If there’s one thing that I enjoy about Christmas TV it’s the one-off films that the family can gather together and watch while stuffing their face with various chocolates. This year I’ve found these sort of programmes are thin on the ground but thankfully we have the likes of tonight’s Boy in the Dress and New Year’s Day’s Esio Trot to keep us going. Probably my favourite of this year’s offerings though is That Day We Sang a wonderful musical confection dreamed up by Victoria Wood and originally staged as part of the Manchester Festival.
Wood based That Day We Sang on a documentary she had originally watched when she was in her twenties about the Manchester Children’s Choir and their recording of ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ alongside the Halle Orchestra. The documentary had interviewed members of the choir forty-five years after the 1929 performance and at the time Wood had remembered how sad these middle-aged Mancunians had looked. That Day We Sang is centres on two of the choir members; Tubby and Enid, both of whom have had incredibly mundane lives and haven’t lived up to the potential they had during the recording. The musical starts with the recording of a similar documentary and shows how much the recording still means to Tubby as he begins crying when he hears the music. However, soon enough the trademark Victoria Wood humour kicks in and we begin to realise that That Day We Sang will feature a combination of humour and pathos.
Although set during the last year of the swinging sixties, Wood hasn’t made her characters that groovy and instead both Tubby and Enid are living firmly in the past. Tubby prefers chips at the cafe to fine dining and is befuddled by the whole notion of yoghurts. Meanwhile Enid’s life revolves around constant dieting and her only romantic liaisons come courtesy of a long-term affair she’s been conducting with her married boss. Tubby’s love life has been basically non-existent as he’s spent most of his adult years caring for his recently-deceased mother. That’s why I feel that the love story in that day we sang is utterly beautiful as it features two incredibly likeable characters who we’re longer to get together. Despite the fact that Enid is conducting an affair, there’s a lovely innocence to both characters as they awkwardly sidestep the idea of a relationship for the entire course of the film.
The relationship between Tubby and his mother is also covered in some depth in the scenes which depict the 1929 recording itself. Tubby, here known by his given name of Jimmy, is presented as a well-meaning if scruffy boy who has a fantastic voice even if his mother doesn’t want to hear it. Early on we are presented with the reason for Sal’s disdain for music and in particular the gramophone that Jimmy is given as a gift by a mysterious man. As Jimmy has grown up without a father it’s great to see Wood right in a paternal figure in the form of Methodist choir assistant Mr Kirby. Initially presented as an embittered character, Kirby’s icy persona thaws as he spends more time with Jimmy. Kirby’s fondness for Jimmy is crucial to the overall story as its revealed how the latter almost didn’t make it onto the record and how the former is still on hand to help him forty years on.
If you were a fan of Victoria Wood’s musical numbers during her earlier TV shows as well as her live performances than I have no doubt that you’ll be taken in by That Day We Sang almost immediately. The fact that the abiding theme is the joy that music brings is certainly enhanced thanks to a number of comic odes such as Wood’s tribute to the naffness of the Bernie Inn. Wood’s description of That Day We Sang as ‘Moulin Rouge in Slippers’ is quite apt due to the inclusion of several fantasy sequences during the singing. One particularly memorable sequence sees Tubby and Enid waltz around Piccadilly Gardens whilst voicing their desire to be Fred and Ginger. My particular favourite though was Enid’s imaginary dances with the male cast of West Side Story as she voiced her dissatisfaction with her own name. But, even for a musical fan like myself, I did find there was possibly one song too many and I didn’t particularly gel with the upbeat ‘Happiness Street’.
That Day We Sang’s other main positive is that it’s been cast perfectly with two brilliant actors taking the lead. As Tubby and Enid; Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton shine throughout the piece and share great chemistry from the first time they appear on screen. The fact they appeared opposite each other in Sweeney Todd must help as they seemingly know each other well and therefore their awkward interactions are beautifully played. It’s especially great to see Ball on the small screen and I felt that he brought a quiet dignity to the role of Tubby; a man who was outwardly charismatic but on the other hand was terribly lonely. Staunton was great too, portraying Enid as a woman who had never really given herself the opportunity to be the person that she once thought she could be. As the younger incarnation of Jimmy; Harvey Chaisty signalled himself out to be that all too rare breed of charming child actors. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which Chaisty and Ball appeared together with Tubby singing to his younger self about how he’d regretted the man he’d become. The 1929 scenes also featured fine turns from Lyndsey Marshal as Jimmy’s mother and Daniel Rigby as the stern but ultimately kind Mr Kirby.
Although I do feel that it could’ve had ten minutes shaved off its overall running time, there’s no denying that That Day We Sang is a festive feelgood treat. Wood’s trademark humour is counterbalanced with the theme of regret and this makes for a funny and poignant piece with a fantastically uplifting ending. I certainly had a massive smile on my face as the final credits rolled and I suspect that, if you don’t possess a heart of stone, then you’ll be grinning also.
What did you think to That Day We Sang? Did you enjoy it?
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