Notebook: Oscar nominee plays squeeze-box in pub

Ian Jack
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:35

THERE ARE at least three reasons to admire the musician Stephen Warbeck apart from his musicianship.

One, he lives close to the Arsenal ground in north London and has no interest in football - doesn't even pretend to be interested (jokes about his proximity to Arsenal, b-o-r-i-n-g and so on, as the particular explanation for this unfashionable ignorance would simply pass him by).

Two, he can play the accordion for pass-the-parcel at children's parties for an hour or so and always manage to avoid "The Happy Wanderer".

Three, he drives around his partner and three young children in a VW camper of such age and interior confusion that it might still be on the run to Kathmandu.

Often (a fourth reason for admiration) he pilots a tandem.

On Tuesday he was nominated for an Oscar. You probably won't have read about this. Every newspaper reported that Shakespeare in Love had 13 nominations, and then lost interest in the list after Gwyneth Paltrow. (As rivers of information, newspapers are drying up - the idea that people without access to the Internet will constitute an information underclass is beginning to be true). In fact, I wouldn't have known either about his nomination in the "original musical and comedy score" category had we not been neighbours who dropped off children at the same school.

On Monday morning as we chatted on the pavement, I said how much we'd enjoyed Shakespeare in Love the previous night; "enjoyable" is the word that tends to be used about the film, as if being less enjoyable would make it finer and worthier.

Warbeck said he didn't think his music stood much chance of a nomination in the Academy Awards. The idea that it might had never occurred to me. Warbeck is such a wry and modest man and the Oscars, however absurd, seem to exist on a higher plane than the natural world; playtime for the Gods. The thought that they could reach down from their stretch limos in Hollywood and touch Warbeck on his tandem in Highbury was thrilling. If he was nominated - if he won! - our street, his street, the launderette and takeaways in between - all these would be suddenly blessed and their spirits kindled; a little touch of Harry in the night.

When I went round to see him on Wednesday evening, squeezing past the tandem in the hall, he looked, as usual, impressively domestic. His clarinet-playing partner, Sarah, was out at a jazz gig. He had a sleeping baby, Mathilda, on his knee and a book of poems by Pablo Neruda on the table. His living room is unlikely to feature in Hello! magazine. Too much evidence of living, jumbling happily across floors, shelves, chests, in fact over every flat surface, vertical and horizontal, apart from the ceiling. People in Beverly Hills might think of it as "Dickensian ethnic".

Some facts about Warbeck. He's 45, has been playing instruments since the age of four, started a rock group at school with his friend Andrew Ranken (who later joined the Pogues), and then, after university, began a theatre career at Stratford East which as it went on became uncertainly divided between acting and music.

On stage, he was Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Therese Raquin's husband in Therese Raquin. Off stage, he was the man at the piano, composing incidental themes and tunes.

Eventually his agent put it to him that he had to decide which he was, actor or musician, and he chose the latter. His big break came with the music for the Prime Suspect television series (directed by John Madden, the director of Shakespeare in Love, and a fellow nominee). Since then he's worked with Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court (An Inspector Calls) and scored the film Mrs Brown. He is also head of music at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But all this is in a sense his private life. I had never glimpsed it before. Publicly, he's the composer-accordionist in a nine-piece band called the Kippers that plays at folk festivals in the summer and London pubs for the rest of the year. Paul Bradley, who was Nigel in EastEnders, does the vocals. Andrew Ranken, the ex-Pogue, is on drums. Warbeck said that the name is actually hKippers, though the h is silent.

This hint of harmless late 60s surrealism provides some idea of the music, which is difficult to describe. It would be believable as 1920s dance- band stuff from Valparaiso, or as folk tunes from Baku. Warbeck said it owed a little to Kurt Weil, to klezmer, which is fast Jewish music on the clarinet, and to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It was, he said, "light- hearted European, world silly music".

In the Oscars, he has stiff competition from Randy Newman (A Bug's Life) and Stephen Schwartz (The Prince of Egypt). As this is Schwartz's fifth nomination - he did The Lion King, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame - the obvious money may be on him. Of course, I hope Warbeck wins. He is looking forward so much to the clothes; and to the double who, when you nip out to the loo, takes your seat in the auditorium so that it never looks less than full. I hope he makes a speech about his mum and dad and the folks back home in Highbury.

Will it change him? You have to doubt it. Twelve years of Margaret Thatcher clearly had no success in that direction. In the meantime, Londoners can catch him and the Kippers at their next gig: the Weavers Arms, Newington Green Road, on 24 February. He's the one on the squeeze-box, not playing "The Happy Wanderer".

ACCORDING TO The New York Times this week, a "significant minority" of Americans are taking extreme measures to protect themselves against the coming TEOTWAWKI which will occur in Y2K. An explanation:

TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It. Y2K: the year 2000, the so-called millennium bug (more properly, the millennium flaw), when many computers are expected to malfunction because they won't be able to read the date correctly. They may think - if I've got this right - that things still to happen have already happened or, when they have happened, not happened.

Opinion polls show that 10 per cent of Americans expect to withdraw most or all of their money from banks, while 17 per cent expect to buy either a generator or a wood- burning stove. Sales of survival rations are expected to boom. The American Red Cross recommends: "Stock disaster supplies to last several days to a week: non-perishable foods, stored water, and an ample supply of medications ... be prepared to relocate to a shelter for warmth ... have plenty of flashlights to hand."

This seemed to me mockably dire and fearful. Then I came across a booklet called the "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide" which is published by the Utne Reader, a magazine that could certainly be said to be on the alternative side of American life but is still an intelligent distance from the bowie- knife, catch-kill-eat thinking of American survivalism. The guide is larded with so many quotes from so many seemingly distinguished figures that I began to look at my cellar in a new light.

"Failure to achieve compliance will jeopardise our way of life on this planet for some to come" (Arthur Gross, chief information officer, the Inland Revenue Service).

"I cannot be optimistic, and I am generally concerned about the possibility of power shortages" (Senator Robert Bennett, chairman of the Senate's special committee on Y2K).

"Now the only hope is keeping the world economy from total deterioration" (Jeffrey Garten, Dean, Yale School of Management).

"It's far too late, and things are far too bad, for pessimism" (Dee Hock, founder, Visa International).

More than 100 pages of advice follow, most of it detailed. Allow 20lb of brown rice or whole wheat per person per month, 15 grams of Vitamin C similarly, keep crackers crisp in metal containers. "Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best" is the overall philosophy and the tone is strangely joyful.

The coming crisis, the guide implies, may bring out the best in Americans. They will rediscover old virtues: neighbourliness, the civic spirit. It could do for Philadelphia what the Blitz did for Stepney.

But perhaps one shouldn't be too sceptical. Peter de Jager, a technology consultant, is the writer widely credited with alerting the world to the problem when he published his essay, "Doomsday 2000", in a computer trade magazine more than five years ago.

In the current debate, he's not seen as an alarmist. In last month's Scientific American, he wrote in a balanced and admirably clear piece that he believed that severe disruptions would occur and last for about a month.

"This prediction might be optimistic; it assumes that people will have done what is necessary to minimise the number of single points of failure that could occur. Accomplishing that alone in the time remaining will require a Herculean effort unprecedented in the history of computers."

A few extra tins of baked beans then, not forgetting the Vitamin C.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments