Two very popular British actors Jim Carter (Downton Abbey, Shakespeare In Love, The Madness Of King George) and his wife Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter, Vera Drake, Gypsy) have teamed up with the celebrated West Country folk band Show of Hands to mark the centenary of the First World War.
The conflict which lasted for four years, led to the deaths of over sixteen million soldiers and civilians, and transformed Britain and much of the world. But the brutal carnage and the horrors of life in the trenches inspired the War Poetry, an extraordinary artistic movement written by those who fought, and in some cases died, in the fighting.
Unique and powerful, ‘Centenary: Words & Music Of The Great War’ matches the remarkable poetry of those war years against the music of the era, along with new compositions inspired by the war. This double CD release includes one disc of twenty two poems read by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton and set to new arrangements of songs from the period. As Show Of Hands’ Steve Knightley explains “we thought of the pieces as brief scenes from a film and treated the songs as half-remembered, distant reveries that with the extraordinary voices of Jim and Imelda just came alive”.
Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton became involved after being approached by Jim’s friend and former flat-mate Steve (Knightley). “I have known Jim since the Eighties”, said Steve. “We used to share a house together in Maida Vale, London. He was in the basement and I lived upstairs. I was on the rock band scene and he was at the National Theatre”. Jim Carter later provided narration for the 1990 Show of Hands project, Tall Ships. Although he and Imelda have been married for over thirty years, Jim says this was “a very rare opportunity for us to work together”.
On the second disc Show of Hands perform distinctive versions of period favourites plus new songs from Knightley including The Gamekeeper, and his setting for AE Housman’s foreboding ‘The Lads In Their Hundreds’ which, although from a slightly earlier era, fits perfectly into this selection. Show of Hands (Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes) are joined by distinguished friends from the folk scene including Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Phillip Henry, Geoffrey Lakeman and Andy Cutting.
The horrors of the First World War have inspired a series of powerful films, plays, novels and musical works. This project will sit as one of the finest.
On CD1 Jim Carter and Imelda read a selection of poems that include the bitter Anthem For Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est, the horrific story of a gas attack, both written by Wilfred Owen, who was killed one week before the armistice. Then there’s the angry poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated for his bravery but disillusioned by the war, the black trench humour of another serving soldier, Edgell Rickword, and the pained and poignant I Have A Rendezvous With Death, written by an American volunteer, Alan Seeger, the uncle of the late folk star Peter Seeger, who would indeed die in the fighting.
Matched against these are works by female poets, giving a very different perspective to the conflict. The Call by Jessie Pope, is a patriotic poem that encouraged men to enlist, while A Girl’s Song by Katherine Tynan, and Lamplight, by May Wedderburn Cannan, are laments and stories of broken dreams, written during the war years. Then there’s Rupert Brooke’s celebrated patriotic poem The Soldier, and Lawrence Binyon’s For The Fallen, which includes the lines that can be found on many war memorials, ‘at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’. Here, they are quietly and poignantly recited by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton in unison. There’s one poem from a slightly earlier era, AE Housman’s The Lads In Their Hundreds, but the mood of foreboding fits perfectly into this selection.
The musical settings for these poems include snatches of popular songs of the First World War, including It’s A Long Way To Tipperary (now treated with beat box harmonica) and Roses of Picardy, that are often lighter in tone than the poems. “It seems odd that the poems are so brutal and stark”, said Steve Knightley, “but the music that was sung at the time was jaunty and more music-hall. So it’s been interesting to match the two things together, and where it works, it’s fantastic. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube. You have a piece of music, and try it with different poems, and then it clicks”. The Show of Hands trio all sing, and play instruments from the era, with Knightley on octave mandolin and tenor guitar, Phil Beer on guitar and fiddle, and Miranda Sykes on double bass. They are joined by distinguished friends from the folk scene, including Jackie Oates on fiddle, Jim Causley on accordion, Phillip Henry on harmonica, Seth Lakeman’s dad, Geoffrey Lakeman, on concertina and Andy Cutting on melodeon.
The second CD is very different and is dominated by songs not poetry, with Show of Hands presenting their distinctive versions of period favourites. Jackie Oates and Jim Causley appear on Goodbye-ee and If You Were The Only Girl In The World, while The Sunshine Of Your Smile features Miranda Sykes demonstrating “a very much pre-World War Two style of singing. It was quite liberating to be out of our normal mind-set”. Then there are new songs from Steve Knightley, including The Gamekeeper, and his setting for Housman’s The Lads In Their Hundreds. Also included is The Padre, a song by Chris Hoban, who teaches music at a prep school near Exeter.
All music by Show of Hands and guests:
Release Date 30 June 2014
Pre-Order via our Folk Music Store: