Ben Castle admits he has an issue with his vowels. They’re not flat enough to have been honed in the North, but despite the accent he still considers himself a Yorkshireman. Partly it’s a treasured link to his father, the Holmfirth singer and musician Roy Castle, who also became part of generations of childhoods thanks to the 22 years that he presented Record Breakers.
Roy died in 1994 and for Ben, who has been spending a lot of time in Huddersfield putting together a new show, whenever he finds himself in Yorkshire he feels not just geographically close to his roots.
“I know I pronounce the name ‘Carstle’ rather than ‘Cassle’, but if you’ll forgive the slightly elongated vowels, I honestly am a Yorkshireman at heart. Whenever I find myself back there, I imagine Dad as a kid, kicking a football about and having no idea what life would hold. There’s a definite emotional pull north.”
It’s one that he’s been able to satisfy with his latest tour with Dewsbury-based Indian arts organisation Manasamitra. The show, Shivoham, takes its artistic inspiration from the Indian god Shiva and is funded by the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places project, which was set up to increase participation in arts in areas that fall below the national average. As a result, Castle and the rest of the musicians are part way through a tour that has already taken in an art gallery and restaurant, with future stop-offs including a community centre and golf club.
“It’s the brainchild of the composer, Shri Sriram,” says Ben, who plays saxophone and clarinet in the piece. “Shri and I had been aware of each other for a while, but we had never worked together. However, he was working on a project and when they needed another musician he thought of me.
“Shri has composed a soundtrack of beats which we then play on top off. A substantial part of the show is improvised, so it means that it’s different every time we do it, which is good for us and good for the audience. It takes you into different musical worlds.
“The very first show I did was at the end of last year in York Minster, which as venues go is pretty phenomenal. The acoustics are incredible, but this series of gigs will be slightly different. Part of the aim of the tour is to take music to different places and attract audiences that might feel uncomfortable going to traditional concert halls.”
Growing up with a father who had started his career in entertainment as soon as he left school it was perhaps inevitable that Ben embraced Roy’s love of music. While those who grew up watching Record Breakers knew Roy as both a tap dancer and a trumpet player, he always considered himself to be first and foremost a singer. Starting out in Blackpool, he honed his craft in the resort’s musical halls, became a regular on the Royal Variety Show and recorded numerous singles and albums.
Marrying the dancer Fiona Dickson, the couple had four children and by the time Ben, the youngest, came along the house was already filled with music.
“I don’t know whether everyone would describe it as idyllic, but yes we often spent Sunday afternoons playing music together. To be honest, as the youngest child I was always a bit of a show-off. I know some people would have balked at the idea of going round to someone’s house to sing carols, but I loved it. It meant I had an audience. While I’m the only one of the four of us that went into music professionally we still do occasionally play together.”
Roy was a big fan of jazz and when Ben entered his teens he decided that the time was right to introduce him to Ronnie Scott’s. The iconic London club opened its doors in 1959 and by the time Ben went there for the first time in the late 1980s it had played host to all of the jazz greats. “I was only 13 years old, but instantly I knew this was a special place. That night I saw Buddy Rich perform. People say he was the greatest jazz drummer of all time and they are right. I was just learning to play the drums and right there and then I knew the music what I wanted to do. He was playing with a phenomenal sax player with massive hair and I was just mesmerised. I could tell that he wasn’t just going through the motions, he was using the beat and the rhythm to explore ideas. There was a real energy on stage that night and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Roy, who died almost three years after being diagnosed with lung cancer which he blamed on years of passive smoking in jazz clubs, knew that something had been awakened in his son that night, but he also knew just how difficult making a career in the entertainment industry could be.
“Dad never discouraged me, but he did warn me of the pitfalls. He told me that whatever happened and whatever breaks I did or didn’t get I should never allow myself to be bitter. He had seen first hand the way that fame or the pursuit of fame affected some people. It can eat away at you and I suppose he just wanted to protect me and make sure that music wasn’t just a passing fad, but something that I really wanted to do. Once I convinced him of that, he was my biggest supporter.”
Ben had music lessons in and out of school, but aside from a one-year postgraduate course at the Guildhall School of Music he developed his talent and style largely through experimentation and within a decade or so of that first night at Ronnie Scott’s he had returned, but this time he was on the stage rather than in the audience.
“I’d performed there when I was 19 with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, but it was when I went back on my own when I was in my mid 20s that it really felt like an ambition fulfilled. It was funny, I had a recurring dream that I’d played Ronnie Scott’s and each time I had it, I always woke up terribly disappointed. Finally, I could put that one to rest. Of course, there have been other great moments since, but that night was the biggest buzz.”
In fact, Ben has enough career highlights to fill a dozen CVs. He assembled the brass section for the Queen’s Jubilee Concert which played for Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Madness and Robbie Williams, has been a backing musician for acts as varied as Jamie Cullum, Amy Winehouse and Marillion and co-wrote the Top 10 album Little Dreamer with singer Beth Rowley.
“I almost see myself as having two lives,” says the 41-year-old. “One as an improvising musician and the other as a session musician. The latter is my bread and butter, it’s what pays the bills, but it doesn’t mean I view it as being any less. The truth is, I love playing on other people’s records and there is something incredibly satisfying about doing as good a job as possible. When I do my own projects they tend to cost mone y and don’t make much, so they are what I consider my labour of love.”
Most recently that has seen him launch a new band, the Tombola Theory. It was formed as a tribute to Tommy “Tootle” Truman, an amateur clarinet player and Ben’s first real musical inspiration.
“He was also a school janitor, but each year without fail for more than 20 years he also played in his local trad jazz band. He was an eccentric, one of life’s real characters and if things had worked out differently, he would have been remembered as one of the British jazz greats. However, that wasn’t the hand he was dealt and like many talented musicians he didn’t do it for fame or money, he played because that in itself made him happy.”
Tommy died in 2009 without leaving behind any known recordings, just some happy musical memories for a select few. “I wanted to do something to remember him and that’s how the Tombola Theory came about,” adds Ben. “I realise that pop music set to the trad jazz of the music of the 1930s isn’t exactly an easy sell, but I just tell myself it’s what the kids are crying out for…”
The Tombola Theory are unlikely to trouble the charts, but you suspect both Tommy and Dad would have been proud.
• Manasamitra and Ben Castle will be performing Shivoham at the Greenwood Centre, Ravensthorpe, tonight; Oakwell Hall, Birstall, on June 24; and Dewsbury Golf Club, Mirfield, on June 25. For all ticket information go to www.manasamitra.com