Playing to his own tune

Actor, poet and musician John Sampson talks to about working with Carol Ann Duffy, and marrying poetry and music

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In 2002 I was performing at StAnza Poetry Festival and they asked me if I would work with Carol Ann Duffy. She was doing a children’s piece for the first time and they wanted me to do the music. We got on really well, and she said to me afterwards that she would never do a children’s performance without me. That was over 12 years ago now.

There’s two aspects to what we do: one is that I perform on my own for things like cabaret, like I have done for years, but I also used to work for Radio Scotland. From this I think I gained an interest in trying to ‘underscore’ words and try to find a way that adds to them without intruding. I don’t like the idea of just setting a poem to music.

I really just fell into acting. I started off with music, and here and there people might ask me to read a few lines and that just expanded. I almost started acting by default, really, by learning and watching people do it. I’m certainly not the best in the world but I think I can hold my own as a musician-actor.

What’s immediately striking is that Germany has an enormous sense of culture. People who play classical music and jazz are revered, and audiences are very happy to pay to watch them play. It’s a far cry from our own open mic nights. We used to do a lot of classical music comedies, and German audiences absolutely love ‘English humour’, even though I’m Scottish. Particularly because of the difference in the way English and German are put together, there’s a lot of scope for different humour.

I love working with Carol Ann Duffy, and The Princess’ Blankets has probably been my favourite. There’s something really enchanting about watching children get so involved with the spoken word and the music, and watching the parents also enjoy it with them.

Louis Armstrong is my hero, not just as a player but also as a person. Miles Davis, of course, comes after him. But more generally I think the music hall and silent films are great. I love seeing the old acts and how accessible they are to everyone. People from all walks of life, whatever they do, can get together and laugh at a Buster Keaton film.

We did the upcoming performance in Yorkshire at the Nidd Festival [25-26 July] last year with a children’s show of The Princess’ Blankets. This year we’re working with Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, and Carol Ann Duffy to read some poems while I emcee in-between. Carol and I are also going to do a performance of some adult contemporary poetry from The World’s Wife and The Bees. I think it’s a great festival and one that’s set to grow a lot in the next few years.

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