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Review: The Battle of Britain – 70th Anniversary Concert @ Lichfield Cathedral

Conductor Carl Davis

Conductor Carl Davis

On Friday the Lichfield Festival welcomed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis, in a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. With Liverpool’s own Claire Sweeney taking the role of forces sweetheart – singing numbers such as Lili Marlene and The White Cliffs of Dover – we were promised a night of stirring songs, military marches and 1940s glamour.

Davis, who famously wrote the score to TV documentary The World at War, is a consummate showman, and did not disappoint; almost as soon as he’d appeared in his bright-blue tailcoat, he had the orchestra romping through Ron Goodwin’s thrilling 633 Squadron, and the RLPO sounded fantastic. Dressed all in white, Sweeney certainly delivered the glamour, but her opener – We’re Gonna Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line – seemed to fall slightly flat in the Cathedral setting.

Of the purely orchestral numbers, the RLPO shone in two pieces by Walton: his Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and Battle in the Air (originally axed by an executive on 1969 film Battle of Britain, then reinstated by a furious Laurence Olivier). Davis’s own compositions – including two pieces for the TV drama Goodnight Mr Tom – were also very fine, with the theme to The World at War enhanced by some powerful percussion. In fact the orchestra played energetically throughout, offering punchy brass in Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, and even some accordion in Goodnight Children, Everywhere.

Sweeney gave it her all, but even during apparently fail-safe singalongs the audience were slow to join in – perhaps because the lyrics weren’t always articulated clearly. With many years of experience in musical theatre, she seemed more at home with the barnstorming numbers, like Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer, than The White Cliffs of Dover or the comic stylings of Gracie Fields’ Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, but as we neared the end of the second half she finally seemed to have warmed up the audience.

Two encores: a wartime medley (including Run, Rabbit, Run) and We’ll Meet Again were received with cheers and waving programmes, and we all left with upper-lips much stiffer than when we’d arrived.

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