That Day We Sang started life as play with songs for the 2011 Manchester International Festival, and has now been adapted for television by its writer and director, Victoria Wood. It is based around the true story of the Manchester Children’s Choir who, in 1929, recorded Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds with the Hallé orchestra. Forty years later, they are reunited for a Granada TV documentary, which reignites the friendship between ‘Tubby’ (played by the superb Michael Ball) and Enid (magnificently brought to life by Imelda Staunton).
Tubby is a bored, middle-aged insurance salesman, who has spent his life looking after his mother, yet when she dies he realises what he has missed out on in life. The reunion prompts him to revisit his childhood home, and he is transported back to that time, courtesy of a fantasy music sequence (obviously!). Hearing the music of his adolescence encourages him to pluck up the courage to talk to Enid, and to ask her on a date.
Meanwhile, Enid is a now a spinster and having an affair with her –married- boss. But in a tour de force performance from Staunton, we learn that Enid longs to be ‘more than just my name’ because you ‘won’t have a box of sex tricks/won’t hum like a scalextric/when Enid is your name’. The mixture of the mundane, dramatic and humorous is exactly what Victoria Wood is famous for, and she doesn’t disappoint; the scenario of missed opportunities has the potential to be both trite and also depressing, but the light script and spirited performances mean this never happens.
The undeniable highlight of the show is the number ‘If Life Were Movies’; sung by the Tubby and Enid, it expresses their childlike awkwardness at the possibility of a middle-aged romance, in the form of a beguiling memorable song. It starts in an ordinary Manchester square, and then quickly develops into a classic musical piece on a theatre stage. It is completely fantastical, but a joy to watch. Once again, the lyrics brilliantly capture the ordinary feelings of two people on a date who fee unable to express themselves properly; ‘If life were movies/we’d know all the words’. The magic of this moment is then brilliantly shattered as Enid reveals to Tubby that she is ‘seeing’ her boss.
The musical score is, to be honest, often more functional than distinctive on its own merit. However, ‘If Life Were Movies’ and ‘Happiness Street’ are musical numbers worthy of any West End stage, performed with aplomb by Staunton and Ball. They demonstrate that the small screen can pull off a successful musical if the talent, in front of and behind the camera, is there.
As you would expect from Victoria Wood, the lyrics contain many wry gems; ‘It’s wrong to brag / It’s just cake in drag / But it’s gâteau at the Berni Inn’. Many of the jokes were aimed at, to put it politely, a slightly older audience than myself; for example, I had never heard of a Berni Inn, which had an entire song dedicated to it, but Wikipedia informs me it was sort of a 1960s Harvester, and it’s interesting to see a Britain very different to one we are familiar with, so I shouldn’t complain too much.
Wood’s programme flits easily between the two time periods of the 1920s and 1960s, due to the beautiful direction and editing that mean the viewer is always aware of which part of the narrative is currently being shown. This, alongside the high production values and well-cast leads, means that the programme has a very classy and expensive feel that is not normally associated with the Boxing Day 9pm BBC2 slot.
The real success for That Day We Sang is in its heart. The message of missed opportunities and the possibilities of second chances, is adeptly demonstrated in the contrast between the youthful optimism of young Tubby and the reigned, middle-aged pessimism that Michael Ball expertly performs; ‘I’m not the man that you deserve/I’d lost touch with the wonderful boy that I was’. In an interview, to publicise the piece, Wood called it “Moulin Rouge in slippers”. But it is more than that. This heart-felt musical drama is warm, witty, and, at times, very moving. It was one of the best things on TV over Christmas.