Ralph Allwood (Assistant Conductor) explains the genesis of A Boy Called Alex, the Cutting Edge documentary, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2008, about the remarkable Alex Stobbs:
I am wary of speaking to people on aeroplanes. With the prospect of five hours when I can sit, alone with my book, and be fed, there is too much at stake. Any vestige of sunny affability gets checked in with my baggage, and I read. But I made an exception eighteen months ago when the person next to me clearly had the same idea. Briefly greeting him I settled down in my seat. He gave me a desultory grunt and nod and turned back to his book. "Aha, a kindred spirit!'', I thought, noticing also that the book anxiously waiting on his lap to be read interested me. So, to his thinly-disguised irritation, I started a jolly conversation. We talked for four hours. Stephen Walker and his wife Sally run Walker George Films, making documentaries. Among his latest have been one on George Melly, on old people forming rock bands and a punk Rocker learning to conduct an orchestra. He is also a novelist: "Countdown to Hiroshima", notably. After an hour or so of conversation I had an idea.
We have here at Eton a series of seven or so 'ECMS' concerts each year devised and organised by senior boys and performed by boys of all ages. They are supposed to be chamber concerts, but we often make exceptions. A few weeks before my fateful flight, a boy had come to me asking to conduct the Bach Magnificat. "Oh come on, Alex," I replied, while impressed with his pluck, "I could give you plenty of pieces by Bach which would be so much easier and no less musically satisfying". No, it had to be the Magnificat. So, playing for time, I told him that if he could get the permission of the Head of Wind and Brass and the Head of Strings, he could do it. Hah, that'll put paid to his idea! But two days later he came back to me with a victorious grin. Digging a feeble final ditch, I asked him if he had a boy in mind who could sing the tough aria 'Deposuit', and did that boy's teacher approve? Yes, yes, yes. And he produced From his inside pocket a (. . . draft, I delicately pointed out) list of players and singers.
Now this would be a merry little story of everyday music department cut-and-thrust if it weren't for the tragic sting in the tail. As most of us now know, this friendly, intensely musical, intelligent and highly enthusiastic boy, Alexander Stobbs, has the lung-wasting condition known as cystic fibrosis.
If you had met Stephen Walker and his wife Sally on one of their many subsequent visits to the Brompton Hospital or to Eton to film Alex with his friends, teachers and fellow musicians, you would have been forgiven for an impression that they were kindly aunt and uncle. Every move they made was in Alex's best interests, and they became firm friends of doctors, nurses, family and colleagues. The Magnificat performance itself, filmed in Eton College Chapel last March, was a triumph, and three million people have now seen the resulting documentary. Alex has since had three offers of marriage and an offer to write a book. The most moving comment that I heard was from a psychotherapist, who reported that one of her patients made a turn for the better after seeing the film, and is now recovering. And the extraordinary thing is that, yes, the odds are that a coincidences of some sort is bound to happen from time to time, but I now know that of all the people who could have made this documentary, Stephen Walker was by far the best.
It was meant to happen.
A Boy Called Alex was broadcast on January 24th, 2008 and repeated on Christmas Day 2008: you can watch some clips from the show, or read some of the overwhelmingly positive reactions in the press.