We meet Vikki Stone to find out more about her music career – and the life-changing Wells Cathedral School scholarship that launched it

Words Libby Norman

Portraits: David Reiss

Vikki Stone became a familiar face on Saturday nights earlier this year bringing live music to the nation on ITV’s peak-time show Romeo & Duet. This had Oti Mabuse as presenter and saw Stone and her band Vikki and The Heartbeats provide an essential extra element – live music – so contestants could sing their way to a date’s (and the nation’s) heart. Stone’s Musical Director role was critical to the success of the love matches – so, no pressure then. Vikki Stone was involved with the show from the early stages. “Something we hoped might set the show apart was the live band and live music,” she says. This is a real point of difference for a format where live bands have largely been replaced with highly produced but anonymous backing tracks. What also set it apart was the female band leader – a first on UK TV. Her band also included another female lead in the “fantastic” guitarist Hattie Moran, a high-energy role model – especially for girls.

Band leader: In conversation with Vikki Stone
Vikki Stone was passionate about music from an early age – it was a Wells Cathedral School scholarship that helped her find her direction

Stone has good reason to want more female musicians on TV because she had no such guides growing up. There’s an element of good fortune behind the scholarship to Wells Cathedral School that helped launch her musical career. Of course, it also took talent and persistence, and a scholarship system that gave her a break. Stone grew up in Rugby in a family with no musical background. There was, she says, a “terrible” piano in the house (her father had begged this from a local pub) but that was it.

Then, at the age of five she rather mysteriously asked for a violin for Christmas – she says it was the only instrument she knew. “So, my mum went into the local music shop to buy a violin and there was a woman in there who said, ‘oh you don’t want a violin, you want a flute’.” By strange coincidence, this woman happened to be a flute teacher. And so it was that Vikki Stone acquired a flute and lessons to go with it. “I’m actually quite glad, as an adult, knowing how difficult a violin is to play. I’m not sure as a family we would have stuck it out!”

Her family did stick it out with their flautist daughter – in fact, it became something of a mission. “Getting into music was incredibly expensive and, after I’d hit a certain level, in order to continue with it I had to practice,” says Stone. “There were 138 scales in Grade 8 Flute and we had this system called the scale pot – three tins marked A, B and C. My mum or my grandma, whoever had to do it with me, would pull the scale out of a pot at random and if it was perfect it went into A, if it wasn’t very good it went into B, and if it was dreadful, straight into C. I had to get 138 of these scales into the pot every day.”

She passed Grade 8 at a precociously young age but, while music was a passion, the rest of school was a trial. “I did my GCSE Music a couple of years early and after that I was just bored, absolutely bored. Nothing interested me – I guess I had what you’d describe as behavioural problems.” All that changed when she won a Sixth Form scholarship to Wells Cathedral School. “When I got to Wells, I wasn’t bored. They can teach you things which are catering to your interests – my behavioural problems didn’t exist anymore.”

As well as giving endless outlets for all her music-playing talents, Wells offered a subject she had never heard of – Music Technology. She didn’t actually know what she would learn, but it had ‘music’ in the name, so Stone leapt at that too. “It turns out that there I learned about the software I use every day of my life as an adult, as a composer,” she says. “In terms of the skills, it’s more valuable to me than almost anything else.” Stone went from Wells to the Royal Academy of Music. She’s since been given the honour of Associate (ARAM) status, awarded by the Academy for services to the music profession.

V I K K I S T O N E S Copy
Getting to Wells was, says Stone, life changing – she had outlets for all her music interests, including composing

While her music training was text-book classical, Stone’s musical taste has always been broader. She was often looked after by her grandma, and it was a regular event to be put in front of the TV to watch VHS tapes of old musicals. “My childcare was Oklahoma, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Oliver!”  This knowledge of the more popular end of music has helped no end with a roll call of writing credits spanning musical theatre and comedy. There’s also classical work – including the BBC’s Ten Pieces Special Report, designed to engage young people with classical works and learning and Concerto for Comedian and Orchestra, which had its premiere at Glastonbury.

This populist leaning ‘sneaked while she was at Wells – albeit illicitly. “I was at Wells with Flora Leo, also now a composer, and in the evenings, when were supposed to be practising in our own practice rooms, we’d often sneak into each other’s rooms to write songs together. That’s where both of us were writing what we hoped might be pop songs but were far too cheesy and much more suited to musical theatre. And both of us are now musical theatre writers.”

There’s acting too – and her performing side can be traced back to childhood engagement with national youth music groups. These included the National Youth Music Theatre Orchestra. “The first three years I got given an on-stage flute-playing role. Then in the fourth year, I had a leading role in the show, and I wasn’t playing the flute – they opened the door! After that, going back to playing flute in an orchestra wasn’t something I wanted to do. I wanted to perform.”

Stone’s comic songs in particular have drawn praise – one critic describing her as the: ‘bastard love child of Victoria Wood and Tim Minchin’. Comic songs are definitely a genre in their own right, and she’s happy to be associated with two such masters of the art form. The songs are something she’s honed through the hard yards of comedy experience. “After I left Royal Academy of Music I was auditioning for musicals and just not getting anywhere – a lot of those funny parts are for older women. So, then I decided to take matters into my own hands, which became comedy song writing.”

“I was at Wells Cathedral School with Flora Leo, also now a composer, and we’d often sneak into each other’s rooms to write songs”

While she’s wowed Edinburgh Festival audiences, she’s also done the really tough audiences and it was this breadth that honed those essential elements of brevity and wit. “Variety clubs and stand-up clubs are very unforgiving environments – if they don’t like you, they heckle you.” The writing style she learned influences everything. ” I still apply the same economy of text and the same rules to myself – I learned to not make my writing baggy. This means when I’m writing for other shows, where I can afford other emotions, my writing is better for it.”

Stone’s most recent longform show credit was Aladdin at the Lyric Hammersmith. Originally scheduled for 2020, this pantomime finally took to the stage last December and received rave reviews – plus three UK Pantomime Awards, including best script. While much of Stone’s other work has been musicals which, she says, require a lot of “workshopping” to get from concept to stage, writing panto is all about responding to current events and the show was being rewritten almost up to opening night to take in two years of lockdown and politics. “The thing about doing panto in theatre environments is that you get all of the spectacle of a big show. but you get all of the ability, like stand-up, to adapt to what’s going on. I took quite a lot of swipes at politics – I felt it was my duty as we’d all been through so much.”

Band leader: In conversation with Vikki Stone
On ‘Romeo & Duet’, which was presented by Oti Mabuse, Vikki Stone played a key role as band leader

She also believes many of us underestimate panto as an art form. “I can’t think of another kind of art that consistently brings in such a diverse audience – backgrounds, ages – for many it’s their only time of going into an art space so if you can give them something that feels accessible, where they don’t feel out of place, the arts scene is all the better. Panto is much harder to do than people think – and lots of the regional arts economy is propped up by it.”

While Romeo & Duet was doing its matchmaking best for would-be lovers of the nation, Vikki Stone had already turned her mind to other writing projects. These include three musicals in development, plus a stage adaptation of children’s TV show Hey Duggee. She remains grateful for the Wells Cathedral School scholarship that was a launchpad, but also convinced we need more music and arts opportunities in all the nations’ schools. “I think about myself – I could have just been dismissed as someone with behavioural problems and the reason was that there was nothing that engaged me. And it turned out I have the sort of brain where it’s one thing, music, that I needed.”

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Hey Duggee, a live show from the TV series has been adapted by Vikki Stone and Matthew Xia and is touring from this December, taking in venues such as Southbank Centre, London and Leeds Grand Theatre. Tickets and dates via Ticketmaster

Further reading: Music Champion YolanDa Brown in conversation