A close encounter puts Richard’s career back on the musical path

Richard Digance
Richard Digance
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Richard Digance doesn’t know her name, but he owes his revived enthusiasm for his music to one of the audience at a show seven years ago.

The folk entertainer is celebrating 50 years in the business with his current tour, which swings by the Guildhall’s live lounge later this month.

A TV regular back in the ’80s and ‘90s, Richard was by his own admittance only being offered ‘the crappy stuff’ when he had the epiphany.

He recalls: ‘I did a gig in Essex and a woman came up to me afterwards and said: “I really enjoyed that Richard – I didn’t know you played guitar”, she’d only ever seen me on Countdown.

‘That’s not what I set out to do and I was so devastated that she didn’t even know what my main thing was – which was music, I stopped dead and chucked everything in and I went back to doing what I set out to do in the first place which was be a bit of a troubadour, a storyteller, a guitar player, a raconteur if you want to use that highbrow word.

‘All because of one woman in Clacton. I don’t know who she is or anything, but she changed my whole persona. I gave up television and went back to music.’

I always had this theory, which I still carry with me to this day that if you set up a song properly, an audience likes a song before they ever hear it

Richard Digance

Richard first got in with the folk crowd while at college, as a lone London boy in Glasgow.

‘It was a bit bizarre being in Glasgow, certainly at such a time when Glasgow’s not as accepting as it is today – it was a bit of a rough house.

‘I remember they said it became the cultural centre of Europe and I thought it was because they jacked cars up on books. I wanted to go out in the evenings, but I was a bit apprehensive with my accent, so I found the college folk club. The folk club resident was a guy called Billy Connolly. I’d never heard of him and I suppose many people hadn’t at that time. But I noticed very quickly that blokes used to buy him pints of beer and women used to chat him up, and I thought, that’s the only two reasons I’m in college - what am I doing? I’m wasting my time.’

He was also lucky enough to share a flat with future folk legend John Martyn.

‘I used to sit on the settee and watched him playing. Just by eyeballs, I probably had five years worth of learning in six months, just by being connected with a bloody good guitar player, and then that accelerated things really.’

Richard got a gig writing for the BBC on satirist Bernard Braden’s show. He got his break when he was asked to start writing – and performing humorous songs for the show.

Support shows with Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull and Supertramp followed.

‘I became the support act to book – not because I was good, I never said that, but because I was easy – I didn’t have a drummer or bass player, so the stage crew had no problems with me. I sang my songs, got the audience going and wandered off, so I was the dream support act, not from skill but from logistics!

‘I was learning my trade in front of all of these very big crowds. And if I didn’t give them the audience participation, I knew I would die on my backside, so the set up of the songs almost became more important than the songs themselves because I had to be noticed.

More tours with Elkie Brookes, Joan Armatrading, and most importantly for Richard, Steve Martin in America, came along.

‘All the way through I used to watch every single show, I never in my whole career when I was supporting people, missed a show - I wanted to learn stage craft and Steve Martin was a massive influence to me. They said to me before I met him, be warned he’s a bit crazy. But in actual fact he was a very well-mannered shy man. He wasn’t the grey-haired nutcase you see in the movies – and he’s a red-hot musician of course, one of the world’s best banjo players.

‘To watch his stagecraft up close was incredible – I hadn’t really seen it to that level before in Britain. To watch a guy explode and to watch his skills at grabbing an audience was massively influential.

‘When I came back from that tour I was ready, for want of a better term, to be a folk entertainer. Billy Connolly and Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott and all those people had gone before me.

‘But I wanted to be more musical, I wanted to be a serious songwriter at times, but I always had this theory, which I still carry with me to this day that if you set up a song properly, an audience likes a song before they ever hear it.’

By the time he was given his own Saturday night show, Richard was ready.

‘I had a fantastic grounding, so when I went on telly in 1983 I had that and I wasn’t scared of playing to big crowds. And just before I went in to telly I was presenting at Capital Radio, and because I was doing that, I was thrown into compering at the Knebworth festival, because that was their gig, and I’m up on stage with The Beach Boys and Mike Oldfield and people like that.

‘All the way through, I was forced into big gigs that taught me to live by sword which stood me in good stead.

‘I wasn’t phased by the fact that I might be watched by 8m people – I’d been in front of a quarter of a million at Knebworth.

‘I stress that at no point I said I was brilliant, all I’ve said was that I learned my trade.

‘My plan was always to leave a venue having scored a few points, that was all I wanted to do. And then when I got on telly I could suddenly call the shots a bit, so I’m playing guitar duets with Brian May because I liked him, and I became an honorary member of Status Quo because I liked them, and I played with the Moody Blues because I liked them, and that was a very, very enjoyable phase of my life.’

But then in 1995 he butted heads with the then head of entertainment at TVS – one Nigel Lythgoe.

‘Nigel Lythgoe chucked me out because he didn’t like me, which is great because I didn’t like him either. I worked for a little bit in the west country, TSW as it was, and then I did Countdown for 19 years.’

Lythgoe, of course went on to peak notoriety as the ‘nasty’ judge on X Factor forerunner Popstars. It’s safe to say Richard isn’t a fan of the genre.

‘Being a full-blooded musician I absolutely Detest with a capital D, things like Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor where you’re mocked by four multi-millionaires, who are creaming their own egos.

‘It’s all very well and it may be funny, but they’re shattering the dreams of a lot of young people. By being labelled a failure people give up, and young people should never give up music – music was never meant to be a competition, it’s meant to be enjoyed.

‘I hate those programmes with a vengeance. And it doesn’t help the young people – one or two become big names, but what about the thousands who don’t? They feel that they’re incapable or incompetent, and I don’t like that.’

Richard feels that leaving TV behind though has brought him full circle.

‘Telly and me drifted in different directions and I wanted to get back to performance, which was seven years ago now. I was quite surprised I can still pull a crowd, which after 50 years I think is quite a boast!’

Portsmouth Guildhall

Wednesday, July 26

portsmouthguildhall.org.uk