When I met up with Steve Knightley at Abbotsbury, the two disc set Centenary: Words and Music of the Great War had been released just a few days previously and had already garnered a healthy amount of media attention. So, not surprisingly, Steve was keen to talk about the project, a result of the first link up between Show of Hands and a major record label, Universal. With hindsight, it seems inevitable that Show of Hands would have been involved in marking such a significant anniversary but the idea to combine their music with the poetry of the era originated with Ian Brown whose record label / management company, Mighty Village, has strong links with the folk music scene. It manages Fisherman’s Friends, has released landmark albums such as Kate Rusby’s 20 and has previously produced albums of poetry read by the likes of Meryl Streep. Much of the label’s output has been released through the Island Records arm of Universal and so provided the major label link.
With Ian having aroused the interest of Show of Hands, Steve suggested to long-time friend, actor Jim Carter that he and his wife Imelda Staunton should read the poems. As Steve readily admitted, the phenomenal popularity of the Downton Abbey TV series in which Jim plays Carson the butler, made the task of pitching the project to the big money boys a lot easier.
Our conversation quickly turned to the mechanics of bringing the project to fruition with Steve revealing a very personal involvement in the development of both the spoken word material (disc 1) and the music of disc 2. He needed little prompting to come up with the drivers for this, a degree in history from his pre-professional musician days, a long-standing love of poetry and a family with military connections linking directly to The Great War. His grandfather, Colour Sergeant Thomas Knightley, having finished in the Dorset regiment aged 40 in 1913, re-enlisted in the Devonshires and continued to serve throughout the war.
Production of the album centred around Show of Hands’ regular producer Mark Tucker and involved Steve and Mark in much experimentation. The poems, as read by Jim and Imelda, were the starting point. The contemporary poetry covers a staggering range of viewpoints, the jingoistic calls for recruits, the well-known descriptions of the horrors of the front, the black-edged humour and camaraderie of the trenches, the anguish of the women left at home. In contrast, the popular music of the time was almost unfailingly bright and cheerful, typified by the likes of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. The challenge was to meld these disparate strands into a coherent, artistically satisfying set of recordings. Pieces that would be thought-provoking and question common preconceptions of the lives people lived during those four years but also appeal to present day audiences on a lighter, entertaining level.
They found there was no simple, single solution to this; indeed, there were times Steve would be surprised by a particular combination of words and music that instantly felt right. With hindsight he felt a pattern did emerge, pieces that evoked dreamlike recollections of events and emotions, but a dream from which one would wake to be confronted by the reality of trench warfare
Several pieces of music used in combination with poetry on disc 1 reappear in fuller versions on disc 2 and people already familiar with Show of Hands may well turn to these first. Some are new arrangements of familiar songs, The Gamekeeper originally appeared as The Keeper on 1995’s Lie of the Land album but the power of its imagery, pairing the walk forward from the trenches with that of beaters putting up birds on a shoot is vastly increased in the context of this album, the phrase “walk towards the waiting guns” lingering long in the mind. The new setting blends Steve’s song with snippets from two traditional songs, The Keeper and The Water is Wide, bringing in the instruments and voices of Phil Henry and Hannah Martin and giving the whole a haunting, unforgettable impact. For me this is the standout track but Steve’s setting of the A E Houseman poem, The Lads in their Hundreds, seems to have received the most media attention, possibly due to the associated video. Houseman was writing about lads off to fight the Boers in South Africa, almost 20 years before the outbreak of The Great War but that just serves to underscore how little had changed by then, or indeed over the next 100 years.The traditional tale of a husband carelessly allowing himself to be recruited, The Blue Cockade, has long been a favourite in Show of Hands sets and a live recording from Shrewsbury Folk Festival has been included. It may relate to a war a century or so earlier but Steve emphasises that its inclusion here has added poignancy having recently learned of his grandfather’s rôle as a WW1 recruiting sergeant.
Unsurprisingly, much of the music isn’t Show of Hands original, so, for example, Jim Causley and Jackie Oates duet on a medley of popular songs of the period whilst Miranda Sykes shows her adaptability with a convincingly Edwardian parlour song rendition of The Sunshine of Your Smile. In marked contrast, Phil Henry contributes a beat box harmonica version of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary that couldn’t be more different from the original style of the song. Not all the songs written specifically for the project are Knightley compositions, following the inclusion on the Wake The Union album of his song, Katrina, about the New Orleans hurricane, Chris Hoban has two of his songs here, The Padre and Love Will Make the World Go Round.
The album concludes with Requiem (For the Fallen), starting with instantly recognisable lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, it continues with lyrics in which the fallen exhort survivors not to mourn them in traditional ways but to think of them back in happier times, aptly combined with a melody that owes much to the traditional song, The Parting Glass. A beautifully crafted finish to an album that stimulates such a variety of emotions and fittingly commemorates without glorifying a wasted generation.
Review by: Johnny Whalley