“Nothing’s gone wrong yet,” were the first words from the mouth of Mike Batt as he settled down at his grand piano. The audience laughed, but I am not entirely sure if the veteran songsmith was joking or issuing a warning. Actually, quite a lot did go wrong during this rare live outing, but perhaps that was part of the charm of a rather eccentric artist, who took it all in his comical stride. Backed by a string quintet, the 73-year-old Batt bluffed his way through musical and lyrical mistakes, forgetting lyrics and chord changes, whilst keeping both audience and band amused with his patter. “Goodness gracious,” he muttered after one particularly egregious mistake. “It’s a good thing I don’t do this for living!”
The concert at the intimate Bush Hall in London was originally scheduled for May 2020 to coincide with the release of a career retrospective, mischievously titled Mike Batt: The Penultimate Collection. Postponed for Covid reasons, there was little indication Batt had spent any of the intervening two years rehearsing. Rambling and amusing anecdotal intros to curiosities from his extensive back catalogue would conclude with Batt turning to other people on stage to ask “how’s it start?” or “what key’s this one in?” “Have you got the lyrics there?” he asked vocal guest Paula Masterson, who harmonised and took flowing lead on several theatrical songs. “Thank God someone came prepared!” He rightfully applauded the excellent string section from the Docklands Sinfonia, who he revealed had only one run through with his arrangements.
It must be said that none of this detracted from the entertainment value of a warm and engaging show, quite the opposite. Batt is a curious character, with a huge range of musical and lyrical skills that he has applied to wildly disparate projects over a bumpy five-decade career as a singer-songwriter, producer, orchestral arranger, theatrical impresario, record label boss and all-round entertainment hustler.
There have been comedy songs, novelty hits, syrupy ballads and jolly rockers, including a fistful of undeniable classics composed for other artists, notably Art Garfunkel (1978’s Bright Eyes), David Essex (seasonal perennial A Winter’s Tale), Cliff Richard (1983’s Please Don’t Fall in Love) and Katie Melua, whose career Batt steered for ten years, crafting hits including 2003’s The Closest Thing to Crazy and 2005’s Nine Million Bicycles. A gifted pianist, Batt played them all in florid style, albeit vamping where he occasionally lost his way, and even sometimes restarting songs. “I’ve f---ed that one up completely!” he blurted during a rendition of I Feel Like Buddy Holly (a hit for Alvin Stardust in 1984). “I was gonna change key, but I’ve decided not to, cos it’s too hard.”
Batt’s voice was croaky, although I am not sure if that was a sign of age, rustiness or his admission that he was recovering from a cold. “It’ll be all right, as long as I don’t have to sing,” he quipped. The audience were clearly in the mood to indulge their hero, and there were smiles all around when he introduced a selection from arguably his most famous project, fluffy 1970s children’s characters The Wombles.
I am not sure anyone ever imagined being treated to string quintet and piano arrangements of The Wombling Song and Wombling Merry Christmas, but evidence of the affection in which such robust pop songs are still held was plentiful, with the grey-haired crowd enthusiastically joining in the call and response of Remember You’re A Womble. Batt was treated to a standing ovation for his efforts. “At least it’s only a rehearsal,” he joked.
No further performances at this venue