MERRY HELL – A Documentary: A Year in the Life (own label)

A Year In The LifeExactly what it says, A Year In The Life follows the much acclaimed and awards-festooned Wigan outfit across the course of a year from February 2018 to February 2019, from rehearsals and hometown gigs to meet and greet Q&A sessions (why are you called Merry Hell?) and festivals, from Portugal to Skegness. As John Kettle stresses from the start, while their familiar live format is as a quintet, Merry Hell are, in fact, 12 piece, including not only keyboardist Lee Goulding, fiddler Neil McCartney (who made the documentary) and drummer Andy Jones who roll up for the recordings and larger stages, but also their manager, Damian Liptrot, merchandisers Julie McKiernan and Mike Jones, and designer Julian Watts. They are, as the film makes clear, very much a family in more than the literal sense of the three Kettle brothers and John’s wife Virginia.

Going behind the scenes, to their homes and into dressing rooms (at one show Virginia marvels how they all have their own, including Damian), each gets their own turn in the spotlight, talking about their background, their role in the band, offering up anecdotes and chatting about their favourite books. For Virginia it’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which she read because she wanted to be like the cool girl in town she’d seen reading it, Nick (filmed with the backdrop of a Merry Helloween banner in St Helens) recalls first encountering The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy while Bob talks of George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, affording an opportunity for a trip round their native town and a visit to the actual pier, which, and I’m sure most wouldn’t have known this, was actually the loading bay on the canal where they put the coal on the boats. Virginia, on the other hand, takes us on a tour of Chester to where she moved from Manchester in 1982 and kicked off her music career at the Raven Folk Club (chatting to one of the long-standing organisers, Nick Mitchell), taking in the suspension bridge from which she and he mates would dive into the river and an old Anchorite cell.

As with their music, the personal and the politics go hand in hand, the different members talking about their convictions (Bob notes how the world needs more kindness and Andrew talks about the need for a global ecological consciousness) and how the need to keep what they do and sing about real. Surprisingly, perhaps, the music itself doesn’t play a prominent role in the film, there are snippets of songs from shows or rehearsals (including their support acts, such as Ragnari). But none are talked about individually or (save for Virginia’s ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ over the end credits) played in full, although there are marvellous extracts of the band performing with the Commoners Choir and, with snatches from ‘Bury Me Naked’ and ‘We Need Each Other Now’, the 210 strong Rabble Chorus. As the notes on the back cover say “Merry Hell offer joyful, uplifting folk-rock with a message for troubled times”. This documentary affords an insight into why and how.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk.

‘Bury Me Naked’ – official video (and why not?):