Entertainment Music

Sunday 18 February 2018

Obituary: Peter Skellern

Pianist and singer-songwriter whose work ranged from love songs to humorous ditties

Ordained: Singer Peter Skellern became a priest and a deacon. Photo: PA
Ordained: Singer Peter Skellern became a priest and a deacon. Photo: PA

Peter Skellern, who has died aged 69, was a pianist and singer-songwriter who rose to fame in 1972 with the gently romantic You're A Lady, which reached No 3 in the British charts, and went on to have a busy career as a performer and tunesmith.

Skellern, a fresh-faced graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, was married with a child and struggling to make ends meet, working as a hotel porter in Shaftesbury, Dorset, when the song was snapped up by Decca, launching his career. It became a worldwide hit and was covered by numerous other singers, including Brigitte Bardot with Laurent Vergez in a duet version, and by the Monkee Davy Jones.

Skellern always went his own way and his idiosyncratic, but ever gentle, musical vision encompassed everything from brass bands to the classics of Fred Astaire, and from television mini-musicals to theme tunes and humorous ditties.

He sang the theme song to the 1972-3 LWT series Billy Liar and for three years in the 1970s worked on Radio 4's Stop the Week.

In 1981, he had an autobiographical series on BBC television called Peter Skellern, and also wrote the music and starred in a five-part series of 30-minute musicals called Happy Endings.

In 1983, he hosted BBC2's Private Lives chat show. His other television commissions included the theme music for the 1980 BBC series Flesh and Blood; the LWT comedy series Me and My Girl (1984) and Granada Television's The Life and Times of Henry Pratt (1992).

In 1987, he wrote and performed the theme song for the Yorkshire Television series Flying Lady; he also wrote the lyrics for the tune One More Kiss, Dear, for the 1982 film Blade Runner.

From 1984 to 1999, Skellern formed a creative partnership with his fellow songsmith Richard Stilgoe, with whom he toured the country in a series of musical cabaret shows, entertaining audiences with songs such as Joyce the Librarian (who had never been kissed but had a liaison with a regular reader and ended up like a library book - two weeks overdue), and released three live albums - A Quiet Night Out, By the Wey and Who Plays Wins. Their "relaxed, clever and gentle humour", observed a critic in 1999, made "a pleasant change from the coarse 'in your face' entertainment that often goes under the guise of comedy".

In fact, though, music was not Skellern's first choice of career. From the age of nine he had always wanted to become a priest, and in 2014 he was put forward for ordination training.

Although he was subsequently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, in October 2016 he was given special permission to be ordained as a deacon and a priest on the same day, under a special faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. He was ordained by the Bishop of Truro at St Wyllows church in Lanteglos-by-Fowey, Cornwall, where he lived in his later years, in a ceremony attended by more than 120 friends and family members.

Peter Skellern was born on March 14, 1947 at Bury, Lancashire, and attended Derby High School in Greater Manchester. He began his musical career playing the organ at St Michael's Church in Bolton.

He went on to study piano at the Guildhall School of Music, where he met his wife Diana, graduating in 1968. He then joined a vocal harmony group called March Hare (later known as Harlan County), which released one country/pop album before splitting up.

After You're a Lady, Skellern had another hit three years later with Hold On to Love, which reached number 14 in the British charts. In 1978, he had a minor hit with the 1930s song Love is the Sweetest Thing (with backing from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band), winning the Music Trades Association award for "best middle-of-the-road song". In a similar vein, he performed Cole Porter's I Get a Kick out of You at the 1982 Royal Variety Performance.

Two years later, Skellern formed a short-lived group called Oasis with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and singer Mary Hopkin. The group released one eponymous album, which earned a silver record, but disbanded after Hopkin became ill.

In later life, Skellern turned to writing church music. Waiting for the Word, a choral piece, was commissioned by the BBC for Songs of Praise in 2001. Six Simple Carols and The Nativity Cantata (2004) were written for the Aeolian Singers and subsequently recorded.

After living for many years in Kent, in 1990 Skellern and his wife moved to the south coast of Cornwall.

His diagnosis with inoperable cancer, Skellern admitted, had come as a terrible shock: "For about a week I hung in this abyss and I just grabbed God. I was given a year to live and everything fell, apart from my belief in God. Then God closed the ground beneath me and I became resigned and happy and I have been like that ever since."

Peter Skellern is survived by his wife and by their son and daughter.


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