TV and radio poet Ian McMillan aims to make Stortford world centre of happiness
An ad-hoc opera about Bishop's Stortford may seem like an unlikely proposition, but the 'Bard of Barnsley' relishes a challenging subject.
Writer and broadcaster Ian McMillan – lauded by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as one of the world’s greatest poetry performers, and described as both the Shirley Bassey and John Peel of verse – can turn the most unpromising material into thought-provoking entertainment, often with an injection of northern humour.
His latest project is an opera about the 1918-19 influenza epidemic with composer Michael Betteridge. Initially, they considered a piece to mark the anniversary of the end of the First World War, on November 11, 1918, but decided to tackle the cataclysmic event which followed.
The Spanish flu pandemic caused devastation when it infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide – about a third of the planet’s population – and killed between 20m and 50m, more than the Great War which preceded it.
As well as encapsulating the devastation and desperation of that time, the libretto also posed some very basic problems. “I then had to start thinking about how I might write somebody coughing and sneezing,” said Ian. “But once you start, most things can be written about – except orange, silver and purple. I wouldn’t write an opera about those.”
But apart from those rare words in the English language which cannot be rhymed, he said: “I’m always interested in a challenge.”
In a similarly unlikely source of inspiration, he has also been working with other artists and the University of Exeter on a project called A Life More Ordinary, about the early onset of dementia. His creative collaboration with photographer Ian Beesley and cartoonist Tony Husband and a group of people with the condition called the Ragamuffins has resulted in a new exhibition just opened at Gallery Oldham.
So an improvised Stortford show holds no fears for him. As ever, he will greet guests for his appearance at the Bishop’s Stortford College Festival of Literature as they enter the auditorium. It’s a tactic he uses to combat any stage fright. “I like to meet people as they come in and not hide around the back. If I had to do that I might get nervous.”
This sneak preview of the audience allows him to gauge age and other factors and dig deep into his “carrier bag” containing a vast repertoire of stories and poems and tailor his set list accordingly.
What he is sure of is that “Bishop’s Stortford is going to be a world centre of happiness” for his performance.
With his trusty flipchart, he plans to invite fans to tell him “a few things” about the town as the basis for an opera so he can showcase some of the creative process and versatility which means he is equally at home presenting The Verb on BBC Radio 3 every Friday night, writing poems, librettos, songs for choirs, plays, a verse autobiography Talking Myself Home and a voyage round his beloved Yorkshire in Neither Nowt Nor Summat.
His love of performing and engaging with an audience has its roots in his Yorkshire childhood and he self-deprecatingly confesses he is ill equipped to do anything else.
He said: “The thing I like best is standing up in front of people showing off. I’ve always done it and its genesis is at school.
“I was born in 1956 in the West Riding and its education authority was run by a genius, Sir Alec Clegg, who believed all children are creative.
“It wasn’t just something that everyone else did and you watched, there was always a sense that you could do it.”
His love of language is at the heart of all his work, which has led to him being poet-in-residence for The Academy of Urbanism, Barnsley Football Club and Barnsley Poet Laureate.
Poetry as an art form is in the ascendancy. Ian said: “I think it’s partly because we are surrounded by rhythm – the sun goes up and down, our hearts beat and our chest goes up and down as we breathe.”
A sense of occasion then plays its part: “Whether it’s at weddings or funerals, there’s something deep inside us that responds to language that’s been turned up a notch and works beyond its normal functions.”
In times of austerity, such as now, it’s a medium for the poor and disadvantaged, he said – with no need for an instrument or a costume to embellish the passion of the message.
* Ian McMillan will be appearing at the Ferguson Lecture Theatre on Monday, February 5 from 7.30pm to 8.30pm. His performance will be suitable for those aged 14 and upwards. Tickets cost £12. To book, visit bishopsstortfordcollege.org