As The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are on the TV over Christmas/New Year, I’ve revived my interview with George Hinchcliffe, one of the Group’s founder members.

They’re a very popular, unique  group, and very entertaining.

If you’ve never heard them, do look them up and listen to them on Utube, etc. Or even better, go and see them live!

Guaranteed, you’ll be a converted fan!

About 12 years ago Hubby John was working in London & friends took him to the Half Moon in Putney in the evening.
He phoned me all excited & said he was watching a brilliant, eccentric group, all playing uk- hang on, I’ve got to look up the spelling!-ukulales, & that I’d love them!

We use Ukulele (not ukulale)

Then I saw you on the telly & he was right, I thought you were brilliant, & very Engish-eccentric!

We’ve been on the telly quite a few times all over the world. Could have been “The Story of Light Entertainment”.

Q. What made you start playing the ukulele?

A. My father came home with a ukulele when I was about 6 years old. I think someone owed him some money and he had been given various things to make up the value. After a few months I asked my father if I could get some strings for the uke. He took me to meet a man he knew who ran a music shop and was a jazz double bass player, who fixed me up with strings, a tutor book, a copy of Mezz Mezzrow’s “Really the Blues” and a taste for the high life and low company which being a musician sometimes involves! I started to try to imitate the music I heard on “Popeye the Sailorman” cartoons.

How would you describe the group?

01The clue to the character of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is in the name. It’s an orchestra of ukuleles, no oboes, no violins, no timpani, no guitars. It’s irreverent but also a much loved national institution. It has a down-home flavour but it’s solidly professional and has elicited sold-out theatres and standing ovations all over the world, from Tasmania to the North Pole.

What’s your theme?

The orchestra is an all singing, all plucking group of entertainers who engage with the audience from a range of perspectives.

We have produced our own CDs and DVDS including Live at Sydney Opera House with on-screen music to play along with, Live at the Royal Albert Hall, and a slew of CDs. We manage ourselves, have our own production company and aren’t signed to any record company or management agency. Of course we have some relationships with other organisations but they don’t own us.

When/how did you start?

We started in 1985 with a concert which was intended to be a one-off. The audience liked it and we kept going… and going.

“Ukulele Orchestra.” I invented that term. It was ironic at the time, rather like saying: “The Sahara Desert Sub Aqua Club”. But by now it seems to have become the default term for a bunch of ukulele players. It is used by a great many groups having lots of fun and making merry music. But it is also used by some who pass themselves off as us, or imitate our brand, our style, our line-up, our show. We support all musicians, all ukulele players, indeed anyone who’s been inspired by us to start their own ukulele orchestra, in whatever country. We don’t like rip-off acts though.

05As we have said on stage from “day one” at thousands of performances: “We ARE The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain”.

Our name is a registered trade mark and we are the original ukulele orchestra. Acts like The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Brooklyn are jokey tributes at our expense. We like that. But the group hired by “sailing-close-to-the-wind” promoters and calling itself The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra is passing off as us, and trying to let promoters and venue managers think that those hired hands are us. The lawyers have a field day with that sort of thing.

The founders (me and a couple of friends, Kitty Lux, still my co-director, and Andy Astle, who though not regularly with us now played with us recently at The Royal Albert Hall in London), had become jaded with the pretentiousness and pomposity which we sometimes found in the worlds of rock and classical music. We saw in the vision of an orchestra of ukuleles, a level playing field, an outsider art project, a social sculpture, a way of cutting through all the expectations of music or playing music. For us it was a project without any limitations, without any expectations or conventions. As we say in our publicity, we aim to give the audience a range of music and approaches to music on several different levels. Rock, classical, folk, dance music, an obituary of rock-and-roll and light music and “One Plucking Thing After Another”.

Did you all know each other?

Originally we were all friends and friends of friends.

Are you all the original members?

We have four players from the early years still with us. The most recent recruit joined in 1995.

Are you close friends?

We are like the Rolling Stones. We loved each other for the first 20 years, and then we became inured to touring life. We try to maim each other on a regular basis, but because we are English we restrain ourselves. If any outsider threatens any of the group however, we will all turn on them like enraged dogs guarding our family and spawn.

Do you & your families socialise much, or are you sick of the sight of each other at the end of a gig?

02We have very little time to do anything except touring. So any time off is spent with children, or doing laundry, or trying to squeeze in a dental appointment, or sleeping.

How often do you get together to rehearse?

We tour all the time. We rehearse at our sound checks. There is no other time unless we have time off.

How often do you change the repertoire/set list?

We change the repertoire constantly. Some new material sticks, some dates rather quickly. The audience tell us which the best pieces are.

Do you do tours much, or just the odd gig?

We used to do 200 shows a year, but we’ve cut it down to around 120 shows. But as many of those are abroad we spend more than half our lives away.

Where do you prefer to perform?

We enjoy all our shows and all our venues. Audiences seem to like the fact that we have a good time on stage. It would be unfair to single out particular venues, but we have had success and repeat visits to venues such as The Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Svalbard, The Vienna Opera House, Glastonbury Festival, and the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. To say nothing of the smallest pub in the Britain.

What are your plans for 2014?

04We have tours planned for Britain, Japan, China, USA, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland. And the Isle of Wight. Among other places.

Thank you George. That was great!

Contact details;
Ian Wood
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
31a Larcom Street
SE17 1NJ

Phone: 020 7981 0030