Some performers take command of the audience from the moment they step onto the stage: Ian McMillan goes one further, coming outside to greet his audience, as they arrive at the venue (St. Nicholas's Church in Durham Marketplace) with cries of "Come in, we're about to start!" and "Have a free postcard!"
Inside, he did not relax his grip on the proceedings; every detail was taken care of, from the introductions ("Alison is going to introduce me, in a humourous yet informal fashion") to the audience response (instructions about the proper way to applaud politely were followed by a quick rehearsal), and even a fanfare, played by a brass ensemble which had been rehearsing at Kelloe School under the supervision of Luke Carver Goss.
What followed was a whirlwind stand-up routine, in which poems were not so much read, as reduced to their raw ingredients. Ian McMillan works hard to gain the complicity of his audience: "I love performing," he confides. "The best bit's when they say your name!" This leads him into an extended riff about bad gigs, like the school in Newark who were expecting not him but novelist Ian MacMillan, interspersed with the refrain "It's all true - I wish it weren't!" He produced a collection of signs, from his billing at the Melton Mowbray Comedy Festival ("FUNNY POET HERE ON THURSDAY") to the cryptic sign gathered from Lincoln Library: "We do not supply washing-up liquid". What has this to do with poetry? It's all about what people notice - and Ian McMillan notices everything, giving a name check to every school.
He completed the softening up of the audience by involving them in the performance of his poem, Drinks Machines, punctuating his rhythmic, rap-like performance with "the Barnsley existential cry of despair" - which is, of course, "eeeh!"
Next it was the turn of the brass ensemble to join in for a world premiere of the accompaniment they had devised for Ian McMillan's poem Goodnight from Him. This had been commissioned by the Today programme, as a tribute to the late Ronnie Barker, and the poet explained that he enjoyed working to commission, the more specific the better: in this case, he had been asked to use the phrase "It's Goodnight from him...", and to work to a specific length. The arrangement for brass incorporated a further reference to the partnership of the two Ronnies, with its dialogue between a big and a little instrument. (The poem appears, without musical accompaniment, on the front page of Ian McMillan's web site.
More music followed, with a sing-along parody of Postman Pat, a Bulgarian tune from Luke Carver Goss and - interrupted only by a police siren audible outside, provoking the comment, "Ah, it's the Poetry Police. Tough on rhyme, tough on the causes of rhyme" - the harrowing tale of the man who was shantied to death on his way home from the folk club.
Finally, since "Poetry's not a cruise ship; there are no passengers." the entire audience was roped in to compose a poem. Ian McMillan started it off, on the flip-chart which had been standing ready throughout the evening: "Midnight in..." and he was off, interrogating the audience about the name of the church, and what might happen there at midnight. The war memorials behind him inspired the next line, and at the mention of ghosts he found - among Luke Carver Goss's collection - an instrument that would make a scary thunderous noise (an elegant cylinder of midnight blue decorated with lightning flashes, and called, according to the musician, a spring drum). Back to the war memorial to select a specific name, hardly standing still long enough for the camera to catch him at rest, demanding from the audience three questions of local significance which might be asked of the ghost, recruiting Hayley O'Connelly to play the part of the ghost of T.F. Gibson Anderson - and on to the first run-through of the poem so far:
Midnight in St. Nic'sThere was a pause while T.F. Gibson Anderson collapsed in giggles. Eventually it was agreed that when the ghost opened its mouth to reply to these three questions of arcane significance, the sound that emerged would be not words, but the music which Luke Carver Goss was doodling on the accordion. Somehow, this became shaped into The T.F. Gibson Anderson song, and the evening ended with several rousing choruses of:
Midnight in St. Nic's
Midnight in St. Nic's
The ghosts of the memorials come out of the walls;
T.F. Gibson Anderson came through the door.
What day do you sign on?
Are you a Makem?
Why are you here?
T.F. Gibson Anderson
Fell down the stairs.
He flipped over the balcony
And took Ernest Joseph Eales unawares.
General Sir Peter
de la Billiere