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Fritz Spiegl

Liverpool's Renaissance man

Monday 31 March 2003 00:00 BST
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Fritz Spiegl, flautist, impresario, writer and broadcaster: born Zumdorf, Austria 27 January 1926; married 1952 Bridget Fry (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1969), 1976 Ingrid Romnes; died Liverpool 23 March 2003

"Hitler is my best friend," said Walter Cook of the New York Institute of Art in the 1930s; "he shakes the tree and I pick up the apples." Fritz Spiegl was one of the apples which fell to earth in Britain; in time he ripened into a national institution – musician, columnist, professional funny guy, defender of the language, Liverpudliologist, broadcaster, composer, publisher, Spiegl had the intellectual curiosity of the true Renaissance man.

He was born in Zumdorf, near the Austria-Hungary border, in 1926, the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic agricultural merchant and soda-water manufacturer; he was also a distant relative of Gustav Mahler. The political storm-clouds gathered early on his horizon: like many Jewish children in the Austrian provinces, he attended a Catholic school where the teachers, he recalled, "were either priests or Nazis – or both".

After the Anschluss in 1938, a cousin in Vienna managed to get Fritz included in the Kindertransporte that, for nine months, brought close on 10,000 endangered minors out of the Third Reich. He remembered the scene at the West Station in Vienna, crammed with worried parents and their children, each with a number around their necks, and, only a few months later, he had picked up enough English to write an essay on the occasion:

Handkerchiefs were waved and then it seemed as if the town of Vienna was moving backwards. I supposed that children would weep or something like that. But luckily no one did. Mostly I stood by the window and looked at the country, which was lovely anyhow. I did not sleep at all . . . After one and a half days we came to the German-Dutch border.

In Britain Spiegl landed on his feet: he was taken into the Northamptonshire home of Captain David Margesson, Chief Whip in the Chamberlain government (and later, from 1940 to 1942, Secretary of War under Churchill). Margesson and his American wife treated the adolescent Spiegl virtually as another son: they taught him English, assisted by Lytton Strachey's sister, and sent him to Magdalen College School in Oxford.

It wasn't long before he began to show the variegated talents that were such a hallmark of his later years. At 15 he devised a model aeroplane that had another plane hitched on its back, was pleased when it managed to fly a short distance, and happier yet when his design was published in the magazine Model Aeroplane. As a result of this enthusiasm Margesson placed him in a Birmingham technical college, but he hated it and ran away and so, still in 1941, he was apprenticed to the advertising firm Colman, Prentis and Varley as a typographer and designer.

It was during his five years there that he met and was sufficiently charmed by a flute-playing girl he met to take up the instrument himself. Though basically self-taught, he was good enough by 1946 to enter the Royal Academy of Music and within two years, even before he had finished his course, he was offered the position of principal flute in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He was to remain there for 15 years, and Liverpool became his home for life: he used to say that for six weeks he hated the place and then fell madly in love with it.

Manfred Arlen, principal bassoon during Spiegl's time with the orchestra, remembered his "wonderful phrasing: I learned an awful lot from him by following his phrasing". He tolerated some conductors with difficulty, Arlen recalled: "He was a very good friend but a terrible enemy: when he took a dislike to a conductor, he really could be terribly awkward."

A year after joining the RLPO Spiegl founded two further groups, the Liverpool Music Group and Liverpool Wind Ensemble, paying particular attention to the music of Leopold Mozart and his better-known son, whose birthday he was proud to share. He also used the LMG to revive Donizetti's long- forgotten 1824 opera Emilia di Liverpool in the late 1950s.

Donizetti's score was genuine, despite its improbable title. Spiegl invented many that weren't. He was quick to exploit music's potential for humour, and his comic concerts – Nuts in May, Midsummer Madness, April Fool Concerts – attracted large audiences in Liverpool and London. For one Albert Hall event Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was persuaded to act as soloist in a Concerto for Motor Car and Orchestra (his score-reading passenger told him when to honk). Other works included Psalm 123-and-a-half, An Old Person's Guide to Contemporary Music and the Liszt Twist. The composer and pianist John Gardner worked with Spiegl on many of these shows and observed

this extraordinary charm in getting over any difficulty in public with his easy, relaxed, witty spiel. His shows were triumphantly good. They were slightly amateurish, but that made them better, because they weren't slick.

On one occasion the amateurishness meant that Gardner accompanied a singer in one piece while the singer sang something else; the confusion only added to the triumph.

Spiegl claimed that Gerard Hoffnung stole from him the idea for his comedy concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in the mid-1950s. Certainly, the Hoffnung concerts led to what the composer Joseph Horovitz called a "jocular rivalry – it was a serious quarrel, but Fritz was the gentler part of the quarrel".

He continued to work with the RLPO and other orchestras – and during one tour of South America was reunited with his parents, whom he had last seen when he was 15 – until pressure on his time required him to relinquish his position. He mischievously engineered his own dismissal, earning the sack by deliberately playing a semi-tone off-key during a light-music concert. Amends were made in 1988 when he was made an honorary life member of the orchestra.

Spiegl's music-making first enjoyed a national ambit when, having discovered a Liverpool-Irish skipping tune, "Johnny Todd", he suggested it to his first wife, the composer and harpsichordist Bridget Fry: she had a commission to write the signature tune for a new police television-drama series, Z Cars. Launched in 1962, Z Cars attracted almost 14 million viewers in its first season; Spiegl's recording of the theme tune, complete with Ulster pipe band, entered the Top Ten when it sold 200,000 copies in its first week on the market.

Millions more have encountered Spiegl's work without realising it. He passed on a BBC commission to his former RLPO colleague Manfred Arlen, suggesting the music to use and leaving to Arlen the composition and orchestration. For some decades now the resulting folksong medley, UK Scene, has been the first thing broadcast every day on Radio 4 – in a performance by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Spiegl.

In 1965 Spiegl's enchantment with Liverpool combined with his fascination for words when he set up the Scouse Press and published the first volume (of an eventual four) of Lern Yerself Scouse, co-written with Frank Shaw and Stan Kelly and printed on a press in Spiegl's own house. His later books, some 20 in number, form an extended exercise in whimsy and include The Joy of Words (1986) and Fritz Spiegl's In-words & Out-words (1987).

Like another Austrian Hitlerflüchtling, Hans Keller, Spiegl could look at English with the outsider's eye and would ride to the defence of his adopted tongue whenever he saw it misused. In 1970 he began writing a column for The Liverpool Daily Post, and in 1989 he took to The Daily Telegraph with a regular column, "Usage and Abusage". He had his own column in The Listener, too, and once somehow managed to convince the editor that he should fly to Italy to cover a game of his beloved Liverpool FC.

Every day he combed the national papers for material. Daniel Snowman reported in his book The Hitler Emigrés (2002) that he took particular delight in the confusion prepositions could wreak:

He recalled calling on a friend and being told "He's not up yet" – and the next day "He's not down yet": both meaning that he had slept "in" . . . Nothing was safe from the Spiegl scalpel: vocabulary, syntax, acronyms, pronunciation, accent, headlines, misprints, house and town names, the cult of Olde Englande-sounding titles

for musical ensembles, the indiscriminate use of people's first (or "Christian") names, the impossibility of taking seriously most words ending in -ggle.

Spiegl's written contributions also appeared in The Guardian, Private Eye, The Oldie, BBC Music Magazine and in this newspaper. His radio work encompassed Start the Week, which he presented, in his still Germanic accent, from 1972 to 1980; Up to the Hour ran in 1977-78, Words in 1978, Fritz on Friday from 1978 to 1980. He could be heard on Mainly for Pleasure for a decade, between 1982 and 1992.

Although hearing problems in later life – advancing deafness, coupled with a tendency to hear the treble flat and the bass sharp, an affliction he shared with Gabriel Fauré – meant he had had to lay his flute aside, his capacity for work was undiminished: only a week before his death he was checking the proofs of his next book, a Contradictionary: an A-Z of confusibles, lookalikes and soundalikes.

John Gardner characterised Spiegl as a "gentle satirist, with a very well-stocked mind". Manfred Arlen enjoyed his eccentricities – "Whatever he touched was larger than life. Most people have a wooden shed in the garden; he had a Greek temple" – and risked a bold parallel:

What makes Shakespeare so wonderful is his gift of clarity: he could put into words feelings that escaped other people. Fritz had a similar quality: he could see things, things that you knew yourself, but by verbalising them he brought them into your consciousness.

And Joseph Horovitz recalled, "Whenever people mentioned Fritz, there was a smile on their faces – he was a life-enhancing person."

Martin Anderson

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