Richard Stilgoe on family, charity and theatre
19:28 11 April 2012
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2007
Photos by Andy Newbold
To call Richard Stilgoe a "celebrity" does him no credit. After 45 years as a performer, writer, composer, broadcaster, wit, philanthropist and general all-round Mr Nice-Guy, there is only one term that can describe him: national treasure.
His Surrey connections go back to March 1943, when he was born, the third of four children, into a middle-class family in Camberley. However, at the age of three, he was thrust into life in the tough Northern city of Liverpool, where he grew up, as a result of his father's relocation as a water engineer.
"I was part of an exciting cultural revolution, mixing with future poets - Roger McGough for example - writers and rock stars," he recalls, as we sit chatting in the office of his beautiful Oxted home. "I also got to see all the shows on pre-London tryout, both the good and the bad - and there were lots of bad..." He describes his visit to see the mould-breaking show Oklahoma, however, as "a life-changing experience".
After boarding school, where he formed a rock band and started writing songs, he was awarded a Choral Exhibition to Clare College, Cambridge, but only stayed a year. Although he had enrolled to study engineering, he changed to music but soon found his tastes did not always coincide with what was considered appropriate to study. He also decided he was having too much fun in other directions.
The Footlights Club
By then, he'd joined the Footlights Club and began to develop his talent for writing and performing topical, humorous songs. Whilst accepting that his style derives in some measure from his admiration of W S Gilbert, Flanders and Swann and others, he acknowledges that his greatest influence was the American satirist, Tom Lehrer. "He is one of my three heroes..." he muses. "The other two are Yehudi Menuhin and Jim Laker."
During university vacation, he'd auditioned for Clement Freud, who owned a night-club above the Royal Court Theatre in London and was engaged for a fortnight at £25 a week (a fortune in those days). From there, he moved to the legendary Blue Angel nightclub, also in the capital, and at 19 was just about making a living. His parents never tried to dissuade him, although he is aware he was probably a disappointment to them.
"My mother finally came round to the idea of my show business career when a friend mentioned hearing me on the radio," he recalls. A BBC scout had seen his act and he was signed up to appear on the Today programme, providing witty musical comments on current affairs stories.
For the next 12 years, the radio and local TV appearances continued, along with tours of his one-man show, performing, acting and writing. Then, in 1973, came his big break into TV, when the live magazine programme Nationwide was looking for someone to fill the 'song break' slot. "I performed at the piano to an unseen audience, while no-one in the studio paid the slightest notice," says Richard. "They used it as a 'planning gap', rushing round trying to set up the next item. I realised I had to do very little, but very powerfully."
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cats
Having always nurtured a deep desire to write a musical, the breakthrough came in 1981, when a chance meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber resulted in Richard being invited to write an opening number for Cats. "They'd adapted T S Eliot's words for all the rest of the songs, but poets are not renowned for writing opening numbers..." he adds.
The co-operation with Lloyd-Webber continued for another six years and produced the box-office record-breaking hit, Starlight Express. Richard also contributed lyrics for Phantom of the Opera. He is particularly proud of the fact that, during its 18-year run, Starlight provided performing opportunities for many people who would otherwise have struggled to achieve Equity membership.
In 1980, he met Peter Skellern and they became great friends. "I admired him but was very envious because he'd been a rock star and could play the piano properly," smiles Richard. They realised there were many parallels in their styles of performance but were reluctant to work together in case it ended their friendship. Eventually, though, common sense prevailed.
"In 1982, we were both in the Royal Command Performance and watched the grand piano being pushed on and off stage twice for our individual slots," recalls Richard. "It finally persuaded us that it made sense to team up - if only for the sake of the stagehands' backs."
The year after, they appeared as a duo in a one-night charity show in aid of the Lords' Taverners, entitled Stilgoe and Skellern Stomping at the Savoy. Eighteen years of happy association followed; the pair performed at venues throughout the UK and toured in Australia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. "We finally made it back to the Royal Variety Show as a double act in 2000, and performed our song about the WI calendar with the lovely ladies from Rylstone," he adds.
Richard has been happily married to former opera singer, Annabel, for 32 years. They have three children and one grandson, although Richard has two other children from his first marriage and five grandchildren.
The Stilgoes' beautiful home, Trevereux Manor, is tucked away near Oxted in a corner of East Surrey nudging into Kent. "We first fell in love with this glorious stretch of countryside when travelling between work in London and our first marital home, a houseboat in Newhaven Harbour," he says. "When family came along, we bought a cottage in Crockham Hill, moving on to North Park Farm near Godstone, but always had our eyes on Trevereux."
They eventually succeeded in buying the house in 1992, but by then it was uninhabitable, having been almost completely destroyed by fire in 1989. It took two years (while they occupied the Coach House that now houses Richard's office), much patience, TLC, faith and commitment to create the elegant house that now stands on the site.
A splendid lake dominates the gardens, excavated entirely by Richard and his beloved JCB. "I'd always wanted one so, when I had the money, I treated myself," he says. "Other people buy Ferraris or Rolls-Royces - I bought a ditch digger."
A love of cricket
His other passions include sailing and cricket. "It's a magnificent game - good for small but not very athletic persons, and I love the fact that it can go on for five days." He served as president of The Lords' Taverners from 2003/4 and president of Surrey County Cricket Club from 2004/5. His dedication was such that he joined a party of Lords' Taverners to support the English defence of the Ashes in Australia, but prefers now to forget the whole episode!
He is adamant that he has now "retired", meaning no more touring or stage shows, although he plans to continue appearing on Countdown. He is still actively involved in charity work too, as head tutor for two or three weekly courses a year at the Orpheus Centre in Godstone, the centre he founded to teach the performing arts to physically disabled young people.
Recently, he also become chairman for the National Foundation for Youth Music. Set up in 2000, it receives £10 million a year of Lottery money to fund youth projects around the country. "I was thrilled to be asked to be involved in this exciting project," he says. "We should never underestimate the power of music as a force for good; it can be life-changing. Kids who join rock bands are less likely to be roaming the streets getting into trouble," he adds. "Keep teenagers tired and they'll have no energy to offend!"
In 1998, Richard received a much-deserved OBE and served a term as High Sheriff of Surrey. "It's an honorary post that required me to wear an official costume that made me look like a mole on the way to an Ann Summers' party," he jokes.
In retirement, he is happy to be spending more time at home with his family. "I missed out on so much of my own children's growing-up years while travelling and performing," he muses. "I am loving being a grandfather and am making the most of it."
Life in his corner of Surrey is good. He enjoys getting involved in projects in the house and garden, and has even become interested in researching his family history. "With an unusual surname, it has not been difficult to delve way back, although I did find there was another Richard Stilgoe in 1340 who was a bit of a rogue," he says. "Apparently, he successfully pleaded in court that he was 'somewhere else when the burglary occurred.'"
Now 64, he says he no longer has any burning ambitions - other than to see his children and grandchildren happy - and no regrets. He can look back on a lifetime of unique achievements because, when faced with life choices, "I have always taken the more interesting option."
A hive of creativity...
The Orpheus Centre in Godstone is a unique training establishment that offers full-time study and short courses in the performing arts for physically disabled young people.
The centre was founded by Richard Stilgoe in 1998, after he donated his former home, North Park Farm, for the purpose.
Then, there were five resident apprentices, now there are 25, plus around 50 staff, many local helpers and resident volunteers. Richard remains as chairman and had this to say in last year's Annual Report.
"As we get bigger and grander, we become yet more determined to remain a unique family-sized organisation. We are highly individual, and we treat everyone here - apprentice, staff or volunteer - as an individual. Many of our former residents are now living in the community, organising their own lives in flats or at college.
"We hope we helped them to have the courage to try their wings, but we know that they could only do that safely from a well-secured nest in a strong tree.
"Orpheus grows bigger and stronger thanks to many people but our biggest asset is the group of fearless apprentices who go out and show the world what they can do."
- For more information about The Orpheus Centre, visit www.orpheus.org.uk