Victoria Melody is an artist, theatremaker and performer, who is bringing Ugly Chief to the Festival of Ian Smith at Summerhall. In it, she celebrates her Dad, Mike Melody, his life, and the odd journey he had after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease – a journey that ended up with a surprising ending.

Can you tell us more about Ugly Chief?

Ugly Chief is a show that I’m making with my Dad. We’re still in the research and development stage of it, so what we’re bringing to Summerhall is a glimpse of where we are in the process. We’re finishing making it in 2017, which is when we’re going to tour it. It’s a show I’m very excited about.

It all came about because, first off, he’s a big show off. He’s a big character. Sometimes when people meet him they’re quite taken aback. He doesn’t stop talking and he’s unconventional in that he doesn’t care what people think of him, so he says what he wants, but he’s quite funny with it. He does daytime TV shows, he’s an antique dealer, and he’s got a lot of stories about the business. He started from very meagre beginnings and he’s built up a business for himself. He’s got all these tales of what it was like going from being brought up in the north of England during a tricky time, and how inventive you have to be when you don’t have any money, and how he basically scraped a living for himself.

He and I are similar. We’re the only show offs in the family. We’re the only ones that have gone into the business of entertainment, and we both like to talk. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness – motor neurone disease – and this was obviously really, really sad. After two years of living with that hanging over him, he went to the doctors and they said that he wasn’t degenerating – they’d misdiagnosed him. And he’s fine! When Dad gave all of us the news, I said straight away: ‘Do you wanna make a show with me now you’re not gonna die?’ It made me realise that we’re similar and it’s a shame that we’ve never collaborated on a project. He absolutely jumped at the chance, so we’re making a show about his funeral. This show is his funeral.

What are you hoping people will get out of the show?

We’re still exploring different angles, and we’re still disagreeing on which direction it could go. The show is a love letter from a daughter to her Dad. It’s about speaking eulogies while we’re alive, because it’s a shame that those speeches, these incredible speeches where people talk about your life, are kept for when you’re dead, rather than being told while you’re alive. You’d love to hear that stuff, wouldn’t you? So it’s a eulogy for a living soul.

It’s also about breaking the taboo about talking about death. Obviously Dad and I have talked a lot about death and about funeral plans and things like that. I think there’s something quite comforting about knowing exactly what somebody wants, rather than the time coming, being struck by grief and having to make all these decisions. So it’s about demystifying the British funeral industry. I’ve been training to be a funeral director so that I can explain what goes on, because there’s something about being confronted by your own mortality that allows you to really live your life. Finding out all the behind-the-door routines and rituals that happen to your body has made me fear death less.

As a society, do you think we’re changing the way we view and talk about death?

The Victorians were much more in touch with dying and the death process, but over time it’s become very medicalised. It used to be very common that people would take their last breaths in their house, but now people want them in a hospital. For me, it’d be nicer to be in your home and to have your family around you. There’s a real big positive death movement around at the moment and I’ve been working with quite a few people who are trying to open it up for more discussion. People want to talk about this stuff. We’re at the beginning of a movement and at the beginning of change.

What else should people know?

Although this is a very serious theme, it’s funny. Dad and I are funny, and we’re funny together. We’re a real father and daughter on stage. Dad can’t be scripted; he’s better when he’s reacting. When he’s got a script in front of him, he’s dreadful. It’s going to be a different show every single night. I’m going to create a different eulogy for him every evening. Sometimes he doesn’t agree with what I’ve written in his eulogy, and we’ll have an argument and you’re seeing a real insight into a father and child relationship. Although the theme sounds heavy, we’re doing it in quite a light way, we’re not hammering it in. It is a work in progress, I’m going to be reading from a script, so it’s going to be a little bit rough, but I think that’s quite exciting. You’re going to see more of us than when the completed, quite slick show tours.

by Kirstyn Smith


Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. Click here for full listings of the exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the festival.

Image: Andy Schofield