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Monday, 26 November 2012

Borgias' actor David Oakes's Desert Island Folk

I love Twitter. I looked at my phone one day to discover that I was being followed on there by someone who looked slightly familiar and had a dramatic looking profile pic.

David Oakes described himself on his blurb as an "actor who likes folk music". Turned out (a) the reason why he looked familiar was because he'd been in Trinity, a pretty weird and addictive TV show I borrowed from Love Film for reasons that elude me now. And (b) Oakes was starring in something big budget with Jeremy Irons called The Borgias that's been showing on Sky Atlantic and is now available on DVD. 

That's him, as Juan Borgia. 

My thinking was that there's a similarity of intention between folk music and costume drama, so if you like folk there's a strong chance you'll also enjoy a good historical swashbuckling shagathon like The Borgias - and vice versa? - and may be interested to hear there's a folky who's acting in one. 

So, I asked Oakes, 29, whether he'd be interested in doing a kind of online Desert Island Discs? He agreed and this is the result. He wrote it, I edited it. And then I discovered that he'd thoughtfully put the songs up on YouTube where I - and you - could find them easily.

Here's David...

"I grew up in Fordingbridge in the New Forest and went to a primary school there that had mandatory country dancing classes. There were only 14 of us in my year and more boys than girls, so there were some much-dreaded weeks when I had to wear a red bib instead of a green one, denoting that I was dancing the ladies' part... This set me up nicely for a career of wearing tights and also instilled a love of music that was accompanied by the musky smell of hay bales and barbecue smoke. Fordingbridge, by the way, is not all that far from the Larmer Tree Gardens, home of the festival. But I heard my first choice of folk tune for this blog in Salisbury.

* Huckleberries Island by The Huckleberries from the album Jigweed
God knows whether they do this for a living but it seemed for several years as if every time I walked around any city in the west of England  - Bath, Salisbury, you name it - I'd stumble across this lot. In front of them there'd be toddlers jumping up and down and pensioners swinging each other around. I loved them for their bluegrassy liveliness: there's nothing stoic or dour about them. And they're a perfect accompaniment for drinking farmhouse scrumpy. 

* Prickle-eye Bush by Bellowhead from their first EP EPonymous
Driving back into Salisbury one day following an indigestion-inducing pick-your-own raspberry experience, a friend of mine put on a CD of a band she'd just heard at a festival. It was my first taste of Bellowhead - an experience bettered only by seeing them live for the first time. I'd come across Spiers and Boden before but it was their new, big band that really caught my fancy. You see, my mother plays the French horn and as a kid my attempts at television-watching often took second place to her and her friends from the Salisbury Brass Ensemble, who'd proceed to blast through their repertoire in the front room with no small pomp. I've loved brass ever since: a folk group with a brass section could have been designed for me. Prickle-eye Bush plays out in my head across the Wiltshire fields we were driving through on the day I first heard the song. It makes me think of Hardy - Tess or Jude put in imaginary cameo appearances. I also really loved Jon Boden's Folk Song a Day podcasts - they're littered with gems. Outstanding.

My Young Man by Kate Rusby from Little Lights
More brass. This is one of those perfect songs. I love Kate’s voice, it's so expressive. And the purity of the accompaniment by such a tight knit brass ensemble makes it a beautiful modern folk tale that brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. Listening today, there's also a sorrow within the sound of colliery brass that speaks of the pain of the mine closures under Thatcher. I think that Kate’s tale of a woman and her love for a changed man links the personal to the political and also reminds me of my time at university in Manchester. I studied English there and became entranced by the music that came from the industrial heart of our country.

* Kit's Tune / When a Knight Won His War by Martin Simpson from Prodigal Son
A few years back, I went to a folk concert hosted by the BBC as part of the proms at the Royal Albert Hall. It was the first time I'd heard either Bella Hardy or Martin Simpson but I came to love both as a result. It proved to me that the tradition will not die - people will always sing great stories. Martin did When a Knight Won His Spurs that evening and though I knew the melody from singing it in church - my father is a C of E canon - in Martin’s hands it came vividly back to life. Now I listen to the song regularly; the themes of valour, honour and duty are something I often have to deal in the roles I play and, to be honest, I don’t think audiences really understand these themes anymore. The constancy of Catholic faith throughout Europe during the time of the Borgias, or the hardship of a peasant’s life, which was central to Pillars of the Earth.  We far too readily modernise what we see and water down what we imagine to be the truth. Drama can be grittier and much more fun if we present these alien historical landscapes as they really were. It’s hard enough filming in some 'period' locations - God knows how people managed to live in them. One day on Pillars of the Earth there was a huge rainstorm and we were wading through mud up to our knees!

* Uncle Lung by Sheelanagig from the album Uncle Lung
During my second and final year at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School we had the privilege of being the last to perform in the Bristol Old Vic theatre before it went dark for a refurbishment. One of the many excellent things about working there was the pub next door: The Old Duke had live music every night and it was here that I first heard, danced to, and sweated profusely alongside Sheelanagig. It was like discovering the Huckleberries again - but this time I was old enough legally to drink a pint of ale. We were doing an adaption of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield and I only had one line. But I went on stage as a woman, a yokel, a beer seller, a morris dancer and a bailiff (and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten now). There were only 12 in a year at this drama school and only three women, so it was a return to my country dancing days. But I'll always have Sheelanagig. We poured out of the stage-door and into the Old Duke one particular evening, following the sound of one hell of a party kicking off: a little dancing can lift the soul. I also used their song Skotchne in a video we made at the time

* She Moved Through the Fair by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet from The Juliet Letters (You may need to download Spotify to listen to that, if you don't already have it.)
My love for Elvis Costello was planted in 2007 when I was preparing for the Sam Wanamaker festival at the Globe. I was half of a duologue from Twelfth Night and had to walk out on to the most awe-inspiring stage in the UK singing Come Away Death, which is in the play. Trying to find an appropriate melody, I discovered Elvis’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet and that it had included a rendition of the song. That said, we didn’t use their arrangement. And when I walked out I was so stunned by the sight of 1,700 people staring back at me that I sang it completely out of tune. But my performance that day, despite the bum beginning, began my professional career. I was asked to join Shakespeare’s Globe company that summer for Love’s Labours Lost and a new play, We the People. The soundtrack to my six weeks' rehearsals was The Juliet Letters.

* Imporsa by Lau vs. Adem from their EP Ghosts
At the moment I'm in Bruges shooting The White Queen for the BBC and those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed a rise in jazz recommendations. In London folk's a good antidote to the modernity that's all around. But Bruges is like a museum and arguably a little frustrating for it, so jazz balances out the tourist-centred cadences of the medieval city. It hosts a rather stunning annual jazz festival and I've found two good jazz clubs so far. In fact, my only folky experience here has been the musical taste of the proprietor of Books & Brunch on Garenmarkt. So Lau and The Imagined Village have stepped in. They've been vying for my Bruges airtime with Wynton Marsalis and John Coltrane.

I think that Lau's Race the Loser is a perfect modern folk album that respects the technology available on a laptop as greatly as it does a fiddle. It'll be a classic, I reckon. 

* The Washing Song by The Imagined Village from Bending the Dark

If I was allowed a ninth track on my desert island, it’d be Caw The Yows by Maz O’Connor from On Leaves or on SandNow I’m off to listen to some Justice - a French Electro Duo that have bog-all to do with folk music...

Thanks for reading this.

* Follow David Oakes on Twitter @David_Oakes

* If you enjoyed this you may also be interested in this about actor and folky Stephen Mangan.

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  1. Excellent taste in music. There's a couple from that list I need to investigate. Hope this is the start of a long running series! Thanks Ronnie

  2. I was thinking I might try them as podcasts in future. What do you think?

  3. Great stuff - a podcast would be brilliant.

  4. Brilliant! I highly look forward to learning more about the music above and expanding my hears, so to speak. Thank you for this truly, folk music is something I've been slowly getting into lately.

  5. Thank you for mentioning Books & Brunch on your blog. Although our musical taste is wide, we play "music to read by". Being a lover of folk, singer-songwriters and such I love your blog !

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