The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024
18/06/2024

Opera stars hail ‘genius’ behind Little Donkey

The creative team preparing to tour a new show about Eric Boswell —The Donkey, The Whippet & The Giant Leek — tell David Whetstone of the region’s answer to Flanders & Swann and why they all got involved
Eric Boswell at the piano

There are five of us round the table — two writers, two singers and me — but there’s an unseen presence, the songwriter whose achievements are to be remembered in a new touring show.

Eric Boswell was the quiet maestro who gave us Little Donkey, a Christmas staple that many assume has been around since the year dot.

But as the title of the new theatrical homage suggests, he gave us much more. The Donkey, The Whippet & The Giant Leek recalls a late master of the North East comic song.

Graeme Thompson sowed the seed of a show that will take operatic couple Graeme Danby and Valerie Reid on a North East tour throughout April and into May.

He explains: “I’ve known Graeme and Valerie for a long time and we’ve talked a lot about a tour in the North East because they spend most of their time not working here but in London, Scotland and overseas…”

“Not through choice,” chips in Valerie who is Scottish and the only one of the four creatives not from the region.

Graeme says discussions about what such a show might be about turned quickly to Eric.

“Graeme and Valerie have always been passionate about the music of Eric Boswell but I didn’t realise he was from Sunderland and lived in Northumberland and I hadn’t made the connection with Little Donkey at all.

“The more we talked about it, the more we realised there was a lot more to Eric Boswell than Little Donkey. He left this amazing legacy of comic songs and ballads so we started thinking about that.”

Eric had millions of ideas in his head at once and often you’d be talking about putting together one song and he’d go off on a tangent and say, ‘Oh, I was thinking last week that this would be great’

Valerie Reid

Graeme talked to Ryton-based Tom Kelly, whose musicals include The Dolly Mixtures and Tom & Catherine (about the Cooksons), and he put forward ideas about how it might work.

“I’d never met Graeme and Valerie but as they were the people who were going to sing the songs it had to be done around them,” says Tom.

“I looked at YouTube videos and got their characters from there. Once they’d come alive to me and the voices were in my head, I was happy to write a synopsis of what came to be the show.

“They play themselves and talk about their love for Eric and the songs, and their own lives to some extent. It just worked very easily.

“Then I threw it back to Graeme and there was that to-ing and fro-ing that comes when you’re working in partnership.”

Once the writers were happy with it, they passed it to Graeme and Valerie, and then to Eric’s son and daughter-in-law, Ian and Jo.

“They’ve been very supportive,” says Tom.

“In fact they’ve given us a batch of family photographs… Eric as a child and with his own children.”

Eric, for all his unassuming modesty, led an extraordinary life both inside and outside music. 

He was born in Sunderland, probably not far from where we’re sitting in The Fire Station cafe, and studied electrical engineering and physics before working for Marconi and then becoming a physics lecturer at Sunderland Poly.

Graeme says quite a few people remember him for that, with one ex-student, a former boss of Northumbrian Water, calling him the best physics teacher he ever had.

Young Eric at the piano

But as a child Eric learned to play piano and organ and in his 20s he won a composition prize at Brighton Music Festival.

As a classical composer he had pieces performed at London’s Wigmore Hall in the 1950s but it was a time of discordant experimentation which wasn’t to his taste. Eric liked a melody.

Bumping into singer Gracie Fields in a London music publisher’s office, he offered her Little Donkey, telling of Mary and Joseph’s ride into Bethlehem, and after a bit of tweaking to simplify it, she recorded it.

The song became a hit for her and then a string of others including The Beverley Sisters and Nina and Frederik.

It has been recorded by many others and is performed countless times every Christmas by school choirs.

Moving from classical to a more folksy style of composition seems to have been natural for Eric who always said he liked to make people laugh.

During the 1970s and 1980s he was musical director of Tyne Tees arts show What Fettle and of Geordierama, a popular radio programme that transferred to Newcastle City Hall.

He helped turn Catherine Cookson’s novel Katie Mulholland into a hit stage musical, wrote songs for comedian Bobby Thompson and was commissioned to write a welcome song for US President Jimmy Carter when he visited in 1976.

In 1985 Eric moved to rural Northumberland and led a quiet life… still writing songs, though, and – as I discovered when I interviewed him about 20 years ago – doing his best to steer conversation away from Little Donkey whose fame didn’t seem a source of boundless joy.

The more we talked about it, the more we realised there was a lot more to Eric Boswell than Little Donkey. He left this amazing legacy of comic songs and ballads

Graeme Thompson

What evidently did bring him pleasure, though, was an introduction to Graeme, the Consett-born operatic bass, and wife Valerie, a mezzo-soprano. There was an instant rapport. 

Eric wrote songs for the couple and two CDs were produced. On the second of them a bit of studio wizardry had Graeme and the late Gracie Fields singing Little Donkey as a duet.

Since Eric’s death in 2009, aged 88, life has not let up for Graeme and Valerie who, as alluded to by Graeme Thompson, lead seemingly frenetic lives, singing and delivering masterclasses.

Graeme is a professor of music at Sunderland University, where Valerie also teaches, and although they now live in Leighton Buzzard, in Bedfordshire, you wonder how often they can be there together.

An opera singer reeling off upcoming engagements can have a dizzying effect and the ebullient Graeme Danby perhaps more so than most.

“Madrid, Geneva, Freiburg, Belfast, Madrid again, back to Geneva, then Madrid once more… and then on to Dublin to do La traviata.

“That’s my next four months. 

“I’m still operating at the highest level. I’m not saying it’s easy at 61, coming up 62, but I have my darling wife, Dominic my agent, Alice my PA and together we operate a really well-oiled machine.

“It has to be because of the number of times I’m on and off a plane or doing a ‘jump in’ (short notice filling in for an indisposed singer).”

Valerie Reid and Graeme Danby flanked by Graeme Thompson and Tom Kelly

So when Graeme Thompson says they were keen to work around the singers’ availability, you wonder how a tour could ever happen. 

But the other Graeme nips that in the bud.

“I’m not a person who says no. It’s never, ever in my vocabulary – especially to do with Eric and especially when we’re going to collaborate with nice people.

“This is a labour of love. It’s something that’s so close to our hearts and Graeme and I have worked together for many years and I am delighted to have Tom as a pal and collaborator.

“There’s no negative. Little venues where people get a chance to be part of the action and to live Eric. That floats my boat enormously – and it must be six or seven years since I sang in this country so I’m really looking forward to it.”

The couple recall Sunday morning visits to see Eric and wife Lena at their home in Humshaugh when, after coffee and a later nip of brandy for Eric, music would consume them.

Graeme: “We’d sit around the piano and sometimes we wouldn’t leave until seven or eight o’clock at night to drive back to London.

“And that wasn’t a duty because we were working with a genius.

“He was quiet, shy and retiring. But the time would pass so quickly you’d look outside and realise it was dark.”

Valerie: “He had millions of ideas in his head at once and often you’d be talking about putting together one song and he’d go off on a tangent and say, ‘Oh, I was thinking last week that this would be great’.

“Then he’d get up and go to the piano.”

Eric wrote a song for their wedding and Valerie points out that he could write beautiful, romantic songs as well as comic stuff.

Eric, says Graeme firmly, was easily the equal of compatriots Flanders and Swann and of the American Tom Lehrer, still with us at the age of 95.

But we can find out for ourselves when The Donkey, The Whippet & The Giant Leek hits the road in April.

After opening at The Phoenix Theatre, Blyth, on April 6, there will be performances at The Fire Station, Sunderland (April 11), Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham (April 23), Bishop Auckland Town Hall (April 26), Alnwick Playhouse (April 27) and The Customs House, South Shields (May 12).

@DavidJWhetstone

Early on July 17, 2005, 1,700 volunteers stripped naked on Gateshead Quays for a series of photographs by American photographer Spencer Tunick, later exhibited at Baltic

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