-by Harry the Piano
Alexander Armstrong’s Music Marathon was a challenge dreamt up by Global Radio’s in-house charity: ‘Make Some Noise’. It’s one of those wonderful pan-charitable organisations that in turn supports one hundred smaller charities that get precious little exposure and furnishes them with funds and media coverage which they could never otherwise afford.
The challenge constituted an attempt on the Guinness World Record for the highest number of concerts in different venues in a given time. We – that is Alexander and myself – were shooting for twenty four in twenty four in twenty four – gigs/venues/hours. I have been his musical director for almost ten years now, taking care of all his arrangements and fixing his bands for tours. This is the first time we have attempted anything like this.
For those of you perhaps not in the UK who haven’t come across Alexander, or Xander as he’s known to all: he was a choral scholar at Cambridge who went on to have a successful and award-winning comedy partnership with rocket scientist Ben Miller. This led to myriad TV presenting opportunities including the BBC quiz show Pointless for the last five years and broadcasting the coveted morning show on Classic FM – Europe’s most listened to radio station. I am about to put my beautiful ES920 through its paces in the most rigorous way imaginable.
I arrive at Global’s HQ in Leicester Square at 11am in the morning and meet members of the team who are excited and nervous in equal measure, which pretty much mirrors my own feelings. It’s a hell of a logistical feat to pull off, not to mention the requisite stamina involved. I learn that although I shall be travelling to all twenty four locations, there are a handful that I will not be required to perform in, such as St Paul’s cathedral and the Queens Chapel of the Savoy, where the resident organists will be doing the accompanying. Xander is on air from 9am to midday with his regular Classic FM show and a minute after he has finished, he is sprinting out of the front entrance in full black-tie to join me in a cab. And we’re off…
The first concert I’m involved in is at Piccadilly Circus underground station on one of their busking pitches. We meet the first of our liaison staff: those long-suffering souls whose duty it is to manage outsiders doing anything out of the ordinary in public and private spaces and inform them of safety hazards and protocols. Then with a crowd gathering through a mixture of curiosity and recognition, the rather fine acoustic of Piccadilly Circus tube concourse begins to ring to the sound of Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone – ‘I get the same old dreams, same time every night..’ Except this night of course.
Next up a small private law practice in Mayfair. I get to choose the song from the repertoire Xander and I have amassed over the last ten years. ‘True‘ is of course my wryly comical selection as the apposite number here. They chuckle politely but decline to offer me a lifetime of pro-bono legal services.
Onwards to old Father Thames and the back deck of a commuter clipper. This is rather lovely, drifting past the London Eye whilst giving vent to Smith and Burrows’ ‘When The Thames Froze’ somewhat to the bewilderment of the regular travellers on the service.
Next we hove to the postal museum in Mount Pleasant where I am coerced into wearing a Victorian postmaster’s frock coat and topper. It looks a brilliant joint all round and I will return and peruse it more thoroughly at some point in the future but for now we are rushing off to a nearby construction site and hauling the gear up six flights of scaffolded stairs. It really is quite an experience overlooking an area the size of half a football pitch full of dayglo activity, towering cranes, industrial cement mixers and tens of thousands of steel rods all of which we regard from under the brims of our mandatory hard hats. We sign in inside one of the portakabins that will be the offices for the chaps in charge for the next four years as they create 400 dwellings. Full of desks, computers, fridges, kettles, as any other such space, just mounted on steel poles sixty feet up. The ES is performing beautifully – sometimes through an amplifier, sometimes just using its internal speakers. The sound is perfect and the action is flawless.
Next to an inside space – the lush private members club 2, Brydges Place. All sumptuous velvet and with a most welcoming sharpener on offer. The ideal pick-me-up at this stage for our Berkeley Square Nightingale which is swiftly followed by a brief hop down the Strand to one of the most extraordinary venues of the event – the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. I had envisaged some small private ante-room built for the Monarch‘s solitary prayer. This could not have been further from the truth, it proved to be sizeable and incredibly beautiful 16th century chapel complete with a stunning bejewelled unvaulted ceiling, huge heraldic hangings and a red-robed Prelate, looking for all the world as if he’d resided there since the consecration.
They have arranged the whole evening‘s concert around this event – an impressive feat of timing – and Xander sings Mozart’s Ave Verum along with the church pro choir. Then on to an old friend – the Britten Theatre in the Royal School of Music where I first heard Eugene Onegin and fell in love with it. There are mid-auditions for the upcoming production and the three arbiters of excellence sit terrifyingly in the middle of the stalls. Whether this is a welcome break in their schedule I don’t know but they are smiley and complimentary after our version of ‘Never Been In Love Before‘ from Guys And Dolls.
Back into the back of our Addison Lee, driven by the endlessly accommodating Ravind, who for the next gig is to be our sole audience member. We balance the ES920 on our knees in the back seat and Xander and I play out a five minute blues duet as a warm up which is hilarious fun for us but slightly less so for the poor camera-woman who is crushed in foetal position backwards in the front seat with the sound operator performing his own gymnastics in the back in an effort to keep himself out of shot. In our trip round the block for the song we pootle past the Albert Hall in beautifully uplit for its 150th birthday celebrations.
Now to the Bel Canto restaurant, which has been a staple on the Bayswater Road for decades now. Imported from Paris with the concept of providing a showcase for the most promising up-and-coming operatic talent, patrons get to enjoy opera and musical theatre highlights as an accompaniment to their fine-dining. Alexander is encouraged to give full acoustic vent to his baritone and is warmly received in this charming setting.
Then off to some staggering opulence in the form of Park Lane exclusive night-spot, 6 Hamilton Place. We are somewhat incongruously escorted in by a fully be-kilted and sporraned Scotsman, the reason for which eludes me but it is indeed plush and full of very polished bright young things. They are warmly appreciative and contrary to our expectations, listen in rapt silence to all three numbers.
Almost back home at this point, to the familiar grounds of Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square. We are admitted by the manager himself who is remarkably sanguine about having to open up the place at this ungodly hour. Ten minutes later we are back with Ravind in the warmth of his people-carrier and wending our way through North London to the M1 and an hour’s trip to Luton for perhaps the most surreal part of the challenge.
A fitful twenty minute cat-nap and we are unloading for the fifteenth time in the car park of the LLA Marriot hotel. Xander has overridden the repertoire choice and decided to sing a Northumbrian folk song acappella, for which I’m secretly grateful as it grants me extra time for a shower, teeth-clean and change of clothes.
We are about to do something for the first time in my life. Namely to be air-side at an airport with no intention of catching an aeroplane. And when I say air-side… Our unflappable camera and sound team are struggling a little to get the location exactly right. They want the three aeroplanes in shot but the turbine hanging off the wing of the nearest plane is rotating in the night breeze and making a right old racket. Eventually we find a spot alongside it that is relatively quiet but not particularly well lit. Luckily, the airport is served by another particularly solutions-bearing and cheerful liaison officer. He pushes a button on his walkie-talkie and: ‘Hi, emergency? Are you busy?’ Thirty seconds later a large orange-and-yellow striped vehicle rocks up, parks diagonally across the road directly facing us and turns on its full beam. At once the tarmac alongside the easyjet is lit like the Palladium. There’s nothing to do but laugh out loud and applaud which we duly do. My stunningly original choice of material at this point is ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ which is roundly cheered by the emergency staff.
A brief coffee in the terminal and back on the road for the most exhilarating stop of all, speaking for myself you understand.
With my precocious footballing talent it’s a minor miracle I’ve had to wait to this ripe old age to say this but… tonight folks, I’m about to play at Wembley. We approach the famous arch for our 5am kick-off and I genuinely feel a surge of excitement as our cab drives inside the grounds and stops alongside the players’ entrance. The two giant scoreboards are both showing Alexander’s music marathon photos and logos, making us all feel very important indeed. The good Lord is less impressed however and the second everything is set up the heavens open with a mighty deluge. Our first thought is one of extreme disappointment: we are clearly not going to get to perform properly on the pitch. Plan B however, proved to be something of a humdinger. The liaison officer looked at us and said ‘you can set up in the England dressing room if you like’.
The horseshoe of individually downlit players seating gives the room something of a Star Trek bridge feel and we set up on the large three lions crest with this as our backdrop. I’m sure there’s been some singing in this space before but perhaps not of such quality and accompanied by such a quality instrument!
Straight on and wellies donned for gig number nineteen: Belmont farm in Borehamwood, playing to staff, goats and donkeys inside a barn. During our number there, an adjacent donkey decides to breakfast on Xander’s dinner jacket to the huge amusement of our crew and the consternation of myself, as the irritating focus-pulling quadruped chooses to perform his comedy antics for the exact duration of my solo, ceasing only as Xander comes back in at the bridge. No respect.
By now tiredness is really kicking in but our next stop is perfect for energising tired minds and bodies. Mill Hill pre-preparatory school and an assembly of fifty bright-eyed and beautiful young’uns. They are wildly excited, particularly when Alexander does the voice from ‘Hey Dugee’ after which they stare at him in the awed manner of the ewoks regarding C3PO.
The end is in sight but at this point, almost inevitably with the relative smoothness of all the plans thus far, we are visited with some genuine drama. We are due to play in the classic Covent Garden piazza performance space in front of the church – the buskers Mecca – but a message comes through that there has been a fire alarm and the entire piazza has been evacuated. Genuinely worried voices now come through the phones as the home-based team desperately scout around for last-minute venue replacements. Our schedule is now beginning to look rather tight if this record is to be achieved. Thrillingly, the Royal Opera house is mooted but alas cannot be arranged in this short space of time. We are on the brink of having to run the gauntlet and set up at the roadside, where we are extremely likely to be quickly moved on by irate policemen.
Truly, at the eleventh hour, we are saved by the delightful Arboretum club on Saint Martin’s Lane who invite us in. They even sport a mini-stage. It’s 11 o’clock and just two gigs to go now. A heart rending zoom by Xander with the ‘Forget-Me-Not’ chorus of dementia sufferers who achieve joy through singing and as if in a dream it’s finally ten to midday and I’m playing Lullaby of Birdland and very lastly a trio version of Let It Be with classical guitar genius Miloš in the studios of Classic FM with all the smiling and waving employees singing along.
Aled Jones who has been standing in for Xander in his Friday nine to twelve slot arrives to hug us, there is a loud bang as two large tickertape guns are let off, the air is full of ribbons and we are presented with a Guinness World Record official certificate. We embrace and people cheer. Quite a feeling, and even better at the time of writing we have raised £105,000 and counting.
The ES920 has been amazing – uncomplaining through all the changes of acoustic and temperature – ringing round Wembley stadium, bouncing off the underside of a plane wing, 60 feet up scaffolding and in the Britten theatre. It truly is the ultimate professional tool and I can’t thank it enough.
About the author
Lauded by Jonathan Ross as ‘The best damn pianist in the civilised world’, Harry’s extraordinary talent has taken him worldwide with solo cabaret shows in the Albert Hall, Moulin Rouge and festival appearances from Barbados to Adelaide as well as headlining on the maiden voyage of QM2 alongside Dame Shirley Bassey and The Opera Babes. Resident pianist for five years on the Big Breakfast (Channel 4), he then musically directed BBC TV shows for several years and is now a regular on The Now Show (BBC Radio 4), Friday Night Is Music Night (BBC Radio 2) and the go-to improvisor for In Tune (BBC Radio 3) amongst other things where presenter Iain Burnside noted ‘You can’t be a pianist and not be a fan’. His ability to play any tune in any style on request has led to over 3 million hits on YouTube and appearances with everyone from Simply Red to David Bowie and Andrea Bocelli to Charlotte Church.
‘His phenomenal talent, charm and wit are a delight’ – Stephen Fry.
‘Spellbinding. Uncanny. Genius.’ – (Times. Independent. Guardian.)
For more about Harry the Piano, visit www.harrythepiano.com