Brian Walker & Michael Topping
Brick Lane Outreach- The value of Laughter and Song
An outing to Mile End!
Having worked at Brick Lane in the recent pantomime there, I was always curious about the talk of their “Outreach” programme.
While I was there giving my Betty The Cook a few times we were told that a customer had made a donation to subsidise a visit to a local care home, or to a hospice in the area, and I would bump into Brian Walker or Joni Talks from time to time en route to a Brick Lane visit.
It was a great joy to be invited along last week to one such “Outreach” show in Mile End, and to see for myself what goes on at these shows. What a great afternoon it was, and I’m so pleased I’ve witnessed for myself what Vincent, Zara and Joanne have described to me as “Reminiscence Music Hall!”
Today’s show was led as always by Brian Walker and Michael Topping. Hackney born Brian has been involved in Music Hall since way back when, and has been involved with Brick Lane through its journey from Brick Lane, to Curtain Row and now to Silvertown in the East End. Michael Topping I have had the pleasure of working with many times in tours of “Pinocchio” and “Hansel & Gretel” and variety shows around the country. Michael has the most infectious laugh you could ever hope to hear, and it used to ring out from the orchestra pit on many happy occasions!
When I arrived at Coopers Court in Mile End the residents were already assembling in the main room. Chairs had been set up by the staff and the first impression I got on walking in was that this was a jolly atmosphere. The staff and residents were looking forward to the show, and tea and cakes were the order of the day!
Michael was setting up his keyboard, and assisted by Brian they got the microphones and amp set up in a matter of minutes.
About thirty five to forty residents and guests (some had been joined by their family I noticed) and about eight members of staff and carers were attending. Michael struck up “There’s No Business like Show Business!” as an overture, and the show began.
Recently I took my touring Pantomime Roadshow to a couple of Care Homes in the Midlands. Although intended for children we adapted the show, but I felt there was a vital element missing from our version- Music. Music it seems can unlock the memory. Vincent tells his Brick Lane audiences about this, and each interval I’ve heard him describe the effect of songs on those who suffer from memory loss, often as a result of long term illness. I had heard him describe it, and now I was witness to it.
Brian very skilfully has put together a programme of songs and jokes that does just this. As the show progressed I could see for myself how that formula was working.To begin with a few of the residents tentatively joined in with some of the “standards” of Music Hall- some of course might have been a bit shy to begin with, but it seemed to me that, as the hour and a half passed, more and more were joining in singing along and interacting with Michael and Brian.
I was fascinated to watch one lady who had barely looked up for the first five minutes of the show. Her lips moved from time to time. A group at the back were joining in at odd times, but mostly they were keeping time, tapping their feet.
Brian’s Opening number set the whole thing into motion. He opened with “I Wanna Say Hello, I wanna See you Smile”- which (and I admit I am a hopeless nostalgic and geek when it comes to all things 40’s) I recognised as Betty Driver’s hit number from the post war years! Yes- Betty from Corrie- her of Hotpot fame- She became a huge recording and variety star thanks to Gracie Fields and her producer husband, and this was one of her big hits!
A few joined in the odd word or too- prompted by Brian: “Do you remember it? Yes? Well why aren’t you singing it then! All together now…..”
His warm up dated back to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald- singing “When I’m calling You-ohh-e-ohhh-ohhh-ohh-ohh!” and a fair number of voices sang back the reply from “Rosemarie”.
By now the room was turning into a party. A few more staff joined and a few more residents arrived and were settle in. Brian moved onto the songs from Music Hall that no-one in the room could have recalled from their heyday.
I remember when I started doing what we called “Old Time” Music Hall shows in the late 1970’s I did a reminiscence spot with the audiences. We’d recall catchphrases and talk about local cinemas no longer in existence. On pensioner matinees now and then someone would tell me how they’d been taken to see Marie Lloyd as a child, or had been to see G.H.Elliott in Pantomime. Not today. Those Music Hall days are too far away to be recalled now, but some of the “standards” or “Anthems” still live on. “She was a Sweet Little Dickie Bird.. Tweet Tweet Tweet….” Sang Brian. A Dozen or so residents chirped back “I was one of the worms!”.
The lady in the centre who had moved her lips a few times earlier now started to mouth “Hello! Hello! Who’s your lady friend” quite clearly, and almost everyone in the room was singing or at least mouthing the words of “Daisy, Daisy”.
Brian’s patter turned to reminiscence. “Do you remember….?” And the faces lit up. He took them on a journey back to when the Coronation was on the 10” TV sets (along with a risqué gag about The Duke Of Edinburgh which went down a storm!) and led them on to recalling the jingles to commercials. “Murray mints!” one lady yelled out to the great delight of the staff- she’d trodden all over Brian’s punch line, and he was delighted! The party was now in full swing!
I believe the oldest resident here today was approaching ninety, and a good number of the audience were in their seventies and early eighties. Their music Hall isn’t Marie Lloyd, and it isn’t George Robey. Their memories are from the ‘Fifties. Brian said to me at the end of the show that Their Music Hall is now Elvis Presley. The Fifties is that nostalgia, and the songs from the late 1940’s through to the Beatles are the ones that they can, if prompted, recall.
For residents with illnesses like Alzheimer’s and memory loss, to have the powerful prompt of music help unlock those memories, even for a short while, it is great medicine. Today’s audience started tentatively, but soon got into the swing of things. “You’re Nobody, ‘Till somebody Loves You” was one song I noticed had the right effect. Those ladies at the back were singing EVERY word,. Most of the lyric of “I know that someday”, a big Connie Francis hit was being recalled as was “Embraceable You”, sung by Michael.
Michael also gave the residents an up to date version of the old Clinton Ford song “The Old Bazaar In Cairo”- a bit naughty, but very nice!
More and more the residents were getting involved. Now it was the turn of the staff. Showing off his very dapper red suede shoes, Brian coaxed two lady staff members up to join him in the new dance sensation “Ballin’ The Jack”- this proved to be hugely popular and got its own encore before they returned to their seats!
Song after song followed- “Down at The Old Bull and Bush”, “Heart of My Heart” – that got a big response in the sing-a-long stakes, and “Underneath the Arches”. Brian asked if anyone had taken part in National Service.One or two residents had, and he recalled his own service in China and the Far East before getting everyone joining in “She wears Red Feathers and a Hooley Hooley Skirt”- With actions!
“Pistol Packing Momma”, “You Are My Sunshine” and Hackney born Anthony Newley’s “Why- Because I( Love You” were followed by what I think was the unqualified success of the day- the biggest response, the most complete recall of lyrics was “Irene, Goodnight”, first heard in 1934 but hugely popular in the 1950’s and once again last year from Eric Clapton. The lady in the middle sang every single word, and the same with “Your Cheating Heart”. It was quite something to watch, and a joy to behold.
One thing I especially noted was the reaction of the staff and carers here. It was obvious from the moment I arrived that this was a “happy” home- it was a place where residents were accompanied out to the local shop, or I’m sure the odd visit to the bookies- the hustle and bustle of the Mile End Road is just thirty yards away- and the atmosphere was jolly. This show was a fun event for the staff as well. For an hour and a half they get to relax, join in and be entertained themselves for a change, and get the added kick of watching their residents having a really good time.
Anyone can pick up the phone, or send an email to Brick Lane Music Hall to request a visit, so long as it is within the area of London and the South East. There are over thirty of these shows a year. Sometimes Brian and Michael are joined by Joni Talks, and the fun of Brick Lane can be experienced by those who are unable to travel to the theatre.
Vincent Hayes started this charity when his first Music Hall building opened to help with community projects and schemes. He was honoured with an MBE for his work last year.
The Music Hall is involved with local schools as well, and works alongside teachers to help the children put on their own performances at the end of a few weeks of working together with professionals. There are many care homes and day centres and hospices that would enjoy a visit from Brick Lane-with donations coming in, the aim of this charity is to visit as many homes and hospices as possible during a year. This means those unable to visit Brick Lane can be offered the show at a subsidised rate.
A fleeting lyric from fifty years ago can bring all the memories flooding back- not just of that song, but of “the way we were” when that song was first heard. These memories are priceless, and judging by my visit today to Coopers Court, you cannot put a price on that. Huge thanks to all concerned for my visit, and to Brian Walker and Michael Topping for a lovely afternoon in the East End!