Ed Jordan
Actor, TV presenter, singer, songwriter and composer Ed Jordan, composer and music supervisor for the movie Spud.

Anton Burggraaf

I meet Ed Jordan on cold and misty morning in Johannesburg. He is on his way to talk to schoolchildren at the Roedean private school about his role as composer and music director for the movie Spud. It’s strictly a call of duty in this, the final hectic week before film’s release, but it’s a call that the actor, TV presenter, singer, songwriter, composer and ubermensch heeds with characteristic enthusiasm. No amount of misty morning will dampen this music man’s natural glee – and it’s infectious.

Spud is the movie version of the John van de Ruit bestselling novel of the same name. It covers the tumultuous few years in the life of a boy, John “Spud” Milton, at a posh boys-only boarding school. It was filmed at Michaelhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands – the author’s actual school – and stars British actor John Cleese as Spud’s mentor, the Guv.

Jordan is a big fan of the book. But, for him, it was the simplicity of the story that he feels resonated with the book-buying public. “I think the story of a young working-class boy coming to an elite boarding school has a special appeal. It’s also set in 1990 so it’s got that feeling of impending change – there’s a political world, the release of Mandela and so on – but it’s not being pushed down your throat.” Perhaps it is this unique mix of wish-fulfilment and nostalgia that will hook film audiences as well.

In case you are one of those rare people who do not know, the book has been selling like hotcakes since it won the local Booksellers Choice Award in 2006. It was written by Van de Ruit with a view to immortalising his years at Michaelhouse as well as create an Adrian Mole-type local phenomenon. Van de Ruit managed that with ease even if many literary types thought the book dull, and went on to write two more Spud books in response to the public’s (and presumably his publisher’s) clamour for more.

Watch the official trailer for Spud:

So is the film’s popularity guaranteed? Jordan thinks so: “Unlike the stories for other South African films, the Spud brand is really strong. Across the three Spud titles, they’ve sold 380 000 books. A good local sale is usually between 5 000 or 10 000 books ... No-one buys books like that these days. And get this, John’s just finished the ‘making of’ book and it’s already sold 18 000 copies!”

Jordan was impressed by the filmmakers’ approach, which he feels reinforced the book’s strengths. “It could easily have been just a teenage romp. You know, it’s got lines like ‘his balls haven’t dropped’ which could so easily have been vulgar. Instead we’ve got a lovely grownup film. And without even trying, the part of Spud’s teacher (Cleese) is perfect role for an English film star. Quite a few of the English teachers at private schools of that time came from there.”

He feels Spud has no weak links. “It’s got everything. There’s a young savvy producer team who are of this time [Ross Garland and Brad Logan], an author who writes with honesty and clarity, a great director [Donovan Marsh], a fantastic cinematographer [Lance Gewer, who worked on the Oscar-winning Tsotsi] and a wonderful editor [Megan Gill].” He pauses. “And great music!”

It’s been a Spud year for Jordan. The story of how he got the gig is a happy mix of chance and dogged self-promotion. He tells it with delight.

“As freelancers we keep our ear to the ground. I heard in 2009 that Donovan was directing and then I read that John Cleese was interested. I bumped into Donovan by chance and asked him to please bear me in mind.” Marsh and Jordan were at university together. They also both went to boarding school.

“We discussed the book briefly. I had a similar reaction to it. It brought that whole period in my childhood back to life. I got a call in the holidays to meet urgently. I was thrilled. It all happened so quickly.” Then it came to the moment where he had to ask. “I know the books off by heart and I said to Donovan: I want to do it all, all the music, the score, everything.”

So far so good. Then it was a case of convincing the producers. Jordan brought everything in his arsenal of experience to bear.

“These days with technology being more accessible it’s easier to deliver the final product, even for a pitch, so I pulled out all the stops. I got musicians, a studio, and produced some tracks to show what I’m capable of. Then I wrote a three-page motivation, you know ... how I know what it’s like to be 12 years old, petrified, to be laughed at walking down the aisle behind the priest, holding the flambeaux. Musically, I remember practising the piano for hours in the school chapel. And then there was my history with choral music. In the end, what I was saying was this: guys, there are loads of people out there with the experience but they just don’t have all of that.” And the producers bought it.

Jordan’s first challenge was daunting. He had to come up with new songs for the musical Oliver. The boy Spud is cast in this popular high school musical and it’s in this lead performance that he shines. But it soon became clear that the rights for the musical would not be granted, so the producers were left with a huge headache. The Oliver content is important. It not only generates much of the key emotional touch points (read: girls), it also presents some neat textual parallels: the Cleese character is like Fagan, and plays Fagan in the musical; the boys at Spud’s school are symbolic orphans, and so on.

The solution? Keep the Charles Dickens story – after all, his original Oliver Twist novel is now way out of copyright – and trade Lionel Bart’s songs for brand new ones.

“Ultimately it worked for us,” Jordan says. “Instead of having a film with some Oliver songs in it we now have six great original songs of our own that have legs for a soundtrack CD. And they’re modern and fresh!” So fresh, in fact, that one of them, Just One of the Boys (replacing Consider Yourself from Oliver), is being remixed for the dance floor by DJ Paul.

Jordan took his inspiration from contemporary pop, producing in the style of Taylor Swift and John Mayer “with a touch of High School Musical”. It’s feel-good music that touches a broad audience. It was also important for him to include a tinge of Ivy League in the music, which meant, “a good dose of piano, you know, an institutional educational feel. In fact,” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “even the bells that tolled at my old school are in there.”

It’s time for another cappuccino and I am given headphones. Jordan plays me the film’s theme music and what he has described is all in there. I am struck also by strains of Abdullah Ibrahim. Neat. Institutional, yet African.

He then plays a track sung by Troye Sivan, the young South African-born Australian actor who plays Spud. What a voice! Youthful and pitch perfect with an alluring smoky undertone. While Sivan may be somewhat unfamiliar to South African audiences, he is known to Australians as a singer and has already released a debut CD. He is known to international audiences as an actor playing the role of young James Howlett in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This is the first time both of his talents come together.

So much for the singing, what about the serious stuff?

Score writing can be a long process and fraught with challenges. Jordan has composed orchestral music before including that for William Kentridge’s film Monument, but it’s the first time he has tackled a project this big. He considers himself lucky. “I worked closely with the editor, Megan. I gave her some simple piano themes and rushes would come in. She would place them and see how they worked and I would go away and work more. It was a dynamic process. To write the score ... it was a case of old-fashioned Hollywood. Me at the keyboard playing around with the themes, seeing where they go and designing the music around the reels. Of course, it’s an ongoing process as changes get made to the film.”

It’s this back and forth that can balloon into months of overtime, but for Jordan, the more effort required, the more fun he seemed to be having. “I then layered the tracks, and that’s such an exciting thing – to play around with levels and layers and see what works best for the picture. Take out the bass line, then the violas, see how that changes the feeling ... no, put them back! We got classical musicians in to record the instruments, recording at Passage 1 in Norwood. It was such a great experience.”

Jordan is extremely grateful. The experience stretched him in ways that are clearly invigorating enough for him to consider this as a potential new direction in his musical career.

Jordan was also music supervisor for the film. A music supervisor assembles the popular music tracks and negotiates the deals with the artists or their publishers for usage. It’s unusual for one person to perform both functions of composer and music supervisor. But Jordan was insistent, yet again convincing the producers.

“It’s really a job in itself and, after doing it, I know why,” he says. “It’s incredibly stressful, trying to get this artist and that publisher on board on a budget. It involves a lot of convincing. But I’m proud of what we got, it’s a killer soundtrack: Mango Groove, eVoid, Via Afrika, John Selby and Petit Cheval, John Ireland (that infectious 1980s single I Like) and Face to Face.” Local hits from a time.

He hopes that the songs will work with the movie. It’s no secret that Jordan is a fan of the period and he makes a good point that this was a decade where movies and CDs worked in synergy. He wants this from Spud: “In the 80s, the film sold the songs, and the songs would sell the film: Top Gun, St. Elmo’s Fire, Footloose, Caddy Shack. These days it doesn’t work like that, and anyway, who buys CDs? Its all done online.”

Our morning chat is coming to an end and a hall full of Roedean girls beckons. But I can’t leave without a word on the stellar John Cleese.

“Oh boy, working with Cleese was totally inspirational. What a great guy.” I press Jordan for an anecdote. “He told me all about his experiences on Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, how the BBC executives at the time were saying, what a load of rubbish, this is the worst thing we’ve ever seen ... And them having to swallow their words when the ratings went up and up, forcing them to concede more films and more series.”

As for coaching Cleese for the musical, that was a synch. “Cleese can’t sing a note,” Jordan says. “So I wrote him a rap.”

  • The single Just One of the Boys will be available on the MTN portal for download and the movie soundtrack will be in music stores from December.