Paul joined the choir as part of a personal odyssey of moving to London and coming to terms with his sexuality. As someone with some musical training (a classical background as a cathedral chorister), he was asked to stand in when Michael Derrick was away, and within six months, took over.
I came very much through that traditional music route. I wouldn’t have known Hello Dolly! from the chorus line if you had slapped it across my face with a wet fish. So for me it was really interesting having this world opened up to me…
I’d often arrange sometimes American political protest songs, and we would sing those in new arrangements. We would challenge people’s sense of their own abilities. We would challenge them with the harmonic language that they sang in, how they blended in with other voices…
I wrote original repertoire for the choir, introduced some other more traditional music as well. At the time we also had a non-religious music policy as well, so we wouldn’t sing anything that had a religious context, which for me was challenging having come from a Catholic cathedral music background.
Under Paul, the choir became a four part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass– choir and again widened the range of music it sang. Paul left to focus on his journalistic career, although he remained a singing member for the first year.
On Saturday June 24th 1989 the Pink Singers appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Ned Sherrin’s Loose Ends as part of a special show for LGBT London Pride Day. It was broadcast from the roof of BBC Broadcasting House and among the other guests were writer Julie Burchill, art critic Brian Sewell and magician Fay Presto. Here’s a transcript of the Pink Singers’ contribution to the recording.
Ned: Here we have the Pink Singers, a group of gay and lesbian choristers, who are going to send the music of Rogers and Hammestein into orbit, and to give a special send-off to international gay pride weekend.
Ned: You’ve already heard the Pink Singers this morning. They’re a much-travelled English gay and lesbian group, who’ve been singing for 6 years. They include teachers, computer people, civil servants, a banker and a biologist. Together they’ve sung for various charities – not all gay – they’re at the Green Room, Manchester next Saturday; the Tithe Hall Farm, Harrow the week after. And I think they’re going to start this little section by showing us how they sing Spread a Little Happiness.
Ned: You’ve got about 12 people here, you could do with more I suppose?
Sandy: We can always do with more men and women singers. But we would like some more lesbians to join us. Our three lesbian singers that were with us at the festival have left to go to New Zealand, round Europe and stay in Germany. So we are looking for more women.
Ned: Philip Rescorla, how much do you travel around the world? Where does it get you?
Philip: Well we’ve been to Stockholm. Last year we were at Berlin. Of course next week we’re at Manchester, so it’s Budleigh Salterton here we come!
The next MD to take up the pink baton was Michael Derrick, who had been accompanist under Robert Hugill. Michael (born 1946) was a Mathematics lecturer and active in the scene as a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and a volunteer for the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard.
He did not seek out the choir; the choir found him:
One Saturday night in October 1986, I was drinking in my favourite pub. A complete stranger came up to me and introduced himself as Robert Hugill, the director of the Pink Singers. I had never heard of them. Robert was looking for an accompanist, and one of his drinking companions had pointed me out. He asked me to come to the rehearsal the next day – which I did.
Michael continued the structure that had been established by Robert Hugill and built on the work he had done.
[Robert had] turned them into a choir which gave regular concerts, rehearsed for concerts, had a standard repertoire, a rolling repertoire. He chose the repertoire, he wrote arrangement to suit the choir. And so every rehearsal was part of a build-up to a concert: a performance and then a new set of repertoire and so on. So I knew it was that sort of choir. And at every rehearsal there was the aim of putting on the next concert. So there was a very well defined set of objectives for each rehearsal. That was the choir that I joined and it’s more or less the structure that has survived to this day.
In 2013, Michael was asked about his contribution to the choir (he’s still a singing member today) and his response focused on the development of the membership:
Before I was the conductor it was a men-only choir. But when women came along to ask if they could join I always said yes, welcomed them, sat them down and gave them some music. And by the next week there was some specific things for them to do. I’d rewrite the arrangements to involve women. And then they brought friends and slowly the number of women increased. The first concert I conducted was the first concert the Pink Singers gave with women and men in the concert. Before that there were women and men together on the marches, but it was the first concert. And for every single concert since then there have been women and men in the choir. And that’s something I’m extremely proud of.
Philip from the tenors takes us back to the early days of the LGBT choir festival that became Various Voices, with excerpts from former Pinkie Sandy Wilson.
When I joined the Pink Singers in April 1987 there were 20 members (all men) and we had songs like Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”. In 1988 two women from New Zealand joined and we finally started to become a proper lesbian and gay choir.
From the beginning the Pinkies forged close links with other European lesbian and gay choirs taking part in the third European Lesbian and Gay Festival of Song in Stockholm (May 1987), and the fourth in Berlin (July 1988).
We went off to Skokholm, which was the first time we went to a Festival of Song. […] There were only the Triviatas from Cologne, Noot Aam de Man from Amsterdam, the Stockholm Gay Mens’ Chorus, and the Pink Singers. The next year we went to Berlin – the Kongresshalle. Again there was about 12 or 13 of us and we did a 30 minute set there.
In 1988 the UK Government passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act which banned local authorities and schools from “promoting” homosexuality. The European choirs were horrified at this and said ‘Next year, the festival is going to be in London’. This was a big ask for a small choir like the Pinkies but with the help of the burgeoning LGBT community in London we were able to host the 5th European Festival of Song for three nights at the Hackney Empire with 14 choruses taking part.
It was at that time that we went from being a Gay Chorus to being a Lesbian and Gay chorus. We wanted to reach out because the Lesbian community and the Gay community in lots of ways were separated. […] By the time the festival happened, we were about 20 strong. So we were the first Lesbian and Gay Choir in Europe.
We called the festival ‘Singing the Blues Away’, which of course implied fighting the Conversative (‘blue’) government’s plans to silence the LGBT community. The festival ended with a big benefit concert for the Terrence Higgins Trust at Sadler’s Wells, where Michael Cashman first announced the formation of a gay lobbying group called Stonewall. My favourite memories of that night are the massed choir of 500 voices singing Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again and Gordon Kaye of TV’s “‘Allo ‘Allo” making his first public appearance after being outed by the Sunday newspapers.
The European Festival of Song was renamed Various Voices in 1995 and London hosted the event again in 2009 at the Southbank Centre when over 60 choirs from across Europe took part. Twenty years had passed and in that time the UK choral movement had grown enormously.
Throughout my period directing the Pink Singers (1983 to 1988) there was a constant tension between the need to entertain and the need to be political. If there were too many non-political songs in the programme then one group of singers would complain, if there were too many political songs then another group would complain. What really kept things in balance was that we had constant difficulty finding political songs!
By December 1984 we felt ready to give our first concert and gave a Christmas concert at the University of LondonUnion. We called it our Christmas Antidote and this became a regular title for our Christmas concerts. At this timeI was still directing the group from the piano. As we had not got enough material for a complete concert, I padded the event out with a few readings and by encouraging individual singers to do solos.
This latter idea had a very strong effect on the nature of the choir; from now on, at any time around three quarters of the choir’s members would be doing solos. This led the group to develop more as a large cabaret ensemble and less like a choir. From now on the choir’s year developed some sort of rhythm with a Christmas Antidote concert in December, a birthday concert in April and some sort of event during Gay Pride.
When we had gathered sufficient repertoire we decided to make a recording. We went off to a school in Hertfordshire where one of our number taught and spent the day singing and recording. The results were successful and became The Pink Singers – Live. But the recording also made us take a momentous decision and stop being completely open entry. There had always been a group of singers who tended to drone in the background (known in the group as the hoovers) but the recording made us realise how bad this made us sound. From then on anyone could join but they had to have the confidence to sing for me at an audition. I never had to turn anyone away, simply asking people to sing seemed to make things self selecting.
The group was always extremely social. In the early days we would leave rehearsals at County Hall and go off to
the Gay Tea Dances or have a meal at Bunjis, the vegetarian basement Folk club. When the London Lesbian and
Gay Centre opened we sometimes socialised there, but tended to go off to the Fallen Angel in Islington. It was
from here that the Pink Singers tended to be run.
In the early days the group had been very much my own baby, but as it grew in numbers and in confidence, the
group of people who met at the Fallen Angel became an unofficial junta running the group. It was open to anyone
who felt like coming. Eventually it seemed sensible to try and set the group of on a rather more formal basis. We
had an AGM and voted ourselves a constitution; this was based on the standard one proposed by the National
Federation of Music Societies which meant that we could become affiliated to this group, the first explicitly gay
group to do so.