BWW Interview: Ty Jeffries Talks IT'S MISS HOPE SPRINGS
Films, theatre and music were always part of Ty Jeffries' world growing up. The son of renowned actor, director and screen-writer Lionel Jeffries, it's no surprise then that all three have featured in a varied and diverse career for both himself and his alter-ego: Miss Hope Springs.
It's Miss Hope Springs brings the "never say die showbiz trouper" back into the spotlight and onto the Southbank, in a journey down memory lane. Also looking back himself, Ty reflects on the conception of Miss Hope Springs and what audiences can expect from her latest engagement.
What's an early memory of theatre?
Well home was like a theatre, growing up with my parents who were both actors. "All the world's a stage..." and that was certainly true of my family life!
An early memory would have been going to see Peter Brook's groundbreaking A Midsummer Night's Dream. That was back in...I'm not going to tell you, if I did I'd have to kill you! That and seeing Danny La Rue with my Mum and Dad.
Danny was a great friend of theirs and they always took me and my sisters to the Palace Theatre in London when he did his shows. We'd to go backstage afterwards into Danny's plush, red velvet dressing room, and he'd be still dressed as his female self, pouring us champagne.
So with the theatre there from a young age, could you share a bit about your career path?
I started writing music at the age of five. My parents had friends who moved to America, and left their Steinway grand in our potting shed. I went in there and just started writing songs. I took up piano lessons and when I was thirteen and went to the Purcell School of music where I studied piano, violin and composition.
Then when I was in my early twenties, I moved into a very camp house, as a lodger, with a landlady called Lyn. She was an ex-Vegas show girl (funnily enough) who quite influenced the persona of my alter ego Miss Hope Springs.
Her husband Barry was a singer at Langan's Brasserie and people like Richard O'Brien and Lionel Blair would come for dinner and heard me play. Barry was going away on holiday and asked if I would like to take over at Langan's. That was my first professional job. Then I went on to play at the Ritz and the Kensington Roof Gardens.
At that time, I was doing standards but then introduced my original songs. I was always a singer song-writer (I had my first publishing deal with Elton John around that time). But it took me until I invented Miss Hope Springs to really make my mark.
I think the first appearance of Miss Hope Springs on stage was back in 2010.
Yes. Although she had an elephantine gestation! She was around really when I was a child, I think.
I was obsessed with Hollywood from the age of seven years old. Garbo and Crawford and Dietrich, old-school Hollywood. I was always creating those and other faces on my face with my sisters' Mary Quant make-up crayons.
I was obsessed with Lon Chaney, the silent movie star, who was called 'the man with a thousand faces'. There's a wonderful series of around 50 pictures of him in different make-ups as very different people.
I became fascinated with the idea of transformation and masks. And Miss Hope Springs eventually was my chosen creative interface and muse.
They say, "Write about what you know". Well I know about Hollywood history and those women, having read all the biographies, poured over the studio portraits, watched all the movies and heard all the wonderful music of Golden Age Hollywood.
Also Édith Piaf and Josephine Baker, all that went in the giant blender that is in my twisted mind. I threw in some sequins and marabou feathers and out came Miss Hope Springs, fully formed, in 2010.
How would she describe herself, to those who haven't met her?
Well of course she would describe herself as a svelte ingénue in the first blush of stardom...which she's been saying for 40 years!
She's a never say die showbiz trouper, like so many before her. Judy, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, they're strong, despite adversity they are mostly hardy. Olivia de Havilland is 102 and Doris Day 97, a lot of them live to a great age. They're made of something steely, very sparkly and very steely. She's got that in her.
Unfortunately her backstory is that she didn't get the breaks. There's an enormous amount of pathos. She's a fading glamour-puss on the outside, but what I do is reveal the complex workings behind that glittering showbiz facade.
And growing up in a house of actors, I think back to those people coming through the doors. I would be doing my homework and my parents would always stop and introduce me to their dinner guests: Shelley Winters, Shirley MacLaine, Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl, Lee Remick, Fred Astaire, Diana Dors.
Meeting those people and hearing, personally, some of their more tragic stories, stories that were known by the public perhaps only through newspaper headlines, I grew to understand that behind the facade there is pain and heartache, there are trials and tribulations.
And I know that as entertainers, no matter what, we turn up, put on that costume, stick on those lashes and that wig, get on that stage and just do it.
So what brought about your latest show, It's Miss Hope Springs?
I've called it It's Miss Hope Springs because I'm bringing it to a new audience at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. The Underbelly show is really the a premiere/ preview.
It spans an opus of shows I've written and performed over the last nine years, from Je m'appelle Hope to Latin ala Springs, from Out of this World and Blood, Sweat and Sequins to Vegas to Weimar. I churn them out like the Arthur Freed studio used to do back in the day at MGM!
This show is really 'The Miss Hope Springs Story'. It's a bit of everything across her life, so you get a picture of who she is, what she's been through and what her aspirations are for the future as she proceeds further down her somewhat pot-holed 'mammary lane' as she puts it.
What might surprise people to learn about Miss Hope Springs?
Perhaps the classical background? I performed as Miss Hope Springs at the Wigmore Hall, which is a very famous classical music venue, as part of The Devil Made Me Do It tour in 2017. I believe I'm the only non-classical artist to have played a sold-out solo show there.
It might surprise people to know that I have a big following in the classical and opera world (BBC Radio 3's Petroc Trelawny is a fan). Something that sets me apart? The fact I play the piano and sing and that the songs are standalone works in their own right.
Authenticity as well. People really do believe Hope is real. They dream about her, they say, "It wasn't you, it was her". I have penetrated their psyches!
The last thing this is, much as I love the art form, is the 'd' word: DRAG! One is still negotiating the prejudices that people have as to what drag, or female impersonation, is or isn't. I pretentiously like to call what I do 'Gender Trompe L'oeil'. It's character based, musical, 'sit down' comedy.
And what can we expect from the songs in this show then?
Each song paints a picture, whether it's a witty point number or a moving ballad. It seems the poignant numbers, of which they are two or three, catch people very much by surprise if they've not seen the show before.
My songwriting has been generously compared to Brel and Bacharach even Sondheim, but they're not pastiche, I don't change the words of other people's songs to get a laugh. There an underlying seriousness, a pathos about the character. Kind reviews may say "It's hysterical", but also that it's very moving. Hope is a microcosm of the human condition.
I think that, coming from a theatre background, I approach it, not only as a composer and lyricist, but as a character actor. It took me many years to find my particular 'niche', to pinpoint exactly what it was I had to say, and to get out there and start saying it.
So I would advise anyone else who hasn't yet found their feet: just keep going. And like me, you may find that one day Hope Springs eternal.