Andy joined the Pinkies in 1996 and became one of our talented composers and arrangers. Let’s go back to the turn of the millennium…
It was the time of pre-millennial fever and everyone was either planning the biggest party in history, or stocking up on tinned food, ready for the Y2K bug. How appropriate then, that the Pink Singers should receive an invitation from the makers of BBC2’s ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, asking us to appear as special guests for their special millennium episode. How could we say no?
Of course, it wasn’t as straightforward as that. As so often happens, we were only contacted a few days before the TV shoot, and the choir would be required for half a day. Most Pinkies couldn’t make it, as they weren’t able to arrange the time off work. In fact, it looked as if we wouldn’t be able to take part, and a golden opportunity would be missed. A compromise was reached – the TV company would hire extras to make up the numbers. That’s right, we had wannabe Pink Singers in our midst!
I was lucky enough to be able to arrange time off work, so I met up with my fellow Pinkies – all six of us – at the TV studio on the day of filming. I’d never seen a TV programme being recorded before, and the first thing that struck me was how small the set was. The second surprise was seeing how short the lead actors were, so maybe television screens just magnify everything.
For those who haven’t seen ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, the show is about a gay man sharing a flat with a straight woman; neither of them can get a man. Kathy Burke and James Dreyfuss played the lead roles, both of whom are heroes of mine. We sat in the audience seats watching them rehearse, which gave us a sneak preview of the show. In between scenes, Kathy would chat to anyone who was around – I remember her talking about having some building work done to her house. Apparently she would take the builders to the pub to keep them sweet.
Our job was to appear right at the end of the show, singing the song Tomorrow from the musical ‘Annie’. Of course, none of us had ever sung it before. Fortunately we only had to sing a few lines. We had a chance for a quick run through of the words, and then we had to go on the set to work out how we would enter, where we would stand and so on. Then we rehearsed the scene with the leads a couple of times – we were awful! We kept forgetting words, losing time, and everyone seemed quite intimidated by being on the set. The producer was looking quite worried, and kept telling us not to be so timid.
After that, we had a few hours to wait before the show was filmed. We were kitted out with clothes from the costume department, and then we just had to hang around, grabbing a bite to eat as the audience arrived. Other programmes were being recorded that night – we saw Boy George, who had just been interviewed for a chat show. He was most intrigued when we told him who we were!
Tension mounted as we were gathered backstage for our big moment. We had to be extremely quiet hiding behind the set, as our appearance was to be a huge surprise for the audience. Time seemed to drag, as the crew fiddled around with lighting and microphones for the scene. We all knew that we had to get it right first time, because glitter, balloons and streamers were going drop all over the set, and they wouldn’t have time to clean it all up for another take.
We were on! I was the first on to the stage, and I ran out, waving my arms around and trying to look as bold and confident as possible. We sang at the tops of our voices, with a conductor hidden behind the camera to keep us in time. Glitter flew in all directions, and the audience gasped and laughed as we burst onto the set. And we were wonderful, even if I do say so myself. The crowd loved us, and we spent ages basking in the applause. The producer was exuberant, saying how we had been “infused with the spirit of theatre”!
And then it was all over. We were invited to the after-show party, which was nice, so we browsed the buffet and chatted with the stars. Then we had to wait, excruciatingly, for weeks before we could see the final product. What did I make of it? Well, I thought that I looked like a chipmunk in a pink smock, but I was really proud of our appearance. The episode was repeated a few times on the BBC, and then endlessly on cable stations, so there were plenty of chances to see it. I have friends who still have it recorded on video for posterity! I’ll never forget that day, and it has gone down as a classic moment in Pink Singers history. Here’s looking forward to our next TV appearance!
Directed by Ian McKellen and compered by Sandi Toksvig, the show included the first live performance by Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders as Patsy and Eddie, Lily Savage, Marc Almond, Michael Barrymore – recently “out” – and topping the bill, Elton John, whom the Equality Choir was to accompany.
The Pink Singers formed the basis of the 80-voiced choir, which also included members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, with the Pinkies turning out a record-breaking 61 singers – our biggest ensemble ever.
We rehearsed weekly (in Aldgate) without Elton John who was then touring the States. It was arranged that he would fly in and out on the day of the concert (a Sunday) via Concorde and we would rehearse with him from noon at the concert venue. We were positioned at gallery level behind him and were able to sit there throughout the evening.
We jointly rehearsed I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy, and were most surprised and intrigued when Kylie Minogue joined him and they sang Sisters. He completed his set with “There is Nothing Like a Dame”. The latter song also proved to be a surprise – what a strange combination we whispered amongst ourselves, but all was explained when he appeared that night dressed in enormously high heels, a black cocktail dress and waist-length hair – it was a drag act!”
Mike Thorne produced the album ‘Age of Consent’, in which the Pink Singers backed Bronski Beat. This was the band’s debut album, written at a time when the age of consent for gay men was still 21 in the UK.
The first part of I Feel Love’s recording was in London, and this was where the cowboys rode into town, twenty of them in the collective posse of the Pink Singers.
This male voice choir with a difference embraced an extraordinary range of character types, from loudly extrovert to painfully shy. Appearance was just as varied. The group couldn’t resist giggling, non-maliciously, at this odd human assortment. The big sound of the resulting layers, the harmonies of which were recorded one at a time sounds quite Volga Boatmen, belying the hot summer night on which it was recorded in an East London basement studio, sounding considerably larger than the recording room.
It was hot singing, and hot conducting, leaving persistent memories of sweat on the synthesizer keys that I used to lay out the arrangement. An evening of this melts you, and the air conditioning just gives you up as a bad job. But at the end we had our sound. I broke out the champagne I had sneaked in. We might be an odd collection of differing misfits, and the juice didn’t go far among 25 people, but after all it was showbiz and ceremony is important.
The Pink Singers were even more effective on the other cover on the album, of the Gershwins’ It Ain’t Necessarily So. This is possibly the track which shows off the diverse talents of all concerned, starting with Arno (Uptown Horns) Hecht’s clarinet taking the melody at the beginning. Jimmy’s singing is effortlessly fluid, the more remarkable that he is delivering it on his first album. The harmonized scat sections are flawless, although we would admit that they took time.
You can feel the enthusiasm of the Singers. When they enter in the second verse they sound as if they have just been uncaged, which knocked the track nicely out of being comfortable middle-of-the-road anodyne. They were so anxious and anticipating that it was impossible for them to sing at any level less than raucous, even when humming under the a cappella verse.
The Pink Singers is the oldest LGBT+ choir in Europe. Mark Bunyan, our first Musical Director (MD) and one of our founding members, recounts how it all began.
I’ll be completely honest and say that my arm was very heavily twisted by Brian Kennedy, and Michael Mason of Capital Gay, to start the choir in 1983. I’d had some success with my musical the year before, and my cabaret career was going great guns, so I must admit that I didn’t really want to commit that much time to it and said that I’d do it for exactly three months.
The first choir meeting was April 7th 1983. Diary reads: ‘The rehearsal for the gay choir survived both my incompetence and the potential splits of cultural/political and male/female but we’ll see how next week goes.’ The first meeting was at the Oval House as was the one a week later: ‘There were only fifteen people at the choir practice but at least two women still. Managed to balance the meeting again between Radfems and SDP Yale Gleeclub (the latter was so silly/awful it make me giggle). Afterwards some of us went to the White Bear… Bob Stratton came in delivering Gay News and gave Brian and I a copy each “because you do things.” He’s off to Devon or would have joined the choir.’
May 15th: ‘Was late to choir practice in County Hall and felt awful and incompetent though when we got it together God Rest You sounded pretty good. The name is now The Pink Singers (over my suggestion That Choir). I enjoy it even when feeling appalling.’ I was hungover.
Saturday July 2nd: ‘Went up for the Gay Pride march – initially heralded by a small group with a large bunch of pink balloons in the middle of Hyde Park. Eventually a large crowd gathered (1500- 3000?) and self and Pink singers were plonked at the head of the crowd and had a jolly time all the way to Malet Street, especially when we all let our balloons rise in Tottenham Court Road.’
I remember Robert being really surprised when I said that not only could he do some of the musical direction but could also take over the whole thing. It was at the last meeting of my promised three months and his arrival could not have been timed better. I’d been assuming that I’d have to go on with it despite my (clear from the diary entries) feeling that this wasn’t something I was too skilled at.