WAR HORSE JOHN TAMS STILL GETTING AWAY WITH IT
When your work has been seen by an audience of 60 million people, you’ve appeared on stage with some of the finest actors in the country and you’ve made more than 80 albums, you might be forgiven for blowing your own trumpet.
But not Derbyshire musician, composer and singer John Tams. Ask him what he is most proud of and he replies self-deprecatingly: “Getting away with it.”
John who counts film director Steven Spielberg and legendary composer John Williams among his colleagues has been working for more than 50 years in every branch of performing.
In a wide-ranging chat over lunch in The Spanker at Nether Heage John told me how he made up qualifications in his younger days to get jobs, how he went from being a professional musician to acting at the National Theatre and how he became involved in the phenomenon that is War Horse.
Yet John says he never had a career path: “I just do whatever comes up. I had an agreement with myself just to say yes to everything.”
Some people may know John as an unsung hero of folk music, winning seven BBC Radio 2 folk awards, and as a member of groups such as Mukram Wakes, the Albion Band and Home Service.
Others may remember his regular role as rifleman Daniel Hagman in the ITV 1990s drama series Sharpe alongside Sean Bean.
He is also known for War Horse. He composed the music for the stage version of Sir Michael Morpurgo’s book, did an adaptation for Radio 2 and was also involved in the music for Spielberg’s film.
Yet he started his working life as a journalist. He left Somercotes Secondary Modern School at 15 without any qualifications. “We just didn’t do them. I couldn’t get a job, so I worked on fairgrounds for a bit. Then I thought I needed to move on.
“I made some O-Levels up and I got a job working for G C Brittain in Ripley. They ran the Ripley and Heanor News, the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser and the Heanor Observer.
“I reported. I didn’t know how to do it. I filled loads of notebooks in longhand.”
He must have learned his trade well because after working for the Derbyshire Times he ended up editing the Belper News.
“What I like about local journalism is it’s entirely community-oriented, so you’re doing chrysanth shows and brass band contests at one end and then you get the big stories as well.”
“I’m a complete fraud, really. Storyteller. Romancer, my grandma would say.”
These included investigating nuclear waste being stored in Derbyshire. “Men in dark macs and trilbies turned up, tipped my desk up and slid everything into a couple of bin liners including my typewriter. Quite interesting but scary” is his matter-of-fact assessment.
“When I’d had enough of that I made a few A-Levels up and got into teacher training college. So I’m a complete fraud, really. Storyteller. Romancer, my grandma would say.”
John claims he was not very good at teaching. Then a friend, Ashley Hutchings who was in Fairport Convention and later Steeleye Span, rang John and asked him for help with an album. That was the start of John’s career as a full-time professional musician.
In 1978 John went to work at the National Theatre on an adaptation of Flora Thompson’s novel Lark Rise. It was later republished as part of the trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford. Ashley Hutchings was the music director.
“Bill Bryden who directed it raised the line between musicians and actors so that you couldn’t see the join. He wanted the singers and musicians to be seen to be performing.“We were doing a Eugene O’Neill season of his American plays. Bill said: ‘Stop singing, will you? Do some acting.’ So I just watched everybody.
“I used to go and watch John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith acting during the day if I wasn’t called to rehearsal. I’d sneak in, sit at the back, drink tea and watch to see where the tricks were. They were all brilliant actors. There were no tricks involved.”
Over the years John worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and most of the major theatres in the country. A highlight was playing one of the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside legendary Paul Schofield, recognised as one of our greatest Shakespearean performers.
John was often asked to write the music as well as appearing in shows. When he became a regular character in the Sharpe TV series he ended up writing a lot of the scripts too.
Again John plays down his talents, saying “I was never very good” at acting.
One man who was an admirer of his work was Tom Morris. He was co-director and producer of the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse which premiered at the National Theatre in 2007. He met John in a pub on the South Bank and gave him the job of “songmaker” on the production.
“The Queen was fascinated by it (War Horse).”
The Times newspaper described War Horse as ”the theatrical event of the decade” and it proved popular with the Royal Family.
“The Queen and Prince Philip came to see it dressed in street clothes – he’d got a flat cap on,” says John. “They just looked like an oldish couple out for a night in the theatre. They came to see it several times. The Queen was fascinated by it.”
John along with Chris Shutt and Adrian Sutton were nominated for an Olivier Award for best sound for War Horse.
John performed Only Remembered, one of the songs from the show, at the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014. It was seen by an audience of 60 million people and can be viewed on YouTube.
John’s next task was to turn Sir Michael’s work into a radio play. “The theatre version is very different to the book, so I did an adaptation honouring the book which we recorded for BBC Radio 2.
“We had Timothy Spall playing the horse, Bob Hoskins playing Sgt Thunder and Brenda Blethyn playing the mother. So we were well sorted in terms of quality and talent.
“I just did a bit of music here and there, directed it, wrote it and Michael liked it. He was the narrator at the beginning and the end.”
Surprisingly reading music isn’t one of John’s strengths: “I’ve done lots of film scores for cinema and for television but I’ve never been able to read or write music. So I just record it and send it to somebody who can. I’ll record it exactly as I want it and give it to someone to write it down.”
At the age of 74 John is still going strong. He has a few more concerts in the diary including one called Celluloid and Celebration at St Peter’s Church, Belper on Tuesday 19th December. The first half will involve the screening of a 1976 film about New Year rituals which John narrated. Then John and Pete Bullock will present seasonal celebrations in song and spoken word.
He has also written his first children’s book, The Bear Went Over The Mountain, which is illustrated by Andy Mayers and published by Sutler Stories. The book is in two parts and has QR-coded music “to guide you through the gently inventive art of freestyle storytelling”.
“It’s been good. It’s still good.”
But John does admit the phone isn’t ringing as much as it used to: “I’ve learned to say no to certain things that take me away from the family.”
He’s married to Sally Ward who in 2019 became funeral celebrant of the year. They have a grown-up daughter Rosie who runs her own events company.
John and Sally are also full-time carers for Sally’s mum who has dementia.
“I do say no quite a lot now,” says John. “Because I’ve been around a long time, I can point people to some upcoming musicians, writers, acts or whatever. It’s been good. It’s still good.”
John who has two honorary doctorates has been described as “one of the ultimate British songwriters” as well as “one of our finest musicians and singers”. Not bad for someone who’s been “getting away with it” for five decades.
* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine