Behind The Fisherman’s Friends unlikely rise to stardom from Cornish coast
Biting winds may be battering the Cornish coast but that doesn’t dampen the spirits of one group of jolly fisherman.
In fact, within moments of meeting The Fisherman’s Friends, they’ve spontaneously burst into song.
And it’s certainly not a tune you hear on the radio every day.
In melodious harmony, the all-male folk band is crooning Haul Away Joe, a catchy sea shanty with some eyebrow-raising lyrics.
Local dog walkers nod and wave as if this is a perfectly normal sight on a blustery weekday morning in Port Isaac.
Well, thanks to The Fisherman’s Friends’ unlikely rise to stardom, it is.
The original ten-man acapella band is a group of lifelong friends who’ve been gathering on the harbour in their native Port Isaac for more than 25 years to raise money for charity by singing traditional songs of the sea.
A chance encounter with a holidaying music executive in their local pub saw them signed up to Universal Records in 2010 and catapulted them into the elusive world of musical stardom.
Over the past decade, they’ve become the first traditional folk act to land a UK top ten album, sang on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and even performed for the Queen.
Their remarkable story has now been made into a feel-good film starring Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton, set to hit UK cinemas on Friday.
But the people most surprised by their meteoric rise are the old buoys themselves.
The group’s MC and former lifeboatman Jon Cleave, instantly recognisable due to his distinctive curled moustache, laughs: “I was chucked out of the school choir because I was told I couldn’t sing.
“I was told I was a ‘growler’.”
While the makers of the new film have experimented with plenty of artistic license in the script – making up a love story and stag-do prank storyline – it does show the down-to-earth working men as deeply sceptical of the corporate music industry, even laughing at the prospect of signing a lucrative record deal.
Jeremy Brown, 58, whose brother John, 60, also sings in the band, says it’s an accurate representation of their initial reaction.
“We just didn’t take it seriously at all,” says the granddad of four – whose music teacher also told him he “sang like a cow”.
“We all just rocked back in our chairs and laughed. We thought it was hilarious.
“We were pleased that people thought we made a nice noise but we have never had any pretensions: we always say, if you book The Fisherman’s Friends, you will get The Fisherman’s Friends.”
I join four of the original band members – Jon, 60, Jeremy and his brother John, 60, and 68-year-old Yorkshireman John McDonnell – for a traditional Cornish breakfast (replace the black pudding with hog’s pudding, apparently) by the harbour where most of the film is set.
As the quartet drag me down to the pier and into fisherman Jeremy’s workhouse to inspect his handmade lobster pot, it’s clear to see I have, indeed, got the real deal today.
Health and safety goes out of the window as we huddle in the wobbly loft overfilled with nautical nooks and crannies, with Jeremy laughing that the film’s camera crew refused to go up there because it was a potential hazard.
It’s clear that the four men have been friends for years, as they constantly undercut each other’s sentences with playful sarcasm and teasing jokes.
But beneath their jaunty demeanour lies a tragedy which the group now refuses to discuss.
In 2013, a heavy steel door fell down while they were preparing a gig in Guildford, killing their promoter Paul McMullen and singer Trevor Grills.
In the past a grief-stricken Jon said: “The door must have been almost at the ceiling when I remember the hum of the motor suddenly cutting out.
“There was a distinct click and then a rush of air as four tons of metal hurtled to the ground. Just like a heavyweight guillotine.”
The accident left the entire village in mourning, but the band has tried to move on.
They mainly perform as a five or six-piece band these days, with ages ranging from 40 to 68.
In an age of political correctness, #MeToo and reality TV star celebrities, they say their rustic image is the perfect antidote to modern life.
“Our sound is more about enthusiasm than technique, really,” says Jeremy, whose son Tom is a sixth-generation fisherman, as we perch on one of his wobbly lobster pots.
Jon adds: “We do all these sell-out gigs all over the country, but at the end of the day we just treat it like we are singing in the pub or down on the harbour.
“And I think what people find refreshing in a way is that we are engaging with them like we might do in the community and we always try and chat to our fans after our shows.”
With an average age of 57, the men say that they’ve never received any inappropriate fan mail – “our fans will be rattling around on their zimmer frames!” jokes Jon – but they are a surprisingly hit with kids.
That’s despite some lewd lyrics in the traditional sea shanties that might have been a bit less controversial 150 years ago, such as the Drunken Sailor’s famous “put him in the bed with the captain’s daughter” and Haul Away Joe’s “once I had a German girl, but she was fat and lazy”.
John, 60, says they often have to tone down the lyrics to make them child – and 2019 – friendly.
He tells me: “Even we have to move with the times.”
Jon insists: “We’ve never been PC, we’ve never voted for PC, and I never have been PC.”
And while the area has already been pulling in tourists from all over the world since the huge success of ITV’s Doc Martin, which is filmed in the village, The Fisherman’s Friends have also become a tourist attraction in their own right.
Huge posters and placards of the new film can be spotted all over the village and their albums are playing in every shop.
But the band are keen to ensure they keep their original Cornish spirit of independence and community alive, despite their runaway success.
“We feel that a sense of community has really been lost in the UK,” Jon says.
“So of course we think it’s a good thing that we are bringing it back.
“Our popularity is also helping us raise the profile of Cornwall, which can only be a good thing, too.
“Singing in Cornwall, especially men singing, used to be such a huge thing, but it is dying out. Hopefully we are helping to bring that back.”
And despite the members not all being fishermen – John McDonnell is a builder, for example – the name of the band came from the idea that they’re all friends of people who work at sea, even if they don’t themselves.
Of course, the similarity between their band name and the famous Fisherman’s Friend menthol lozenges hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Some of the lads do sometimes suck on them before a live show to freshen up their voices actually,” John adds.
They were refused sponsorship from the company, but were sent a box of the sweets.
“Oh well, we don’t need their sponsorship now!” Jon laughs, as I refer to the fact the film is being compared with the likes of hit British comedies Calendar Girls and The Full Monty.
“Of course, we were all nervous when we first watched the film at a screening in London,” Jeremy says.
“But eventually we just relaxed and tried to enjoy it. And we loved it, we were all applauding at the end.
“The star of the film really is the songs themselves – they are in everyone’s DNA really, from 150-200 years ago when everyone worked at sea or on the canals or whatever, that’s definitely part of the appeal.”
And do they hope the film will be a smash hit and make a bunch of blokes who used to sing down the pub for fun even more famous?
With his classic tongue-in-cheek humour, Jon adds: “We filled out a local church for the harvest one year – I told the vicar: ‘The Fisherman’s Friends are bigger than Jesus!’”
• The Fisherman’s Friends is out Friday.
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