The pace of children’s lives nowadays is helping to consign the kettle to the scrapheap, Artie Trezise tells Kelly Apter
AS I STEP off the train at Ladybank station in Fife, a lone figure tentatively calls my name. He doesn’t know me, but I – like most parents in Scotland – most definitely know him. He’s Artie Trezise, co-founder of The Singing Kettle, here to whisk me to Kettle headquarters a mile up the road.
Climbing into a transit van may not be the most glamorous thing in the world, but it still feels like I’m catching a lift from children’s theatre royalty. Although today, there’s a certain poignancy to our journey to Kingskettle.
Just over 32 years ago, Trezise made the same trip to Ladybank station to pick up Gary Coupland – a young musician who had placed an ad in The Scotsman.
“It said ‘Keyboard and accordion player seeks work’,” recalls Trezise. “I clipped it out and phoned him. Then picked him up from the station – and we did our first gig two days later in Dalkeith Library.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but that music and song session in a Midlothian library was the birth of Scotland’s most successful children’s entertainment business.
Three decades later, having performed to over five million people, sold hundreds of thousands of CDs and DVDs and received an MBE from the Queen, the Singing Kettle empire is about to fold.
When the curtain falls on their “Big Party” show in Aberdeen this February, it will be the end of an era – not just for the company, but generations of families who have grown up singing “spout, handle, lid of metal – what’s inside the Singing Kettle?”
Deciding to close the company, and by extension make the whole team – onstage and off – redundant, was, says Trezise, “the worst thing I’ve had to do in my whole life”. With audience figures of 75,000 in the last financial year, and product sales still healthy, it may feel like an odd choice. But as Trezise says, when you’re this big, anything less is a compromise.
“Our ticket sales have pretty much plateaued over the last five years, but our costs have gone up – and that equation doesn’t work,” he explains. “We’re not making enough money to sustain the organisation we have at the moment, and changing it would mean doing less of a show, and I don’t want that. It would be like watching something you created slowly decaying.
“We’re still getting a lot of folk coming to the shows, so I wanted to go out with a buzz rather than a whimper.”
Trezise cites the changes in children’s interests as the reason for their slow demise. Whereas once they attracted the five-to-ten year old market, now their audience is largely pre-schoolers who move on to other things by the age of six. The film industry, pop music and online games have all taken their slice of the action and, as Trezise says, “society wants children to grow up quicker now”.
It wasn’t always thus. Selling out the 2,500-seater Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for 30 days over Christmas used to be par for the course. Then, once the world of television brought them to the attention of families outside Scotland, there were sold-out gigs at the London Palladium and Sadler’s Wells, not to mention invitations to do outreach work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, perform in front of the Capitol building in Washington DC and sing for the King of Jordan at his daughter’s birthday party.
Both Trezise and wife Cilla Fisher talk proudly, but with true humility, about all they have achieved. Prior to founding The Singing Kettle, the couple (who met backstage at a Gerry Rafferty gig) had been jobbing folk musicians on the road, making ends meet by selling albums at the end of gigs.
“It was our daughter’s suggestion to do a children’s album,” says Trezise. “She was about six or seven, and we used to sing to her in the car when we travelled around. One day she said you should do an album of the children’s songs we sing in the car – they’re much better than the songs I hear in anyone else’s car.”
The album sold more copies in one year than their folk records had in the previous 12.
“We thought, there’s something here,” says Fisher, “looks like people want to hear Scottish children’s songs.” To begin with, they sang old favourites and rhymes set to music, but when those started to run out, Fisher found a previously undiscovered talent.
“I started writing songs,” she says, “which was great, because I never thought I could do that – and now I’ve written 290.”
It’s not just her songwriting abilities Fisher will be remembered for, however, as all Kettle fans will confirm. No show was complete without a bit of Cilla patter: good-natured ribbing of both the audience and her on-stage companions that often had the crowd in stitches.
“I’ve always been a bit cheeky,” she says. “I never intended to be funny, but it seemed to work out that way. Even when we were doing folk music, Artie would do a straight intro and I would put in the wee quips.”
So what of the future? The company offices, rehearsal space and shop in Kingskettle will be sold. Both Fisher and Trezise retired from the Kettle shows in 2012, but the current line-up of Coupland, Kevin McLeod and Anya Scott-Rodgers hope to continue entertaining audiences in a different guise.
Thirty-two years after that fateful advert was placed, Coupland has just been named Alumni of the Year 2014 at Napier University. Trezise is enjoying “going back to basics” with Artie’s Tartan Tales, a pop-up show incorporating stories and songs. But for Fisher, it’s time to redress the work/life balance.
“I looked at myself and thought, ‘I’m 60 for God’s sake, dancing about as a fairy,’” she laughs. “It was such good fun and we’ve been very, very lucky. But now I’m hoping to see all the friends and family I haven’t seen for 30 years. The amount of birthdays, weddings and christenings I’ve missed – there’s plenty to catch up on.”
• The Singing Kettle’s Big Christmas Party and Big Party is touring Scotland until February 2015, www.singingkettle.com