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An Interview With The Chess Game Creator

So to start us off Ian, how did you begin writing musicals?

I am a music teacher and I was always interested in composition, musical composition, so it was something that I did. When I went to school I just tended to write things for children at school and that’s how ‘The Chess Game’ came about.

When and how did you become involved with FCT?

That was in 1985 and I had done a series of programs for the BBC which Dougie Shearer heard so he phoned me up and I came across and they decided that they would do ‘The Chess Game’, having heard it on the radio.

Why did you decide to write ‘The Chess Game’?

I like doing music that has a message; you have to feel something about what you do. At the time a lot of popular music – and I really like pop music – seemed very vapid and empty, so this was an excuse to do something that seemed a bit more serious. I just thought of a musical based around a game of chess.

Can you describe what ‘The Chess Game’ is about and talk us through the symbols you decided to use to represent different people in society?

It is an allegory, in other words, the black pieces and the white pieces are representative of any two sides in any war. So, for example, the rebels in Libya and Colonel Gaddafi’s soldiers. The whole point of the chess game is that it shows how – I hope in a reasonably simple way – how battles are formed and the end result of them all. It really annoys me that all the people who start the battles are usually there at the end and all the other people, the civilians, end up dead. That is something I feel strongly about. I see the Pawns in ‘The Chess Game’ as being the citizens.

Are any of the characters in the musical based on real people? Did you have anyone in mind when you were creating?

No actually, quite often the characters are almost like stage caricatures. Like the French vamp as the Black Queen, at that time, there was an upper class so the two Rooks, Bob and Bertie, struck me to be from somewhere a bit posh. The Knights are just the media. They weren’t given any strong media characters but nowadays we are more aware of people in the media so they could have been given different characters. But the way they speak – in that strange way – is to represent the media.

Pawns 1 & 2 are really the heroes in the musical and they set out to question the war that forms before them. Do you think that is the way people in today’s society should behave?

I think it is the right way. You should always question authority, so to me that is what they are doing. They are questioning authority. They are kind of like Romeo and Juliet type characters.

The impression I get from ‘The Chess Game’ is that to begin with it appears to be guidance on how people should constantly question the reasons and motives of people in power and that that’s the correct way to behave – but then the twist is that even the Pawns who do ask questions and believe that everyone’s voice should be heard end up being sent to Hell and the whole journey starts again. Was there meant to be this confusion – and what kind of message were you trying to get across by writing it this way?

The point of it was to leave Pawn 3 alone. In other words, her character comes to the fore. She is the only person with a clear conscience – she has never, ever done anyone any harm. But Pawn 1 & 2 still plan to do other people harm, even though they are the rebels, they are human, so they end up in Hell. It is just part of the story.

In the musical the Knights are a symbol for the media, and as someone who hopes to pursue a career in journalism I’d personally like to ask you if you think that the world would be better off without media?

Not at all, no individual people in the media, just the powers who get a hold of it. For example television stations in different countries are always the first target to suffer during war. The television station can be used to spout forth your ideas and tell everybody what’s happening. The media has a huge part to play, so I just thought of how a game of chess is laid out. The Bishops were obvious, the Rooks as well, and that left the Knights to be the media.

Are you a religious person at all?


I wanted to ask that question because in the musical the bishops are portrayed as being fraudsters. So I wondered if there was a particular reason behind that?

Simply because I am terribly aware of religion. For example when I was growing up you would read about religion, like the Beatles going off to India to the Maharishi. I don’t have anything against religion, nothing at all, but it is the way people exploit and manipulate it. So, the likes of the Hell Fire Preachers that you see in the States, who use television channels to take money off people. It is quite brutal. Then there is the huge rift with Al-Qaeda just now, and it doesn’t portray Muslims the way they really are. People abuse religion to manipulate certain other people. Likewise the same thing has happened with George W. Bush – Christians are manipulated as well.

Which chess piece do you consider yourself to be most like?

A Pawn. Probably the least important Pawn. Simply because that is what I am – I am just an average Joe.

The music in the show is very well written and adventurous and there are so many different styles, what is your favourite song? Why?

I don’t really have a favourite song. I think at the time I was quite pleased with ‘It’s Very Hard’ a nice, straightforward song.

What influenced you in terms of music for the show?

Well, just the music I listened to at the time. So one of the things that influenced me, a little bit, is probably Bob Marley. There is a wee bit of reggae in it and it is not even anything like Bob Marley – just that it is an off-beat, hits the 2nd beat and the 4th beat of the bar. Bach inspired me; the show starts with a fugue – which is a stupid thing to do for a show because it is quite difficult to perform. So really, the pop music of the day and Bach.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to write a musical?

Just do it. I didn’t have any hardships really, but I suppose I was earning anyway. I think you should just get out there and write. It is like anything else if you don’t practise it, you’ll lose it. So you’ve got to keep writing. Now I am retired I will write more I hope.

Do you believe that ‘The Chess Game’ is a good representation of life?

Well, I hope so.

Lastly, just a silly question that I would love to know the answer to, why did you make the vampy, Black Queen French? Have you had some bad experiences in France?

A ‘vamp’ to me is a French lady. The Black Queen has got a little bit of sexual allure about her. There is something French in that. She is going round the male Pawns, alluring them, so I think a French accent was most appropriate. I couldn’t think of another one that would work as well.

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