Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Fisherman’s Friends, a modest British film starring Daniel Mays and James Purefoy, became a sleeper hit. This charming comedy-drama about a group of singing fishermen who become unlikely chart stars is based on a true story, so there’s a pleasing symmetry in the way the film also defied the odds. When it opened in March 2019, only superhero movie Captain Marvel kept it off the top of the UK box office.
“The film’s success was like the second coming of the band,” says Jon Cleave, a founding member of the real-life Fisherman’s Friends. The 10-member “buoy band” (as they’ve been punningly dubbed) even had to stop performing in Port Isaac, their home village in Cornwall, because several thousand fans were turning up every time.
“When you announce an event, you’re responsible for crowd control, and that’s virtually impossible when you’re singing in the middle of Port Isaac with people everywhere,” Cleave explains. “So what we occasionally do instead is have a pint early doors, then sneak down to the harbour to sing. We’ll get a crowd of 50 or 60 gathering round, which really takes us back to the old days of the band.”
The film’s satisfying sequel, Fisherman’s Friends: One and All, should boost the band’s fortunes once again. Mays hasn’t returned, but it’s anchored by a hearty performance from Purefoy, whose (fictional) lead singer Jim is disillusioned and drinking heavily after the death of his father. Jim isn’t sure if the shanty-crooning crew should continue, but he’s tempted back by a seemingly madcap plan to play Glastonbury‘s Pyramid Stage.
This might sound like a narrative contrivance from writer-directors Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft – and the sequel certainly has a few of those, including a made-up mineshaft accident – but Fisherman’s Friends really did play the Pyramid Stage in 2011. In the film, Jim’s mum Maggie (Maggie Steed) sends Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis a freshly caught lobster to sweeten the deal: something else that really happened.
“I’ve subsequently learned that the Eavises didn’t actually eat the lobster because they didn’t trust it would be alright on the journey,” says the band’s manager Ian Brown, who’s a rather calmer presence than the Stone Roses singer of the same name. “But sending that lobster definitely caused a reaction.”
And as we see in the film, the group really did leave a note for Beyoncé, who was headlining the Pyramid Stage later that day. “Backstage she completely surrounded us with her dressing room, green room, food room and every other room,” Cleave recalls. “We had this little designated space in the middle, which was quite funny.” What did the note say? “Something like: ‘You’re welcome, but don’t nick any of our songs.'” Sadly, the band never heard back, but maybe they could reach out again with a rendition of ‘Break My Sole’?
The Fisherman’s Friends story isn’t just the source of countless nautical puns; it’s also genuinely heartwarming. It began around 30 years ago when Cleave moved back to Port Isaac after a spell in Bristol and reconnected with some old pals who had a shared interest in singing. “The whole thing gelled around meeting in the pub after singing songs that were a little less formal and complex than most choirs would do,” he recalls. “We started singing sea shanties because they fitted the feel of where we lived.”
The band called themselves Fisherman’s Friends because five of the 10 founding members were crab or lobster fishermen. “It’s such a joy to be able to sing with friends, especially when you start to make a reasonable sound,” Cleave says. They began singing at social events around Port Isaac, but a watershed moment came one year in the early 2000s, when they sang at the Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival and drew a “massive crowd”.
Two decades later, the band (which still features three founding members including Cleave) take pride in returning to the Falmouth festival as an annual tradition. “We’re very, very aware of our roots,” Cleave says. “There’s nothing fabulous going on here. It’s just exciting for us, as gentlemen of a certain age, to be able to go out and perform for these big audiences.”
Still, something rather fabulous did happen in 2009 when BBC Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker heard about the group during a visit to Port Isaac. He told Brown, his manager, who duly drove down to Cornwall to find out what the fuss was about.
“We were very impressed because he arrived with a chauffeur, who was a craggy old boy, but he looked very smart in his leather gloves,” Cleave recalls. “We talked for an hour or so and Ian said he could get us a record deal.” At this point, Brown interjects to correct “Mick Jagger over there” – he means Cleave – and point out that he also listened to the band sing. A few weeks later, Brown presented them with three potential record deals. They decided to sign with Island because of the label’s “rich history” working with British folk artists like Fairport Convention and John Martyn.
A year later, their album ‘Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends’ cracked the top 10 and went gold. They’ve since released several follow-up albums and embarked on regular UK tours, though Cleave says they prefer to avoid July and August bookings because it’s high season in Port Isaac. All of the band members have day jobs and some rely on summer’s influx of tourists.
In 2013, two years after the new film ends, the group took an unplanned 12-month hiatus after founding member Trevor Grills and touring promoter Paul McMullen were killed in a tragic backstage accident. Both had been crushed by a heavy metal door while preparing for a gig in Guildford. “We were all affected in different ways by that,” Cleave says today. “But we got back into singing, slowly, because we knew Trevor would have wanted us to go on.”
Actually, it’s this sense of camaraderie and common purpose that keeps Fisherman’s Friends buoyant. “They’re the easiest band I’ve ever managed because they all want to do it,” Brown says. “I absolutely love performing,” Cleave agrees, “whether that’s to a dozen people or 82,000 at a rugby match at Twickenham, which we’ve also done. If you spoke to any of my colleagues, they’d say the same. We keep doing this because we’d really miss it if we didn’t.”
‘Fisherman’s Friends: One And All’ is in cinemas now