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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 June, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Orchestra makes ukulele cult hit

by Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was founded in 1985
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, who play everything from punk anthems to military marches, have been around for almost 20 years but still attract new fans to their cult re-workings of classics.

George Formby would be turning in his grave.

Until now, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have avoided tackling songs by the cheeky 1940s Lancastrian film star - still associated with the instrument - because it was just too obvious.

Most people who have picked up a ukulele in the last 60 years have done so in homage to Formby - but the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain preferred to pay their own unique tributes to the Sex Pistols, Gloria Gaynor and Prince.

Now, they have finally given in to their instrument's historical connections and added one of Formby's best-known anthems, Leaning On A Lamppost, to their repertoire.

But when they do it, it becomes Lenin On A Lamppost and is sung in a Russian Cossack style. Why? Because it sounds great and is hilarious.

George Formby
George Formby's 1940s films are still associated with the instrument
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, founded in 1985, are four men in tuxedoes and two smartly-dressed women, all armed with ukuleles, except for one bass guitarist.

Their instruments could be mistaken for toy guitars and have not been fashionable since Formby was at the height of his popularity.

All six sing, banter with each other and the crowd in between songs - and produce something very unusual.

They are part novelty band and part musical guerrillas, with a mission is to make music less serious.

"We are always ready to perceive pomposity where it exists, and it's very hard to be pompous when you're playing the ukulele," leader George Hinchcliffe told BBC News Online.

"We're perfectly comfortable about going on stage with these peculiar little instruments, and if people find it amusing, we don't mind.

"But actually, quite a large part of it, we take fairly seriously. It kind of punctures all the pomposity and self-regard. It's hard to be a prima donna with a ukulele."

On a ukulele, you have to work quite hard to make it sound like music
George Hinchcliffe (right)
At a recent gig in London, their set included a hilariously deadpan version of Je T'Aime, 1970s disco hit Le Freak, the recent UK garage anthem Dynamitee and a jaunty reworking of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, sung by Hinchcliffe.

Wuthering Heights had such a rapturous response that they hoped to release it as a single and put it on their new album, The Secret of Life - but Bush, or one of her representatives, refused.

"It may have been that she herself or the publisher heard it and thought we were taking the mickey out of it, or that we were just too ungroovy," Hinchcliffe said.

Although audiences are left in fits of laughter and whooping for more, Hinchcliffe said they did not set out to be a comedy band.

"It's grown like that lately. I hesitate to use the word comedy because I don't know we go out of our way to try and tell jokes, but it's light-hearted and a bit of a spoof," he said.

There is a musical objective behind the band, he said. It is easy to sound professional on many instruments - but not the uke, much less many at once.

"On a ukulele, you have to work quite hard to make it sound like music," he said.

"Our idea was that the essence of music could be transmitted via not just one ukulele but lots of them, in a way that is sometimes obscured by more complicated musical set-ups.

"Attempting to do this great big overblown orchestration with this trivial instrument of a ukulele as your tool is a bit of a challenge, so whether you succeed or fail, it's making the attempt that is the fun. I think that's what people go for."

Listen to a clip of the Ukulele Orchestra
Lenin on a Lamppost

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