Documenting success

An insight into the successful career of multi-award winning composer and filmmaker Benjamin Till

York Music alumnus Benjamin Till isn’t short of creativity. In 2014, the composer, director and filmmaker turned his own marriage into a piece of musical theatre, Our Gay Wedding: The Musical,  broadcast on Channel 4 to the British public. The marriage made history in more ways than one, taking place on the first day that same-sex couples could get married in England and Wales by law.

The musical was met with critical acclaim, nominated for a BAFTA award as well as ten other major accolades, including Best Arts Programme at the Royal Television Society Awards and TV Moment of the Year at the Guardian TV Awards. It came away with the Grierson award for Best Entertaining Documentary 2014, a Prix Italia and a Rose D’or.

Just over twenty years beforehand, Till had studied for a BA in Music at the university, before training as a theatre director at the prestigious Mountview Drama School in North London. He has high praise for the University’s Department of Music, explaining, “I genuinely believe that York music graduates are one step ahead of the rest when it comes to finding jobs. There’s a huge amount of respect for both the course and the University. I always feel very proud to have studied at York.”

Before making the move into television, Till worked in theatre for ten years. A particular highlight during this period being a collaboration with the late playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who asked Till to work with him on Letter to a Daughter, a one-woman musical play that he wrote in 1990.

From theatre to TV

In the TV industry, Till’s focus was on producing documentaries and musical pieces for a TV audience, and he consequently began to secure his name as an innovator in the field of musical documentary. More specifically known as ‘through-composed musical documentary’, productions that fall under this genre involve the telling of stories through the medium of a specially written song.

His work for TV retained a musical direction;  A1: The Road Musical documented a lorry driver’s journey up the A1 from London to Edinburgh, and the stories of people he encountered were told in song or set to a specially composed soundtrack. The BBC commissioned Till to make a three-minute musical film for Children in Need, which showcased the weird and wonderful ways that the British public were raising money for the charity.

Brass, the musical

Current projects have turned back towards theatre. Till describes his most recent musical adventure, Brass. as “a labour of love”. The show won the highly prestigious UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production in 2014, of which previous winners include West End show Matilda and the Chichester Theatre production of Gypsy, which starred Imelda Staunton. The show was performed at the Hackney Empire in London on 26-27 August of this year to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Written by Till, the stage musical was performed by the National Youth Music Theatre and premiered at the City Varieties Concert Hall in Leeds. Set in the same city, Brass tells the story of a Leeds-based brass band who sign up to fight in the First World War in the Leeds Pals battalion. In their absence, their wives, girlfriends and sisters make the decision to begin learning to play the instruments that the men left behind with the aim of performing for them on their victorious return from war.

Acclaimed theatre critic Mark Shenton deemed Brass “an ambitious, often stunning new WW1 musical. Brass is a million miles from escapist, contemporary musicals, that dares to tell a serious story with feeling and emotion. Benjamin Till has the most authentic British musical theatre voice since Howard Goodall.”

Praise for the National Youth Music Theatre

The production’s UK Theatre Award win carved its own little piece of history, marking the singular occasion that the award has been won by a youth theatre performance. Till praises the work of the National Youth Music Theatre in encouraging large-scale musical theatre: “they are the greatest commissioners of new British musical theatre in the UK at the moment and I would not have returned to writing musical theatre if it hadn’t been for them.”

Working for pleasure and not for satisfaction is important to Till, who explains: “I made a decision years ago that I would never write music that I didn’t want to write. Having worked in corporate films for a year, I can tell you that going to work simply for money is a soul-destroying experience.”

Fourth album release

Focusing in on Till’s musical career, the composer’s fourth album, Pepys Motet/Oranges and Lemons was released in September of this year. Written in 2010 to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, the album is, according to Till, a “sonically-adventurous fusion of jazz, minimalism, and, well, Till” of which he is  “incredibly proud.”

Pepys Motet/Oranges and Lemons consists of a 20-part a cappella setting of excerpts from Samuel Pepys’ diary, and sound effects were made entirely by the choir, who used parts of their bodies to make rain, thunder and fire. Finally content with the finished piece, the album saw its release date this year following 200 hours of recording. The final track on the album is Till’s 2009 composition, Oranges and Lemons, which features every bell in every church mentioned in the extended version of the nursery rhyme of the same name.