The Fisherman’s Friends: Britain’s favourite buoy band

Britain’s favourite BUOY band: They’ve rubbed shoulders with Beyonce, share a label with Elton and their story’s now a major film – not bad for a bunch of burly Cornish fishermen. But the pain has carried a painful personal cost

Backstage at the Glastonbury music festival in 2011, and the vast trailer which housed Beyonce and her entourage was parked just along from U2’s luxuriously equipped tour bus.

It all looked very rock ’n’ roll except for one jarring detail — the battered white minibus separating the two.

With 107,000 miles on the clock it had just scraped through its last MOT thanks to a new clutch fitted by one of the occupants, a farmer with a sideline in installing milking parlours.

In the early days, when the Fisherman’s Friends band (above) were watched by only a few hundred people, slipping home to the loo was less of a problem. But now they attract crowds of several thousand who spill up the lanes on either side of the Platt

Now, John Lethbridge and the other members of The Fisherman’s Friends — ten burly Cornishmen with a collective age of 562 who fitted in their singing around full-time jobs — were waiting in the wings, about to step out onto the main stage where Coldplay had headlined only a few hours previously and Beyonce would perform later that night.

Nobody was more surprised at their presence alongside pop and rock royalty than the men themselves. Their repertoire of sea shanties and traditional folk songs, all dating back at least a century, rarely extended to anything more modern than Sloop John B, When the Boat Comes In, and the Cornish ‘national anthem’ Trelawney.

‘We found ourselves wondering how the hell we had ended up on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury,’ they recalled in their collectively written autobiography.

‘When we thought of all the stars who had climbed those steps, and now a bunch of old chancers like us, it was just unbelievable.’

The story of how this ‘buoy band’ (above) became Cornwall’s unlikeliest export is being told in a new film with an ensemble cast featuring Line Of Duty star Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton who starred in the BBC’s War And Peace

After their 45-minute set was cheered by an audience of around 30,000, they felt they were ‘walking on air’. Yet it was just one of many highlights in their success to that point.

With a £1million recording contract which made them ‘label-mates’ with Justin Bieber, Elton John and Take That, their first album released the previous year had gone gold.

They would go on to be part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 — standing aboard HMS Belfast and serenading the royal flotilla with what they described as ‘the rollocking, bo****king, Jolly Rogering’ shanty, South Australia — and would sing for Charles and Camilla during the couple’s tour of Cornwall.

Last year The Fisherman’s Friends released their third album, Sole Mates, and entertained 81,000 people with the rugby anthem, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, at half-time when England took on Australia at Twickenham in November.

The film (above) focuses instead on the brotherly bonds and their passion for their birthplace and Cornish heritage. They still give free weekly concerts back home in Port Isaac, a tiny fishing village on the North Cornish coast

And now the story of how this ‘buoy band’ became Cornwall’s unlikeliest export is being told in a new film with an ensemble cast featuring Line Of Duty star Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton who starred in the BBC’s War And Peace.

While the band only make cameo appearances, their songs and voices are threaded throughout what is being described as ‘the heartfelt, poignant and at times hilarious narrative, providing the bedrock for what has already been hailed as a new addition to the genre of feel-good British movies such as The Full Monty and Calendar Girls’.

But while both those box office hits touched on darker themes — unemployment and cancer — Fisherman’s Friends will not address the tragedy which, as we will see, led the band to consider turning their back on fame and fortune.

The film focuses instead on the brotherly bonds and their passion for their birthplace and Cornish heritage. They still give free weekly concerts back home in Port Isaac, a tiny fishing village on the North Cornish coast.

Held on the Platt, as the harbour is known, on Friday evenings throughout the summer, these are subject to disruption, not least because, despite the self-imposed limit of two beers before each show, ‘it’s not unusual for one or more of us to feel an urgent need, probably not experienced quite so acutely by younger musicians’.

In the early days, when they were watched by only a few hundred people, slipping home to the loo was less of a problem. But now they attract crowds of several thousand who spill up the lanes on either side of the Platt, pushing the front row to within a couple of feet of the group.

With much of it filmed around Port Isaac it will bring to a still- wider audience the talents of the Fisherman’s Friends and the charms of the Cornish beauty spot which set them on their unlikely path to fame [File photo]

The show always begins at 8pm, a hark back to the days when original band member Nigel Sherratt, who ran a local tearoom, liked to catch the end of Coronation Street before making the short dash from his living room to the Platt to join them.

Later, as the band were about to start recording their first album at London’s Abbey Road studios, they were kept waiting for two hours because Nigel’s wife had left her handbag at Bodmin Parkway Station and they’d gone back to help her find it.

Beyonce or Bono wouldn’t tolerate such shenanigans but the Cornish coined the word ‘dreckly’ — described by locals as equivalent to the Spanish ‘mañana’ only with less sense of urgency. And the Fisherman’s Friends have never been much interested in the trappings or pressures of celebrity life.

Of the original line-up of ten, nine grew up in or around Port Isaac which, despite the tourists flocking to see the cobbled alleyways and whitewashed cottages made famous by the TV series Doc Martin, has a permanent population of just 721 people, all living within barely half a square mile of each other.

The oldest member — he was 77 when he ventured on stage at Glastonbury — was Peter Rowe, a retired lobster fisherman and long-time manager of the local boy’s football team for which many of the Fisherman’s Friends played over the years. 

That they invariably lost their away games may not have been unrelated to the cramped conditions of travel, with Rowe transporting an entire team of 11 boys as far afield as Bodmin, 15 miles to the south, in his two-door Triumph Herald convertible.

His squad included the Brown brothers — John, Julian and Jeremy — who would later become fishermen like generations of their family before them, and Trevor Grills, who would follow his father into the building trade.

They all went to the same primary school in the Sixties and remember the headmaster, a member of the local lifeboat crew, letting his pupils run out to watch him and the other volunteers disappearing off to sea whenever they were on a ‘cry’.

While both those box office hits touched on darker themes — unemployment and cancer — Fisherman’s Friends will not address the tragedy which, as we will see, led the band to consider turning their back on fame and fortune [File photo]

These men grew up with songs passed down by generations of fishermen, farmers and miners who rounded off a hard day’s work by heading to the pub to tell stories, sing and swig beer.

Peter Rowe’s family lived next door to the Golden Lion, which still has a tunnel from the cellar leading down to the beach once used by smugglers. As a young boy he drifted off to sleep listening to the singing which, in later years, was accompanied by Trevor Grills’ father and uncle on their accordions.

That tradition had largely died out, but one Christmas Eve in the late Eighties — no one remembers exactly which year — the Brown brothers together with Grills and a few other locals started belting out carols in the Golden Lion.

It was then they realised how much they missed the evocative sounds of their childhood and began holding weekly sing-alongs with the help of old regulars who reminded them of long-forgotten tunes and lyrics.

Along the way they gathered new recruits including Nigel Sherratt, potter Billy Hawkins, builder John McDonnell who grew up in Leeds but had lived in Port Isaac since the Seventies, their former football manager Peter Rowe, and John Lethbridge, the man who got their minibus through the MOT.

It was when they started staging weekly concerts on the Platt to raise money for local charities that another former member of the football team came into his own.

Thrown out of his school choir because his voice was too deep, even as an eight year old, shopkeeper Jon Cleave proved a natural Master of Ceremonies, the moustachioed bass introducing each song with jokes that might include a reference to the Cornish book of love-making — the Farmer Sutra — or a reference to his fellow artistes as ‘the men who’ve done for singing what Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson did for binocular sales’.

So they might have continued as mere local celebrities had it not been for Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker who, in the summer of 2010, was touring the area in his camper van and chanced across one of their Friday night concerts.


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Impressed, he persuaded his manager Ian Brown to come and listen for himself.

‘He bought us each a drink — always a good start — and said he could get us a record deal. We took it all with a very large pinch of salt but with nothing to lose we nodded in agreement,’ they said.

Two weeks later, Brown emailed Jon Cleave to say that he was coming to see them with a choice of deals from Universal, Island Records and Decca.

They still didn’t quite believe him but he arrived the next day with a solicitor who explained the pros and cons of the various offers.

They went with Universal because they demanded the least in terms of touring and promoting the records.

They added: ‘None of us had gone looking for a record deal and as long as we could still continue fishing, working and living in Port Isaac, just the same as before, we were happy.

‘Anything else that came our way was a bonus but we didn’t want it to change our lives.’

Sadly their lives were to change, and in the saddest way imaginable. Thanks not least to a TV documentary about them and their starring role in adverts for Young’s seafood, their fame continued to spread with sell-out concerts across the country and, by 2013, they had taken on a new promoter, Paul McMullen.

That February, as they unpacked their minibus for a concert at the G Live venue in Guildford, Surrey, the floor-to-ceiling metal door to the loading bay came crashing down on both McMullen and Trevor Grills.

McMullen, 44, who was married with a young son, died at the scene. Grills, 54, a husband and father of three sons, died in hospital.

Last year The Fisherman’s Friends released their third album, Sole Mates, and entertained 81,000 people with the rugby anthem, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, at half-time when England took on Australia at Twickenham. Their film poster is pictured above

The group was devastated but giving up singing together seemed as unthinkable as carrying on without Grills.

‘Losing Trevor was very, very hard, as was losing Paul, so losing Fisherman’s Friends would leave a third massive hole,’ said John Lethbridge at the time.

‘We’ve put so much time and effort into the group over the last few years, we don’t want to have to grieve for that, too.’

They returned to the stage a year after the tragedy and received a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall.

By then they had already released their second album, recorded shortly before the accident and dedicated posthumously to Trevor Grills.

Its title, One And All, expresses perfectly the comradeship depicted in the new movie.

With much of it filmed around Port Isaac it will bring to a still- wider audience the talents of the Fisherman’s Friends and the charms of the Cornish beauty spot which set them on their unlikely path to fame.

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