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Phil Gillam: Poppies, dreams . . . and the Bee Gees

Phil Gillam | Published:

This is a story of dogged determination to see a project though to fruition.

Some of the young actors who will bring Poppyfields to life at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn

It’s also a story that brings together the heartache and tragedy of the First World War, the theatrical talents of 50 Shropshire youngsters, a Shrewsbury-born singer-songwriter, a collection of songs spanning a century, and – perhaps bizarrely – lengthy negotiations with music legends The Bee Gees.

And at the heart of all of this is a retired Shrewsbury head teacher who has been pursuing a dream for more than eight years.

John Howard, formerly head teacher at Holy Cross School on Springfield, is about to unveil the musical that has pretty much taken over his life for best part of a decade.

Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn is staging his work – Poppyfields: The Musical – for three nights beginning on February 1.

“Even before I retired, I was already co-running a drama school alongside being a head teacher,” explains John.

“And then one day someone said to me: Why don’t you just follow your dream?

“I was 51 then. I had been at Holy Cross for 18 years, and they were brilliant years.

“But I knew what I really wanted to do. So I took early retirement so I could concentrate on these other enthusiasms.”

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John devoted his energies to running a drama school with 400 youngsters while his wife, Clare, ran a gymnastics group with 300 children.

It was now that the idea of writing a show about the First World War really took hold.

We have met to discuss the project over a pint.

With a sparkle in his eye, unstoppable ebullience, and a passion for his project that sees him talk to you at 100 miles per hour, it’s not easy to keep up with this guy.

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I quickly glean that there are 18 songs in this show (mostly, short, sharp bursts of songs), that the whole concept is to help youngsters of today remember the sacrifices made by their young counterparts during The Great War, and this is John’s contribution to the centennial commemorations of the ending of that conflict.

“Originally, I wanted to use the music of The Bee Gees,” says John. “I set up meetings with Robin Gibb and his PA and Robin seemed very interested in helping. He liked the idea. But it seemed it would be difficult to sort out the copyright.”

There followed three-and-a-half years of “working with The Bee Gees”.

But sadly Robin Gibb died in the May of 2012.

John’s plans for using Bee Gees songs in his production petered out.

Poppyfields has undergone several transformations over the years, evolving from its first incarnation which, says John, owed much to the famous Blackadder episode when the troops go ‘over the top’.

The show theatre-goers will see in February is the result of John collaborating with former Oswestry Boys' High School friends, Paul Martin and Graham Burgess. There’s an experienced cast of around 50, led by respected director Rachael Downey, and supported by a 20-strong ‘behind the scenes’ crew.

John and Clare are parents to two sons, Jolyon and Christian, and two daughters, Sarah-Jane and Olivia.

Sarah-Jane has been looking after the publicity for Poppyfields while Olivia has one of the principal roles in the play.

John himself is Shrewsbury-born and bred so it is entirely fitting that his work should be staged at Shrewsbury’s theatre, but the many connections this show has to the old town don’t end there.

Needing more songs to drive his narrative forward, John approached Brian Crane, a Shrewsbury-born singer-songwriter (now living in Devon) who was one of the leading lights in the Shrewsbury-based folk-rock band of the 1970s, Paper Bubble.

“Brian was delighted to be part of this project,” says John. “And we’re using two original Paper Bubble songs and a further four Brian Crane songs.

“And every song moves the story along.”

Poppyfields is a dramatic love story played out against the backdrop of war, and I for one can’t wait to see it.

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