DECEMBER At The Dukes guest night to see this year’s Christmas production of Cinderella, written by Ian Kershaw & directed by Joe Sumsion. Another fabulous show with high energy uber talented company of six performers delivering the seasonal goods in tandem with the terrific resident technical team. As in the previous two years the Christmas production is set in The Round (Studio Theatre) and becomes by default an involving inclusive experience. What better way to get children hooked on live theatre than this? Congratulations to all concerned for delivering another winner!
My two Hollyoaks episodes screened. Out of the country at the time with Kim visiting daughter Esme, son in law Stuart & grandchildren Joe & Thea in France where they are currently living, so did not see the end result. (Finishing the year financially better off as a result was a welcome present in itself). Joined by my other daughter Stephanie, we had a delightful time exploring the countryside around the commune of Talloires on beautiful Lake Annecy and also in the city of Annecy itself. After visiting the ancient imposing chateau that dominates the skyline we explored the medieval gaol & museum on the river isle and then meandered through the crowded market in the winding cobbled streets of the old town, stuffed full of the sights and sounds and smells of festive well being. Getting re-stocked with a can of maple leaf syrup from the French Canadian stall an unexpected plus. Emerging from the throng we encountered the son et lumiere celebrating Christmas projected onto the walls of the Hotel de Ville which lit up the night wonderfully.
Deck the Hall … with Holmes & Watson marked our 15th seasonal concert series at Shire Hall. Sue McCormick providing the script and directing the core story based on the classic Christmas mystery of The Blue Carbuncle and played out by the company of 5 actors and our female acapella choir Five in a Bar with MD Jude Glendinning. Went down very well with most of our audiences over three nights who appreciated a new twist on an established well honed entertainment formula. A lovely company of seasoned professionals in Barry Hall, Penny MacDonald, Helen Longworth, Peter Rylands & Mark Alexander who made the best of a shorter than normal rehearsal period to produce a high quality show which got better with each performance. (I’ve also recycled the potted Xmas tree by planting it at the country house in the spinney, ready for action next year!)
An excursion to sample the family Christmas entertainment at that remarkable shell of a grand Greek style mansion, Belsay House, yielded an unexpected bonus when we realised that part of that entertainment was being provided by the irrepressible duo that make up Inner State Theatre, Chris & Andy. The Lancaster based partnership were over in Northumberland on a return visit, invited by English Heritage, presenting their puppet show version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the library. Very good it was too, with the added bonus of Kim’s 5 year old grandson Harry stepping in to take up the role of the young lad in the street who assists the reformed miser in gathering presents for Bob Cratchitt & his family. The entertainment concluded with communal singing round the Christmas Tree in the hall and an appearance by Santa himself with more stories and presents for the children. A lovely seasonal occasion on a cold, wet and grey Sunday to keep the family festive flame aglow! Back home, and a lovely reminder of this year’s Deck the Hall in the form of a scrumptious home made Xmas cake on a special plate…
Went with friends to midnight mass on Xmas Eve at Heavenfield near Chollerford in the North Tyne. We walked over the field from the military road to the isolated little church overlooking the Roman Wall under a vast panoply of stars. (This is designated dark sky country). The original church was erected to mark the battle here in 634 when the local Saxon forces of Oswald routed those of the Welsh King Cadwollan, effectively securing the future of Christianity in Northumberland. The simple chapel like interior of St Oswald – the third church on this site c.1819 – was lit with candles and the whitewashed walls glowed warm yellow. Our sole accompaniment for hymns & carols a single violin. Felt we had stepped back into the world of Thomas Hardy and a scene from one of his Wessex novels.
NOVEMBER All the hard work comes to fruition with the premiere of De Raptu Meo in the great hall of the Inner Temple on 5th & 6th. Louise Jury does a nice preview article in The Evening Standard and we are sold out the next night. On 5th my good friends David & Pat are down from Derbyshire and they introduce me post performance to their old friend and political associate David Blunkett. The famously blind former Labour Home Secretary congratulates me on outstanding clarity & diction and we go on to enjoy some amusing conversation. Journalist & broadcaster Libby Purves pens a good review for her on-line blog Theatre Cat which pleases all. A lovely company – director, writer & actors – & our good hearted, generous hosts were most accommodating. How uplifting too to be back on stage in a strong supporting lead role after so many years. Might even get an appetite back for more! Back home from London on Saturday in time for the annual fireworks – the usual prime view from the end of the street – celebration indeed!
Thursday 13th. A privilege to be at the book launch in Ulverston Library of Irvine Hunt’s new book The Ghost Show. It follows on from the Octogenarian’s earlier gem of a tale The Drover’s Boy (both published by Cumbria based Handstand Press). Both stories are set in the Cumberland & Westmorland of the early 1900’s that Irvine is deeply knowledgeable about and brings to life so vividly. These delightful children’s novels are the sort you want famous people to discover and publicise so they can reach a wider readership outside our area. With just a handful of authors and multinational publishers dominating the market that’s unlikely to happen but if you value originality and authentic sense of place and time in fiction be brave enough to gift either of these beautifully presented paperbacks to the youngsters in your life – or of course read them aloud at bed time if they’re younger. (I don’t think you, or they, would regret it!)
OCTOBER Another very busy work month. Finish filming on Hollyoaks in Liverpool. Loved the view from the hotel room at night with the near deserted and brightly lit big wheel doing the rounds on the dockside next door. Strangely comforting. See interesting range of shows this month too. Red Ladder’s production of We’re Not Going Back in Hexham was the most satisfying. A terrific three hander set at the time of the Miners Strike 1984-5. Great music & lyrics by Boff Whalley, wonderfully performed by three very talented female actor/singers. A slas of red in the deep blue heart of Northumberland, well supported by a decent sized audience in the Queen’s Hall theatre. Big bonus of having one of those fab cast members – my old friend and colleague Vicky Brazier – to stay. We took off for Durham Book festival on Sunday for events based in the arts & crafts style Town Hall. A debate on novelty and creativity between academics had a star performer for us in former comedian turned novelist Natalie Haynes. After a good lunch we swelled the audience for ‘Botanicals’ a talk & reading by Kim’s old friend, artistic collaborator & national award winning poet Linda France. Back in Lancaster we were part of a full guest night premiere at the Dukes where Imitating the Dog gave us their multi-media interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I found it fascinating as a technical exercise, shot through with some lovely moments and brave in its attempts to integrate literature, theatre & film. In the end though it did not move me emotionally. More art than heart. Certainly divided audiences sharply, I realised afterwards. For once I was more willing to go with what I witnessed and not walk out on it. The production tours nationally to the end of November. Getting to Keswick for a night at Theatre by the Lake meant we preceded the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo, which was extremely fortunate as it’s a long exposed drive back & forth on the M6 at night! The Comedy of Errors is not a Shakespeare play I’ve seen before & now I’ve seen this production I won’t be in a hurry to see it again. Always good to support old friends and associates at work. Chris Hannon for instance, as one of the Dromio twins, had sprained an ankle, was on crutches and garnered laughs in the playing as a result. This lavishly set production had manic energy, sufficient wit and stagecraft with a wonderful ending to keep the boat afloat and the predominantly older audience happy as passive passengers but I confess I wasn’t engaged as I should have been and the excellent finale alone wasn’t enough to make up for that.
Lovely day out with Kim & friends to a neighbouring part of Northumberland. An Open Day for the public at the newly established sculpture park in the grounds of the ancient manor house of Cheeseburn near Stamfordham. The Riddell family home is an elegant Georgian manor house with extensive outbuildings and gardens plus the working farms. The family & cultural associates were there to meet and greet and provide delicious home made refreshments. We wish them well with this welcome cultural initiative. What a wonderful setting & a great variety of interesting work by some of the top names in the game.
Rehearsals begin Sunday 26th in London for De Raptu Meo: Geoffrey Chaucer on Trial for Rape by Garry O’Connor, based on his novel Chaucer’s Triumph. A six hander, directed by my old associate from Orchard Theatre/BBC Radio drama Nigel Bryant. The piece had a rehearsed reading earlier this year (with Sir Derek Jacobi as Chaucer) and now the Master of the Revels at The Inner Temple has commissioned a staged performance for 5th & 6th of November to be performed in the Great Hall. What a thrill – not to mention challenge – to be back on stage in a leading support role after so many years. I’m playing the poet’s long suffering copyist & servant Adam Scriven who is the drama’s protagonist. As de facto prosecution counsel in the case I get to summon witnesses in the case of Cecelia Champaigne, a teenage widow Chaucer was accused of raping in 1380. John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford his mistress with sister Philippa Chaucer (Geoffrey’s wife) all make an appearance. Garry has woven a complex series of interactive relationships around Chaucer – poet, diplomat, businessman – and puts the evidence to the test before the audience, who get to vote on his guilt or innocence at the end. More a serious ‘entertainment’ than a play but intriguing and thought provoking stuff to be performed in the heart of the capital and the very place where Chaucer was schooled in law. fellow performers are former RSC stalwart Ian Hogg as yer man, Sarah Neville (Philippa), Alice Bird (Cecilia), Kate Nutter (Katherine) & lawyer turned actor Iain Christie as Gaunt . Just six full days to rehearse so have had to be very familiar with the script these last few weeks! A great test of flexible working and exercising the old memory muscles…An interesting walk from Waterloo Station over the bridge – resonant with connections to our play & my other life in Lancaster – past the Duchy of Lancaster HQ sitting on the current day Savoy holding (site of John O Gaunt’s medieval Palace, destroyed in the Peasants Revolt). Love the view down the river from here, along the embankment which leads to the Temple and our peaceful cultural haven in the heart of the city…I also really loved the walk from London Bridge station, past ‘The golden Hinde’, The Globe and the the lovely juxtaposition of Southwark Cathedral and The Shard.
Another record breaking Halloween series of family & adult events at the castle on Friday night. I was manning the front tour desk for the evening whilst guiding colleagues were fully stretched, all suitably attired and busy haunting & conducting special tours of Shire Hall for children & adults. Earlier in the day I had a sneak preview, courtesy of Chris Adcock, finance director from the duchy, of the PA system being rigged in the old prison’s A Wing (c. 1877). The suicide net is there for H&S reasons. It is licensed for a capacity crowd of 450 on two floors; a massive array of speakers to infuse the nervous system. Serious stuff for the sell out Halloween party and other occasional DJ all night events. Apparently Rob de Bank rates it as one of his favourite venues.
Putting on Ghostly Tales at the castle for Demi-paradise occupied much of my time and attention up until mid month but the results were well worth it. Great team of readers in my associate directors – Sue McCormick, Chris Hallam, Helen Longworth & Ian Blower (with guest appearance by lighting designer & returnee actor Mark Alexander), a lovely variety of contrasting stories placed in near perfect settings. Relieved and delighted that my initiatives in publicity paid off handsomely – we sold out for the first time in the event’s six year history!
Being part of Lancaster Litfest is a big plus in reaching a wider audience. Six years for us but 36 for them! Kim & I went to hear Bernard McLaverty speak at the theatre in The Storey during this year’s festival. I’d first come across Bernard, one of the UK’s greatest short story writers, at the first Borders Book Festival. He entertained us by reading two of his classic stories and in conversation reminded us of something he had previously shared with the Melrose audience. While teaching in Glasgow years ago one of his pupils had defined fiction as ‘made up truth’. Hard to improve on that with few words! Bernard is not just a master storyteller but also a true gentleman. Running out of books to sign at the end he took our address details and posted a bookplate a week or so later.
SEPTEMBER The Demi-Paradise Othello Artists in Residence Exhibition opens at the Dukes Theatre Gallery. Thrilled that a third of the Othello cast can make it from afar to join us Lancaster based creatives. And what a classy show it is. Our lead artist Sally Slade Payne has magically distilled the essence of our production in her prints. Passion, energy, movement and stillness perfectly captured, defined and contrasted with great skill and insight. We enjoyed a wonderfully laid back two hour private view in company with Sally and supporting artists Sarah & Kim along with respective family, friends and colleagues. Sally & husband Clayton joined us afterwards for a lovely meal across the way at Pizza Margherita. Actors and creatives then re-assembled for more intense arts fuelled conversation and even more laughter outdoors in the balmy late evening at our old haunt, The Merchants Bar, in the shadow of Lancaster castle….Woke the next morning late a little the worse for wear. A gentle stroll over the fields to Silverdale Cove put things to rights. Beautifully hot day yielding more classic vistas over the sands. A little artistic imagination and you could easily imagine this photograph was taken on a Mediterranean shore rather than the sea cliffs of Lancashire!
Pembrokeshire National Park. One of the joys of sea swimming in September is that the briney is a lot warmer than in May. It’s our regular visit to see son Tom, staying with old friends from Manchester at our shared holiday home by the coastal path on the Parrog at Newport. This time around I discover that taking a dip before breakfast really sets one up for the day. Not being a sporty type this is the nearest I will ever get to fitness training! After all too short a stay, blessed with wonderfully warm weather, we drive east to spend a couple of days with old friends Brian & Penny Dale at Caerleon near the other Newport (Gwent) in the wake of the NATO Conference with its attendent mega security measures and worldwide publicity. A peaceful scene again now, with skeins of geese flying overhead rather than Osprey attack helicopters. Got a glimpse of Penny’s new picture book for Nosy Crow, due out in January, Dinosaur Rocket. What fun! Another treat was going to St Fagans, outside Cardiff, to spend a fascinating afternoon in the open air museum of Welsh life at St.Fagans. If visiting south Wales this place is a must for anyone with even the most passing interest in how we used to live. My favourite reconstructed buildings were probably the pre-reformation parish church of St. Teilo’s with its knockout wealth of murals and decorations and the row of miners cottages & gardens from Merthyr Tydfil, adapted to reflect five successive eras of occupation 1805 – 1985. Our holiday shortened in order to get back for some filming in Liverpool. After four previous interviews over the years for the part of either a solicitor or a judge my lucky number finally came up for Hollyoaks. Two days filming for two episodes presiding over a sensational trial, to be screened in December. The verdict? Lovely company, a welcome boost in income and another positive move on the career front with new representation!
AUGUST 4th – The nation marks the outbreak of World War One. My grandfather William Tomlin was already serving as an infantry rifleman in the British Army. Born and brought up at Stratford E15 in a large family of London/Irish descent, he joined the Essex Regiment and served in Afghanistan & the north west frontier before becoming part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) involved in the running battles at Mons and Le Cateau. William was seriously wounded by a German sniper bullet while acting as a regimental runner. This was a ‘Blighty Wound’ (which probably saved his life given the nature of the conflict) taking him out of the action to recuperate at the cottage hospital in Tavistock Devon. It was there, far from his east London home, William would meet Emily Burrows the local girl who became his wife. They married on Christmas Day 1915 in Tavistock parish church (a reflection of the unusual times). My mother Iris Rose Tomlin was their only child, born in October 1916.
A wonderfully entertaining & enlightening day out with castle guiding colleague and friend James Houghton which will linger long in the memory. My first visit to his home in Pilling in Over Wyre, where his family have farmed for more than 150 years. An Edwardian brick built farmhouse replacing the Victorian homestead with the original tenanted parcel of 40 acres fields & woodland still abutting. Old barns now decayed and fallen away. The house stuffed full of multi-generational hoarded papers, books, furniture & fittings. Farming now abandoned, the unimproved organic pasture high with grasses, swarming with peacock butterflies and everywhere nature reclaiming its own. A secret and special place with lovely views over the flat mosslands to the Bowland hills. James also acted as key holder for a visit to the old church of St John in the village. Dated 1717, with upper galleries added a century later. Very peaceful, light filled, chapel like time capsule of a church. It boasts a double decker pulpit and there’s a derelict stove in the nave. A sundial above the door bears the legend ‘Thus eternity approacheth. G. Holden 1766’. George Holden, mathematician & one time rector here, invented modern tide tables. This affecting, beautiful place is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. We had earlier had a light lunch and tour of Thurnham Hall, now a timeshare with public bars and dining, the ancestral home of the Dalton family. James is the unofficial family historian and the definitive book on ups and downs of this colourful and unconventional catholic gentry family has yet to be written – though we are all urging him to get on and do so! It’s a fascinating property, with definite architectural interest. Neo-gothic skin fronts an ancient Elizabethan stone manor house with brick built C17th century farmhouse attached. James as ever our passionate insider guide revealing the hall & its occupiers, stories & characters.
Saturday 2nd. Tatton Park home farm. The Tales of Kim Lewis. Thunderstorms and intermittent downpours did not spoil our day here. Kim meeting the public and signing copies of her picture books in the old estate managers office situated in a corner of the extensive Victorian farmyard. A delightful and heartwarming show which has been well received by adults and children alike since it opened in April. Hopefully a few more people will get to see the exhibition before it closes on 31st August.
Tough decision on which way to go with recent choice of new professional representation. After more than 30 years loyal service with two regionally based actors co-operative personal managements (Target & TAG) I’ve finally set sail in a different vessel. Otto Personal Management is a former co-op now owned and run by one of its founder members John Langford. The new office in Sheffield is at Hagglers Corner, a 140 year old factory recently refurbished as a creative business centre. Know John and many Otto clients already having worked with them individually on theatre & film projects down the years. Really looking forward to forging a creative collaboration with John in beginning this new chapter in my working life!
63rd birthday outing to the heritage coast of Northumberland! Supper at Bamburgh in the shadow of possibly the finest sited and impressive of England’s great working castles. More impressive to me though was atmospheric Dunstanburgh Castle. Strong Lancashire connections as this huge prestige site was the work of the greatest magnate of the early 14th century, Thomas second earl of Lancaster, built to rival the King’s neighbouring castle at Bamborough. Today’s evocative ruins are the result of its despoilation in the wake of the Wars of the Roses. The sea cliffs here form part of the natural defences & I loved watching the resident colony of kittiwakes at their acrobatic best in the uplifts of wind. Howick Hall Gardens made for the other first visit. A centuries old country estate, the ancestral home of the Grey family, with thousands of tree species collected by them from all over the world, these extensive walks and varied gardens are both a plantsman’s joy and children’s natural playground. Where better place to enjoy Earl Grey tea than at the place it was first devised? The tearooms here are really lovely, classy and informal by turn, with more views over the formal gardens of the 18th century mansion. Best of all it encourages return visits at another season to see more of its charms. The second Earl Grey was the leader of the Whigs who delivered the great reform Act of 1832 and his tomb is in the church here. Like the Trevelyans at Wallington this was a political house where the country’s destiny was set in the nineteenth century. The day’s outings concluded with the third of my firsts by stopping off in the handsome market town of Alnwick. Barter Books is the home of the original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ WW II poster, which still resides in its case by the till here. The enterprise was set up by husband & wife team Stuart & Mary Manley in 1991 as a place where books could be exchanged (hence the name) and has justifiably earned its national and international status as the most atmospheric and quirky of Britain’s big second hand bookshops. Occupying the town’s former Victorian railway station it has beautifully and imaginatively merged into a new form of magnificence complete with overhead murals, model trains, lighting, graphics and carefully crafted restoration of the buildings many constituent parts – booking office, waiting and refreshment rooms, engine house etc. Packed with books and publications appealing to a wide range of customers Barter Books is a true treasure house adding to the sum of human happiness.
Unexpected trip to London at night before notice. First sub from John at Otto lands me an interview with caster Julia Duff for a lovely character part in episode of the new series of Inspector George Gently. Arriving early from Northumberland via Lancaster I take advantage of being in the heart of the west end by joining art lovers enjoying the wonderful range of images that is the annual BP Portrait Award show at the NPG (It’s an extra joy because you get to see people staring unselfconsciously at people). There’s a picture by Tim Martin of Timothy Spall, who had recently played the great painter Turner in the film of the same name. I liked this full length portrait not so much for the picture itself but for how it came to be. The artist was called in to advise and coach the actor to play an artist and the actor ended up agreeing to pose for the artist! The judges choice of winning portrait was an excellent one Man with a Plaid Blanket by the German artist Thomas Ganter. After my read to camera which took place in Goodwin’s Court (that most secret and antique of highways off St.Martin’s Lane) I was off on foot heading south over Hungerford Bridge for more people watching and Thameside vistas to rendezvous at Tate Modern with daughter Stephanie after she’d finished work. Very happy & convivial supper in a lovely laid back restaurant nearby before all too soon parting for respective homes. Mercifully my train north from Euston was uncrowded & peaceful. Chance to read & doze after a sleepless night & early start. What a day!
August 21st. Another landmark or ‘life event’ as I finally relent, take a deep breath and sign up for Facebook. The main motivation is to tell the world what we’re up to at demi-paradise with another batch of small scale events upcoming over the next few months and limited means to publicise the events. And of course to highlight this wonderful website! Let’s see…
JULY A few glorious days away in Herefordshire. The latter often travelled through previously but rarely lingered in until now. Highlights of our tour (in no particular order) were the classic ‘black & white’ friendly village of Pembridge with its lovely light filled church with remarkable c14th divorced wooden bell tower. Stocktonbury Gardens – Four deliciously integrated acres of complimentary sections, surrounded by working orchards & farm buildings, imaginatively developed by the same family over generations. Many tall perennials in beds benefitting from the ideal sheltered location. Also boasts an intriguing tower of a pigeon house with revolving ladder next to equally ancient barn. Shobdon Church is the UK’s outstanding example of Strawberry Hill Gothic built for the Bateman family in the grounds of their Georgian mansion in the 1750’s and recently restored. Down the lanes to Dunkertons organic cider mill to get a sample of some of the best cider and perry the county can offer. The city of Hereford was just a bad memory of traffic choked inner ring road & ugly shopping developments until this visit when we got beyond those barriers and reached the dignified and peaceful spiritual heart – Hereford Cathedral with its famous chained library and mappa mundi. These world treasures after a funding crisis in the late 1980’s are now exhibited in an impressive permanent home (an extension of the medieval cloisters) thanks to a £1 million donation by Paul Getty which attracted further match funding. The mappa mundi (c.1300) looks rather like a brain scan on first viewing. Created on a single piece of vellum it compacts a riotous wealth of extraordinary detail – geographic, historic and metaphysical – which takes the curious viewer on a labyrinthine storytelling journey to the heart and mind of the medieval christian world view…Absolutely fascinating and highly recommended!
Our few days in Herefordshire were prefixed by a visit to see my eldest son Tom, now 38 and resident for the last 19 years at Bangeston Hall outside Pembroke Dock. Lesley, the art/craft teacher & head gardener here has lead the transformation of the old hall’s semi-abandoned walled garden, slowly turning it into a peaceful and highly productive horticultural haven, managed & worked by residents & staff in partnership. Barbecue area, orchard, chickens, rabbits and pigs all have their place along with the vegetables and flower beds in this happy acre of south Pembrokeshire. The large polytunnel gives all weather shelter for the busy workshops where all manner of recycling creates toys and decorative objects which are then sold at local fairs and shows. I treasure this fantastic example of arts at the heart of therapeutic learning and living and know my son and the other autistic adults there have their lives enriched and centered through direct daily involvement on so many levels.
Heading east we discovered some of the delights of the county town of Carmarthern. Castle gateway and old street patterns with some lovely small businesses still thriving. An otherwise unremarkable exterior of the Lyric Theatre has a fabulous mosaic floor entrance from the street which was a joy to behold. Later that day we ended up in Presteigne, the former county town of Radnor. What a pretty place it is too. The centre of an annual classical music festival, well preserved and vibrant main street free of multiple chain stores crammed with local independent businesses. Delightful mix of vernacular architecture and warm welcoming atmosphere. We had come especially to see the town’s restored architectural historic treasure house – The Judges Lodgings & Assize Court. Built by public subscription in the late 1820’s and furnished now as it would have been in the mid Victorian period this attraction excelled all expectation. We had the place to ourselves on a sunny midweek afternoon. The servants quarters in the basement of the judges lodgings, lit by gas lamps, were particularly effective & atmospheric. The actual county assize court were chapel like (unlike the neo-gothic version at Lancaster) so perfectly suited to the border country’s non-conformist traditions. Prison cells and police rooms all added to our fascinating immersive adventure. Welsh Assembly & Powys County Council money bravely spent on such a painstaking comprehensive restoration of a unique building and a way of life that has otherwise vanished. Do go see it if you can…& up their visitor numbers! An evening trip over the toll bridge to the world famous book town of Hay-on-Wye for a bit of window shopping and supper in one of the many excellent pubs. Quiet now in the wake of this year’s gathering for the ‘Glastonbury of the mind’. Happy memories of previous book festivals and the town today (pop. some 2,500) looking as confidently prosperous and singular as ever. The castle remains a romantic ruin but development rumoured to be imminent. Glad to see there is still have a 24 hour sheltered book store open in the grounds, complete with honesty box…Here’s Kim showing support!
Happy to be on the guest list for this year’s Dukes show in the park Hansel & Gretel. A glorious summer’s evening it turned out too. The dying sun filtering through woodland in Williamson Park for the final main scene followed by glowing light balls in tree trunks combined with Keiran Buckeridge’s clever atmospheric score as we promenaded to the final scene on the lake. It all conjured up memories of the heyday of this annual event in the late 80’s when this major sell out event was decidedly more creative adventure and less fixed obligation. Zocia Wand’s free flowing interpretation of the timeless story, confidently directed by Joe Sumsion, proved a welcome return to form for the Dukes. A relief given the current precarious state of arts funding for non-metropolitan venues in England. The play amusingly seconded main characters from other tales – Rumplestiltskin & the Big Bad (reformed) Wolf amongst them. This production boldly traversed dark territory with its central themes of kidnap and child abuse and was really well delivered by the excellent seven strong acting ensemble, appealing nicely to children and adults alike. Stage management & front of house, by now a well oiled operation, simply adds to and enriches the whole outdoor theatre experience.
JUNE Sunday 8th spent in Newcastle, in the university’s Edwardian Armstrong Hall, for the first ever TEDx event held there. TED is an international nonprofit organisation devoted to spreading ideas and encouraging interaction in technology, entertainment and design. (see TED.com) Some 250 attendees turned up to hear speakers and video presentations averaging 15 minutes each on 14 wide ranging subjects, from the evolution of the cloud to breathing exercises used to promote innovative thinking. Of particular professional interest was Cap-A-Pie Theatre Company’s director/facilitator Gordon Poad talking passionately on original uses of drama in bringing academics & socially deprived youngsters together. By way of an unforgettable finale charismatic scientist cum stand up comedian & TV presenter Steve Mould gave a fabulously entertaining practical demonstration of the scientific phenomena which now bears his name – ‘The Mould Effect’. Very much in the tradition of Michael Faraday’s hugely popular demonstrations of the power of electricity staged in the early 1800’s at the Royal Society…Anyway, if you want to know more about Steve & his self siphoning beads look it up on U Tube!
You may have noticed there are an awful lot of flags being waved around the place with the World Cup in full swing in Brazil. A great occasion celebrating the beautiful game. Here in England in case we don’t understand that the flag of St George is the de facto unofficial national flag the legend ‘England’ has been helpfully printed on it. Hard to imagine a Scottish, Irish or Welsh flag with the country’s name similarly displayed. Are we poor English woefully under educated, or perhaps unaware of how to define our national identity or too fearful of appearing patriotic for the wrong reasons? A curious state of affairs! One that may get even more interesting as the Scottish devolution referendum approaches in September.
Wark village held its Scarecrow Festival over the weekend 14/15 June. Perhaps the organisers have been inspired by the immensely successful annual Wray village display in the Lune valley. I stopped to snap this character on the way over to my local home. Our guest this weekend was old friend and colleague Victoria Brazier. We walked Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads in the rain and later witnessed a fantastic falconry display at nearby Chesters Roman fort. Vicky is currently working in Leeds with Red Ladder rehearsing ‘We’re Not Going Back’ a new musical comedy marking the 40th anniversary of the Miners Strike, financed by the Unite Union. It opens in Durham city on 10th July. Here’s Vicky on a non red ladder style showing her usual initiative!
Always a pleasure to assemble my team of demi-paradise associates for roleplays on behalf of Lancs Fire & Rescue Service, which we do on a regular basis. Here are five of my good friends during a break in proceedings at Chorley HQ. (left to right) Helen Longworth, Orla Cottingham, Julia Rounthwaite, Ian Blower & Murray Taylor.
Wednesday 26th June was a full on cultural day. Over the Pennines via beautiful Summertime wilds of Weardale & Teesdale to the vibrant market town of Barnards Castle. The extraordinary Bowes Museum – a 19th century french chateau housing a rich art collection – was the venue for a major visiting exhibition. A choice pick of the most influential prints of David Hockney – both engravings and lithographs. Here’s one of my favourites – ‘Rain’ – from the weather series of the early 70’s. Wonderful testament to his mastery of craft and brilliance of invention. Also took in Shafts of Light, an impressive body of art work chronicling all aspects of coal mining & coal miners in the north from the 18th century onwards. Very moving it was too. Reminded me of my time at Durham Theatre Company, when we toured the region a specially commissioned play ‘Big Meeting Day’ from John Selznick, set at the Durham Miners Gala in 1956. Back in Hexham that evening to attend a presentation in the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre by Theatre Sans Frontieres. The company has been operating out of the town for some years now and are in desperate need of a permanent base for their work – touring classic drama from the world repertoire in the original language to theatres, arts centres, schools, youth clubs and other venues in this country & abroad. They have basic funding in place and are now on to the next stage. Their architects have a blueprint for the conversion of derelict Victorian buildings at Hexham railway station, housing a theatre, rehearsal space, cafe, exhibition and storage area. Here’s power to their collective elbows! A quality company with a realisable vision that will enhance & enrich the architectural heritage and cultural profile of Hexham, as well as the region at large.
To Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake to see Brendan Murray’s play Seeing The Lights in the studio, in company with my friend Steve Longstaffe (reviewing for What’s On Stage). The play has been through a development process with the theatre and its themes of caring and family politics are handled with lots of humour, wit and insight. No hiding place in such an intimate traverse setting as the studio and at times the power was lost through lack of subtlety and nuance. The second half restored the balance and the last scene had many of us in tears. A thought provoking new play which hit home through laughter and pathos. Great ensemble well directed by Stephan Escreet. Bonus for me was to have time afterwards in the deserted bar with my old friend & DP associate Chris Hannon as well as Dukes Theatre regular James Duke. Both seen here (with Laura Cox) in a scene from the play. It runs in rep to Nov. 7th. Catch it if you can.
A creative awayday on Sunday 29th, courtesy of Vicky Brazier in Manchester who hosted a cohort of demi-paradise acssociates and friends for a playreading organised by C P Hallam followed by a social. Perkin Warbeck was John Ford’s late chronicle play of the Wars of the Roses, intriguingly subtitled ‘A Strange Truth’. (1634). A very interesting drama, with a finely wrought personal tragedy at its core, which sympathetically edited and staged has great potential for a contemporary revival. Chris assembled his friends in the north to give it a preliminary read which our director found very useful. He can now go forward with another more formalised readthrough at the Cockpit Theatre in London. What fun to be back reading a range of classic roles amongst such a lovely impromptu company of actor friends!
MAY The pull of home – the place I grew up in ’til age 18 – is always strongest in late Spring and this time around I gave in to it, aided and abetted by partner Kim. Our holiday a much anticipated treat after putting on a string of productions at the castle. As ever old friends in Devon, Gwent & Gloucestershire proved the most wonderful of hosts. The big difference this time was that we drove on further west into Cornwall – truly another country – the place of my birth. A return visit to Lanhydrock. (Just missed playing here in Young National Trust Theatre days by a season). It evokes great atmosphere, both inside the Jacobean cum Victorian mansion and outside in beautifully interlinked and graceful gardens. The latter now enhanced with magnolia on pergolas and newly greened woodlands swathed with carpets of bluebells.
Our first ever visit to The Eden Project – hosted by my old schoolfriend & former ‘pollinator’ at the site Dave Saunders seen here (R) with his old mate in mayhem and Cornwall’s very own master storyteller, Dave Webb….A joy to watch him at work in the temperate zone. Another first was The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Both attractions are truly extraordinary achievements, reclaiming and re-inventing the past for the 21st century. And we are all the richer for it. Here’s the star of the show at Eden the day we visited – our world’s biggest flower, the Titan Arum, grown from seed on site.
Eden’s style of informing, educating & entertaining reminded me of a brilliantly succinct cartoon story of ‘The Politics of Food’ I found in a copy of ‘New Internationalist’ in 1977. A revelation, I used it as a basis for a middle school project initiated and researched when a member of Leeds Playhouse Theatre in Education company. The project we collectively devised was a big success, revised many times, which opened an educational engagement drawing young minds into an exciting and thought provoking study which has hopefully stayed with them into adulthood. It leaves one with a sense of optimism to see yesterday’s minority interest radical messages embedded so positively at the heart of this popular main stream attraction today.
Heligan revealed itself more quietly than the showier Eden, the latter dramatically engineered out of a disused clay pit, the former a patient gradual restoration made famous by an accompanying TV series & book. You realise why this is the country’s most popular botanical garden as you inexorably fall under its spell. The extensive & varied gardens here are still worked by hand with the same number of staff as at the outbreak of WW1 a century since and are now self sufficient in funding with a secure future. One would never know they had been abandoned and reclaimed by nature before re-discovery and subsequent renovation from 1991 onward. I particularly loved the attention to detail and craft, from the Melon Yard with all the gardeners tools you could ever imagine in various specialist but essentially simple buildings; the intimate garden ‘rooms’ & the wonderful range of greenhouses with their beaver tail panes to aid water run off and thus reduce rot in the wooden frames.
We enjoyed some more cultural delights in Exeter en route to & from the Cornwall sojourn. (Am already a big fan of the Royal Albert Museum & that most hidden of hidden gems, St Nicholas Priory). The city’s comfortable independent Picturehouse on a grey weekday afternoon was the venue for a viewing of the newly released Calvary. Brendan Gleeson gives a masterclass in screen acting as a much put upon priest in the most disturbingly disfunctional of rural parishes. What is billed as a black comedy proved a powerful and uncompromising film drama that hits home with a vengeance. Extra resonance is had through being set against the brooding landscape & seashore of County Sligo made famous by WB Yeats’s poetry. I’m not quite sure what it will do for the tourist trade but it undoubtedly confirms the writer/director John Michael McDonagh as a force to be reckoned with. (Question remains tho’ … Who killed the dog?)
I first visited the Northcott Theatre during its opening season in 1967 on a school trip from Tavistock, to be fatally enraptured by Tony Church’s production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. My first real experience of professional theatre and it blew me away. How great to be back again for the first time since to experience English Touring Opera’s Paul Bunyan. This opera cum musical by Benjamin Britten with liberetto by W H Auden dates from the eve of the Second World War when the two men were in effective exile in America. A curious hybrid, complicated and overwritten, but an ultimately warm and moving work, with memorable songs, performed with skill & verve by a 23 strong ensemble of singers & chorus plus orchestra. Damian Lewis provided a superbly accomplished voice over as the legendary figure of the lumberjack philosopher, seamlessly fitting in with the action. Thanks to my dear friend Michael Gee for this treat. Not normally something I would have chosen to see. Amused me to realise that Michael, recently honoured with a B.E.M. for his part in reviving Devon’s mazzard & apple orchards, should be the apt link between these two productions.
Our cottage hideaway on the beautiful Roseland peninsula was a converted potting shed in the corner of a walled garden in a private country estate on the banks of the Fal river estuary . With the long distance coastal path on our doorstep we walked long stretches of it most days. Spectacular sights from all manner and size of passing vessels to nesting falcons & defensive bunkers on high cliffs, long sandbanks and deserted low tide beaches like this one, perfect for swimming. (Only by such immersion do I really feel at home). Via dense woods & steep pastures we discovered the ancient churches at St. Just & St. Anthony. Both enjoy sheltered settings with remarkably verdant graveyards to crown their glory. (The latter but yards from our cottage and always in view). Particularly loved this kneeler at St Just which made me smile.
Stopping over at Michael’s house at Landkey near Barnstaple we were introduced to neighbour Tom Martin’s prize winning collection of some 170+ cacti & succulents. Lovingly cared for day in day out in a specially adapted heated greenhouse this gentle and generous retired local stonemason has no doubt his single minded passion, taken up over 20 years ago after being diagnosed with serious illness, has given him a new lease of life. Tom regularly displays his fascinating range of plants nationwide and collaborates with other collectors who support him. In the spirit of ‘if you can’t beat ;’em, join ’em’, his long suffering wife has her own smaller collection, along with other plants, in a separate hothouse the other end of the garden!
Anyone who has called in at Tebay Farm Shop on the journey north or south on the M6 in Cumbria knows why it is always voted Britain’s best motorway service station. Let’s face it there isn’t much competition for the title. Maybe that’s why they are now competing with themselves in building another farm shop. This time on the M5 in Gloucestershire. We called in at the newly opened (and still unfinished) premises on our way back north and were relieved and excited to step into such an eco-friendly, thought through retail environment truly fit for and respectful of human beings. Loved the sedum roof & pond; the bright airy & calm interiors free of ugly intrusive advertising. They stock a wide range of fresh local (as well as Cumbrian) foods along with other quality non food goods at a price to compare with any of the big monopoly players. Good luck to all involved with this. Thank you for showing it can be done, & done well!
May Bank Holiday. No apologies for finishing on another gardening note this month. Despite wet weather and train delays I got myself to Arnside for the 20th annual Open Gardens Weekend (in aid of the NSPCC) at the invitation of Demi-paradise sponsor Steve Slater at Hyslops Office Supplies. Discovered four very different and all in their own way charming and inventive gardens as slowly wound my way via footpaths and leafy streets through the village. Finally I got to the Slater’s impressive Edwardian family home set below woods on the limestone ridge in time for tea and sandwiches at their impromptu cafe. A series of small interlinked gardens was revealed to me by my genial host. A quarter of a century spent creating them, virtually from scratch, has paid off handsomely. Particularly liked the way Steve has used sculptural forms to enhance and inform these various garden ‘rooms’. The circular rusting metal form is a remnant recycled from the Dukes production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at Williamson Park while the glass topped pyramid is a privately designed and commissioned piece for the bamboo garden, a chapel like reflective corner tucked artfully away, part of the moat like dell that fronts the property. What a wonderful afternoon, full of small pleasurable surprises, revealing England and the English at their best through their private passions.
The death of legendary American writer Maya Angelou this month was sad news. A truly outstanding figure who inspired millions through her work & the way she led her life. With the Hay Festival in full swing (‘The Glastonbury of the mind’) it put me to remembering that I was once one of a very small group of men among a very large group of women in a sell out big tent event at Hay who heard Dr Angelou speak a decade ago. As a former singer & actress she had a fabulous voice of great range & a wonderful rich laugh, both used to great effect in underpinning intellectual argument. This was perhaps the nearest I’ve been to experiencing a secular version of a religious revivalist meeting. All the women present clearly adored and were in awe of her. So much so, that at the end of her gracious visitation the audience were requested to stay in their seats until the distinguished guest had departed the festival grounds…Something akin, I thought at the time, to Elvis having left the building.
APRIL Helping Kim set up her exhibitions. The first at Tatton Park for opening at Easter through to September. Fourteen drawings on the wall and a long display cabinet full of stuff relating to the story making process from models & props to storyboards and proofs. Fabulous setting in the estate manager’s office in a quiet corner of the Victorian farm. (Amused to think that years back I had filmed here in this very room, playing a jeweller selling Nigel Terry’s Mister Boldwood a present for Bathsheba Everdene in a scene for the Granada TV version of Far From The Madding Crowd.) Last year’s featured artist was Beatrix Potter so Kim is in very good company. This show should attract many fans of the artist/writer’s work picture books for small children & create some new admirers from another generation in the process.
Queen’s Hall Art Centre – the venue for another showing of Kim & Cathy Duncan’s record of the demi-paradise production of Much Ado About Nothing. The friends, who share studio space at The Hearth Arts Centre Horsley, were our artists in residence. The exhibition runs to the end of May and is part of the Hexham Book Festival. This hanging of Drawing on Much Ado was enlivened by the presence of my grandchildren Thea (7) and Joe (10) who were spending a few days with us. The latter made some excellent suggestions on arrangements and helped with the set up, which was much appreciated.
On the subject of Much Ado, my old friend & colleague Helen Longworth & I enjoyed a night out as guests at the press night of the Royal Exchange’s latest take on the classic play. I have to say this Much Ado About Nothing was pretty much that. Incoherent, empty of meaning and a woefully wasted opportunity given the company’s wealth and resources. This wonderful theatre space has a habit of dressing up & passing off the second rate with first class disguises. Apart from wondering at the wrappings and a lovely final song it had little to commend it. My only consolation was that this show proved the demi-paradise production to be superior in every respect.
Daughter Stephanie (37) got married on Saturday 26th April to fiancee Andrew (43) at their parish church in Kew. A classic Routemaster bus took all 60 guests up to South Kensington for the reception at Imperial College’s town house & gardens in Queen’s Gate. A truly wonderful and very happy occasion – a rare chance for our family to be together in one place celebrating. I used the keyholding time for ‘Othello’ rehearsals to good effect in drafting (and re-drafting) my speech which went down very well on the day…
Never waste an opportunity to sample the culture when in the capital so this time the treats covered a discovery of exquisite & moving display of 19th century Japanese Boro fabrics in the east wing at Somerset House on the Friday with the revamped Sutton Hoo burial exhibition with other Saxon & medieval treasures at the British Museum on the Sunday, post wedding brunch, en route home via Euston. What quiet joy to take in such very different expressions of human ingenuity and craft skill – so close up and well interpreted.
MARCH Strangely enough passes in much the same way as previous two months! Some long days 10 – 12 midnight (guiding by day then keyholding/leading the audience at night). All the hard work that’s gone into this production of Othello has paid off and both critical & popular responses have put the company in an even better place. The actors have bonded in a particularly distinctive way under Louie’s benevolent dictatorship and by the end of the run were desperately sad to see an end to their creative and fun filled partnership. If only more engagements could give them such job satisfaction. Taking the show down was a long job but quietly satisfying in being efficient and comprehensively done. Lovely to have my youngest, Patrick there to help. Treated him to supper afterwards at The Merchants.
The undisputed technical genius in my and Kim’s lives is her son in law Simon Woodman. Newcastle University based Dr Woodman is the most genial, hard working and generous of men. The laptop he got for me a couple of years back accidentally crashed to the floor recently at the castle with fatal results. Simon got hold of another and rebuilt it for me. Thus getting me through this production let alone keeping pace with everything else we need personal computers for.
End of month and straight from end of Othello into prep and delivery of another forum theatre job for University of Southampton, booked by that truly wonderful trainer Fiona McPhail (Watmore McPhail Associates) to do an intense days work with fellow roleplayer and friend of 40 years standing, Roberta Kerr. Doing so many miles cross country has big advantages when you are sharing the driving with someone you get on with well – especially when you’re nose to tail in a jam resulting from motorway closure as we were on the way down. Good productive AM & PM sessions with HR and various support staff & academics exploring the subject of ‘Difficult Conversations’ utilising the GROW coaching model.
FEBRUARY Went the same way as January! Like a full time parent bird with a clutch of nestlings to feed. Insatiable demands on time, patience & ingenuity as we approach take off time. With a diet of at least one crisis a day (if I’m lucky) paired with many surprises and reliefs we finally get lift off on Tuesday 25th. The first audience for Othello – made up of family , friends and castle guiding staff – got us creatively airborne on an updraft of elation and relief. Luckily, in my role as audience host, there are spare places on this and the official guest night that follows so its a lot easier to everybody in and around the production’s nine separate playing spaces. The real test comes with our first full house of 60 on Friday 28th. Despite the odd potential disaster in the making I manage. Some stressful week though so happy and proud to know we have a huge creative hit here yet also glad to know Spring is coming and there will be an end to obsession and responsibility and I shall be released from it all – until the next time!
Kim has been invited to display some of her finely observed tree drawings at Lancaster’s Arteria shop & gallery this Spring. We go to the well attended evening opening and meet some very interesting people. Good reception for the work and purchases ensue, which makes everyone happy. Think displaying one of the larger framed works in the front window for a few weeks may have helped!
Having the odd day off is a real tonic. I introduce Kim to the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss and we enjoy a saunter through the reed beds and a spot of bird watching from the hides. On for tea and home made cakes at Wolf House cafe & gallery with a final amble down the promontory to enjoy this view from Lancashire’s highest sea cliffs at the NT preserved site of Jenny Brown’s Point. Morecambe Bay is famous for its sunsets and drinking this sublime view in, with no-one else around, you can see why those who know this place love it so.
JANUARY Where did it go?….A month dominated by preparation for the ensemble I’d slowly assembled over preceding months to meet as a body for the very first time on Friday 17th. The demi-paradise production of Othello is my cuckoo’s egg, so no room in the nest for much else for the time being. As tradition has it we met at The Merchants Cellar bar for complimentary drinks & buffet then walked up for the readthrough at the castle. The first of many firsts for this production followed – a development weekend, led by director Louie Ingham, concentrating on movement and text held at The Dukes Lancaster (where she is Associate Director) in the DT3 studio. Her friend and colleague, the hugely personable and quietly intelligent Richard Twyman proved an inspiration with his text workshop. Very fortunate to have the benefit of his skills as an ex RSC associate & current Royal Court associate. What a fantastically talented and motivated company – cast & creatives – starting out on one big shared adventure. The ninth promenade Shakespeare I’ve put together for our extraordinary venue. The first production leg completed it’s time for me to move into full support role; keyholding, co-ordinating, dealing with marketing and publicity and generally trouble shooting. Tickets went on sale from Monday 27th January. The usual surge of buying with the weekend ones in especial demand. For a week by week blog & pictures + ticket availability visit the company website….It’s all there! www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk