DECEMBER Year’s end & A nice run of work to kick start the month (and pay for Christmas) in the shape of two days roleplay for Lancashire Fire & Rescue at their Chorley training centre. Lovely group of tried and tested associates I’d assembled and some fun & humour to be had getting us all into uniform…
Real magic and a mesmerising use of puppets along with fine ensemble acting were among the highlights of our family outing to experience the Dukes version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Debbie Oates in the Studio (or Round) on Saturday 7th. The balcony yielded good views and no-one is any distance from the action. Gareth Cassidy’s simian like misanthrope turned into the gurning goodie to melt all hearts at the end. He, and the rest of the superb company, had both my grandchildren (Joe 9 & Thea 6) in thrall with their performances. This was the children’s Dukes debut (home being in Scotland) so keen to impress them with the magic of theatre on my home patch. The visit made extra special when Gareth joined us in the bar to have a post show chat with the children.
The 14th Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly goes down a storm at Shire Hall. Helen Longworth’s sure touch delivers again big time. And she draws a mean raffle ticket too. Ian & Sue Steele at Lancaster’s most interesting shop – J.Atkinson & Co Coffee & Tea Merchants (est.1837) – provide the hampers of goodies for our free nightly interval draw which always gets an ‘ohh!’ from our lovely regular older audience members. Our good friends at Hyslops office supplies print the free programme sheets which is much appreciated too. I always love decking the hall with the aforementioned greenery (cut and collected from Williamson Park the same morning) and this year it came in for special praise, which was nice. Jan got a fine Xmas tree in place and the wonderful company – Helen, Christine Mackie, Peter Rylands, Bekah Sloan, Matthew Rothwell + 5 in a Bar choir – had our audiences stamping their feet, clapping and cheering for more at the end each night. Another winner of a show and the perfect start to the holidays!
The Actors Group Christmas party, held upstairs at the Waldorf pub in Manchester and later the North Lancs & Cumbria Equity branch social held this year at the gallery space in the Dukes were both platforms for me to deliver the arts & entertainment team quiz I prepare each Yuletide to test my fellow thespians cultural knowledge. This season, in the spirit of these recycling times, I even managed to give it a third run out to feed the voracious quiz appetites of my Gregson B team mates, post Xmas meal in a corner of the ever popular community arts centre bar (pictured)
How lovely to be back on the main stage (or Rake) of the Dukes after a long absence. Emboldened by my Ghostly Tales debut in October at the castle I could not resist the theatre’s offer to read a classic yarn to launch their Gothic Christmas season of films & live entertainment. Producer Julie Brown did a superb job of masterminding the whole operation with atmospheric set, props and sound effects for my reading choice of Bram Stoker’s Victorian shocker ‘The Judge’s House’. Great fun & a pleasing test of skill in delivering the goods to an audience of around a hundred or more.
Meanwhile, back on the demi-paradise front, casting is finally completed on Othello. Hurray! Our crack creative team in place too. Now I can relax over the holidays. Also looking forward to working with my new line up of artists in residence. This time around we have Sally Payne-Stewart and Sarah Jane Bellwood ready and raring to go, with George Coupe doing the theatrical production shots & Kim Lewis as backstage photographic chronicler of the creative process. Together with the many voiced contributors blog this show promises to maintain the extraordinary in depth coverage we established with ‘Much Ado…’ in 2012.
NOVEMBER. A week long series of activities to Light Up Lancaster culminates with the annual Fireworks Spectacular on Saturday 2nd. Now centered on the castle (following prison closure)the 20′ display does not fail to deliver (despite wind & rain on the night) and we joined the thousands of people watching the event from various viewpoints from riverside to park. Favourite event of the festival though is the one we see in the debtors yard of the castle on the evening of Friday 1st. An everyday familiar sight for me was transformed by large scale visually stunning projections, plus live performance & music exploring Victorian crime and punishment, by Imitating the Dog Theatre Company.
Rehearsals begin with the readthrough for this year’s Deck the Hall With Boughs of Holly on Friday 15th at Shire Hall. Very re-assuring to have the wonderfully talented Helen Longworth (left) back to compile, direct and lead the company. This year’s playmates include two other old Lancaster associates, Peter Rylands and Christine Mackie. We also welcome aboard talented younger artists in the shape of Matthew Rothwell and Bekah Sloan. Jan Radford returns to stage manage, and the fab Five in a Bar are our evergreen singing partners, with MD Jude Glendinning. This is the ultimate feelgood show for demi-paradise and this year’s show is no exception. More at www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk
Weekend of 23/24 November we hold four separate audition/workshop for the ten roles in Othello. The week before proved hectic for me in getting 33 of a potential 40 actors in place for the total of four four hour sessions. I gave each each group an induction by way of a private tour of our extraordinary performance venue at Shire Hall then handed them over to AD Louie Ingham in the intimate gallery space at The Dukes for a fun filled creative session working on movement and text. We finished off each workshop with unison & harmony singing exploring the play’s ‘Willow Song’ led by MD Lee Affen. It all worked a treat and freed from direct competition, open to play and discovery, all the groups bonded in hosting the creative muse. In my case it got me out of the control room and back in proper actor mode after a long break from front line theatrics. And for this I was truly grateful. Not often you get the chance to play Bianca given my gender and age! More seriously I took on all the older male roles and worked with the other older guys in attendance. Now comes the hard part where we have to make difficult choices that will determine the identity of our company for the task ahead…
OCTOBER. A full on month preparing roleplays and doing pre-production for forthcoming Demi-paradise shows. In between, some lovely times catching up with family and friends. Great to have the company of my old school mate and creative genius from Tavistock, Dave Saunders. Pints and good conversation over the river at The Three Mariners a feature of his week’s stay. After six full on years working as a ‘pollinator’ and storyteller at The Eden Project in Cornwall. Dave, a former primary teacher, now works at the museum in Exeter. We share a passion for railways so I took him for a much anticipated first ride on the Settle – Carlisle line. In Settle we discovered the delightful art gallery in a phone box and in Carlisle the Cathedral and Roman Wall exhibition at Tullie House museum were both well worth exploring. Got our real exercise of the day between termini, walking the lonely high and misty moor road from Garsdale to Dent station (England’s highest main line station as all train buffs know).
Ghostly Tales went down very well on Fri 18th & Sat 19th despite initial problems with publicity, in part caused by LCC dropping its castle events mailing list. A surprise invite to support our lovely promotion partners Lancaster Litfest and plug the readings on BBC Radio Lancashire may have helped. Becky Hindley (right) gained media fame through her 2010 starring guest role in ‘Coronation Street’ which helped secure us top billing in local press ‘What’s On’ pages. Becky gave an assured rendition of Fay Weldon’s modern morality tale – ‘Watching Me, Watching You’ – an original and waspishly amusing variation on the ghostly theme. Vicky Brazier on brilliant form once again as our genial and highly effective host for the evening, very ably supported by Kim Lewis making a debut as ASM. Pleased in retrospect to have selected a well balanced range of stories to reflect the genre and gratified to discover just how many people (mainly younger women) knew and rated ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Stephanie Greer (right) brought it to life wonderfully in the drop room, where the plain circular wall glowed yellow under the lamps! Always good to have my old friend David Frederickson (left) back in the ring too, delivering his famous tale – ‘Whistle & I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ – with great aplomb in Shire Hall. Think it fair to say I probably had the hardest story to put across in R L Stevenson’s ‘Markheim’ but loved being back in the front line even if felt mission not completely successful in getting across this morally dense story within the requisite 30 minutes. Reading from the Judges bench in a darkened Crown Court makes a fabulous setting too. Already thinking about next year’s selection and publicity images….
Sunday 20th October was wet cold and windy which somehow suited a sold out family event to promote Joseph Delaney’s latest book for children inspired by Lancaster Castle, The Ghost Prison. I played the Head Gaoler entertaining children and parents with a tour of the gatehouse then locking them up in C wing of the prison, telling a legend or two of ‘Long-neck Netty’ and ‘Lizzie Guntrip’ while Joe read extracts from his book in the dungeon of the medieval tower where the Pendle witches were held in 1612 prior to their trial and execution. A gory but fun event on behalf of Lancaster Litfest.
SEPTEMBER On the 6th Kim Lewis, Cathy Duncan & George Coupe opened their fabulous joint exhibition Drawing on Much Ado capturing the essence of the 2012 demi-paradise production of Much Ado About Nothing, at the Circle Gallery Theatre by the Lake (running to 7th October). Great range and depth of work, from finely observed detail to rapidly caught moments of dramatic interaction. A big thank you to organiser Amy Ferguson for hosting us in this spacious and well lit upstairs gallery overlooking Derwentwater. We are receiving lots of positive feedback from visitors, many of whom are there catching a show at this wonderfully situated theatre in the heart of the Lake District. (More at www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk) I remember playing there when on tour with Pocket Theatre Cumbria in the 1980’s when it was the original ‘Blue Box Theatre’, a building on wheels patched together from WWII vehicles which finally came to rest at the current site where it provided the genesis for today’s barn like building – the last rep theatre in Britain to be built with public funds in the 20th century.
A short trip to Pembrokeshire is suitably bookended with long anticipated stop overs in Machynlleth and Carleon. The former in Mac as guests of Diane Bailey and Geoff Young who run the amazing Pen’rallt bookshop and photographic gallery. What started out as cherished retirement project two years ago has proved a labour of love for this remarkable couple who travel everywhere by public transport in their extensive and careful search for quality new and secondhand stock. With heads and hearts in perfect harmony our resourceful duo have created from scratch a small but perfectly formed cultural haven here in the ancient capital of Wales. The gallery shows work by a variety of great photographers and illustrators while the beautifully laid out and welcoming bookstore is the ideal inviting and intimate venue for regular monthly readings by a wide variety of authors. In addition Pen’rallt hosts established and emerging acts as part of the town’s hugely popular stand up comedy festival each spring. Make a point of visiting if you’re in the area – you won’t be disappointed! (p.s. The drama section here for example exceeds that of the average Waterstone’s in both range and volume).
Carleon is the home of children’s writer and illustrator Penny Dale & her husband Brian. Brian, a retired technology lecturer, is one of the instigators and mainstays of the annual Carleon Festival. The festival’s commissioned sculptural work from artists worldwide adorn the streets and public buildings of this famous Roman settlement on the River Usk just outside Newport. A saunter round Penny’s studio in the garden barn is always a treat. After discovering what she’s currently working on (a new adventure in the ‘dinosaurs & diggers’ series) we hear about the 25th anniversary reprint by Walker Books of her biggest selling creation ‘Ten in the Bed’ and the exhibition of the story’s original artwork and drawings held this summer at the Illustration Cupboard gallery in central London.
AUGUST What lovelier way to start the month than being a guest at the wedding reception for fellow performers Richard Hand and Gemma North held at Dunham Massey village hall in Cheshire. A heartwarming occasion and a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues to boot. Just shows what can be achieved with a wedding that doesn’t cost the earth and celebrates in a genuine and inventive way the personalities and true love of this special couple. Having played a small but significant part in introducing them to each other through the 2010 demi-paradise production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ I was honoured to be their guest and wish them every possible happiness and fulfillment in their future lives together.
A pleasure to catch Eve Stewart as the castaway on Desert Island Discs. Britain’s best known production designer, universally lauded for her outstanding work in all media – from ‘Les Miserables’, to ‘The Kings Speech’ and ‘Call the Midwife’. I worked with Eve in the early stages of her career when she was designing for the New Vic Stoke, shortly after the theatre opened in 1988. Eve and her colleagues had their spacious light filled studios overlooking the building’s purpose built garden (complete with gardener) a facility which made the theatre unique in the UK at that time. We were working on a production of ‘The Tempest’ directed by Peter Cheeseman and I was so impressed with her design for my character – Alonso, king of Naples – I asked to keep the original costume painting, which typical of her generous self, she allowed. It hangs on my study wall in Lancaster to this day.
Friday 16th. A lovely little job on home turf. Lancaster Litfest director Andy Derby enlisted me to play Clerk of the Court Thomas Potts reading from his ‘Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’ from the roof of the John’O’Gaunt Gatehouse. The event was one marking the 401st Anniversary of the notorious witch trials which took place at the castle in August 1612. Claire Dean read extracts from Michelle Levi’s children’s novel ‘Malkin’s Child’ from the top of the Well Tower (where the wretched women were imprisoned) and Andy Derby on ground level read extracts from Blake Morrison’s recent poems on the subject. Cleverly segued, the script set the scene perfectly, unfolding the story in all aspects, and was well received by a large audience gathered in the castle yard under a setting sun.
JULY The headline event for this month has been the devastating fire at the Manchester city centre offices of The Actors Group (TAG). Not only were all our records and equipment destroyed but one of the 60 firefighters tackling the blaze, Stephen Hunt, lost his life in the process. The conflagration broke out in a hairdressers shop on the ground floor of the Oldham Street premises on Saturday 13th and raged through the weekend. Thick acrid smoke worsened the fire and our building is a complex one with many rooms of varying sizes accessed on different levels. Ironically the block had recently gone through a major refurbishment and upgrade. Police are treating the fire as suspicious and a criminal investigation is ongoing, so we are still unable to access the office. I and my 23 co-members are working on a daily rota basis from our respective home based ‘virtual offices’, maintaining the day to day work of the agency whilst the search for temporary office space goes on. Our insurance claim is in progress and loss adjusters are starting their work. It will take some time before we are back to where we were before this tragic event happened but TAG is a resourceful and resilient organisation which will come out of this crisis a stronger and fitter one. We are grateful to the many people in the business who have offered both moral support and practical help in getting us back on track.
On the evening of Monday 15th some of us visited the still smouldering ruins of the fire to see the many floral tributes left by the public on the pavement for firefighter Hunt and to express our sympathy to the firefighters still on duty at the cordoned off site. The smell of burning coming out of the gutted building, mixed with chemicals and water, filled the cooling Summer city air. A poignant moment and moving reminder of the terrible price paid by members of the emergency services in fulfilling their public duties.
From Oldham Street to the Royal Exchange for the press night of Too Clever By Half, Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s classic 19th century comic satire on hypocrisy, as re-told by one of the UK’s leading physical theatre companies, Told By an Idiot. Well, I’ve never laughed so much in a Manchester theatre venue as I did that Monday night. Partly perhaps because I entered the building in a sombre mood, but mainly because this show was everything a great theatre production should be and felt completely at home here in the finest of ‘in the round’ venues. Playful, Inventive, dynamic and fully engaging of both head and heart. Fabulous physical energy married to clarity of speech and delivery. A joyful celebration of craft skill, delivered with aplomb by this hugely talented and beautifully coordinated eleven strong ensemble. In short, everything top end live entertainment should be and rarely is. The perfect tonic to restore this particular soul to good health.
I confess to not being a great fan of this event, but, having the company of old friends, a glass or two of wine and a free guest ticket for the Dukes annual walkabout production of Robin Hood proved a special pleasure this year. A wonderous warm night, stunning sunset views over our small English city, Morecambe Bay and the Lake District makes you, well, kind of mellow and content to be part of the capacity outdoor crowd this production regularly attracts. In 2011 I joined fellow Equity members picketing the Arts Council & local councils to restore funding for the ‘show in the park’ and was delighted our campaign was successful. As a long term friend of the theatre I am really happy to see so many other people getting so much out of these popular productions, children especially….I just wish I could enjoy them more!
JUNE Two wonderful weeks spent in Montreal, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Nova Scotia. Also excursions to Sutton in the Eastern Townships and Quebec City. My first time in Canada. Francophone Quebec ‘La Belle Province’ is very different in character and history from the other anglophone provinces we visited. Top cultural highlight was undoubtedly a fabulous evening with fiddle maestro Richard Wood, (ably supported by singer/songwriter Gordon Belsher on guitar), who displayed his ferocious talent in a barn storming session at the remote settlement of Burton in the far west of PEI. The other half of the bill was long limbed comedian Patrick Ledwell whose disarming dry humour and superb storytelling skills had the packed house captivated. The evening’s pleasure was crowned by winning a prize of artists CDs presented me by the province’s tourist minister for coming the furthest distance to the gig! This wonderful ‘kitchen party’ style evening was part of the annual ‘Small Halls’ festival where the island’s home grown musical talent, plus guests from the mainland, entertain locals & early season visitors with a feast of live traditional music, drama, comedy and dance. If the other events were anything like this one then PEI is indeed a very special place (and not just famous for its association with LM Montgomery & ‘Anne of Green Gables’).
Another favourite moment centered on a visit to the Mining Museum at Glace Bay Nova Scotia. Having donned cloaks and helmets and grabbed a walking stick our guide – a retired miner – took us down the inclined ‘travelling road’ to below the sea bed where he vividly relived with us the dirty and dangerous work of the mine. We spent much of the time like auditionees for the seven dwarves, bent over and shuffling in the dark’s dripping wetness from gallery to gallery, with coal seams twinkling in the walls between pitprops. An enlightening and insightful tour unlike any done before. My grandfather was a miner in the Lancashire coalfield and after this unique experience I’m even more aware and appreciative of that inheritance now.
17th & 18th century colonial British, French & first nation history was admirably brought to life at a number of prestigious and incredibly well preserved and recreated national monuments we visited. Chief among them the fortress, governor’s palais and town of Louisberg Nova Scotia, peopled each summer by costumed re-enactors, and refurnished as it would have been before capture and destruction by British troops and American Colonists in the mid 18th Century. Truly fabulous historic site with an atmosphere achieved through authenticity and great attention to detail. If only we had longer there to explore what was on offer! Equally fascinating, in a contemporary tourist dominated way, old Quebec City had great charm and character. The only walled town in North America and a most elegant expression of French Canadian pride in place. That might explain why the modest English cathedral here in the upper town (modeled on London’s St Martin’s in the Field) was so touching and revealing in its curious cultural isolation. Back in Montreal we discovered a hidden gem in the form of the farmhouse, barn and gardens of Maison Saint-Gabriel which stole the heart and engaged the mind through its simple beauty and captivating domestic utility. This late seventeenth Century building, with later additions, was the home of a self sufficient community of nuns (the first ever to live out of a nunnery) and the first home economics college for young women in North America. The latter were Les Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King) who emigrated here under government patronage from Normandy & other parts of rural France in the 1670/80s in order to marry pioneering Acadian settlers and thus populate ‘New France’. Appropriately the guides at this extraordinary property are all young bi-lingual females, dressed in colonial period costume, and the experience we had here was a wonderful way to spend our last day in Canada.
A rich mix of memories….Laughter, love and conversation. The hospitality and care shown by all the wonderful good people who so generously hosted and entertained us. Bald eagles and pilot whales off Cape Breton; no end of trees and great distances; debut dining on mussels and lobster; hanging out at the Tavern on Dominion Square; search parties in cemeteries; bumper size robins and cardinals heard but never seen; awesome St Laurence river our constant compass; giant garden sculptures and sensory plants outside the botanic gardens; Glenora rare single malt and corrugated tins of maple leaf syrup snug in the luggage home; 20th century master drawings at Montreal’s magnificent Musee des Beaux Artes; Island bays and breakwaters framed by lupins & lighthouses; compliments on ‘pure English’ speaking voice; ‘Wrong Way’ warnings on the Trans-Canada Highway; La Ronde all manners and no meaning as Rondelay in summer stock at North Rustico; Pitchers of local beer on the pub deck in main street Sutton watching the world go by; tyranny of local taxes and 15% tips; sweating horses on tourist courses; late sunbathing by a heated hotel pool; No messing with the Moose; Notre Dame Cathedral and city heights at night; spontaneous dancing in the metro; out of town it seems no fences make good neighbours; Trail of Acadian stars on clapboard houses; breakfast at Timothy’s; Woodpeckers renamed as yellow bellied sap suckers; La Grande Sophie’s sulky show at Francofollies; outside escaliers and skunks under the decking; sky mirrored lakes of Quebec; tables of furs and pelts on sale at main highway services; view from chalet over Lac D’or; the poem that came out of Sanctuary Bay; ferry terminals crowded with cormorants; the engineering marvel of Victoria Bridge; coyote warnings; Je me Souviens. We remember you. Au revoir!
Postnote. We enjoyed great service flying there and back with KLM via Amsterdam Schiphol. One of the world’s biggest air travel hubs it’s a homage to the genius of the Dutch in two ways. Firstly in being built on reclaimed land well below sea level and is still today drained by canals. Secondly, it has a branch of their national gallery, the Rijksmuseum, sitting like a big box of gold wrapped chocolates above one of the departure lounges. This unique facility showcases a small but superb selection of Dutch landscapes & portraits down the ages, including a Rembrandt. How restful, appropriate and accessible can you get? Art as advertisement for the host country…. Heathrow/Gatwick, you’re missing a trick here on Britain’s behalf!
MAY Surprising reminder how lovely it can be to witness Spring awakening in London. Whether the delights of the refurbished Victorian Myatt’s Field in Camberwell (staying with daughter Stephanie) or further out at Forest Hill (staying at cousin Quetta’s) with its many woods and gardens & fine views over the city. The occasion of this happy sojourn was a series of dates through late April & early May with Steps Learning for the Judicial Appointments Commission, role playing a lay member of an employment tribunal putting would be judges through their paces before a panel of legal experts at JAC HQ in Westminster. A great bunch of friendly fellow actors, lively, bright and fully engaged with the wider world. Took this snap on the last day of (anticlockwise) Robin Marchal, Sangeeta Reding, Seeta Indrani, Nila Aalia & David Allister. We had been working in pairs for each panel, and it caused myself and Seeta, a one time regular in The Bill, much amusement to discover we were both former Mastermind Champions. She as the 2011 Celebrity champ (answering questions of the operas of Puccinni) and me with my 1991 series title. Our venue was a two minutes stroll from Westminster Abbey and I coughed up £15 after work one afternoon to join the tourists visiting this venerable national institution. 20 years since my last visit, and I enjoyed the experience, being struck by how much of the original catholic glory remained unaltered in the complex fabric of this extraordinary building and, given its central city location and dense population, just how wonderfully peaceful and pleasant the various abbey gardens were. On another afternoon I visited the newly restored 14th century Jewel Tower next door, which sits just shy of obvious attention opposite parliament. Enjoyed a quiet crowd free exploration of this modest surviving fragment of the original medieval palace of Westminster, now in the care of English Heritage. Lunchtimes were largely lazed away in St. James Park, propped up against a tree, enjoying the sun and, when not reading, watching people pass. Great bird life too, most spectacularly the famous pelicans on the pond. Yet I was more amazed and heartened to see a pair of Mistle thrushes feeding a few feet from me. What a welcome oasis this old established royal park is, well used by locals, office workers and visitors alike. Central London at its best.
Family visits to Pembrokeshire and Scottish Borders. Called in at Berwick-upon-Tweed en route home Sunday 12th. Once released from the sad tired high street of run down chain and charity shops we were delighted to step up off the road onto the complete C16th ramparts that surround the town. Each imposing bulwark revealed wonderful views or led to curious nooks and crannies. The spirit of LS Lowry, who spent many holidays here away from Salford, is cleverly evoked on a dedicated town trail. It was two newly restored galleries though that proved the day’s real finds. At the recently re-opened Gymnasium Gallery we played crazy golf on the wild and wacky installations designed by a host of Turner nominated artists. Here, as you can see, I discover that Hitler really did only have one ball! Further round the town wall we came across The Granary, a renovated former 18th century warehouse. Excellent home made lunch followed by a leisurely browse of the 40 self portraits by post war British artists collected by the writer Ruth Borchard, which she purchased for less than 21 guineas each between 1958 – 1971. Extraordinary. What unexpected treats this historic, contradictory border settlement has to offer the curious visitor….More at www.berwickvisualarts.co.uk
A few days on Arran. ‘Scotland in miniature’ as it’s commonly called. Friendly, relaxed and restful. An island never been before experienced so all came as a lovely discovery. Didn’t go for the big mountain walks on this trip but admired the central chain of peaks (All just under minimum Monroe height of 3000ft) from the graceful vale of Glenrosa and a further circuit of the island by road. A short walk turns up lot hereabouts – from castles, dense wooded valleys, stoney shoreline, neolithic sites, wind swept moors or ever changing vistas across the straits to Kintyre. Particularly enjoyed the comprehensive but laid back tour of the recently established (1995) Isle of Arran distillery at Lochranza. Admired the honed communication technique of our kilted mature tour guide Campbell, not to mention the lovely (non peaty)14 year old malt we sampled at the start and the best way to taste it. (Neat then a drop of water to release the flavours if you didn’t know!). Journeyed on to meet up with professional acquaintance from Lancaster Jackie Harris at her home, a cleverly converted barn & farm outbuildings near Blackwater Foot. Jackie has built a fine reputation as a professional storyteller over the years and together with husband Jeff, a professional photographer, they both work in Scotland, their adopted home, as well as back in England. A vivacious and engaging host with an infectious laugh she made us very welcome over tea and cakes at their beautiful home there on the west coast of the island.
Mayday Bank holiday weekend. Big day at Lancaster castle. In my absence the great doors of the medieval gateway swung open permanently to positively welcome in the general public for arguably the first time since the castle was built over 900 years ago! Thousands came to witness the historic event and continue to do so….Things really are changing and, now back at work, I enjoy showing people more of the building which makes more sense of its amazing hidden history as the UK’s oldest continuously working court & prison.
APRIL Friday 5th. Bolton Octagon & the intimate Studio Theatre is packed out for a one night only presentation of The Best. The late Jack Rosenthal’s screenplay, adapted for the stage by Ian Winterton, here produced on minimal budget with maximum talent by Lass O’Gowerie Productions with the approval & support of Mrs Jack Rosenthal, AKA Maureen Lipmann. And what a show it turns out to be. One player short of a full team this fledgling company had transferred here from the Manchester pub whose name they bear, where it premiered last month. A superbly crafted show from the hands of a master storyteller that scores every time through a clever series of overlaps and flashbacks centered on the California radical rehab clinic where Best is a reluctant patient. Here it all is – the laughter, tears and torment of being the self destructive footballing genius that was George Best. Fielding the role of his long suffering but loyal wife Angie is Charlotte Dalton. I’d cast this fabulous young actor/singer for our Christmas ‘Deck the Hall’ company and had personally subbed her for this fringe production whilst on duty in the TAG office so was delighted to see her turn in such an assured and rounded performance opposite an equally impressive Dickie Patterson as yer man.’The Best’ is off to London in a few weeks for another studio venue one nighter, where Charlotte tells me the real Angie Best will be among the invited audience Maureen Lipmann has assembled, so no pressure there then! If ever a show deserved a long commercial run in a main house theatre this is it. And of course if there were any justice in the world….
Production work continues apace for me on the current demi-paradise production – a rehearsed reading, on Thurs 25th & Fri 26th, of The Trial of the Lancashire Witches (www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk). Casting complete and old friend and colleague Ian Blower is taking over from me as director. I’ve also brought in MD Jude Glendinning to provide a suitable song for the cast to sing that will top and tail the show. Writer Graham Kemp has worked with me on minor amendments to the script after its first public rehearsed read with a smaller cast last September and now has his finished manuscript with Carnegie Press, ready for opening night. Readthrough & music r/h on Mon 22nd follows an exclusive company visit to the medieval dungeon (pictured) where the wretched defendants were held in 1612 prior to their trial & execution, courtesy of Lancaster Castle’s owners the Duchy of Lancaster.
Am very impressed with a paired down in length, but not in quality, Dukes Youth Theatre production of Hamlet in the Round. Live rock music from their own band underpinned the work of the large acting ensemble. Tons of energy, clever and imaginative interpretation in a paired down contemporary setting resulted in a tremendous achievement for this talented group of teenagers. Assured performance from Lucas Button as the Prince. Great to learn this promising 17 year old local lad has secured a place at my old alma mater The Central School of Speech & Drama, starting this autumn. Up and coming director Louie Ingham is emerging as a force to be reckoned with and her skill and ambition in staging this sell out show has proved a heartening and inspiring experience for theatregoers and cast alike.
Hexham has a wonderful art deco town centre cinema,The Forum, saved from closure by the local community, members of which now run it on a voluntary basis. Saw The King’s Speech there last year. A full house applauded at the end. In the week Margaret Thatcher died Kim & I went again to see The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s moving elegy for the post war settlement we call The Welfare State. This time there were less than 30 people in attendance and the film’s certificate ironically advised that no harm or offence could be caused to anyone viewing it. Maggie’s triumphal appearance half way through, sweeping to power in the ’79 general election, drew a chorus of subdued boos, sighs and laughter from those present. I left the cinema in pensive and passionate mood having gone through the mill emotionally. This world made me. Created a fairer, more equal post war society with social investment and individual opportunities previous generations of working class folk might only dream of. Loach has done us all a great service in allowing those involved in this mass democratic movement to narrate in their own words and I hope more people – the young especially – give this heartfelt, well crafted documentary a viewing. Discover that there was, and could be again in they want it enough, a genuine alternative to what’s currently billed as the only show in town.
I’m sorry to say my company’s rehearsed reading in Shire Hall of The Trial of the Pendle Witches failed to engage our audience on the opening Thursday night. Despite good work from Mr. Blower as director some of the cast failed to match the auditory challenges of the space or where not engaged with the characters as they should have been. Too many audience members sitting too far away from the action did not help either. All in all a frustrating and disappointing evening which left many subdued and out of joint. 24 hours later the situation was remedied as the company, now properly focused and re-energised, turned in terrific second night interpretations which pressed all the buttons and showed what they could, after all, do the writer, director and themselves justice. Lessons to be learned and a sobering experience for me!
MARCH Starts with a bang from day one. Candoco Dance Company take the Nuffield Studio Theatre by storm and blow us away with three new dances. Bold, unexpected and inspirational entertainment from this fabulous ensemble of disabled and non-disabled dancers celebrating 20 years touring ….. Tues 5th at Theatre by the Lake for the annual Words by the Water festival. Perfect Spring day on the shores of Derwentwater, views of which we admire between talks. Miriam Darlington led us into the secret and closely observed world of ‘Otter Country’, Simon Garfield entertained cleverly with the lore and language of maps while timeless tales of woods and fairy stories have been celebrated and re-fashioned by Sarah Maitland in her new book ‘Gossip from The Forest’. The big draw for the local crowd though was Jenny Uglow on the subject of her latest biography – Sarah Losh. A Victorian heiress and romantic heroine whose legacy is the extraordinary church in the village of Wreay near Carlisle she commissioned and actually worked on as a skilled stonemason. I now can’t wait to visit the place on one of my commutes to and from Northumberland.
The journey NW to SW allows for the most delicious of distractions. Finally get round to visiting Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, which lies under the shadow of Manchester Airport. Hidden away in the green and pleasant valley of the River Bollin we explored this well preserved time capsule of the industrial revolution.
On down the motorway to Bromsgrove Artix, to link up with mine host for the night, Andy Woods, an old friend and fellow arts activist from Teeside back in the 1970’s. We were given a behind the scenes tour of the building by Andy who has done a very enterprising job as its manager to make this a thriving, well supported community arts enterprise attracting some big names, especially in comedy and music.
Gloucester Cathedral never ceases to intrigue and captivate in revealing a little more of itself on every visit. The cloisters are now probably most famous as a location for the ‘Harry Potter’ film franchise, but to me a reflective off season amble round this medieval gem of a quadrangle with its exquisite limestone carvings is a sublime pleasure.
A few days in Devon always do me good, so this particular short break in the company of other old friends of our host Michael Gee at Westmill in the Marsland Valley to celebrate his 70th birthday was a real privilege. The former home of poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, and still in the ownership of his family, it’s the nearest I’ve ever come to living in a gallery, so rich was our environment in works of art, both inside and out in the subtly designed ‘wild’ garden that merges into the landscape. This secret valley, with the Marsland stream dividing Devon from Cornwall opens into the Atlantic. (I could not resist leaning over the narrow stream to touch the county of my birth, keeping my feet firmly in the county of my upbringing). Up at the cliff edge, on the coastal path, sits the lovingly restored hut where our writer sat and wrote. Round about Exmoor ponies and Hebridean black sheep graze, naturally conserving this rare and rich habitat.
Full marks to Devon Wildlife Trust whose reserve this is. Day trips from here included a stimulating saunter through the Clovelly estate, away from the famously pretty village so beloved of tourists, along cliff and wooded vale with sweeping sea views from Morte Point round to Hartland.
Saturday lunch with friends Jake Glanville and Miriam McCurdy and their four delightful children at the family’s old farmhouse in the North Devon village of Dolton. Relative newcomers to the area, Jake & Miriam run a successful specialist publishing business from home. They’ve planted 300 apple trees on their land and Kim, Michael & I joined them for a happy meander through the orchard. A truly inspirational couple and I look forward to reading their on-line accounts of progress in pomona in due course.
Late March. Home in harness after my soul enhancing week back in the west. Pleased to be called in at short notice to do a demo tape for a commercial client for my old friends and associates at Voice Over UK. That apart am well occupied with tour guiding, chair duties for TAG and pre-production tasks on a raft of future demi-paradise productions as well as planning more roleplay work…
Grateful for wool scarf, puffa jacket and cashmere overcoat to maintain some working comfort when walking briskly about the city during this recent return to winter weather. Due to join Fi Paul & Phil Coggins at their house in Buxton on Sunday 24th evening for a long planned playreading session with mutual friends. Had first dibs with my choice of Bernard Shaw’s St Joan. It’s a play I’ve long wished to do at the castle as a promenade production but for various reasons have not. Alas, snow & ice over the weekend had virtually cut the town off so our creative get together was cancelled….Come on the Spring!
FEBRUARY An engrossing night in the Dukes Studio. Pierrepoint – The Hangman’s Tale by Peter Harrison, directed by Kevin Dyer. My friend and TAG colleague Gareth Cassidy, as wrongly convicted murderer Timothy Evans, gave the most emotionally powerful performance I’ve witnessed from him to date. It was also the most restrained – in both senses of the word – and doubly effective for it. The redoubtable Martin Oldfield dominated proceedings as the notorious pub landlord cum part time executioner in an anecdotal narrative that evolved from the deceptively disarming to the ultimately harrowing. The engagement continued through conversation and conviviality over a pint with both men in the Dukes bar afterwards. Other productions seen this month were revivals of Rutherford & Sons (Northern Broadsides at Dukes Main Stage) & The Accrington Pals (Royal Exchange). Despite large casts, memorable sets, light effects and some some isolated individual performances, these full blown, lavishly reviewed productions lacked all the visceral effect and lasting emotional reverberation of the simply staged authentic ‘true story’ that was ‘Pierrepoint’. Needless to say there was a small (but appreciative) house for the latter on the night I went and completely sold out for the former….Hard times indeed.
When I left the pretty Derbyshire Dales village of Winster in June 2008 after a feted appearance there as Cecil Sharp (see Theatre page) I promised my hosts in Winster Morris that I would come back at some future date to do a fundraising quiz. Through the good offices of old friend & local resident David Frederickson I prepared and presented an 80 question general knowledge table quiz on Friday 1st in the village hall. Good turnout and lots of money raised for the very worthy charity of choice, Vasculitis UK.
Other highlights of the weekend away included a visit to see the magnificent collection of Joseph Wright paintings held by Derby Museum & Art Gallery. If ever a painter combined the spirit of scientist and artist in one body it was surely this quiet genius who captured the essence of the age of the enlightenment and enriched his native town with this stunning legacy.
You can’t come to this wonderful national park (England’s first) without stepping out for a stroll with friends so a bracing walk over the towering heights of the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate was a real tonic. Our genial companion and local lad made artistically good was the casually erudite Phil Coggins whose brilliantly inventive puppet theatre company Babbling Vagabonds performed outdoors here for family audiences in their early days. They bravely fought off the ferocious midges that lurk hereabouts in the summer months to win the loyal affection and support of local audiences that still sustains them to this day.
A family audience was also out in force on Sunday afternoon when, en route home, we joined fellow members of TAG to see one of our newest members – Gayle Newbolt – perform fantastically in the title role of Rapunzel (Tutti Frutti/York Theatre Royal national tour) at Sale’s Waterside Arts Centre.
JANUARY A long anticipated few days away, staying with family in London. Cultural highlights included a first ever trip to the Almeida in Islington to see the world premiere of The Dark Earth And The Light Sky by Nick Dear, directed by Richard Eyre. Reservations about staging and certain performances apart it proved (as hoped) a well balanced and insightful drama that cleverly explored the relationship between Edward Thomas, his wife Helen and fellow writer Robert Frost, centered on their shared holiday in Dymock, Herefordshire the Summer war broke out in 1914. My professional relationship with Thomas and his work goes back a long way (see the ‘Mastermind’ page) so it was an extra delight after the show when I encountered the lead actor travelling on the same tube train home. Pip Carter and I had an interesting conversation comparing notes on playing the poet and on our careers generally. I congratulated him on a magnificent performance. He not only looked like Edward Thomas but gave utterly believable form and voice to a complex and contradictory figure. If you want to know more about our man, read the poems then take a look at Matthew Hollis’ much acclaimed breakthrough biography ‘Now All Roads Lead to France’ or Robert Mcfarlane’s superb travelogue ‘The Old Ways’. Both books are, like this play, gaining new readers for, and a deeper appreciation of, Thomas and his work. I predict a major TV drama or a feature film to mark the centenary of his death in action at Arras in 1917.
Trips to Greenwich on the DLR by day and back by ferry on the river at night were tourist delights in themselves. Coming face to face again with the work of Ansel Adams was a sustained joy. This pioneering master of the medium dedicated his life to landscape photography and conservation, mainly in his home state of California. it was there in the Yosemite National Park a decade ago that I first got to know his iconic images, with most of the inspirational subject matter just a short trek away. This wide ranging and really well curated National Maritime Museum show majors on his studies of water. Ansel Adams: Photography From the Mountains to the Sea continues to 1st April and I urge you to see it if you can.
I was delighted when one of my oldest friends Michael Gee was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the new year’s honours list for services to orchard conservation. I’ve earned my keep in the past whilst staying at Michael’s cottage near Barnstaple doing ground maintenance work on his one acre mazzard green. I’ve also had the pleasure of entertaining members of ‘Orchards Live’, the group of local growers he helped found 20 years ago, with an evening of apple related readings. Michael turns 70 this month and I suspect his many friends cannot think of a better present than this public honour for a man who has done so much in enabling and inspiring others to secure the future for North Devon’s orchards.
My eldest daughter Esme Allen has been shortlisted for the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year for her portfolio of work on the people of the Mesopotamian Marshes, Iraq. The victims of ethnic cleansing during the Saddam years, when much of the great marsh was drained and then abandoned, these courageous and resourceful people still live a precarious existence in the fragile ecosystem of the Tigris-Euphrates estuary. Esme documented an international project, of which the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens is a partner, assisting the gradual revival of this beautiful but fragile and degraded place. The aim is to support the indigenous people, so they can continue to live in harmony with the environment and exploit it sustainably and secure a viable future for future generations.