 27 countries – many from the Commonwealth – were involved in the First World War.
“But even during that period, the West End was full of music,” he says.
“The (1960s’) show Oh What a Lovely War came from the (1917) song Oh It’s a Lovely War, a cynical song about what it’s like to be up to your neck in mud in Flanders.
“Other issues at the time included the right for women to vote. Women were divided – some supported the war, others didn’t.”
While many people think of George Formby (1904-1961) in association with the instrument, what they often don’t realise is that he started out as a tribute act to his father (born James Lawler Booth, 1875-1921) whose own music hall stage name was George Formby (Snr).
The instrument itself has origins with Portuguese people who went to Hawaii. A 1915 trade fare in San Francisco helped to popularise it.
For many members of the orchestra, the ukulele is actually their first instrument, not a second.
In George Hinchcliffe’s case, for example, he has returned to it via learning the piano, violin, viola, double bass and even playing the organ in a soul band.
Its simplicity, universality, ease of transport and low cost means that the second a show ends he can now ‘‘start talking to people instead of packing up for hours’’.
George, who was seven but already fully aware of who George Formby was when he died in 1961, has around 50 ukuleles at home which cost from £25 upwards.
But the one he plays the most is worth around £100.
Another, made from koa wood a century ago, is the ‘‘Stradivarius of ukuleles’’ in as much as it was made by the original Diaz factory in Hawaii.
“Many people come to the ukulele later in life because it’s cheap and relatively easy to play?” says George.
“Having a more expensive instrument is not what it’s about. If you can make a tune out of a reasonable but not terribly expensive instrument – most needn’t cost more than £200 – that shows the point of it. If you give someone a £10,000 instrument, anyone can sound good playing one note, but then you have to ask ‘What is the music that you are playing?’.”
The orchestra’s website is endorsed with a quote from David Bowie saying ‘‘Wonderfully clever’’, while a New York Times reviewer noted how “They extract more than seems humanly possible from so small and so modest an instrument’’.
Over the years they have been associated with artists from Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) to Madness and the Kaiser Chiefs, but George will never forget the day they had a surprise guest.
And, you’ve guessed it, after a story involving himself , George Formby Jnr and Snr and George Butterworth, the visitor was, inevitably, yet another George.
“The Beatles’ George Harrison came to see us and to play a couple of songs in about 1989,” he recalls.
“He was a member of The George Formby Society and loved the ukulele so much he always carried a couple in the boot of his car.
“He gave me his phone number, using the name Jack Transport.
“What you find with famous and talented people is how nice they are. It’s the second-rate who end up becoming awkward customers. George was really nice and straightforward. He was a very pleasant guy who talked to everybody.”
* The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – When This Lousy War Is Over plays at the Town Hall at 3pm and 7pm on Remembrance Sunday, November 9, 2014. Tickets are £19.50 plus transaction fee from www.thsh.co.uk