By Michael J McDonagh
One of the surprise hits for BBC this year was the Sally Wainwright’s recent historical drama, Gentleman Jack.
Set in 1832 in Yorkshire, it is based on the secret diaries of landowner and industrialist Anne Lister, played by Suranne Jones, who decides that, like her male peers, she wants a wife.
It was so popular the BBC commissioned a second season for next year. Its success has been a pleasant surprise – and windfall – for Leeds-Irish born folk singer Belinda O’Hooley.
Her previously written song, Gentleman Jack, which she wrote with her partner Heidi Tidow, prompted Sally Wainwright to drop her original name for the series and adopt it as the title and its theme music.
The snappier title and memorable theme contributed to the series remarkable success.
As you had already written the song Gentleman Jack you clearly knew all about Ann Lister long before the TV people had even heard of her?
“That’s exactly how it happened. We wrote the song Gentleman Jack back in 2011, as we were fascinated by the story of Ann Lister.
“She was such a different kind of woman and she showed the different things that a woman could do and she was totally ahead of the time. “It was very inspiring to read about this woman who was such a transgressive person. We just fell in love with the story and we had to write a song about it. I suppose you write a song and it is quite catchy and under three minutes long and it is one that people always liked at our shows and we always have to play it but we never thought it would be used in a BBC drama series.”
So how did it get picked up by TV?
“Sally Wainwright, who wrote the series, during her research found the song on YouTube.
“She became obsessed with it and changed the name of the drama from Shibden Hall to Gentleman Jack. As soon as she heard it, she wanted to use it and she came to a gig in Hebden Bridge and came up to us in the break and told us who she was and asked us could she use our song for her drama. We were so shocked but absolutely delighted and of course said ‘Yes!’”
Did you do more of the music for the series?
“Yes. What she did, actually, was quite clever – she used the ‘stems’ that make up the original track, a drum track and violin track, and she wanted to create bespoke versions of the song for each episode.
“Some of those involved introductions and build-ups, so we had to do that for each episode and also there was some piano accompaniment as well, particularly in Episode Seven.”
That must have opened up all kinds of doors for you?
“The response has been phenomenal, really, and we did not know what to expect because it is at the end of the show we did not know if anyone would bother listening to it.
“The whole show has caught people’s imaginations. Sally says that Suranne Jones was the only person to play that role as Ann Lister because when she read the part she blew all the other possibles out of the water.
“Suranne is quite a tall person and quite big, physically, and when she got into the part she just embodied Ann Lister, which is why it is so successful.
“We have had a lot of people getting in touch from America, who had never heard of us before the song and they have now bought every single thing we have in our shop. We have had so many website hits and have lots of requests.”
Doubtless you will be asked to write more for TV?
“Well you never know. That would be nice but there will be a second series of Gentlemen Jack, so that will keep the song in the public eye and this series is going to more and more countries.
With a name like O’Hooley you’re part of the north of England Irish diaspora? And I believe you’re related to Tommy Fleming?
“Yes, all my relatives that came over settled in Manchester and Selby, but my dad moved to Leeds.
“I grew up around a lot of Irish music and Tommy is my first cousin. My dad used to sing Irish songs and tunes all the time and we would go back to Ireland every summer and Christmas, so I was immersed in Irish music really from my childhood.
“But I got into English folk music from my neighbour, who was going out with Rachel Unthank. He encouraged me to do some piano on the first album, so I got into music that way.”
Your album Inversions showcases features piano pieces inspired by the songs and tunes your father inherited from a long line of male musicians in rural Ireland. You have included Bonny Boy, which you played at your dad’s funeral.
“Where my dad comes from in Monalea, Aclare, up in the Ox Mountains in County Sligo, the traditional music is played and passed on by the men and it is played by their fathers and their sons and they all sit around the table and play just like it was in our house.
“We women were always left to do the more menial tasks like making the sandwiches and cleaning up afterwards. It was never assumed that I would do music, in terms of this music and these songs and tunes, or that I would do anything with these traditional Irish songs.
“If my brother Dominic had taken up an instrument then he would have automatically been allowed to enter this kind of male club. basically.
“My dad was not particularly open to me playing them, and he did not teach me in the way he could have, and I was not encouraged to sit with them and learn them.
“But I learned them anyway. So Inversions is a piano album based on these Irish tunes, where I wanted to do something very different with them.
Was The Swallow’s Tail, one of your dad’s reels?
“That’s a tune my dad would hum, and it would be played when I was in Ireland. I have done a very different version of it, a reversal of how a tune would be handed down, an inversion.
Michael McGoldrick plays uilleann pipes and whistle so beautifully on your song Skibbereen.
“I met Michael, who is lovely and such a great musician, about nine years ago as he was big friends with my uncle Tommy Howley and he played at his funeral. He must play at a lot of funerals. Michael also worked on the Ballads of Child Migration project with me and Heidi. I just love his playing, so I asked him to play on Skibbereen and I love what he did.
“But that is one of the songs that my dad used to ask me not to sing as he thought it was not a crowd pleaser. He thought that people in England might be offended by it because of the lyrics.”
Emigrants of your dad’s generation were a little more cautious and sensitive about upsetting people as they had lived through the time when bombs were going off here.
“I did wonder about that but for me I felt that Skibbereen had the most plaintive and haunting melody and is such an important song of the history of Ireland. Skibbereen suffered so badly in The Famine and that’s why I wanted to put it on the album.”
Were the emotions you felt after your dad’s death a trigger for your creativity in exploring that music?
“Definitely because before that I had never wanted to play them that much, until then I’d felt like it was a bit of exclusive club and I did not feel like doing them, even though they were in my blood and part of me.
“When he died, I felt like it gave me the freedom to start exploring them and maybe think of improvising a bit more with them and finding my own path and deal with my feelings.
“I am really glad that I have done it, we had our first concert of it recently at the Warwick Folk Festival and it went really well.”
You were part of The Unthanks for a while and they would have been an influence?
“Massively – those English folk songs, again about the plight of the working people made both Heidi and I want to write contemporary versions of those songs about the important social issues of today.
“Heidi and I (they perform as O’Hooley and Tidow) met in 2005 and have been singing properly and professionally with each other since 2010.
“We are expecting a baby in October, we were planning the whole thing (so) last year, when I had a bit of time, because I had been playing these tunes quite a lot after my dad died, Heidi suggested that we record them.
“We managed to get a bit of time in October last year to record the Inversions album. It has been quite fortuitous really as Heidi got pregnant first time, which means that I am going to have to do a bit of stuff on my own when the baby comes.
“We are still O’Hooley and Tidow but this Inversions album has come at the right time really. We will be playing in London in March next year at Cecil Sharpe House. We are also going to be doing a Gentleman Jack tour next year, and we may look at the Union Chapel for that. Before that I am doing four Inversions dates in September this year and I am also at the Manchester Folk Festival.”