In the 'pit' at Cromer's Seaside Special

Richard Batson Nigel Hogg is the one-man orchestra behind Cromer's successful pier show. RICHARD BATSON took a peek into the “pit” to discover how the show's sounds are created.

Richard Batson

A spotlight beams into the orchestra pit and ignites a firecracker of music which showers the packed seaside theatre with sound.

It's showtime at Cromer and the summer season is under way in a blaze of colour, comedy, dance, song and spectacle.

Singers, comics, chorus girls and classical violinist take their turn in the centrestage limelight as the Seaside Special rolls up its trouser legs for another year of holiday hi-jinks.

But half-hidden in a darkened “bunker” beside the stage is an unsung hero without whom it would not happen.

Nigel Hogg is a one-man orchestra pit, who conjures up the rich tapestry of sound which is just as much a backdrop to the Seaside Special as its stunning scenery.

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To most showgoers, he is a bodyless head, bobbing about behind the barricades, who takes a brief bow when the curtain call “thank-you's” are done, but otherwise goes unseen - but definitely not unheard.

From his box he controls the soundtrack of the show - a mix of pre-recorded and live music from gentle classical ballet to singalong show songs, powerful ballads and breathless rock

and roll.

But what the audience probably does not realise is that the music which ends up on the end of Cromer pier, begins three months earlier … in a Yorkshire village. The “greenhouse” which germinates the show sounds is the unlikely setting of Nigel's humble semi-detached, pebble-dashed bungalow in Guiseley, between Leeds and Ilkley.

Inside Daisy Cottage, the former dining room is now a recording studio, packed with computerised technology, record collections, and showbiz memorabilia.

They include circus models from the seven years he and cabaret singer partner Emma worked as a caravan-dwelling big top team - he as musical director and she as the singing ringmistress.

Nigel's musical roots, however, began not in a tent nor a seaside theatre but a local Methodist church, where he was organist at the tender age of 10.

“I started piano lessons at four, trained at school and used to deputise for my father, who was church organist at Guiseley. When the organist's job at Menston came up I applied and got it - becoming the youngest church organist in the country.

“My feet just about reached the pedals and I stayed there for 15 years,” said Nigel, who then went on to play in social clubs, backing singers and dancers, before his first summer season working with the Bachelors at Scarborough in 1971.

He has also done pantomimes, and regularly works with Ken Dodd, accompanying him on a Royal Variety Show.

Nigel is now in his fourth year as musical director of the Cromer Pier show, and is a key player in the building of the summer show - a process which starts in the depths of winter.

In February, he meets with show devisor and choreographer Di Cooke and producers from Openwide International, who run the pier venue, to discuss an outline for the show, and will also help with the selection of singers and dancers at auditions in London.

March sees Di visiting Nigel at Guiseley to record a rough running order for the music - selecting songs

and parts of songs and stitching them into medleys on a “crash edit” CD.

Using a pit full of instruments from the virtual orchestra in his electronic studio Nigel, surrounded by a battery of piano and computer keyboards, produces the master disk, which is the foundation for the music that fills at least half of the two-hour show.

It also includes session musicians - two backing singers filling out the vocals, and this year a guitarist augmenting a flamenco number, whose work was added via internet downloads.

One element will be missing - normally the piano part - which Nigel adds “live” during the show.

Although the amount of pre-recorded music may seem like cheating, it is the only way of getting a full sound to fill the theatre.

Di Cooke concedes that having a one-man band pit was “terrible for musicians”, but the alternatives were simply not viable when seeking to combine a full orchestral sound with a limited budget.

“If you replaced it with a three or five-piece band, it would not be the sound our audiences have come to expect.”

Nigel also plays live on stage, this year accompanying a violinist and singer, at his baby grand piano on stage.

And in the event of gremlins he has to be ready to take over where the music stops.

Last year, a pre-recorded version of Me and My Shadow, triggered in the lighting box while Nigel was returning from the stage to the pit, broke down. It meant a dash to the keyboard and having to rescue the situation by “busking it.”

He said: “It was only after the song was over that I realised I'd never really played it before.”

His unflappable nature is a useful attribute especially as the tension reaches a crescendo at the start of the season.

Over the past few weeks Nigel has brought his recording studio to a dressing room at the Cromer Pier Pavilion, allowing him to make adjustments to the music as the show is finessed during rehearsals.

That can mean changing keys, tempos, shortening bits, lengthening others, and even adding some new tunes from scratch to accompany the comedy sketches. It can mean working days of more than 12 hours, particularly when the cast is performing one show at night, and rehearsing a second during the day.

“I have done similar shows at Eastbourne and Babbacombe but they are not as well produced as Cromer. There is a lot of pressure to come up with the goods and keep the high standards,” he added.

Nigel has no deputy, so if he is feeling unwell he has to grin and bear it, in true “the show must go on” tradition.

A couple of years ago he was recommended to have an operation when a grumbling gall bladder flared up, but opted for antibiotics and headed to Cromer instead because show rehearsals were about to start.

So as audiences sit back, relax, laugh and clap their way through Cromer's Seaside Special season, they should spare a thought for the lonely “maestro” in his pit at the front of the stage, without whom the show definitely could not go on.

Seaside Special runs until September 20. Details and tickets from 01263 512495 or go to www.cromer-pier.com