Londonist interviews: Helen, the marching lady

By Talia Last edited 206 months ago

Last Updated 30 March 2007

Londonist interviews: Helen, the marching lady

Every so often we meet up with people who are doing things a little bit out of the ordinary for a little chinwag. This time round meet Helen who's rapidly gaining status somewhere you'd probably not expect to find anyone born after the '50s anywhere near - she's a sexy, sassy 23 year old and a member of the Royal Legion band.

Hello Miss marching lady, introduce yourself.

My name is Helen, I'm in the Central Band Of The Royal British Legion and I'm here talking to you about the trend for watching, being in and celebrating British Legion bands that is sweeping our country right now! The great UK tradition of military bands is in the midst of a revival, with more 20 something's joining up to Legion bands each week andaudience numbers are swelling. People are looking for a night out they can enjoy and not take too seriously, yet still indulge in listening to some really great playing without feeling the need to nod off mid


But what made you want to join a military band? Is it in the family?

Joining a military band was almost an accident, I was looking for a band or orchestra that didn't take themselves too seriously, didn't need you to rehearse all day every day and wouldn't castrate you for playing the odd wrong note. I found the Central Band on the internet, and when I contacted them they told me how the band formed in a pub 60 years ago and how they still all meet in the pub before rehearsals and go straight back to the pub afterwards. Perfect. They take the music side of things very seriously, but the social side of it is equally important for them too - I think even Eric, who sits next to me and is about 300 years old, could drink any student under the table.


Is it all about twirling batons or are we living in a strange Alex Gaudino based fantasy world?

Alas, there's no baton twirling, I wish there was. I have ambitions to get lasers and fireworks involved with marching displays, but think I might have a while to wait on that one.

So, what exactly do you do in the band?

I'm a clarinet player, I'm fairly low ranking so getting really good at playing 'oom-pahs' a lot; there's some amazing players in the band though, everything from ballet trained solo clarinet players through to doctors of chemistry on trumpet.

Knitting is so 2006, is this just the latest fad to hit the Hoxton


Hopefully the credibility of marching bands isn't just a fad, but I reckon we were definitely helped along by having a cupboard full of the Libertines style military jackets! You only have to glance at London event listings and see the plethora of swing dance classes, burlesque nights, allotment clubs and baking classes to realise that the whole retro night out thing is thriving. Legion and marching bands are so quintessentially British that people can't help but love it.

What type of songs do you perform? Do you ever drum up a modern pop


It's the strangest mixture, from Holst through to Star Wars with some film scores and swing/ragtime stuff thrown in for good measure. There's the classical march stuff, but we're all doing the big epics like Philip Sparke's Jubilee Overture. The pop songs are my favourite though; you haven't lived until you've heard a Legion band cover a J-Lo song. We also do Final Countdown, complete with a water in wine glasses solo! One of our clarinettists just scored a McFly song for the band so I have my fingers crossed we'll be doing that soon. My toes are crossed for McFly to join us on stage!

Are you the only 20something amidst a lot of pervy war pensioners?

I was when I joined which was thoroughly daunting, but great as you never had to buy a drink, instead just smile sweetly at an old man! Now there are tonnes of young women and I think we've probably drunk their wallets dry. They're all lovely though and some of them dance like kings which we all appreciate.

What type of events do you play at, what's been your favourite?

We get to play some amazing events, which is half the reason so many young people are joining the band as you get to see some great places. In the last year we've played the Wimbledon finals, then for the Commonwealth Games Baton Ceremony at Buckingham Palace and also Lords for the cricket. We play at Fairfield Halls in Croydon each year which is probably every band member's favourite gig, the atmosphere is amazing and everyone has a really good time, it easily one of the most fun concerts we do.

What do you do when you're not in the band?

I do digital marketing, but also do Lindy Hop classes which inspire all sorts of mockery from friends with accusations of me being an 80 yr old woman.

What's your favourite bit of London?

I have a soft spot for Finsbury Circus Gardens in Moorgate. It's so twee with its highly manicured lawns and flower beds; you will never see a tulip out of place there. It's wonderful in the summer to sit there and see all the city people rolling up their trousers, taking off their shoes and loving every minute of their lunch break in the sun.

And what's your London secret that more people should know about

There's an amazing pub on Commercial Rd, the George Tavern with the most fantastic nightclub at the back of it. The pub is falling apart, has random shoes hanging from the bar and the most disgusting toilets you've ever seen but it's worth it to see the club, it looks like no one has touched it in forty years. It has a proper working light up dance floor, giant metal palm trees, mirrored walls and an incredible bar. It looks just like how I imagine bars in Spain to look when my dad was a kid!

Young military marching band vs london gay mens choir. Who would win?

Blatantly us, we've some marines in the band as well as a whole range of instruments to throw. The damage you can do with a trombone is shocking. Our Director Of Music is no more than 5ft tall, but I reckon would throw a good punch.

Where can we come and watch you?

We're always doing gigs up and down the country, which you can find details about on our myspace but this Saturday night we're playing our flagship gig at Fairfield Halls in Croydon. It's going to be a fantastic gig and a very fun way to spend a Saturday night.