Why our Jonny changed goals to become a stage star

If you’d have placed a bet on what a young Jonathan Wilkes would do when he grew up, you would have got short odds on him becoming a professional footballer.

Little Jonny, pictured here as a mascot for his beloved Port Vale, lived, ate and breathed football when he was a youngster.

It was football which dominated young Jonny’s life from an early age and very nearly resulted in him earning a living from it.

Speaking earlier this week before the launch of The Regent Theatre’s Christmas panto Cinderella, Jonny recalls a very happy, very busy childhood.

Young Wilkesy grew up in Baddeley Green, attending Hillside Primary School, and lived above his dad’s travel agent’s.

Born in 1978, he is an archetypal child of Eighties.

He said: “I do love the Eighties and the fact that there’s such a fondness for Eighties nostalgia. For example, I’m a massive fan of Eighties movies. I love films like the Karate Kid, the Rocky films and The Goonies or Weird Science. In fact, anytime an Eighties movie comes on telly I’ll try to watch it and try to get my lad Mickey to watch it.

“Growing up, though, I was always playing football. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the ladsandads leagues and for the Miltonians – we had a very good side and we beat everyone.

“Because my dad owned a travel business and was one of the first to offer airport transfers, very often there would be drivers round our house and I’d pester them to go in goal for me in the back garden.”

Jonny’s obsession with football and God-given left peg led him to being put on Everton’s books from the age of 14 but, ironically, that was when he fell out of love with the game.

He said: “The travelling was hard for me and my parents and I never really felt accepted there. I was offered terms at Crewe, Wrexham and Chester but by then my experience at Everton had put me off and I remember feigning an injury to avoid carrying on.”

Jonny didn’t give up on football altogether, however – and turned out for a very good Stone Dominoes side in the mid-Nineties which swept all before them.

However, aged 15 he realised that football wouldn’t give him a career.

Jonny said: “I panicked, if I’m honest. I realised that I hadn’t worked that hard at school and didn’t know what the future held. I went to Sixth Form College in Fenton and studied for a BTEC in leisure and tourism before getting a job at a travel agent’s in Hanley. But I always thought I was destined to do more.”

Jonny explained: “I’d watched Rob (Robbie Williams) performing from a very young age and though to myself ‘Wow. I’d love to do that’.

“So I made my stage debut at the Queen’s Theatre at the age of six. I’ve got very hazy memories of it. It wasn’t actually until the age of 13 when I had my tonsils removed that I found I could sing a bit. So I started to sing at karaoke bars and the like. Then my mum spotted something on GMTV about an upcoming talent competition and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Jonny’s referring to the prestigious Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year Award which he won in 1996 at the age of 17 by wowing the judges with his version of Tom Jones’s ‘Kiss’.
He then became the youngest entertainer to headline a show in Blackpool.

It was so popular it ran for three years.

Jonny said: “I’ve been lucky at times but I’ve also worked extremely hard for the success I’ve had.

“I’m never more comfortable than when I’m on stage and The Regent Theatre really is my second home which is why I’m so excited about returning for panto. Last Christmas just wasn’t the same because I was away from Stoke-on-Trent.

“This year’s going to be a cracker!”

Don’t miss 12 pages of nostalgia in The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

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Too many healthy horses are dying. It’s a National disgrace

I was off work on Friday so missed the round-robin email from a colleague offering the chance to take part in the annual office Grand National sweepstake.

I used to have a punt – even though I never had so much as a sniff of the prize money in more than a decade of trying.

Other than a yearly flutter on the greatest race of them all, I must confess I have no interest whatsoever in the gee-gees.

My knowledge of horse racing is patchy to say the least. I’ve been to the Roodee in Chester a couple of times and organised a stag do at Uttoxeter Racecourse.

I know Desert Orchid was a grey and, at a push, I could probably name half a dozen fences on the Grand National course at Aintree.

But the sad truth is I can’t even bring myself to lay bets on the great race anymore because of its appalling safety record.

On Saturday, two more horses – the joint favourite Synchronised and outsider According to Pete – both had to be put down after falls.

This followed the deaths of four horses at the Merseyside meeting last year when only 19 of the 40 horses finished the feature race.

Yes, this is a multi-million-pound event watched by an estimated half a billion people around the world.

But I’ve come to regard it as more of a national lottery than Grand National.

In other words, it is a lottery which horses survive the course and only a matter of time before a jockey is seriously injured or killed.

When I was little, I used to point my cowboy gun at the telly when the National was on and pull the trigger when the horses reached a fence, pretending I was shooting at them.

Occasionally, one or two would fall. I didn’t realise that some of them actually did die as a result.

It goes without saying that the National is a thrilling spectacle, but rather than holding my breath and hoping the horse I’ve had a fiver on makes it over the next fence, I’m now just willing every horse to get round safely.

Since the early 1990s, great strides have been made in terms of better protecting horses and jockeys and last year the British Horseracing Authority conducted a review of safety which led to further changes.

However, the fact remains that, each year, perfectly healthy horses have to be put down because the challenge of the National proves too great.

To my mind, the price paid by these wonderful animals is simply too high – the risks too great.

Never mind that race horses sometimes enjoy long and pampered lives compared to their less glamorous cousins in ordinary stables.

We all know damn well that, when we wander into a bookies and place an each-way bet on a horse with a name we like the sound of, there’s a good chance it might die as a result of taking part in the Grand National.

I’m no animal rights activist and I am not naive enough to think the race will ever be shelved on healthy and safety grounds because there is simply too much money involved.

However, I’m with the RSPCA, which is calling for the size of the field to be reduced and the jump design and race length to be looked at.

Some people launch into hyperbole about the nation coming together just once a year and housewives closing their eyes and sticking pins into pieces of paper to make their choices.

Others – some of those who attend the race meeting itself – care more about the hat they are wearing and how much alcohol they have consumed on their big weekend out than they do about the horses.

Others still will witter on about the need to preserve history and heritage and point to other perceived cruelty to animals that goes unchecked in this country.

But I’m talking here specifically about a horse race – albeit a long-established one – which could be made so much safer.

Isn’t the simple truth that the Grand National, in its current form, is incredibly dangerous as it routinely leads to the death of too many horses?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel