On Remembrance Sunday, 9 November, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain come to Town Hall Birmingham to give the very first performances of new show When This Lousy War Is Over. Commissioned by Town Hall Symphony Hall, the show explores the First World War through the music of the day, and aims to give an internationalist, pacifist perspective of the time.
Here, The Ukes explain what audiences can expect from the show:
The title of When This Lousy War Is Over is taken from a soldiers’ parody from the trenches, sung to the hymn tune What A Friend We Have In Jesus, where the lyrics reflect ruefully on military life. The title was chosen to reflect a common yet unofficial response to the conflict, perhaps in keeping with the lighthearted character associated with the ukulele and the Orchestra. This flags up an irreverent spirit, the ukulele as ‘the people’s instrument’, and cheerfulness amid tragedy and adversity.
The concert consists of music and songs from the period which show many different facets of the Great War, including music from several of the countries involved. The music chosen reflects a range of attitudes from the time – patriotic, pacifist and feminist – and will draw from gypsy music, music hall and soldiers’ songs.
In our multicultural society music from all over the world is of increasing relevance and the history of music can illuminate our history. This genuinely was a World War – the full list totals over one hundred countries involved in the conflict, from Africa, America, Asia, Australasia and Europe. To take one little known example, 140,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps were active on the Western Front and suffered huge losses. We recently returned from a successful tour of China which allowed the performers to study and play four-stringed Chinese instruments (the Liuqin and the Ruan) which are similar to the ukulele, and so When This Lousy War Is Over will also include a Chinese composition.
There are several overt ukulele connections in the show; the instrument initially came to prominence at the Panama – Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, after which the first craze for the ukulele developed leading to an explosion of Hawaiian themed songs.
One of the most successful recording artists in Britain during the years of World War One was George Formby Senior, the father of his now better known son, also known as George Formby. The son (who most people still associate with the ukulele) found success at first as an imitator of his father’s act. In When This Lousy War Is Over, the Orchestra will be strumming the song Plink Plonk by George Formby Senior.
The musical pieces will be framed by a narrative, with stories taken from original war diaries and memoirs written by relatives of the Orchestra. One grandparent told an unusual first hand account of an incident that took place at the Christmas Truce in No-Man’s-Land. Other songs have been passed down by family members, who had sung them at the time of the conflict. This is a personal show. Although the war took place a century ago its reverberations and consequences are still with us all.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s ‘When This Lousy War Is Over’ takes place on Sunday 9 November, 3pm & 7pm, at Town Hall Birmingham. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the relevant event page*- 3pm performance *&7pm performance