Interview: Neil Hannon, singer/songwriter

Neil Hannon.
Neil Hannon.
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NEIL Hannon may well be best known for his hits as The Divine Comedy, but the singer/songwriter’s influence on modern culture is much wider.

Recently, his cricket-themed project The Duckworth Lewis Method was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award, while his TV credits include the Father Ted theme tune.

Next week, at the Festival Theatre, audiences will be able to hear the Irishman’s latest compositions when the Bristol Old Vic production of Swallows And Amazons tours to the Capital.

Based on the 1930 novel by Arthur Ransome and directed by Tom Morris, Swallows And Amazons is Hannon’s first sortee into musical theatre – he wrote the music and lyrics.

Set in the Lake District in the 1920s, the piece tells the story of four children – The Swallows – who set out on their own to camp on an island in the middle of the lake. One day, they meet two girls on a boat named Amazon – the Amazon pirates – and their adventure begins.

Hannon, above, admits it was a tale that had escaped him until he read it to his daughter.

“I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before because it is my kind of book. I’ve always been one for anything pre-1950, especially books with pretty covers and nice names,” he says. “I saw it and thought, ‘I’ll get that and read it to Willow so that I get to read it as well’, with no thought of musicals, even though I was looking for something to do.

“Halfway through reading it, I realised it had all the components for a good show. Now, about a year or so before, Tom Morris had come to me saying that we should make a musical, although I’m sure he said ‘a piece of musical theatre’. He doesn’t like the term musicals. So we were on the look-out for the right subject matter. I took Swallows And Amazons to him, he looked at me as if I was mad, but came back a little later and said he thought it would be great.”

Tackling his first musical proved a challenge, albeit a pleasant one.

“I suppose I was working on instinct because, although there are stories and plots in my songs, when you come to write a show the songs tend to be from one character’s point of view and about that moment in the story, rather than telling a story.”

He continues, “Very rarely in the writing process did I stand back and go, ‘Well at this point I should be thinking about such and such’. I just sat there and got on with it. When something feels right, it generally is. You just kind of know.”

That said, until the show went into rehearsal, Hannon hadn’t a clue who would actually be singing his songs.

“I didn’t even know whether it would be children or adults singing them,” he says. “When the show went into rehearsal and I heard people singing them for the first time, that was a lovely moment.”

Rehearsals also gave the singer a new respect for the actors bringing his work to life. “I can’t believe how much they have to remember and how many shows they do in a week. It’s staggering. I couldn’t do it.”

So he was never tempted to try his hand at acting? “I always knew that wasn’t on the cards,” he laughs. “You just have to look at my videos. I don’t know why so many musicians have thoughts in that direction, I’m much happier writing and then playing a strange caricature of myself on the stage.”

Swallows And Amazons, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7pm (matinees 2pm), £17-£24, 0131-529 6000