In 2009 we did a production in Edinburgh of Bloodbath The Musical. Now eleven years later, thanks to a great friend of mine, Harry Rogers, there’s a glimmer of hope that we may be actually getting it on again. Over the years, Harry has been involved in theatre in various capacities and I also know when it comes to selling, he’s tenacious.
But I thought someone out there might like to know the history of this one-of-a-kind musical … and for those of thinking on embarking on a production of their own musical – ‘be afraid … be very afraid.’
So once upon a time there was a ten- part thriller/horror serial on Channel 5 called Headless. It hit the screens in 2001. Headless, starring Patrick Robinson and Ginny Holder as the two major protagonists, was a crazy series that revolved around an upmarket apartment block where various residents were being decapitated. And as we all know – that isn’t a good way to start the day. Eventually ten episodes later we discovered that it was the work of the only pair of mixed sex conjoined twins, the result of a scientific experiment by their father. These twins were needing brains for research purposes. The serial was produced by our company – Sanctuary Films and written and directed by yours truly. The show, on the whole, was well received with the Guardian saying – ‘just when you think there’s nothing on TV worth switching on for, along comes a drama like Headless.’ A sequel was planned, but never materialised, because C5 went away from producing any drama.
So where does Bloodbath The Musical the musical fit into all this. Well, in Headless, one of the story strands was about a daughter, played by Frances Ruffelle, who had been a child prodigy in the world of musical theatre. Coincidentally Frances was quite young when she received international fame and a Tony for her performance as the original Éponine in Les Misérables. The character in Headless had been on the West End stage at the age of six, but when she reached her teens her career had taken a serious nosedive and the work had dried up. We pick her up in her twenties and her mother, played by Debbie Arnold, has decided to relaunch her daughter’s career, but how? I wanted something that fitted with the theme of the piece, so I decided she should play Marion Crane in Psycho The Musical. A perfect fit – or at least it would have been if things had gone according to plan.
So negotiations began with the concerned parties. The preparation for the serial started, while the negotiations kept on … and on … and on. As our first day of principal photography grew closer and closer, we still didn’t have the go ahead for this unsecured musical. So I made a decision. We couldn’t hang on any longer. The songs and scenes had to be written and the music had to be composed, so what I decided was I would write an original musical – and Bloodbath The Musical was born.
The story, which of course you only saw snippets of in the TV serial, had a classic horror movie setting. An American college campus and there’s a serial killer on the loose. He’s been nicknamed The Waterman because he only kills women in water. He’s a very clean serial killer. The central character is a cheerleader called Beverly. She has a certain ritual in her life, and it’s not always going back to check the front door is locked, it’s that she must have a bath before having sex. So inevitably the climax of the piece is when Beverly and The Waterman confront each other over a bath. Now you get the title.
This particular strand was a massive hit with the crew of Headless and when we’d finished filming, Debbie Arnold suggested I should write it as a fully blown stage musical. And for some insane reason I listened to her and set about writing the stage version of Bloodbath The Musical.
This was 2001 and at the time I was very busy writing all sorts of other dramas, like Silent Witness and Waking the Dead – so time was of a premium. I’d directed a few musicals, but up until this point, had only written one – Skool’s Cool. It was a rock musical for the local secondary school, Sir William Ramsay. I’d done the book and the lyrics and a good friend, Colin Steed, had composed the music. But this was the end of the 70s, C5 hadn’t been thought of, and Headless wasn’t even a glimmer in in my subconscious. What I’m trying to say is writing musicals wasn’t something I’d done a lot of. So why did I do it? Because I wanted to shake up the musical theatre world, it all seemed a bit safe. My favourite musical then and now, is Jesus Christ Superstar. It was dangerous, it got people thinking and complaining, and any show that finished with a crucifixion gets my vote every time.
Not surprisingly it took me a couple of years to complete a script for Bloodbath, mainly due to all the other work I was doing over that period. Once completed, I had to find a composer. I do play guitar, a little, but certainly not well enough to compose a song, let alone a whole musical. I approached the composer that had worked on Headless, Ed Butt, but he wasn’t interested, maybe because at that time there was no money on the table, so I didn’t blame him. Of course, it may have been simply because he thought it was a shit idea. Any way him passing on the project made me go a totally different route. Advertisements were placed in various music colleges, explaining what was needed – a composer for free.
At this stage I was thinking the music should be on the same lines as it had been in the TV show, which was a parody of something like Phantom of the Opera. Full blown with soupçon of opera. Bizarrely we only had one music student get in touch – Ben Ellin. Ben is an amazingly talented musician. He composes some astonishingly original pieces and conducts with an ability of someone twice his age. He took three numbers from the show and set about composing music for them.
At the time I was working in India setting up a TV show. I was going backwards and forwards and managed on one trip to take Jan, my wife, with me. On either side of my commitments to the show in Delhi, we were able to take a terrific tour around India – but I’ll probably get into that on another blog, suffice it to say India is certainly top of our list of places we’ve visited. It had what we termed the ‘Wow factor’ – every corner we turned we saw something that made us go ‘Wow.’ Back in England Ben had arranged a recording of the three tracks for the Sunday we landed back in Heathrow. We went straight from the airport to the recording in the Barbican. Ben wasn’t messing about, he had a full orchestra lined up, all students, but these kids knew how to play. In that afternoon we completed the three tracks and I went away wondering what to do next, because this was all virgin territory for me.
I started trying to figure out how the tracks fitted with the script? Something just wasn’t working. Then it dawned on – I was trying to work a one trick pony. I was doing the same gag with every musical number. I needed to rethink or just ditch the whole idea –when something’s fucked, you have to decide whether to put though the shredder, or work your bollocks off hoping you find a solution. There’s always solution, the difficulty is finding it and then the next question is – is it worth the effort when you get there?
Looking back, it was so fucking obvious, how the hell didn’t I get to it sooner? The solution was – I needed to turn it into fully-fledged full-on rock musical. And that’s what I did. But of course that took time. I had to re-write the songs so they felt rocky and of course I had to find a new composer. I would have loved Ben Ellin to have done it, but his music just wasn’t right, because the project had changed so much. Asking people to work for free is one thing, but abusing them on the way is another – and asking him to start again from the top, I thought was too bigger ask. So the search began again.
There were a number of false starts and like all these things the solution came from the least expected source. My daughter, Sally, got married the summer of 2003. At one point in the ceremony she had a friend, Simon Frindall, play guitar. Later I asked Simon if he composed at all, because now the piece had turned into a rock musical, I felt a composer who had the guitar as his first instrument wasn’t a bad thing. Simon honestly told me he didn’t, but his guitar tutor, David Young, did. David, along with a singer – Jules Maguire, had composed various commercial jingles and such like, but they’d never composed a musical … and since I’d only written one before, I thought we had a lot in common.
They quite quickly delivered a song and I loved what they’d done. Over the next year or so, they went onto to compose the rest of the musical – which at this stage totalled approximately 20 numbers.
The end of 2005 arrived and we had something approaching a completed musical. I’d been working on the show for five years, but I was still a long way off mounting a production. I knew the next stage would be do a reading, see how the piece felt. See if it made sense. See how the songs sounded.
Workshop – piece of piss. How hard could it be? I must have been as dumb as brush – the theory of relativity would have been easier to figure. Nevertheless I started making plans to do a workshop … if I thought it had been a long arduous process so far, it was going to feel like a stroll in the park compared to what was about to happen next.
TO BE CONTINUED…