February 19, 2017


Editor    posted 18 Feb 2017, 04:04 PM


Peter Skellern, who composed the music and lyrics for Roger Hall’s You Can Always Hand Them Back, has died in England of an inoperable brain tumour. (BBC News)

Here is a sample of the accolades his work elicited in New Zealand:

“The songs carry the emotions. Grandparents’ Aerobics had the audience rocking with laughter. Peter Skellern’s lyrics (played magnificently on piano by Paul Barrett, that man is a show in himself and his pointed comments from behind the piano add so much to the moment) haunt the heart afterwards – ‘bursting like light through the door’. Imagine the darkness without it.” – Lee Matthews, Manawatu Standard, reviewing the Centrepoint Theatre premiere.

“There is a gently sardonic Sondheimesque note in [pianist Tom McLeod’s] suggestion that while it’s very nice to have children of your own, it is even better when they’ve left home …

“Peter Skellern’s songs capture aspects of their grand-parenting through its enumerated stages …

“The rhythm and pace is varied mostly by the differing styles and contents of the songs, from the lovingly lyrical ‘It’s Such a Miracle’ through Maurice’s splendidly aerobic ‘Pram Song’ and the anguish of his ‘Twice A Night Tinkle Tango’ to Kath’s vamped ‘I Still Got It, Honey!’ (channelling Ethel Merman) in the first half; from the poignant ‘They Grow Up So Quickly’, the comical duet ‘My Hearing Is Absolutely Fine’ and the technologically challenged ‘The Age of Bewilderment’ through the beautifully harmonised ‘Home For Christmas’ to ‘The Years Go By So Quickly’ in the second half, culminating in the feel-good ‘Grandmas & Grandpas Live Forever’.” – John Smythe, reviewing the Circa Theatre production.

“The clever songs, by Peter Skellern, are usually jaunty, sometimes sweet, expanding the age-old themes. The one about the swift passing of the years (“it seems like only yesterday I held her mother”) is reminiscent of ‘Sunrise Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.

“Sentiment is shaken off for bouncy numbers like ‘Doing theTwice a Night Tinkle Tango’ (grandpa’s tinkle, not the kids’) and a little welcome tripping of the light fantastic, especially Grandma’s comically vampish ‘I Still Got It Honey’, much appreciated by the patrons.  The one that really has them hooting is ‘My Hearing is Absolutely Fine’.” – Terry MacTavish, Theatreview – reviewing the Fortune Theatre production.

[Te Mete’s] playing is tight and empathic, but there’s always a hint of Skellern scepticism that edges, at times, into a Sondheim-like realm that suggests a darker human understanding. I like it very much when it happens …” – Lexie Matheson, Theatreview, reviewing the ATC production

“The mellowing could be attributed to Skellern’s witty ditties as they gently poke fun at the afflictions of age. Even tackling the horror of geriatric sex, Skellern offers the uplifting tone of a torch song.” – Paul Simei-Barton, NZ Herald, reviewing the ATC production

Roger Hall           posted 18 Feb 2017, 06:10 PM

Friend Steve Whitehouse introduced me to Peter Skellern, who had started coming to Auckland with his wife, Diana, during the summer to catch up with his son in Devonport.

The first summer (2008) we met twice only, but I still had the cheek to ask him if he’d like to perform in a concert I was planning at The Pumphouse the next year for my 70th birthday.

He agreed. When he was introducing his songs he began by saying “I’ve known Roger Hall for all of four hours now….”  Which was about right. Then he told us that quite recently he’d been invited to sing for an old lady’s 80th birthday. “You know, it’s really nice at Windsor Castle”.  (The Royal Family were big fans.)

For that Pumphouse performance he sang his big hit “You’re a Lady”, one other I forget, and the hilarious “Joyce The Librarian”. All of these he must have performed hundreds of times. But, get this: he spent the morning at The Pumphouse rehearsing them.

We met regularly, often on the golf course (he was a fine player and captain of his golf club in Cornwall). One day he said, “I wouldn’t mind writing songs for one of your pantos”.  A handsome offer, but the late Paul Jenden was firmly established as the composer.

Were there any of my existing plays that might be turned into a musical? I went through the list. Nothing quite right. But then I thought of an idea I’d been nursing for years: a final show for Dickie Hart (C’Mon Black and You Gotta Be Joking—one man shows performed brilliantly by Grant Tilly). This was to be Dickie in the role of Grandpa….but Grant died before I got round to it.

But the idea was still a good one, but now it would be about a Grandpa and a Grandma. Agreed. So the long-distance collaboration began. Hard work for both of us (as it should be)—scenes and songs were jettisoned then rescued…and jettisoned again.  (Several titles were bandied about but it was Peter who came up with You Can Always Hand Them Back.) I was so convinced it was a winner I forced ATC to listen to this marvellous script and magic songs. ATC were underwhelmed.  And passed.

But  Kate Louise Eliott at Centrepoint picked it up, cast Lynda Milligan and George Henare as Grandma and Grandpa, and Paul Barrett as pianist and narrator, with Jeff Kingsford-Smith to direct. The reviews posted above indicate the range and brilliance of the songs—funny, hilarious, nostalgic, sweet, sad. The perfect mix.

And so the show made its way to the other theatres.

Long term, we had hoped Peter would perform in the show in the UK but it was not to be.

He was a hugely popular entertainer in England. He filled the London Palladium several times in a solo show.  With Richard Stilgoe he could fill halls around the country with their wonderful show, Rambling On (you can see the whole show here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7Vc0lOV6Iw (it’s brilliant).

Of course he was most famous for his big hits, including “Love is The Sweetest Thing” and “You’re a Lady” (with the backing of Grimethorpe Colliery Band). But he was also a great comic performer both on TV and radio  (for example, the doleful Carter Brandon in Uncle Mort’s North Country) . And he had a song in Blade Runner.

He were a grand lad, our Peter.

roger hall             posted 19 Feb 2017, 01:12 PM

Paul Barrett’s tribute to Peter Skellern

I met Peter in the summer of 1998-9. I had returned to the Court Theatre in Christchurch to play the part of Baloo the Bear in a stage version of The Jungle Book by actor/ writer/ director Martin Howells.

Originally from Britain but now resident in Christchurch, Martin had been commissioned by the Court’s Artistic Director Elric Hooper to do the adaptation.

When it came to who was going to write the score, Martin ‘casually’ mentioned that he had known the legendary Peter Skellern since they were young, and wouldn’t it be terrific if he could be persuaded to come to Christchurch to provide music and lyrics? Would it what! replied Elric.

Peter accepted and composed most of  the score at home in Cornwall, weeks before he and his wife Diana flew out for the rehearsal period, during which he wrote further material ‘to order’, including a marvellously funny song for me in which Baloo explains the facts of life to an adolescent Mowgli.

As I recall, Martin had written this amusing scene as dialogue, but as so often happens in Musical Theatre collaborations,  Peter said “ wait a minute- this might be even funnier if I turn it into a song”. So he did, and it was.

The instrumental accompaniment Peter composed for The Jungle Book was all performed and pre- recorded by Peter himself on synthesisers and samples, of which he was a master. The show opened with a darkly- mysterious ballad,” Now Rann the Kite brings home the night…” in which Peter had also recorded his own voice, singing in multi- tracked harmony in that distinctive soft North- Country burr.

Indeed, the entire score was hugely atmospheric- like film music. My memory is of long- phrased lyricism and romanticism, but often with an underlying melancholy – typical Skellern qualities.

Then in 2012 I again had the pleasure of working with Peter on his new show with Roger, You Can Always Hand Them Back.

We workshopped the material in Auckland but prior to staging rehearsals in Palmerston North at Centrepoint Theatre, as Peter was unfortunately unable to attend, I asked if we couldn’t have an extra week just on the music in my own apartment- just George, Lynda and me, under Peter’s supervision. It was such a useful week- Peter was a kind and gentle man but he was also a hard taskmaster when it came to getting the sound he wanted, whether from George and Lynda or me at the piano. But we didn’t mind- we were just so chuffed to have him with us every day, guiding and shaping our performances.

  Once again the music and lyrics fitted beautifully into Roger’s book- ranging from jaunty, funny patter songs to deeply moving ones: the difficulties of parents letting go of their children as they grow up, to the letting go of a partner and gratitude for a long life together.

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Peter Gibson February 11th, 2024

If you're looking for CDs of Peter Skellern's music, Mint Audio are collecting and remastering his recordings https://www.mint-audio.co.uk/

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