By: Lucy Mangan | THE GUARDIAN
To me, Ivor Cutler was simply the author of the children’s book Meal One, in which a child and his mother find ways of coping as the plum stone the boy has dropped down a crack in the floorboards rapidly grows into a tree and takes over the house. It was charming and yet slightly unsettling at the same time.
By the end of Ivor Cutler by KT Tunstall – Sky Arts’ beautiful, heartfelt love letter from the singer to the poet/singer/humorist/unimpeachable link in the chain of great British eccentrics, and her long-time idol – I knew a lot more. Including that Meal One perhaps contains the essence of what turned out to be a charming and yet slightly unsettling man, whose career grew and flourished for nearly 60 years and which he seems to have at times allowed to take over his house.
Born Isadore Cutler in 1923 into a well-off Jewish family in Govan, Glasgow, he joined the RAF during the second world war until he was found sketching clouds in mid-air and dismissed for being “too dreamy”. Postwar, he became an inspired and inspiring teacher who, informed by the poverty he saw around him and the antisemitic bullying he had suffered growing up, couldn’t bear the then-routine corporal punishment of students.
But his life, he said, didn’t really begin until he moved to London in 1950 and started to find his creative way and voice, and build the career that best suited both, gathering passionate devotees along the way via radio and television appearances and live concerts. They encompassed poetry, prose and songs – daftness and melancholy suffusing the whole – as he accompanied himself on the harmonium and piano. Several books appeared, too. Tunstall reads out parts of Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol 2 (there was no Volume 1) through tears of laughter. Her own memories of being dragged out walking with her family give his descriptions of such excursions extra torque as his deadpan, Chic Murrayish tones filled the air. “Mother became descriptive. ‘Look! A patch of grass.’”
There is always a danger when a documentary is made by a famous fan of the subject that the ego of the former will crowd out the latter, but there is none of that here. Tunstall is there to serve us as much Ivor Cutler as she can and to try, not to define her hero, but to trace his lines and lineaments as best she can, for those coming cold to this genius oddity. But she leaves you to draw your own conclusions – Cutler, the progressive teacher, would surely have approved – about where to situate him in the firmament. Were those (knowing) traces of William McGonagall you could hear? Tastes of Spike Milligan and Goonery? Did you find yourself at different moments thinking of Ken Campbell, early Billy Connolly and Tom Lehrer? Or were you too distracted by laughing?
Celebration and love letter it may have been, but Tunstall doesn’t let it preclude sadder, more difficult testimony too, particularly from Cutler’s son Dan. He gently but firmly prises a few scales from her eyes about a father who “wasn’t around much” and who “spent most of his life trying to get to a point where he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do”. It’s an admirable approach to a career, but the unspoken thought that there are better ways to approach family life hung heavy in the air. Dan’s favourite of his father’s songs is I’m Going in a Field. “I didn’t like the bouncy, happy ones. To me, they never really fitted in with how I felt about him. They seemed slightly out of character, almost.”
Cutler seems to have been plagued by what we would now call depressive episodes, perhaps stemming from the (perceived?) lack of love from his mother, especially after a new baby was born. “It’s why I tried to kill my kid brother,” he explained laconically in a 2005 interview. “I took the poker out of the fire …” Then his auntie came in and told him: “‘Put that down!’ So I did. I wasn’t going to fight over it.”
Viewers with any predilection for humour, music, poetry or the ineffable sense of a time when eccentricity could flourish and resist commodification surely went to seek him out after this plum of a programme. Love sends you.