The unbearable beauty of funeral music


THERE is something about music at funerals that reduces my wife and me to quivering wrecks. The majestic Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, was played at both services for Margaret’s mother and father, who died on the same date two years apart, and never fails to set the tears flowing.

My father suffered bronchitis all his short life and in her grief my mother chose for his funeral The Air That I Breathe, by the Hollies, with the hymn Breathe on me breath of God. At her own cremation service, the coffin disappeared to the strains of Softly As I Leave You by Matt Monro.

Softly, I will leave you softly
For my heart would break if you should wake and see me go
So I leave you softly long before you miss me
Long before your arms can beg me to stay
For one more hour or one more day

This makes me almost unbearably sad.

Recently at St Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street, a memorial service was held for our friend and former Daily Mail colleague Rob Freeman. His widow Sue asked Margaret to give a short address. She arrived early to find the choir and soloists rehearsing their songs. When a brilliant young tenor launched into Puccini’s Nessun Dorma she dissolved into tears and remained virtually incoherent throughout the service. She struggled through her speech but it was a close-run thing.

Rob was a huge fan of Watford FC and the choir’s penultimate song was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. When this was followed by Nessun Dorma there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I have attended two other memorial services at St Bride’s – the first for a Mail sub-editor named Gina Weissand, who was only 54 when she collapsed in the street and died from a brain haemorrhage in July 2001. Here is a sweet picture of her when she was four, and a child model. There was a huge turnout for Gina’s service and I was amazed at quite how many friends she had.

Among them was the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, who spoke about the boozy evenings they had shared when she would croon Gina’s favourite song, the 17th century folk tune Barbara Allen. This short-haired self-described lesbian feminist, in a bulky mannish suit, looking like Robbie Coltrane, then announced that she was going to sing it for us. It was unforgettable. She had such a marvellous voice, rich and warm, doing full justice to this beautiful song. There are many recorded versions but none comes near. Val McDermid’s performance left me sobbing.

A couple of years later it was back to St Bride’s to celebrate the life of John Womersley, a former Northern Editor of the Mail to whom I shall return in a future column. Again the music was everything; this time the Flower Duet from the opera Lakme by Delibes. I thought I had heard enough of this piece when it was used ad nauseam by British Airways in 1980s TV adverts. However to hear it performed by a supremely talented soprano and mezzo-soprano, in the church’s beautiful surroundings, was profoundly moving.

Where there’s Brass, there’s laughs

MILL owner Bradley Hardacre is musing about life’s injustices. ‘I think it’s so unfair,’ he says, ‘that when I sit in my nice ’ouse I ’ave to look down on your hovels, whereas from your hovels you can see my nice ’ouse.’

Hardacre, who was apparently modelled on the dreadful Burnley FC chairman Bob Lord,  is the star of Brass, a glorious satire on northern kitchen-sink plays, DH Lawrence, BBC costume dramas, When The Boat Comes In, Dickens and other targets galore.

Written by Julian Roach and the brilliant John Stevenson, it ran for 26 half-hour episodes over two ITV series in 1983 and 1984, returning for six more on Channel 4 in 1990.

Brass is the story of two feuding families, the rich Hardacres and the working-class Fairchilds, who live on opposite sides of the tracks in the northern village of Utterley. As well as the mill, Bradley Hardacre, masterfully played by Timothy West, owns the mine, aircraft factory, shipyard and munitions plant. He is constantly coming up with money-saving schemes which will enable him to reduce the workforce – ‘now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got men to lay off’. He has three sons, Bentley (deceased), Austin and Morris, and two daughters, Isobel and Charlotte.

Austin is fiercely ambitious while Morris is flamboyantly homosexual, carries around a teddy bear Sebastian Flyte-style and speaks of his Cambridge buddies Kim, Guy and Donald. Isobel is a nymphomaniac while Charlotte is, as her father declares, ‘innocent to the point of simplicity’. Their alcoholic mother Lady Patience, a baronet’s daughter, pretends to be wheelchair-bound after a ‘terrible tambourine accident’.

The head of the Fairchilds is the heaving-bosomed ‘Red’ Agnes (Barbara Ewing), poor but so proud that she irons her clothes before washing them. Geoffrey Hinsliff, who went on to be Coronation Street taxi driver Don Brennan, plays her forelock-tugging simpleton husband George, whose worship for Bradley Hardacre increases with every indignity his boss heaps upon him. Their sons are Jack, a miner who shares his mother’s firebrand tendencies, and Matt, a sensitive clerk who writes terrible poetry.

To complicate matters Agnes is Bradley Hardacre’s mistress, Jack is Isobel Hardacre’s sex toy – ‘I love him hopelessly! Passionately! Recklessly! Frequently.’ Encouraged by Morris, Matt, who was probably fathered by Bradley, wants to join Morris at Cambridge once he has ‘made the final payments on the family pencil’. He is, however, in love with Charlotte Hardacre.

All this is conducted completely deadpan, with no audience laughter. Other characters include Lords Mountfast and Sodbury, Schickelgruber, Von Beckenbauer, Job Lott, Sgt Pepper, Young Scargill, Hattersley and Heseltine.

My current evening entertainment involves revisiting the complete Brass saga via a DVD box set. Here’s a sample – the opening episode. 

Old jokes’ home

I used to eat a lot of ants but it was too much like aardvark.

A PS from PG

I agreed the situation was sticky. Indeed, offhand it was difficult to see how it could have been more glutinous.

PG Wodehouse: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit


One Reply to “The unbearable beauty of funeral music”

  1. Brass was brilliant and is one of my favourite TV shows ever. Every line was a joke.

    I’ve got the DVD set, shame there isn’t a documentary with it. There’s little information bout Brass, unlike Dad’s Army or Doctor Who which both have an endless supply of books, memorabilia, reunions DVDs etc.

    I remember being disappointed with the third series of Brass at the time, although having watched it on the DVD set recently I now think it isn’t too bad. I’d like to know where the big house was that the Hardacres moved to in series 3. It looks like Lyme Hall near Stockport.

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