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Interview: Peter Christie singer, Instant Sunshine

21 June 2013

'We asked each other why were we doing this. We decided, because it was fun'


Instant Sunshine are David Barlow [left in photo], me [right], and Alan Maryon Davis [centre]. We're all doctors who trained at St Thomas's Hospital.

I was a paediatrician, retired now. I worked for the Medical Research Council, then at Great Ormond Street, and at Kingston; and I've also been a GP. David became a consultant in genito-urinary medicine at St Thomas's; and Alan became a public-health consultant, then president of the Faculty of Public Health. He is also quite a star on radio and telly, promoting health in various ways.

In 1966-67, I was doing a post-graduate course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I had a small grant from ILEA. When that ran out, I went for an interview at Tiddy Dols Eating House in Mayfair to sing there for £3 a night and a free meal; so I did that more or less every night for the rest of the year.

Alan and David used to pop in and join me, and eventually they came on a regular basis on Thursday and Friday nights. One night, Phil Coulter and Bill Martin came in. They'd just written "Puppet on a String" that year for the Eurovision Song Contest, and asked us to make a record with them.

Instant Sunshine was the first cabaret we did for the New Year's Eve ball at St Thomas's. They always had a Christmas show every year, and it was taken quite seriously - and then we'd do turns on the wards. It's all lost in the mists of time now, but I think it was 1967 when the cabaret cried off, and the person organising it asked us to put something together. I think instant coffee was just coming in, and I suppose that's how we got the name.

I got married the following October, and went to Tanzania to work for three years. When I came back, the other two had qualified, but were still in London so we went back to Tiddy Dols on Fridays when we weren't on call. Kept that up for another 18 years. Very useful, like choir practice, really. And we were doing odd parties and little theatres, and started doing festivals.

In the early '70s, we thought it would be fun to have a bass player. David been in Oxford with Miles Kington; so we invited him to join us. He was working for Punch at the time, and Bill Davies, the editor, invited us to do a little cabaret where Punch was presenting prizes for humour in advertising; so we wrote a little song.

Then in '75 we went up to the Edinburgh Fringe. Bill had been invited to stand in for Robert Robinson for a couple of weeks on Radio 4's Stop the Week; so he asked us to do the show. We had to go across to Glasgow to a special studio to record it. Then Michael Ember, the producer, invited us to do some more. So we did Stop the Week on and off till it went off the air - about 18 years.

I write the words and music. I got a lot of help from the others. They'd go in the studio having never seen the material before, and they never complained. Davies had a very good knack with harmonies.

I always record the songs myself on tape, because it's quicker than writing them out. I write the words first, with a rhythm and concept of what the tune is going to be, and hopefully, get it together.

The songs recorded with EMI are available on iTunes. We made three LPs at Abbey Road, available as CDs, and have two other CDs, and we're hoping to make another. Our programmes are still coming out on Radio 4 Extra; there was one on yesterday. But we don't do much radio at the moment. It's a different world.

Some songs have been sung by the King's Singers and others. We sang with Donald Swann, but we never met Michael Flanders, because he'd already died. Swann kindly agreed to sing with us a song of theirs, one they had never performed together.

At the same time, we were invited to do a chat-show on Thames telly called Take-Two, a live chat-show with a song in the middle of it. They knew we might be on call, but somehow the producers fitted around us.

We get on very well - have done for more than 45 years. If we didn't get on, we wouldn't be together. We've been round the world together: Oslo, Rome, France, and so on. And one year, at the Edinburgh Fringe, we met the Light Opera of New York, who invited us over to Greenwich Village for a week.

Then we were invited to do the Bermuda festival one year, and went back four times in all. We sang at the International Law conference in Christchurch, New Zealand. Miles didn't come, and didn't do Tiddy Dols on a Friday night so we're very used to singing in a trio. Sometimes we have Tom Barlow, David's son, who's a very good bass player.

Quite early on, we asked each other why were we doing this. We decided it was because it was fun. It didn't matter that it wasn't paying the mortgage. That was a rather sensible decision, really: it was just a hobby.

Or therapy. In medicine, you see the most ghastly things, and part of it is managing yourself, and helping others to manage it.

I found the best way to see my young patients was at home, and that way you usually met dad as well. Then you realise these families, who are just like you and me, suddenly turn into saintly people who cope with really huge difficulties in an amazing way. They have this incredible strength, which makes you feel small, and slightly inadequate.

People don't understand what it's like to care for ill or disabled or autistic children. Parents know most about their children, not me; so we used to try to create an environment where parents help each other because they are dealing with same problems. I can bring out my other stuff, but that's a very, very small part of the whole thing.

I was a choirboy at St George's Headstone, Harrow, and that's where it was all at. I was born in Pinner, and my father was a very good tenor. My whole childhood revolved round church, cricket, and tennis: choir practice on Tuesdays and Fridays, weddings on Saturdays, two services on Sundays, and the children's activities, theatre group, and tennis and cricket. And my mother and her sister ran the children's clinic there. When my father came back from the war, the first thing he did was get back to the cricket pitch. I also learnt the guitar and trumpet, and played in the St Thomas's jazz band.

We've sung in many churches of all denominations. We were singing in one last weekend to raise money for the heating. It was quite chilly.

I have three sons, all musical. Two work in the musical world, and one in medicine. My eldest did composition at the Royal Academy, and is now a freelance writer and producer doing pop, classical, films. . . The middle son is a GP; and the youngest read English at Durham and works for Warner Chappell music publishers.

As I child, I wanted to be a fireman, and then a farmer.

I'd like to be remembered for bringing joy.

We like to go to the Quantocks and the Lake District, to the Wordsworth Winter School, and the Coleridge weekend. Edinburgh, of course, every other year, and the North Yorkshire Dales. My wife, Judith, was born and brought up in Mumbai; so we went to visit her brother there, and South Africa where he lives now.

It's wonderful to be retired, because you can get through more books. On the whole, I read fewer novels, but I've just read a Dickens, having read Claire Tomalin's biography of him. I'm reading Simon Sebag-Montefiore's history of Jerusalem at the moment.

There's so much stuff in the Bible - always something new you come across - though I quite enjoy some of the familiar bits of the Old Testament, and the unfamiliar bits. Genesis is terrific: reminds me of Haydn's Creation, which I used to sing as choirboy.

We all get angry, I suppose, but in retrospect it's over quite silly things. I can get boring and angry with things I was involved with at work: children with chronic problems and disability. Or, as a GP, I'd go round houses, and behind the lace curtains find terrible poverty and unhappiness. Used to get on my high horse about that.

Someone said to me, years and years ago, why don't you write anything significant? But I'm happier writing what, hopefully, makes people laugh. I suppose laughter is a really good tonic, actually.

I pray for peace.

Locked in a church? Dear, oh dear, I'd be working out how to get out. I'm happiest with my family and friends. You're always slightly disappointed when you meet a really famous person because you find out they're just exactly like you: two lips, two eyes. . .

Dr Peter Christie was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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