As the stage musical rolls back into town, we explore the enduring phenomenon of the Fisherman’s Friends

It started life in 1991 as a bunch of mates singing sea shanties for fun in Port Isaac. Thirty years later, the Fisherman’s Friends are a global phenomenon, having released several best-selling albums, played the famous Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and inspired two feature films, which in turn has spawned a stage musical that premiered in Cornwall and has since visited Canada.

‘It has been a proper whirlwind,’ says moustachioed bass man Jon Cleave, one of three remaining founder members with Jeremy Brown and John ‘Lefty’ Lethbridge.

‘The success was all very exciting in the early days. It was a whole new experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.’ Don’t believe the headlines about a million-pound record deal, though. ‘I never received any of it, put it that way.’

The band is currently on tour as a seven-piece, travelling around the UK from Barnstaple to Buxton, followed by a shanty festival in Port Isaac. Six gigs at the Minack in May, meanwhile, have already sold out. When festival season kicks in, you’ll naturally find them at the International Shanty Festival in Falmouth in June, and it looks like Glasto could be back on the cards too.

It’s much more serious than when they launched the group in John Brown’s living room followed by regular appearances on Port Isaac’s Platt (sadly, these ended last year when crowds became too large to accommodate). Today’s experience is on another level, the performance honed by years of practice.

Jon Cleave describes a world of Premier Inns, lengthy journeys on the tour bus, soundchecks and shows: Travel, Perform, Sleep, Repeat. ‘It’s not for everyone,’ he admits. ‘But it’s fantastic to be on stage. Performances are euphoric. That’s what fires up the whole thing.’

The experience has had lows as well as highs. In 2013, tenor Trevor Grills and tour manager Paul McMullen lost their lives in a tragic accident when a two-tonne stage door fell and struck the pair while on tour. ‘I think we did well to carry on – it was very difficult,’ says Jon. ‘But you never forget a thing like that.’ And in 2021, long-standing member Peter Rowe died at the age of 88. ‘We pay due respect to our dear friends who aren’t with us anymore - we know they would be singing with us now if they could.’

In 2019, a fictionalised story of the band’s success was immortalised on film and was such a soaraway success, a sequel was obligatory. Fisherman’s Friends: One And All was released last summer.

Great British Life: In 2019, a fictionalised story of the band’s success was immortalised on film In 2019, a fictionalised story of the band’s success was immortalised on film

‘We were thrilled with how engaged audiences were with the characters and storyline,’ said executive producer Meg Leonard. ‘The first pitch was simple: 10 singing fishermen get a major record deal and chart in the top 10. The second was the challenge of their newfound fame.’

While the initial film followed the true story albeit with a few diversions, the follow-up went to deeper places, exploring in particular the inner turmoil of lead character Jim. And while the real-life Fisherman’s Friends did sign an advertising contract with Youngs Seafood, they never, ever dressed up as fish fingers.

A major picture like this is a gift to an actor living in Cornwall. Richard Hainsworth appeared in both feature films as one of ‘the Fishy Six’, a group of actors who made up the band behind the lead roles played by the likes of James Purefoy and Sam Swainsbury. (Another member, Pete Hicks, joined the actual Fisherman’s Friends for a while).

Having got through the auditions, he was asked to work on his fisherman’s look. ‘I had a short beard, and they asked if I would grow it,’ he recalls. ‘I did, and it was huge – a few people suggested it deserved its own credit.’

Great British Life: The musical premiered in October 2020 to a rapturous reception at the refurbished Hall For Cornwall. Image: Pamela RaithThe musical premiered in October 2020 to a rapturous reception at the refurbished Hall For Cornwall. Image: Pamela Raith

Reworked from the first film’s storyline, Fisherman’s Friends – The Musical, premiered in October 2020 to a rapturous reception at the refurbished Hall For Cornwall. The show has since been refreshed to include content from the film sequel, and a cast recording is due for release.

The current cast includes seasoned TV actors Susan Penhaligon and Robert Duncan, both of whom have strong Cornish credentials. Susan spent her formative years in Falmouth and St Ives, while Robert (original surname Welch) hails from St Austell.

Susan plays Maggie, the grandmother of the story. ‘What else can I play at 73?’ she laughs. A key scene has her singing the Cadgwith Anthem in trio with her fellow female cast members. ‘I’m an actor who sings, rather than the other way round,’ she admits.

What’s wonderful about the show, she says, is that it makes people happy. ‘It’s a very good feeling to make people happy, especially at the moment – it's not an easy time for Britain.’

Robert is one of a handful of returning cast members. ‘It was a joyous oThe real Fishermen's Friends as they are today. Image: Chris Hewitt ccasion,’ he says ofThe real Fishermen's Friends as they are today. Image: Chris Hewitt  the premiere. ‘The theatre had been closed for refurbishment, Covid had happened, and it was as if people had been starved of live theatre. Every night, audiences were screaming ‘Oggy oggy oggy!’, and singing Trelawny. I felt privileged to come back as a Cornishman, and to be given the opportunity to open the theatre with a show as Cornish as this. It’s like giving something back to my county.

Great British Life: The real Fishermen's Friends as they are today. Image: Chris Hewitt The real Fishermen's Friends as they are today. Image: Chris Hewitt

‘I’ve always felt like people give a lot of time to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but Cornwall is a neighbourhood that has been forgotten. I do believe it’s got a rich culture, and songs like Cousin Jack have an emotional pull when you realise how many people left Cornwall in search of work.’

This was evident when the show played at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Canada over the festive period. ‘We were met by a delegation from the Cornish-Canadian society,’ says Susan, ‘and there was an elderly man in the front row, waving a St Piran flag – a proud Cousin Jack. It made me feel quite tearful to see him.’

Jon Cleave and his fellow band members joined them in November to promote the show. ‘We genuinely love the musical,’ he says, warmly. ‘It’s live, and the audience is there in the moment. Every time we see it, it’s different, but what is the same each time is the great feeling of joy. To be made to feel that way by performers is a great privilege – and that’s exactly what we aim to do when we sing.’

The Fisherman’s Friends are grounded by the fact they all return to their day jobs once the tours are over. ‘Jeremy’s a lobster fisherman, Lefty’s giving orders on his campsite, Johnnie Mac is on a roof somewhere,’ says Jon – himself a shopkeeper, his premises right in front of the Old School Hotel (familiar as Portwenn’s primary school in Doc Martin).

He adds: ‘What we glean from our audiences is that they recognise that we are just normal guys having good fun – it's the same reason that reality TV is more appealing than something more produced. Our story gives everyone a bit of hope that nice things do happen to ordinary people.’