The definitive story of the Mastersingers, the Weather Forecast, and the Highway Code

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Master Singers The Highway Code EP album coverMonth after month, the Google searches that consistently bring visitors to this site have nothing to do with Tulsa or Oklahoma or Republican politics. This BatesLine entry is currently the number one result for any combination of two of the following four terms: "Master Singers," "Highway Code," "Weather Forecast," "Anglican chant."

The entry is about two delightful novelty tunes recorded by a group called the Mastersingers in the '60s, setting Britain's rules of the road and a typical BBC weather to the beautiful a capella four-part harmonies of Anglican chant.

What I wrote recently attracted the attention of Helen Keating, the wife of Geoffrey Keating, one of the Mastersingers, and she was kind enough to send me what I think should be considered the definitive history of the Mastersingers, the Highway Code, and the Weather Forecast:

'The Highway Code' set to psalm chants was devised by a schoolmaster at Abingdon School, John Horrex, in the late 1950s. It was sung at numerous church socials etc as entertainment, using whatever singers were available (including me!)

In 1963, to celebrate the school's Quatercentenary a record was made which contained a lot of the Highway Code set in different styles - a pub song, Gilbert and Sullivan style and a jazzy version etc. The singers were John Horrex, George Pratt, Geoff Keating and Barry Montague.

A copy of this record was sent to Fritz Spiegl who gave it to the BBC, who used it on a lunchtime programme introduced by Winston Churchill (jnr) and was played at its last edition as ' our most requested piece.'

George Martin then recorded it, the group calling itself the Mastersingers, on a single, with the pub song on the B side. This actually got to no 22 in the charts (then the top 20) and the group was on standby for 'Top of the Pops'!

Cliff Richard then invited the group (called for the purposes of the disc ''The Carol Singers') to back an EP of Christmas carols, which were arranged by George Pratt and Geoff Keating. One number done by Geoff was 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' but it was never used as it was too short for a whole side but too long to put another carol with it.

The tape of this number was played to the Kings Singers and they immediately asked Geoff to rearrange it for them, which they subsequently recorded and sang everywhere. Geoff also arranged 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen' for them, both of which appear on their LP 'Christmas with the Kings Singers'. (The latter number, in 5/8 like Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five', inspired George Shearing for his his version on a Christmas disc.)

All the four schoolmasters moved on from Abingdon, John Horrex to Glasgow, George Pratt to Keele University, Geoff Keating to Cheadle Hulme School, and Barry Montague to Australia. The latter's place in the group was taken by Mike Warrington from Cheadle Hulme and that began a series of performances of both the original 'Highway Code' and the new 'Weather Forecast', (also recorded by George Martin) together with lots of local television performances of things like 'Rules of Wrestling' and other silly things. George Martin also recorded 'The London Telephone Directory' (started at 'A', speeded up then slowed down as they got to 'Z's) which the group didn't think was funny and thankfully was withdrawn when the directory was deemed copyright.

We understood that Princess Margaret (a fan of the group which she had met at the Abingdon Quatercentenary celebrations) was given a copy of the disc but the group never got one.

The group did the backing for George Martin's record of Peter Sellers' 'A Hard Day's Night' (as a Richard III type soliloquy), music arranged by George Pratt, and 'Help' (as a sermon), music arranged by Geoff Keating.

The Mastersingers were invited to do the Highway Code on the Ken Dodd show (live) on BBC TV and then the enthusiasm (caused by over-exposure and problems of distances apart) rather dried up.

The Kings Singers, by now good friends with the group, were often told that 'The Highway Code was the best thing they ever did' (!) and they are always incredibly generous in their acknowledgment that they weren't responsible (mind you, hearing the four amateur singers on the original it's not surprising they say that!)

Hope that clears up all the misapprehensions!

I wrote Mrs. Keating back to ask what her husband Geoff and the other Mastersingers are doing nowadays. She replied:

Having retired after 17 years with Geoff as Director of Music at Millfield School in Somerset (and me as Director of Music at Millfield Prep School) we had three years at Sherborne School for Girls where I was Housemistress (and Geoff was half time teaching photography and sailing!) then we retired - well, you might call it that but we're as busy as ever! - to SW Scotland. you we have seven concerts between March 25th of this year and this next June 10th, that shows you. Geoff conducts the Solway Sinfonia plays jazz with his group 'Gentle Jazz' (piano and saxophone), sails, fishes and sells landscape photographs. Not bad for a man who's 70 in a fortnight! Not that he looks it, or acts it, as you will see from the photo on the above website.

John Horrex, the 'founder' of the Mastersingers is now retired in Canterbury, where he ended up teaching, Professor George Pratt, retired from Huddersfield University, is down in Exeter when he's not broadcasting or doing talks on cruise ships, while Mike Warrington is a retired headmaster in Oldham.

From Geoff Keating's page on the Solway Sinfonia site, I found this link to a week-long music holiday he'll be leading next February at a hotel in England's Lake District. Looks like great fun.

A happy 70th birthday to Geoff Keating and many thanks to Helen Keating for setting the record straight about these beloved pieces of music.

MORE, MORE (30 October 2008): Brien K. Meehan has produced a transcription of the Mastersingers' Weather Forecast with words and four-part music. (Links have changed -- see below.)

UPDATE: (29 December 2009): Lulu.com has changed some URLs. Here are Brien K. Meehan's transcriptions of the Mastersingers' Weather Report (Anglican Chant) and the Mastersingers' Highway Code (Anglican Chant). Both are available for free download.

UPDATE: 3 November 2012: I've found Brien K. Meehan's transcriptions of the Mastersingers' Highway Code and Mastersingers' Weather Forecast, on the website of St. James Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They are also posted to Google docs: Mastersingers' Weather Forecast, Mastersingers' Highway Code, linked from Brien K. Meehan's YouTube profile.

And for safekeeping, here are local copies of Mastersingers' Highway Code Anglican Chant and Mastersingers' Weather Forecast Anglican Chant

UPDATE: 18 March 2013: Keith Webley writes: "It is with great sadness that I report that John Horrex (my wife's uncle) passed away this evening." Our condolences to Mr. Horrex's family and friends.

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21 Comments

Jan Meijer said:

From the Netherlands this King Singers' related question:
With our male choir (65 men - TTBB) we'd love to take up the "Weatherforecast"
into our repertoire. The two questions I am now faced with are:

- Could somebody please advise me where I could obtain
1) the sheet music and
2) the text / lyrics ?

- Referring to just the music, could somebody please tell me where I could obtain a
hard copy of the music apparantly used for the "Weatherforecast" (the earlier
mentioned Anglican Chant Psalter and/or the Parish Psalter)

Thank you very much for your help.
Jan Meijer

Those who like Anglican Chant might find the site that I maintain for the benefit of our church choir in Kitchener, Ontario interesting. When I have the time, I put the score and MIDI versions of the chant settings for the next Sunday there, and choristers and others can practise their own parts alone and in ensemble.

Go to http://home.golden.net/~malton/Choir/potw.htm, and drop me a line if you'd like to be on the mailing list.

Jonathan

Barataria Author Profile Page said:

Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the BBC programme `Shipping Forecast`, including commentary on Mrs. Bales of Às Time Goes By``. Unaccountably, no mention is made of The Master Singers and their performance. This should be remedied by someone knowledgeable. For example, why the change from `Shipping`to `Weather`(BBC or copyright)

Ron said:

Is there a recording of the Weather Report or the Highway Code on CD? If so, what label, and is it still available?

Thanks

Searches for Mastersingers, Highway Code, and Weather Forecast on amazon.co.uk turned up nothing. A search for the producer, George Martin, turned up a collection of 151 songs called Produced by George Martin: 50 Years in Recording, which includes "Highway Code" but not "Weather Forecast." It also includes comedy recordings from the Goons, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Flanders and Swann, Beyond the Fringe, Bernard Cribbins, and Rolf Harris, covers of Beatles hits by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Celine Dion, and hits by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Paul McCartney, and America.

NOYB said:

Weather forecast is apparently available on a CD from the Canadian Broadcasting Corportation. Follow this link: http://www.cbcshop.ca/CBC/shopping/product.aspx?Product_ID=ERART00115&Variant_ID=997V2&lang=en-CA

I seem to recall another recording (which I assume was the Master Singers) of "Airline safety instructions" (The little talk you get from the flight attendants before you take off), done in the same style. Does anyone have any information about that?

wayne said:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4z2jwDcb9wI

and the highway code

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qngi_jSaXlI

I have not heard these in 25 years and it's a joy to find them again.
The seeing the shipping map with the shipping report portion of the piece finally made sense!

Enjoy!

A link to the YouTube video just floated into my inbox. :-)

Naturally, I looked for the music too. Actually, I looked through a number of books to see if it was sung to a published chant. It's not in any of my books.

A search engine led me here, to Jan's question above - but there's none to be found.

SO, I wrote it out.

http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_64/4521000/4521147/1/source/Weather_Report_Anglican_Chant.pdf

It's a triple double-chant. I wrote the traditional notation including traditional pointing. Feel free to sing along!

Brien, thanks very, very much!

Alastair Tainsh said:

John Horrex taught me Physics at school in Glasgow - late 60's eraly 70's. One of a mere handfull of inspirational teachers I had. He was also an excellent Dame in the school pantomime. I wish him well in his retirement.

This came up in conversation again the other day. Long story short:

I've updated my transcription of "The Weather Report", for accuracy and to site the sources:
http://www.lulu.com/content/4521147

... and I've added a transcription of "The Highway Code."
http://www.lulu.com/content/6158237

These two links are better than the one above, as they'll always lead to current content.

Paul Mailly said:

Help!
A good friend of mine is interested in a song: The Telephone Book. Is it available, on a record, a cd or mp3 or any other format?
Tks in advance,

Paul Mailly

Anglican chant is alive and well in Rancho Santa Fe, California at Nativity, where a guitar has never been heard . . .
Paul Batchelor

John Clifford said:

Fantastic entry regarding the Mastersingers. I knew all of the original singers while at Abingdon School (1959-1966) They were all very good teachers and quite entertaining. John Horrex taught me Physics and I had the priviledge to sing in the school choir with him as he was a counter-tenor and I had a low voice. George Pratt probably inspired my love of Organ Music by playing the school chapel so well. I have never forgotten the music and fun I had then and it has stood me well for many years. I have been involved with one aspect of music or another ever since although not as a profession. Thank you for such an interesting item.

Tim said:

The links to the written out version seem to be broken - anyone got an alternative source?

Tim, apparently lulu.com rearranged some URLs. I've updated the entry with the correct link for "Weather Forecast." Brien K. Meehan has added a transcription for "Highway Code," and I've linked that as well.

Krukje said:

There is also a Dutch version of Weather forecast, made by Intermezzo in the 1990s. Instead of the weather, the subject was changed to the regulations aboard Dutch trains.
You can listen to it here (the songs starts after 30 seconds into the broadcast):
http://www.rnw.nl/nederlands/radioshow/winters-openbaar-vervoer

Lisa Caroline Lewis said:

As of this writing (October 2012) none of the Lulu links are working. It would be great if Brien's transcriptions could be posted on other site(s). Many thanks!

Thanks, Lisa, for the heads-up. I've now updated the links to point to copies of the transcriptions on Google Docs and on another website.

Keith Webley said:

It is with great sadness that I report that John Horrex (my wife's uncle) passed away this evening.

Pe said:

I’d like to post the sad news that John Horrex died on Monday in Ashford, after a couple of weeks in hospital.

Until a couple of years ago when he became too frail he continued to sing regularly, in the choir of St Stephen’s Church Canterbury and in a Barber shop group. He was a counter tenor up to a few years ago when he decided to “ change sex” as he put it and join the basses. This gave me the pleasure of singing next to him for two or three years.

He was out and about although walking with a frame up to a few weeks before his death, and he retained the wry sense of humour which created the Highway Code to the end of his life.

Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory, John

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 7, 2007 12:22 PM.

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