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Mark Glentworth: Seven And A Half Years

By | Published on Friday 29 July 2022

If you attended Fringe 2021, you might have been lucky enough to catch ‘Seven And A Half Years’, acclaimed musician and composer Mark Glentworth’s autobiographical one man musical.

If you didn’t, you’re in luck, because he’s back this year for a full run at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall. The musical tells the story of Mark’s recovery from a career-stopping crisis, and offers an uplifting account of how he moved on from this difficult period in his life. 

I was intrigued when I heard about the show, and aware of its creator’s fascinating and impressive career history, so of course I wanted to have a chat. I put some questions to him to find out more. 

CM: Can you start by telling us something about the content of the show? What story does it tell?
MG: The title of the show ‘Seven And A Half Years’ is derived from the fact that I withdrew in an extreme way at the peak of my career for that period.

Obviously the first question this raises is, why? Why did I withdraw in such an extreme way? The show starts to unpack, in conversations with my therapist over the phone, which the audience are privy to, my recovery year.

I look back at my whole life to try and discover why I do what I do, through actual enacted scenes, but first and foremost through the songs. To be clear, the music really carries the emotional content and impact of the show in a way that only music can.

In order to give a little background, I will say this, I’ve had a wonderful and rich career in music, and my life in general has been rich and fulfilling, but it has also been very challenging.

At a very early age my wife became wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis and I became her carer for many years. We also brought our wonderful son into the world and so fatherhood became part of my life during this time as well, it is important in terms of understanding my life’s journey. 

But let’s be clear, one of the hook lines from the show is this: “This isn’t a show about being sick, it’s about healing yourself”.

Returning to your question about what the show is actually about, of course it is about my seven and a half year withdrawal, but it is also about my whole life, my journey with music as well, my deep desire to hold people up, told through the power of music, soundscape and scenes. People laugh, they may shed a tear at some point, but they leave feeling uplifted.

CM: What themes are explored through the musical?
MG: I feel the themes that are touched on in my show are universal, what it is to be human, and vulnerable, to love, and coping with losing loved ones – my father passes away during this period.

It is also about the strength of the human spirit, of hope and of our abilities to reinvent and rejuvenate ourselves. Of course, the subject of mental health and the way we cope with the pressures of modern life are an aspect of the story, but they are not the focus, or ignored either.

CM: As you have explained, it’s autobiographical: is it entirely based on the truth or are there fictional elements?
MG: It is an entirely true story, though character names are changed to respect privacy, and there are elements and events left out due to the necessity of producing a story within the confines of a 55-minute production.

CM: What inspired you to create this? What made you want to share this story?
MG: I created it because, first and foremost, I am a musician, composer and performer. It’s all I’ve ever known, and sharing my life and creativity naturally are intrinsically who I am.

But I feel this is the strongest reason: there is a commonality when one suffers something extreme and difficult, to firstly want to make sense of it, and secondly to strongly desire to try and help others who may be suffering the same, or to try and prevent others falling into the same difficulties, by sharing your own personal experience. 

In my case, as a composer and musician, I created an artistic work to try and achieve this. In a similar way to when a person perhaps loses someone near and dear to them through a specific disease, and wants to work towards finding a cure and treatment for it.

CM: Can you tell us what style/genre of music to expect in the show?
MG: Defining and categorising musical styles is always difficult. I have written many kinds of music, including two chamber operas, but I definitely did not want this piece of work to be exclusive to any particular listening group and that is why I returned to my popular songwriting roots.

Remembering sitting at the old piano that mum and dad found for me when I was a kid and starting to write my first songs. They are songs from the heart, they are storytelling songs, and songs with high emotional impact.

There is a song to my dying father where I sit at the piano, I play the opening bars of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ which then morphs into a song that starts like a sentimental Ray Charles ballad, the kind of music my father used to play on the old record player on a Sunday morning.

This song always gets a strong reaction from the audience: out of the corner of my eye, I see audience members suddenly reach out to hold a hand or hold an arm of their partner as it frequently resonates with people in a deep way. I’ve had some very moving reactions after the shows when people come and tell me this.

To summarise, I would describe the music as a broad canvas stylistically, of quality popular and art song genres, and to quote from last year’s four-star review: “Music from the heart, touching the heart of the listeners”.

CM: You’ve taken the show to the Fringe before, of course. What made you want to bring it back?
MG: It’s very exciting that theSpace UK came to see the fledgling version of the show last year and said you must bring it back to Edinburgh!

I feel the changes and refinements, plus working alongside the wonderful director Julia Stubbs, have taken the piece to a whole new level. I like to think that another year under my belt as a performer has also helped my delivery and my vocal strength too.

CM: What do you like most about being in Edinburgh for the Festival? What’s the most difficult part?
MG: I have been fortunate to work for over 40 years with the actor and playwright Steven Berkoff – I am in the wings creating the live soundscape with a keyboard and percussion set up – and we have been to the Festival many times with shows.

I have travelled to most corners of the globe with my career but, in all genuineness, Edinburgh is still one of my very favourite places to perform and be in! As to what is most difficult about being in Edinburgh? Trying to find somewhere to stay – and the rain!

CM: What will you be doing in Edinburgh when you are not performing?
MG: Well firstly I have to look after my voice as this is a very demanding show, so I will be resisting the temptation to do a lot of going out afterwards in the evening. But of course I will take in some other fantastic stuff that is on and I will do plenty of walking, as I find it therapeutic, and I love Edinburgh’s style and vibe.

CM: Can we talk about your past, now? How did you come to be working in the arts and what journey has your career taken you on?
MG: When I was thirteen, I was obsessed with cricket and aeroplanes.

Then one day, a new music teacher arrived at my secondary school and said, “would anyone like to learn to play the drums?” and for some reason I put my hand up… two years later I was auditioning at the wonderful new Royal Northern College Of Music in Manchester where I gained a place and entered at sixteen as the youngest ever to attend. 

It was a wonderful four years. I started working freelance with the great Halle Orchestra in my second year and was part of so many memorable concerts and recitals, and it was such a vibrant time in the 70s in the college.

I was fortunate to become the last percussionist playing in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ contemporary ensemble The Fires Of London, and I went on my first tour to the USA.

Then a really big break happened for me when I met Steven Berkoff in London in 1983 and I became his most long-standing collaborator – in fact we are still working together now!

I also freelanced with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and The London Sinfonietta. And I’ve worked in lots of West End shows as a percussionist deputy. And I’m most well-known around the globe for composing the most performed recorded and studied solo percussion piece ever! It’s called ‘Blues For Gilbert’, for solo vibraphone.

I was lucky to attend a concert by the amazing vibraphone player from America, Gary Burton, in 1977 and it had such a dramatic effect on me, I said to myself: “I want to play that instrument and I want to write music for it”. That – and my other tuned percussion pieces – are set in competitions around the globe. I have been fortunate to be asked to judge on some of them, taking me to some great places.

I’ve also written for television and radio, audiobooks and theatre productions. And, as I mentioned, I’ve also written two chamber operas and played in bands and had record deals in the past: our band was the first group that Simon Cowell, who no one knew back then, signed, and put a record out with!

CM: What have been the best things of your career thus far? 
MG: The first answer is so simple, becoming a father! But musically and creatively, it’s more difficult to pick, there have been so many things.

I’m very proud of the award-winning radio production of ‘Macbeth’ I worked on with Steven Berkoff – for which the music received special praise – and of so many of our shows over the years as well. And of course, of composing and receiving an award for ‘Blues For Gilbert’. 

But stepping onto the stage, having never done it before, having never sung in public before, and getting a four-star review last year at the Edinburgh Fringe would probably be the most significant. There are so many others but that’s just getting into showing off territory, which is not really my thing!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MG: My plans and intentions for the future, well here’s what I say… My name is ‘Mark’. In the reinvented versions of myself I am up to ‘Mark III’. And this version of myself would have never dreamed about doing what I’m currently doing but I’m enjoying it.

There’s something about using your voice that creates a deep connection with people that can only be achieved when you speak or sing. It’s a profoundly moving experience and something which feels like a privilege, and it’s what I’m doing right now. 

There are talks of a film with the team I am with right now. My percussion composing carries on, as does my work with Steven Berkoff, and of course getting out there playing tennis and riding my bike!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MG: More of the above! I just think I’ll skip hiding away for seven and a half years!

‘Seven And A Half Years’ was performed at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2022.

LINKS: markglentworth.com | www.instagram.com/glentworthmark

Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes