Film making, directing, composing: it’s safe to say Benjamin Till is a busy man. I managed to catch up with him to chat about his BAFTA nominated musical documentary Our Gay Wedding. The groundbreaking story was broadcast on Channel 4 and follows the planning and ceremony of Till’s wedding with partner Nathan Taylor – the first two men to be legally married in the UK.
When I ring up the York Music graduate he is, literally, in the middle of composing a new album. After much rustling and some background chatter about xylophone compositions, Benjamin gathers himself for our interview.
Did you always want to be a composer?
BT: I wrote musicals as young as 6, 7 and 8. I came from a very small Midlands town and I went to the local comp[rehensive]. I benefited enormously from local youth county music school. That’s gone private now because of all the cuts that have been made and now kids in comprehensive schools don’t get to have proper music lessons. If I was a kid now I would not be a composer – it’s as simple as that.
What was your most important experience at York?
BT: I’d heard that, if you were a bit of a maverick as a musician, York was the university to go to. So from about the age of sixteen I set it as my goal to go to York university. I didn’t apply to Cambridge. I really I didn’t take any other interview seriously. I just knew I wanted to read music at York. I think I was quite unusual in that respect to have such a strong connection to a place.
The music department taught me that nothing was too grand. You could achieve anything. It was doing the most crazy, wacky, out there performances – really big scale stuff, great big orchestral performances and things like that. In the Drama Society I was able to do the dramatic equivalent. We put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Central Hall which had a cast of around 150.
What York taught me was that there were infinite possibilities in life and I could create a career for myself which revolved around never thinking something was ‘too much’. I genuinely believe that it was a fabulous and very important part of my early career, having gone to York. It set me up.
York’s music degree is well-known for being very “out there”. Do you think that influenced your composing style?
BT: I’m not going to lie, no. I was always considered to be a maverick at York because I was much more interested in writing melodies and tunes and what they would’ve considered in the music department to have been, “all a bit tonal and nice”. This of course is the big selling point to any musical – you have to have a melody! So that was one contention.
What would you say was the turning point in your career?
BT: I went to drama school, thinking I might be a director. But all the way through I was composing, and then at drama school my great mentor, the playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, came and watched my graduation showcase as a director. He said: “There’s so much music in the way you direct”. I said that I’d studied composition at York and he asked to hear some of my compositions, then I proceeded to write musicals with him. That was the real turning point in my life.
Moving onto your recent BAFTA nomination, how did it feel to be acknowledged alongside the likes of David Attenborough? What was your initial reaction when you were nominated?
BT: It was surreal. I think if you identified what a career high would be, getting a BAFTA nomination is what you’d hope for! I think more surreal than that is to be nominated for a BAFTA for your wedding. Because it was a real life wedding, I did get married on screen.
What was the inspiration behind this musical documentary and what made you want to capture such an intimate part of your life?
BT: The impetus came from the fact I’ve made a career working with – I hate the phrase – but “real people”. I use the term very literally because an actor is a real person, as long as they’re not hiding behind a character. I work with people usually used to performing and can’t tell their own stories through music, so it’s a form of documentary making.
Then we caught wind of the fact that the law was potentially changing to allow gay people marriage. I think at that point I went, “This is now a life-changing moment for people like me.” This was seven years before I was born it was illegal be gay in the UK.
Until seven years after I was born it was illegal to be gay in Scotland too. They only made homosexuality legal in 1981. If you think about that in terms of a single lifetime, in that at the age of forty I can get married on prime time television, it’s quite an extraordinary journey.
I thought in the 1980s that one of the products of coming out would be getting beaten up at some point in my life. I wouldn’t complain and it would be my fault purely because I’d made that choice. So when we found out that legal marriage was coming it just felt so important.
My partner was a West End performer and so I thought, why would I get married normally when I could tell my partner how much I love him in song, using the chords and the suspensions and the melodies which touch me? I’m not a man of words; I’m a man of music – so why not sing my vows?
We had seven weeks to organise a wedding, finance the wedding, get all of our friends learning songs, film all the packages including our two mothers singing a duet together. It was a manic rush, with all hands on deck and at the end of it, I suddenly found that I was married.
And what was the response like?
BT: We were astonished by the response. We were nominated for seven major awards. We had responses from people of all ages, who just wanted to tell us their story. We had thousands of emails and messages from complete strangers saying, “I’ve watched your film every day for four weeks, it helped me through my chemotherapy” or “I wish my long term partner was still alive to see this joyous day”.
Another lad hoped that his mother would watch it because he was so moved by our mothers singing about how difficult they had found having gay children. He said his mother had thrown him out last week and found himself at a train station with a bin bag full of his belongings not knowing where to go. You then just go, “oh my God it’s still happening.” We heard from mothers as well. One mother got in touch with me saying, “This has entirely changed the way I see my daughter being gay.”
That all sounds crazy!
BT: It was more than crazy, it’s profound. As an artist all you want to do is change someone’s life, just one person, just for five seconds and make them think about something new or remind them of something they may not have thought about in a long time. To have a thousand people emailing you to say this has changed their lives… that’s amazing.