REAL-LIFE STARS: (from left) Jon, Johnny Mac, Jeremy, John B, Toby, Billy, Lefty and Jason
He was branded a growler, his deep gravelly tones did not mix well with the higher voices of the other children. Rejection at such a young age can put children off singing for life, but Jon never lost his love for a good tune. Now, more than 50 years later, Jon and his friends in the Cornish sea shanty group Fisherman’s Friends stand on the brink of international stardom.
For today a movie based on their extraordinary story, called Fisherman’s Friends and starring Daniel Mays and James Purefoy, is released in cinemas. And it is already being hailed as the feelgood film of the year.
Down at the breathtakingly scenic Cornish coastal village of Port Isaac, where Doc Martin is filmed, Jon is bracing himself to be hit by a wave of fame – at the age of 60 – in the wake of the movie.
“It’s all a bit strange really, having a film made about you, but we’re all getting used to it now,” he says with a chuckle.
“We were a bit reticent about seeing the film but it’s actually a very affectionate portrait of us done in their own way. They pulled off the trick very well.
The original group
“I have a big bald head and a ridiculous moustache and there’s no one in the film like that which is great. What they’ve done is capture the spirit of the group really well with all the actors.”
Daniel Mays plays a slick record producer who goes to Cornwall for a mate’s stag weekend and is tricked into signing up the local sea shanty group.
The joke turns serious when he realises the fishermen having boozy singsongs in the local are actually very good. His blossoming friendship with a pretty local girl, Alwyn, played by Tuppence Middleton, is even more encouragement for him to stick around.
That romance is pure fiction, but the rest of the story is based on fact. It’s a story that millions of filmgoers around the world will now discover.
Fisherman’s Friends film
Seeing themselves on screen has brought back many memories of the group’s origins at the Golden Lion pub in Port Isacc in the early 1990s.
Bandmate and fisherman Jeremy Brown, 58, recalls: “In the very early days we had no intention of becoming a popular singing group.
“In Cornwall there’s a lot of singing in pubs, especially on a Friday night, which we really enjoyed. We just wanted to know the words in all the verses so we could do the songs justice.
“I loved to join in but I was very shy and I certainly had no intention of standing up in front of anybody.”
Jon adds: “There’s a brilliant book written by a shantyman, John Hugill, called Shanties from the Seven Seas. We got a lot of the songs from there. We’d change the rhythm and lyrics a bit to help us sing them.
“These old songs changed a lot over the years because of all the voyages the crews went on. So you get influences from Africa, Polynesia, Asia
it’s a real cosmopolitan fusion of songs.”
As word spread in the local community they found themselves being asked to sing at weddings and in other pubs across Cornwall.
Then they started singing on the foreshore at Port Isaac every Friday in the summer months to raise money for local charities.
GROWING FAME: The cast
“People found it very amusing to see eight or 10 hairy-a**ed Cornishmen singing away. Then people asked for CDs, so we had a very small number made.”
The original 10-strong group’s big break came when Island Records signed them up for an album in 2010. The launch album sold more than 150,000 copies, reaching number eight in the charts, a record for a folk music group.
“It was a great time,” recalls Jon. “But no one was planning to give up the day job. This time around we are more relaxed but I don’t think it will change us.”
Already publicity for the film has boosted ticket sales for their gigs across the country.
“We will be performing at bigger venues in the autumn and next spring,” says Jeremy. “If the film is big we would consider all offers anywhere in the world. We just don’t know what’s round the corner.
The real group on Comic Relief
“We have been to France and America already but we prefer three consecutive gigs and then getting back to Cornwall.We only get pocket money. To make it pay we would have to do 20 nights at a time.
“We’ve sung at Twickenham and we’ve been on the main stage at Glastonbury. We know our limitations, so we’ll just have to see what offers come in.”
The film ends when the group makes the charts in 2010, but in real life the band suffered a terrible tragedy in 2013 when band promoter Paul McMullen and singer Trevor Grills were crushed to death by a heavyweight door as they prepared for a concert at Guildford, Surrey.
It was a terrible blow which group members still find hard to talk about, but their two friends are never far from their minds and will always be fondly remembered in the close-knit Cornish community.
The Fisherman’s Friends are ten friends who all bar one grew up together in a fishing village
All insist fame will never go to their heads and they’ve no plans as yet to go house hunting for seafront mansions in California, even if Hollywood calls for a sequel movie featuring themselves.
Booming tenor Billy Hawkins still works as a potter when not strumming his tenor guitar or cello mandolin or working on lyrics with Jon Cleave.
Jon, known as the jolly old walrus, is also the author of Gully, a wicked cartoon seagull featured in six children’s books. When not working on his second novel, Catching Crabs, he runs his shop called the Boathouse.
Jason Nicholas, from Padstow catches crabs and lobsters when not playing his accordion.
Stalwart Jeremy Brown has sold his fishing boat to his son Tom but likes to get out on the water in a rigid inflatable to give tourists trips showing the marine wildlife and rugged coastline.
His brother John “Silver Fox” Brown, a former lobster fisherman, set up Port Isaac tours and takes trippers around locations used in TV series Doc Martin and Poldark.
Lefty John Lethbridge is a top tenor with an incredible high vocal range who builds milking parlours for dairy farms.
Builder Johnny “Mac” McDonnell runs a B&B with his wife while the last member Toby Lobb, from Padstow, joined in 2015.
The original 10-strong group’s big break came when Island Records signed them up for an album
Jeremy Brown’s wife Liz and Billy Hawkins’ wife Barbara have teamed up to form their own female only shanty band, called The Gulls.
“They are getting more and more popular so when our fame dies down a bit their fame will pick up,” says Jeremy.
“They take it a bit more seriously than we do so we’ll have to watch them. They could be our opposition.”
However, they will have to get their skates on as the Fisherman’s Friends are rolling on the crest of a wave.
Just a few days ago they were on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 arts programme, Front Row, and later they joined Tess Daly, Claudia Winkleman and Radio 2 DJ Jo Whiley at the dance-athon for Comic Relief.
Jon says with a grin: “After tripping the light Fandango with the ladies we got the sleeper back to Bodmin, but our taxis didn’t turn up so we had to wait for the seven o’clock bus.
“Talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and keeping it real. Can’t see Keith and Mick putting up with that.”
Support band for the Rolling Stones? Wouldn’t rule it out.