Mike Batt and his contribution to the cultural landscape of Britain
PUBLISHED: 10:37 26 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:41 03 November 2017
The Southampton boy who became the star of Wimbledon with his Wombles theme tune: Mike Batt has contributed more to the cultural landscape of Britain than many people realise with his flair for classical composition says Karen Anne Overton
“The Wombles came along completely by accident. Somebody asked if I’d like to do it and I’d always had that sense of fun,” says Mike. “I know a lot of great musicians with a great sense of humour who don’t necessarily incorporate it into their music, whereas I don’t mind if I do.” The Wombles theme tune may be his most successful composition to date, but with a career spanning 45 years Mike Batt’s contribution to the music industry has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Born in Southampton in 1949, Mike’s family moved away before returning to Winchester when he was 12, just before he began attending what was then called Peter Symonds School. “We lived in Winchester for a few years so I consider myself to be a Hampshire Hog,” he explains. “When I drive down the M3, the minute I get into Hampshire I feel at home – there’s something organic about going back to where you come from.”
It was here that he began to discover his love of music - playing piano down the pub in Winchester - Mike recalls the drunken singalongs his playing would inspire.
“It was a baptism of fire, which was great fun and also meant that every Friday and Saturday night I got two quid - which in 1968 made me the richest kid in school! I joined a band called Phase 4, they were printers by day, all 19 years old and I was just 15. We used to play a place called the Park Ballroom in Southampton. We never got very far really but I used to enjoy practising around there, in one of their garages. Those are fond memories of my early teenage years.”
Mike’s prolific career in music began in earnest when aged 18, he answered an ad in The New Musical Express looking for artists to sign to Liberty records – legend has it that Elton John and his long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin answered the very same advert. Mike soon became head of A&R at the label, signing acts like The Groundhogs and also releasing his own single: a cover version of The Beatles ‘Your Mother Should Know’. He had spent around £11,000 of his own money recording half an orchestral rock album that was never released – a low point in an otherwise golden career - when TV producers approached him to write the music for a new children’s TV show. Luckily, Mike had enough business savvy and vision to forgo the writer’s fee of a few hundred pounds, instead asking for rights to the characters for a music production. More than a mere theme tune, The Wombles went on to produce eight hit singles and four gold albums, meaning that Mike brought home a lot more than a mere £200!
“When I was 22, we were having all this success with the Wombles, I couldn’t knock it because they were my first hits and I was becoming financially secure after lots of struggling,” he remembers. “However, straight away afterwards I realised that having been on Blue Peter and Top of the Pops as a Womble as many times as I had, I was seen as ‘a Womble’ and that was it. So I almost went into denial, I never got angry with anyone calling me that but it did used to irritate me being seen as ‘Mr Womble’ and not a musician. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have more successes like Bright Eyes and so forth and I’m now of an age where I can look back and think, ‘what fun’.”
The initial frustration with being recognised only for his Wombles work spurred Mike on to take his career further. Over the subsequent decades he has produced many artists, including Vanessa Mae’s album The Violin Player, which he also composed – it was the album that launched her to international superstardom. Mike’s Dramatico record label is host to successful artists such as Caro Emerald, Carla Bruni, Sarah Blasko and notably, Katie Melua. He acted as mentor and manager to Katie, whom he discovered in 2002 before co-writing and releasing her record The Closest Thing To Crazy, which stayed at Number 1 in the UK Album Chart for six weeks, making her the biggest selling UK female artist of 2004. Mike’s work on her famous track ‘Nine Million Bicycles’ contributed to the success of her second album, Piece by Piece, which has sold 3.5 million copies to date in Europe alone.
Whilst collaborating with the artists on his label, Mike has recorded several albums under his own name with The London Symphony Orchestra. His new album, Classical Tale, is a curation of his life’s work – no small feat, given the extensive nature of his critically acclaimed repertoire.
“It’s a bit like selecting a playlist on a streaming service, because as people might notice I do lots of different things, from Wombles to working with military bands, to heavy metal, to composing and I also like to direct and work in visual arts too,” says Mike. “I think this is a collection of my more accessible, melodic and romantic pieces.”
Classical Tale is an apt title for an album acting as a narrative for Batt’s life.
“These pieces were written during different parts of my career, so when I play songs from the album, The Dublin Overture for example, I would immediately be transported back to Dublin where I was commissioned to write the opening of a TV program, a celebration of the great tenor John McCormack.”
The most recognisable song would no doubt be the album opener Bright Eyes, recorded by Art Garfunkel and featured in the animated film Watership Down.
“It’s probably my favourite track on the album - it’s very gentle and builds up into this crashing climax.”
Whilst the composer reveals that he finds it “exhilarating to change genres from one to another”, classical music remains one of his greatest passions.
“Any record company executive would tell you people don’t really buy classical records very much these days…but it doesn’t mean the music isn’t popular. People love going to classical concerts, especially when it’s an occasion, an open air event or a festival. Classical music is all around us – I don’t look down on anybody who says, ‘oh that’s the Hovis theme’ when they hear Dvorak’s E minor symphony called The New World. It’s a beautiful slow movement to that symphony, but also an advert for bread. I think it’s great because it’s all around us and we experience it everywhere.”
Despite promoting his new album and working alongside some top names in the music industry, the composer still finds great happiness and inspiration from being at home.
“Our house straddles the border between Surrey and Hampshire, so I get up every morning and look out across Hampshire and think just how lucky I am.”
Now living in Farnham…one might assume most of his music was recorded in a big, shiny studio in London, but he insists that’s not the case.
“I have had a base in London for the past 30 years, but about 20 years ago we decided to get a place in the countryside about an hour’s drive down from the city, and I have my recording studio there too. The house is wired up for sound so if we wanted to record in the front room or use the dining room for drums, we can. That’s really good, I like that homely way of recording.”
He also admits that the years of success have allowed him to look more fondly on his Wombling days and has even been known to get back into the famous costume.
“I must hasten to add that that doesn’t happen very often!” he laughs. “But the last time was at Glastonbury four years ago and it was the most fun! You can’t look out of that costume and not see smiling faces, it’s just great. Even though I love to write serious music, I still say that laughter is as important as darkness and art so it’s good to mix the two.”
Even after such a varied and commendable career in music, Mike has found that he works best under pressure from a last minute deadline. “I usually find that I leave song writing to the last minute. I write my best stuff if I’m under a gun and feeling the pressure,” he says. “I find that if somebody says, ‘I need a song for the album recording next week’, I’ll often write my best song at that time, rather than if they need it in nine months.”
Sounds like Mike’s passion and drive will continue to entertain audiences around the world for a fair while yet!
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