King of the ivories . . . Denis King at home in Walberswick
PUBLISHED: 16:47 23 June 2014 | UPDATED: 16:47 23 June 2014
Denis King's musical talents make him a hit with the locals down at Suffolk's Notting-Hill-on-Sea, discovers Lucy Etherington
“This is the man who wrote the theme to Black Beauty!” said Emma Freud, introducing composer Denis King to a circle of her famous friends at one of her summer soirees.
“You’re joking!” cried the comedienne Sue Perkins. “I used to love that show, I grew up with it!”
Without further ado, Denis was escorted to the nearest grand piano and ordered to play the aforementioned tune. He was slightly astonished, having written the score for the ITV children’s drama about a girl and her horse back in 1972. As he played, he looked around and saw the room begin to fill.
“The room was packed with celebrities,” he says. “Everywhere you looked was a familiar face. When I finished there was lots of applause and I thought: ‘What a bizarre scene!’”
Not quite so bizarre when you consider that a) most women (and some men) over 35 can hum the theme to The Adventures of Black Beauty and b) Denis happens to live in Suffolk’s celebrity hotspot, Walberwick, hence his star-studded audience.
When I pay Denis a visit, I don’t see anyone famous in the Co-op (sadly), but I am deeply aware that his next door neighbours are the Freuds, including Emma who is of course married to screenwriter Richard Curtis, author Esther married to the actor David Morrissey and PR Matthew married to Elizabeth Murdoch. No wonder the place is such a luvvie-magnet it has been dubbed Notting Hill on Sea. Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass has a home on the edge of the village.
“There was a rumour going around that Johnny Depp was moving here,” Denis chuckles. “It’s getting ridiculous. Imagine if they all got involved with the village hall productions. . .”
We pause over our coffees and picture a cross between Love, Actually and The Bourne Supremacy enacted by am dram enthusiasts – of which there are many in this creative little enclave. Perhaps not as improbable as it seems. Denis himself helped stage a local production of The Wind in the Willows musical he co-wrote with Keith Waterhouse.
“It was actually pretty good,” he admits. “We have some genuine talent here.”
High praise indeed from a man who has worked extensively with Alan Ayckbourn, was good friends with Dudley Moore, has won two Ivor Novello awards, one for his musical Privates on Parade, the other for Black Beauty.
His long career began when he was 13, touring music halls with his siblings in The King Brothers – “Britain’s first boy band,” he jokes – and he’s known some genuine legends. Indeed, Denis has so many great stories – all told with the same self-deprecating wit that has me giggling very unprofessionally – that my interview over-runs by an hour. Luckily these are all going into a memoir, which he is currently recording as an audiobook.
Yet it wasn’t the celeb-sparkle that drew Denis and his second wife Astrid to the Suffolk coast. It began, as all great life-changing decisions, with a whim.
“Astrid and I had a lovely life in Hampstead,” he says. “Our son Alex went to school in St John’s Wood. I’d lived in London all my life and just fancied moving to The Countryside – having no idea what ‘The Countryside’ was. I had this romantic idea of it. Astrid, who grew up in the Connecticut countryside, loved London. I knew I’d have quite a job convincing her.”
He knew Suffolk vaguely from writing music for the TV series Lovejoy, which was filmed in villages around Lavenham, and having played the Southwold Theatre once with Maureen Lipman in their hit show Re: Joyce. When a friend offered him use of a weekend home just to try out the area, he decided to give it a go.
“We turned up on a wet, grey November day, really nasty weather, and Astrid turned to me and said, ‘This place feels good’,” he recalls.
After a year they decided to buy a house. Denis built a recording studio in his attic and wrote a musical, West 5 Story, which has just played at the Questors Theatre in London’s Ealing. Every morning without fail he can be found on the beach with about half a dozen free-spirited creative types and their dogs, who swim in the North Sea throughout the year – even in winter.
“I used to swim in the Hampstead ponds, even when they had to break the ice before we got in,” he says. “It’s a joy. Even on the most appalling day, you look out and there’s a wind howling and it’s peeing with rain, dark clouds – I almost enjoy it more. People think we’re mad, but it must being doing something good!”
Come the famous local Christmas Day Swim, Denis and his nicely acclimatised swimmers calmly stroll into the sea as though taking a summer dip, surrounded by hundreds of shrieking purple bodies in their underwear.
Unlike a lot of ex-pats, especially the weekenders, Denis and Astrid have embraced village life, which has in turn embraced them.
“The realisation that people could be so nice to each other!” he says. “Hampstead is pretty, but you’d get a cursory nod from the neighbours if you were lucky. This village envelops you. If you get into any trouble, 20 people turn up to help.
“It was love at first sight really, everything about the place. And it’s never let us down. Whenever I have to go to London, I can’t wait to get back to Walberswick. It’s home.”