Mike Batt on songwriting, discovering music stars, The Wombles and Farnham life
- Credit: TBC
With a music career spanning almost five decades, multi award-winning songwriter and composer Mike Batt shows no signs of putting his feet up at his Farnham country retreat. In fact, things are getting quite animated
I mentally repeat the words to myself: “Don’t mention The Wombles; don’t mention The Wombles…” I’m about to speak to Mike Batt, the man behind the theme tune to the iconic children’s TV show, not to mention the spin-off novelty band, and the temptation is to plunge headlong into a burst of self-indulgent reminiscing about this motley troupe of pointy-nosed, furry litter-pickers on Wimbledon Common. As a child of the 1970s, I devoured their antics on our TV screens, and in the pop charts, as hungrily as I did my packets of multi-coloured Spangles.
But there’s no need to worry. Thankfully, the Surrey-based music impresario, who was responsible for introducing Elisabeth Beresford’s books to an even wider audience with hit singles such as Remember You’re a Womble and Banana Rock, is laid-back about the lovable creatures that propelled him to fame and fortune.
“Most people that know anything about me know that I did The Wombles, although they actually only took up two years of my career way back when,” laughs the 66-year-old, who was living at the time with his young family aboard a houseboat in West Byfleet. “But I’m very happy about it, particularly as my mum made all the band’s costumes and was central to the whole thing.”
While he may have taken to the stage in the Womble guise of consummate shirker ‘Orinoco’, his onstage antics hid a shrewd head for business. This, as well as his redoubtable musical skills, probably accounts for Mike remaining at the top of his game ever since, whether that’s as a songwriter, performer, producer, composer or conductor.
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Amongst the rewards is the convenience not only of a London base but also the enjoyment of living for the past 20 years in a rambling Victorian pile near Farnham, which he shares with his second wife, the actress Julianne White (who starred in the film Sexy Beast alongside Ray Winstone). “I’d always call Farnham home,” says Mike. “Although I’ve lived all over the country, I now consider myself a local.” Mind you, complete with its own recording studio, reputedly fashioned from the house’s former scullery and front room, it’s hardly surprising this has become very much the centre of both his private and professional life.
“The Surrey countryside is a great place to chill out; we’re very lucky,” he adds. “It’s only when people come down here that they realise how beautiful it is.”
Not that he’s ever allowed himself too much down time, having become a signed artist aged 18, and started up his own music publishing company just two years later. I’m reluctant to second-guess the highlight of his career, but nevertheless decide to throw the question out there. “That’s a bit like being asked which of my children is my favourite!” Mike replies, playing for time.
With the expectation that he’d probably list writing Art Garfunkel’s international number one single Bright Eyes, working on Phantom of The Opera, or perhaps launching the career of violinist Vanessa Mae, the answer, when it comes, is not entirely unsurprising either. His voice tinged with emotion, Mike recalls the 2013 commission received from Buckingham Palace to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.
“This was extra special,” he says, “because, sadly, it coincided with my mum being diagnosed with cancer so I felt I had to write something that was also for her. Around the same time, I learnt that I’d been made a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in the Queen’s Birthday Honours and my mum got to hear about it on the day that she died.”
Fittingly, it was his most famous protégé, Redhill’s Katie Melua, spotted whilst still at The Brit School in Croydon, who performed the heartfelt composition I Will Be There, accompanied by a youth orchestra conducted by Mike, at the glitzy Coronation Festival Gala.
“I had a great deal of admiration for my mum,” he continues. “And it’s largely down to her that I am what I am today. She wasn’t musical at all but she had a great sense of humour. I’m sure it was she who gave me my sense of the ridiculous and of going out there and doing stuff that would amuse and entertain people.”
One such venture was his album and staging of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of The Snark, some of whose original lines were, coincidentally, penned by the author during a walk along the Hog’s Back towards Farnham. Despite being a long-time fan of Carroll’s writing, Mike was unaware of the nonsense poem until he’d returned from his own two-and-a-half year voyage of discovery around the world.
“I came across a copy and thought ‘this is fun’ but then thought ‘there is some philosophical meaning in there’, which inspired me to write that particular musical.” While a spin-off concert starring amongst others Billy Connelly, Roger Daltrey and George Harrison did well, the West End show lasted less than six weeks. “Although audiences loved it, the critics didn’t and being 1991, in the middle of the Gulf War and a recession, it wasn’t the best time to put this on,” he admits. “But it’s certainly on my bucket list to do again.”
Keen to catch up on his theatrical leanings, Mike offers a few teasers about more work-in-progress. His new stage show, Men Who March Away, is very much more serious than The Hunting of the Snark, he says, going on to describe it as an epic love story set against the backdrop of World War One and the Spanish Civil War. While keeping his cards close to his chest, discussions are apparently taking place with a well-known theatre in the south-east.
Clearly someone who gets a buzz from juggling plenty of balls in the air, the latest talk is of another passion revisited, this time for classical music. It’s certainly a move away from some earlier, more experimental orchestral work, which, in Mike’s own words, was more “Frank Zappa meets Stravinsky”. This new compilation celebrates many of the favourites from his more traditional romantic repertoire. “I’m putting out a classical album at the moment in order to say ‘this is what I do classically, in case you haven’t noticed’. Hence the scores from Watership Down and symphonic suites that either I’ve done for movies or TV series, or have been commissioned such as the live recording for the National Symphony Orchestra of Dublin.”
Keys to success
Interestingly though, despite sometimes strumming on a guitar, Mike’s not a multi-instrumentalist and, having been brought up on playing the accordion, prefers anything with a keyboard. There must be something in the genes, however, as his son Luke is a singer-songwriter and has just released a debut album, and youngest daughter Hayley is currently touring Stateside as a bass player in a band. “Of my two older daughters (from his first marriage), Samantha is also a singer-songwriter, and the other, Robin, has blessed me with three grandchildren, who are good fun and they seem to be quite musical as well, so it looks like we are starting a mini-dynasty. I’m proud of them all.”
With his extended family descending on Farnham at weekends and for holidays, Mike is clearly more than happy to escape back to the country himself. “The great thing is, you’ve got the A3 or the M3, making it such a short drive back,” he adds. And living out here doesn’t mean taking his finger off the pulse of today’s ever-changing music business either.
As deputy chairman of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the trade body of the UK’s recorded music industry, he remains a high-profile figure in the music business. Perhaps not surprisingly, he describes the internet as “a mixed blessing”, and the recent and highly-publicised case of singer Taylor Swift taking on Apple, to secure royalties on music downloads, is one that certainly struck a chord with him.
“People sometimes think that young musicians don’t need to get paid and at the BPI we’ve wanted artists to make a stand,” he says. “So it’s nice to see something like this happen.”
And staying on a positive note, it sounds like The Wombles are making a comeback too. No, not the band who last dusted down their costumes for a Glastonbury reunion in 2011; instead, Mike reveals that Farnham has recently become home to a brand-new film company called Dramatico Animation. With 52 ten-minute episodes in the pipeline, each based on one of the famous songs from the original TV series, he confides: “We’re having a lot of fun making these stories come to life and will have finished the first 13, probably by February or March next year. All the same characters, including Great Uncle Bulgaria, Wellington and Bungo, will be there, plus the young female Womble, Alderney, who wasn’t in the first series but was in the original books. I’ve come full circle with The Wombles really.”
My lips are sealed.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Loch Fyne is a fish restaurant here in Farnham that we like a lot. There’s also Castle Street’s Brasserie Blanc, which is not only very stylish but also has live jazz on a Sunday.
Shop: I was sad to see the demise of some record shops, but there’s still one in West Street (101 Collectors’ Records) that we go to quite often. After thumbing through the vinyl, I usually come out with an armful.
View: We’re blessed with a lovely view from where we live, out south towards the neighbouring county of Hampshire.
Place to visit: It’s very easy to get to Guildford. And Farnham itself is such a beautiful old town, we like to just wander around on a Saturday morning. The Maltings is good for music and to listen to bands, but unfortunately I don’t get to go there as often as I’d like.
Place to relax: Living on the top of a hill, it means if you want to go cycling, while it’s lovely on the way out, it can be a bit tough on the way back! When she was alive, my mum used to live in the centre of Farnham and we’d sometimes walk into town. Although, and I’m being an angry resident here, the smaller the country road, the faster some people seem to drive along it.