Terry Grimley meets the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain.
In an interview published last week, Proms director Roger Wright complained that, after all the effort he had put into organising the world’s greatest music festival, all anyone wanted to talk about was the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain.
But given the deep affection for quirkiness which we like to think is peculiarly British, it’s not particularly surprising that this eccentric ensemble’s forthcoming induction into the annual Royal Albert Hall ritual has captured the public imagination.
In a way, linking its name with the Proms merely adds another level to the incongruity already achieved by the juxtaposition of “ukelele” and “orchestra”.
“A lot of ukelele ensembles nowadays call themselves orchestras,” says founder and artistic director George Hinchcliffe.
“There’s a lot of them about now, in places like Australia, Germany and Sweden, but there weren’t when we started. We thought the combination of ukelele and orchestra was a contradiction, like saying a caucus of fishermen or something. It was ridiculous, yet to make it work was the challenge.”
George recalls approvingly that at the Proms launch Roger Wright joked that while there were some popular elements in this year’s programme, he had drawn the line at having an event called Debussy Galore.
It’s just the sort of terrible pun the UOGB specialises in. So far its masterpiece, perhaps never to be bettered, is the title of its album of punk classics, Anarchy in the UKelele.
George first picked up a ukelele at the age of around eight, which was “not that far off 50 years ago,” he admits. A native of Sheffield, he studied art and music in Birmingham and among other things has worked as a secretary, gardener and in a foundry.
“I always thought I wouldn’t work as a musician, but I ended up playing Hammond organ in a soul band. I later played violin and an instrument I forget the name of, a sort of electric Asian mandolin, in an Asian group. We played in lots of temples in the late 70s and early 80s.”
And then in 1985 he started the UOGB. Given its current overnight success, most people would probably be surprised to realise that the group is actually nearly 25 years old.
“It’s tempting to say it was a tin-pot organisation until recently when XYZ happened,” says George. “But in actual fact I think it’s been peaks and troughs all the way through. We started in 1985 and by the back end of the year we’d been on Radio 1 and done a Radio 2 recording. Then we did Pebble Mill at One – live TV – then thought we should do an album, and played the WOMAD festival. I think that was ‘87 or ‘88.
“Then we got hooked up with CBS. What usually happens is someone tries to get a record company to record them, but no-one wanted to record us, so we did it ourselves and then the record company came to us and said we like it, we’d like to have it.
“But we didn’t sign with them, we leased it to them. In those days it seemed a strange thing to be doing but now, because of the way the industry is going, it seems a prophetic thing to have done.”
Audiences grew steadily, and the group found it was moving on from arts centres to theatres, and then to larger theatres.
“Of course one can’t predict these things. We could say we’ve got a gig tomorrow and nobody will turn up. We always joked about it in years gone by, we’d say our ambitions will be realised when we succeed in filling the Royal Albert Hall with people strumming ukeleles and have six people on stage listening. In fact we’ve come pretty close to that.”
This is a reference to the fact that audience members are invited to bring their own ukeleles to the Prom and join in the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They can prepare themselves with the aid of seven tutorials posted online.
The orchestra is adding other special items for its Proms debut including The Ride of the Valkyries, Danse Macabre and, of course, Jerusalem. If they go well, some of these numbers may figure in he orchestra’s concert at Birmingham Town Hall in December, alongside such tried-and-tested favourites as the theme from Shaft, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and the Dambusters’ March.
The last-mentioned has recently brought the UOGB praise on a far-right political website, whereas its following generally has what George calls a “left-leaning, knit-your-own-yoghurt” element. Another school of thought is that a ukelele orchestra playing Eric Coates’s patriotic masterpiece shows a lack of due decorum.
Meanwhile at the Lichfield Festival tomorrow and Wednesday, the UOGB will be doing something different again, providing a soundtrack to a selection of vintage short films.
“We were talking with the British Film Institute about the possibility of doing music for a British silent film,” George explains. “There are a lot that never see the light of day that aren’t as well known as Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, but our conclusion was that if you put together quirky music with quirky old film it’s a bit too enmeshed in a way, and the sense of humour has changed over the years.
“So we thought the best thing was to look for shorts that are quirky or amusing for the wrong reasons. So for example we have a self-defence film for ladies where two girls are practising, and it’s a little bit uncomfortable watching them wrestling with each other.
“We also have some early advertisments which go on inordinately, so in a way it’s like a little featurette, but it’s advertising cigarettes or a car. We’ve performed the programme twice at the BFI and once at Bristol Old Vic.”
At its largest the orchestra had 13 players, but at the moment it consists of just eight players, of whom four have been there pretty much from the beginning – “a chamber orchestra, really”, George admits.
But that nagging question still persists: why the ukelele?
“I think there were about four of us in the band who had been in the soul band or various offshoots of it, and it takes a considerable effort to lug all that equipment around even when you’re young. When you get older you don’t want to do that, and the idea of a world tour with hand luggage did rather appeal to us.
“And the fact that it wasn’t taken seriously as an instrument enabled us to do anything with a fairly low bar, and therefore we were able to play a bit of Tchaikovsky or a bit of an Eric Clapton solo. These days I don’t think the same conditions apply – people like all sorts of things on all sorts of instruments.”
And where are ukeleles made nowadays?
“Today they mainly come from China,” says George. “But the most recent one I’ve got was made by a guy in Wales who was particularly keen to make some instruments from native trees. Mine is made from yew, so it’s the only yew-kelele in the orchestra!”
* The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain presents “Ukelelescope” at the Lichfield Garrick tomorrow and Wednesday 7.30pm (Box office: 01543 412121). It also plays the Proms on August 18 and Birmingham Town Hall on December 17.