Forget fame – just aim for a gig on Cromer Pier
14 March 2008
Here is an idea for a cracking new radio series. Called something like The Horse’s Mouth, each programme would bring together famous people who share a talent but who are separated by several generations. A grizzled old footballer would talk to an 18-year-old star of the future. Tony Benn could meet one of those new MPs with identikit faces and neat dark hair who are beginning to be part of the political establishment.
The idea behind the series would be that while the image and the culture of careers in football, politics, comedy, acting or journalism has changed immeasurably, the essential thing – the spark which makes it all possible – remains the same. The veterans would, rather daringly and innovatively, be assumed to be wiser and know more than their young counterparts and would be expected to give advice.
The highlight of The Horse’s Mouth would feature a fresh-faced musical talent – the brilliant Laura Marling, perhaps – in conversation with Humphrey Lyttelton, who has just announced that next Monday’s edition of The Best of Jazz on Radio 2 will be his last. Sitting between Laura and Humph, ideally, would be a musician whose career is poised intriguingly between triumph and disaster – Amy Winehouse would be the obvious choice.
There are, I admit, problems with this radio concept. Humphrey Lyttelton, at the age of 86 and after 40 years of presenting the show, has explained that the reason he is moving on is “to clear space for my other ambitions”. These, we can safely assume, are unlikely to involve more chat on the radio. Routinely described as “a national treasure”, Lyttelton has somehow managed to avoid the straightjacket of sentimental celebrity. He has been successful in other areas, notably as the antidote to radio quiz-show hosts on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, but his career has started and ended with music.
It is an old-fashioned idea, to build your life around your own particular talent and to refuse to be diverted from it. The idea that fame itself is more important than what led to it is now so ingrained that it seems quite logical that a singer should host a chat show or an actor should become a politician. The fog of publicity and hype that surrounds any sort of public achievement obscures the fact that doing something brings more satisfaction than being someone. It is the work – music, in this case – that matters.
Even to those for whom the pleasures of jazz remain a mystery, there is something inspiring about Lyttelton’s career. Much is made of his rather grand background, but his true good fortune surely lay in having a mother sensible enough to sneak him away from the Eton against Harrow cricket match at Lord’s to buy him his first trumpet, at the age of 15, on Tin Pan Alley. Parents currently being pestered by music-obsessed teenagers should take note of this fine example from 71 years ago. Forget cricket matches, school rules, even lessons: as Mrs Lyttelton and her son have proved, music can bring inestimable rewards. The time when the obsession with playing truly takes root is during adolescence.
Since then, Humphrey Lyttelton claims to have played at least an hour every day. Famously, he took his trumpet with him to war, playing on a beachhead at Salerno during a lull in the fighting around the Allied invasion in 1943. Two years later, he was filmed on VE Day putting in an impromptu performance while standing on a wheelbarrow.
An enthusiasm of this kind is rarely static and never boring. In the 1950s, when jazz aroused more passion than it has since, there was a divide between enthusiasts of trad and bebop. Lyttelton’s musical instinct took him from one to the other – indeed his career has seen all sorts of surprising connections. Paul McCartney quoted him as an influence, and there were some who felt that the homage was rather too direct when the Beatles song “Lady Madonna” seemed to contain distinct echoes of Lyttelton’s only hit, “Bad Penny Blues”. In 2001, he appeared on the Radiohead album Amnesiac.
The “other ambitions” to which Lyttelton refers are likely to be musical. He continues to tour with his band, and this September he is due to play in that great annual event, the Seaside Special on Cromer Pier. Among other veterans appearing on the Norfolk coast this summer will be Kenny Ball, Joe Brown (sadly without his Bruvvers), Marty Wilde, and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra.
So the message to Laura, Amy and other performers is clear: it is the work, not the nonsense which surrounds it, which matters. Follow your music and you could still be playing and singing into the second half of the 21st century. With luck, you might even end up playing on Cromer Pier.