Sir Richard Stilgoe on his knighthood, songwriting and Oxted life
PUBLISHED: 16:20 24 January 2013 | UPDATED: 21:57 06 May 2014
Sir Richard Stilgoe singer, songwriter and celebrated wit received a knighthood last autumn in recognition of his tireless charitable work. Here, he reflects on the honour, looks back on his diverse career and reveals why his Oxted home means so much to him...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2013
Words: Angela Wintle
Sir Richard Stilgoe is suffering from an identity crisis. It’s that Sir before his name. He just can’t get used to it. “Letters arrive every morning addressed to Sir Richard Stilgoe and I think: ‘Who the hell is that?’” he says. “Changing your name at my time of life is very odd.”
That troublesome knighthood was conferred in the Queen’s birthday honours in recognition of his tireless charitable work. But when the letter landed on his door mat, he had to read it 12 times before he could believe it. “I thought it was a parking fine from Westminster City Council.”
The Princess Royal did the honours at Windsor Castle. “I’m glad it was her because she’s got a steady hand,” he quips. “I mean, you don’t want a knighthood to turn into a beheading, which is the other signature skill of the royal family.
“In fact, Princess Anne saved my life once. I was sitting next to her at a civic function and got a fishbone stuck in my throat. She was the one who hit me. Afterwards, I said: ‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’ And she said: ‘Yes, Queen Mother. Two weeks ago.’”
At home in Oxted
Sir Richard, 69 – singer, songwriter, celebrated wit and all-round Renaissance man – is speaking from the idyllic home near Oxted that he shares with his wife, Annabel, a retired opera singer. They have three grown-up children [he also has two from his first marriage] and 11 grandchildren between them.
“We fell in love with this glorious stretch of countryside while commuting to London from our former home,” he says. “When family came along, we bought a cottage in Crockham Hill, moving on to North Park Farm near Godstone. But we used to look at this house and think: ‘Oh, one day...’”
Their moment came when the house was gutted by fire. Seeing their chance, they bought it from a sheik in 1991, and Sir Richard did much of the restoration work himself. Now, he can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“As you drive up through Limpsfield Chart, there’s a tunnel of trees, which is wonderful whether it’s green in spring or red in the autumn. And then, at the top of the hill, you’re suddenly confronted with rural England. Whenever I see that view, it’s as if a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
Perhaps it has inspired him to write a song or two, though he doesn’t usually work with such promising material. As he demonstrated on Nationwide and That’s Life, he can write a song on almost any subject – at prodigious speed – often from words called out by the audience.
Is he willing to share any tricks of the trade? “Well, when the audience are shouting out subjects, you do think: ‘Oh, that rhymes with that, or that doesn’t rhyme with anything, so I’ll put it at the beginning of the line, not the end.’ The famous word is orange. It doesn’t rhyme with anything. There’s a mountain in Wales called the Blorenge, but nobody has ever heard of it. So if anyone shouts ‘orange’, it’s firmly at the beginning of the line.” And has his muse ever deserted him? “If ever I recited a recipe with all the words in it – which produced some sort of disgusting dish at the end – that showed I was desperate!”
Sir Richard, who was born in Camberley but grew up in Liverpool, fell in love with the comic song when he was taken to see a Gilbert and Sullivan opera as a child. Flanders and Swann, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the American satirist Tom Lehrer were also big influences.
After Cambridge, where he performed alongside the likes of John Cleese, Tim-Brooke Taylor and Sir Trevor Nunn in the Footlights, he sang topical songs for Radio 4’s Today and World at One, before performing at the Royal Court Theatre club in Sloane Square and the Blue Angel in Mayfair. Wasn’t he an anachronism in Swinging Sixties’ London? “Absolutely. The sort of songs I was writing were really a modern equivalent of music hall.”
A household name
But it was co-presenting the consumer strand of the live BBC magazine programme Nationwide, which he joined in 1973, that made him a household name. “Millions watched and it was a heady time – not just because I was sitting next to Valerie Singleton, but because we all felt that we were doing the right show at the right time.”
Soon, he began reciting topical songs on the show to enliven consumer issues. “I performed at the piano to an unseen audience, while no-one in the studio paid the slightest notice,” he laughs. “There was always a huge clatter in the background because they took the opportunity to set up the next item.” He left when he was offered his own series, later joining That’s Life, where he satirised minor domestic misfortunes.
But after hundreds of TV appearances, he claims people remember him for only two things: a song called Statutory Right of Entry on Nationwide in 1974, which featured seven images of him performing at once. And a sequence for That’s Life filmed on a bridge miles above the M20. “The song was called, to my shame, Bridge over Troubled Mortar. And the mortar was indeed troubled. While I was recording it up top, Kent CID were digging below for the remains of a hit man called Nino Ricci.”
Perhaps one of his most fulfilling collaborations was forming a double act with his old friend Peter Skellern. “We were sweet and sour; oil and vinegar. Instead of Peter just singing soppy ballads all night, I made him cheer up. And instead of me running round like a hamster on a wheel, it made me calm down a bit.”
He also teamed up with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, writing the opening number for Cats, and then co-writing Starlight Express, which became a box-office smash. He turned down Aspects of Love because he didn’t much care for the characters and though he didn’t think Phantom of the Opera was really him, he agreed to give it a go – but his hunch proved right. After a year of rewrites, Lloyd Webber hired Charles Hart instead, who wrote the version everyone knows. “Whenever I see the show, I’m surprised how much of my material is still there,” he says. “But Andrew and I get along fine.”
Charity in Godstone
It was the lucrative American royalties from Cats that prompted him to begin charitable giving on an epic scale. Inspired by Michael Buerk’s report from Ethiopia in 1984, he sent off money to the appeal and later founded the Alchemy Foundation, which distributes money to good causes in the developing world. Then, in 1998, he founded the Orpheus Centre in Godstone, a residential care home that helps young, disabled adults learn life skills through the performing arts.
“Traditionally, disabled people sit in a neat line at the front, watching,” he says. “But if they’re up on stage, it upsets the natural order of power. It makes audiences nervous; there’s a sense that it could go completely wrong. And when it turns out to be marvellous, that nervousness is replaced by huge celebration. But every year we have to find £250,000 to pay the excellent artists and musicians who work with our students. It’s a constant struggle.”
Sir Richard has also just stood down as chair of YouthMusic, which offers music-making opportunities to disadvantaged young people, and is a patron of the Surrey Care Trust, based in Milford, which provides education, training, and volunteering opportunities to those who need a second chance in life. And did I mention that he is also a former High Sheriff of Surrey and past president of Surrey County Cricket Club? But he shrugs it all off. “I’m not sure anybody does anything to be philanthropic. We act to sleep well in our beds.”
When he turns 70 this March, however, he plans to break the habit of a lifetime and do something just for him. “I’m doing my ‘circumnavigation’,” he says gleefully. “I’m going to launch my little boat, which is moored in Devon, and sail round all of southern Britain, with a friend or different family member on each leg of the trip. It’s the nearest I’m doing to an autobiography. And it’s going to be absolutely lovely.”
If you would like to support the Orpheus Centre in Godstone, please call 01883 744644, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit orpheus.org.uk
MY FAVOURITE SURREY:
Restaurant: The Gurkha Kitchen in Oxted, which specialises in Nepalese cuisine. It’s an unlikely thing to find in Surrey, but it’s brilliant.
Shop: Knights Garden Centre in Godstone. We’ve been going there for years and the staff are very friendly. We buy plants and the Christmas tree there once a year. Sadly, I don’t have green fingers myself. I get on my JCB and usually run over plants.
View: The woods behind our house, particularly at the end of April when the bluebells are out. You can glimpse the Weald of Kent through the trees.
Place to relax: At home with my 11 grandchildren. My best days are when all the family get together – which makes 20 altogether. That’s when I’m at peace.
Place to visit: The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. We’re so lucky to have it.