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Features: Audio Clips

Simon Mayo Drivetime

Jeff Wayne interview with Liza Tarbuck, in for Simon Mayo Drivetime. BBC Radio 2, aired August 3, 2010

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Liza: I am sitting here with a bit of a legend, welcome to Jeff Wayne.

Jeff: Thank you Liza it is good to be here.

Liza: I am interested in War of the Worlds because regardless of what happens it still keeps coming at us; it just hooks, but can we talk about that in a minute?

Jeff: Of course.

Liza: I was looking through your notes and it interested me because your father was an actor and he created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Jeff: That’s right, he was the original Sky, the romantic gambler and that is how I first moved to England as a little boy, I came over with my parents while he played Guys and Dolls played at the London Colosseum. I think it was the largest West End theatre at the time that would have musicals in it and he had this big baritone voice and I remember some of the reviews as a little boy they said he didn’t need a microphone it was that big a voice. 

Liza: Well in those days would he have had a microphone?

Jeff: Probably a foot microphone, not like today with wireless.

Liza: Yes and mic’s in the hair. I love Guys and Dolls; but it is an interesting thought that your Dad had the guts to up sticks and his family and ‘come on where going over here to see what’s happening here for a while.’

Jeff: He was very fortunate to get the part because he was signed to do another Broadway musical and I was in another musical as a little boy, a small part. But he fell on stage one night and needed back surgery and he was on his back for about 6 months as part of the rehab period and so he lost the Broadway production, but then when it came over here about four or five years later the producers put him right back into that part.

Liza: Well they must have rated him then.

Jeff: Yes he was good, he was a good guy.

Liza: So what age were you coming over?

Jeff: I was about eight.

Liza: That’s quite a pivotal time in a boys life isn’t it.

Jeff: Yes. I grew up in New York in Forest Hills, my mothers family is from Brooklyn; so all my friends and family were from that part and suddenly off we went. But I settled in really quickly, I have friends over here to this day that I remember making friends with right at that first move over here. We were here for about four years then went back to New York. High school and college was in California, then I came back over here and have stayed ever since.

Liza: The fact that you were over here at an important time in your life, I am imagining English school children welcoming you like some fantastic morsel of interest because anything American here in the 50’s was just great!

Jeff: Yes my first school was where they still had the 11+ exams, a London County Council school and my Dad wasn’t into private schools so I was chucked into this school which in a way was similar to New York, but the curriculum was different and so I was studying subjects that my fellow students were well up on and were totally unknown to me and there were some things that I was ahead of that I had studied in America, so some things were advanced and some things we were behind depending on which side of the pond we were on.

Liza: Has that been confusing for you then, you did you find that you could mix between the two worlds very easily? Did you ever wonder where you would settle?

Jeff: I guess by the time I came back. Well I composed the music for a musical that my father ended up producing. He left acting and singing in the late 60’s early 70’s and he took a big risk with me and gave me my first big commission as a composer. But when I came back I has this feeling that I was probably going to stay and that is what happened, so I have now lived in England just over two thirds of my life; so I’m more Brit than Yank.

Liza: You are aren’t you? Also I quite like your accent, it hits in the middle.

Jeff: Yes there is a mixture. When I first came over here as a little boy, when you heard me speak there was no doubt, you would say ‘oh yeah, he’s a New Yorker.’ Whereas now I have had this mixture of England, New York, California and back to England again, so now I don’t know what I sound like actually.

Liza: So this musical that your Dad got you involved in Tale of Two Cities. This was possibly getting into your marrow and you didn’t know how much of an affect it was going to have on your later work perhaps. I don’t know I am only thinking of War of the Worlds and where that kind of idea comes from, because it is massive.

Jeff: Well I think thinking back now with hindsight, my college degree was actually in Journalism, I then switched over to music and became a professional musician, but I did get a degree in journalism and I remember most the analysis of words, the attention to detail and accuracy, and I think when I came to compose Two Cities I was interested in this very historic subject that Charles Dickens had take on and then years later with War of the Worlds there was no doubt that I was interested in the detail of the geography of England and where the Martians would plot there movements. I remember getting this huge map from the British museum and plotting it out with pins, just to test whether HG was really accurate with his writing and he was deadly accurate.

Liza: He was spot on.

Jeff: Yes.

Liza: I can’t remember the last time I read an HG Wells, it was quite a while ago.

Jeff: He was quite a varied author, not only in his stories, but he had science behind some of his subjects and politics, so in fact to a large degree War of the Worlds resonated with my because of that, he was not just trying to create of a story of the ‘shoot ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ sort of traditional science fiction sort of story.

Liza: Yes.

Jeff: His Martians with their tentacles were an analogy for the tentacles of power and England, Great Britain, was at the height of its Victorian expansionism and he felt that the expansionism against any other nation it was wrong, even if it was your own nation it was wrong. So his Martians with their tentacles were very much taking a pop at the politics of the day with a visionary tale wrapped around it.

Liza: Yes, there are a lot of people who have that ability, I think of Philip Pullman when you say that.

Jeff: Yes absolutely.

Liza: And it is a hell of a gift.

Jeff: Yes.

Liza: So we will take a little break and hear the Eve of the War, one of your marvelous songs.

Jeff: Thank you.

Break for music.

Liza: I feel like I’ve known that forever.

Jeff: Well it has been around for 32 years.

Liza: Is it really 32 years!

Jeff: Yes it came out in 1978.

Liza: Wow that is extraordinary. There are parts of that, that I adore. I am mad for a bit of flute actually. So I love the flute, but there is something for everyone in that one track.

Jeff: Oh thank you, yes it has been a popular track. It is called the Eve of the War because HG well’s first chapter is called the Eve of the War and it is a setting a though something is about to happen, nobody quite knows what at that point. So to me that represented an overture.

Liza: It is anticipatory.

Jeff: Yes exactly.

Liza: That is what I found scary when I heard The War of the Worlds for the first time, it was scary.

Jeff: I never could have predicted that was going to happen, but I have had a lot of people through the years say not only was it scary, but they liked to listen to it with the lights turned off at night to be deliberately scared. Oh thought, oh crumbs that pretty good.

Liza: Yes you have done that, to set an atmosphere.
There are things within the show, I have only seen bits and pieces of it, but I remember seeing a Hologram of Richard Burton and being in awe that you had had the foresight to get that 3D image of him done before he died.

Jeff: Well we didn’t in fact. The truth is that we never filmed him, we just have a few pictures that were taken on the session and after the session, but who knew that years later we would be touring the arenas of the world and using a recreation of Richard built up from the technology. They are photographs of Richard at a particular age that is the age that the journalist he plays is meant to be the age of. But it is a technological achievement because it is an actor who does Richard Burton, he professionally performs as Richard Burton, so he has all the moves. It was a motion capture performance and that was completed and then goes into a range of computers with experts that are specialists, one might specialize in skin textures and another in hair.

Liza: Oh wow!

Jeff: Another who specialized in eye colour. Richard had pox marks on his skin and there was a specialist who could analyse that. And so they build it up and turn the finished product, of about 77 sequences that he appeared in, into a three dimensional hologram that floats above the stages. It is about eleven foot high and can interact with some of the characters on the stage. He ages, because in some of the scenes he is six years younger, so he is in the actual story, rather than recounting his story of survival from six years earlier.

Liza: That is amazing isn’t it.

Jeff: Well yeah. It is a technological triumph for the studio that made it and in our first tour we used a different technology, but this is real cutting edge stuff.

Liza: I guess everytime you’ve taken it on the road something new had happened and you think ‘I’ll have a go with that.’

Jeff: Yes we try to top the previous production and this next one we are doing, starting in Europe in November we have had more ingredients added than all three years previously. We have really gone for it. There is more interactivity with the audience and just a whole range of new things to keep people entertained.

Liza: I have heard things about your Martians, when they turn up that the audience gets involved with that.

Jeff: Yeah well HG Wells created a range of machines, the main one is called the Martian Fighting Machine. It is a tripodian fella.

Liza: Ah yes I’ve seen pictures.

Jeff: we have a hundred foot wide screen that runs in sync to the live performance. About half an hour into our story, Richard, our journalist is telling us that he is coming across four of them for the first time, then he says a fifth one appeared and this one has been hiding in the lighting rig above the stage. It descends on the stage, it is about 35 feet tall, it weighs just over 3 tonnes. Its main weapon is called the heat ray and it fires at the audience and with its bug like eyes it scans them at different times and suddenly the audience is seeing themselves up on the screen as if they are the next victims of the Martians, all while we are playing the score and I am conducting and I am right above this fighting machine.

Liza: I image that could be terrifying?

Jeff: Yes when we start of rehearsals we have to demonstrate it. We have a ten piece band and a 40 piece string orchestra and we have to demonstrate to them how it works. They cannot put anything inside a particular area where each of the three legs appears because they could actually get crushed. It is safe, it is totally safe, but the wrong place at the wrong time, they don’t want to be.

Liza: What is it like to conduct?

Jeff: For me when I conduct, it is my music, it is my show, so of course it is extra special, but when I have done other work and session, it is just a feeling, you have a feeling of oneness with the musicians and when it goes well you are just like on a cloud floating through it all. And for me I arrive on stage for the show and 2 hours later I somehow remember, I think we’ve just done a show, because it has been that thrilling to do, every night, it doesn’t matter where or when, it has always been that exciting.

Liza: I don’t know what else, other than music, can actually do that for you.

Jeff: Well for me it does the business for me, but I am sure for other people who paint or write, it has got have a kind of similar buzz to it.

Liza: We have some emails here with questions.
One here says, Liza I think Geoff produced the TV AM theme music, that is from Rob in London.

Jeff: Yes he is right. When TV AM was first launched as the first breakfast programme in Great Britain, I was commissioned to write all their music, so it was broken down to TV AM and their audience, then it was Good Morning Britain, which was the flagship programme which I wrote all the theme music and other bits for, and then there was other bits and pieces along the way. So the whole 12 years that it was on TV it was all my music.

Liza: How fascinating. I knew you had written the jingle for Turkish Delight.

Jeff: Well I didn’t actually. My company produced arrangements for Turkish Delight, so that is one that I didn’t do. But I composed, produced and arranged music for some 3,000 campaigns in a ten year burst when I was doing a lot of music for advertising. It is a fascinating world because as a composer, one day I was known by an agency as someone who could write a piece of classical music and then somebody else knows me as a rock writer and somebody else as an electronic composer. Every day I was doing something new stylistically and that is a challenge, particularly when you have to meet deadlines and fulfill a brief to somebody else’s concept, so it is a great challenge and I was fortunate to build up a lot of good friends along the way. And that is separate from TV and radio themes and movie scores.

Liza: Yes.

Jeff: It all becomes part of one career.

Liza: It sounds very rich and rewarding.
Here is another question from Sali in Birmingham. The live War of the Worlds is fabulous, but will Jeff every do his Spartacus live?

Jeff: Well I have been asked by the promoters to consider doing that, but each year when we think have to done The War of the Worlds for the last time, we get asked again to come back and that is already being discussed again for 2012. I want to, it is a bit of unfinished business in my career. I had a fantastic cast in Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Lady Smith Black Mombassa. And it is a wonderful subject, it is a true story, I spent 3 years researching it. Coming back to my journalism days, I was fascinated by diving into a bit of history. I literally took me 3 years to research the subject and get it to a point where I knew how I wanted to lay it out. So thank you for asking and I would love to see it come live.

Liza: And it might.

Jeff: It certainly might.

Liza: If you’ve got time of course, because in between everything else you are also a championship tennis player aren’t you.

Jeff: Well I have played tennis to a pretty high standard at some point in my life. I captained the County of Hertfordshire, and just ten days ago we retained out national title and these are all the young guys. This is guys between seventeen and mid twenties. We are the most successful mans County currently and for the last several years. I am a little bit proud of that association.

Liza: And quite right indeed.
Well thank you so much for coming in. You can see Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds live on stage later this year. It starts in Newcastle in this country on December 2nd and ends at Wembly arena on December 18th. And you know what these arena things are, if you want tickets, you’d better get busy now.
Jeff it sounds spectacular and I think I might come and see just to be scared.

Jeff: I would love to you see it and come and tell me what you think of it.

Liza: Thanks my love, thank you very much indeed.

Jeff: Thank you.

End of Interview.

The transcript is shared by Noreen Moore, a TWOTW fan, to help those who have difficulty listening to Jeff's radio interviews.

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