The legendary Hastings-born folk singer reveals a taste for Richmal Compton’s Just William books – and a film that quite literally changed her life

What I’m reading

I’m reading a great deal because I’m not sleeping much. I’ve got a great pile of books by my bed and another pile downstairs. I’ve just finished the Pat Barker Life Class trilogy, and I needed something a bit lighter after that so I’ve been reading Richard Osman’s new book, The Thursday Murder Club. It’s such fun! It has his voice throughout, so if you didn’t know who’d written it you could almost guess. I’ve also just finished an Alexander McCall Smith novel, from his Scotland Street series. I like his attitude to life and it’s just wonderful stuff. I also have two Just William books by the bed which I turn to for some light-hearted fun.

What I’m watching

I love Scandi thrillers. I watch The Bridge, and a new one on BBC4 called DNA. I will watch The Detectorists over and over again, you just feel the world’s okay when you watch that. I am also looking forward to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

What I’m listening to

Every Christmas without fail I have to listen to Michael Praetorius’ Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning. The recording I have is from Cologne Cathedral and the sound of this great mass of instruments is so thrilling. I have a favourite album by Concerto Caledonia playing 17th century Scottish dance music which is wonderfully light and sprightly, with very beautiful tunes. I’m not very up-to-date with music but it suits me very well.

The music that’s got me through hard times

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, or Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Narrowing it right down, it’s George Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow which is utterly lovely. We played it at my sister’s funeral and my mother’s funeral so I associate it with that. It’s so beautiful that it can turn you to weeping, but it’s also consoling as well. It means so much to me.

The last film I saw

Paddington II, and I absolutely love it. I think it’s not only a very charming film, but a very good film too which makes you feel better when you’ve seen it. It’s full of sweetness and goodness, and it’s so funny.

READ MORE: Shirley discusses her dramatic musical comeback in this interview from 2016

The film that changed my life

Nightclub Girl. My sister Dolly and I saw it at the Gaiety Cinema in Hastings when we were about 15. In those days there was a main film and the B movie, and this was the B movie. It’s about a New York talent scout whose plane crashes while flying over the Appalachian Mountains and he has to seek shelter in a nearby house where they’re singing folk songs. There’s a girl with a harp singing and he falls in love with her and hauls her off to New York, where she sings in nightclubs wearing really pretty frocks. At 15 I thought well, that’s me! I’m going to be a folk singer. I wrote to the BBC and told them I wanted to be a folk singer – why would you do that?! But they were less sophisticated times. Eventually they handed the letter to Bob Copper, who at that time was collecting folk songs throughout Sussex for the BBC. One day he was in Hastings recording fishermen in the Old Town and he turned up at our door. That was the start of everything for me – the start of a long friendship with Bob, and the knowledge that I did properly want to be a folk singer.

Favourite radio station/podcast

I listen to BBC Radio 4 and nothing else. From the minute I wake up in the morning I lean over and switch it on, then I have it on throughout the day. The one disappointment is The Archers, which I can’t stand now. I listen to Woman’s Hour every day and I love Melvyn Bragg.

Best experience in a theatre

It’s not a play, it’s a film, but it’s screened in the Royal Festival Hall and I’ve seen it four times now. It’s Abel Gance’s 1927 silent black and white film Napoléon, which lasts five-and-a-half hours. It’s the most brilliant experience. There’s a bit near the end where Napoleon is going over the mountains to attack Italy and suddenly the screen widens right across the room and the Italian flag appears. People are on their feet, cheering. I have goosebumps even thinking about it.

The book I’d lend to a friend

I love Kate Atkinson and I would always lend her books, although now I’d make sure I’d written down who I’d lent it to so I’d be sure of getting it back. Her Jackson Brody books are so witty but so scary and involved. I’d always encourage people to read her, and Anne Tyler, the American writer – I love her books. The other books I keep coming back to are Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I can read those time after time and love them just as much each time.

Favourite local arts venue/event

The Depot in Lewes: marvellous deep armchairs to watch films in and it’s very safe, they’ve got everything spaced out nicely.

Shirley Collins’ recent album release, Heart’s Ease, is out now. Her Christmas single The Christmas Song has a special signed, flexi-disc Christmas card release on 13 November.

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