Rummaging through a forgotten drawer the other day, I dug out a dusty collection of ancient audio cassettes that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. Among them was a real oddment: a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, which tells the story of a motley ship’s crew who come ashore in a strange land, in search of a mysterious creature called – you guessed it – the Snark.
The true nature of the Snark is never revealed. At various stages we learn that this peculiar beast likes to get up late, is fond of bathing machines, and may either “have feathers, and bite” or “have whiskers, and scratch”. Most worrying of all, if you do finally succeed in your quest to capture a Snark, you’d better pray that it isn’t a Boojum. For, as the Bellman warns:
But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!
As for the recording I’d found, well, it was the work of British songwriter and musician, Mike Batt. The cassette dated from 1986, so it was no real surprise that when I tried to listen to it, all that came out was mangled and demagnetised noise.
Still, my curiosity was aroused. I remembered listening to the thing years ago, and quite enjoying it. But had it really been any good? There was only one way to find out: download the album from iTunes, listen to it with fresh ears and try to decide what on Earth had possessed Batt to attempt not only an adaptation of one of Carroll’s most delicious pieces of nonsense, but a musical one to boot.
The first thing that struck me as I set out in this voyage of rediscovery was the album’s cast list. It’s an eclectic mix of voice talent, with a range of big-name ’80s pop singers underpinned by a dream-team duo of narrators in the form of John Gielgud and John Hurt, whose rich blend of plumminess and gravel tones gives the whole album a credibility that’s somewhat undermined by the rest of the vocals. It’s not that the individual singing performances are bad – some are very good – but the wildly differing vocal styles of artists including Cliff Richard, Roger Daltrey, Art Garfunkel, Deniece Williams and Julian Lennon make for a choppy listening experience.
So how about the songs they sing? Well, they’re pretty good. There’s a powerful signature anthem called Children of the Sky, sung by composer Batt and presenting what’s effectively his mission statement for the work as a whole. Other standouts are The Bellman’s Speech (which proves that Cliff Richard can acquit himself surprisingly well when asked to sing something that might have come from Gilbert & Sullivan), the wistful Midnight Smoke and rambunctious and forthright The Pig Must Die. However, the misplaced disco beat of Dancing Towards Disaster is something I can live without.
The music is at its best when its core pop/prog rock vibe is supported by the London Symphony Orchestra. My favourite parts, in fact, are those which are entirely instrumental, such as the Introduction and the climactic The Vanishing. This latter somehow manages to combine a full-blown orchestral score with ’80s synth and sax, together with a dusting of tribal percussion and the ever reliable G&S, all without missing a beat. Batt may be best known as a composer of pop songs, but his orchestral work, as represented here, ranges from witty to sublime.
So, is Mike Batt’s musical a fair adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s original poem? It’s tough question to answer, not least because I’m of the opinion that Carroll’s works – including the much-loved Alice in Wonderland – more or less defy translation into any other form. Why are they so hard to adapt? The answer’s quite simple. Because they’re nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not using the word in the pejorative sense. Like Alice and Jabberwocky and all the rest of them, The Hunting of the Snark is simply not designed to add up. Nor does it contain a coherent and dramatically satisfying narrative flow. Its power (and it has considerable power, make no mistake) lies in its very absurdity, in its wordplay, and in the spaces between those words: its subtext, if a piece of nonsense can be said to have such a thing.
Mike Batt seems like a smart cookie to me, so I have no doubt he was aware of all this when he decided to take on The Hunting of the Snark. Like most other adapters of Carroll, his solution was to tease out narrative strands from the original and impose it on the whole. For example, he turned the friendship between the Butcher (Art Garfunkel) and the Beaver (Deniece Williams) into a borderline romance. Given Lewis Carroll’s propensity for playing with words, and the modern slang meaning for “beaver”, I’m not convinced this was such a good idea …
More successful is Batt’s attempt to give the work an overarching theme. This he does well, largely through the success of the aforementioned anthem, which is woven through the album in both its lyrical and instrumental forms. Here’s the chorus:
Don’t let the memory die,
Childen of the sky, heroes of the sea.
And as your life passes by,
Remember how it feels to be
Children Of The Sky
Spinning his own words out of the source material, Batt evokes an atmosphere of yearning and adventure that manages to be both melancholy and inspirational at the same time. It perfectly matches my own feelings about Carroll’s original poem. Alone, this one song overrides my few misgivings and leads me to believe that Mike Batt’s The Hunting of the Snark may very well be a triumph.
Having done a little more digging around, I’ve discovered that Mike Batt’s The Hunting of the Snark has been more or less forgotten. Its original album release was withdrawn because of some kind of record label dispute. For many people, their first encounter with the material was a 1986 televised, costumed performance in the Royal Albert Hall, for which some of the cast reprised their album roles, with other performers stepping in to fill the gaps. And, while it was presented in flamboyant style on stage in both Sydney (1990) and London (1991), neither of these theatrical versions enjoyed a long run.
Given the popularity of other musical concept albums like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, this is kind of surprising. Or, then again, maybe it isn’t. The quirky, meandering nature of this material never fully resolves into something dramatically satisfying. And, despite containing some startingly accomplished passages of music, The Hunting of the Snark is lacking a real showstopper.
What it does have, however, is lashings of bravery and acres of charm. In attempting to create a musical based on one of Carroll’s lesser-known (yet still much-beloved) works, Mike Batt was himself setting out on a quest to capture an elusive beast. Did he succeed in bringing it to ground, or did his Snark turn out to be a Boojum?
Decide for yourself: