‘I was swallowing the piano whole’: Stephen Hough on life as a prodigy – and playing for Jimmy Savile
Number 94 Chester Road, Grappenhall. Probably in 1966. Where and when I first touched a piano. It was at the home of Uncle Alf and Auntie Ethel. Alfred Smith had a Lancashire accent as flat in vowels as the cap on his head lacked a crown. His right forefinger was flat too, deformed into a spatula by an accident at work. He was kind and modest and back-slappingly cheerful, unlike his wife who always seemed to me rather sour. Or stewed perhaps, like tea steeped too long.
It was tea that brought us together, as we used to go to their house to drink it in their back sitting room. I was bored by these visits but on the right wall, in that back sitting room, stood a brown piano with yellow keys. A little boy aged four stood eye to eye with the teeth of those keys and gently, tentatively, pressed down some of the ivory tabs. My father said that I would play chords, not individual notes. Hammers hit strings, strings vibrated inside the box and the most amazing sounds entered my ears ... and my life. Nothing would satisfy me now but to have a piano of my own and to learn to play it.
My parents bought me a toy piano. This box of tinkles and jangles was definitely not what I had in mind.
“No, we’re not buying a piano. You’ll get bored with it and then we’ll be stuck with a useless piece of furniture in the house.” I must have mentioned it constantly (I can be persistent) and in the end my parents bought me a toy piano, smaller than Auntie Ethel’s tea tray. You can’t tuck a proper piano under your arm, or pick it up like a tin of biscuits. This box of tinkles and jangles was definitely not what I had in mind. It was a teabag to a real piano’s mountain plantation. So I destroyed it. Dismantled is perhaps a better way to describe the process. I fiddled with a screwdriver, poked around with my fingers, pulled and prised until it fell apart. “Please, please can I learn the piano! Please can we buy a proper piano!’
They got the message and one day a van turned into All Saints Drive and delivered a German rosewood upright piano with 85 yellowing ivory keys and brass candlestick holders. It cost £5, and another £25 to fix up. My mother opened up the Yellow Pages to “P” and on the same page as “plumbers” were “piano teachers”. Miss Felicity Riley seemed to live closest, one village away in Lymm, so she was booked and I began lessons.
Miss Riley drives up to our house, parks, and I stand at the window with feverish anticipation, eyes glued on the stationary vehicle. She is applying a smear of lipstick to her lips in the rear-view mirror. Orange. Bright lips that Emil Nolde would have been delighted to have been able to create from one of his more intensely vibrant tubes of paint. The car door opens and slams and a grey tweed skirt is propelled by the spindly legs of this wiry, powdery, elderly lady up the one-and-a-half-car drive, and through the 1960s glass front doors. I don’t remember much about the lessons but I do remember her Fiat 500 and especially its colour – powder blue.
“A glass of water please.” My mother would oblige and Miss Riley would plop in two fizzing aspirins (stomach trouble, perhaps?). After the 30-minute lesson she was paid and left, but as I watched her from the front window walking down the driveway, I would beg my mother: “Please can I have another lesson?” I’d already memorised the pieces Miss Riley had left me for a whole week’s worth of work, and I wanted her to retrace her steps from the car back to the front door. But the engine was always fired up and she always sputtered off, to the top of All Saints Drive, turning left into Stockport Road. Although my lessons with Miss Riley were short lived and we found a better teacher – and, later, a better piano – it was from those fluorescent lips à l’orange that I first learned that Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.
My mother knew I enjoyed tinkering around on the piano (“It’ll come in useful at parties, you can play all the old songs”), but the idea that it was more than that had never occurred to her.
Miss Riley came to teach me for about six months. I practised incessantly and had a small repertoire of children’s pieces, but she was a local piano teacher, used to dealing with reluctant kids and pushy parents. I, on the other hand, was swallowing the piano whole.
My father was in Clatterbridge Hospital, sick with tuberculosis, and on Saturdays my mother would take me to see him and then, as a treat, we’d go to the big Liverpool music shop so I could play the big pianos. The Crane brothers started their business in Hanover Street in the years just before the first world war: a five-storey building selling sheet music and instruments with a small concert hall above the shop. This performance space became the Crane theatre in 1938 and is still there, renovated and renamed the Epstein theatre, after the Beatles’ manager.
One Saturday, I was sitting at one of the grand, grand pianos on Crane’s main showroom floor, entranced by the sounds it made, happy as could be, when a man entered the store. He stood listening at a distance and then he came over to my mother. “Your child is very talented. Bring him upstairs to my studio.” Crane’s housed teaching spaces as well. We went up in the lift and into this large room with another grand piano.
Savile bounded over to the piano, beaming, wagging his cigar. ‘So what do you think of our boy Steve, then?’ he asked
I was excited but also somewhat uneasy in a way I couldn’t quite understand. I played my pieces again and the man gave me some aural tests. “He’s certainly talented but he’s being taught very badly.” My mother was shocked and confused. She knew I enjoyed tinkering around on the piano (“It’ll come in useful at parties, you can play all the old songs” – smoke gets in your eyes as midnight approaches and another pack of Benson & Hedges is peeled open), but the idea that it was more than that had never occurred to her. “I’ll have to give this some thought, Mr Weaver, but thank you very much for listening to Stephen.”
“I’m going to phone Joan Slade,” said my mother. “She has two daughters who study the piano.” I’ve no idea how my mother knew Joan (“I think she used to come into your grandad’s pet shop”) but that phone call proved to be one of the most important in my life. “Hello Joan, it’s Netta Hough here. Can I bring Stephen over to play for you? We were in Crane’s the other day … I need some advice.”
Some days later, we found ourselves at Dovedale Road in Hoylake, a short stroll from the pet shop; and there I was in Auntie Joan’s front room playing my ditties on her light brown Rogers grand piano, and there with us were her daughters, Jennifer and Heather. Afterwards my mother told a friend that the sisters fought over who would teach me and that, like Mr Weaver, they both thought I had unusual talent. It was decided (I don’t know how, except Heather was always a more driven, ambitious person than her sister) that I should study with Heather.
A short time after his death, Jimmy Savile went from being the BBC’s secular saint to being the very symbol of depravity. “He’s a homosexual, isn’t he?” commented [my then piano teacher] Gordon Green’s wife, Dorothy, in the mid-1970s. I thought it a strange remark when, on his television shows, he always seemed to have a young woman bouncing on his knee. Maybe she saw something malevolent behind the screen and gay was her go-to response for something sexually distasteful.
Whilst I was at Chetham’s School of Music, I was invited to be on two of Savile’s shows. Clunk Click was the first (its name came from the seatbelt campaign advert on the telly: “Clunk click every trip”) and there I was, in 1970-something, in my school’s Tudor uniform, a cassock with bright yellow socks, playing the Paganini/Liszt Etude La Chasse. “Why have you chosen this piece, Steve?” asked the Liszt-lookalike (both sported long, whitish hair and had large, protruding moles). “Because you’re always chasing about, Mr Savile.” Neither foxes nor skirts were on my innocent mind – but it did get a laugh from the studio audience.
A year or two later, my school received a call from the producer of Jim’ll Fix It, Savile’s later, better-known show in which youngsters wrote in to get Savile to fix up a dream they had – hang-gliding, or riding a camel, or any number of things. Savile wanted a student from Chets to come on the show and play duets with the pianist John Lill. It was awkward from the start because I had to pretend that I’d written in to request this “fix”, and, as far as I knew, Lill was unaware of the story behind his being asked to fulfil my dream.
“What is it about my playing that you like so much?” asked John over lunch with me and my dad. A reasonable question in the circumstances. “It’s your interpretation, Mr Lill,” replied the gauche northern boy with the flared trousers and the patches of pimples. We played the Jamaican Rumba by Arthur Benjamin, and then Savile bounded over to the piano, beaming, wagging his cigar. “So what do you think of our boy Steve, then?” “He shows much promise,” replied Lill. And as if to prove it, Savile put a new score on the music rack.
“Let’s see how you both do sight-reading this.” The fixing continued because this worn-out copy of Le Bal by Bizet, now slightly smelling of a Havana cigar, was actually my own, brought down with me on the train to Euston that morning, the pencil markings of my teacher hastily erased (“steady rhythm, don’t rush, don’t force the tone”). We romped through Le Bal and that was it. I think it was on that same day that I met Gary Glitter backstage, whom Savile had fixed for someone else.
• This is an edited extract from Enough: Scenes from Childhood by Stephen Hough, published by Faber on 2 February. Hough’s UK tour with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra begins on 20 April at Cadogan Hall, London; he performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 4 May.