DECEMBER The year speeding up ferociously towards its ending. Likewise the wind and rain. Am away in Northumberland when floods, electrical blackout, road and bridge closures hit Lancaster. Make it over the Pennines in the bad weather then immediately into town to see The Unthanks and supporting artists at a packed all pews taken Hexham Abbey. A fundraiser for this wonderfully atmospheric building at the town’s historic heart. The wind even here rattling the rooftops but not distracting us from a lovely evening of singing from Northumberland’s very own favourite duo, celebrating the sisters’ ten years of professional togetherness, Rachel & Becky at their essential best early in the set , just their amazing harmonies, before joined by the rest of their 10 superb musician friends. ….Particularly loved their rendition of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding.’
‘Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly’. Bekah Sloan compiled, directed and appeared in this our 16th annual concert. for the first time we had a theme for the whole programme. marking 70 years since the end of World War II. Wartime favourites reborn and some little known pieces made for a subtle and varied entertainment in Lancaster Castle’s Shire Hall over three nights. In the company this year, alongside our old friends of the choir ‘Five in a Bar’ were Matthew Connell, Elisa Cowley, David Findlay & Helen Longworth. Numbers were down on the first night but near sold out thereafter. Lots of very positive comments from the audience leaving. Loved the flyers and programmes from Bekah’s husband Adam Emmott that really carried the theme through nicely. The talented lad also acted as our Stage Manager and the incidental pre-show music was a hit parade of wartime songs to set the mood. despite a rehearsal cancelled due to the castle being closed due to rain ingress and a last night which suffered from the same we pulled off another lovely show in the great tradition and our happy talented company did themselves proud!
For the last three years The Dukes has been staging its Christmas show in the studio, which pleases me greatly. Love the theatrical intimacy & resourcefullness that all productions have displayed and see them as the perfect vehicle to getting more children and families into the professional theatre going habit. The only pity is that neither Kim or I had any of our respective grandchildren with us the night we went to see Beauty and the Beast. Lovely to witness old friends, D-P colleagues & ex TAG members Victoria Brazier & Gareth Cassidy in action. Gareth’s physicality as Beast a particular joy. Lovely too to meet up with them, along with Polly Lister, Helen Longworth & friends afterwards for much convivial conversation & pre-Christmas cheer in the Dukes bar!
NOVEMBER I confess to not always liking Northern Broadsides productions. Delighted then to give full endorsement to the current touring production of The Winters Tale, directed by and featuring Conrad Nelson as Leontes. It’s a game of two halves alright, with a 16 year separation. Late experimental Shakespeare demands more of its audience and its actors and the company here acquitted itself well. The heart of the matter being the sort of thing the ensemble excel at combining music, dance, singing and verse. Absolutely nailed it in the second half rustic comic scenes. Old associate Mike Hugo a near genius in his freewheeling technically needle sharp performance as the lovable rogue Autocylus. Big bonus for me was having cast member Andy Cryer lodging with me for the week of the run at the Dukes. seeing the show and socialising afterwards with the company in the Theatre bar and then next door at the Golden Lion until the early hours!
Friday 20th. VARC in the City opening night event in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with Kim Lewis & Sara Woodman. VARC standing for Visual Art in Rural Communities. Based at the private High Green estate in a remote corner of Northumberland in the north Tyne valley. The country’s only full time paid rural residency for visual artists. Here was a tiny selection of their hugely varied and richly imagined work created during their year long residency along with artists (Kim included) who have worked there on one off projects since it started in 2001. Lovely early evening gathering on the 15th floor of a 70’s office building in the city centre now abandoned by business and given over to arts & creative industry occupancies. We were wonderfully alternately entertained by a jazz band & a fine folk singer/guitarist while a pay bar and views out over the cityscape at night helped set the mood too!
OCTOBERThe good weather continues. On Sunday 4th I set sail south on a Trades Council chartered coach (1 of 2) for the TUC organised anti-austerity rally & march in Manchester. An official estimate of 60,000 protesters is unofficially more like 80,000. All passes off peacefully with the odd incident on the ‘front line’ where delegates attending the Conservative part conference at G-Mex in the city centre were jostled and verbally abused. Our Equity delegation, pursuing a use it or lose it support the BBC theme, joined the slow slow procession – banners waving, placards aplenty, cheers & jeers at each stage. We encircled the huge ‘Ring of Steel’ put up by the police to protect the conference quarter. Hundreds of yellow jacketed officers lining the march and (we learnt later) snipers on the rooftops. Great atmosphere of solidarity, good humour, and lots of human interest moments & frissons of passion to enliven matters. Loved the dreamlike feeling of walking down the middle of what are otherwise traffic choked streets under high buildings flowing along with a mass of strangers all akin to you in your common cause of making overlooked voices heard. Good to meet up with old friends in the business like Mark & Sue Mac, Vicky Brazier (her first demo) and Sarah T back up from London…and to catch up with fellow performers I see little of these days like Christine Mackie. Made a few new friends too of travelling companions on the coach and other Equity members. A different kind of Sunday and one that made me happy to be an active citizen and trades unionist opposing things that need opposing and finding myself not alone in doing so…
Shepherds Dene, Riding Mill, Sunday 25th October. Linda France is an awarding winning poet who has had seven volumes of poetry published. A very fine writer and a pleasure to know through her long association with Kim. I welcomed the chance to collaborate on a project like this that complimented Kim & the other artists work on display as part of a residency. We met twice to discuss, select and edit a choice of verse and prose on the theme of the gardening year. We read them here in the dining room of this large and comfortable Edwardian house in the Tyne valley, used as a retreat and study centre by the diocese of Newcastle. After a lovely supper with wine some twenty five paying diners – most of them friends and acquaintances – heard us read our selection for some 35 minutes. A lovely, fun thing to do with rich and diverse material, played out in a warm and supportive setting…. An idyllic way to one’s practice one’s craft with a fellow artist and make other people happy in the process!
SEPTEMBER Brilliant weather by and large. Lots of overtime at the castle and slogging away at preparing ACE Grants for the Arts application for our 2016 Shakespeare in company of seasoned filler in of such forms, my director Joyce Branagh. There was some quality escape time however. Kim & I drive to Mac to pick up Kim’s picture book exhibition from bibliophile heaven of Penrallt. Delightful edge of town walk as the sun set with our ever genial hosts Geoff & Diane. Thrilled to discover they are now engaged! Back over in Northumberland have two delightful meetings with poet Linda France. We are putting a programme together on the subject of gardens and gardening for an after dinner reading in October at Shepherd’s Dean to accompany Kim’s time there as artist in residence. Love working with someone as thoughtful, honest and talented a writer as lovely Linda. We finish the month in the company of Paul & Monica Mellor. We host them for the first time at Leadgate and they are the most perfect of guests; lively and gifted lifters of spirits. Saturday we popped over the hill to see K’s exhibition, now lodged in the beautifully curated award nominated Bellingham Heritage Centre on the site of the old railway station, followed by delicious home made tea & cakes in the charming Carriages Tea Rooms. Next day we enjoyed a sun drenched afternoon at Wallington, one of my favourite NT properties. A calm and content atmosphere only added to through the WW2 theme weekend. Many immaculately restored and preserved period vehicles & weapons on display, plus fab singing from The Lancashire Belle, with games and exhibitions inside the house too…A perfect Indian summer Sunday at the socialist Trevelyan family Georgian mansion in the heart of the rolling countryside! Highlight for me was being invited to step over the protecting rope to sit behind & get hands on with the wartime Bren Gun on display. Very moved by this as my late father, Harold Allen, served in the 6th Airborne Regiment. The Red Berets fought the German Winter counter-offensive in the Ardennes campaign, firing one of these machine guns. Told all paratroopers carried clips of ammo for the machine gunner when they dropped. A gun so reliable it was kept in active service until the 1980’s… My first trip on a ferry across the Tyne. North Shields to South Shields. More lovely weather, which is just as well as we are off to greet Kim’s daughter Sara taking part for the first time in The Great North Run (along with 57,000 others) at the finish point at the river’s mouth. Just before joining the happy milling throng at journey’s end we enjoy a peaceful clifftop picnic lunch watching a container ship slide serenely, floating impossibly high in the calm blue waters, into the embrace of a pair of tugs to be escorted up river to the docks by the pilot. Eventually met up with an exhausted but happy Sara and make our way through a new experience for me – the huge race’s ‘Charity Village’ – tented booths in rows with logo banners flying like a medieval lists – representing all the good causes these thousands of folk have been raising money for in pounding the streets of Tyneside. Above us the Red Arrows had helped pass the time as we’d waited for the runners to come in, their immaculately executed offshore aerobatic antics a joy to behold. An long wait for the ferry back but so orderly and calm the line and happy the people it seemed no hardship on this fine weekend.
AUGUST Kim & I take a day trip to Durham with Bridget & Rob Jones. The late morning spent at the DLI Museum & Gallery seeing an eye opener of a show on a C20th English artist we knew nothing about, John Tunnard. He forged a passionate abstract surrealist style born out of a traditional love of the Cornish countryside where he lived and taught one remove from the art movements that took root there in his day, which may explain why he has a low public profile today. A pity, as he was clearly a fine free wheeling artist who embraced the spirit of the age in his work. He was also apparently an ace jazz drummer and a dedicated and able WW11 Coastguard. In the wake of our visit there in May I particularly loved the work inspired by the Lizard Peninsula where as a conscientious objector he did wartime service. Goonhilly Downs early warning station, night skies, seascapes and birds…fabulous stuff to feed his vivid artistic imagination. Suitably inspired we set off on foot down into town. Simple lunch in the C17th Dun Cow…Pie and a pint enjoyed in the Snug of this old fashioned unpretentious and friendly local pub. Back into the old town for impromptu raid on the well stocked Oxfam bookshop where I discovered a 1960’s John Murray edition, complete with cover, of the Sherlock Holmes long stories to complete my set of two volumes! We then head off uphill in the pouring rain to visit Durham Castle. Having been based here with Durham Theatre Company in the ’80s and coming again a few years ago for the autumn festival of light I was keen to do what I didn’t do then and get to know the unexplored parts of this UNESCO World Heritage site. We were not disappointed. Our excellent guided tour started with the awesome delights of the intimate early Norman chapel with its symbolic animal and plant engravings. In contrast we then ascended to sit in Bishop Tunstall’s reformation chapel and observe the portrait of this Lancashire born cleric and hear about the delicate path he trod in Tudor politics. On to see the highly decorated Norman entrance to the original fortress, now marooned in a later corridor at the end of which was a huge C17th Restoration oak staircase, drunkenly distorted under its own massive weight. Finished up in the huge medieval great hall where the all powerful Prince Bishops held court, presiding over enormous feasts for visiting kings and other dignitaries and where the university’s students still dine and entertain today…albeit on a less ambitious scale and to a more democratic model! Sat 22nd. Daughter Esme, son in law Stuart & grandchildren Joe & Thea returned this month from their year in France. Kim & I met them for lunch at Grizedale Visitor Centre in the Lake District. The CWEM Atkins 2015 Environmental Photographer of the Year exhibition is fabulous one, drawing on all our human emotions. We were intrigued and moved by the superb selection on show here. Esme had been awarded the Forestry Commission prize and her separate body of work was on display in the grounds outside. ‘Eden Restored’ is her portfolio on the Marsh Arabs of the Tigris Euphrates estuary. Their ruined habitat was restored in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein who had previously systematically attempted to drain the marshlands and exterminate the native population. Esme documented the process for the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, partners in the international programme to help restore this priceless natural habitat and support the unique way of life of its people, now back from internal exile. Edinburgh in a day. We love Park & Ride (Craigmillar/Waverley). Our Festival goodies this time kicked off with the major Jeanne-Etienne Liotard exhibition at the National Gallery. Another lost master of C18th art re-discovered. Great insight and technical skill combined in a personality that hid sharp insights inside the hide of a showman. Didn’t know pastels could achieve such incredible results. Uncrowded, intimate, entrancing….The show moves to the RA in London in October after closing here mid September. Seriously flavoursome fried brunch at The Gardener’s Cottage to help fuel our cultural progress. Intimate dining on trestle tables next the cramped open kitchen at the heart of the Georgian lodge house complete with front vegetable garden off London Road. Fab freshly cooked hearty lunch in great surroundings. (Thank you Esme for the tip and Jay Rayner for the write up). We love the tapestry galleries at the Dovecot Art Centre. ‘Aggregations’: Korean artist Kwan Young Chun’s fascinating patterned and textured abstracts are made of countless small wrapped parcels in variously coloured mulberry papers stitched together. The Bernat Klein retrospective ‘A Life in Colour’ a delight too. Joyful fusion of fashion fabrics, introducing mohair to tweed, woven at the Dovecot studios in the late C20th for the Galashiels based designer & industrialist who died last year. Both exhibitions run until 26th September. On through the crowds to The Pleasance’s Jack Dome to meet up with Vicky Brazier & Ella Kelly to witness our uber talented friends at Pipeline Theatre entertain a packed studio audience with Jon Welch’s new play Spillikin – A Love Story. Brilliantly written with performances to match from the actors AND the robot! An original and risky concept which proved moving, funny and clever to win our hearts and minds…All a great fringe show should be and I hope it leads to further success for all involved. A quick congrats to Jon on the control desk and we were away to our final cultural destination, Edinburgh Playhouse and the double bill from Ballet Zurich as part of the main festival. Shakespeare’s Sonnets nos 20, 144, 147 & 66 got a makeover here in French (with English surtitles) weaving text, movement and art together in an intriguing and amusing way. The real power though lain in the main first half performance. A reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter, choreographed by Wayne McGregor Kairos was truly breathtaking in marrying passion and precision with dancers of Olympian prowess merging and shapeshifting to enthrall and delight. Absolutely beautiful, inspiring and about near perfect. (Thanks to Kim for this, she’s the dance fan and consequently I’m becoming one too!) Train back out to the P&R then easy drive back across the border via Carter Bar which in itself is something of a performance; a twisting empty road, wide open hills with a cloud racing night sky lit by a full moon! JULY Off to the country home for a long weekend. Sunday afternoon in the Great North Museum with Kim at this year’s TEDX. Wide range of 15 minute talks, with a mathematical bias this time around. Two most interesting speakers for me were Dannie-Lu Carr & Pam Warhurst. The former is an actor/director/producer, originally from Newcastle, looking to put craft back into art and time for real discovery and development with an end to ‘hypercycling’. We are now at the tweeting stage of our professional relationship and I hope she can visit us at the castle one day….Be good to do a comparing notes session on the creative process. Pam Warhurst should be renamed Pam War Horse! What a force of – and for – nature. One of the remarkable ginger group that took matters in their own hands 8 years ago to transform their home town of Todmorden into the’ incredible edible’ example of a grass roots revived community it is today. Passionate, clear, totally engaging address that Pam earned the longest & warmest round of applause from the mainly young, mainly academic audience. (I was the only one standing) Great stuff, marrying head and heart and an example to us all to get out there and do something! Saw DVD at home of the 2014 independent British feature ’71 a film by Yann Demange, starring Jack O’Connell as a squaddie who gets separated from his patrol in war torn Belfast and hurled into a nightmare odyssey of survival through the divided communities. A fantastic, hugely satisfying thriller by Black Watch scriptwriter Gregory Burke. Fantastic central performance and support from a very strong cast. A British film that delivers the goods and leaves you with indelible images of a cruel conflict, portrayed with sharpness and compassion. Put me in mind of another breakthrough drama set in similar territory, the 1982 TV series Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour that broke new ground for film drama in its day. I played a small but nice role in one episode as an army officer leading a patrol attempting to rescue undercover agent Harry. Like ’71 the filming took place not where it was set in Belfast but, ironically, in abandonedterraced streets & high rise flats of northern English towns….Leeds for YTV’s Harry’s Game, Blackburn, Liverpool & Sheffield for ’71. A walk in Ribblesdale on a rare day off. Stainforth & the sublime wooded enclave of Catrigg floss falls. On & over commons with superb views then down the walled tracks to Lower Winskill. The farmer was raking hay into mounds as we approached the farm buildings. The meadows here, we later discovered, have been preserved and carefully husbanded in recent years. They are traditionally managed and are subsequently super rich in diverse plantlife and alive with all sorts of winged insects. We spotted Ringlets, Meadow Browns & Northern Brown Argus butterflies and what looked like a small black butterfly, in fact the northern sweeper moth. This dairy & sheep farm is tucked into a sheltering fold on a long limestone ridge, and a wonderful reminder of a past age rich in natural diversity. The large barns here it turns out are home to sculptors whose fine work is displayed in the yard and fields, adding to the joy and harmony of art with farming and nature. Truly a life enhancing place and a wonderful enterprise. Find out more at www.lowerwinskill.co.uk A visit to Wall village fete last weekend yielded unexpected treasure. Discovered In a pile of books in the church hall was a good condition, jacket still on, Sherlock Holmes short story collection, published by John Murray in 1963. Joy of joys! I had received this very edition as a school prize for attainment aged 12 in 1964. My original long time coverless copy is now spineless and disintegrating after years of reading and re-reading. Hold a particular fondness for ‘The Sussex Vampire’ as I appeared as the village PC in the Jeremy Brett GTV series back in the 1980’s. My favourite is probably ‘Silver Blaze’ as it is set in riding stables at Sampford Spinney, the neighbouring village on Dartmoor to where I grew up. (This is the tale which gave rise to the title to Mark Haddon’s famous novel now a play ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’) Blissful couple of days when daughter Stephanie rode the rails north from London on first journey out of town with my latest grandchild Max, now 4 months ago. and a fine little fellow he is to! We took the train to Morecambe to pay homage (like everyone else) to Eric of that ilk, take a stroll along the poetry path and the stone jetty with its wealth of robust and playful public art (part of the Tern Project, mixing art with coastal erosion protection) before having lunch at the famous Midland Hotel. Beautifully restored, having been rescued from ruin by Urban Splash in the late 90’s, this iconic art deco landmark boasts superb large scale reliefs by Eric Gill and a terrific sweeping stairwell not to mention superb views from the terrace restaurant over Morecambe Bay. It also has exuberant and sympathetic murals, painted in the style of the lost Eric Ravilious originals, which grace the Rotunda Bar where we ate. JUNE The re-appearance of the sun after weeks of dull to poor weather is welcome and everywhere looks brighter as a result. Walking around Lancaster the outstanding addition to the urban environment have been the series of ‘History Markers’ erected by the council. Tall four sided blocks packed with concise, often quirky histories about their location combined with simple waymarkers and attractive easy to read maps of the city centre. Another welcome sign of Lancaster acknowledging and investing in its past to help secure a brighter future. A positive step in the right direction, these information points are a boon for locals and visitors alike. From public to private markers. Inspired in part by seeing the sculptural forms that grace my friend Steve Slater’s garden at Arnside (See May 2014 entry) I asked him to keep an eye open for a piece of old timber for me. This he did and sourced an oak beam salvaged from an old demolished barn. At last I had the perfect gift for Kim’s birthday and, by default, for the garden at Leadgate. Gave the 5 foot long piece a soaking in solution to combat the woodworm along one face followed by three coats of wood preserver. We then chose the right place to put it and hey presto…it looks like its always been there! It’s a depressing experience to visit a garden centre, however good it may be, to find the the most limited and uninspiring and too often tacky range of ornaments or sculptures. How much more interesting and special to find your own. Better still, to inspire and help others to find the thing that suits them best too! Earlier this year we stumbled upon the Delamore estate outside the village of Cornwood on Dartmoor’s southern edge. The family’s exuberent month long art fair in the house and grounds was an unexpected delight. We bought a playful piece of rusted steel umbilifer which now stands, gently swaying by the porch next these delicious black tulips that have survived and thrived in our difficult climate. They seem to make perfect companions… Another fun way to induce and bed sculpture into the garden. Aberystwyth on Thursday 18th. Nothing beats a day at the traditional British Seaside resort. Met up here with son Tom, his residential keyworker Sam and introduced to Andrea, who she’s handing over to soon. A long amble along the prom under the flags of the world flapping in the warm breeze. Fish & chip lunch on a bench by the toddlers pool near the pier, a ride on the cliffside funicular railway, taking in the view over the wide sweep of bay from the north west to south west of Wales, honey flavoured ice creams on the way back to the monument & ruined castle by the harbour. After we said goodbye to our happy companions, Kim & I popped into the University Arts Centre to take in the fabulous wildlife photography exhibition currently on show. Handed over Kim’s material in Machynlleth to Diane & Geoff at Penrallt en route to Aber. On our return we found they had hung and arranged it all in the shop & gallery…and it looks absolutely splendid! They are an amazing partnership: lovers and restorers of books, sourcing by train & bus, living above the shop. One of the UK’s 900 + independent booksellers. They also host live events – readings, launches, workshops etc. Part of the town’s ever growing cultural and social renaissance. Kim’s exhibition marks 25 years since publication of her first picture book The Shepherd Boy. 13 original framed coloured drawings plus models, storyboards, background material…and editions in Welsh! The exhibition runs to 16 September. Open: Sat 10-4.30. Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri 10 – 6. Ring 01654-700559 or e.mail email@example.com Lovely social evening with old friends Mick North & Grace Kirby at their home in north Cumbria en route back from Wales. Mick’s a man of many talents and A1 chef is one of them. He’s no mean shakes as a literary editor and festival organiser too. I first knew him in Lancaster (his home town) when he ran the city’s Litfest. Heady days of proper funding and a high division status saw the annual event attracting some big names on a regular basis. John Angus (who went on to manage The Storey Gallery for many years) produced some memorably distinctive posters for the organisation and here Mick & I are looking at the 1986 one. The writers have added their monickers under names on the bill…Ah, happy days! To Salford Arts Theatre on Wednesday 24th. a new venue on me, with friend Philip Martin to see his play East of Heysham in performance. This black box has end on staging with raked auditorium. Apparently not such an atmospheric setting as the more intimate one at 3MT in Manchester city centre where it premiered last week, but an enjoyable enough entertainment nevertheless with some lovely moving, funny moments. Despite (or because of) being surrounded by a high metal security fence this unassuming but welcoming little theatre has a friendly bar with good relaxed atmosphere. Enjoyed socialising with Philip’s convivial & happy production team, post performance. Cat Smith, the newly elected Labour MP for Lancaster & Fleetwood was the guest speaker at this month’s Equity North Lancashire & Cumbria branch meeting, held upstairs at the Robert Gillow pub on Sunday 28th. Small turnout unfortunately but lots of opportunity for the stalwarts present to talk individually to our parliamentary representative who showed a genuine interest in the diversity of our work and employment problems. Cat’s joining the all party group in the house dealing with entertainment and matters cultural and wanted first hand briefing from the grass roots arts workers in her north Lancashire constituency, which is what she got! A good listener and an unpretentious, empathetic presence…Maybe something to do with her having a professional musician for a father. In any case it must be a first for us all I think to have such a positive pro-active engagement with an elected MP who understands and acknowledges the importance of live entertainment and culture in our society and how we can preserve, encourage & protect it. MAY Demi-paradise presented an extract from Shakespeare’s Richard II for HM The Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, when she visited Lancaster Castle on Friday 29th. I had been commissioned earlier this year by Lord Shuttleworth, Lancashire’s Lord Lieutenant, to make a presentation for HM Queen’s visit on 29th May. I made an on site presentation to her private secretary & executives of the duchy, walking the scene through, playing both York & Lancaster (!) Was then asked to shorten the earlier part of the extract and give context by way of a brief spoken introduction. In assembling the project team intuitive casting lead me to offer George Telfer John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. This was, in part, because he’s a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce who nearly took the castle from an earlier Duke of Lancaster and I liked the historical connectivity. I also knew he’d really enjoy and rise to the challenge. Essential sterling support was lent by my old friend, Shakespeare buff & former co-op colleague Robert Garrett as Edmund, duke of York. Fi Carrington is another old friend and highly valued colleague and she did us proud with costume design & hire, fittings, further amendments repair and dressing on the day. We fixed a total of four rehearsals prior (Read through/site visit, formal rehearsal for everyone taking part, then two costume fittings & rehearsal in final week). On the day itself we faced spasmodic heavy showers; sharing our impromptu dressing room spacious abandoned prison gym with an excited greeting party of cubs and brownies seeking shelter whilst waiting the arrival. Then there were last minute sweeps by overhead police helicopters and suddenly she was out there… a diminutive figure with a see through umbrella entering the yard followed by all manner of suits, dresses and uniforms. By a small miracle it stopped raining just as I started our presentation. The boys were in fine form. George, not surprisingly, raised a laugh with his ‘…sudden storms are short’ line, as we knew it would. (Also featured on the local BBC TV news that evening). Had brief chat afterwards with HM when presented by Mark Hudson, Chair of the Duchy Council, about the company and its work. The Queen showed appreciation of what she’d witnessed and we all agreed her extraordinary historic building was the perfect setting for Shakespeare! ‘This little world’. At the start of the day our mini- team ‘we few, we happy few’ had to show invites & photo ID at the back door (i.e. Shire Hall entrance), where our friendly duchy associate, Chris Adcock, was on duty. He led us through the corridors, a cheery police officer on duty every turn and twist of the way, to the airport scanning set up in the old prison laundry. Then we were through and in, relieved and secure within the castle walls – ‘this seat of Mars’ – among the official guests, having coffee & biscuits in the cafe. Apparently there were thousands of people out there on the streets and castle precincts to greet Her Majesty en route from the station but apart from the echo of occasional ragged cheers that went up we, ensconsed in the Norman Keep by this time, were wrapped in silence until the royal party were upon us… Thinking about it all later…Lancaster Castle for one exceptional morning had stopped being a tourist attraction. The ancient building, secured by police and military, had naturally reverted to its original function as a ruler’s safe haven. Before those huge castle gates had closed on Thursday evening a smooth professional operation, unseen by the public, had facilitated the transformation. The event itself was the usual complex social interaction. Both public and private, excluding and including, giving and receiving, layered with symbolism, remembered with humour and anecdote…In essence as it always was and always will be when the most powerful & famous of folk come to visit. 4 – 18 May Nothing for me beats an English Spring when at home in the west country, so two weeks holiday in Devon & Cornwall were a long anticipated treat. Cultural highlights this time around included our first visit to Falmouth. The well designed National Maritime Museum on the quayside was impressive…especially seeing mullet swimming outside through the basement viewing area! We also loved Falmouth’s inspirational, imaginative popular Art Gallery. The day we visited babies were busy in one room painting themselves (with help from parents), while the walls displayed detective writer Francis Fyfield’s eclectic collection of art works, all bearing cryptic messages inviting us to explore the characters and scenes depicted as part of a murder mystery…So general fun and frolics all round! A trip round Pendennis Head and the surprise views over Pendennis Shipyards – still thriving as a repair yard as well as building the world’s super yachts. A sublimely relaxing 20 minute ferry journey to immaculately cared for St Mawes and a harbourside stroll to the Tudor fort built for Henry V111 as part of his coastal defences. We gained access and insight into a military mind. A light enhanced concentric building, beautifully preserved and interpreted by English Heritage, bristling with fire power with all angles covered (literally). Highly recommended, for the views if nothing else over Carrick Roads, one of the finest natural deep water harbours to be found anywhere in Europe. Other cultural highlights on this extended progress included – in no particular order – wandering into the Church of the Storms on the Lizard where we were entranced by a trio of young local musicians recording a song in the nave; Walking the ancient oak lined banks of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ on the Helford River; discovering the story of Marconi’s transmitter (& monument) at wild Poldu Cove: Stone cirles and lych gates at Sheeps tor, Meeting Maurois the French potter long settled at Trecarne who told us about Polurrian cove and how to walk there so we could brave the surf at high tide and sunbathe; the surprise of Delamore estate’s open air sculpture at Cornwood on Dartmoor; walking the riverbanks at Dartington with old friends; coffee, cakes and chat at the very cool gallery gardens and orchards that constitute the former farm complex of Kestle Barton above Helford; the high views of the coast and down the deep steep valleys on Exmoor with the swim in the river at Heddon’s Mouth and the mystery of the unknown plant; the reclaimed legacy of the Godolphin family and their estate ‘tween Lizard and Lands End, courtesy of the National Trust; Glendurgan Gardens with maze, beach and masses of bluebells. And our fabulous like minded convivial hosts where we spent the week in secluded comfort at Gweek – Juliet & Jon Welch – who also run Pipeline Theatre Company while doing masses of other things in the community where they’ve made their family home … Yes, all of this and much more besides! APRIL Thurs 16th: I had recently cast and was now co-ordinating a team of roleplayers taking part in ‘Operation Psyche’ at Lancashire Fire & Rescue HQ Preston today. Seen here, left to right, Jennifer Birch, Julia Rounthwaite, Adrian Palmer & Murray Taylor (All members of TAG, The Actors Group). This major operation was a surprise simulation to test the organisation’s business plan in respect of emergency response procedures. Working with Family Liaison Officers from Lancashire Police, my team were roleplaying family members of firefighters killed in the course of tackling a major hotel fire in Blackpool, with activity taking place in real time throughout the day. Invaluable lessons were learned and our professional input warmly praised in the immediate de-brief for adding invaluable authenticity to the exercise. As performers we were really pleased to have done our bit to help our emergency services deal more effectively & compassionately with such difficult issues. Shocked and saddened to hear that Clandon Park has been badly damaged by fire. This 18th century mansion near Guildford, home of the Onslow family and now in the care of the National Trust has a special place in my affections. Back in the early ’80’s I performed in my first interactive show for the Young National Trust Theatre Company here. Our company of actor/musicians/dancers played twice daily to parties of school children round the house and grounds with our devised dramatic scenario set around class and race in Georgian England, based closely on the family’s own history. A dynamic hugely successful piece of work, groundbreaking at the time, bringing history to life for a wide range of young people from many different backgrounds. So, here’s hoping the old place can be restored despite the severe damage caused. Hexham Book Festival as full of goodies as ever. Patrick Gale, in conversation on the main stage, gave an engaging and revealing talk on his latest novel set in Canada in the early years of the 20th Century. ‘A Place Called Winter’ is a tale of awareness and redemption inspired by his investigation into his own hidden family history. The real highlight for us though was Andrew Graham Dixon‘s illustrated lecture on ‘Carravagio: A Life Sacred & Profane’. Published in hardback in 2010, this book was the product of a decade’s research into the artist’s extraordinary life – unparalleled and deeply dramatic, even by the standards of his age. An awesomely knowledgeable critic and experienced presenter A G-D kept a packed house in the Queen’s Hall enthralled for over 90′ – longer than billed after we collectively opted for more talk and no questions! Kim bought the paperback for my birthday afterwards and as our genial and handsome entertainer signed the copy I thanked him warmly for the gift of communicating so well in bringing his subject so vividly to life. A brief chat and we were away into the freezing night. To add to the sense of drama we drove home along deserted country lanes in a snowstorm! MARCH Monday 9th: On this day 100 years ago my grandfather William Tomlin – A Private in the Essex Regiment since 1908 – was honourably discharged from the British Army as the result of wounds sustained in combat during one of the opening battles of World War One. (His back story is told in the August 2014 blog). This elaborate certificate hangs on my living room wall today in his memory. Tuesday 10th: a stimulating day in the sublime setting of Theatre by the Lake in Keswick attending three events in the main house, part of the annual Words by the Water festival of literature & ideas. We kicked off with former head of The Barbican Arts Centre & BBC World Service, John Tusa, in conversation with former theatre critic & board member David Ward. An urbane patrician & veteran of many political encounters he rather lost his powers of persuasion when pressed by questioners at the end about current careers for young people in the arts and regional funding for the arts compared to funding in London. Juliet Barkeris a Bradford born academic historian with great gifts in unearthing & communicating the fascinating lives of those ordinary people who combined to achieve extraordinary things in the great revolt that nearly toppled feudalism here in England in 1381. Years ago while still a student I thoroughly enjoyed being in the audience in Aldgate on the City of London’s edge to see a new play with music ‘Will Wat, if Not What Will’ at the old Half Moon Theatre. It turned me on to the remarkable events that are otherwise misleadingly labelled ‘The Peasants Revolt’. I brought this up by way of a question from the floor at the end of Ms Barker’s illuminating and engaging talk, asking what she felt was the legacy of this ground breaking if ultimately abortive exercise in democracy. She responded wonderfully, taking us on a connective path through the Reformation to Tom Paine, the Chartists and beyond. A neat end to a thoroughly enjoyable and well attended afternoon session. We finished our day in the assured company of the UK’s best known and most prolifically published linguist David Crystal, talking about the Oxford historical thesaurus and his newly published pocket guide to it (The original massive two volume work took 40 years to assemble, covering some 600, 000 words and was immediately outdated, unlike its on-line counterpart which can be constantly updated). Our practiced speaker really caught our attention when he opened a new front in response to a question from the audience about language in Shakespeare’s day. (The Bard seems to have invented some 300+) words we still use today). He told us that In response to a South Bank Globe Theatre commission in 2004 David and his actor son Ben researched & advised on what the plays originally sounded like. Principal source material lay in a book on grammar by playwright Ben Johnson. Example; love rhymes with prove, ‘R’ is rolled like a dog growling. Our speaker then read the first Chorus speech of ‘Henry V’ in both contemporary RP (Received pronunciation)and in OP (Original Pronunciation) which beautifully illustrated the case for the enraptured full house present. We could clearly identify elements of West Country, Lancashire, Midlands and more. All threads of English accents in the process of being woven into the web of the language we hear today, and of course still changing. In his OP delivery puns were new minted, rhymes clearly struck, rhythm accentuated, meaning altered…Great stuff! Thanks to recommendation of Martin Reeve, an old associate from BBC Radio drama, I landed a nice role as an engineering team leader in a neatly written training drama insert in a training film being made by North Wales based Beehive Coaching & Leadership Development on behalf of client Scottish & Southern Electricity. Along with two stalwart colleagues, Robert Garrett & Jon Morris, spent Friday 25th filming on site at the generator’s Fiddler’s Ferry Power Plant near Widnes on the Mersey estuary. The fab technical team & cheerful HR minder helped make the day long process painless. A tight cluster of figures in full PPE dwarfed by giant cooling towers, silos & chimneys at the heart of the loud ever humming plant. We watched flocks of grey pigeons circling in grey windswept skies above us and were grateful for the warmth the bright layered kit provided. Previous evening was spent getting to know each other over supper and line runs in a nearby Premier Inn/Brewer’s Fayre on the neighbouring business park off the M62. Doesn’t sound particularly promising but this was in fact one of the most enjoyable commercial filming jobs I’ve done in years, largely thanks to the skills & working ethos of the lovely Beehive production team and the supportive fun company of my fellow performers…More please! FEBRUARY A quite unexpected but perfect little job has come my way. A call from Voice-Overs UK for Devon & Cornwall Police Federation. (P.Cs trades union). With a general election imminent police forces all over the country are marshaling arguments against big cuts to their funding in order to raise public awareness. A series of videos has been made by TinkerTaylor TV & authentic regional voices were needed to put the message across for each county force. Ten minutes in the studio did the job. Hope they’re pleased with the end result. In an odd sort of way I was delighted to do it for them. A lovely thing to be re-united with some old friends this month whom I’d largely lost contact with over the last decade. Grace Kirby & I worked together in the nineties as actors turned drama lecturers for the former Cumbria College of Art & Design (now University of Cumbria). Grace’s partner is the poet, former Carlisle Arts Officer, essayist and literary editor of Fire Crane magazine Mick North. A native of Lancaster, who ran the city’s Litfest in the 1980’s, and a former neighbour at one time, we go way back. I bumped into them en route home on the London train before Christmas and resolved to meet up. Introduced them both to Kim and we had a lovely evening as guests at their lovely home in the country near Brampton (where Grace now teaches drama at William Howard school). Some interesting ideas have come out of our long and lively talks over supper and breakfast which will hopefully lead to future creative collaborations… Leaving Mick & Grace we took the handy train one stop Wetherall/Carlisle to catch the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at Tullie House. One of a nationwide ‘Artists Rooms’ series of shows put on by The Tate & National Galleries of Scotland who own the works displayed. Haunting, wide ranging collection of powerful images (especially the collages) from a leading German artist. Anyone into stage design might benefit from seeing the exhibition as Kiefer combines texture, perspective and tone with great dramatic resonance. A coup for the border city, the exhibition runs to 7th June. Kim had never been to Carlisle Cathedral before so we stopped off briefly to sample the handful of medieval architectural treasures preserved there. I cast a modern day miracle play for a colleague here once and have always been fond of the cathedral, England’s smallest after Oxford. Highlights include the beautiful star spangled ceiling, ornate choir stalls with perfectly preserved misericords & the 1515 Flemish altarpiece with its dramatic figures sculpted in high relief. How uplifting to hear Mark Rylance on Desert Island Discs. A hard working star who well deserves his recent fame. Thoughtful, playful, intelligent and witty he is an outstanding advocate of the craft & practice of good acting whilst also coming across as a thoroughly normal and likeable human being. A knowledge & deep appreciation of other art forms endears him to me too as does his classlessness and tone of voice. Revealing that he was painfully shy as a child and did not speak until six years old explained a lot as clearly Rylance is a performer you see actively listening and thinking without any apparent effort. He draws the viewer into the complex persona of Thomas Cromwell and his dangerous world in the BBC production of Wolf Hall which is currently proving a rare weekly hour of TV delight for me and millions of others. Rylance leads a troupe of highly skilled performers and technicians in a masterly screen interpretation of Hilary Mantel’s ground breaking novels. Part of that success is due to the programme makers treating the audience with due respect and the material likewise. This means expecting folk to be intelligent, informed and interested enough to engage with the creative story telling process. How rare is that. Lancaster is a short scenic drive via the the scenic edge of Morecambe Bay to Arnside in Westmorland – the southernmost port of call for Highlights rural touring network. The enterprising bookers at the village institute are able to host some superb professional small scale touring companies as a result. Compagnie TDU, based in Poland, are four actors from the US, Slovakia, Switzerland & Spain highly articulate in the international language of physical theatre. All the Things You Said You Never Said… is one couple’s journey between reality & the subconscious – told here with wit, clarity and passion – powered by performers with awesome reserves of physical and mental dexterity. They cleverly explored, with the aid of a subtly enhancing soundtrack and using only minimal set and costume, the multilayered reality of love and the interplay of surface and subconscious in a couple’s everyday life. This was a truly fabulous experience shared with a small and very privileged spellbound local audience. Quick chat afterwards & we wished them well for their residency next month in London at the Oval House. http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/all-the-things-you-said-by-compagnie-tdu A mid week trip to the Seaside…Blackpool in all its glorious tacky no holding back forwardness. From ‘The X Factor Shopping Experience’ & ‘Fallen Angels’ lap dance club to the ‘World’s Greatest Indoor Illuminations’ at the Winter Gardens. I was there to film with two other actors for a non broadcast TV pilot in a B&B hotel a stone’s throw from the famous tower. Dodgy builders are not my normal line in casting but the current unshaven outdoor man main pic in Spotlight caught the attention of the director. Combined with age, location, experience it all added up. A great team to work with, fellow performers and crew, and a liberating creative experience for a performer, improvising from a scenario and all captured on hidden mics and cameras plus in your face confrontation at the end…. Fingers crossed for a series green light & very happy to have done my part in helping launch it. En route by foot to and from the station I took these pictures of Blackpool’s cultural iconic attractions – old and new. We were part of a full house at the Queen’s Hall to see Tara Arts touring production of MacBeth on Friday night, 27th. Despite being aware of the company I’m ashamed to say I’d never seen their work before, despite them being the UK’s long established Asian Theatre Company. I was not disappointed, yet I was not properly convinced either. This is an intriguing and surprising interpretation with some brilliant staging, deft cross casting, with commendable pace & clarity – driven in part by terrific drummer/percussionist who remained on stage throughout providing the main soundtrack and unarmed combat in the fight scenes. At its heart though the production lacked essential subtlety of tone and depth of understanding; too often sacrificing real meaning to style and outward show, which was a real pity. (Particularly marked in the McDuff seeking out and being tested by Malcolm scene). Still, I was very glad to have seen the company in action at last and came away impressed from seeing a familiar story given a new twist. The Hexham audience too were clearly engaged with what they’d experienced. Mark Rylance, in a recent interview about playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, said he’d been inspired by the stillness and intensity of Brad Pitt’s performance in 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This nudged us into watching it at home on DVD this last weekend of February. What a brilliant production! Positively Shakespearean in theme & delivery, exploring the cult of modern celebrity and obsession; beautifully scripted & directed by Andrew Dominik. A main stream film full of psychological insight and telling detail and set in a perfect atmospheric landscape (Montana & Winnipeg standing in for Missouri & Kansas City). A real masterpiece of the cinematographer’s vision (Britain’s Roger Deakins) in harmony with keynote atmospheric musical score (Australia’s Nick Cave). Pitt scores as the legendary outlaw and Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance as Bob Ford…and a brilliant company of actors help get them there. The perfect cinematic parallel to Wolf Hall in fact! JANUARY One of the lovely gifts that came my way at Christmas was a family tree. Funded by Kim and researched by our old friend and colleague Sue McCormick. One interesting theme for me is revealed in tracing Dad’s Lancastrian heritage back down the years to the late c.17th. The men mainly miners, carpenters, labourers from Radcliffe, Prestwich & Oldham areas…Allen, Lindsay, Smethurst. Nearly all living & working in a fifteen mile radius of each other as the agricultural and industrial revolutions unfolded and fixed them in the new order of things. The two world wars broke that mold decisively through dramatic restructuring of lives and work, allowing my maternal grandparents & parents to meet and marry people from other parts of the country and releasing new opportunities for social mobility in the wake of warfare and the coming of the welfare state. Social shifts that again, in this century, are undergoing fundamental change. On the subject of northern roots; doing my accounts tonight I come across an advice note from ITV detailing sale of the last Coronation Street I was in to Algeria & Afghanistan, two of the most dysfunctional & dangerous countries in the world. Just goes to show there must be comfort and connection in the everyday dramas of Weatherfield folk for ex-pats in those troubled lands. Or maybe it’s used as induction material for Jihaddis in the decadent ways of the west. Anyway, I’m a chocolate bar the richer by way of royalties, so cheers & thank you! The awful events played out in Paris last week made for a deeply sobering start to the new year. Artists as fatalities in the front line are a relatively rare occurrence and their cold blooded murder along with unarmed police and hostages are a terrible reminder of the price we pay for living in a liberal democracy. World wide reaction has done something to re-balance the equation and the challenge now is to make sure positive things come out of these terrible events. My photojournalist daughter Esme, son in law Stuart and two grandchildren Joe (10) & Thea (8) are currently living near Annecy in eastern France. They joined in the nationwide demonstration of solidarity on Sunday 11th in the city centre. Here is a small selection of Esme’s images from that day. Quite an introduction to social engagement for the children, not to mention the perfect excuse for a ride on Dad’s shoulders in Thea’s case! (Grandad’s too if he’d been there … & he wish he could have been there). More at esmeallen.com A rain washed grey weekend with thick mist over Lake Coniston muffling all sounds bar flights of hungry ducks. Little traffic here on the deserted east side. All quite still and etheral. Even mysterious … What is the history of this Caravan cum Summerhouse on private land by the water’s edge? Shades of Arthur Ransom’s Swallows & Amazons surely! Even the most unpromising of Winter’s dog days turns special in the setting of this most inspiring and alluring of British landscapes. Something John Ruskin appreciated and surrendered to when he settled here for the last 28 years of his life. A hugely influential writer and critic (not to mention artist in his own right) Ruskin dedicated himself to securing an integral place for arts and crafts in the nation’s everyday life and culture. He was a visionary figure of the late Victorian age. An intellectual powerhouse that we in the subsidised arts owe a great debt to whether we know it or not. A visit to Brantwood, his impressive home here, gives real pleasure and insight into the great man’s tastes and beliefs. Had the place virtually to ourselves so felt strangely like Goldilocks in the Three Bears residence. The recently revamped property with its superb views over lake & fells also boasts a bookshop and two galleries showing contemporary work, along with a 240 acre fell side estate of woods and gardens laid out by the great man. I first came here nearly 30 years ago, on a balmy Summer’s evening, to support friends & fellow performers Geoffrey Banks and Sarah Thurstan in an unusual site specific entertainment they were doing about Ruskin & his housekeeper Mrs Severn staged by Cumbrian theatre impressario Andy Booth. Tourists buying into a voyage on the lake’s famous steam gondola with an ‘at home’ hosted by the oddball aesthetics! I came again a few years later for a wonderful exhibition of paintings by my friend Charles Mitchell. One of those exquisite works, a beautiful pastel of a peacock in his finery, has pride of place in my dining room today. Thus, of course, fullfilling the Ruskin dictum of art embedded in the everyday….En route home through the fading light, via torturous back roads, we stopped off to warm ourselves by the open fire in the artfully comfortable bar of the famous Drunken Duck pub outside Ambleside. This place is a tribute to the skills in creating & sustaining an upmarket contemporary country inn, which owes a debt to old JR too I’d say! (Kim & I agree to treat ourselves to an overnight stay here in not too distant future). Wonderful weekend to round off January & greet February. Some work done on future DP plans but mainly this was pleasure when we hosted Sue McCormick & partner Mark Alexander at the country house. A rare treat to have these two old friends and professional colleagues to stay. Like me they love to explore places & consume the culture at any opportunity. Newcastle away from the shopping on Saturday was a joy to ramble lazily through. Kicked off the day nicely having fun with Kim and her grandchildren taking in the latest exhibition at the national storytelling centre, Seven Stories in Ouseburn, the cultural quarter, formerly a section of the city’s industrial heartlands. Later, parting company from the family, we walked upriver for Beer and barmcakes (with free crisps) at the iconic Crown & Pasada pub half way up The Side. On to be amazed by a trio of contrasting grand monuments in marble, brass & wood that respectively grace the calm dark interior of the Cathedral. It’s just a step away to the soon to be reopened refurbished Castle Keep & Black Gate. Bemused to ponder the confident disregard of the Victorians who built their railway right through the, er, ‘new castle’, leaving the remaining constituent parts in a state of gloriously isolated urban dignity. We carried straight on over the river, walking that outstanding monument to the genius the early Victorian age – the high level bridge with its combined rail & road carriageways and wonderful views of all the other famous Tyne crossings. (Not to mention it’s very own lovers locks). Gateshead Discovery Centre was, well, just that really. Located in the recently rescued and beautifully restored and if isolated parish church, deserted but for us. On to The Sage for afternoon tea & cakes with a fine city view. This fine modern building always puts me in mind of Eric Carle’s Great Hungry Caterpillar. Kim rejoined us on the Millenium Bridge as darkness fell. A masterpiece of modern engineering, the perfect compliment to its proud predecessors of bridges over the Tyne. A dip into the newly extended Live Theatre in it’s historic warehouse home then a delicious early supper in busy bustling Cafe Vivo next door…. Contented happy end to a canny day! Sunday, back in the country once more, drove gingerly over icy lanes to Steel Rigg. We found Hadrian’s Wall under thin layers of snow and framed by a clear blue sky which proved suitably breathtaking and awesome for our happy guests, the site imprinted on their memories. The twin delights of nearby Corbridge town – locally owned popular artisan shops as well as the well preserved foundations of the original Roman settlement with its small but classy museum – rounded things off perfectly for us all.