Right, boys, you're on again!
Wednesday 19 November 1997
It's July and the rolling hills above Downside School would normally be an oasis of calm. Instead there is feverish activity. Fr Dunstan is glued to his mobile phone, Fr Leo has just been commandeered to supervise the local BBC West News team and Fr Gregory announces that it will soon be time for a "mass media lunch". The Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey outside Bath, home to the eponymous Catholic public school, are recording their second album.
The younger brothers in this community of 42 are an unexpectedly worldly bunch and have, to judge by appearances, adapted to their chart success extremely well. The older monks, though, appear not quite so persuaded of the media's merits. "Oh, have I got to look natural?" one elderly monk asks. "What we have now is something quite OTT," says Tom Wickson, a harassed English teacher who has been roped in to oversee publicity. Today, this includes organising the local newspaper photo-call and ensuring there is a cold salmon buffet for 70. Abbot Charles, 56, surveys the scene with barely suppressed bemusement. "I didn't think there would be a second album. I'm very surprised at how well the first one sold."
Their debut, The Abbey, went silver and has so far sold more than 75,000 copies. It was down to the Abbot, who describes himself as a "benign dictator", to give the second the green light. Falling school rolls and the need to raise extra funds were incentives. "I want what's best for the school, so I just posted up a notice and said, 'Right, boys, we're on.' "
He's not so sure, however, that he also did the right thing by letting the TV cameras in. "Others have been beguiled into making a documentary and then been horrified by what they've seen," he frets, mindful no doubt of the Royal Opera's fate at the BBC's hands.
The fact that he was persuaded at all owes much to the joint efforts of the headmaster, Fr Anthony Sutch, and old boy Ghislain Pascal, 24, who is now the monks' manager. Downside's Mr Ten Percent? "Mr Twenty Percent," replies a grinning Pascal, who juggles the monks' business interests with those of models Caprice and Tamara Beckwith. The fact that Fr Anthony is a former chartered accountant probably helped him recognise Pascal's financial sense.
"Of course I wanted to make some money, but I also believe it's very important, otherwise we wouldn't have done it, " says Fr Anthony - the only monk, I'd wager, who was at this year's Pet Shop Boys concert. "If you try to do everything by the book, you often miss opportunities. How do you get young people touched by the finger of God? Hearing Gregorian chant might spark something off, give them comfort." He was less worried about the ethics of the enterpise than about the brothers' musical abilities.
But, inside the mobile recording van, the sound engineer Tim Summerhayes has nothing but praise for the monks, who are accompanied by the creme de la creme of the school choir. More used to working for Jamiroquai or the Spice Girls, he says he spends most of his time twiddling knobs that conceal the fact that the artists can't really sing. "Here we've got racks of equipment and we're not using any of it," he says as the massed voices inside the Abbey reach a crescendo.
During recording of the first album there were quite literally some teething problems. Those monks with loose-fitting dentures produced a rather offputting clicking noise. Now that this technical difficulty has been sorted, Summerhayes says this second recording is "an exercise in precision".
For their second CD, the monks have plumped for a more popular selection of composers, ranging from Mozart to Brahms. During a rehearsal of "Locus Iste", schoolboys in trainers and T-shirts are being guided by Downside's director of music, David Lawson, 29, the very epitome of a mildly eccentric public-school music-master. Where the boys from the local comp might collapse if berated as "twanks", these well-behaved teenagers take it in their stride and redouble their efforts. The boys that were among the chosen few for the first album have already sung at the premiere of The American President and at the pop singer Sting's birthday party.
Over lunch, Theresa Harte, product manager for Virgin Records, worries about what image to put on the album cover. Packaging is all. Research tells her that the average buyer for this album will be an ABC 40-plus customer. "We don't want anything really holy," she says. "People don't want crosses - they find that a real turn-off."
'Gregorian Moods' is released this week on Virgin Records. A concert recorded during the Bath Festival can be heard on Classic FM at 8pm on 24 Nov. An 'Everyman' documentary about the making of the album is on BBC1 on 21 Dec
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