George Martin Turned Down My Band!

George Martin working with Beatles on probably their greatest LP 'Sgt pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.

George Martin working with the Beatles on probably their greatest LP ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

The death of Beatles  producer George Martin marks the end of an era. He was as much a part of the Fab Fours’ legend as the lads themselves. Hard to imagine anyone else being able to take the sounds they wanted – and could hear in their heads – and transform them into such wonderful recordings. His genius as a producer provided the soundtrack for my teenage years – from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Abbey Road’.

Like many of my friends, I lived for music – and counted the days to the release of the next LP by the Beatles. In the ‘60s everyone wanted to be in a group, as they were called before it became trendy to use the term ‘band’.

Famous Antics, an early BOI album. (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

Famous Antics, an early BOI album. (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

It was only natural that when I formed a “beat combo” with my mate Rog that we would record and ‘produce’ our own albums – and send our best songs off to record labels hoping that someone would sign us up. And the one person we dearly wanted to be signed up by was George Martin. If anyone could turn our raw talent into gold it was him.

My band, the BOI, was formed after listening to Frank Zappa’s recordings of Wild Man Fischer on John Peel’s radio show in 1969. Freeform and improvised, Fischer’s songs were proof that almost anyone could have a go at making music.

Wild Goose Chase LP by The BOI (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

Wild Goose Chase LP by The BOI (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

So my mate Rog and I had a go even though we had no discernible musical talent whatsoever. Despite this drawback and armed with cheap guitars that cost ten bob, we managed to write some half-decent songs such as ‘Wimpy Bar Loving’ and ‘Paraffin Palace’. Things took a turn for the better when we were joined by Drew Millin who brought with him something new – the ability to play guitar. We soon wrote and produced our first collection of songs entitled ‘Wild Goose Chase’. We started to veer away from avante garde songs like ‘Technicolour Yawn’ to more melodic music influenced by Crosby Stills and Nash – and of course the Beatles.

The BOI (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL COLLECTION)

The BOI (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL COLLECTION)

As the band’s producer – using the pseudonym Yorick Zimmerman – I started sending out demo tapes of our best songs to the leading record labels and producers, including George Martin who by now had his own studios at AIR London. One by one, they all turned us down. (Probably the best response came from newly formed Virgin Records whose A&R man wrote that “the songs are very good and well played”. Praise indeed!)

The letter from George Martin (PHIL MANSELL COLLECTION)

The letter from George Martin (PHIL MANSELL COLLECTION)

But it was the letter from George Martin that I treasure the most. He wrote: “Dear Mr Zimmerman, Thankyou for your letter enclosing a tape of a group calling themselves The B.O.I. performing their own material. I am afraid that after careful consideration I do not feel that the group is exceptional enough to enable me to offer them a commercial recording. The songs are pleasantly formed but have no particular striking qualities. I am very sorry to be disappointing and am returning your tape herewith. Yours sincerely, George Martin.”

And there at the bottom, is the great man’s signature.

Raven Mad Records Logo (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

Raven Mad Records Logo (ARTWORK BY PHIL MANSELL)

Of course we were disappointed but despite these setbacks we continued to make music and put together “albums” of our songs on our own Raven Mad label, reaching our peak with ‘Asleep At The Wheel’ recorded in Torquay in the summer of 1972 and featuring the vocal talents of fringe band members Terry Stephens who provided great harmonies and Dave Jones who wrote amazing songs like ‘Transvestite Hitch-hiker Blues’.

But all good things must come to an end and after the aptly named collection, ‘The End of Civilization As We Know It’, the band split up.

The End of Civilization as We Know It by The BOI (The Phil Mansell Collection)

The End of Civilization as We Know It by The BOI (The Phil Mansell Collection)

Drew went on to have a career as a singer/songwriter in Devon and is now something of a legend in that neck of the woods – his ‘farewell’ concerts at the Babbacombe Theatre were sell-outs. He can be found most Sunday nights packing them in at the Hole In The Wall pub where he sings with a variety of other talented musicians.

Drew recently released his first CD which included a song we wrote together all those years ago. It’s called ‘Things Have Changed A Lot’, a title that resonates today as we remember George Martin – the man who turned down The BOI.

Below is a video featuring Drew’s recording along with movie footage of The BOI.

 

Drew's CD makes the news. A cutting from The Herald Express.

Drew’s CD makes the news. A cutting from The Herald Express.

 

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In Praise of Enid Blyton’s Adventure Books

WBD2016_yellow_rightdownAs it’s World Book Day it seems appropriate to remember the author who first got me really excited about reading and writing. From the age of five I was taken by my mother to the magnificent old library on Soho Road in Handsworth.

It was a place where silence reigned and no noise was tolerated – even in the children’s room.

Handsworth Library

Handsworth Library

Here, I soon found myself making a beeline for the authors beginning with ‘B’ – hoping to find a new Enid Blyton to read. I graduated from her books about fairies and goblins to my real favourites – the Adventure series.

I admit I dabbled in the yarns about the Famous Five but they never struck a chord with me as much as the seven books featuring four friends – Jack and his sister Lucy-Ann, Philip and his sister Dinah and a comical talking parrot named Kiki.

Strange how much I associated with them when their lives were a million miles away from mine – they were all at boarding school and everything was “jolly good”, a phrase seldom heard down our street!

The children from the Adventure books

The children from the Adventure books

My favourite was Philip (of course) who and had a magical way with animals and was always fighting with his fiery sister Dinah. Jack was the eldest, a keen bird-watcher who seemed prepared for anything with his field glasses and pocket knife. He and his sister Lucy-Anne (the youngest and “weakest” character because she’s so timid) were orphans.

Each book takes place in the youngsters’ “hols”when they would find themselves “falling into adventures”.

From the back streets to a world of adventure.

From the back streets to a world of adventure!

And talk about page-turners! I’d sit in our little back-to-back house and, chomping on a large cooking apple, I’d be transported from the back streets of 1950s Birmingham to islands, castles, mountains and circuses packed with adventure.

My very favourite – and the one that really remains in my memory – is ‘The Valley of Adventure’. It grabbed me from the first page.

520wide+5182880The four youngsters take off on a night flight in a plane with their friend, secret agent Bill Smugs. But in the dark, they board the wrong plane and end up in a mysterious, desolate valley where they discover secret tunnels, caves, hidden treasure – and danger. I can still remember being on the edge of my seat as they found a hiding place in a cave behind a waterfall and dodged the bad guys whose plane they had accidentally hitched a ride in.

Most vivid in my memory is the description of the series of caves they explore. The Cave of Echoes, the Cave of Stalactites and the Cave of Stars lead them to the treasure…

vall“The door now stood wide open. A dim light shone beyond, showing another cave. Lucy-Anne clutched Jack’s arm in fright.

‘It’s full of people,’ she whispered, ‘Look!’

The four children stared breathlessly through the open door. They saw something that made them feel very creepy. In the dim light figures stood about all over the place. Their eyes gleamed queerly and their teeth shone in the darkness. Their arms and necks flashed and glittered with jewels. The children clutched one another in fright. Who were these strange, silent folk, standing about with gleaming eyes, covered in jewels? The people in the cave did not move. They did not speak a word either.”

560high+5107587I can still remember the thrill of reading this – I must have nearly dropped my cooking apple! Blyton’s stories inspired me to write and at junior school I filled an exercise book every week with my own versions of her stories. These usually featured myself and my friends tangling with smugglers or crooks, or being shipwrecked on a remote island. As in Blyton’s tales, the only grown-ups around were “baddies” and it was the children’s mission to thwart their evil plans.

As I grew older and moved on to books by other authors – such as Robert Louis Stevenson, another great adventure-spinner – I left Blyton behind as a cherished part of my childhood.

enidblytonwritingSince then, of course, she has become a figure of controversy; banned and mocked for being sexist, racist and xenophobic, accused of churning out formulaic stories with thin plots at the rate of several thousand words a day – albeit, rather impressively, on a typewriter balanced on her knees.

Re-reading ‘The Valley of Adventure’ now I find myself being annoyed by things I never noticed when I young. The fact that the girls have to do the cooking and household chores while the boys are busy looking at maps, making plans or going off to explore. The depiction of all “foreigners” as villains or comic figures.

Blyton’s writing is very much of its time – she started writing best-sellers in the 1930s – and it has many examples of casual racism and constant use of phrases like “I say!” and “Gosh!”. I expect much of this has been drastically revised as her books still sell amazingly well – about eight million a year (in 2008 she was voted Britain’s best-loved author, beating Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling, and in 2012 she was second only to Dahl as the most popular children’s author borrowed in libraries).

1764cbe43b59ddffc7540e918908b146With her amazing daily output it’s no surprise that she has sold a staggering 600 million books worldwide. She must also have been one of the first children’s authors to become a brand – with her instantly recognisable “signature” on all her books.

Recent biographies and films have depicted her as a bad mother to her two daughters, a terrible wife and a snob. But to me, Enid Blyton remains a treasured part of my childhood, whose story-telling is timeless and imaginative. She was the writer whose stories could transport a young boy out of the slums into a world of exciting adventures.

For more information about Enid Blyton visit  www.enidblyton.net where you can find more of the wonderful original illustrations by Stuart Tresillian.

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Art for Children’s books

Circus character by Phil Mansell

Circus character by Phil Mansell

As a break from writing plays, I recently had an idea for a book for children in the 9 – 12 age range. I’d stumbled across a website about Enid Blyton and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed her books when I was a youngster – particularly the Adventure series. Featuring two sets of siblings and their pet parrot, Kiki, these stories were, to me, much better than those featuring the Famous Five.

Looking at the illustrations reminded me of how, when I was reading the books (usually whilst eating a cooking apple!) I was transported from the back street slums where I grew up to islands, castles and valleys packed with adventure. It was this that inspired the book I am currently working on.

As I love drawing almost as much as writing, I decided I would illustrate it myself. Here are a few more illustrations I’ve done for books – some which were published, others still a work in progress.

A rough sketch for another children's book illustration by Phil Mansell

A rough sketch for another children’s book illustration by Phil Mansell

A fish and chip shop in 'Welcome to Jubilee Street' by Phil Mansell.

A fish and chip shop in ‘Welcome to Jubilee Street’ by Phil Mansell.

Cover art for 'A Bonfire in Jubilee Street' by Phil Mansell

Cover art for ‘A Bonfire in Jubilee Street’ by Phil Mansell

Artwork for a book I wrote for my son when he was a boy. Artwork by Phil Mansell

Artwork for a book I wrote for my son when he was a boy. Artwork by Phil Mansell

Artwork from 'A Bonfire in Jubilee Street' by Phil Mansell

Artwork from ‘A Bonfire in Jubilee Street’ by Phil Mansell

Artwork for an unpublished book by Phil Mansell

Artwork for an unpublished book by Phil Mansell

Cover of Welcome to Jubilee Street by Phil Mansell

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Where There’s A Will…

It wasn’t the best day to travel to Stratford to see an outdoor production. The rain was persisting down from a gloomy grey sky and looked set to continue for hours if not days.

Linlithgow Players on the rain-soaked stage where they were due to perform. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Linlithgow Players on the rain-soaked stage where they were due to perform. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

When we arrived at the outside stage at the Dell we saw members of Linlithgow Players standing around forlornly under dripping trees debating the best course of action. It had been decided that their play ‘What…You Will?’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, could not go ahead as the stage was too slippery. Plan B was to perform under the partial shelter of nearby trees. Plan C was to use a bandstand – but this was ruled out because of its proximity to the booming loudspeaker commentary accompanying a day of raft races on the river. It looked like a case of rain stops play.

Preparing the set in the church hall. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Preparing the set in the church hall. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Then a minor miracle happened. A friend of the local vicar suggested asking if it was possible to use the Holy Trinity church hall across the road and, coincidentally, a stone’s throw from the Bard’s resting place. Fingers – and everything else – were crossed as we awaited his response. To everyone’s delight, he agreed and the Players rushed inside to set up the scenery and don costumes. Many members of the congregation who had been having coffee decided to stay – considerably boosting audience numbers.

Liz Drewett as Viola arrived after being ship-wrecked. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Liz Drewett as Viola arrives after being ship-wrecked. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

After a bout of frenzied activity the stage was set and the play began with a ship-wrecked Viola (Liz Drewett) lamenting the loss of her twin brother Sebastian (Mark Eggeling) as she arrived on the shores of modern day Scotia – a thinly disguised version of Scotland.

The ensuing action took place around the estates of the love-sick rock star Duke (Gavin MacDonald) and the object of his desire, American film star Olivia (Therese Gallacher).

There was some wonderful clowning from the boozy Toby (Ian Stewart) and his gormless gullible sidekick Andrew (Ray Myers) (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

There was some wonderful clowning from the boozy Toby (Ian Stewart) and his gormless gullible sidekick Andrew (Ray Myers) (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Enter Viola, now disguised as a man, to complicate things with a love triangle which sees Olivia falling for her. The plot thickens with Maria (Sue Spencer), a mischievous Hungarian house-keeper, Olivia’s drunken uncle Toby (Ian Stewart) and his gormless gullible sidekick Andrew (Ray Myers) who set out to fool estate manager Malcolm (Les Fulton) into thinking Olivia has fallen for him.

Meanwhile, Sebastian is far from drowned but has been rescued by Tony (David Wotherspoon) and turns up to complicate things further.

The play moved along at a cracking pace and breathed new life into Shakespeare’s classic tale of mistaken identity and romance.

The cast had worked as a team to re-write their lines in modern speech, except for the two characters who arrive from ‘Shakespeare Land’ – twin siblings Olivia and Sebastian.

Therese Gallacher as the American film star Olivia who falls for Olivia disguised as a man. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Therese Gallacher as the American film star Olivia who falls for Viola who is disguised as a man. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

With its comic timing and superb acting, it was easy to see why the play, first performed in their home town of Linlithgow as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages project, had won the accolade of being selected to be performed in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Les Fulton as Malcolm was hilarious in the yellow tartan he wore to go a-wooing. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Les Fulton as Malcolm was hilarious in the yellow tartan he wore to go a-wooing. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

The entire play centres around the many predicaments faced by Viola, a part played to perfection by Liz Drewett who was ably supported by a truly talented cast. There were many magical moments but the one that brought the house down was when Malcolm is duped into wearing a bright yellow tartan outfit to go a-wooing.

Another highlight was the ongoing boozy banter between Toby and Andrew which was expertly timed for maximum comic effect. The final dance routine – Prince’s ‘1999’ executed as an Elizabethan madrigal – was a delight and the whole production was directed with flair by Sandra Moar.

We felt so privileged to have seen this play which the dismal weather threatened to cancel. As one person commented, “Being able to perform in the church hall was a godsend”. It certainly proves that where there’s a will there’s a way – and I’m sure Will Shakespeare himself couldn’t have plotted it better.

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The Magic of Writing with Scrivener – Auto-Complete

As a playwright I’ve found many reasons why using Scrivener knocks Word into a cocked hat. Apart from its ability to store all reference material – including images and links to websites – in one easy to find place, Scrivener has a host of features that make tasks that were previously time-consuming into simple one-key operations.

autocompleteOne of my favourites is the auto-complete function. One of the most monotonous jobs when writing a play is having to type in the characters’ names before their dialogue.

With Scrivener, you simply open up Project/Auto-complete List and add all your characters’ names (I always include colons as well) and when you type the first letter of the name up it pops, you press return and it’s there. Leaving you free to concentrate on the important stuff – what they’re going to say.

Of course you can also use this for other important elements of the play – such as (Pause) or (Exits).

characters-webI found this particularly useful when writing my full length play ‘According to Claudia’ which has a cast of seven characters. In scenes where five or more characters were involved it meant I could write very quickly, which is particularly useful at those times when one of them had a very short line such as “What?”.

‘According to Claudia’ was the first play I wrote using Scrivener – and I must be doing something right, because – at the risk of blowing my own trumpet – it won the award for Best Play at the recent Gwent Drama League presentation evening. This follows on from the award for Theatre Show 2014 given by entertainment and lifestyle magazine Voice.

According to Claudia by Phil Mansell

According to Claudia by Phil Mansell

The play has been published by Silvermoon and is available on their website and on Amazon.

So, thankyou, Scrivener, for helping me achieve my first great writing success!

(I feel I should add that I am in no way associated with the company that makes and markets Scrivener – just one of the many who find it the best writing tool ever.)

'According to Claudia' by Phil Mansell on stage.

‘According to Claudia’ on stage.

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Writing about Top Secret Shenanigans

Surveillance, incompetence, blame and knife-throwing are just some of the themes running through my latest play to be published by Silver Moon.

The cover of 'A Clandestine Operation' which I designed.

The cover of ‘A Clandestine Operation’ which I designed to be spooky and worrying.

‘A Clandestine Operation’ is set in a room where two men and their supervisor are keeping an eye on events taking place beyond a locked door. Their mission is simple: to open the door and infiltrate the proceedings outside. But things do not go according to plan – and they have to face the problem of who is to blame. No-one wants to take responsibility so scapegoats are sought. Possible candidates include Albert Einstein and God.

I began writing this play a few years ago to while away my lunch hours at the University of Wales, Newport where I worked as the Press Officer. It was a great way to escape from work for a while. I was no longer in my office but in an anonymous shabby room where something mysterious and vaguely sinister was happening.

I describe the set as steampunk meets film noire.

‘A Clandestine Operation’ is set in a room where two men and their supervisor are keeping an eye on events taking place beyond a locked door.

‘A Clandestine Operation’ is set in a room where two men and their supervisor are keeping an eye on events taking place beyond a locked door.

There are dark shadowy corners, a table with a large ornate hourglass, and an ancient telephone on the bare floor. A dark doorway leads to the rest of the building which, we discover, includes a pantry housing all manner of useful things – but no pickled onions.

I liked the idea of a play set in a room where the characters are focused on what is happening outside – and what is happening there is conveyed though a strange assortment of weird and wonderful sound effects. Barrel organs, fireworks, trumpets, crowd noises and unintelligible loudspeaker announcements conjure up a world beyond the door where some sort of celebration or festival is taking place.

The outside world is viewed through a keyhole.

The outside world is viewed through a keyhole.

The two men are unable to open the door so must watch through the keyhole. What they see doesn’t always tally with the sounds and there are suspicions that at least one of the men doesn’t know how to look through a keyhole.

Their officious supervisor keeps popping in to check on their progress and she is not happy with the way things are going.

To make it quicker to type the dialogue I named the characters simply A, B and C. When I returned to the play a couple of years later and decided to revise it I gave them names – A, B and C became Adler, Bray and Crowe. I also switched from writing in Word to using Scrivener, my favourite script-writing program which I’ve written about before.

Enter Dawn - a knife-thrower's assistant in search of a knife-thrower.

Enter Dawn – a knife-thrower’s assistant in search of a knife-thrower.

Coming back to the play, I decided that another character was needed – someone who comes in by accident from outside. Enter Dawn, a knife-thrower’s assistant, who blunders into this top secret world of surveillance and intrigue. She is part of the entertainment taking place beyond the door – but her arrival is met with suspicion and she is interrogated by Crowe, who is a sneering, supercilious character.

An innocent abroad, Dawn finds herself trapped in a room where people who may – or may not – be spies are writing a report on the failure of their mission – and apportioning blame for its lack of success. Ever helpful, Dawn ends up practically dictating suitable phrases for the report as Bray struggles to write it on parchment with a quill pen. Fear creeps in as the phrase “heads will roll” keeps recurring. Adler goes off to deliver the report leaving the others to await their fate as, outside, even more sinister events begin to unfold.

Colonel Hall and Sgt Bilko - roles that Terry and I often adopted.

Colonel Hall and Sgt Bilko – roles that Terry and I often adopted.

When it was published, I dedicated the play to a friend of mine who died last year. Terry Stephens was a genuinely funny guy who, like me, was a big fan of Sergeant Bilko which we grew up watching in the 1950s. In fact, our correspondence often centred on his being the Colonel Hall to my Bilko, following a routine we had developed from the TV show.

A larger than life character who loved playing elaborate pranks, he was strangely secretive about his private life and even his whereabouts. I think that as Terry was a real “man of mystery” he would have appreciated ‘A Clandestine Operation’.

I hope drama groups and societies will visit Silvermoon Publishing for details of all my plays and hopefully stage them. ‘A Clandestine Operation is also available on Amazon.

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A fool’s errand…or a deadly trap?

Seventh Suitcase Cover Design (FINAL1) webI’ve just sent off another play to my publisher Silvermoon. ‘The Seventh Suitcase’ is a play I’ve been working on for some time. At last, I’m happy with it – and hope to direct it in the Studio at the Dolman Theatre.

The play, which for some reason I’ve always imagined takes place in Ireland, revolves around Tim an unemployed fork lift truck driver who arrives at a seedy hovel to deliver a suitcase to an old man who’s asleep in a bed in the corner.

As he waits for the old man to wake up so he can give him the suitcase and claim his reward, he encounters two women. One offers him tea and sympathy, the other whisky and words of wisdom.

They all want to know what’s inside the suitcase but only the sleeping old man has the key. As the play unfolds, one thing becomes clear – this is not the first time a battered old suitcase has been delivered here.  And it won’t be the last.

To date, Silvermoon have published four of my plays which are available either from their websire or from Amazon.

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