Ian McMillan on Ice Cream: The Opera

Ian McMillan says it would be wonderful to take the mini opera on tour

Ian McMillan says it would be wonderful to take the mini opera on tour - Credit: Archant

The Bard of Barnsley Ian McMillan talks to Tony Greenway about many things but in particular his new opera inspired by ice cream wars.

Two warring ice cream vendor families from Yorkshire come together through song, ice cream and love

Two warring ice cream vendor families from Yorkshire come together through song, ice cream and love - Credit: Archant

Oh, the sheer unadulterated glamour of it all. When I speak to Ian McMillan – Yorkshire poet, playwright, broadcaster and performer – he’s preparing to record his popular BBC Radio 3 performance and literature show, The Verb, in Salford. Before he does, though, there’s the little matter of addressing the 80th anniversary dinner of the Oil Industries’ Golf Society, in Hollinwood, Greater Manchester. ‘The Oil Industries’ Golf Society,’ muses McMillan, sounding as though he can scarcely believe it himself. ‘That’s showbiz. It’s an after dinner job. I’ll do some stories, I’ve got a flip chart, and I’ve written half a song about golf. Then the audience will complete it. That’s the idea, anyway.’

If he’s feeling under pressure about this, he’s very good at hiding it. In fact, he talks about after-dinner speaking in the same way that he might talk about nipping into ASDA for a loaf of bread and some sausage rolls. Everything he says is delivered in unrushed, down-to-earth, deep, droll Barnsley tones that seem to come from the direction of his boots. McMillan doesn’t do nervous energy – not at this stage of his career, anyway.

What he does do, however, is a lot of different things and, infuriatingly, he accomplishes them all brilliantly, despite having only 24 hours in his day, like everyone else. Famously, he’s known as ‘the Bard of Barnsley’ and has 25 published collections of poetry. Apart from his radio presenting duties he has a choc-a-bloc diary of live performance and speaking engagements, writes songs and stories and is Poet in Residence at Barnsley Football Club. His work is held in such high regard that he’s been the subject of The South Bank Show and Desert Island Discs.

McMillan likes the freelance life (‘If you’ve got 500 bosses, they can’t all sack you at once’), although he admits that his favourite thing is presenting The Verb, something he’s done now for seven years. The common denominator is that everything he does entails writing and performing. Words come easy to him, and he can craft, hone and polish an idea, phrase or sentence until it shines. And, crucially, doing so never, ever feels like work.

Ian McMillan's Ice Cream: the Opera receives its premiere at the Bradford Festival on July 30th

Ian McMillan's Ice Cream: the Opera receives its premiere at the Bradford Festival on July 30th - Credit: Archant

‘That’s the great thing,’ he agrees. ‘I’m so lucky. I always equate “work” with shovelling or sitting in an office doing something you don’t want to do. But writing and performing is a joy. Maybe if it did feel like a job I’d stop, but I still love it after all these years; being freelance leads to interesting adventures.’

His latest adventure is writing a mini-opera which will receive its premiere at the Bradford Festival on July 30th. Called Ice Cream: The Opera, it’s a bit like West Side Story – but with 99s. It tells the tale of Geetha and Romano, two lovers from rival Yorkshire ice cream families, and will be performed live by professional opera singers: two sopranos, a baritone and a tenor.

‘It’s so exciting,’ says McMillan. ‘Freedom Studios (a Bradford-based intercultural theatre company) contacted me and asked if would I like to be involved, and I said yes because I like writing words for music. Over the last couple of years I’ve written loads of words for operas. Opera feels right for these angry and fractured times because it’s full of people shouting and getting cross. It always wears its heart on its sleeve.’

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It’s also the only opera I’ve ever heard of where the audience is in serious danger of being served a raspberry ripple by the cast during the performance. ‘The idea is that some of the action will take place in and around two ice cream vans – and some of it will be sung from the ice cream vans,’ says McMillan. ‘Ice cream could be sold to people who are just passing by. That would be good, actually. A person walks past who fancies a 99, and then someone starts singing at ‘em. Initially they’ll be non-plussed, but then they’ll think “this is great”.’ What will happen to Ice Cream: The Opera after Bradford is anyone’s guess at the moment but McMillan says it would be wonderful to take it out on tour.

Currently, he’s feeling geed up about the arts in Yorkshire. ‘At the moment, it’s great. Hull’s City of Culture year has given Yorkshire loads of confidence. And there’s such a lot happening. Take where I live in Barnsley, for instance. The Cooper Gallery is extending and the Civic Theatre is doing well and putting on new work. I love all the regional theatres: the powerhouse we have at The Crucible in Sheffield with new musicals under (former artistic director) Daniel Evans and now the new season from (current artistic director) Robert Hastie. We’re going to see his production of Julius Caesar next week and we’re off to Northern Ballet on Friday at Doncaster. I’ve been around long enough to know that it comes and goes; and we’re in the grip of a Government that doesn’t seem that bothered about the arts. On the other hand the Arts Council has done all right in the last few years. Civic space shrinks as councils have less money, but somehow artists and writers are still resourceful. I’ve got great hopes for the arts in Yorkshire and the North in general.’

His own work continues apace. Occasionally, there’s a bump in the road when someone inevitably accuses him of being ‘a professional Yorkshireman’, presumably because of the way he speaks. He doesn’t let that faze him. ‘I’ve always replied, jokingly, that’s it’s better to be a professional Yorkshireman than an amateur Lancashireman,’ he says. ‘But I’m never quite sure what it means. Do they mean I’m putting my voice on for profit and gain, or using Yorkshire as a sort of “thing” from which to make a living? I get it, though. I know there are people who don’t like me and as soon as I come on the radio it’ll be “Turn it off!”’

Because of your voice? ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Some people can’t stand me voice. They say “he puts it on.” Others just don’t like my poems, which is fair enough. We’ve all got someone we don’t like on the TV and radio and when they come on we say “I’m not keen on them.” Maybe when I was younger that would have bothered me. It doesn’t seem to now.’

And anyway, McMillan attracts far more plaudits than criticism. The Radio Times said he was ‘the owner of one of the finest broadcasting voices currently gracing the airwaves’; while one journalist called him ‘the Shirley Bassey of performance poetry’. ‘That quote came from the Times Educational Supplement, for some reason,’ he splutters. ‘And I know for a fact that, tonight, when I’m introduced at the Oil Industries’ Golf Society dinner, they’ll use that line. And that’s great. It’s a good one. I think it means I always belt it out, like Shirley does.’

Talking of which, it’s time to let Ian get off to his after-dinner speaking engagement. Before we go, however, I can exclusively reveal that he will shortly be moving lock, stock and barrel to Islington, North London. Only joking. Of course he’s not. He’s Yorkshire through and through and has no intention – despite his television and radio work – of being anywhere else but his home town of Darfield. ‘That’s a practical thing,’ he says. ‘I can get to most places from here very easily. And I just like the fact that this is where me roots are. I was born here, brought up here, and I still live in the same house where I’ve lived for 30-odd years, in the same village I’ve lived in for 61 years. It feels properly home. That word “home” means a lot, doesn’t it? So I’ve never been tempted to move. Yes, I could do my job anywhere, but I just like it here. I like the fact that when I walk down the street, everybody knows me – and they’re not that bothered, either.’