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Guest Blog: Peter Polycarpou on Charlie Chaplin and FALLING STARS

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Celebrating songs of the 1920s

Guest Blog: Peter Polycarpou on Charlie Chaplin and FALLING STARS
Peter Polycarpou

I've always had a very keen interest in collecting music, especially Victorian parlour songs. While walking along East Finchley High Street, I found a very lovely old antique shop that had, hidden away at the back, a colossal tower of what appeared to be sheet music. Instantly, I was intrigued by this two-and-a-half-foot mass-column of music!

While rummaging through, I realised that some of the songwriters I was looking at, and reading the music of in my head, were young - in their late teens or early twenties, and people who later in their careers were to become giants in either publishing or songwriting. It dawned on me quite quickly that in my hands I had the makings of a show about the early writings of these artists from the 1920s. My inspiration really was about bringing to life the forgotten melodies from this old songbook.

I've always been a huge fan of the music and career of Charlie Chaplin, and not many people know that he wrote music for all of his films - even though he couldn't read music himself. Silent movies weren't in fact silent at all; there was normally pianist or a whole orchestra accompanying the film itself, sometimes with sound effects!

In fact, Chaplin played three musical instruments - the cello, the violin, and the piano - but he needed the services of a guy called Meredith Wilson to put the music on paper. He would whistle the tunes to Wilson, who would then notate the music for him. I wanted to bring the music of the songwriters from the 1920s and the music of Charlie Chaplin together, and that's when I realised that Falling Stars was already a fully-formed thought in my head. The title is taken from one of Chaplin's songs.

When these songwriters were creating these songs, there had just been the most appalling pandemic in 1918. It was called the Spanish flu pandemic. The numbers who died were estimated to be between 30-50 million people. That was about one in three of the world's population. So, I think you will immediately see the parallels between what happened then and what is happening now. People wanted to forget. These songs helped them to do just that.

Guest Blog: Peter Polycarpou on Charlie Chaplin and FALLING STARS
Falling Stars at the Union Theatre

They'd also just had the First World War, which cut a huge scythe through the younger population. The songs, however, had a strange untouched quality about them, and they express the spirit of the age and perhaps a moment frozen in time. So, I guess what I really want to do is revive some of these forgotten melodies, give people a chance to hear these songs again, help them to understand the context in which these songs were made, and enjoy the early work of these budding songwriters.

We are living in an almost cataclysmic and catastrophic time for the theatre. We are living through a lack of human contact for the most part, because we are forced to be apart from our loved ones or to visit them under the most stressful circumstances. We are not allowed to socialise properly together; we have curfews, whole regions of the country have their borders closed, and it feels like we are more divided as a country than we have ever been before.

The theatre is a medium for contact, for social engagement, for human interaction - it helps us to understand the nature of what it is to be human, so now more than ever we need theatre to help us understand what we're going through. We also need theatre to take us out of ourselves to help us forget, to entertain us, to give us a good night out.

I guess what I'm trying to do with Falling Stars is show that it's still possible to have a night out in a safe place surrounded by people who care about the same thing and just need a bit of escapist fun. There's no real politics in the show, just a whole bunch of lovely charming songs with some stories about the writers and their lives.

Peter Polycarpou writes and stars in Falling Stars, alongside Sally Ann Triplett, at the Union Theatre on 22 and 29 November


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