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John Tams - Famous Derbyshire People

The Unique John Tams

It is a common failure of some writers to over-use certain words, and the gig lamp of custom and habit in my case is the word `unique' - which I use frequently (perhaps too frequently) to describe various aspects of this unique and diverse county of ours..But I make no apologies for using it yet again to describe John Tams...

According to my dictionary, the word `unique' means:- `sole: without a like: often used loosely for unusual': Well, John Tams is more than unusual, he is `sole, without a like' - and the man is not only unique - he's a phenomenon!

According to The Times, "John Tams may be the best songwriter you have never heard of"?, whilst comedian and former folk musician Billy Connolly says of him, "he's the bees knees', but Tams is perhaps better known to television addicts as Daniel Hagman, the rifleman from the popular ITV Napoleonic War series, `Sharpe', starring Sean Bean in the title role.

The Sharpe series was filmed in Russia, Portugal, Turkey & England and ran for five years, but Tams played more than an acting role - he also co-wrote the musical score and was script associate to Director, Tom Clegg!

Tams also produced an album of music from the series titled, `Over the Hills and Far Away' which sold over 100,000 copies for Virgin records - but then, during forty years as an actor/singer, John Tams has made over 50 albums as either singer, musician or producer.

Clearly John Tams is a man of prodigious talent, a master storyteller of stage, screen, and bandstand - who has more strings to his bow than Robin Hood and his entire band of Merry Men!

He has appeared in numerous films including Ken Russell's, `The Rainbow', `The Raggedy Rawney'(Handmade Films) with Bob Hoskins and `When Saturday Comes' (Capitol Films) with Sean Bean - and in television series `Heartbeat' and `The Ruth Rendell Mysteries' amongst others; he also played in the BBC adaption of D.H.Lawrence's, `Sons & Lovers' - for which he also wrote the musical score.

He has been Associate Director at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, and has worked as musical director, producer, actor and musician at the National Theatre for over thirty years alongside such household names as Paul Scofield, Albert Finney, and Sir Robert Stephens. The list is almost endless.

And so it was with a mixture of awe and trepidation, and armed with a wealth of biographical information gleaned from the Internet, record shops and music magazines, that I went to meet John Tams at The Spanker, his local pub in Nether Heage, anticipating that such an accomplished man would wear his celebrity like a suit of impenetrable armour. Not a bit of it - the only impenetrable thing about John Tams was his magnificent moustache.. The man I met was tall, gaunt, and had a commanding presence which was warm and generously welcoming; there was nothing pretentious about him at all, indeed I soon discovered that he had a genuine passion for what he does, is earth-rooted, and has tremendous empathy for his fellows.

Given his astonishing accomplishments one could be forgiven for thinking that Holbrook-born Tams must have had an excellent academic education, but in fact he admits that "by 1964 I was an unfulfilled, uncertificated, uneducated 15 year-old school-leaver - and so I joined Cox's Modern Amusements on dodgems and waltzers cruising the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfield"?.

He was born with a silver tongue in his mouth, rather than the proverbial silver spoon, - in a pub, after his dad became a publican, and music was part of his everyday life. His grandad on his father's side was a brass band conductor who taught cornet and violin and ran a colliery band and his grandfather on his mother's side played the concertina. "By the time I was eleven I was playing the B flat horn in Riddings Brass Band. When my dad became landlord of the New Inn at Somercotes, my bedroom was directly above the piano in the music room, and we were sandwiched between two other pubs, so I grew up surrounded by music of all kinds"? he said.

He began playing the guitar in his mid-teens, but after his whirl on the waltzers he decided to become a journalist, and after training at Richmond College, spent several years as a local newspaper reporter, first on the Ripley & Heanor News. "I couldn't drive so I had to cycle everywhere, and there were too many hills, so I would park the bike and pick up most of the news and gossip in the bars of the local pubs"? he laughed.

He edited the Belper News and the Alfreton Observer, had stints with BBC Radio Derby and Nottingham and freelanced for music magazines like Melody Maker and New Musical Express.

His natural aptitude and talent for acting was encouraged by meeting Barry Hines, author of award winning film `Kes' at Matlock Teacher Training College and he nurtured a growing interest and involvement with the theatre, notably via East Midland Mobile Arts.

He was twenty seven when he began a career which encompassed theatre, television, film and radio, and joined the National Theatre on the South Bank in 1977 and went on tour to Rome, Cologne and Edinburgh with `The Passion' in which he played John the Baptist. He remained actor and musical director with Bill Bryden's company at the National Theatre until 1985.

In between he expressed his music through folk band Muckram Wakes and then with the Albion Band and Home Service, producing numerous albums, including recordings of traditional Irish music, for Topic Records. He has been producing plays for Radio Four for almost a decade.

I asked about his musical influences, and whether he saw himself as an actor or as a singer and musician."I guess my early influence was Bob Dylan, most of my songs are narrative and language based, about society's victims rather than it's heroes; I like to think they provide a voice for those who can't be heard, sort of affirmations for forgotten folk, if you like, he said wistfully, like the struggling hill-farmers, the fishermen, and the miners"?.

He revealed that his granddad, Harry Stone, had been killed in a roof fall at Denby Colliery, and that being brought up in a mining family in a coalfield community had given him a great empathy and respect for the miners. Indeed, he is known to have given financial support by donating certain royalties to the Miners Fund in 1984, and has always been a staunch socialist. "I see no division and make no distinction between my acting and my music, they're just part of what I do as one of a company of strolling players, the whole idea is to entertain, whilst providing both a platform and meeting point for human interaction"?.

His first solo album, `Unity' was released in May 2001 and was described in Roots Magazine as `one of the very finest records of the last century; a timeless expression of stories, people and deep emotion.songs of rare quality performed exquisitely'. He was described in Mojo Magazine as `One of the unsung gods of folk' and Unity won Album of the Year, and the song, `Harry Stone' won Song of the Year at the BBC Folk Awards.

John dedicated his award to the thousands of former coal miners, revealing that it was inspired by his grandfather. "It was a way of giving him some sort of immortality, and the song reflects the history of coalmining and what became of it."? he said.

He followed that in 2002 with the critically acclaimed `Home' his second solo album, significant perhaps because he had just moved into his new home in the pretty village of Nether Heage with wife Sally - who in between managing him and his affairs, finds time to be a Registrar at Ripley - and daughter Rosie.

The future includes producing a film version of Charlie Peace with his business partner, the writer Michael Eaton, and writing the music for two two-hour films of a new version of Sharpe, starring Sean Bean which is filming in India in the winter of 2005.

His new album, `The Reckoning' is due for release this month (September) and having been privileged to listen to a preview I can understand why John Tams is regarded as a musical genius by his peers, for he engenders everything of purity in English music, and the performance is spellbinding.

He is one of those rare individuals who have the innate capacity to be anything they want to be - and he is exactly what he wants to be, actor, producer, singer, songwriter and musician, master storyteller, poet, preacher, - but the best thing about the unique John Tams - is that he is John Tams!
To order John's new album visit

This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writer Tom Bates