The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Howard Goodall is a man of many passions: from composing the Mr Bean theme to popularising Wagner. He tells Ginny Dougary why singing and squash — but not dancing — are good for the soul

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall, the composer, broadcaster and singing czar for the Government’s new Music Manifesto education initiative, is sitting at his kitchen table in Chelsea in his old Newcastle United T-shirt, telling me why he has no doubts about the healing powers of music in general and singing in particular.

At first he is able to come up with only some random observations that people who stammer don’t when they sing, and asthmatics no longer have breathing problems when they open up their voices. He’s a bit uncertain as to why this should be: “I mean I know there are scientific things like enzymes being released and all that kind of stuff.” Endorphins? “That’s the one, thank you very much. It’s a release like laughter that makes you feel better about yourself, and there’s no doubt that people who have a good sing feel great.”

But it’s when the composer recalls his “field trips” all over the country, as part of his national campaign to bolster singing in schools, that he snaps into focus. He was particularly impressed by a woman who teaches at a primary school in Bristol that has many pupils who are refugees: “It’s very, very difficult because they often don’t have the language skills, which means that they find it hard to cope and join in. She told a story about an Iraqi boy who was badly traumatised by the war and just sat at the back in a totally silent walled room of his own. The other children told her that he never spoke to anyone ever. On the second singing session she saw that the boy was singing along phonetically and this was the opening of the door for him and, after that, he was able to communicate.”

The teacher was so moved that she wrote a song about the experience, which was performed by 500 children at the national School Proms last year. “And the extraordinary thing is that when you see this boy now, you would never know what he’s been through,” Goodall says, “and it’s singing which has definitely changed his life.”

Goodall’s own childhood was untouched by trauma, unless you count an unhappy year or so as a boarder at the public school Stowe, and he went on to a glittering career that has included composing the theme tunes for Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show. “Stowe was a beautiful place but I was lonely and I found the other pupils arrogant, privileged and unpleasant.” He was parachuted out, as he puts it, of public-school misery to join his two brothers at the local state school in Thame, Oxfordshire, where their father was headmaster. This suited him far better “and so I carried that into my adult life, a sort of sticking up for the state system thing . . . and I know that I’m doing this thing for government singing, but we’re working with independent schools as well. I don’t consider there to be a dividing line beyond which we can’t move because my own background was both.”

Goodall first started composing at the age of 8 when he was a chorister at New College, Oxford. He doesn’t know what gave him the confidence to do so: “It was just that I heard music in my head and wondered what it would be like if I wrote it down.” But the floodgates opened when he was a shy 14-year-old smitten by an older French girl on a school exchange. “I just thought she was, you know, incredible, but I couldn’t even get through a conversation with her,” he says, let alone play her the song that she’d inspired him to write. He thinks that “Françoise” was probably a bit McCartneyish or possibly Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish, and he can still remember every word. Would you sing it for me? “No, I’d be too embarassed.” Oh, go on, I say, turning into Mrs Doyle. “I can’t. I can’t. Honestly, I just can’t,” the poor man says.

“Anyway, up to that point I’d written what you might describe as classical music, but then I realised, ‘Gosh, writing pop songs is really good fun’, and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs at the piano and that’s why I moved into writing musicals, I suppose, as a way of using them up.” At Oxford, where he read music at Christ Church, graduating with a first in 1979, he became close friends with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, writing the music for their revues and annual show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He owed his first break in television to Atkinson, composing the theme tune to Not the Nine O’Clock News, then Blackadder, as well as all the Mr Bean films, including the new one. Other TV credits include Red Dwarf and QI. He’s also written and presented award-winning music documentaries and presented classical programmes such as Choir of the Year.

He is quite sensitive to the suggestion that he owes his success to his friends, pointing out that Curtis has made four of the most successful films of all time ( Notting Hill, Four Weddings etc) “and if it were true that I just got asked to do my mates’ projects, I’d have done one of those, wouldn’t I?”

I watched Goodall’s last four-part television series How Music Worksbefore we met and was swept up by his enthusiasm and the way he built bridges between different composers from Wagner to Coldplay. He is as natural and unprecious in person as he is on television, but what is unusual is that he is disarmingly open — almost nakedly so — as though he has not yet mastered the art of masking his inner self from the public gaze.

In an early interview in 1994, he told the journalist that the reason why he found it so easy to relate to the George Eliot character Silas Marner (he was writing an opera based on the novel) was because “ it was a very sad time in my own life. My wife had just left me and I could empathise with the bitter despair of Marner.” He says that he shouldn’t have been so honest and then proceeds to go farther: “I’m happily married now on my second marriage [to Val Fancourt, a classical music agent]. My first wife was someone who had been in one of my shows.

“The leading lady and the composer,” he laughs, “bet you’ve never heard that before. I was about 28 or 29 [he is now approaching 50] and the marriage fell apart as I was writing the opera and so I felt my way through it with the pain I was going through “I loved my first wife and I missed her and I was devastated, but looking back on it she made the braver decision to leave because it wasn’t really working.

“I think I was young and very immature emotionally and unbelievably selfish as well. I had my music, with my head in the clouds doing my own thing. And I don’t think I really grasped what having a relationship of that intensity actually meant.” For some reason I ask him whether he gets angry — who knows why since he comes across as rather measured — and touch an unexpected nerve. “Yeah, I do have a temper and I’m sorry about that as it causes anxiety. I get impatient when I’m attacked; for example, when the person attacking me hasn’t done their homework. [His populist approach infuriates the classical elitists.]

“And it just drives me . . . it just drives my insides . . . I just get so frustrated.” Can he explain why this happens? “It would be nice for me to say that because I write music and it’s a very passionate, intimate thing and I bash away at the piano that maybe there’s a sort of raised temperature to my emotional state that I can’t stop happening in my normal life. But it would be a cop-out because there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write music and be a perfectly calm and patient person.” So what do you think it’s about then? “I don’t know,” he says, before suggesting that it may be a male problem. When his wife is dealing with a disagreeable builder, for instance, she is the model of diplomacy: “While I’m afraid there’s something male in me that makes me want to punch him and say, ‘You bastard. Don’t be so selfish and arrogant’. But of course I don’t do that because I’m a coward.” He has never hit anyone in his life, although he was once attacked by a puppeteer at a party.

“It was a Spitting Imagepuppeteer and they’ve got strong arms. He was drunk and threatening a woman friend of mine and she said, ‘Howard can you help?’ and I pulled the guy away at which point, you know, he lunged at me,” much laughter. “ Luckily, Stephen Fry was there and he’s a big man and managed to sort of calm things down,” he says, still looking relieved.

I ask him whether he still suffers from shyness and he says that he does, “which you might find hard to believe because, you know, I’m a perfectly normal chap sitting here not looking like a man who’s got a problem”. He has no difficulty making speeches or being on television, but what he can’t really deal with are parties, and he supposes that’s because he’s never been able to dance. Have girls laughed at him? “Yes. Oh yes,” he says. How mean! “It’s not mean; it’s what they do. I think girls are great.” He doesn’t like the way he looks either. How ridiculous, you’re perfectly good looking I say, and so he is with his startling blue eyes and cherubic curls. “Well, I wouldn’t say I was cherubic exactly,” he says. “I think that probably all of us who look like me really want to look like Jean-Michel Jarre.”

He worries about his weight even though he cycles from his home in Barnes, West London, to his Chelsea office every day, but he gave up squash which he really loved “maybe because it was an outlet for my irritation but they don’t advise men over 40 to play unless they’re really fit”. What matters to him apart from his music are his family and his friends, and he’s closer now, he says, to Atkinson and Curtis (he’s godfather to various of their children) than he’s been for a long time. Is that because he feels more on an equal footing with them now? “Maybe, but it’s probably more to do with life changing and mellowing you, and we’ve all got kids now, and for a while we were all wrapped up in our careers and then you realise that the things that really matter are being with people you like and the things that probably wound each other up in our twenties and thirties are all worn away.”

Goodall elaborates: “I think I was probably a bit of a tosser when I was in my twenties, terribly arrogant and haughty, and Rowan and Richard are just more mature and always have been. They probably found me a bit annoying. I don’t feel particularly good when I look back to that time; I don’t really feel good about the way I was.” He says that there was never a time when he felt ‘Gosh, I’d like to have children’ and I wonder whether that’s because I write music and will leave lots of stuff in my wake so there’s a bit of me there now to give meaning to my life and, anyway, I have the experience of parenthood since I completely adore my stepchildren, whom I’ve known since they were 5, and they feel like my own.” He first met their mother — who is not his agent, incidentally — when the two were students at Oxford and he asked her on a date that took her only 21 years to accept. Several times he refers to her calmness and how much he prefers the peacefulness of staying at home with her and the girls than gadding around town.

Writer’s block, artistic angst, none of these things applies. He says that he could compose all day: “It’s like a tap running or broadband, as though I have an enormous CD collection in my head.” I ask him to pick a song that has spoken to him consistently and at the end of the interview he says that it’s Paul Simon’s Something so Right because it’s delicate and beautiful and about someone who cannot believe that things have gone so well for them when they least expected it. He starts to sing the words, finally, in his lovely voice: “You’ve got the cool water/ when the fever runs high/ you’ve got the look of lovelight in your eyes/ And I was in crazy motion/till you calmed me down/ it took a little time/ but you calmed me down.”