TV Review: That Day We Sang

Victoria Wood’s new BBC musical is much more than “Moulin Rouge in slippers”, says

Day We Sang

Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

12 comments

  1. 31 Dec ’14 at 7:56 am

    Caro Hanington

    That Day we sang was a real treat. Thank you Victoria Wood. What a gem. completely capturing our human traits, with lovely music. More please.

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  2. 31 Dec ’14 at 10:43 am

    joan lake nee paersch

    i loved this show. So evocative of my childhood in Manchrster. We had a recording of Nymphs and Shepherds, which was played on our wind up record player,probably because my uncle played french horn in the Halle. So amany references tofamilier places. Pauldens, Piccadilly gardens where I remember all the men sitting around during the depression.The actorswere so goodThanks Victoria Wood forbringing back these memories /to an old lady

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  3. Absolutely brilliant! I loved it all. Congratulations!

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  4. 1 Jan ’15 at 12:49 pm

    Georgina Winning

    Georgina Winning

    Watched it on iplayer last night. I thoroughly enoyed it. From beginning to end it really caught at your heartstrings and the song lyrics were truly brilliant. Well done Victoria Wood. Excellent casting to. Memorable performances from Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

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  5. Totally agree, loved every minute of it and all the songs are fantastic…where can I get copies of the lyrics, my brain could not keep up with the delightful gems!

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  6. 20 Aug ’15 at 10:31 pm

    david Lin stevenson

    Just seen on TV . Shockingly amazingly terrifically brilliantly entertaining !! Victoria- we love you!!

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  7. 20 Aug ’15 at 10:38 pm

    Helen Thompson

    I also have just seen this on TV & enjoyed it immensely! Best hour and a half’s entertainment I’ve watched for a long time. Imelda Staunton, at age 59, was fantastic. Congratulations, Victoria Wood for this wonderful modern day musical – let’s have more!!

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  8. I have just viewed this tonight on TV. How uplifting, inspiring, and delightful. A real treat and such a change to usual programmes. Best hour and half of TV viewing in a long time. Simply loved it all. I never write reviews but really felt compelled to say well done Victoria Wood. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton were brilliant. My TV guide was misleading and I nearly switched channels because I thought it was an actual documentary. So pleased I did’nt turn over. A real treat. Beautiful

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  9. Dame Thora Hird called Victoria Wood the cleverest woman in the country.That was not a Lancashire love in,but from this absolutely true.I loved Sophie Thompson as Dorothy and Jessica Gunning as Pauline.Daniel Rigby just cannot give a bad performance and Harvey Chaisty as young Jimmy yet another brilliant talent from the mighty North West.

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  10. I loved it, beautifully written by Victoria Wood, Michael Ball and particularly Imelda Staunton were super, as was the wee lad who played Jimmy.

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  11. How I agree with all your comments. I recorded it and have just watched it (Saturday night.) Didn’t know what to expect and was truly enthralled. The small boy who played Jimmy was a delight as were all the cast.
    Well done again Victoria.

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  12. Fantastic film. Of course a bit schmaltzy but so humane and the message comes through BECAUSE of the schmaltz. Loved the homage to Bernstein, Astaire etc. Magnicifent cast, magnificent voices, wonderful lyrics and so wonderfully put to music. Who is this composer? He or she really understands the classical musical, as does Victoria Wood. You never felt either that this was a play transplanted to film. One of the most uplifting things I have seen in a long time. Thank you all!

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