Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
George Hinchliffe's Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Peter Brooke Turner
|Kitty Lux (1985-2017)|
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) is an English musical group founded in 1985 as bit of fun by George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux. The orchestra consists entirely of ukuleles of various sizes and registers from soprano to bass. The members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) wear evening dress and sit in a chamber music format, in a line behind music stands in a parody of a classical ensemble. Musical comedy and general humour long being a feature of their act.
The orchestra is best known for performing covers from a wide range of musical genres, from classical to punk, via pop, rock, rhythm and blues, and spaghetti western sound tracks and more. All members of the orchestra take turns to take up the role of lead vocals, and the songs are often performed with a reinterpretation and genre twist. The UOGB has toured internationally and played at venues and festivals world-wide. They now brand themselves as "George Hinchliffe's Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain".
The orchestra was formed, as a bit of fun, in 1985, soon after George Hinchliffe bought co-founder and friend Kitty Lux a ukulele for her birthday. Hinchliffe invented the name "and suddenly we were the world's first ukulele orchestra." While the name was a deliberate oxymoron, according to Hinchliffe, the original idea was not to be a comedy act, but to create a liberating musical forum where any style of music could be played, from funk to rock-and-roll to classical, and the ukulele was chosen for its musical versatility more than its novelty value. "The humour only came in during the first gig, when we played in two keys by accident and were messing around, with the sheet music falling everywhere. I thought we should go with it." Their first gig was at the Roebuck pub, just off Trinity Church Square in London, within three years they had released an LP, appeared on BBC One, played at WOMAD and recorded a BBC Radio 1 session.
They performed at the 50th anniversary VE day celebrations in Hyde Park before an estimated audience of 170,000 in 1995 and have toured world wide playing in many international venues, including Glastonbury Festival (2005), New York's Carnegie Hall (2009, 2012), and the Sydney Opera House (2012). On Tuesday 18 August 2009 the UOGB performed in a late night prom in the BBC Proms 2009 Season at London's Royal Albert Hall, where they were the "fastest selling late night prom in history". The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and received much critical acclaim. This concert included a version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy in which at least 1000 audience members participated with Ukuleles. A DVD of the performance, Prom Night, was released the same year. In 2016 they entertained Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle at a private party to celebrate the queen's 90th birthday.
UOGB have deliberately not sought record deals and earn most of their income from touring and from the albums which they sell directly from their own web site. Hinchcliffe explains the idea was to have bit of fun "where we're not having the agents and the managers and the record companies dictating terms." The British Council introduction of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain 2014 tour of China, states the "orchestra is celebrated for its rapport with audiences, and eliciting a joyous feel-good reaction" and mentions that over the previous 29 years the UOGB had performed in excess of 9,000 concerts. The Orchestra has appeared on television channels around the world, include programmes such as Jools Holland's Hootenanny and Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway performing alongside Robbie Williams, BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms, Blue Peter, The Slammer, Richard & Judy, This Morning, Skins, a CNN report in 2012 and featured on CBS This Morning in 2013. The UOGB have become "not only a national institution, but also a worldwide phenomenon". The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is often blamed for the current world-wide ukulele revival, over the years imitator ukulele groups have "spawned" in most major cities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Orchestra's ensemble while in individual self isolation released 13 tracks on YouTube the Ukulele Lockdown series, plus 26 other video tutorials, documentaries and other ukulele inspired videos, plus five The Ukulele World Service online pay to view concerts. The band included for Wuthering Heights Doug Beveridge (the band's sound engineer) and Jodi Cartwright (the band's manager). Laura Currie, who edited the lockdown videos is the lead singer on Lovecats and appears in Wuthering Heights and the orchestra's The Ukulele World Service online pay to view concerts.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain perform their gigs in a light-heartedly parody of a 'very prim and proper, staid sort-of orchestra', wearing traditional orchestra dress for performances, with the men in black tie (black suits and bow ties) and the women in smart evening wear, seated behind music stands. The orchestra consists of 'ukuleleators' playing instruments in various registers: sopranino, soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and one bass ukulele. From 2005 UOGB performed as eight (an octet (music)) or seven (a septet) "of all-singing, all-strumming ukulele players".
The group has a small number of individuals who regularly serve as substitutes:
The Orchestra has received high praise from press for their musical performances. UOGB shows are a "funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll featuring the bonsai guitar". A typical UOGB concert is a "shopping trolley dash through genres" and musical history from classical music to punk; a "genre bending array" of songs (with every member in turn taking up solo vocal duties) and instrumentals ranging from the Sex Pistols, Blur, Hawkwind, Grace Jones, Clean Bandit, Nirvana to Bach, Beethoven and a rattling rendition of Saint-Saëns' "Danse macabre", to Ennio Morricone's theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the theme tune from Shaft.
The Orchestra is known for playing versions of famous songs and tunes, sometimes changing these so that the expectations of the audience are subverted. Sometimes a pop song will be changed into a jazz idiom, Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" is reworked as a swinging jazz number, while the Sex Pistol's "Anarchy in the UK" is performed in the style of a cosy campfire sing-along folk song were the audience is encouraged to join in. The group originally shied away from featuring the music of George Formby (Britain's most famous ukulele musician), they have covered his 1937 song "Leaning on a Lamppost", but it becomes "Lenin On A Lamppost" performed in a Russian Cossack style. Alternatively several songs which are known from different genres are combined in one "soup of contrasts" - for example, David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" is melded seamlessly with "My Way", "For Once in My Life", "Born Free", "Substitute", and more. In another piece Handel's "G Minor Suite No.7 for the Harpsichord" turns into by turn "Fly Me To The Moon", "Love Story (Where Do I Begin)," "Autumn Leaves", "Killing Me Softly with His Song", "Hotel California" and "I Will Survive", ending with all genre variations performed simultaneously together.  As the British Council quotes UOGB "You may never think about music in the same way once you've been exposed to the ukes' depraved musicology".
They often light-heartedly mock the "ludicrousness and pretentiousness" of songs and musical pieces with deadpan humour, while other times comedic elements are incorporated with the musicianship, for instance when up to five members playing a single ukulele. The Ukulele Orchestra adapts its programme to match the location of the venue or the occasion, musical numbers with a regional flavour are often included especially when touring overseas. Often the orchestra will provide advance notice of an audience participation number. They provide a link to the piece online so that those that wish to participate can come prepared.
In 2008, the group performed Dreamspiel, a ukulele opera, composed by George Hinchliffe and Michelle Carter for the Grimeborn Festival at London's Arcola Theatre. They have also, in 2010 and 2011, performed Ukulelescope where they played music to accompany silent movies from the British Film Institute archives. In 2012, Waly Waly on the Ukulele reworked arrangements of Cecil Sharp's collected folk tunes for performances at the Birmingham Town Hall and Cecil Sharp House in London. (Recordings from these shows were released in 2016 as the CD The Keeper.) In 2013 they issued a special collaboration with Ibiza Air for their Cover of the Song "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)". They released an EP with 4 Remixes in different styles like Tech house and Chill-out. In 2014, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War, the orchestra presented When This Lousy War is Over which reflected a range of attitudes from the time; patriotic, pacifist and feminist, and drew from gipsy music, music hall, soldiers' songs and even a song from the then radical avante-garde Cabaret Voltaire in neutral Switzerland.
In 2009, Erwin Clausen, a German producer, approached The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain wanting to franchise the band in Germany. The band turned him down, but Clausen, director of Yellow Promotions, set up the United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra (UKUO), which performed in a very similar style of music and comedy to the UOGB. UKUO, though based in Germany, was similar to the UOGB in that it was an octet of British musicians (composed of two women and six men) who wore formal evening dress and just like the UOGB the UKUO act consisted of the band sitting in a line behind music stands, whilst performing a similar range of cover versions of popular music and musical comedy. Judge Richard Hacon, sitting at the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court initially declined to issue an injunction to stop UKUO touring England in 2014 as proceedings had been issued too late. Ultimately, the Court found that the German-based ukulele troop was in fact causing confusion and so the claim of passing off succeeded. The Judge ruled Clausen and his colleagues in Yellow Promotions "acted outside honest practices" when they set up their band. The Court was satisfied that, based on the evidence, there was a likelihood of confusion between the two orchestra names. The Judge ruled that United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra "misrepresents to a substantial proportion of the public in this country who recognise The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain as the trade name of a particular musical act, that the that the two orchestras UOGB and UKUO are either the same group, or otherwise commercially connected. The Court concluded by finding that this has caused damage to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's goodwill, particularly by way of loss of control over the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's reputation as performers." However though similarities in the name amounted to passing off, Clausen also claimed a victory for UKUO, because the judge ruled that they were not guilty of copyright infringement or trademark infringement as far as the style of the performance.
is the manager of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, an internationally renowned ensemble that regularly perform in some of the most prestigious venues and festivals across the UK, Europe, North America and Asia.