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'Little Lad' by Dominic Vlasto

You may say that the phenomenon of the boy treble as a professional performer is stronger in England than anywhere else in the world, and this is largely due to the fact that boys have had a semi-professional musical role in this country in a tradition stretching back unbroken for over four hundred years. Music-making in the cathedrals and collegiate chapels has involved boys working to a high musical level in the very midst of the most “traditional” part of our religion and culture, and there is no getting away from the fact that this has given British choral music, generally, the highest worldwide profile. Nowhere else in Europe do they do it so much or so variedly or to such generally high standards.
I can speak with enthusiasm of my own personal experience of having been a choirboy at King’s Cambridge. At the time, it quickly becomes the most normal thing in the world, just what we do, all that dressing up in Eton suits, presenting yourself in funny clothes day after day in public and being expected to use your wits and your voice in performance. You certainly don’t care much why you are doing it, but you know that you are always going to have your best expected of you. And there’s a lot of stimulation in stuff like concerts, touring, TV and radio broadcasts with all its attendant technical paraphernalia.
There is also a tradition of Boy Actors, whose great flowering was of course in the Shakespearean age. Much of the humour and tension, not to mention the precise language, of Twelfth Night is predicated on the knowledge that the girls’ parts are actually played by boys, and you get the situation of a boy playing a girl playing a boy. Of course, we know (perhaps too well?) that being a boy actor was Noël’s training, and that he often celebrated its influence. In modern times one thinks, perhaps, of those boy actors who have made their biggest impact in film. Of these, I would single out River Phoenix as an exceptional talent throughout the sadly brief span of years his presence graced the earth. There was never anything false in any of that boy’s performances, and if you don’t already know the film Stand By Me, may I urge you to go get the DVD?
In both cases, the musical and the film-theatrical, one is conscious that there is a special richness in a boy’s voice in those last years of childhood, which in itself bespeaks a sort of tragedy, since an adult audience knows that this beautiful instrument is ephemeral, and doomed to and by puberty. And of course there is no guarantee that in adulthood there will be any instrument worth using, or charm remaining.
His voice was the reason Graham Payn came to England, aged 11. His mother had apparently accepted that the boy’s voice was their best chance of fame and fortune. And there was success, often in the shape of concert work, including at the Kingsway Hall and Queen’s Hall; but in those days they used to put on a stage show in between the films, and Graham also did a lot of cinema work. “I often did three, sometimes five, shows a day doubling at a different cinema”, he recalled in 1999: “The audiences loved it because they liked my voice and it was quite a rare event for them to see a boy soprano on the stage. I would go on to a great round of applause in my Eton suit and white collar. I also appeared in the variety shows and it all used to go down very well. With my mother as manager, I was singing like mad!”
Several boy sopranos active in the 1930s, including Graham, are featured on a recent Amphion CD, ‘The Better Land Volume 2’. Graham is by a good lick the oldest of these boys, having been at least fifteen when the two tracks, ‘The Hymn That I Sang As a Boy’ (very “churchy”) and ‘Meadowsweet’ (with a feeling of rural folksiness about it) were recorded, a year or two after his appearance in Words and Music. His technique certainly compares well within the norms of those days – a straining towards vibrato and a “full on in your face” approach is evident in all these boys, almost as if they were aiming towards opera. This is a clutch of boys whose styles range from the light and popular (Graham) to the comparative emotionlessness of the church musician (Thomas Meddings); but every single one of these boys sounds wonderfully confident about what they’re doing, despite their obvious differences in timbre and technique and control.
It would be unfair to stand these lads up to more recent competition, when the quality of the original recordings is so limited, and sometimes still horribly obscured by hiss and crackle. What you do end up realising is that there was plenty of confident showmanship and charm and lilt and naturally unforced good pitch sense in these boys’ voices, long, long before Aled Jones was thrust upon an unsuspecting mass-media market in the 1980s.
If forced to chose the two most outstanding boys voices I’ve heard in my lifetime, I would pinpoint two extremes: in a pop style, Billy Gilman in the US (recording in around 2000): I’m afraid the music is formulaic and more-or-less banal, if very professionally produced, and the lyrics often much worse, sometimes disgracefully kiddie-sentimental, but the boy has a truly sensational voice with incredible control and perfect pitch. At the other end of the stylistic scale, I would single out Paul Phoenix. Many will remember his voice singing the theme music for the TV spy series, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ in the late 1970s. He was one of the choristers at St. Paul’s at the time, under Barry Rose, and when adult became one of the King’s Singers. He had a wonderful alto register towards the end of his boyhood, but throughout it he was truly pure-voiced, and with an uncannily mature and controlled approach to the classical repertoire, backed up with astonishing pitch sense. Barry Rose knew perfectly well that, in Paul Phoenix, he had a voice and talent heard only once in a lifetime if one is lucky, and took pains to ensure the boy was well-recorded, as indeed he did over a period of time with the entire boys’ choir; but this led to horrible ructions with the Cathedral authorities on account of their feeling that Rose was going too commercial, and spotlighting the boys in a way that was not thought compatible with their primary function. I’m with Rose on this one.
Graham as a boy is not in the Gilman/Phoenix league, and lacks the extra, “special”, ill-defined something that can only be called a natural sense of musicianship which marks out these exceptional talents; but he is certainly well-placed in the “second” tier of competence and accomplishment. There’s a touch of frail magic in his voice and an instinctual expressiveness which makes it easy to understand why he was loved by his audiences. It’s certainly a shame that so little of his soprano work is available – though more exists in the archives of Pathe Gazette, for whom he filmed several pieces.
It is apposite indeed, in the context of this discussion, that the hottest theatrical ticket in Town at the moment is Billy Elliott. It pushes all the same emotional/theatrical buttons that have always made good performances by kids into easy ‘hits’. Like today’s young Billy Elliotts, Graham’s good fortune was that he was encouraged by his mother, given excellent training and put into a position where he could shine. He shone in the right place and the right time, and in adulthood it brought him continuing work of the most fascinating and rewarding nature, without him ever being conceited or pompous. I am sure that both Noël and Graham would join in with the refrain, “Long live the boy performer!”

Graham Payn: Amphion PHI CD 159 (2000): ‘The Better Land Volume 2’

Paul Phoenix: Guild GRCD 7024 (1988/1994): ‘Jubilate! Golden Favourites from St. Paul’s Cathedral’

Billy Gilman: Sony CD 670550 2 (2000): ‘One Voice’