Monday, 19 January 2015

Swallows and Amazons Forever!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Good Bristol magazine

The Divine Comedy frontman returns in Bristol to relaunch Swallows and Amazons.

Neil Hannon is no stranger to Bristol: the Divine Comedy’s leader has brought his band to the city on a number of occasions, playing venues as diverse as the Trinity Arts Centre, the Anson Rooms and the O2. More recently the Irish-born songwriter’s presence has been felt, thanks to his collaboration with playwright Helen Edmundson and the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, through his compositions for the smash-hit musical Swallows and Amazons, which returns this November by popular demand.

Based on Arthur Ransome’s classic 1930 children’s novel, Swallows and Amazons is a story of an idyllic era, of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination. In the story Captain John – the eldest of the Walker siblings - and his able crew set sail on an exotic adventure to Wildcat Island, encountering savages, capturing dastardly pirates and defeating their mortal enemies.

Neil first became interested in the idea of writing a musical after Tom Morris approached him following a Divine Comedy gig in London. “I was trying to find more books to read to my daughter,” he says. “She let me read Swallows and Amazons to her, and about halfway through I thought ‘this might work’!” However the first song he composed for the musical – Island Life – ended up not being used, finding a home instead on the Divine Comedy album Bang Goes the Knighthood.

Launched in Bristol in 2010, Swallows and Amazons proved a resounding success and the show has since toured the UK to great acclaim. With this in mind, Neil has decided not to try to alter it too much. “I’m always very dubious of tampering,” he admits. “It’s like when you come to play songs from an old album. I might think that the music I’m making at the moment is very different from that, but you’ve got to think of the people who might really love that earlier album. So we shall re-jig a couple of arrangements but not really tamper with the original at all, because it worked so well.”

A real treat for the family, Swallows and Amazons is a huge celebration of childhood and children. “My daughter came to see it last time and loved it,” Neil says. “I’ve seen children in the audience who I thought were far too young, but they’re always rapt.” There are plans afoot for the trio to collaborate again, but first there’s still the day job to consider. “It should be out next autumn,” he says when asked about the next Divine Comedy album. “It’s all written, I’m just working on the arrangements!”

Neil and the Old Vic have also launched a competition, open to all school choirs - primary and secondary, big and small - in the Bristol area. Choirs are invited to send in a recording of any song that takes its inspiration from a life on the open waves - anything from nursery rhymes to pop songs or choral works. The winning choir will be chosen by Neil, a former choirboy himself, and will get to perform their song at the Old Vic in December.

“I can't wait to hear what these choirs do with their song choices,” he says. “My main problem is just being jealous of people in choirs. I can just about remember the awesome feeling of being part of that great noise.”

Swallows and Amazons runs from November 27 – January 17 at the Bristol Old Vic, King St, Bristol. Tickets start at just £5, with discounts available for family and group bookings. See website for dates of signed, audio description and captioned performances.

Box Office: 0117 987 7877,

Closing date for the Bristol Schools Choir Competition is November 10.
Send recordings (video or audio) to or post to Swallows and Amazons Choir Competition, Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED

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