Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

The Ride of the Valkyries … Silver Machine … Ode to Joy … Danse macabre … Teenage Dirtbag … Jerusalem … Dambusters … Heathcliffe … Pinball Wizard … My way … Born free … Thunderball, et al

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain [Dave Suich, Peter Brooke Turner, Hester Goodman, Richie Williams, George Hinchliffe, Kitty Lux, Will Grove-White & Jonty Bankes]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 18 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In what must be the busiest late-night BBC Prom in years, the eight players/singers/presenters of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain found themselves before a sea of eager faces in the Arean and a packed auditorium. I guess it is the biggest indoor show they have ever played.

What we got was a mixture of their irrepressible popular song pastiches with a clutch of classical favourites. It was these latter that showed the ukulele’s weakness – the impossibility of holding a note, necessitating a constant strumming. ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ – mercifully connected to Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” – came off worst, the amplified plinking unable to satisfactorily replicate a romantic orchestra. Saint-Saëns’s rattling Danse macabre fared much better: amplified ukuleles do sound extraordinarily skeletal!

However the other two special Proms inserts worked better still. Kitty Lux sang “Jerusalem” poignantly, backed by this most unusual of accompaniments, while for the excerpt from Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony, the Orchestra was joined by ukuleles – about 1000 of them – played by members of the audience in a magical, ethereal version of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme.

Sitting behind a couple of the audience players, I was amazed how delicate the ukulele’s sound is in reality. A truly unique Proms moment, with the gentle strumming all around, to give Schiller and Beethoven a halo-like musical glow. Magical, indeed.

But the real meat from the Orchestra is its assumption of rock, pop and punk. Led by George Hinchliffe (from the “Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire”), this wonderful recreation of English eccentricity performed the Sex Pistols as if enunciated by BBC News presenters circa 1930. Hester Goodman’s rendition of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag” completely outstripped both the original and the cover version by Girls Aloud with the utmost pathos, while The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” became a showpiece.

Earlier, the “Life on Mars” medley had included David Bowie, a nod to Sinatra (“My Way”) and even “Born Free”, by John Barry and Don Black, who returned later for the theme from James Bond’s “Thunderball”. The concert ended with an exuberant rendition of Eric Coates’s Dambusters March.

Perhaps best of all was the first encore (the ukulele eight had gone, only to come back to remark “we can’t get out that way” – utterly typical of the group’s humour), a wide-ranging exposé of the paucity of rock and pop, as every song seems to use the same basic rhythm. Topping that was a folk version of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” classic, “Heathcliffe”, complete with vocal drone and dour Yorkshire accents. Hugely enjoyable.

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