DECEMBER Sad to hear of the passing on Xmas Eve of Richard Adams, aged 96, author of Watership Down. I remember this ground breaking beautiful book for two reasons. The pleasure it gave reading the saga out loud to my wife Clare in bed of a night in our flat in Cheetham Hill Manchester in the early 70’s. One of the best roles I’ve ever had on radio was in Neville Teller’s 2 part classic serial adaptation, directed by Peter Leslie Wild, which we recorded at Pebble Mill in the late 90’s. A large cast of 12 (breeding like rabbits?) and lots of creative fun in studio making the audible visible (& the other way round). I played good hearted tough talking ‘Bigwig’, complete with west country accent. Will Radio 4 repeat it soon I wonder? I’d like to think so. The 1978 animated version & Art Garfunkel’s ‘Brighteyes’ theme song gave the story worldwide profile and, building on that, there is a new Netflix production due to screen in 2017. So come on BBC Radio Drama, get your fine version out there first!
Two contrasting Christmas shows see in company with my surrogate family post DTH. First is at the Dukes where their seasonal offering in the round was Pinnochio where a small cast of physically adept actors performed wonders with movement and music in re-telling an old European tale which emerged from darkness into light. Absorbing ensemble work in creating Pinnochio himself and the mesmeric song which brought the circus to town were particularly memorable. Brave too the Brechtian/Weill influenced music and playing style that created the mood of menace and comedy born of suspicion and folly in a way rarely seen in a family Xmas show and very true to the morality play tradition. I love the intimacy and enjoyment of drama this venue creates and think the youngsters and their families did too. Strong partnership by kindred spirits Mark Melville (MD) and Louie Ingham (AD) paid off handsomely here, despite the awkwardness of an ending that felt rushed.
Our second outing was in Newcastle at the month’s end when we went to see James and the Giant Peach at Northern Stage. David Wood’s assured adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much loved tale was a high octane, all singing all dancing barnstormer of a production (AD Mark Calvert; MD/Composer & performer Jeremy Bradfield). The auditorium had been extended with a wall removal to allow for a thrust stage setting and more room for traditional theatrical magic. Among our group’s favourites was the underwater scene complete with bubbles from the gods and the peach played as beach volley ball. The ensemble playing was a joy. Interesting to note the significant support role of the young company (Newcastle College/NYT) which extended beyond chorus into small speaking roles; presumably a result of special agreements with Equity. Surprised and delighted to spot a familiar figure in this terrific strong cast. Clara Darcy as Miss Spider; an actor/musician of the highest order. (Clara was a splendid Nerissa in the demi-paradise production of ‘Merchant of Venice’). We set off after the show on a high and got an extra dose of drama by joining the crowds outside Fenwicks department store windows to see this year’s spectacular display on Beatrix Potter. Animated giant tableaux celebrating 150 years of publication by Frederick Warnes of the ever popular storybooks. Delightful!
A hectic month producing the 17th and last ever demi-paradise production of Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly at Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle (Performing 14-17th). Sue McCormick compiled and directed the first show for me, back in 2000, so I was keen and she willing for her to do the last! Two other old friends in arms-Sarah Thurstan and Richard Sails-were easily persuaded to join us for one more glorious outing. One of the distinctive markers of the company is its giving a platform to new or otherwise unknown talent locally so it was just perfect to have Eve Robertson and Callum Wernyj with us. Eve is an accomplished actor and singer who knows our work so this was a great opportunity to work together. Callum was recommended to us by Gareth Cassidy who worked with him in the park this Summer. Callum is in his final year studying drama to degree level at University of Cumbria. A lovely company then and beautifully lit by Mark Alexander, giving us his considerable skills during time off in the holidays from his post as general manager of the Theatre Royal Dumfries. Once again we teamed up with long term acapella choir partners Five in a Bar, with the programme music selected and arranged by our outstanding MD Jude Glendinning. Full houses over three nights gave us a terrific send off – including a speech in my honour from Sue to the audience followed by a standing ovation from the packed house on the last night, much to my embarrassment. I was at the door every evening to say goodbye to individuals as they left, the majority of them telling me just how much they appreciated what we did and how much they will miss us.
On the last night Sue fired off a speech from the Jury Box at the end of the show singing my praises and summarising what the demi-paradise project was all about in giving career changing opportunities to performers and creatives and setting such a high bench mark for professional promenade performances of Shakespeare. I managed to keep it together long enough to give (I am told) a coherent and gracious reply, thanking company, sponsors and audience in turn for their unmatchable contributions which made DPP a win-win situation for everyone. The audience then rose to their feet clapping and cheering and I bowed once last time and made my exit! The evening carried on when we finally shut the doors and had our social with family and friends in the barristers library, complete with a arts & culture quiz from me with the ensemble roughly divided into two highly vocal fizz filled teams headed up by Sue and Richard. My thank you presents included a mug and whiskey tumbler, the latter engraved with the DP logo plus a bottle of malt to go in it! Joy of joys, 5 let their hair down with some fabulous fun filled harmonies which set the seal on our home grown entertainment. We finally put the building to bed and disappeared into the quiet darkness and home across the river around 12.30 in the morning. I had in all truth been rather dreading this last night but in the end I could not have wished for a more generous and heartfelt send off from company, supporters & audience….’What will remain of us is love’.
NOVEMBER An eyeopener of a Saturday morning to finish the month in joining first tour of the open day at Standfast & Barracks works on Caton Road Lancaster. The long stone wall frontage and landmark tower over the entrance dates from 1865, built originally as a carriage works on the (now redundant) railway line, exporting dining & sleeping cars around the world. (The 1911 census for my terrace home a 15′ walk away has the tenant registered as a labourer here). The works, by now redundant, became a muster point for the Kings Own Regiment at the outbreak of war in 1914, and was then used as a prisoner of war camp for German internees. (I love this bone carved by one of the German prisoners held here). Many of the unfortunate civilian internees were professional entertainers so they kept their spirits up with song, dance and musical concerts during their sojourn. In 1923 Standfast was established to make dyes and bookcloths. Today, as part of the Walker Greenbank Group, it processes orders from all over the world with lots of niche work, printing three million metres of various fabrics a year. (I loved the fact they were making infra-red supressant camouflage clothing for the British Army) Our super informed personable and enthusiastic guide was South African born Gavin, the site’s technical director. This was the main attraction, our behind the Wall tour, part of a wider MIrador Arts project. While waiting in the offices & old boardroom we were treated to views of art works by the project’s resident artists. Major British textile artist Michael Brennand-Wood is a native of Bury whose family had worked in the textile trade which the town was famous for (see my entry for February). Michael gave us brief background information where his work was displayed on the printing shed wall – a large tessalated construction; pixilated copies of original fabric designs reproduced by him on the company’s new commercial digital printers. These machines – like giant photocopiers – have helped revolutionise production processes, part of a lean technology shift, allowing greater versatility in producing short production runs for customers down to five metres (as opposed to minimum 300 m). A year ago almost to the day, the Standfast factory, flooded up to 2 metres in depth when the River Lune burst its banks in the wake of Storm Desmond, ruining machinery and wrecking further havoc downstream in the city centre. The 200 employees joined forces to clear up and insurance covered bills allowing them to get back into production relatively rapidly. Lancs Fire & Rescue Service were at hand too. A toxic mix of acids and water caused an explosion in one shed which, literally, blew the roof off. We finished our hour long tour in the factory shop – a mecca for fabric lovers from all over the region, where end of line and remaindered fabrics go for a fraction of retail prices. I have cause to be grateful to the company; they provided us with rolls of whitecloth gratis for use as set dressing in our 2014 demi-paradise production of Othello at the castle.
On the morning of Tuesday 8th wake to hear of the death the previous night of Leonard Cohen, aged 82, at his home in LA. Confess I shed a tear or two. A musical hero to me and millions more. Truly a good man and a singer/songwriter in a class of his own. The soundtrack to my life features many a Leonard track. Now I’m paying my TV licence once more after a break of two years I have resumed late evening habits of watching ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2. Much coverage of the US presidential election of course. Unlike with Brexit I predict the correct outcome. Trump arrives triumphant as Leonard quietly and peacefully slips away. How fitting. I send a tweet to ‘Newsnight’ requesting they play out tonight with ‘Democracy is Coming to the USA’. And lo and behold they do, over a montage of all modern winners of the presidential race! Now, I don’t think that was just thanks to me. I believe enough of us conspired, so perfect serendipity the result. I like what Russell Crowe wrote in praise of our hero. “Dear Leonard Cohen, thanks for the quiet nights, the reflection, the perspective, the wry smiles and the truth” I will never forget the experience of seeing Leonard in concert, when he toured in 2008, at the Opera House in Manchester. £70 ticket seemed – indeed was – a lot of money at the time but my God it was worth every penny. A wonderful all embracing and totally uplifting treat in company with Manchester pals of my own generation. So glad I could be there with them to witness the artist’s charisma in such an intimate concert venue. How many singers would get a 3 minute standing ovation just by walking on the stage before uttering a word? A consumate performer, clearly admired and loved by the fellow musicians on stage along with us out in the dark.
Light Up Lancaster Weekend – like the Lancaster Music Festival last month – gets more ambitious and diverse each year, with separate themed events held all around the centre. Inspired by Durham City’s biennial Lumiere, which is the ultimate in this kind of happening in the UK, it is a welcome addition to the city’s cultural attractions at an otherwise quiet time. Helps lift the spirits in the days immediately following the clocks going back. Favourite events we sampled in an early doors walkabout on Friday 4th included a wonderful array of local landmarks in light created by diploma students at Lancaster & Morecambe College. Each one lined up, all aglow, on shelves around the walls in the little Sir Thomas Storey Gallery. Finally we put all outdoor distractions aside when joining the eclectic public congregation basking in the still, strong glowing aura of a candle lit Priory Church. Later a young male choir dressed in dinner jackets gathered around their choirmaster on a grand piano in the transept to sing some beautiful modern secular standards. Just how laid back could one get in this most atmospheric historic space? The first time the Priory has been involved in LUL but clearly won’t be the last. Finally, on Saturday 5th we joined the crowds at the end of the road, by the Millennium Bridge over the River Lune, to marvel at the firework display, emanating out of the castle, which is the culmination of the weekend’s events. An accompanying chorus of illuminated trailing wails as police and ambulances threaded cars & buses heading rapidly along the main road by the river.
OCTOBER A long weekend in Pembrokeshire visiting son Tom in company with Kim, Esme & Thea, staying with our old friends on the Parrog at Newport. One day we visited the National Woolen Mill Museum on the river Teifi near Newcastle Emlyn in neighbouring Cardiganshire (Welsh: Ceridigion). Free entry. Demonstration spinning in the vestibule outside the cafe/shop. A working wool business in the next door shed, looms clacking madly & complete with viewing gallery, proved fascinating enough for me to buy a cap made there. This valley bristled with woolen mills a century and more ago. This fine brick built one dated from 1900 and was fully operational as a private business until the 1980’s, when it was rescued to became part of the National Museum of Wales. The wool story well told, machinery still in place, the contemporary traditional products still looking good, and unlike the Lancashire museum mills I wrote about last month, valued enough to be actively supported and proudly promoted by the country’s government.
Ghostly Tales. The eighth and last annual event at Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle that I’ve produced under the Demi-paradise banner took up most of my waking hours this month. Much of the effort going into publicity & marketing, which paid off handsomely in the end with full houses and great feedback. Having brilliantly penned 20th Century stories by outstanding British female writers lent the entertainment added quality and even greater accessibility. Despite reservations in not being dedicated to front of house in trouble shooting & generally overseeing proceedings I took the plunge and did a reading myself. Loved doing it too, down there in the dark of medieval Hadrian’s Tower. Friend Adam Emmott, to help create extra atmosphere, put individual musical soundscapes together for each of the low lit story telling venues – Tower, Crown Court, Library & Drop Room – as audiences entered and left. Here we are post show in the Judge’s rest room; left to right, Me (Reader of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Three Miles Up) Penelope McDonald (Jeanette Winterson’s Dark Christmas) Bekah Sloan & Julia Rounthwaite (Elizabeth Bowen’s Pink May and The Demon Lover respectively) & Adam Jowett (E Nesbit’s Man Size in Marble).
Hexham. Friday 14th October. My partner Kim Lewis has been working steadily for the last eighteen months on various drawings, collages and prints. She works at both her home or studio in Northumberland; as a co-artist in residence in the potting shed at Shepherd’s Dene in Riding Mill; at Iain Sloan’s Ironpress studio in the Storey or at my home here in Lancaster. The opening night of ‘Lost & Found’ was at Robinson-Gay Gallery. It was well attended, despite the huge draw of James Shepherd’s Life Rebanks speaking down the road at the Forum community cinema. Four contrasting works sold on that first night and a couple more over successive weeks, plus there was a lovely review in The Hexham Courant to boot! A well deserved success, further promoting the reputation of a fine draughtswoman whose observation, handling and rendering of subject matter is second to none. Being shown in such a beautiful old building in the historic Northumberland market town’s artisan quarter really helps too. Exhibition continues daily until 19th November.
Lancaster. Dukes Theatre Gallery. 3 – 23 October. Artful Measures Our artists in residence for Measure for Measure, Iain Sloan and Ceri Allen (pictured) showed their prints, oils and drawings. Behind the scenes images from Kim with selection of production photographs from George Coupe put the creative work in context. The opening night was a Lancaster City ‘First Friday’ event which drew over 50 people. Lots of good positive feedback throughout the exhibition run too. wonderful artistic recording & interpretation of a terrific dark comedy with its 1950’s setting and memorable musical framework, performed with such brillo at Shire Hall. Memories are indeed made of this. Honoured and moved to receive from Iain one of the prints as a 65th birthday present!
SEPTEMBER 16-23 A week discovering the far west of Cornwall, based in the Penwith Peninsula, proved a never ending cultural treat. Steam trains pounding the rails are evocative but a restored steam powered beam engine in its early Victorian housing, perched on the edge of a windswept granite cliff overlooking the wild Atlantic, is something else! Such is the case at Levant Mine (NT managed) near Pendeen, worked in the modern era from 1820 – 1930. It has 400′ deep shafts, with tunnels & adits on scores of levels running up to a mile and a quarter out to sea. The miners and Bal Maidens (Women & girls dressing – i.e. crushing – tin & copper ore on the surface) were clearly incredibly tough and resilient characters. Great stuff for drama and a mile to the south a fabulous clifftop walk led us to the ruined engines & counting houses at Botallack, scene of filming for the current series of Poldark on BBC1.
Mammoth Pictures, the production company, have rigged the set with late 18th Century mining infrastructure and made the abandoned workings look authentic enough for the exterior scenes at the Poldark mine which is central to the action….aided by computer generated graphics of course. We’re reliably informed that on sunny days big crowds will pitch camp the other side of the safety barriers, complete with deckchairs & picnics, to watch the filming. This far finger of land also points into a long line of human settlement. From the seaborn trading of precious metals with Phoenician merchants to incredibly well preserved ancient settlements. Some 40 have been identified in the region and two of the best preserved are in the care of English Heritage. We visited Chysauster and Carn Euny. These clustered stone bank walled structures cluster on their gently sloping sites overlooking the sea a few miles away. They are roughly oval shaped so called ‘courtyard houses’ which would have had thatched living accommodation and barns for animals & grain storage within the overall ‘pod’.
Carn Euny, the most isolated settlement, also boasts an original ‘fougou’ (Cornish for ‘cave’). This is a stone lined low passage, with entrances at both ends, plus in this instance a sizeable round domed subterranean chamber. No one knows what they were originally used for storage? shelter in times of peril? prison? for religious functions? Memorials to early Christianity pop up everywhere in this land of Celtic saints and missionaries. Earlier in the day we had visited Sanscreed and its ‘Church in the Trees’. The graveyard here boasts not just one but five Celtic crosses. The mainly 14th Century granite & slate built church contains a wealth of superbly vigorous medieval figurative carvings in oak pew ends and the extant lower section of rood screen. Wealthy parishioners here at the turn of the 20th Century included newly established respectable painters of the ‘Newlyn School’ whose realistic detailed paintings of local fishermen, miners and farming folk proved very popular in late Victorian times. The group’s leading light, Stamford Forbes, produced a beautifully executed brass relief here in the lady chapel to honour his son, a young army officer, who died in action exactly 100 years ago at the battle of the Somme. We had admired finely produced dynamic paintings from the various Newlyn artists on permanent display at Penlee House in Penzance the day before. We were also fortunate to catch an outstanding temporary exhibition at the gallery sampling the long, intensely creative and ever evolving career of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912 – 2004). Impossible to choice just one representative piece so here’s ‘The Blue Studio’ from 1947. Born and brought up in Scotland she honed her superb draughtsmanship skills at the Edinburgh School of Art before moving to Cornwall – that place of inspiration for a whole generation of top flight artists based in and around St. Ives during the last century. She eventually returned to Scotland as a widow years later on inheriting the family home in Fife and her work there took another liberating upturn through rediscovery of colour and abstraction. This exhibition surprised and delighted us – a rich & diverse legacy we felt quite at one with. A revelation and a joy.
Our other artistic revelation of the holiday was Treemenheere Gardens near Penzance. Although partly developed with specimen tree planting in the 19th Century the recent development as a sculpture garden with galleries, restaurant/cafe, art shop and nursery (complete with sedum roof) is the brainchild of the new owners – two local GP’s – who have restored the sloping 20 acre site with its rich soil and fine views over St Michael’s Mount and Mounts Bay. What fun to come across Bamboo snuggling up to mature beech, cacti and ferns juxtaposed, oak & agave as neighbours. Twisting paths, reveals and changing viewpoints linking sculptures and installations by some 16 artists.
Many features caused us to linger and luxuriate: compressed packed green hued Delabole slate flooring and steps in the garden ponds by the entrance gate; David Nash’s ‘Black Mound’, Richard Long’s ‘Treemenheere Line’ James Turrell’s trademark skyspace building re-named for this site as ‘Tewlwolow Kernow’ (Twighlight in Cornwall). This subtle pleasure dome lies just blow the steep hill’s crest. Serenity surrounds in its white walled oval chamber, looking up at the open and ever changing sky, at once framed and fleeting. When the sun broke through thin cloud cover a spotlight effect on the sloping walls was sublime, and when an airliner passed high above its vapour trail perfectly dissected the awakened blueness. A short passageway had led us into the open chamber which put us in mind of the fougou….And so ancient and modern conjoined in this near magical corner of Cornwall. Returning home from our sojourn in the west we stayed over with old friends Paul & Monica Mellor newly moved from Lancaster to their old family home at Lyme Regis. A very entertaining day with them as guides exploring the characterful old town; from its famous Cob protecting the fishing harbour to the many shops and small businesses that thrive there. (The second hand bookshop cum eccentric bric a brac emporium a particular browsers delight). The handsome town mill complex impressed us with the combined attractions of old working water mill producing organic flour alongside the former town power station now an art gallery plus a micro-brewery and cafe. Protected by a recent major flood prevention & sewage renewal scheme is the town’s aptly named and still thriving Marine Theatre, where I once performed years ago with Orchard Theatre. Remember little from that visit apart from the holiday crowds and eating fish & chips on the prom between get in and performance that evening. This time around our people watching caught this lovely moment…a middle aged newly wed couple (with bride’s dog) promenade the cob with official photographer in attendance.
Thursday 29th September. A day of treasured impressions and memories, ending the month as we had started it last week in Cornwall; exploring our industrial heritage. Being both free of guiding duties at Lancaster Castle, my work colleague Jim Houghton drove and I navigated us to visit Queen Street Mill in Briercliffe, Burnley and Helmshore Mills & Textile Museum in the neighbouring valley of Rossendale. Both are managed by Lancashire County Council, or rather were, as the next day both places would close their doors to the public for the last time before going dark. Museums in the UK enjoy no statutary protection so are a soft target when national government withdrawal of funding triggers local government cuts, as has happened this year and will continue for the next four years at least. So much for culture, so much for the Northern Powerhouse. So much for the North per se when £50 million of public money has already been been spent on the fatuous vanity project that is the projected ‘Garden Bridge’ in London. These two sites by contrast actually mean something; witnesses to productive work, fabulous industrial & social repositeries of history; rare survivors of the great industrial revolution that shaped and defined England in general and Lancashire in particular. Who could not fail to be thrilled, as we were, by the whirring start up of 300 belt driven Lancashire looms, driven by an unseen steam powered engine fired by coal piled into a fire tube of Lancashire boiler with water drawn out of the mill’s own reservoir here in the heart of the west Pennine hills?
Opened in the early 1890’s and run as a co-operative until closure ninety years later. And now closed again. The noise at full tilt is awesome and the smell – cloth, wood, leather & oil combined – all added up to a wonderful sensual experience. I thought of my aunts, dad’s sisters, working in the cotton mills down the road in Radcliffe and understood why they talked so loudly. Then remembered uncles Jim & Frank, skilled operatives in one of the town’s two paper mill. I had of course worked for a year too, as a fitter’s mate, back in 1976 after moving to Manchester to live… Gone, all gone, without hardly a trace, and now this place too will be no more. Not demolished of course, just mothballed, invisible and ignored. I must needs buy some product to cheer myself up – the plain cotton fabric that was its constant output – a bag and two tea towels. The 500hp steam engine, as old as the mill itself, was named ‘Peace’ to mark the armistice at the end of WW1 and to honour the memory of the six workers from the place who died in action. The engine tenter and the boiler man we talked to and watched at work were humorous gentle fellows and like the rest of the helpful friendly staff reserved and stoical in accepting what was happening to the place and their jobs…As were the folk at Helmshore Mill, where the thread for Queen Street is prepared and spun. Both places were not easy for outsiders like us to find, which may in part explain why visitor numbers were rarely high. Jim & I felt that if English Heritage or The National Trust could step in to rescue them they would attract higher volumes of those national charities respective memberships and be marketed and managed better generally. Helmshore presents itself as a severely graceful interconnected stone built complex striding a stream and abandoned railway line. It consists of the older Higher Mill (woolens) and larger Whitaker’s Mill (cotton) and is more museum in feel than manufactory though the former boasts an impressive working waterwheel that in turn powers giant wooden tenting hammers. Wool here was part cleaned with ‘lant’ (urine collected from cottages round about) and a circular drum of a ‘flock shaker’ collects cleaned threads. All fascinating stuff. Upstairs across in the later Whittaker’s Mill is a display on the story of cotton with Arkwright’s ground breaking original water frame (the only one left in the world) impressively displayed at its heart.
We loved the bold forms of industrial hardware on the cotton spinning floor that the custodian worked, to our delight. These specialist processors ranged from fearsome carding engines and more delicate doffers to the finishers and finally the mighty moving mules which converge all the threads into ones strong enough for weaving. A mule spinner, it was said, could walk as many as 22 miles a day in the course of his work. There had been serious riots and machine breaking here in the early 19th Century, when machinery was rapidly replacing traditional hand loom weaving and many were reduced to the level of paupers. Rioters were tried & convicted at our place & hundreds transported to the penal colonies of Australia. Sue McCormick highlighted thiir stories in ‘Blood Red Roses’, her first play, which I commissioned in 2001 for D-P.
On the way home we travelled the twisting threads of narrow roads that traverse the isolated and deeply rural patchwork of feudal landholdings that is the Forest of Bowland. The weather had been just right to match such a bitter/sweet day. Intermittent autumn cloud and soft sun played over the landscape to perfection. Ted Hughes wrote of his native Elmet, that ‘moors are a stage for the performance of Heaven’. In all honesty though, on this occasion, as we crested the Trough, it was the huge main stage of Morecambe Bay on the plain below which produced the real upstaging effect with these rain clouds from out of the Irish Sea trailing across the face of the dying sun…
AUGUST Sat 6th. Entertained in the astroturf coated courtyard of Lancaster Castle by The Handlebards – four very talented (&fit) female performers cycling their way from London to Edinbugh for the festival. En route they are presenting Taming of the Shrew and the one we saw tonight, Romeo & Juliet. Set and props limited by what they can carry on their bikes. (Stage Manager included no doubt). Their male equivalents are free wheeling their way north elsewhere with two other Shakespeare plays. A dynamic concept and from what we witnessed wonderfully delivered; inventive, brave and funny. Verse speaking was excellent too in a challenging outdoor context and there was lots of room for improvisation and audience involvement, as one very game young man amongst us viewers, called Aiden, found out when he was brought in to play the dead Romeo! Very much in the spirit of the old travelling Shakespeare troupes with a delightful new spin all their own.
Back in Northumberland, In company with Kim and our old friend up from Devon, Michael Gee, we went in pursuit of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716 – 1783) and found his inspirational self alive and well at Kirkhale. Born and bred on the estate of the Lorraine family, this intelligent, able boy from the estate village learned the basics of the gardening and landscaping business here and at nearby Wallington. Brown left at age 23 with Lady Lorraine’s letter of recommendation to set up in the south and never looked back. The last Lorraine heir died in 1961 and the house has long gone but the sensitively converted home farm today houses a host of diverse businesses and a new lake and meadow have been created on the principles of Brown’s design, integrating examples of all the essential ‘capabiliies of nature’ he so brilliantly exploited in redesigning and redefining the English landscape. Delightful perambulations included seeing key views through the wooden viewing frames by the farmhouse, above the lake. After tea & cakes in the courtyard we took a further stroll up to the ridge below the little village to take in the charming parish church of St Wilfred. This wonderful monument by the rough trackway delves beyond the virtues of enlightenment Brown and his earliest patron Sir William Lorraine espoused in recalling the violent lawless days of the border Reivers. A later Lorraine recorded that the unfortunate Robert was jointed into small pieces by his murderers, the body parts stuffed into his horses saddlebags and let loose for the neighbouring gentry to find!
10th August. Filming in Leeds today in an anonymous warehouse off the Kirkstall Road which houses the permanent hospital set for the YTV workhorse soap Emmerdale. Think this may be my sixth appearance over many years. This time as a hospital doctor giving important news to regulars David Metcalfe & fiancee Tracy Shankly (below right) Am always in admiration of the consummate professionalism displayed by acting colleagues in these continuous weekday dramas. They work extra long hours, are presented with constant changes in scripts at short notice, cope with endless re-inventions in character and motivation to suit storylines that – given the speed of turnover barely – make very little kind of sense and on top of that they exude laughter and tears at the drop of a hat with awesome skill. These two youngsters – Matthew Wolfenden & Amy Walsh – have been in the cast for 10 & 2 years respectively. They were down to earth, bright and friendly and a joy to work with in bringing our shared scene to life. Thanks too to one of the warmest, generous and efficient directors I’ve worked with on TV – the delightful Sarah Kendell – who also headed up a first rate creative team on the floor. Transmission date for this episode is Wednesday 21st September (7pm)
A culturally full weekend 19/20 Aug. Friday night on deck chairs on the terrace garden of Chipchase Castle watching a knockabout multi-role romp + audience involvement in The Taming of the Shrew from Handelbards, our fit & talented female acting troupe, now arrived at this North Tyne stately home en route to Edinburgh & the festival. This play doesn’t pack the tragic counterweight or poetry of the R&J they gave us at Lancaster Castle last week but all credit to the girls for high entertainment value and commitment second to none.
Saturday could not have provided greater contrast by way of entertainment experiences. We returned in the morning to Kirkhale to be part of an audience of 12 seeing John Cobb’s one man tribute to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – The Eyecatcher – in a marquee neatly enveloped within one of the farm barns. A cleverly designed set and props to aid the action. Some very nice dramatic moments worked well in supporting the hard working veteran performer who held our attention, if not always our emotional involvement, in his devised one hour entertainment on the life & work of the great man, and proved as much an eye opener as an eye-catcher. A few hours later, after lunch back at home and a drive down the A68 into County Durham, we found ourselves patiently queuing with 8,000 other people to get in and out of the newly constructed stadium below the castle & ancient chapel at Bishop Auckland to experience the extraordinary and audacious spectacle that is Kynren.
Probably the most outstanding example in the UK of an arts based economic and social community regeneration programme which is forging a renaissance in this long overlooked and deprived part of the north-east. 14 weekend shows spread over two months, with a 1000 strong cast and crew of all ages drawn from the local community, tutored & supported by professionals, performing their 90′ epic covering 2,000 years of English history on a 7.5 acre former farm site in the shadow of the ‘eleven arches’ of the old railway viaduct (now a road) from which the not for profit community production company takes its name. With the darkness allowing lights & special effects full force and the action in full flow Kim & I were children again; enthralled by the whole concept and thrilled by the drama/history enactments unrolling across the vast wide stage at our feet. The north east’s role in that history – from building Hadrian’s Wall and the life of St Cuthbert to the coming of the railways & coal mining – shaped the narrative and was indeed ‘the history of us’. But we were fellow travellers and felt privileged not just to experience a unique show but be made so genuinely welcome by the warmest and friendliest front of house operation we’ve ever witnessed. The volunteer ‘Archers’ were enthused and proud of their town’s newfound role and relishing what future developments herald – urban regeneration in the town centre, restoration of the old walled gardens of the Bishops Palace, themes for next year’s show etc. Great credit must go to Jonathan Ruffer, Chair of the Trust and new owner of the palace, for pump priming the venture with millions of pounds of his own money. If only all merchant bankers were as philanthropic and dedicated to serving the communities from whence they came in such a trail blazing, selfless and far sighted way.
Aug 26/27. Overnight voyage of discovery in Dumfries & Galloway. Long overdue discovery of this fascinating if somewhat overlooked corner of Scotland. Natural history highlights being observations of awesome Peregrine falcon patrolling around the island setting of Thrieve Castle and juvenile Ospreys fishing nearby in the clean peaty waters of the River Dee. Later enjoyed our lazy meander of a drive from our lovely B&B in sleepy New Galloway downriver to the fine old county town of Kirkcudbright. Aptly named the ‘Artists Town’, the foundation for that reputation is local lad made good – the artist E A Hornel – one of the celebrated ‘Glasgow Boys’ who revolutionised Scottish art a century & more ago. Eventually making a good income from his work he purchased Broughton House – An early 18th Century Merchant’s residence in the old High Street overlooking the river estuary; residing there in some style with his sister/housekeeper Elizabeth for the rest of his long life. Garden & House, now lovingly restored by the National Trust for Scotland is a quiet revelation both inside & out. Although Hornel’s later art is not to my particular liking I love the wholeness which his artistic inspirations and cultural aspirations are captured here within the house, studio and gallery which in turn are reflected in the exquisite garden structure & planting. A very special and much loved place, and on visiting you can clearly understand why.
On the Bank Holiday Sunday (28th) we met up with old friends at Cheeseburn Grange, Stamfordham, between Newcastle & Hexham. Cheeseburn is gradually developing a name as a home for contemporary art, design & culture; somewhere between a commercial showcase and an outdoor venue for publicly funded work. The Riddell family who live here open the 11 acres of gardens they have restored since 1992 to the public on selected weekends with changing displays and exhibitions of sculpture. Compass is a new development for them in exploring complimentary art forms. Writer in residence & award winning poet Linda France in collaboration with one the country’s leading wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson have created four created four pieces in stables, garden and outbuildings – new poems from Linda fused with field recordings from Chris. A fascinating creative adventure in sound. I particularly like the bat themed one in the dark attic over the old stables. We also took time to see new sculptures on display in the old walled garden, potting shed and adjacent woodland. Here are images of some of the very varied new work on display in and around the place.
JULY 8th. In company with friends & colleagues Helen Longworth & Christine Mackie for guest night at start of run of The Hobbit in Williamson Park, Lancaster. Not all the Dukes Summer walkabout family shows in the park work, for a variety of reasons. This one does though and Tolkein’s Middle Earth is well served by this magnificently mature arboreal setting. Particularly liked the use of Ashton Memorial as Mountain, the appearance of dragon Smaug and earlier in the wood the man – bear. Central pivitol roles delivered with great assurance by experienced old pals of ours, Gareth Cassidy (Bilbo Baggins) and Russell Richardson (Gandalf).
Sadly the vocal skills of some of the rest of the cast were sadly lacking and screams and screeches into head mikes don’t do much for character or audibility. Mixed feelings about the use of 8 (non-speaking) ‘Young Company (Youth Theatre)’ members as extras to pad out the ensemble. Pro cast members numbered 7, which is all the theatre would say they can afford to employ. The action built and coalesced beautifully as the darkness grew, as all the best productions here do. Just wished I had my or Kim’s grandchildren with me to heighten and extend the pleasure of the event. A balmy largely rain free evening, fun company and an interval picnic drink on the green helped it has to be said and best of all the running time (inc interval) was a decent three hours. Lovely to see so many families and to catch the entranced faces of the young children in the audience. A wonderful welcoming introduction to the special joy of theatre!
July 16th/17th. 44 years on – Thanks to the planning & hospitality of Pip Walker I was brought face to face with 15 of my old pals from the class of 1972 at her farmhouse in rural Warwickshire. The first Central School reunion I’ve attended since 1992. A lovely laid back, convivial, laughter filled weekend with respective partners in attendance too, enjoying great home made food, served buffet style in a small marquee. (Lots of catching up to do and the bonus of learning to play croquet under the expert induction and guidance of Pete Sessions). Kim & I shared compact overnight accommodation in Pip & her husband David’s horse box. Great stuff.
JUNE 22nd June – 1st July. Kim & I fly to Toronto via Dublin for a family wedding and road trip around the province of Ontario in its wake. Based in a cottage in the woods at Sauble Beach on the shores of Lake Huron for the big event. Kim’s nephew Evan Dowbiggin marrying Hannah Vandergrift at her family’s holiday home between the Sauble River & the famous sandy beach (2nd longest freshwater beach in the world). Reception for 150 guests held at restored 100 acre mid 19th century farm and barn a few miles in country. Originally settled under the land acts in this northerly region of the sparsely populated Bruce Penninsula by Ulster Protestant emigrees. Utilitarian beautifully crafted wooden buildings with the marks of the tools upon the stout timbers sourced from masses of virgin forested land around. Delighted by my first sight of fireflies (flying nocturnal beetles) as night fell when walking the woods & meadows with Peter the buildings manager, our source of local knowledge & natural history. On our travels we saw many of these traditional farm barns – high & squared on a stone foundation – but sadly with changes in agricultural practice some were in poor repair or fallen down with neglect.
Cultural highlights of our tour of town and country that followed the nuptials included the unmatchable enthralling magic of Niagra Falls and the immaculate traditional gardens that frame the walk to the viewpoints – with hardly a soul there to enjoy the delights – the thousands of happy tourists being across the street distracted by the main attraction. And yes, the Canadian Falls are grander than the American one! We’d come across the Mennonite (Amish) people at the big indoor & outdoor St James Farmers Market upcountry the day before and had bought our stock of Maple Leaf syrup there from a Mennonite stallholder lady to take home. We’d also seen the men riding around in their distinctive buggies so to be rubbing shoulders with these remarkable and resilient folk here again on a community leisure outing was something of a bonus. Discovered the restored colonial Fort George overlooking the Niagra River where it disgorges into Lake Ontario and learned about its role in the war of 1812 when the Americans took it (temporarily) from the British. Also strolled along the flower decked streets of Niagra by the Lake, a lovingly restored early 19th Century model town (rebuilt in the wake of the American invasion when the original Colonial settlement was razed). Sadly no time to go to any of this season’s productions at the Shaw Festival Theatre – a well established major cultural hub in Canada. Instead we had gone to Stratford (on the River Avon, naturally) to see the Festival Theatre production of As You Like It. (Large ensemble cast and resident folk band, set in 1980’s Newfoundland, with audience participation!). Enjoyed a brief look round backstage afterwards with welcoming Stage Manager, John Grey. A good feeling for any performer to stand on that revered neo-Elizabethan Festival Stage and take it its fine fan shaped auditorium. We stayed on in the Niagra Penninsula – limestone country warm and dry enough for a clutch of ultra modern vinyards to produce a range of top end classic white wines. This celebratory last night spent in the boutique village of Jordan and our choice at the Twenty River Inn’s tasting session an exquisite Reisling which we had at dinner to accompany some of the finest cuisine enjoyed on this journey of discovery.
All thanks to informative and entertaining hosts in the remarkable persons of Meredith & Bruce, Kim’s sister and brother in law, who booked everthing and did the many hours of driving. Before flying out from Toronto we had a couple of hours to kill so took in the downtown modern art gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario or AGO, which houses an unrivalled collection of landscape paintings by the Group of Seven and the romantic figure of their proginator Tom Thomson. Wonderful stuff, although the signage and interpretive material was either minimal or non-existent, which was a pity. Still, this outstanding painterly art – setting a defining view of Canada’s wild preserved landscapes – makes for rich rewarding viewing.
7th- 13th. A happy week away before returning for a very successful forum theatre engagement with academics at Lancaster University, delivered with friend & colleague Julia Rounthwaite. This brief but action filled holiday had Kim & I on the road staying over with friends en route. Cultural highlights included first time visits to Croome Park in Wocestershire. National Trust restored Georgian house and grounds masterfully landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who turned a mass of bogland into sweeping meadow with specimen trees, sculptures and boating lake framed by a view of the Malvern hills. This was his first commission and 2016 being the 300th anniversary of his birth this was an apt time to explore. Neo-gothic church also designed & built by him (& Robert Adam). Light, graceful building with fine family monuments, hosting nesting swallows the afternoon we visited. Liked the car park in the orchard and restored NAFFI style visitor centre; a pertinent reminder of the abandoned estate’s use during WW2 and the crucial role the RAF base here played in the secret development of RADAR. Tea & cakes taken under kahki mess tent canvas, quite delightful.
Ancient Berkeley Castle, still privately owned, near the banks of the Severn is also set in meadowland, which could be deliberately flooded at times of peril to deter attackers. 900 years of continuous family occupation have left many fascinating layers, domestic & military, with a crucial role played through sensitive 20th century restoration. Our visit and guided tour, enhanced by the presence of cast and crew painstakingly filming scenes for an episode in the latest series of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. Wonderful to see the castle’s inner bailey crowded out with costumed characters, horses and all the equipment associated with a major TV outside broadcast. After lovely lunch in yet another tent – this time a yurt in the gardens – we discovered the elegant detached house of Dr Edward Jenner, son of the local parson and the village & estate vet. Dr Jenner invented and developed innoculation at the end of the 18th century, which would lead eventually some 200 years later to the elimination of smallpox. This curious and industrious scientist also made the world aware that hedgehogs hibernated, swallows migrated and cuckoo chicks jettisoned the parental host eggs from the nest. Jenner is buried in the church. Also interred there were the Berkeleys, a family of huge wealth & power in the later middle ages, as the magnificently detailed and well preserved tombs bear witness.
Travelling home from our lovely Welsh interlude, along the familiar coast hugging contours of West and central Wales we were open to some accidental tourism. Rural Ceredigion is the setting for that strangely compulsive Anglo/Welsh language S4C/BBC TV police drama ‘Hinterland’. At Tre’r Ddol between Aber & Mac we pulled off the A487 at its junction with the Borth Road to refresh ourselves at the village community shop & cafe. Got food & locally produced vegetables for supper & had a delicious freshly made lunch. The home made bara brith they do here the best I’ve ever tasted. The place transformed in the five years it’s been this fine co-operative venture, with volunteer staff. A leaflet here on the best of regional churches lead us to stopping off a while later by the RSPB bird sanctuary at Eglwys Fach on the Dovey estuary to discover the village church of St. Michael (c.1914) complete with older unusually fashioned lychgate where R.S. Thomas was vicar between 1954 – 1967. Something of an old testament prophet in appearance & manner – who could well feature fictionally in ‘Hinterland’ – this austere but passionate priest nevertheless holds a place of great importance in the Welsh pantheon of national poets writing in English for a wider world audience … The lesser known Thomas after Dylan. One day R.S. and his fine artist wife Elsi (Mildred Eldridge) closed the church and dramatically redecorated and refashioned it, virtually overnight. On opening the doors the parishioners were amazed and (one hopes) delighted to see it in the way you can see it now if you visit. In painting so much of the woodwork matt black it set off the remaining strong features and gives this simple parish church an extraordinary fresh and distinctive look today. Having passed by for over 30 years unaware of the connection or the building’s unique interior quality we were truly entranced. Check it out for yourself if you have the chance…
“I have been all men known to history / wondering at the world and time passing/ I have seen evil, and the light blessing/ innocent love under a Spring sky”
And finally we popped in – as has become the custom these last couple of years – to pick up a few bottles of Rosie’s Cider at the farm shop, and former coaching Inn, at Dafarn Dywyrch, Llandegla, Denbighshire. (www.rosiescider.co.uk) Farmer turned cider maker Stephen and his mother Rosie are always good to chat to and the cider – still and bottled – is top quality stuff lovingly produced. They only started the business some 5 years ago and some of the 300 trees he planted can be glimpsed from the road as you drive away downhill toward Chester and the English lowlands.
MAY Radio 4’s Home Front continues to plough its daily 11 minute long furrow across the historical landscape of life in and around Ashburton 100 years ago. Helen Longworth is great as feisty northern farm girl Rose, needless to say, and even I managed to enjoy listening to my various supporting characters. Most happiest voicing quarry worker Wilfred who allowed me a chance to exercise the native Devon accent. Temporary foreman Wilfred is a wise and empathetic soul who helps out young Alexander Gidley in the office during a labour crisis in the episode aired on Friday 13th. On Wed 25th, at Issac the Smith’s enlistment appeal, I play an unsympathetic tribunal member, Captain Winters. Every episode of the series is available to download on the BBC Home Front website.
Friday 13th. Highlight – A lovely afternoon walk with Kim along the deserted shoreline between Arnside & Silverdale stations. Wonderful views over the wide sands & mudflats of Morecambe Bay. Only shelduck, oyster catchers and curlews for company…Sublime.
Evening at the Dukes Studio seeing Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in a touring production of All’s Well that Ends Well. It’s a Shakespeare I have acted in (Leeds Playhouse 1989) and produced (D-P at the castle in 2004). This mercifully short show gave us good verse speaking with clear diction and pace, and was antiseptically executed in a Victorian setting. 15 actors in the cast – yet no live music. This All’s Well… really didn’t. Very much the establishment artistic product we are regularly served up with in England in being so competent, bloodless and dull. Not enough believable or convincing emotional journies made, the whole production being technique driven, lacking tragic focus and comic inventiveness. A real shame, a wasted opportunity to champion a challenging ‘problem’ play in this, the writer’s 400th anniversary year. The only compensation for me was to realise just how good our promenade production at the castle really was in comparison, achieved with less resources and a lot more passion, drive and clarity than witnessed here. Sorry Tobacco Factory…Really liked your Romeo & Juliet and friends who saw your Two Gentlemen of Verona raved about that too but this complex and challenging play needs and deserves an equally brave and full on approach from you as a major well funded contemporary company and this production settled for a safe second best place.
Thurs 12th. Go up Lancaster University Green Lane Conference Centre on a beautiful morning with my old friend Ian Steel at J Atkinson & Co to contribute to the Destination Development Workshop organised by Marketing Lancashire. People from various walks of life locally exploring realisable ideas to make Lancaster a more attractive destination for visitors. With a power point presentation preceding teamwork at our tables we were given a stimulating visitor centric approach by project consultants Melanie Sensicle & Jason Freezer. Lots of areas covered including points of arrival, street furniture, retail offer, noise levels, food & drink, car parking – stimulating conversation and engagement in identifying issues and problem solving. Very glad to participate and meet new people with a common interest in the course of it.
Sun 1st. Morning in the delightful company of children’s writer Piers Torday, back on his home turf from London, talking about his latest writing challenge. His novelist father Paul Torday died in December 2013, leaving behind an unfinished novel, Death of an Owl a political thriller and satire. The book’s narrator is a young gay man from a rural background at a top Oxford college. Our speaker is, or was, all these things. The legacy, discovered in a drawer months after the author’s death was taken up by the son; as much a personal as a literary challenge, with support of family and publishers, and eventually the last third of the book was complete, ready for publication. We were challenged by the Chair to see where the father’s original draft ended and where the son picked up. Carefully avoiding any spoilers we heard extracts read with of course added to the storytelling allure. In answer to an audience member question at the end of this thoroughly engaging session it was interesting to learn that characters in both parts were eventually discarded to gain that seamless integrated and harmonious final text ready for publication. My treat, other than having a brief but natural conversation afterwards with Piers at the signing, was to have the book bought me by Kim for my birthday in August. As a bonus Kim also bought Piers eco-novel for younger readers ‘The Last Wild’ as a future Xmas present for a young voracious reader, my eldest grandson Joe.
I don’t agree with him on many issues or think his record in government an unblemished one yet an hour in a packed house at the Queen’s Hall listening to the Lib Dem’s economic guru Vince Cable on Sunday evening was a rare and welcome treat. His trademark calm manner, quiet humour, intellectual grasp & gifted way of summarising arguments through metaphor conjured up a compelling picture where the dirty business of political compromise and infighting battle it out with the logistical demands of economic sensibilities within a rapidly shifting global context. Debt – personal and national – along with the student loans issue (or ‘graduate tax’ as our guest preferred to term it) the role of the banks in the financial crisis and the current referendum debate all figured large in a good natured Q & A session chaired by the BBC’s regional political editor. It was all too brief an hour and left this listener strangely caught with wanting it to continue and yet frustrated by not having the time to progress to a forensic critique of key crisis moments and the issues that could be considered failures, like the sale of the post office to the private sector or being caught out by the Telegraph sting that removed him from adjudicating the controversial Murdoch Sky TV bid. But still, a good day all round and we leave for home very grateful to the festival for making all these diverse and involving sessions possible in our country town!
APRIL Fri 29th. Seasonal surprises with a deep drop in temperature and snow storms to match but our literary escapades continue at Hexham Book Festival (Queen’s Hall auditorium) undertaking exploratory steps into the glory of gardens and the countryside beyond. A designer with an international reputation Arne Maynard took us through a glorious slide show to illustrate his life’s work to date. Inspirations for form, shape and texture found in works of the high Renaissance (Leonardo’s Virgin & Child drawing for tone, Piero Della Francesca for pattern and colour) as well as contemporary art along with man made patterns in the farming landscape (ridge & furrow, potato field ridges etc). He guided us through two client commissions on contrasting sites; a contemporary family home and grounds on the Atlantic coast in the Hamptons, New Hampshire; the other that most romantic of ancient stately homes, Haddon Hall in the Derbyshire Dales. (Particularly share his appreciation of Haddon as I’d been fortunate enough to have spent some happy hours there once discovering its joys on my own – long gallery, gardens, chapel, terrace, the extraordinary views – the place being closed to the public when we were filming the latest BBC Jane Eyre). Clever ideas based on simple premises (and generous budgets no doubt) seamlessly mixing contemporary with classic, working always with the grain and welcoming – ‘shaking hands with’ – the natural fauna and landscape features of the area. Always flowing and bordering, using companion planting and setting off of forms and features to create arresting and graceful green spaces. Both Maynard and Anna Pavord share a special love and connection with Dorset. The former grew up and gained his love of gardens and gardening there there and the latter moved to this corner of Hardy’s Wessex with her husband and young family in the early 1970’s… romantic but real commitment; hefted to a place by head and heart. And what a joyful, passionate and knowledgeable speaker she was! Digressing entertainingly into all the interconnected areas that make up the subject of her new book Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen & Places. She painted a vivid picture of the early romantic artists and print makers who ‘discovered’ and in turn inspired parties of tourists to visit the newly recognised beauty spots of Snowdonia & The Lake District. At the same time hard nosed government surveyors were being sent out to record for the first time each county’s agricultural output as Britain settled into the long wars with France. Born 1940, the daughter of a farmer who grew up on the Welsh borders she recalled scenes of playful discovery and respect for the natural world and the extracts she read from her book conveyed that even more to an enraptured full house. I particularly enjoyed hearing her elegy to a hero we share in common – William Cobbett – and his famous Rural Rides of the 1820’s.
Saturday 23rd. The 400th anniversary of the passing of William Shakespeare and the world and his wife are having a party. Quite right too. ‘All the World’s a Stage…’ and all that. Very glad to have made my modest contribution in producing ‘Measure’ earlier this year, an artistic success for everyone involved. In leafy south London cousin Quetta and the Forest Hill Society attracted some 150 people to follow ‘Mr Shakespeare’ around the district as he read sonnets, played instruments & read from his plays at various public stations. Great initiative on her part to put this particular show on the road so congratulations to all involved. Wish I could have been there to support the event…Instead we were at Hexham Book Festival this morning for a fascinating talk by Melissa Harrison on the themes of nature writing in fact and fiction. A delightfully empathetic, unpretentious and sensitively thought through session from our speaker on the Queen’s Hall main stage. An inspirational talent clearly so I shall look forward to reading her work. A city girl by birth and upbringing She spent regular childhood holidays on Dartmoor with her family in all weathers. A recent walk there makes up one of the four essays in her book ‘Rain’ and this was the hook that got me well and truly caught…
Saturday afternoon we were at the other end of the north Tyne valley, at Tarset, seeing the latest resident artists work at VARC (Visual Art in Rural Communities)exhibited in the farm yards & barns behind the big house at the centre of the vast High Green farming estate. Owners, Sir William & Cynthia Morrison Bell were our genial informal hosts dispensing hot drinks and biscuits in the barn. Deeply remote high moorland borders landscape. And here were working buildings housing the usual jack-in-the-box of adventures in visual art for which they, as long standing pioneering patrons, are famous.
Very sorry to hear about the death of Victoria Wood. Thought of her last week when in Bury, the place of her birth and where she grew up. Husband Geoff Durham was an actor who accidentally found his true vocation as a variety entertainer, rather like Victoria herself. His alter ego, The Great Soprendo, was a camp Spanish hysteric whose tricks always threatened to go wrong before turning out awesomely right was great live entertainment before it was ever televised. Geoff when working at the Dukes in the early 1980’s and was our lodger in the old terraced house of my former life. He royally entertained and enthralled my (then) young daughters Esme & Stephanie when they visited with his many card tricks and other illusions. Victoria was just finding fame then with her regular guest appearances on ‘That’s Life’. She came to stay on various weekends. Off duty she was downbeat and I guess exhausted from it all so needed the R&R the relative normality of Lancaster provided. There was humour though & fun. A very smart and deeply talented person who like so many successful people was able to evolve a career in re-inventing tradition. In the end though, much as I admired her as an entertainer I’m still grateful for her other unsung talent as a hairdresser and the free haircuts I received at her skillfull hands….
Thursday 21st. Kim & I are am the guests of the duchy of Lancaster at the evening lighting of the beacon at Lancaster Castle to mark the 90th birthday of HM The Queen. Lord Shuttleworth, as Lord Lt. resplendent in his uniform, with cadets likewise, did the honours out in the yard before we all adjourned to the former prison’s Victorian ‘A’ Wing to see the new display, organised by LCC colleagues Rachel Jackson & Colin Penny, that now occupies the ground floor. Really good material – covering all aspects of prison life – through notices, props, set items, spiced with original artifacts and records. A real insight into prison life down the years. My modest contribution between tours in the run up to opening was ‘picking oakum’ – unravelling rope fibres for eventual use in the caulking boats – nothing like as fierce and daunting a task as it was in days past.
Friday 22nd. Travelled Lancaster to Northumberland via the M6 as usual but stopped off at Rheged Visitor Centre outside Penrith to take in the Ian Lawson photographic exhibition, supported by Harris Tweed. A sumptious shop window for a key industry of the outer Hebrides taking in all aspects of the world famous cloth through intimate portraits in words and images of the islanders who produce it and the environment in which they live and work. Also displayed jackets and bags from top designers + an actual old loom for practical guest demonstrations. A joyful celebratory show. Catch it if you can before the finish in mid May.
Saturday 15th. Kim & I are guests of our friend, the glass artist Bridget Jones (& husband Rob) for the official opening of the new Rose Window at the Royal Fusiiliers Regt Museum in Bury that she had designed. The result of two years work, this £80,000 project was funded by the Ministry of Defence, Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery, Bury Council and various generous individuals. Bridget worked in close partnership with York Glaziers Trust, who took time off from restoring the great east window at York Cathedral to do this commission, using hand blown glass & lead. The Mayor of Bury ‘opened’ the window and the Fusiliers trumpets lent a fanfare to the occasion. Bridget took the assembled guests through all the various images and their sources – from animal designs used in marking bolts of Bury produced silks; samples from Bury born author Richmal Crompton’s dried flower collection, creatures found on the moors that border the town to the insignia associated with the Fusilier Regiment – its history & antecedents. A celebratory contemporary creation, magnifying and diffusing light, full of visual interest. A real homage not just to the town and its history but also to the Arts & Crafts tradition of the former technical institute it is housed in. I’m delighted to have played my part in the early days of preparation by introducing Bridget to the founders window in the equivalent building in Lancaster, The Storey Institute, as well as to the collection of Lancashire High Sheriff shields on display at Shire Hall Lancaster Castle.
Our day made extra special by a visit to the nationally famous Bury Market in the morning before the official opening that afternoon. What a joy to be immersed in such a friendly, bustling and truly sensory environment, where shopping is a pleasure and an adventure. We came away with lots of local specialities – black pudding (Bury being it’s traditional home) steak puddings, whimberry pies and Chorley cakes. Vowed to come back again to sample and buy more goodies to stock our fridges and larders. Maybe sample some exotics like Cheese with Curry or the full range of oven bottom bakes or stock up on chicken, salmon and beef at great prices. Also should find out what’s happening at the Met Arts Centre once reopened later this year following extensive upgrading. A must will be a trip up the Irwell valley to Ramsbottom on the East Lancs Steam Railway. Our nostrils were seduced by the aroma of engine smoke while at the museum, a stone’s throw from the terminus at Bolton Street Station. With family roots in the area, on my dad’s side, I know I’d like to get re-associated with this vibrant t’other side of Lancashire…
The 40 episodes of Series 7 of Home Front on BBC Radio 4 runs throughout April and May. Such fun to do and a real privilege to be part of. This month’s episodes air as follows: Mon 18th as estate foreman Carslake and the more significant role on Wed 27th as bigoted local Councillor Ellis. Each daily dose of the World War One set drama is but 12 minutes long and airs daily in the week at 12 mid day. The Omnibus edition is on the Friday of each week at 9pm. Best of all every single episode of this four year long continuous drama is available as a free download from the BBC Home Front website.
Friday April 1st. Braved cold and rain to watch the outdoor screening in Lancaster Castle yard of the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu. My associate composer on the 2014 D-P production of Othello was Lee Affen, whose quiet genius delivered a score of electronic mini-compositions for the play’s main scenes. Lee and his collaborator Richard Smithson have spent the last few months composing a complete new electronic soundtrack for this landmark of German expressionist cinema, screened here in association with the Dukes. Pitched up under a string of lights in an open sided mini marquee the two of them played a variety of instruments live while the audience, cocooned in waterproofs with umbrellas held aloft, watched and heard with rapt attention. The screen action perfectly married to the rich and subtle score entranced and lifted us all as light faded into darkness. Physical discomforts apart our captured emotions soared to these newly combined and complimentary works of art.
MARCH It’s been great having old friend and D-P colleague James Morley lodging with me at my Lancaster house. He’s over from the lovely home he and wife Jan have made for themselves in rural Normandy, just minutes from the D-Day landing beaches. Having been based in the Lancaster and Kendal area years back Jim has caught up with old friends and associates and made some new ones in the process during his current stay. I played Escalus/Provost for a terrific touring production that Laurence Boswell conjured up for Pocket Theatre Cumbria years back. Jim takes on the role double in this current show, having previously played the Duke in my own earlier production for D-P. Kim has been coordinating with our current artists in residence, Ceri Allen & Iain Sloan, as they quietly record and interpret the rehearsal and performance process at Shire Hall. Figurative painter Ceri has been commuting from her home in Carlisle. Iain could not be closer, having his master printmaker’s workshop in the Edwardian Storey building next to the castle. As it happens delightful daughter and D-P associate director Bekah Sloan is playing the wronged Marianna in our production. The Dukes Theatre Gallery Lancaster will be hosting the exhibition of their paintings, drawings and prints between 3rd – 23rd October. There are likely to be supplementary images from D-P’s production photographer George Coupe as well as documentary backstage shots from our Kim. This will be a high quality show and we are all of us looking forward to seeing the finished work on display! Despite having audience numbers restricted to 45 (instead of our usual 60) and a sluggish start with ticket sales we’ve since picked up and sold out….largely through word of mouth. Terrific response from audiences who almost seemed surprised that so much clarity and comedy could be found and so thoroughly enjoyed in a Shakespeare play! Among them no less a figure than our director’s older brother Ken Branagh who was in the audience on Sat 5th March. Great to talk to him about the opportunities and challenges of producing work in this venue. He proved convivial & intelligent company and it was a delight for us all that he genuinely loved the production and praised it for its refreshing clarity, comedy and intimacy.
FEBRUARY Is all about putting Measure for Measure on, and very little else I’m afraid! Here’s David Upton’s review from the online British Theatre Guide….
‘Of all the ways to mark this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a rock ‘n’ roll party, in Lancaster Castle, might not be among the more obvious. Then again, the city’s Demi Paradise theatre company—despite the name—seldom does anything by half measures. Staging Measure for Measure in a 1950s setting ensures even the Bard has never had it so good. The play gets “All Shook Up”, as well as half a dozen other pop classics, in a production that honours the subversive nature of the story, but never lets up on having a good time. The only downside has to be that this will be the last Demi Paradise Shakespeare production to haunt the historic rooms, court chamber, corridors and cells of the ancient monument. Actor-turned-producer Stephen Tomlin is retiring the company that has delivered 10 such performances over 17 years. He may not quite qualify for a coat of arms in the Shire Hall, but it is an illustrious achievement that has provided some vivid theatrical memories down the years. Here he revisits one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays but there are no difficulties apparent in director Joyce Branagh’s smooth stroll through the promenade production. Measure For Measure is a moral maze, where ‘good’ people cope badly, while the bawdy seem to do better. Branagh, sister of Sir Kenneth, uses the Castle’s various settings in new ways. The Barristers Library becomes the focal point of the torrid encounter between Angelo (Laurence Aldridge) and Isabella (Lucy Faint) while the centuries-old chill of the basement dungeons adds its own sensory experience to the scenes of crime and punishment. Besides the ideal setting for a rendition of “Jailhouse Rock”… and where Nicola Jayne Ingram has as much fun as is legally decent with the roles of a Constable or an Executioner. Lucy Faint’s highly-expressive performance is crowned by her final curtain singing of “Memories Are Made Of This”. It also makes for a poignant footnote to these productions.’
JANUARY this month almost totally spent in producing Measure for Measure for demi-paradise. Ironically the day I’ve long planned for – the welcome buffet & drinks at The Merchants and walk through readthrough at Shire Hall – I had to miss as in London for the Series 7 all day readthrough of 40 episodes of Home Front at BBC Broadcasting House. Back in Lancaster to keyhold for on site rehearsals weekday evenings and co-ordinate production activities. Last minute delays in getting Stage Manager post settled along with a re-cast of one of the roles a week into rehearsals gave a few headaches but all settled in the end. Somehow if there’s not a crisis a day to deal with it just doesn’t seem like a real theatre production! Off to Birmingham in between to record my four characters in five episodes of this ongoing WWI episodic drama odd days through January & February. Lovely company (55 actors in all) fine team of writers and superb directors in Jessica Dromgoole & Allegra Mcllroy. We enjoy the improvised crowd sequences recorded in the Mailbox’s dead room. These wildtracks varied from polite tea party babble to market day stallholders, drunken brawlers to livestock sales. The latter a joy as I improvised a whole section as a broad Devon accented auctioneer! My old friend and colleague Helen Longworth on hand too playing feisty farm girl Rose, an evacuee from Lancashire. Always a joy to work with her, although this is the first time we’ve done radio drama together. Home Front shares these sudios in the Mailbox with The Archers (2 weeks on/2 weeks off). It was back in 2011 when I last visited, playing the Borsetshire Coroner overseeing the inquest on Nigel Pargetter whose famous fatal fall from the roof of Grey Gables so shocked the nation. Here’s a snap I took of the multi purpose Ambridge domesticity!