Dead Man's Shoes - Narrating for Opus Anglicanum

Opus Anglicanum: John Bowen, Zeb Soanes, Rowland Robertson, John Rowlands-Pritchard, Stephen Burrows, Nick Madden

Opus Anglicanum: John Bowen, Zeb Soanes, Rowland Robertson, John Rowlands-Pritchard, Stephen Burrows, Nick Madden

One of the most difficult performances I have ever given was a memorial at Wells Cathedral for the retired broadcaster, John Touhey.  I never met John and when I was asked to step into his role as Narrator for the choral ensemble Opus Anglicanum back in September 2014, shortly after his death, I was keenly aware that I was among bereaved friends.  Taking on a role he created and very much made his own was daunting.  I agreed to initially cover the concerts up to Christmas and invited John Rowlands-Pritchard, ‘Pritch’, for tea at Highgate to chat about the programmes.  He folded himself down the narrow stone staircase to my flat, clutching a carrier bag bursting with Opus Anglicanum CDs and talked fondly and sadly about John Touhey and about the nature of Opus’ work, visibly still grieving the loss of a dear friend.  When Pritch left, I popped the CDs on the kitchen dresser which is where, I’m ashamed to say they remained, unopened for many months - but for a good reason.  It is impossible to replace a key member of any group; like changing a distinctive ingredient in a recipe, the dish can never taste the same.  I was wary of being influenced by hearing John’s cadences and delivery and felt I just had to interpret and serve the material in my own way as John did in his - and that was the advice of the other members of the group.

Opus Anglicanum members past and present at the John Touhey memorial service, Wells Cathedral

Opus Anglicanum members past and present at the John Touhey memorial service, Wells Cathedral

That reluctance to listen to John’s recordings also helped to preserve his enigma.  After each of those early Christmas performances, as we changed out of our suits, I would catch the odd reminiscence from the others of the way John might have delivered a particular line or given a knowing look to the audience and over the course of the following months I began to piece together an evolving impression of him.  I learned how fastidious he was in his preparation, how he loved to listen to the music rehearsal and of his absolutely wicked sense of humour.  When I was preparing to perform Sally Beamish’s Sea Psalm for Tardebigge the following June, I could no longer avoid listening to a recording as it was necessary to familiarise myself with the piece.  Listening on headphones to the reminiscences of a dead mariner, relayed by a deceased narrator was doubly haunting; for nearly a year I had lived with the ghost of John Touhey and now he had a voice - a fine one.  Sea Psalm is masterfully composed, interweaving the memories of Pritch’s father with song and percussive words; it requires skill and is harrowing but enormously rewarding to perform.  John did it honestly and without affectation.

John Touhey at the BBC

John Touhey at the BBC

        John Touhey and I share similar backgrounds as news broadcasters.  I spend much of my working life in a darkened studio, somewhere in Broadcasting House, relaying tales of unfolding doom at unholy hours to millions of unseen listeners but it is a one-way relationship.  The unique pleasure of performing with Opus is that the live performance is completed by the present audience; pauses can be felt, laughter encourages and the air is sculpted by words and music.  When so much of our entertainment is fed to us digitally, there is something magical about listening together - whether as performer or audience and it is primordial.  When we performed our David Jones In Parenthesis sequence at The Pallant Gallery in Chichester recently, we all felt that keenly; affected by the horror and the macabre beauty he recorded.

    Now, as I prepare the texts that Pritch sends to me, I sometimes wonder how John Touhey might have approached a particularly tricky passage.  His is a gentle, avuncular ghost and whilst I’m sad I never met him, I feel more his collaborator rather than his successor; so palpable is the love felt for John from the other members of the ensemble and our followers that his memory and contribution to Opus is very much alive and part of what we do.