'Marks for Star Quality, Tony': He's done classic pop, he's done theme tunes for soap operas, he's been amazingly rude on television. And now he's done a musical. Giles Smith on the remarkable career of Tony Hatch

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The Independent Culture
Tony Hatch comes scuttling across the grass behind the stage at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in a pair of quality slacks and a hurry. There is a Silk Cut wedged between his fingers. His floral summer shirt, open wide to reveal a tax exile's tan, flaps in a breeze of his own creating. 'I'll be back in five minutes,' he says, and disappears sharpish into a small marquee.

It is 23 years since Cameron Mackintosh, just an aspiring theatrical producer at the time, urged Tony Hatch to write a musical. Mackintosh told him that, with his record as a human factory for smash hit pop songs, he could be among the great musical writers of the future. It didn't quite happen that way. But Hatch did come up with The Card, a musical adapted from the Arnold Bennett novel, which opened at the Queen's Theatre in 1973 and closed not long afterwards.

Here it comes again, though, with the New Shakespeare Company, in association with Cameron Mackintosh, and with new songs and lyrics, which is why Hatch is running about, skipping between the orchestra and the chorus, trying to get it right. Eventually, he settles for a while, but we can hear the orchestra from where we are sitting and the interview is randomly, startlingly interrupted by Hatch turning in the direction of the orchestra's rehearsal tent and shouting, 'Something harder than the harp there]'

The career of Tony Hatch, the music- to-order man, has been a chaotic mix of the glorious and the gloriously naff. He produced 'Always Something There to Remind Me' for Sandie Shaw - and he created the theme music for Crossroads. He wrote and produced most of Petula Clark's hits, including the legendary 'Downtown' (' . . . forget all your worries, forget all your cares and go Down Town]') for which alone he could lay some claim to be as close as Britain ever got to a Burt Bacharach. But he wrote the theme tune for Emmerdale Farm, which is less cool. He's the man behind 'Needles and Pins' - and the man behind 'Naayy-bours - everybody needs good naay-bours'. And so on.

And just to compound a problem of public perception, Hatch is also, for a lot of people who were watching television on Saturday nights in the 1970s, solely that rude bloke off New Faces. New Faces was a talent contest, a kind of Opportunity Knocks with attitude. And Hatch was the attitude, lavishly critical, reliably heartless, week in, week out. We'd cut from some hapless showbiz wannabe to Hatch, twitchy with contempt, rocking on his elbows while he sought the words to convey his amazing disdain. Perhaps most notoriously, he gave the aspiring singer Malandra Burrows a resounding nought for Star Quality. Malandra - sweet Malandra - was eight years old. 'Don't forget,' Hatch says, when asked if he thought he was ever a touch harsh, 'they often had Arthur Askey on there, and he liked everything.' In all likelihood, Askey never had an irate manager threaten to break his legs in the green room afterwards. But Hatch did. He had to be smuggled out to his car through a side- door. If audiences cut up rough after The Card and go looking for him, he'll know what to do.

Very proud of New Faces,' Hatch says, exhaling smoke. 'I have no shame about it at all. Though it did reduce my credibility as a serious composer for five years. It took me five years to win that back again. It's probably one of the reasons I went to Australia. Can you imagine a serious drama producer, looking for a composer - is he going to choose that man who's on television every Saturday? Only Yorkshire (TV) kept backing me. I did Airline for them, which was a great series, with Roy . . . can't remember his name now . . .'

Hatch moved to Australia in 1982, after four years in Dublin, where he had gone to escape a tax rate of 83p in the pound. He set up in Sydney, which is where he wrote, with his wife, Jackie Trent, the Neighbours theme. (Trent was a Pye recording artist. They married in 1967.) He had a two-month deadline but submitted his entry after one day, claiming the lyrics had been written in the kitchen while the supper was cooking. The royalties on that tune's repeated exposure in this country alone are said to be in the region of pounds 1,000 per week. Which is, as they say, a very nice region.

The Hatch / Trent marriage and songwriting partnership was something of a tabloid item for a while. In 1977, when they both chose to slim down, an astounded Daily Express published a list of 'Hatch Hints'. (Point four: 'Cook liver and bacon with onions, then don't eat the onions.') Inevitably, since the move, we've not heard so much of them, though Hatch did crop up not long ago as pop expert on Brainwave, a television quiz show. Asked which famous pop brothers were Matt and Luke, he replied, 'Is it the Righteous Brothers?' 'The industry's not what it used to be,' he told me. Still, he did like that recent Meat Loaf single, 'I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)'. 'I thought that was tremendous: great hook, and a great tag, a great pay-off, a great button.'

In the early 1960s, Hatch got a staff production job at Pye Records, which is where he made his six No 1s. 'I had to turn out the Dagenham Girl Pipers in the same week I was recording the Searchers. I just had to make money for the record company. We didn't think in those days that you needed specialists. It was the evolution of the record industry as we know it.'

Pye wanted him so badly, they kept him on a retainer during his National Service, which took him into the band of the Coldstream Guards as arranger and copyist. 'It was a standing joke that for my first two years with Pye, they could only have meetings in the afternoon because I had to be on parade in the morning.' He took over as Petula Clark's producer in July 1962 and in December 1964 showed her 'Downtown', a song which he had hoped to sell to the Drifters and which he had started to write in a state of excitement on his first visit to New York, 'walking down Broadway, seeing all those signs saying 'Downtown'.'

Hatch finished the lyrics to 'Downtown' in the studio bathroom on the day of recording. Completed on second take, the song went to No 2 behind the Beatles' 'I Feel Fine'. Among its millions of fans is the pianist Glenn Gould who, in his essay 'The Search for Petula Clark', which may not be entirely serious, wrote: ' 'Downtown' is the most affirmatively diatonic exhortation in the key of E major since the unlikely team of Felix Mendelssohn and Harriet Beecher Stowe pooled talents for 'Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh'. . . For Tony Hatch,' Gould concluded, 'tonality is not a worked-out lode.'

Indeed, he's still mining away. In Sydney, the Hatch / Trent partnership has an office and a studio at home. Every Christmas, he and Jackie produce 'Carols in the Domain' a huge, outdoor event in Sydney, shown on television. 'Also there's a lot of commercial radio in Australia and we turn out jingle packages.'

There's a pause and Hatch suddenly looks a little sheepish. 'It's not a good thing to admit when you're also writing a musical.' It may be too late to have these kinds of qualms now.

The Card is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park (Box office: 071-486 2431)

(Photograph omitted)