22 November 2009 Scotland on Sunday
WHEN Katharine Brown, aka Miss Scotland, performs a rap song to a global audience of 2.8 billion in Johannesburg on December 12, it promises to be one of the more unlikely moments in the history of Miss World. Brown, after all, grew up in Dunblane not the Bronx, works as a tennis coach and is very, very blonde (admittedly, no more so than Eminem).
But just as unlikely is her song-writing partner. With a taste for neither bling nor boasting, Gordon Dougall is a genial 54-year-old Scot, best known as the mastermind behind the Tron Theatre pantos and as the artistic director of Glasgow music-theatre company Sounds of Progress. He is a man who fastens his belt sensibly around his waist and does not reveal his underpants when he walks.
Yet it is through Dougall's music-biz contacts that Brown ended up in a New York studio, owned by producer and philanthropist Curtis McGraw Webster, with a hot 22-year-old hip hop producer Tony James, recording their song Brooklyn to Glasgow. Because the single is for the benefit of disabled musicians in Glasgow, they managed to get a prestigious line-up to work for free, including sound engineer Chrys Lindop – who has worked with David Byrne, Stevie Wonder and Ry Cooder – singer Maggie Reilly and Wet Wet Wet guitarist-turned-producer Graeme Duffin.
For Dougall, a sometime songwriter signed to Chappel Music, it was an eye-opening experience. He'd started work on the song with his friend Rikki Brown, a BBC comedy writer, and developed a story about a Scottish girl trying to persuade her rapping New York boyfriend to see the sights of Scotland. By his own admission, it was a "Tron panto-type rap", with comedy references to haggis and Irn Bru. By the time, he and Katherine Brown hit Manhattan, however, it had become "a real serious rap number".
"I'm learning loads about it," he says in a rehearsal break from Ya Beauty and the Beast, his latest romp through the Pantosphere, co-written with Fletcher Mathers. "I didn't feel intimidated because, having written it, I was quite happy to let it go and let Tony do whatever he wanted. What was fantastic was I learned things I didn't expect to learn about rap music: its poetic nature, how it's constructed, even technical things, because I couldn't work out where they were taking breaths."
It’s a relationship Dougall hopes to further next year when he plans to return to New York to work on an album with James. "We got on like a house on fire and started writing some other songs," he says. "One of the aims is to involve New York street kids in putting the material together. It's helping kids in Brooklyn to get experience in the studio and use their skills on this album. It's a different kind of inclusion, but just like the Sounds of Progress stuff, it's working with people who would not normally get the chance to work on such an exciting project."
He's delighted – and not a little overwhelmed – at how the whole thing is going, even though getting involved in Miss World was not a straight-forward decision. Sounds of Progress, which is about to change its name to Limelight, is a platform for musicians with disabilities, people who are usually excluded from your average beauty contest. To get tied up in the ultimate celebration of the idealised female form provoked some serious soul searching about the question of body fascism. "It came down to the fact that ultimately our job is to give our musicians mainstream musical opportunities," says Dougall. "We're not a political party, so we couldn't say no to something like that."
Unsurprisingly, his transatlantic trips have rubbed off on the Tron panto. Listen out for Clap to the Rap in the second half of Ya Beauty and the Beast. "It's a big event in the show," he says. "It's much more authentic than I would have done a year ago, because it's got all the right sounds and all the elements of the Katherine Brown number."
The show is a milestone for two more reasons. It is the tenth panto Dougall has co-written and it marks the 20th anniversary of his Tron panto debut. Since he was musical director of Peter and Penny's Panto in 1988, he has been at the heart of the Tron's distinctive brand of bijou seasonal entertainment, shows characterised by the twin impulse to celebrate panto tradition and destroy it from the inside. The shows, variously written with Forbes Masson and Fletcher Mathers, demonstrate a have-your-cake-and-eat-it ability to entertain the children with good-versus-evil storylines while delighting the grown-ups with a sense of humour that's heavy on irony.
"We're trying to take all the variety theatre and panto ideas – which are fantastic and universal for families – and subvert them so they become more modern shows," says Dougall, who also spent four years as musical director of the Glasgow King's panto. "We try and work at two levels, so that everything that was great about variety and vaudeville is there. It's great when actors come up to you and say they really want to work on the Tron panto because people in the business still see it as the place they want to be."
This year's show, fielding a crack cast including Sally Reid, Andy Clark and George Drennan, has a passing resemblance to Beauty and the Beast, although you might not recognise the names of Bunty Beautox, Mary Hill and Barfolemew Beastie. Neither will you recognise a plot in which Prince Charming sets out to discover the greatest secret in the Pantosphere – a secret that may or may not be linked to the way thunder and lightning keeps striking even though no baddie appears.
It has, in other words, all the postmodern hallmarks we've come to know and love, although for Dougall it is merely one surreal staging post among many. "It's been a very strange year," he laughs.
Ya Beauty and the Beast, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, December 1–January 3
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