Peter Gilmore - James Onedin, Songs of the Sea

Peter Gilmore,
James Onedin – Songs of the Sea,
Omega International Records OM 555 007,


Peter Gilmore epitomises the kind of dependable character actor that made up the heart of the extended Carry On repertory company. Present in the best of the series (and in many of the stinkers), Peter can often be spotted larking about in the background adding character and colour to various small roles located way down the cast list. He was a solid reliable actor who could always be depended upon to pop up in some minor supporting role and, more often than not, in the process steal the scene from the stars with some outstanding piece of business and wonderfully realised characterisation.

Like many of his fellow supporting cast members, such as Marianne Stone, Michael Nightingale or Joan Hickson, Peter seemed happy with minor roles but if the need ever arose he seemed to be able to step up effortlessly to deliver a bravura performance. Few people could have gone from playing a pear-eating Ambulance driver of precious few lines in one film, to matching all of Sid James’ royal bombast and blusterings as King Francis of the French in the next. That performance in Carry On Henry though was arguably Peter Gilmore’s zenith in the series and he would not appear again until Columbus came calling over twenty years later. His extended absence at the peak of his ability is not due to some minor tiff over casting with Peter Rogers as was normally the case, but due mainly to a TV role that came to dominate his life; namely that of James Onedin, ruthless owner of the eponymous shipping line in BBC TV’s The Onedin Line.

When the BBC’s press gang came calling few could have predicted the success of the series. From 1971 until 1980 The Onedin Line was a tremendous critical and popular triumph. A bit part actor no longer, Peter Gilmore became synonymous with the grizzled seafaring old salt and gradually grew used to launching ships, posing meaningfully beside tall-rigged galleons while gazing at the distant horizon, and answering endless fan mail containing offers of nautical advice from real sailors. The sort who actually sailed in ships rather than just posed beside them for the tabloids with nothing more than a squint and a pair of massive sideburns. In fact so synonymous did Peter become with all things sea-faring and nautical, it came to pass that in 1974 he was lured to Holland by a cabal of scheming Dutchmen to record for posterity his seminal solo album Songs of the Sea.

It should of course be pointed out that Peter Gilmore was not a sailor, he was, in case anyone is skimming through this without paying too much attention, a very able and dependable actor who played a sailor in a TV series. He was also a fine singer having recorded many soundtrack albums during his days as a romantic lead in musical theatre, most notably (according to me anyway) appearing with Sid James on the cast recording of Bye Bye Birdie. But just as Derek Nimmo seemed utterly convinced that he was a real priest and inexorably destined for high office in the church, so Peter Gilmore seemed convinced he was a real bona fide mariner, and while he did stop short of losing a leg in a skirmish with a Spanish privateer and developing a significant long term relationship with a parrot, he did manage to commit to vinyl one of the strangest solo recording debuts in the Carry On world.

Peter, I shall reiterate just once more, was most definitely not a sailor. Which is just as well because to be perfectly blunt, these aren’t really in any sense ‘Songs of the Sea’ as those devious clog-loving Netherlanders would have us believe. There is no salty bawling and shouting, there are no ribald songs about the peculiar habits of Baltimore courtesans, no rousing work songs for pumping something that needs pumping or raising something else that needs raising just as urgently on some benighted boat or other, and there are absolutely no mournful ballads about scurvy and floggings and toothless gin-addled lasses pining their days away in some decrepit Portsmouth brothel.

Well actually that’s not entirely fair, there are a few vaguely maritime-sounding songs that may have come within grog spitting distance of a quayside at some point in their life. But even these aren’t by any means rum soaked shanties, more like Bacardi Breezer infused cabaret tunes. Take for instance the maudlin sobalong classic, The Boy From Rotterdam, a song popular enough in Holland to be released as a single, a dubious honour and one that was also extended to Side Two’s The Sailor. This is a jaunty ukulele-led lounge classic that manages to be vaguely redolent of something a drunken Dutchman might sing in a Honolulu nightclub if he had overdone the banana daiquiris and was missing his mother’s home-made Ossenworst. Funny lot those Dutchies.

As for the rest of the songs on Songs of the Sea, they are an odd blend of rousing instrumentals snatched straight from the Onedin Line soundtrack (albeit with Peter’s menacing doom laden baritone rumbling incongruously over Khachaturian’s soaring strings), soppy crowd-pleasing middle-of-the-road classics, and overly sentimental ballads such as Seasons In The Sun or Hushabye Mountain from that well known nautical crowd pleaser Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a film that detailed in graphic scenes the deviant goings on in late-1960’s Bulgaria, a nescient and uncultured land bedevilled by state employed paedophiles, flying cars and musical sweets.

So, Songs of the Sea. It’s a pleasant enough easy listening romp, and in its prime probably gave succour to millions of impressionable 70’s housewives, the kind who were desperate to be carried away to Valparaiso in the creaking hold of a sailing ship by some rough old cove rather than face yet another day of dusting, Fish Fingers and Angel Delight. The happy little ballads are given the very merest hint of sea salt and haddock by posing Peter’s well-groomed sideburns and well-practised squint in front of some anonymous tall ship. Peter Gilmore went on to record more slightly nautically themed records and like many sailors before him grew to loathe the sea and shivered at any mention of the Onedin Line. Oh no, sorry I forgot, he wasn’t a sailor. See how easy it is?

Further sideboards and sea shanty stylings at: