'I got a job on a fishing trawler' – Covid: one year on, stars of music and theatre look back

In the second of our two-parter, rock stars, roadies, actors, dancers, composers and comics describe how their lives have been transformed without live shows – and imagine what now lies ahead


‘Live shows will be back with a bang’

Jack Cochrane, vocalist/guitarist with fast-rising West Lothian group the Snuts

It feels weird saying this, but it’s been a productive year. For us, the key thing was for our ambitions as a band to be unaffected. At the start I saw a lot of people’s heads go down, but we were determined to make sure we came out of this a better band.

We’ve been friends since we were kids – three of the band met in nursery – and have played together since we were 12 or 13, which helps you pull together. It was just another thing to go through as a group of friends.

We’d built up a lot of momentum, but suddenly everything was postponed, including our debut album, so we used the time to keep writing and releasing music. We put out seven singles in 2020. We also went back to the album [WL, released 2 April on Parlophone] and worked on it some more, bringing in strings and acoustic racks. I think we’re in a better position to play it live.

We had a record company advance and we played a lot in 2019, so have been in a better position financially than some bands. It’s been hardest for our crew, whose lives have been decimated. We’ve tried to raise income for them when we can, employing them for live-streamed events and videos. Our fans crowdfunded £10,000 for them. That blew me away.

Our drive-in tour was cancelled, but last summer we did some socially distanced shows supporting the Libertines. I was grateful: most bands have had no gigs at all.

I got involved with the #LetTheMusicPlay campaign to help venues and have been writing letters to politicians, which isn’t something you imagine doing when you start a band. Last week I got a response from a member of Scottish parliament.

We’ve got three nights booked at Glasgow Barrowlands – which was always our big dream – for June. I’ll be surprised if they happen on time, but if they get postponed we’ve still them in the bank. I think live shows will come back with a bang, and it’s going to be great for music. (DS)

‘We’ve had a productive year’ … The Snuts.
‘We’ve had a productive year’ … the Snuts. Photograph: Gaz Williamson

‘I got a job on a fishing trawler’

Oli James, tour manager for North Shields singer-songwriter Sam Fender

This time last year we were about to go on an arena tour and were heading into a packed summer of festivals. We made it to the end of a tour in Europe in early March.

At the time it was still thought that festivals might happen, but my parents had been nursing in the 1960s flu pandemic – they saw corridors lined with bodies – and warned me to expect it to last at least 18 months. Then all our shows started being put back. Overnight I lost my entire income.

I battened down the hatches. Luckily my wife works, so it wasn’t as if we’d be destitute, but I applied for so many jobs. I’ve driven loads of trucks … I was turned down for a supermarket delivery job. Our guitar tech is driving for Argos.

I ended up getting a job on a fishing trawler, although I get seasick. At first we were scraping barnacles off the boat, but I’d unknowingly broken my shoulder in December and it hadn’t healed properly. As soon as I started hauling heavy fishing nets my shoulder went again.

I qualified for self-employment support, which gives you 80% of your net profits. That’s been amazingly helpful, although I still have costs such as rents and the van, but we stopped spending as much as possible and we’ve survived. The hardest thing is when you find yourself constantly nagging your kids. That’s not the way I want to bring them up.

There have been positives. It’s been great seeing more of the family and I’ve enjoyed woodland walks to keep my brain active. It’s a depressing time for the industry. Festivals have been announced but it’s uncertain whether they will happen. I’m not massively confident that things will be back to normal this summer. Our band and crew try to speak to each other as much as possible while our jobs are on hold. The other day we all agreed that when restrictions relax we should get a tour bus that won’t move, just so we can meet up, hang out for a night on it, wander down to the pub and get some food, just like we’d do before a gig. (DS)

‘My song was meant to be a festival anthem’

Darkoo, British-Nigerian vocalist

At the start of 2020, my song Gangsta was really blowing up [it reached No 22 in the singles chart and has racked up 80m streams]. As an artist you always dreamed about something like that, but it was better than I’d ever imagined. It changed my life. It was everything I’d ever dreamed of for four or five months – then Covid came and ruined it.

For the first three weeks of lockdown I kept looking back on Snapchat at my memories, thinking: “I can’t do this for a whole month!” Now it’s been a year. But it’s a global problem and knowing that everyone is going through the same issues keeps you going. Every day is a fight but you just have to stay positive.

My song Juicy came out two weeks before the first lockdown. We expected it to be a big summer anthem, gearing up for festivals, but it wasn’t to be. All my gigs were cancelled, which was really upsetting. I lost some of the momentum but even an earthquake or a tornado wasn’t going to stop me releasing music.

At one point I isolated with my producer, AJ, so we could keep on writing. We booked into a big hotel space with nobody next to us, for three weeks. It was hard – I sing about life experiences – so much of my inspiration comes from what I see around me. The terms of the lockdown meant I could still shoot videos – it’s work – so we were able to put things out, but not as much as we’d have done without Covid.

I think we’re all much clearer now in terms of how a music career can keep on going. I’m hopeful that we might get shows again later this year, but the pandemic won’t be over until it’s over all around the world.

Covid has definitely humbled me. You realise nothing is set in stone. But I’m keen to make up for lost time and the music that comes after Covid is what matters. I’ve learned to never push anything back in life. Do it while you have the chance. (DS)

‘Socially distanced gigs are unviable’

Rachael Campbell-Palmer, director, the Black Box, Belfast

Uncertainty ahead … The Black Box, Belfast.
Uncertainty ahead … the Black Box, Belfast. Photograph: Jonathan Ryder

The venue has been closed for just over a year. In the first lockdown, we furloughed 15 of our 18 staff and ran up our £20,000 overdraft limit to the limit. There were many times when we didn’t know if the venue was going to survive. Grants and funding came to our aid. We’ve gone from a venue that is 80% reliant on self-generated income to being completely reliant on grants and donations.

Most of my time has gone into applying for whatever government or Arts Council grants or schemes have been available. The Save Our Venues crowdfunding campaign raised £10,000. There was the emergency package from Westminster, although that took months to come through. It’s been a constant precarious state, although we’ve made it through a year. It feels like an amazing achievement, although it’s been a long, traumatic slog, and I’m exhausted.

We were planning to reopen in the autumn with socially distanced gigs and a massively reduced capacity, but it just wasn’t financially viable. While the job retention support scheme was in place, it would have meant that expenditure would have rocketed and we’d have been haemorrhaging money.

We’re now looking into a second year of uncertainty and venues are going to need support for a while. Northern Ireland has no roadmap dates for reopening. We’re not looking at booking any touring acts until 2022. We’ve got Jane Weaver booked to do a full-capacity show in January and if that can go ahead I’ll be delighted.

We have done some broadcasting and streamed performances, starting with Derry musician Susie Blue last September. There was just me, a camera crew, a duty manager, the sound engineer and the band on stage. It was so emotional, because it reminded me of everything we’ve missed. (DS)

‘There has been real loyalty from festivalgoers’

Ella Nosworthy, creative director, Nozstock: The Hidden Valley, Herefordshire

Ella Nosworthy.
Ella Nosworthy. Photograph: Ella Nosworthy

We started 2020 feeling very positive. The festival lineup – with Bill Bailey headlining [alongside Sister Sledge] – was our best-received yet. Then suddenly everything changed. We stopped spending and bunkered down. Having to furlough some staff was not easy.

The worst moment was announcing the cancellation, with that sick feeling of not knowing if people would be upset or angry. We offered a refund but most people were happy to retain their tickets for 2021. There was a lot of loyalty to festivals that people loved. Because we own our site – the festival is on the family farm – we were lucky. The culture recovery fund also helped us start to plan: not many businesses can take the impact of no earnings.

We started to try and see the positives – a chance to rejuvenate the crew and rethink a few things. Everyone pulled together. We managed to do a digital version of the festival when we had no idea what we were doing. Artists streamed performances from their gardens and we had socially distanced shows on our smaller stages and Zoom workshops for the kids.

We were lucky that none of us caught the virus, because my dad has breathing problems and my husband has asthma. Like anybody, you worry about the ones you love. Our festival started off with an acoustic band in the back garden, then dad put drum’n’bass in the cow shed and it grew from there. We hold 7,000 now, but it’s still feels like friends gathering together. I knew there would be an appetite among many to go again, but I also anticipated more uncertainty from people who haven’t even been to the shops for months. It seems people want their summer back.

‘People want their summer back’ … Nozstock festival.
‘People want their summer back’ … Nozstock festival. Photograph: PR

We’ve already sold out this year’s festival and have rolled over 90% of last year’s bill. Safety has to be the top priority. Festivals cost such a lot to put on and without a government-backed festival insurance scheme you could still see events cancelling, and if that happens some will never come back. There have been tearful nights, but right now I’m cautiously optimistic. It feels like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. (DS)


‘There’s a sense we’re all treading water’

Ellie Blamires, flautist and 2020 Royal Academy of Music graduate

Things shut down just as I was coming up to crunch time on my course. After five years of training, I’d reached the last few months and was deep into preparations for my final recital. It would usually take place in the academy’s concert hall in front of an audience of family and friends. I’d planned an elaborate recital involving many of my colleagues, from singers to percussionists. But all that had to be scrapped, and I was only able to rehearse with my pianist a couple of times. I was still able to perform live, but to a concert hall that was empty except for three adjudicators sitting socially distanced at the very back.

The academy did the very best it could under the circumstances, and has continued to offer support to recent graduates. But many of us finishing our studies left with a sense of great unease.

Even pre-Covid I knew embarking on a musical career would be a challenge. I certainly wasn’t anticipating that I’d get into an orchestra straight away – competition is fierce and each orchestral job receives hundreds of applicants. As a young freelance musician, you have to carve out your own space and be resourceful. But I had imagined I would be doing auditions, applying for programmes, picking up freelance work and developing existing projects. My orchestra, the Orchestra of the Earth, was due to play at the Mahler festival and tour the Alps last summer. I also play with a wind quintet, Ensemble Renard, and was starting to get booked for solo recitals. Everything was cancelled.

It is particularly brutal to be so isolated, without the safety blanket of being at college or being fully established in the professional world. This state of limbo has been anxiety-inducing – there’s a real sense we’re all treading water. It is hard to find the motivation to keep practising if you don’t know what you’re practising for.

I’ve been lucky, as I’ve been able to continue to earn through pre-existing teaching work. Many of my friends have had to get jobs outside of music, many others are on universal credit.I’ve got two degrees and £50k worth of debt, yet I’m being told to retrain, that my job is not viable. (IT)

‘It’s been catastrophic’

Antonio Pappano, music director, the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano.
Catastrophic … Antonio Pappano. Photograph: Manuel Dorati/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

It was like, all of sudden, there was a call to war with an invisible enemy. At the Opera House last March we had to simply abandon everything. On the day of Boris Johnson’s speech, our evening performance of La Traviata was cancelled with only a couple of hours’ notice. Then there was a performance of Fidelio later that week that had been due also to go out live to more than 1,000 cinemas across the world – gone – and it was just the day before a dress rehearsal of a new production of Jenůfa, with a wonderful international cast and great conductor – we had to scrap it all. It was catastrophic.

But I don’t think any of us could have imagined we would still be talking about this and still in the thick of it a year later.

I’m proud of what the Royal Opera House has managed to do. Over the summer, we had virtual concerts from the Covent Garden stage, the education work has been ongoing, and then there’s the Friday-night streaming of operas and ballets from our catalogue. During the brief autumn period when we were able to open, there were two specially staged new productions as well as concerts and ballet performances.

But the industry has been clobbered. Our building in Covent Garden is large, enabling us to create all kinds of protocols for distancing, one-way systems, temperature checks, and yet every theatre was shut down regardless. If planes full of people can still be allowed to fly, why can’t a theatre that is big enough to accommodate thousands be able to function with social distancing? It felt so uncompromising and mindless; theatres and music venues seem to be bearing a very harsh brunt of all this, yet the industry brings in a great deal of money for the UK economy. But social distancing in the ROH pit? Forget about it! Once we are allowed back – and we’re hoping and planning for a summer season – we’ll have to work with a smaller orchestra of 30 or 40 players, as it would be naive to think that things will be back to normal by then.

One thing I can say with certainty about the future is that when live performance does return there will be an overwhelming demand for it. During the second world war two things were considered paramount and never stopped: concert going and church going. Both have been decimated this pandemic year. (IT)

‘There has been more space to dream’

Hannah Kendall, composer

Composer Hannah Kendall
‘I feel as if I’m in limbo’ … Hannah Kendall Photograph: Kiran Ridley

I’m based in New York, where I’m doing a doctoral fellowship at Columbia University. I come back to London to see family and friends each summer. And I’ve been here ever since last year.

But even though I feel as if I’m in limbo, there’s been many positives. My opera The Knife of Dawn was revived at the Royal Opera House in October, I received a commission for the rethought 2020 Proms, the Halle orchestra commissioned a chamber work that was premiered in January.

Last year the environment in which composers were working changed – but not necessarily all for the worse. There used to be a single moment when your piece premiered in front of a live audience that was incredible; now, when a new piece is recorded for an online stream, it can be played a few times, balances tweaked, difficulties ironed out. The risk are lessened a little and I feel as though I can push boundaries more.

While I don’t have a piano here in London, I do have my violin – my mum looks after it, I don’t take it with my to New York as it’s just another thing to sort out with insurance. Having it with me again has opened a whole new world, and I’m writing a solo violin piece. The constraints of lockdown have encouraged me to experiment with instruments and sounds in other ways.

At Columbia, I’m part of a community of composers and we meet on Zoom regularly and talk about our work and our practice. Because we’re not all rushing around, there’s been more space to have conversations. This last year there has been more space to dream.

I’ve not engaged with a huge amount of music online. What the Wigmore Hall has done has been fantastic, and there’s been some incredible programmes created for the digital space, but there is nothing like being in the room with live musicians. Having said that, I’ve relished the opportunity to watch some opera productions I’d missed – I finally understood why everyone was raving about Adès’s Exterminating Angel, as I was able to catch the Metropolitan Opera’s production on demand. I love how the reach of classical music has been expanded so much. (IT)


‘It could lead to a revolution in accessibility’

Danusia Samal, playwright, screenwriter and actor

Danusia Samal, right, in The Great.
Creative energy … Danusia Samal, right, in The Great. Photograph: Ollie Upton/Hulu

I’ve had a busy year and I’m grateful, but it feels weird when there is a global disaster happening. I started writing my first episode of an original idea for the BBC and then a play on the Soho Six scheme, which was all about sex and human contact.

In the first lockdown, I brought directors, writers and actors together for the Virtual Collaborators project of online dramas. I started texting friends, put in on Twitter, and it ended up with 40 of us. There was a lot of creative energy and people were frustrated, so they gained some autonomy by making their own new work. A lot of people taught themselves new skills such as editing and I taught myself producing.

I also co-produced a second round of Virtual Collaborators, with the director Olivia Munk. There were 150 people involved and it ended in an outdoor festival in a churchyard in east London. The event was live and online. If we’re clever, there will be something valuable to get out of the online elements of theatre – it could lead to a revolution in accessibility.

What’s encouraging is that the stage industry is rebuilding itself, and people are finding ways to carry on.

In the summer, I started writing for the TV series Gangs of London. Getting my first TV writing credit in lockdown was strange. It was funny, because I’d auditioned for season one as an actor but now I’m writing season two. Since October, I’ve been acting in The Great [on Hulu and Channel 4]. We have to follow testing and distancing protocols, which is difficult because we’re a really close company.

Throughout the pandemic, people who work in theatre having been thinking: “Why are we not getting enough government help?” But most people don’t engage with theatre because of its associations with elitism and theatre has learned this the painful way. If it wants to stay relevant and survive future pandemics, it needs to make itself into something that more people care about. (AA)

‘One RSC actor is doing food deliveries’

Johnny Autin, creative director, Autin Dance Theatre, Birmingham

I’m an independent choreographer, and I employ up to 25 other freelancers to work on around 40 performances a year and our education and community programme. We’ve started to do international shows as well. We were on our way up – 2020 was going to be our year!

When the first lockdown struck, everything was postponed. Our tour went online, we had to stop working with our freelance artists and massively downscale. We had some reserves and completely depleted them.

We had an emergency grant from the Arts Council, which helped us for six months and was fantastic. I submitted around 45 applications for various micro-commissions, and I’m still waiting on a lot of them; everybody is applying for the same things.

Autin Dance Theatre.
Looking up … Autin Dance Theatre. Photograph: © Donata Kukyte/Autin Dance Theatre

I’m very aware we haven’t performed our craft on a physical level – we’ve missed a year of dancing. I feel lucky because I’ve been isolating with my partner. I know people who haven’t touched anybody for a year – when our practice is so related to bodies touching and moving together in space, that’s been really hard. Most of our dancers were lucky enough to get self-employed support, but some haven’t. I know of an actor who was performing at the RSC one week and doing food deliveries the next. We all have to pay our bills.

At the end of December, we had two applications we felt very encouraged about, and an Arts Council bid, and they were all turned down in the same week. That was a kick to the guts. It was my lowest point, where I couldn’t see a way out. I was starting to get worried about my livelihood. And it’s wasted energy: we work hours, weeks, months coming up with the ideas, building the partnerships, and then receive an email saying no. But we’ve been successful for a small grant for an autumn tour, and it looks as if we’ll tour outdoor festivals in the summer. So things are looking up. We have to believe that. (LW)

‘Digital work will stay a part of our programme’

Henry Filloux-Bennett, artistic director and chief executive of the Lawrence Batley theatre, Huddersfield, and playwright

When the first lockdown happened, it was my second year as AD and we had an entire year of work programmed. I had a crazy idea and texted the novelist David Nicholls about our production of The Understudy, which was supposed to be going on a UK tour. We agreed to do an audio version of it. We’d got a cast for it already, so it was a quick win.

When we realised the lockdown was not going away, and there was an audience for paid digital offerings, we thought: let’s do an adaptation of Nigel Slater’s Toast . We did it as a co-production and as audio because of ease and cost. I had been at the RSC in 2013 when David Tennant’s Richard II was filmed at Stratford and the cost was absolutely immense..

What a Carve Up! came after that; we had spoken to Jonathan Coe’s agent about it a year ago. Then Jonathan tweeted me out of the blue and said: “I hear you want to do an adaptation.” What led me to do it as a film was Netflix. I was watching a lot of true-crime dramas, and after devouring Don’t F**k With Cats I realised we could tell a story on film with talking heads. That was a real game-changer for me.

I adapted the productions myself. I knew I could turn around a script speedily. I started writing our current production, The Picture of Dorian Gray [directed by Harvey and starring Joanna Lumley, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry] on a Monday, and gave the script to Tamara on a Saturday, doing my day job in between. It’s also been a financial success: Carve Up! cost £20,000 to make and earned more than £100,000, which is more money than we would ever normally make in the theatre. We’d need to sell out for a full six months, which is unheard of, and audiences were from more than 40 countries. Digital work will always be part of our programme now.

I don’t think there has been a single moment we thought we would hibernate until theatres reopened. We receive Arts Council and local authority money, so I couldn’t countenance that prospect. Whatever the year throws at us, we will put on productions. (AA)

‘Don’t bet against the British public’

Mark Tughan, owner of the Glee comedy clubs

Mark Tughan.
Optimistic … Mark Tughan. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian

It’s been the most horrible, grim year I’ve ever had to go through. The first few months I was in a daze. The information coming out to us was practically nonexistent. When the moment of closure came, I had my director of operations on the phone. He was with Alan Carr at the time, asking me: “Are we going ahead with this gig?” I had to make a decision based on what I saw in the media, and the answer was: ‘No. Go home. We’re closing.”

That could have been game over. I could survive closure for a month or two, just about, but no longer than that. So furlough was a game-changer. It didn’t guarantee survival, but it gave us a chance to survive. Then you had the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and bounce-back loans: game-changers as well, but in a negative way. I’d been running my business in a very conservative fashion: I hoped never to borrow any more money from anyone in my whole life. Now here I was applying for a loan because, if I didn’t, I was looking at an existential threat.

Then came the phase where it looked like we could reopen. Although we did so with a gun pointed to our head, in the complete and utter belief that furlough was about to end. Which meant we had to open, albeit with social distancing. We opened for six weeks and made a loss.

I don’t know how to describe where we’re at now. We should be jumping up and down because we can open again in May. But I have an awful sense of dread, because I opened before and it didn’t work out well. I’m at the point now where nothing could surprise me in terms of bad news. We’ve been told we can open in May with social distancing, and that from June social distancing is going to be largely abandoned. But I’m struggling to believe that.

But am I looking forward to opening? Hell, yeah. And I’m optimistic. Will we be picking up where we left off? I don’t think it’ll be as easy as that after such an incredible shock. But I’m a great believer in not betting against the great British public to want to go out and have a bloody good night out. (BL)


Dave Simpson , Imogen Tilden, Arifa Akbar, Lyndsey Winship and Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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