The Season – Mentorship Retreat
What blows the mind on arrival is the realisation that, during our week in Saint-Sauveur-La-Vallée, while Jim and I are tinkering away on our tiny two-hander, our mentors, the inimitable George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, are simultaneously working on their own shows. Two of them, no less: a comedy of personal discover called Becoming Nancy, set in South London in 1979, and an adaptation of a novel, TBA.
This, at first, is deeply off-putting. The comparative amateurishness of our own project is thrown into sharp relief, and the thought of the two already-overworked maestros condescending to participate in our efforts makes me feel deeply self-conscious. Before long, however, this embarrassment gives way to a feeling of oxygenation, as again and again our hosts demonstrate their patience, their generosity of spirit and the care they have taken to immerse themselves in our show.
There is a type of breathlessness I will henceforth associate with the memory of climbing the mile-long track from the village to Ants’ house, cresting the hill at dusk and tiptoeing to the verandah to hear George and Ants hammering over a phrase of ‘You Matter’, a luminous torch-song from Becoming Nancy. We stood silent in the doorway as the song took on its final shape, occasionally looking at each other and screwing up our eyes with admiration.
This, I believe, is what’s known as ‘geeking out’, and both men were very tolerant of what, in retrospect, must have been trying interrogations: What was it like to meet the Sherman brothers? Where did you get the idea for ‘Being Mrs Banks? Is ‘Gay or European’ a rip-off of ‘It’s Hard to Tell’? Which American composers could George beat in an arm-wrestle? Etc. Still, they were equally tolerant of more pertinent queries, which we loaded onto them with gusto: How do you escape the tonic? Is it risky to report past action in song? Is the f-word ever acceptable in a non-comic number? How faithful should a composer be when summoning a particular jazz era?
These revelations and conversations often occurred during mealtimes, when Ants transformed from a contemplative lyricist into a dynamic chef-de-cuisine, conjuring lavish paysan cuisine seemingly without effort. He is an Anglo-Gallic cook in the Grigson/David mould, and fuelled our musical turbines with saucisse to Toulouse a la vinagrette, confit de canard and a glut of twinkly local rose, consumed on the terrace with Sixpence the dog at our knees.
Certainly it was a luxurious week, and a nourishing one in more ways than one, but it isn’t a love-in, and it isn’t a free holiday. It’s two days since I returned and I still feel a certain mental rawness from the effort of confronting our material so starkly. By the second day, we were summarily ordered to our gîte after lunch to write a new song: a solo number to plug a gaping hole in Act 1 so large we didn’t even know it was there. I will never forget the skin-prickling trepidation of returning to Ants’ house, four hours later, carrying with us our pitiful skeleton of a chorus. We sidled into the piano room with such faux-relaxation, such sheepishness, we were practically bleating. I will equally never forget the walk home that night, down a hillside speckled with moonlight and glow-worms, light-headed with relief that they didn’t hate it.
With maddening regularity, we would climb the hill each day to discover that, in our absence, George and Ants had completed yet another remarkable musical flourish, not least a show-stopping company number called ‘Known Homosexual’ for Becoming Nancy, and for whose iPhone demo Jim and I had the honour of providing the dubious blessing of our BVs. The eventual, cumulative effect of this proximity to brilliance, however, was a deep feeling of encouragement. During the course of that week, we came to feel as though we – Jim and I – were working alongside George and Ants, as counterparts, fellow-professionals, even colleagues. For all their humbling mastery, they deliberately helped us to the belief that we were pursuing our ambition legitimately, with accuracy of purpose and a voice of our own, and that has been the greatest gift of all.
– Kit Buchan, Book writer and lyricist
It amazes me that Darren Clark’s French writing retreat with Stiles and Drewe could have consisted of anything more than his incredibly detailed and humorous blog. I’ve just been re-reading it, hoping to flesh mine out with a bit of Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V action, but I’ve had to give up for fear of running out of time. Lettie is waiting.
We arrive in Brive at 11ish, passport control is slow – two Stansted flights a week into Brive, and one man behind a counter with all the time in the world. Ants and Sixpence arrive to drop off last week’s visitors and to pick us up. After a short trip we arrive at Ants’ house, a very lovely 19th-century stone building, atop a hill in the middle of a valley. There’s a pool, there are several plum trees responsible for hundreds of plums, there’s a rosemary bush, biggest bay tree I’ve ever seen, a hammock, at least two praying mantids (one is green, one brown), a piano – it’s wonderful.
We’re both excited as we sit down to our first mentorship breakfast of yoghurt and fruit-salad prepared by George, followed by coffee and croissants w/ choice of two jams: apricot (made by George) or plum (made by Ants). S&D describe what the next seven days might look like – in between bouts of swimming, cocktails and rustic French recipes we’re going to perform, improve, and/or write some songs for The Season. But first we’re going to read through the script and listen to our demos. This is slightly daunting, no one apart from us has seen has seen much beyond the first 20 minutes. An hour and a half later we finish the last number in the show ‘If I Believed’ and head into the kitchen for some lunch.
Over cheese and bread George and Ants start to ask searching questions about the characters, their situations and their individual motivations. But then just before pudding it seems Ants wants to get even deeper, to begin to delve into the very fabric of existence. Eventually he asks Who is Jim? – and suddenly I’m spinning down a swirl of bright colours into a sort of silvery hum between words and notes and I, for maybe the first time in my life, really begin to consider who Jim is.
With my name now firmly in Ants’ head, we help ourselves to plum crumble and talk about how we might negotiate some of the problems they’ve flagged up. They have so many ideas, and they seem to know our characters so well that we are instantly charmed into rethinking various bits of plot, and happily launch into the reshaping of this or that section of one or another of our songs.
After lunch S&D drive us down to our Gîte in the valley, where we unpack and shuffle around the garden looking for phone signal. We do about two hours of writing that afternoon and walk back up the hill (a 15 minute walk up a dirt track lined with blackberry bushes and rose-hips) with only four bars of music to show them. George hands us a cocktail called a Boulevardier and we sit down to the traditional first night dinner of Toulouse sausage on a bed of dressed tomatoes and parsley.
They are so friendly and kind that we are tricked into playing them our afternoon’s work of four bars, albeit with much murmuring about how it’s just about the worst four bars of music ever. But S&D are incredibly enthusiastic about ours bars, 1 through 4, George even comes over to the piano and starts riffing on one of the bars and we are so overjoyed that all of a sudden we begin to wonder why we were unable to properly appreciate them before.
The rest of the week continues in much the same way, George and Ants continue to challenge and support us, and in the meantime they write countless songs themselves which move and inspire us. We play the part of school bullies on a demo for an S&D song from their upcoming show Becoming Nancy, Lettie Graham performs her number 1 Karaoke tune of all time ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, a bottle of Pineau des Charentes comes and goes, George makes a Citron Brûlée, we are introduced to Michel Le Grand’s Donkey Skin by Ants’ next door neighbours, we write two brand new songs, improve four existing songs, and just take advantage of having Ants and George on hand to discuss everything from working with an orchestrator or what Zebra tastes like to Who Jim Is.
We are home now, but we have left the south of France feeling very grateful to everyone involved in this mentorship, particularly Ants, George and Lettie and now we’re looking forward to testing out some of this new material during the first lab on November the 2nd.
– Jim Barne, Composer