Christopher Green has been described as “part politician, part showman, part sociologist, part healer and an entertainer”. Having won a multitude of awards, travelled the globe performing his wonderful characters and writing for and appearing on Radio 4, he remains not only grounded but as someone who utilises his art to bring people together.
His character, Ida Barr, is gaining not only popularity but also a reputation for being one of the “must see” acts that is currently bringing communities together. Working alongside Sheffield University and Home Live Art, Christopher is bringing his unique and ridiculously entertaining character to Sheffield for the Festival of the Mind. By bringing a 130-year-old music hall star to embrace modern music, and taking the mash up far beyond anything that Glee could ever hope to achieve, the irrepressible Ida Barr is about to bring generations together.
Christopher very kindly spoke to THEGAYUK about his forthcoming project, why character is more important than drag and about meeting Her Royal Highness Anni Frid of Abba.
And where did the character come from?
I was putting together a series of events at the Cafe Du Paris in London, and I was researching in the National Sound Archives of the British Library. I heard a live recording of a minor musical star, Ida Barr, and I immediately thought “that’s it”. I thought, I’m going to resurrect this woman. She had two big hits, “Everybody’s Doing It” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”. I put together the basics of the character and referenced (i.e. nicked) some of Ida’s creaky gags. The character then developed from there. I was born just over nine months after Ida had died and I wondered how, if she was alive, she would view things now. At the end of last year, thanks to the British Music Hall Society, I spent a couple of weeks in the company of the trunk that Ida had donated to the Society upon her death. Ida Barr has simply grown from there and I am proud to be respectfully giving Ida a new lease of life.
Ida is going to be travelling north to Sheffield this weekend for Sheffield University’s “Festival of the Mind”. How did your involvement with this start?
It started with a lady called Professor Vanessa Toolman. She is both an Academic and an amazing person. She has worked alongside me, and Home Live Art (the producers of Ida Barr’s Mash Up). They are a force of nature together and they make for a dynamic pairing. We’ve done a number of projects together and the Festival of the Mind is an event which aims to link academics and artists with members of the community on an intellectual level. There are a significant number of free events over the course of the festival, such as lectures, exhibitions and participatory art events. I have had a long involvement with Sheffield University and with Sheffield as a place. I was born in Sheffield and moved out to Matlock in Derbyshire where I grew up. I still have extended family in Sheffield and it is a great place to be. As a town it’s incredibly productive artistically, in particular there continues to be some really great bands coming out of Sheffield, but as a city it gets on with things itself and is beautifully and quietly understated.
So as you grew up in Matlock, why hasn’t Ida been invited to turn on the Matlock illuminations?
[Laughs]. That’s a very good question. I guess the answer is that she won’t be until you get the petition out there. Perhaps you could collude with the Matlock Mercury to get the ball rolling?
I would imagine that the Derbyshire community would either stand there laughing themselves to bits, or simply gaze on with their mouths open not really knowing what to think!
So, Ida is down to perform her infamous mash up at the Festival of the Mind on Sunday, 24 September . What is she going to do?
The show is going to be a community mash up of old and new songs. There will be an hour or so of a show and then Ida facilitating the singing and bringing together the audience. There is the notion of it being a sing-along with people being genuinely asked to join in and for them to bring to the show what they can bring. For example, we are going to be mashing up First World War songs with Rhianna. It doesn’t matter whether or not the audience know all of the words to “Jerusalem”; even if they can only join in with a few words or a couple of lines of the chorus, then that’s all that they are asked to do. There is a choir there who will be assisting in the sing-along and it is going to be a participatory event in good spirits, not one of those comedic events where people in the audience are picked on or ridiculed. The whole thing has an immense sense of fun.
So, who is the delightful Ida Barr?
Ida is probably the UK’s only music hall star/R&B hip hop icon. Having had a successful career as a music hall singer, she has transcended generations to embrace modern music and the culturally diverse landscape of London’s East End where she’s been in retirement for several decades. Whilst her glory days may be behind her, her creativity is still blossoming, following the release of her multi-selling albums, “Artificial Hip Hop”, “Slipped Disco” and “Get Old or Die Tryin”; she is the “People’s Pensioner”
So are we talking “Knees Up Mother Brown” mixed with “The Only Girl in the World”?
Yes, these songs are part of our heritage and part of our psyche. It’s important that we continue to sing them. They are fun and they are part of our culture. Some songs are passed down from generation to generation. Look at “White Christmas”, it’s still selling copies and it’s over half a century old. Historically, songs have been passed down by people singing them to each other and singing together as a community. That is really important.
You have done a lot of work within the gay community. How did that come about and what has been the motivation behind that work?
I started in “Duckie” in London and really came out of the mid-1990s “queer movement”. My early shows did contain a healthy community aspect but I believe that performance should be open to everyone and that anyone who wants to come can come, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religion, age or any other features which can be used to define them. For me, since being around 30 years old, being gay has not been an issue. We are very lucky that that is the case, and I certainly consider myself lucky. However, being gay is still an issue for a lot of people. It’s important sometimes to get out there and say “It’s ok to be gay – it can be easy and it can be straightforward”. In my view, it is not my aim to say “look, I’m playing to a gay crowd”. What I don’t want is to leave anybody feeling alienated. My art is open to everyone who wishes to access it. Saying that you will play specifically to a gay crowd is simply segregating a community when it doesn’t need to be segregated. I’m not interested in segregating an audience. I’m more interested in bringing an audience together. I’m not sure I have anything that important to say to such a niche group.
Do you feel that there is a shift in the way that the gay community and different generations are coming together?
I get to do a lot of weddings and recently have been doing an increasing number of same-sex weddings. What I have seen is that there are so many families out there, from Auntie Doris who is 93; right down to the children running round aged four and five, and for them being gay is simply not an issue. They have fully embraced having a lesbian or gay daughter or son, or having a lesbian or gay member of the family. We are fortunate that this is happened really quickly.
So, if this is not specifically about a gay audience and more about bringing people together through art, what influences you in terms of your work and characters?
There are very few aspects of my work which have not been influenced by my life but my work is not simply gay orientated. I like to connect with people on different levels. For example one of my characters, Tina C, is a very political country and western singer. As her, I have lots of different pokes and jibes at politics and that is probably what the gay and lesbian community may pick up on more than other sections of the community, but then someone who is a hard-core country and western fan will get something else out of the character that the lesbian and gay community might not; unless of course they are lesbian and gay hard-core country music fans. I was asked to present Peter Tatchell with an award from Gay Times Magazine as the character, Tina C. Whilst this was immense fun, Tina is a character who simply is uncaring and it was a challenge in some ways for me to maintain that character. I had a choice either to come across as incredibly uncaring or to step out of character. I feel things like this are important as the gay community, as do all aspects of the community, need people who are dedicated to work for them and push matters forward.
Would you class Ida Barr as a drag act or as a female impersonator?
The answer is neither. I would describe Ida as a character. I find that the characters most different from me are the ones who are most useful. For example, Tina C is highly successful, rich and is completely diametrically opposed to me. With Ida, she is old and disenfranchised. They are, in my eyes, characters who just happened to be female. They are not characters born out of drag as you would traditionally define that medium, nor are they female impersonators as you may associate with the likes of Danny La Rue. Being in character should free you up to be able to say and do things that you perhaps normally wouldn’t.
You mean, for example, like Caroline Ahern? She can put on a wig and make up, transform into Mrs Merton and get away with asking questions that you would never normally get away with on a chat show?
Absolutely. It’s like with Ida Barr’s Mash Up, I have undertaken the show with such broad sectors of the community including children, older people, vulnerable young people and those who are socially excluded. If I bounded in as myself and said “so how’s everyone feeling today? Let’s have a singsong” I would simply alienate my audience but having a character such as Ida that they can relate to and who puts them at ease not only liberates you as a performer but liberates the audience as well.
So what is it that makes the public so drawn to characters such as Ida Barr, Dame Edna and hinge and bracket?
It’s about the quality of the performance. Artists can be really amazing and incredible things happen when they are liberated as artists, and that is exactly what these characters do. But equally, with the audience liberated, as well as the artist, it makes for a really appealing combination.
Benny and Bjorn from Abba are quoted as saying “Christopher Green’s work is funny and intelligent”. High praise indeed, but how did that come about?
I had prepared a piece called Pop Junkie which was quite early on in my career. They had to be contacted as I had put in an Abba song and had to contact them for permission. They were sent a copy of the script and that’s how the quote came about. Out of all of the positive press that I have received, that has to be one of my all-time favourite quotes
You recorded a piece for Radio 4 called “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. It’s a really touching piece of work. Is Abba a huge part of your life?
Yes, and that piece is all about how I got to meet Anni Frid herself. It was funny, as she vaguely remembered the script for Pop Junkie, which was my first direct contact with the band that I had grown up absolutely loving. Meeting Anni Frid was an experience I will never forget.
Ida Barr’s Mash Up will take place at 2pm and 6pm on Sunday 21st September 2014 at The Spiegeltent in Barkers Pool, Sheffield (outside the City Hall). The show is free and promises to be great fun.
Further details of the show can be found at here along with other information about the Festival of the Mind.