If you’re a regular reader you may have been wondering where I’ve been. Thank you for your patience by the way. What can I say? It’s been an unusually busy November and December. After the strangeness of the covid lockdowns things have gone back to the weirdest kind of “normal” that I’ve ever known. Personally, there has been family illness and a chaotic health system to contend with. And that is on top of the country being brought to a near standstill with strikes in every sector including postal, train travel and legal services: mail, rail and jail have all been seen to fail.


But through it all the music played on and McShane & Shaw’s Big Christmas Singalong! took place on December 18th at Penistone’s venerable Paramount Theatre (opened 1915)


Here’s what happened…

Last December 2021 Chris McShane and I thought it would be a fine idea to try and talk the manager of the Paramount, Mr Brian Barnsley, into showing our mad little video McSwing on his big screen in a double bill with Buster Keaton’s classic The General.  While we chat, I happen to mention an idea I’ve had for a Christmas singalong.


The truth is I hadn’t really thought much about the idea before then but I found myself fleshing it out as we spoke. I was recalling the many Vancouver Ukulele Circles that I led in the St James Hall on the west side of Vancouver. Such joyful evenings. The converted church would be packed with dozens of people singing and playing ukulele together. At the peak we had 250 people in there. And, as I looked around this similar sized British theatre that manages to be both impressive (it has a balcony) while still small enough to be intimate, I realised a similar event could be held here – except we’d never find that many ukulele players. But, hey, who needs ukuleles, people just want to sing – right?


I propose a big Christmas singalong and, instead of handing out impossible to read carol sheets, I suggest having the lyrics projected onto a portable screen. I’m halfway through describing the concept when we realise the cinema already has a screen, a rather large one in fact, and that it would fit the bill perfectly. Mr Barnsley likes the idea and books our non-existent show on the spot.


That was December 2021. We had a whole year to plan the thing. Easy! Yeah right – Man makes his plan and God laughs…


We sign the contract on the dotted line and agree to all the standard requirements. At least I assumed they were standard. I’d never booked a cinema before but I had to believe it was all cool. It’s been here since 1915 – not exactly what you’d call a fly-by-night operation.


I go to work in January 2022 typing lyrics for festive songs into the computer program that Mr Barnsley had said would work best for the cinema screen. We even visit the cinema one morning to make sure everything works and that the lyrics can be read from the back rows. Brian even screens McSwing for us so we get to see ourselves as giants; which is cool.


I tell Chris I will take care of typing out and editing the songs all by myself, because I’m a controlling person and clearly know that anyone else will mess it up. But, having decided that, my interest then wanes and I don’t get much done. After some months have gone by, I get a summer shock when Mr Barnsley requests the 523 posters (ranging from hand-flyer size to cinema poster size) that we’d agreed to supply in the contract. He wants them soon.


McShane & Shaw are good at many things but designing posters isn’t one of them. Chris, while being an enthusiastic and talented painter, does graphic design that would have been cutting edge somewhere around 1995. How he manages to create such graphics with all the modern equipment at his disposal is frankly beyond me. But I am far, far worse: Although I am gifted at knowing what looks visually appealing and can criticize at length other people’s work I am completely and utterly incapable of producing any graphic that does not involve potato printing.


Ian Rafferty (our sound engineer) had done a fine job of designing our album cover, which I fussed over and sent back and forth for weeks before I was grudgingly happy with it, and so we ask him if he can do a poster for us. He agrees and then nails it first time by making a perfect poster that delights the eye and warms the heart. Is it really that good or am I losing my critical touch? I had to wonder.


I get the posters printed at a local shop that uses printing presses nearly as old as the cinema itself and enjoy looking around these robust works of German engineering. After delivering the posters to the cinema I am once again spurred on to further activity in the singalong lyric-typing department but, with it still only being August it’s hard to get too excited. But that’s when I get the email:


August 22, 2022


Hi Ralph


The advance sales for our show A Family Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 2 tickets sold


Many thanks,


Penistone Paramount box office


This was the first of my weekly Monday emails to tell me how many tickets have been sold so far. It’s quite possible the Paramount sends these emails to its clients in order to send waves of panic through them so that they get on with some work. How I came to dread each and every Monday after that. And only Two tickets sold. Obviously, it being August there was still plenty of time and no need at all to panic. But, for a while anyway, panic I did. There was a part of me that completely believed: “Well, that’s it then. Only two people are coming and its definitely possible that no more tickets will be sold. We might as well give up now and give those two lovely misguided fools their money back before we make complete idiots of ourselves.’


But soon that thinking becomes replaced by another thought. One that says, “No! we CAN do this.”


Mostly it is down to us just getting on with the job and getting it done. I soon realise that type-setting the songs ahead of time is a no-go. Chris and I absolutely have to get together to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We want to put together a merry mix of the delightful and the daft, the beautiful and the barmy, the sacred and the silly: because that’s what McShane & Shaw do. But going through all the songs takes fore-e-e-ever.


Don’t get me wrong, any time spent playing music with Chris is always a joy, but there are so many songs to work out. We need enough material for two hours but many songs get rejected because they are too dreary and difficult to contend with, then other songs, although seemingly long, are actually over and done in mere seconds. Also, with it being a singalong, there aren’t going to be instrumentals to fill all the time up. We need about thirty songs in the show but have to sift through at least double that number.


Three weeks later I get an email to tell me that 6 tickets have been sold. The panic comes back in a rush That’s worse than 2. The longer we leave this the more embarrassing it will be when we do have to give these people their money back.


Monday October 4 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 11 tickets sold


Monday October 11 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are (still) 11 tickets sold


In desperation I squint my eyes to try and see a pattern that looks something like the beginning of a bell curve but fail completely. I wonder, ‘How many tickets do we have to sell so people won’t look around at all the empty seats and feel sorry for us?’


The mix of songs that evolves is interesting and fun to compile. This is an old and, dare I say, somewhat elderly community and they all know their traditional favourites. But there’s also the younger end of the population to think about and we want to have stuff for families with children too.


Interestingly, the area around Sheffield has its own local carols unique to this part of the country. At one time the songs were sung in churches but eventually got banished to the pubs and village halls where they continue to be sung with gusto to this day.


Some have put local folk tunes onto the words of established carols like Hark the Herald Angels Sing – and most notably of all – While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. In the Worrall Choir songbook of local carols there are seventeen different tunes to While Shepherds Watched and other uncounted versions are sung in places like Upper Denby, Oughtibridge, Wharncliffe Side, Oxspring and beyond. Part of me likes the idea of doing all seventeen versions but in the end, we tackle only six and later reduce that number to four.


Monday October 18 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 21 tickets sold


That won’t even fill the first 2 rows and then empty seats all the way to the back. Plus an empty balcony. I repeat the mantra, “There is still time, there is still time…”


Monday October 24 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 27 tickets sold


I am home and miserable with the flu but Chris goes into action putting posters around town and doing an interview on our local radio station: Penistone FM. The effect is encouraging:


Monday October 31 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 47 tickets sold


Then, for a week, neither of us do anything and the effect is as you’d expect:


Monday November 07 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 50 tickets sold


Panic, panic!


Monday November 14 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 59 tickets sold


Only one month to go. Panic, panic!


Monday November 21 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 67 tickets sold


I am tired of panicking and decide that now is the time to go individually through all my local contacts to let them know about the show. Result!


Monday November 28 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 90 tickets sold


I begin to relax slightly. Even though the theatre is still less than a third full it’s looking more hopeful.


Later that same Monday I email Mr Barnsley to ask an innocuous question regarding the stage size. He then decides to furnish me with the knowledge that the World Cup Final will be taking place at THE EXACT SAME TIME AS OUR SHOW and, that IF ENGLAND, who are doing very well at the moment, HAPPEN TO BE PLAYING IN THAT FINAL IT COULD SPELL DISASTER FOR OUR ATTENDANCE. In fact, he has already been having a lot of people not showing up to watch movies whenever England play in the lesser heats.


I am aghast at this news but none of my friends are sympathetic. They tell me I was stupid to have booked our show for the same time as the World Cup Final. But WHO KNEW?! They always have it in the summer. It was only in the winter this one time because IT’S BEING HELD IN QATAR!


I’m not a big football fan. I won’t elaborate but suffice it to say that I find the idea of these franchise operations playing games against each other in the name of civic and national competition to be so abstract and strange that I just don’t get the appeal. It’s not really England playing, is it. We didn’t vote for the players or get any say in the choice. They are all selected from the various franchise teams that make up the footballing industry. We don’t know them. And they have nothing to do with us except that we’ve been brainwashed to believe that these men are running, jumping, ball-kicking extensions of ourselves and therefore we are meant to care whether they win or lose.


Anyway, there is a quarter-final against France and I’m told that France is a very good team. I haven’t been watching the competition so far but I decide to watch this one. I start to like the French team. They are good stout looking fellows and seem very likeable guys and I hope for their sake, as well as mine, that they have a good game. England play well but then France score a spectacular goal. This is good. But then the sure-footed Harry Kane of England scores a penalty. Aaaargh! In next to no time France gets another goal. Hooray! France are winning …but here comes another penalty for England. Gaaah! This will level the score at two-all for sure. As Harry Kane takes his run up to kick the ball I’m shouting at the TV, “MISS! MISS! MISS! MISS! MISS!!”



I was on my feet. The only Englishman in the country to be whooping for joy at that moment. Obviously, I was watching the game at home rather than in a crowded bar full of crying men as the ball sailed over the crossbar. England never regained their mojo after that. They were out of the World Cup and I was utterly delighted.


In the process of putting our song list together we come to the conclusion that the singalong will benefit from having a band rather than just the two of us. This is not a problem. Chris knows every top musician in the area and soon we have Ian (our sound engineer) on cajon, Duncan on bass, Catherine on saxophone/clarinet and Dave on steel guitar. Dave will also run the PA. All are excellent players and great fun to have around.


We hold rehearsals in the village chapel, simultaneously playing the songs as the lyrics scroll on our mobile projection screen. It all goes well and the mood is upbeat. This show might actually turn out to be fun. What a concept.


One and a half weeks to show day. We keep plugging the show in whatever way we can.


Monday December 06 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 120 tickets sold


Four days before the show:


Wednesday December 14 The advance sales for Singalong with McShane & Shaw are 163 tickets sold


This number is respectable enough and the panic has subsided.  But there is still time to sell a few more seats so Chris and I go busking. We meet at Penistone Market where we collide with an amateur samba band who have come to raise money for charity. They have chosen the exact same time as us to busk in a place where no-one ever normally goes to busk.


Why do these things happen to me? Why is nothing ever just plain and SIMPLE?!


Anyway, they are a very nice samba band for they agree to let us go first. It’s minus 5 degrees Celsius so we won’t be playing for long anyway. Just enough to catch some attention, hand out some flyers and get a bit of video to slap on Facebook. When the band return, they join us for a rhythmic and rousing rendition of our Rudolf the Reindeer Samba before we trundle off with the remainder of our flyers and posters.


Putting on a show is a lot like going on a holiday flight. The preparation of having so many things to know and do is fraught with complexity and anxiety. But, as you get closer to leaving time, all the little things get done. Finally, there is that moment when the wheels leave the ground, the plane takes the air and you know there’s no going back. All you can do is relax and enjoy the journey. That’s how performing feels to me.


Two days before show day there is a forecast for snow. We know about snow in these hills and when those flakes appear the wily old residents tend not to risk injuring themselves (or their vehicles) so they stay home.


Here we go again. And the British weather app is not like the calm steady Vancouver weather app that picks one kind of weather and stays with it. Oh No! The British weather app changes its mind like a hungry monkey in a fruit shop constantly switching from one thing to another. One minute the forecast is improving and ten minutes later it’s going worse again. Can’t they just pick one kind of weather and stick with it so I can figure out where exactly to pitch my anxiety level. Good Grief!


This time we don’t need Harry Kane’s rubber boot to help us out. The weather gods smile on us and the day comes clear and crisp and about as even as it ever gets up here. Not a snowflake to be seen. Showtime is 2pm. We arrive for load-in at 10am and set up the sound system. But getting the lyrics to appear on the big screen is another matter. For some reason my laptop won’t connect to the cinema screen’s hi-tech electrical connection apparatus.


We begin our sound check in a state of quiet calm while Mr Barnsley is quietly and calmly pulling his hair out at the back of the theatre as he tries to get my machine to connect.

“Has Windows been updated do you know?” he asks me.

“I would think so – it’s always updating itself”. I reply.

“Oh dear.” he says.


Ian arrives carrying his cajon on his shoulder and says there were four women in the carpark wearing Christmas sweaters. They’d asked him if he was involved in the singalong and when he said, “Yes,” they all cheered. We laugh together. This is positive news.


It’s only an hour and a half to showtime and Mr Barnsley decides to transfer the show onto his own laptop. But he has to go and get it from home. Within minutes of returning, he has everything up and running and he tells me that my laptop is working fine now.


I ask, “What did you do?”


He says, “Usually when you threaten them with another laptop, they fix themselves”.


Makes sense.


Everything is done and we’re backstage in our gold sequin jackets waiting to go on. (The jackets are new since we were concerned that the bright light of the screen might overpower us).


Mr Barnsley has checked the final ticket sales: 193 tickets sold. He asks if we’d like to book again for next year.




The band goes out and settles in. Then Chris and I walk out. You can tell the audience is pumped and ready to sing. They are clapping and cheering already. As the applause dies down, I say,


“Welcome! To the First Annual McShane & Shaw Big Christmas Singalong! And well done for coming – you will always be able to say, ‘I was there!’”


Then we did the show and everyone went home.


Yes, BUT, before everyone drifted off to slide around the icy town (winter had come by the time we finished), we had a really, truly, fantastically great time. Even old school friends came and there were lots of lovely moments. The unalloyed joy on the faces of everyone in the room was a wonder to behold. And such an effect could rarely happen at a sporting event where, if half the people are feeling joy, then by definition the other half are as miserable as a squashed elf because their team is losing. Not here. This was a unified room full of good company.


An old friend of mine, Helen, is a trained journalist. She was in the audience and took some video and pictures. I’d like to share a photo with you [see below]. For me it’s interesting because I never see this profile view of people while they are watching me. These people are watching OUR SHOW. Look at their faces. They are completely captivated. Maybe even delighted. I am so pleased with this photograph. This is the result of all the work, know-how and good luck that conspired to make this happen. Our years of practice in forming the ability to do all the things it takes to make people’s faces look like this is the ultimate goal of what we strive to do.


During the show, people spontaneously waved their arms in the air while they sang. They hung on every word and every note. This audience was alive and crackling with happiness. At the very end of the final song, after they screamed “Its Christmas!” they got to their feet in a blissful ovation.


In 2010, while I was in Canada, my parents came to this very cinema to watch me entertain Bradley Cooper and other A-listers with my ukulele, during my 5 seconds of fame in the film The A-Team. And now, as players and singers stand together imbibing a heady feeling of warmth and good fellowship, the words of the A-Team commander, Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, pop into my head,


“I love it when a plan comes together.”



Keep Strumming and Smiling,




VIDEO from the Singalong:

While Shepherds Watched – to tune of Ghost Riders in the Sky

Video of 12 Days of Christmas

Video of Final Song at the Singalong