Singing Postman: the musical
JON WELCH Allan Smethurst, aka The Singing Postman, was an unlikely pop star. Now his story is being told in a new musical play at venues across Norfolk.
He was a reluctant star: an ordinary bloke whose simple, touching songs thrust him into the limelight and captured the public's imagination.
Now the life and music of Allan Smethurst, The Singing Postman, have inspired a play that will be performed outdoors at venues across Norwich and North Norfolk over the next couple of weeks.
Called Singing The Postman, the 70-minute musical show is the work of Norwich-based theatre company Crude Apache and is billed as “a light-hearted tale of love, loss and smoking”.
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It was in 1965 that Allan, a Grimsby postman who grew up in Sheringham, shot to fame with Hev Yew Gotta Loight Bor?, a ditty sung in his distinctive Norfolk accent with guitar accompaniment.
The song was one of four on an EP released by Ralph Tuck's “Smallest Recording Organisation in The World”.
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Although it represented just a fraction of his repertoire, it put him in the spotlight, leading to many TV appearances and making him - for a while, at least - a lot of money.
Allan gave up his post round to concentrate on his music, but found it hard to cope with the transition from the recording studio to the stage.
Although he continued to record more songs, both his own and other people's, a combination of stage fright, alcoholism and arthritis eventually put an end to his live performances.
Allan died on December 22, 2000, after a short illness. He was 73 and had been living at a Salvation Army hostel in Grimsby,
The play was written by Jo Edye, based on research by Tom Carver. Tom first saw The Singing Postman in 1965, when he was 12.
“Seeing this fellow on television was very strange,” he remembers.
“I felt a mixture of local pride that someone apparently from Norfolk was in the charts, but probably a bit of embarrassment that Norfolk was being represented in the days of The Beatles and the Stones and all these groovy bands by a buck-toothed, spectacled person who sang with a Norfolk accent and a kind of lisp.”
But Tom, 53, grew to love The Singing Postman's songs. “I think there's a wit and humour about them - a Norfolk humour,” he says.
Tom, who now plans to write a biography of Allan, said he discovered a lot of misinformation during his research. For instance, Allan's birthplace is often listed as Sheringham but was actually Bury, Lancashire.
“He only got into writing songs when he moved to Cleethorpes but the vast majority of his songs seem to refer back to things and people he knew growing up in Norfolk,” he says. “I think he was very homesick for Norfolk and his songs were a way of recapturing times where he had been happiest.”
Allan found it hard to cope with fame when it was suddenly thrust upon him. “In some ways he was a tragic figure.
“He wasn't necessarily built for fame. I think he wanted his songs to be heard, as anybody who writes songs does, but I don't think he was built for live performances.
“Despite the tragedy, he's still held in great affection by many people. Mention the name and a lot of people will say 'Hev Yew Gotta Loight Bor?' or they will smile.”
The show itself is not a straightforward biography of Allan. Instead, it looks at his life through the eyes of three tribute acts who get stranded in a pub one rainy night as they make their way to a Singing Postman birthday memorial gig near Framlingham. It also features seven of The Singing Postman's songs.
“I thought it would be more interesting to tell his story through three tribute acts. Because they are forced together they discover they have a lot in common with certain aspects of his life,” says Jo, 48.
For the past 10 years Crude Apache have been staging outdoor summer shows with local themes, usually as musicals: previous subjects have included Kett's Rebellion and Norwich character Billy Bluelight.
“It struck me that The Singing Postman would be an ideal subject: an old Norfolk character with quite amusing songs and quite an interesting life,” says Jo.
“I was thinking about this modern obsession with celebrity and I think he's a good example of how celebrity can muck you about and destroy your life. He was just a very ordinary sort of guy from a very rural background who was thrust into the limelight and had no idea what to expect.”
Jo believes Allan felt trapped on a showbusiness treadmill but didn't want to let anybody down, particularly his management.
“Sometimes what you think you want in your life is not what you really want. I think he really wanted to be settled down and to go the pub for a pint with his mates, play dominoes and come home to his wife. He liked writing songs and singing to his mates but he didn't want to be dragged around doing gigs.”
He's hoping the touring show will attract good audiences, and that those who come along will learn more about Allan Smethurst and his music.
“His songs are still available, so it would be nice if the play sparked some interest in them. When you listen to them you realise they are actually quite good.”
Singing The Postman, Crude Apache's free outdoor summer show will be at the following venues:
t Tuesday July 25, The Nelson, Nelson Street, Norwich, 7.30pm;
t Wednesday July 26, Poplar Farm, Waxham, 8pm;
t Thursday July 27, The Three Swallows, Cley, 8pm;
t Friday July 28, The Dun Cow, Salthouse, 8pm;
t Sunday July 30, The Cock, Barford, 3pm;
t Wednesday August 2, Heigham Park, Norwich, 7.30pm;
t Thursday August 3, Wensum Park, Norwich, 7.30pm;
t Friday August 4 and Saturday August 5, Whiffler Theatre, Castle Gardens, Norwich 7.30pm;
t Sunday August 6, Cow Tower, Norwich, 3pm, then The Nelson, Norwich, 7pm.