Steve Brown, composer of Spitting Image who also played Glen Ponder in Alan Partridge – obituary

Steve Brown, left, pictured in 2023 with his best friend Harry Hill, with whom he created Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera – Heathcliff O’Malley

Steve Brown, who has died aged 69, was a composer of comedy songs, most notably for the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, eventually becoming its resident composer; he also wrote several stage musicals, including Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera, in collaboration with his friend Harry Hill, and the Olivier-winning Spend Spend Spend, which told the true rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Viv Nicholson, whose husband won a fortune in the football pools in the sixty.

A dapper figure with a neat beard and ruddy smile, Brown worked with many of the leading figures in British comedy, including Rory Bremner, Lee Mack, Lenny Henry and Steve Coogan, with whom he appeared as appointed bandleader Glenn Ponder . in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994), Coogan’s chat show parody. Brown’s character’s name later evolved into Glen Ponder, allowing Partridge to describe him as an anagram of porn legend.

In one memorable episode, Partridge presents a special French edition of his Paris Fashion Week show, and is furious to discover that everyone else on set had accompanied Ponder to the Folies Bergère the night before, but he had not been invited.

Partridge turns to his conductor on air and says, Monty Python style, “You’re fired! You’re fired, I’m firing you. In fact, it happened, it’s over, it’s already happened, you’re a fired man. You are fired. You are the subject of a dismissal. I want you to leave this building within ten minutes. Knowing me, Alan Partridge, fires you, Glenn Ponder. A-ha!”

Steve Brown as Glen Ponder, fired by Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994)Steve Brown as Glen Ponder, fired by Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994)

Steve Brown as Glen Ponder, fired by Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994) – BBC

Brown’s greatest success, however, was undoubtedly his musical Spend Spend Spend. He was drawn to the true story of Yorkshire housewife Viv Nicholson, who won £152,000 in the pools and then lost it all because, as he put it, ‘it involved love, sex, money, power, death and loss. – the stuff opera is made of.” Viv Nicholson gave him her blessing, and the show opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 1998, with music by Brown and lyrics co-authored with Justin Greene.

The following year the show was triumphantly transferred to the West End, where Benedict Nightingale of The Times praised the show for ‘not patronizing Nicholson. It offers fun and pathos, poverty in mining towns and kitsch in the suburbs – all set to some of the most enjoyable songs in London theatre. Viv herself joined the actresses to raise the curtain on the first night at the Piccadilly Theatre, where she was visibly moved, then turned around and flashed her bum just before the final curtain fell.

Barbara Dickson won the Olivier Award for Best Actress as Viv, and Spend Spend Spend won both the Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards for Best Musical, beating its main rivals The Lion King and Mamma Mia! in what The Daily Telegraph called a ‘David killing Goliath’ moment. Charlie Spencer called it “popular entertainment at its best, devoid of the cynical ingenuity of so many musicals and blessed with heart, humor and irresistible humanity.”

Spend Spend Spend in the 2009 revival at the Watermill TheatreSpend Spend Spend in the 2009 revival at the Watermill Theatre

Spend Spend Spend in the 2009 revival at the Watermill Theater – Alastair Muir

But Brown’s early triumph proved impossible to top. In 2009 he staged a musical version of Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life after a 19-year battle to acquire the rights, although it was only shown in Ipswich. I Can’t Sing!, a send-up of The Brown admitted to Time Out that when he was first asked to work on the project, “I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s a terrible, terrible idea’.”

Brown and Hill’s next collaboration was Tony!, a ‘rock opera’ that presented former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s full Shakespearean arc from ‘A new dawn has broken, hasn’t it?’ to “I have no doubt that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programs.”

It featured a bad-taste ditty about Blair’s “people’s princess” speech and featured the panoply of New Labor greats: John Prescott as a boxing Bernard Manning manqué, Robin Cook as a priapic pedant and Cherie Blair as a seductive Scouse vamp. Gordon Brown’s big number, Macroeconomics, was an operetta-style recitative taken verbatim from one of the former Chancellor’s knotty speeches.

Show!  Harry Hill and Steve Brown's Tony Blair Rock Opera in 2023Show!  Harry Hill and Steve Brown's Tony Blair Rock Opera in 2023

Show! Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s Tony Blair Rock Opera in 2023

Show! however, failed to find favor in The Daily Telegraph, with Dominic Cavendish comparing the show to Blair’s premiership and noting:[It] starts off promisingly, enters a disappointing phase and then outstays its welcome.”

Steven James Brown was born on October 25, 1954, the third child of Len and Marge Brown, and grew up in south-east London. At the age of 13 he wrote his first song, a Tudor pastiche entitled My Lady’s Love has Gone Astray.

He left school without a diploma and worked on a trawler for a few weeks at the age of 17. He tried telesales, but ended up as a paperback salesman while writing songs, recording demo tapes and knocking on doors with music publishers. Spotted performing above a London pub, he was offered work in a West End show and in radio comedy.

He was stimulated by watching Sondheim’s 1976 revue Side by Side. One of his most prized possessions was a letter from Stephen Sondheim praising Spend Spend Spend.

Steve Brown at work in 2011Steve Brown at work in 2011

Steve Brown at work in 2011 – Redferns

Brown joined Spitting Image in the late 1980s and remained there throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile, he appeared in Radio 4’s comedy sketch series In One Ear and wrote several songs for Radio 4/BBC 2’s Dead Ringers, where he made a brief television appearance as Noel Gallagher to Jon Culshaw’s Liam. He also composed all the music for Harry Hill’s TV Burp and for the BBC’s The Ant & Dec Show, and later wrote the popular “Wonkey Donkey” theme when Ant and Dec moved to present SM:TV Live on ITV.

Brown discovered and mentored musicians Laura Mvula and Rumer in producing their respective debut records, both of which went platinum.

In 1983, Brown first married impressionist and radio producer Jan Ravens, a regular at Dead Ringers. The marriage was annulled in 1993 and in 2010 he married secondly actress Deborah Cornelius, who survives him with two sons from his first marriage, the stand-up comedian Alfie Brown and the musician Lenny Brown.

Steve Brown, born October 25, 1954, died February 2, 2024

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