Sir Richard Stilgoe on Oxted life, music, parachuting and a better way to run the world
PUBLISHED: 09:47 30 March 2015 | UPDATED: 10:28 25 April 2018
Never a man to settle for the 'quiet life', Sir Richard Stilgoe is as happy jumping out of planes as he is constructing chord progressions and choruses. Matthew Williams heads out to the Oxted countryside to chat to him about music, charity work and his latest project - renovating a dilapidated old barn...
Sir Richard Stilgoe is a man of many talents: composer for world-conquering stage shows, television satirist, accomplished pianist, charity founder and philanthropist, and... builder.
So, while some might have expected a fireside chat set to tinkling piano music when meeting a knighted 71-year-old musician, I’m not all that surprised when I find the irrepressible Oxted resident dressed in worker’s overalls – and guiding me to the front seat of a white transit van parked outside a converted barn down the road from his nearby home.
“I think my wife just likes me out of the house to be honest,” says the man who once posed for a Surrey Life photoshoot sitting in his personal JCB digger (“some people buy Rolls-Royces, I always wanted a digger”). “It’s a bit of peace and quiet for her...”
Having been married to former opera singer, Annabel, for 40 years, it’s a strategy that appears to be working.
“She’s had to put up with a lot over the years,” he continues. “We brought up our children with work always going on around them, so this is a much better deal. She’s at home in a completed house and I’m half a mile away messing about. It took 40 years for us to work it out. In reality, it’s mud pies; it’s boys getting dirty; gosh, at its worst, building is a desire to improve things.
“If you work with your head most of the time, then a certain amount of mindless sawing is very therapeutic. It’s a bit like sailing, which I love – a mix of the slightly mindless while also taking on the elements.”
Return to roots
Born in Camberley and raised in Liverpool, Richard eventually ended up back in this part of the world because of his wife, who regularly performed at Glyndebourne.
“Driving down from London, there was always this moment going through Limpsfield when you felt the town was behind you,” he says. “We always said we’d move here and eventually we did in 1975 – and we’ve been here ever since.”
A very peaceful part of the world, Limpsfield also happens to be responsible for what he calls “one of the most remarkable recordings ever made”: a BBC archive recording of local lady Beatrice Harrison playing the cello in her garden, accompanied by a nightingale singing.
“I think it took something like seven hours of recording before the bird eventually joined in,” laughs Richard. “I haven’t dragged my piano outside yet to try to replicate it. We did once hear one singing after attending an Eric Clapton concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Eric Clapton and a nightingale on the same night is a very, very good combination.”
Talk of the sometime Ewhurst-resident Clapton leads us on to Surrey’s musical heritage and famously gated estates.
“It’s a shame most of them are so often ex-pat these days; they don’t really live here,” he continues. “But then that’s a little like most who live on the Wentworth Estate or St George’s Hill. It’s another world! Many of the people that live there have clearly done well and quite a lot of them started perhaps not doing so well; so there’s a point where you flex your muscles and become the Duke of Devonshire and build Chatsworth.”
His own building escapades tend to stem from a sense of pride in his surroundings rather than the grand. The barn was “a sad old building”, half a mile from his own home, which was “built inside the shell” of another old house that had suffered a fire.
Buying a digger; boys and their toys; it’s a bit late for a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?
“I’ve also done a couple of skydives now, too!” he laughs. “It’s getting a bit desperate really. It was raising money for my charity, but it could easily have been a real end-of-life crisis, couldn’t it?”
Fortunately, it wasn’t, and instead merely added another thrilling chapter to the history of his charity. Founded in 1998 with just five students in his former Godstone home, the Orpheus Centre seeks to inspire independence in young disabled people through music and performance.
“The place is doing exactly what I hoped it would do,” he says. “The surprise is that it turns out to be a place for everybody. Our students have a great time, it changes their lives and off they go to live more independently – but the staff, volunteers and anyone who visits change just as much.
“There’s a sense of it being a better way to run the world: with everyone included, rather than people just being shoved to the sides.”
Such is the confidence of the charity these days that they not only take the students into local schools but prisons too, which Richard says has a transformative effect on inmates.
“They see what our young disabled people can achieve and everyone raises their game,” he says. “It’s been difficult at times, over the years, and there’s definitely been moments where it was much harder than I thought it would be. Ignorance is such a help sometimes! If someone had shown me a movie of the first five years beforehand, then I might have found something easier to do with life: more sailing, more cricket!”
Richard’s philanthropic work started as it has continued: humbly. While working on the BBC’s Nationwide, he was invited by a “group of old ladies in Wandsworth” to become a patron of their charity. On visiting and finding a piano in the corner, he noted how thoroughly a few songs transformed the atmosphere and the seeds were sown for what would become Orpheus.
“Doing that element of performance, conquering stage fright and being applauded at the end etc, can really change people for the better,” he says. “People who have been seen to be a ‘problem’ all of a sudden become an asset, and many of them have probably never seen themselves as an asset before.
“My wife is a judge for the High Sheriff’s awards, so that keeps us busy supporting other charities too. In particular, there’s the Surrey Care Trust. Surrey is a tough place to fail in. If you’re poor in a street full of poor people, then people tend to look after each other. If you’re poor in a street full of rich people, then it’s a very lonely place to be.”
Then there’s also his support for Transform, which gives homeless and vulnerable people a second chance, and he’s a huge fan of The Clink prison restaurant near Banstead. You’re probably spotting a theme here…
“There’s a point where society feels it can’t cope with a person any more and they push them away,” he explains. “I like dragging as many people back into the lifeboat as possible, who otherwise might be allowed to drown. Usually, the lifeboat becomes a much more interesting place with them in it. If everyone is middle management, just about managing the mortgage and a member of the same golf club, God, does it become a dull life!”
The great entertainer
Dull is quite clearly something that Richard has spent his life avoiding. After the farmer and engine driver stage of being a small boy, dreams moved on to “music of some sort” after seeing Oklahoma at the age of seven. It was always going to be grander than rock ‘n’ roll, but inspiration was to be found wherever he looked in his formative years.
“I was very lucky,” he says. “I was in Liverpool in the late fifties listening to Elvis Presley under the bedclothes. There was a group of us listening to that voice for the first time, thinking, ‘gosh, that’s a bit different from Frank Sinatra!’
“When you had your first guitar, you could play Hound Dog in no time at all. It just needed three chords. That’s a democratisation of music. Suddenly, you could be useful if you’d struggled to get to grips with the piano.
“Then, all of a sudden, the three-chord guys start getting really good and rock becomes a sort of classical music, and that’s when punk comes along. It’s a necessary thing. Every generation, someone comes along with a new, more easily accessible music to freshen things up. Whether that was skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll for people my age or hip-hop, dubstep etc today.”
Rock ‘n’ roll was always just a hobby though and, for a time, he wanted to be an opera singer until he met “a few people who could sing and realised it was an altogether different type of noise from the one I was capable of making”. He was never one for writing love songs either, instead tending towards “silly ditties about people hating to shake hands with each other in church”.
Having honed his skills while ‘lazing’ around the Footlights bar at Cambridge with the likes of John Cleese, it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s always been an anti-authoritarian bent to Richard’s career.
“Career, that’s a good word for it, because it just careers on and on a little out of control!” he laughs. “John had a way of seeing things differently even then. I was very lucky that I was on the fag end of a very brilliant group of people. It gave you a glimpse of what might be possible. You didn’t have to be an accountant after all.
“In some ways, whether in Liverpool or Cambridge, it was easy for me as there were so many people around proving it could be done. The really brave guys are those who do it on their own in Hull or somewhere. I just had very good timing really: a few years later and I might have been at Cambridge with a bunch of Footlights who were just your normal bunch of upper class (gentlemen).”
And, with the current media circus deconstructing freedom of expression to the point that no one really knows what it means anymore, what does he make of it as a satirist?
“There’s a necessary silliness that can be offensive, but should be treated in the spirit it’s intended,” he says. “It’s very tricky at the moment, in that while so many are defending freedom of speech, there are many of those same people who are very quick to attack others who happen to make certain comments about race, gender, sexuality, certain religions etc. It seems an uneven playing field. Either anyone can say anything about anybody or there needs to be a little warning bell that rings in people’s heads. I’m saying that at 71 though; I wouldn’t have said it at 18.
“We are so lucky to be able to say stuff and I would hate for anyone to mess that up so much that it’s taken away from us.”
The good life
Although he is officially ‘retired’ as a performer these days, there is no chance of him resting on his laurels despite having every right to relax with the fruits of his enviable success. It just wouldn’t suit him.
Indeed, only a few weeks ago, he popped up on Celebrity Mastermind, which offered the opportunity for a little nostalgia as he tackled British musicals up to the 1980s (“I passed on my first question and rather let the side down”). He is similarly self- deprecating about his own significant contribution to the genre.
“When I bumped into Andrew Lloyd Webber all those years ago and he mentioned having a new show that was lacking an opening number, he said, ‘you write quickly, don’t you?’ He never said that I write ‘well’; he never has. I did something by Monday and that was life-changing. Cats opened and everyone thought it would do a couple of weeks and that it was a stupid idea. It did over 20 years. Starlight, Phantom, Les Mis… ludicrous. In the past, shows didn’t expect more than a few years, and now many are like the Tower of London or something!
“Working with Andrew has always been a treat and, in some ways, paid for the Orpheus Centre. I’d certainly be happy to work with him again if the right idea came along. He taught me not to be lazy.”
As such, he likes to think his best work is still to come. Just recently, there’s been an opera about HS2 (performed by 200 people who had never been on stage before to an audience that had never been in an opera house) and next up is a project to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
“Yes, we’ve been working on The Freedom Game, which will see 1,000 people from Surrey perform at the Albert Hall,” he says. “It’s basically a computer game where a 12-year-old boy has to take on King John to win freedom from being locked up without trial – and then has to go through history getting freedom from hunger, to vote, from religion and all of that until you get to the present day.
“It’s been interesting going round Surrey schools and finding what children see as freedom. While the Americans still love it, not many people over here have a grasp on the Magna Carta. That’s one of the reasons you do anniversaries though, of course; to remind people.”
As I open the door of the transit van and step out into the frosty air outside, Richard tells me that as well as his ruby wedding anniversary there’s also a twelfth grandchild on the way – well, that and a new yurt to accompany the treehouse that he’s already built for his grandchildren. You suspect that if more people thought like Sir Richard Stilgoe, the world would be a much happier place.
Find out more about the work of Sir Richard Stilgoe's Orpheus Centre at www.orpheus.org.uk
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: I still like the Gurkha Kitchen in Oxted. There’s also Bryce’s Old School House in Ockley, which is terrific. We’re getting better. Eating out is not as rubbish as it used to be. I remember there always used to be soup, pâté and orange juice as starter options. Glamorous stuff.
Place to visit: The cinema in Oxted. We’ve been going for many years and recently blubbed our way through The Theory of Everything, which was fantastic. I have no idea how Eddie Redmayne managed it. It must have been gruelling. We tend towards the soppy. I’ve never done any film music but it would be very interesting.
Place to relax: We’ve got a wood up by the house and I’ve built a treehouse there for the grandchildren – and myself! They think it’s magic and I love it. This year’s project is a yurt – and I’ve got plenty of wood left from this barn conversion to create that with.
View: This year, we’re doing the three peaks challenge with the Orpheus Centre. Surrey’s got some great hills. Megalomaniacs like being on top of the world viewing down, don’t they? “Ooh, I could convert that!” or “I could build a house there!” My wife has to remind me to concentrate on the roads rather than barn conversions when we drive around.