Night-time economy is vital for Hanley and our city as a whole

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

Nightclubs are, mercifully, a distant memory for me. As much as I enjoyed shoe-gazing to Indie tunes in the late Eighties and early Nineties at The Ritzy in Newcastle, ‘dance music’ – and the whole popping pills mullarky – left me cold.

It didn’t help that I’m no Travolta, neither. When I was in The Regent theatre’s panto a couple of years ago, Welsh star Christian Patterson, who played the dame, wrote: ‘Martin is to dancing what King Herod was to babysitting.’

It was a harsh, but fair assessment.

My drinking days are long gone too.

In truth, I never really enjoyed booze like my peers did and was almost always the driver for my mates when we went on pub crawls around Hanley or up ’Castle.

My friends would shrink with embarrassment when I ordered a glass of red wine in a pub as part of their round of manly pints.

Four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale or four pints of Löwenbräu (laughing juice as we used to call it) up the Duke of Wellington at Norton and I didn’t know whether it was Friday or Norway.

To be honest, I could never understand why anyone would want to drink pints of anything. It just made me need the loo. I always regretted it the day after too: Waking up with a banging headache and stinking of cigarette smoke.

We weren’t bad lads by any stretch of the imagination.

Unless you count running past Hanley nick late at night with a traffic cone on your head and being chased by a couple of coppers.

Then there was the time I drove down the A500 in the dark in my bright yellow Austin Metro, forgetting to put the lights on and barely able to see out of the windscreen because of the smoke from the marijuana spliffs being passed around by my passengers.

In truth we were far too square to get into any real trouble.

However, even in our day – 20 odd years ago now – there were always idiots looking for a fight in pubs and clubs and we got into a few scrapes.

It seems some things haven’t changed.

This week’s figures showing that Stoke-on-Trent is ranked as the 15th worst local authority area in England and Wales in terms of violent crime, shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

For starters, the city is 16th in the list of most populous built-up areas in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, so our position in the ‘league table of troublespots’ sort of makes sense.

Around 13 per cent of violent incidents in the Potteries happen in Hanley. Again, this is to be expected, I suppose – given that the city centre has a large number of pubs and clubs concentrated in a relatively small area. Apparently, most of the trouble – involving drunken youths – occurs between 9pm and 4am.

Why anyone would still be out drinking at three or four o’clock in the morning is beyond me.

It was only when I met recently with Hanley’s pub and club owners that I realised that the night-time scene has actually changed beyond all recognition in the last two decades.

Gone are the days when 10, 15 or even 20,000 people were out in the city centre on a Friday or Saturday night – moving from pub to pub and ending up at The Place or Valentino’s – then finishing up with a kebab and a taxi ride home before mum got too worried.

Nowadays, Hanley is a ghost town most nights.

Licensees are fighting for custom from the two to four thousand young people who don’t actually turn up in Hanley until after 10 o’clock – many arriving ‘preloaded’, having drunk copious amounts of alcohol before leaving the house.

They then flock to the Trinity Street area and cause police a huge headache – especially at closing time.

The real problem here, in my opinion, isn’t the fact that a minority of boneheads can’t handle their ale – it’s that Hanley is dead of an evening – with the exception of audiences who visit The Regent, the Victoria Hall or Mitchell Youth Arts Centre when there’s a show on.

This is absolutely not the case in other comparable city centres which have a far more cosmopolitan ambiance and where people of all ages feel comfortable walking round.

The night-time economy in Hanley is genuinely struggling and really needs some urgent help. It is simply not viewed by over-30s as somewhere they’d like to be of a Friday or Saturday night – unless they have a theatre ticket.

Even if they do visit the theatre, the vast majority park up, watch the show, and go home – rather than heading to a pub or going for a meal. Hanley is currently undergoing major regeneration work involving the expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre and the creation of the Central Business District.

Meanwhile, we’ve all had a punt in the great sweepstake on whether or not the ridiculously-named City Sentral development will actually happen and finally lead to a much-needed makeover of the old bus station site. Over to you, Realis…

Parts of our city centre now look bright and modern but the problem remains that it isn’t somewhere most people over the age of 30 or anyone with children really wants to visit.
This isn’t a question of demonising young people.

I don’t believe for a second that there is a higher proportion of yobs these days than there was when I was queueing at the bars in Macy’s or the Market Tavern.

Helping the police to reduce violence is, of course, important but – to me – of equal value is assisting those businesses who rely on night-time trade for their survival.

That includes the restaurants and businesses which don’t benefit from an influx of teenagers and 20-somethings of a weekend.

While Hanley is, undoubtedly, a work in progress I think that more needs to be done to tempt families, couples and those born before 1985 to spend their evenings in the city centre.

Christmas shopping nights shouldn’t be the only time when the majority of us want to visit Hanley of an evening. There should be more continental markets and street entertainment, the superb Potteries Museum – for example – could be opened up for evening visitors and more should be done to promote some of the terrific restaurants.

Successful city centres don’t close down at 5.30pm and I would suggest we neglect Hanley’s night-time economy at our peril.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Mission accomplished: It seems there really is no place like home…

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I’ve learned a thing or two in the last three months. Firstly, The Sentinel’s Managing Director has something of an eye for (obsession for) interior design.

Thus I have been forced to sit through discussions involving feature walls, carpet colours, kitchen splash backs and dishy chairs (I confess I had to look the last one up).

Choosing the decor and the furnishings was, of course, a very small but important part of the process of relocating to our new offices in Hanley – which we finally did over the weekend.

I’ve lived and breathed this project since July.

It’s the reason calls to my phone have gone unanswered, emails still await replies, meetings have been cancelled and I’ve dodged catch-ups with my best contacts.

It’s also the reason I’ve had precious little dad time which was why on Saturday I made sure my girls were among the first to see The Sentinel’s new home.

Apologies to all. I’ll make it up to you. Promise.

I’ve been well and truly out of my comfort zone and up to my eyes in seating plans (changed eight times), parking permits, grant applications and all manner of stuff involved in moving more than 100 staff (including almost 50 journalists) and a seven-day a week business into the heart of the city centre.

In truth there are still bits ‘n’ bobs to do. Some furniture and white goods have yet to arrive, there’s more carpentry and painting to do, we’re missing some plastic cups. A couple of the screens in the newsroom aren’t yet showing the digital analytics we’d like them to do. But, to borrow one of the gaffer’s phrases: ‘It’s just detail’.

He’s right. To all intents and purposes The Sentinel is up Hanley, duck, and fully operational.

As I sit here now looking out over a newsroom that you can’t help but feel proud of, there’s an enormous feeling of satisfaction and relief.

The move had to be completed over a weekend – four days technically – without any disruption to the newspaper or our website.

In that regard it’s mission accomplished. But what went on during those four days will long live in the memory.

Things such as my dad fixing shelving and coat hooks and making benches and desks for our precious archive room.

Or the sight of The Sentinel’s Editor manfully carrying an extremely heavy ceramic wall bust of this newspaper’s founder across the newsroom to see where it would sit best.

Or our MD carefully placing lime green coasters and purple cushions in offices and break-out areas.

Or yours truly lugging furniture around and unpacking crate after crate of beautiful leather bound volumes of The Sentinel and creating an impressive new library in the newsroom.

Plenty of people played their part in an exercise which showed that this is far more than just a workplace – it’s the home of a heritage brand that we’re all extremely proud to be associated with which has just refurbished a landmark.

In six years’ time the former Bethesda Sunday school which we now occupy will celebrate its 200th anniversary and it’s more than appropriate that ours is the business which has breathed new life into such an historic and iconic building.

Indeed the man who designed the interior of our new offices described it as the most satisfying (if stressful) project he has ever worked on – and the best building.

It’s easy to see why. Two of my colleagues told me, unsolicited, on Sunday that they came into work with a spring in their steps having seen the completed ground floor a few days earlier.

Even the most cynical, hard-bitten hacks in the newsroom struggled to grumble when they saw the beautiful sash windows, the high ceilings, the plasma screen and – yes – the lovely new carpets and furnishings.

It’s certainly a more inspirational place in which to work than our former home at Etruria and in keeping with a business that’s almost 160 years old itself.

It goes without saying that working for a newspaper (I’m supposed to say digital publishing business) isn’t a nine to five, Monday to Friday job and it doesn’t half help when your working environment is stunning and the front of your building looks like a Victorian postcard scene.

It’ll be nice to be able to wander over to the Potteries Museum to view the Staffordshire Hoard and the Spitfire gallery of a lunchtime. (Occasionally we have one).

It’ll be nice to stroll up Piccadilly to see my mum on the oatcake stall in the market or to have a coffee with Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson during rehearsals for panto at The Regent. It’ll be nice to be able to do a bit of Christmas shopping when we’re working late one night.

Most importantly, of course, we hope our readers and customers like the new place too.

I’ve already promised two readers who used to attend Bethesda Sunday School a personal tour of the building to stir the memories.

A few readers popped in at the weekend – past the crates and the teams of removal people – to have a nosey before we’d even opened. It was great to see their enthusiasm.

One couple said they were delighted we were back in Hanley as they’d now only have to catch the one bus from Trentham to come and see us. It seems there really is no place like home…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Proud to see Stoke’s Top Talent shine once again

When you are involved in the organisation of any big community event there’s always that nagging doubt: The fear that no-one will actually turn up.

In this case I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at the Victoria Hall in Hanley at half past seven on Saturday morning the queue of entrants and their supporters was already snaking around the building.

It felt like a homecoming. Stoke’s Top Talent was back after a year off and so was the buzz surrounding our showcase for home-grown stage stars.

They say the role of the media is to inform, to educate and to entertain.

Stoke’s Top Talent certainly ticks the third box and, like the Our Heroes awards which we judge tomorrow, provides this newspaper with an opportunity to champion the communities it serves.

The contestants came from all over our patch. From across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

They came from Crewe and Congleton, Biddulph and the Moorlands, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stone, Stafford and, of course, the Potteries.

For some, simply performing in front of hundreds of people at the Vicki Hall is thrill enough. Not everyone harbours dreams of a career in showbusiness.

For example, at the age of 74, I suspect crooner Graham Horne knows that the competition is unlikely to propel him to West End stardom.

But, as he said himself, he just loves to sing in front of an audience and he did Ol’ Blue Eyes proud once again.

I reckon it would take a brave man to bet against Chell’s finest making it through to the latter stages of the contest.

In sharp contrast to Graham, there were scores of youngsters there on Saturday for whom the dream of a career in musical theatre is very much alive.

From the brilliant dance act Dolly Mix who just get better and better to guitar virtuoso David Jiminez Hughes, of Silverdale, who won a few hearts and minds at the end of a very long day.

For them Stoke’s Top Talent could well be a springboard to future success – allowing them to follow in the footsteps of Abbey Hulton dancer Aaron Corden.

He was sat right behind me on the front row, watching this year’s hopefuls with a wistful look in his eyes.

Now one of the top dancers at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge, Aaron has already danced for Take That and the Black Eyed Peas and will be back home in Stoke-on-Trent for Christmas appearing in the Regent Theatre panto alongside whoever wins the competition which kick-started his career.

For others with no great ambition beyond the contest itself, it was simply a case of testing the water.

Some were doing it for charity like the Dolly Tubs – four ladies with big personalities squeezed into leotards and tutus in the name of Caudwell Children.

They showed us their best sides as well as their backsides and no-one minded that we’d only just had breakfast.

Some of the contestants will have wanted to do this for years: Wanted to prove to themselves that they could stand up in front of an audience and sing, dance, tell jokes or perform tricks.

Whatever their reasons for getting involved, the 147 acts who had their moment in the spotlight on Saturday can be rightly proud of themselves for having the bottle to get up on that stage.

For me, being a judge will always be something of a surreal experience because I’m just a punter.

I’m not in the industry. I don’t do am dram. There are so many people more qualified than yours truly who could be judging the contestants.

But that’s why Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson were there. That’s why panto producer Kevin Wood (‘the judge with the grudge’) and West End star Louise Dearman will be at the heats and grand final in September – along with a host of other famous faces.

Me? Well, I once embarrassed himself in panto but my main qualification is that I have the distinction of having sat through every single Stoke’s Top Talent audition and heat since year one.

I just try to say what I see – which isn’t always easy when Jonny Wilkes is writing inappropriate comments on your judging sheet, trying to make you laugh when you’re speaking and stitching you up with the voting.

Ever the performer, you have to be on your toes with our Jonny when there’s a mic around.

Even so, it was a wonderful day which I could tell meant a lot to Jonny. Christian, meanwhile, seemed genuinely blown away at the calibre of some of the acts. He wasn’t alone.

It was a day of raw emotion ranging from the nerves of first-time contestants to the elation of those put through to the callbacks.

Then there was the genuine pleasure of seeing a few familiar faces return stronger and better with two years’ worth of practice under their belts.

On Saturday we have the unenviable task of cutting the remaining 110 acts down to just 50 who will contest the heats.

It really is a case of comparing apples and pears when gymnasts, dancers, singers, musicians, comedians, a drag queen and a mentalist go head-to-head.

However, unlike some of the the TV talent shows which make a point of poking fun at some of their contestants, Stoke’s Top Talent is a win-win for all concerned.

Everyone will get their moment in the sun and everyone will walk away with huge respect from the judges, their fellow competitors and the audiences.

What’s more, someone will walk away with a cash prize of £2,000 a professional theatre contract.

For me, though, it’s all about generating pride. Pride in our communities and pride in the potential of local people to aspire to great and memorable moments which will stay with them all their lives.

*The callback auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent take place on Saturday (August 4) at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, starting at 9.30am and are free to watch.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

How Abbey’s ‘ginger ninja’ is doing us proud in panto land

Had it not been for the fact that Aylesbury has a new theatre I doubt I’d ever have visited the county town of Buckinghamshire.

But that’s where a certain Pete Conway and I headed down to in order to watch the pantomime we had appeared in up Hanley a couple of years ago be re-created by virtually the same cast.

The Aylesbury Waterside Theatre is a modern architectural wonder – all wood panelling, slate floors and sumptuous seating.

Granted, it’s not The Regent, but I can think of worse places to spend an evening.

Four seats to the right of me was actor Warwick Davis of Star Wars and Willow fame.

Three seats to the left of me was the national treasure that is David Jason. I brought him some popcorn to say thank you purely for the ‘Play it cool, Trig, play it cool’ scene in Only Fools And Horses.

But it wasn’t these showbiz luminaries I’d gone to see – it was my mate Wilkesy and the cast of Dick Whittington.

It’s basically Stoke’s patented panto on tour – the same lead (our Jonny), the same dame (Christian Patterson), the same villain (Steve Serlin) and many members of the original ensemble.

The show was great – even without my now legendarily-rubbish dancing – and although Jonny was missing his partisan Stokie crowd the ‘Ay up me ducks’ went down a treat.

Pete and I could still remember our lines off-by-heart and even though we saw the jokes coming a mile off they still cracked us up.

But the highlight of the night for me was seeing another local lad do his thing in front of hundreds of people.

Aaron Corden and his cousin Andrew, from Abbey Hulton, were runners-up in the Stoke’s Top Talent contest at The Regent in September 2009.

Both had applied to attend vocational courses at Stoke-on-Trent College until Phil ‘The Power’’ Taylor and Potteries businessman Will Bark stepped in and agreed to fund courses for them at the prestigious Bodywork Company Dance Studios.

Since then the lads have repaid this generosity by knuckling down and chasing their dreams hard.

Take Aaron, for example. In the last two years he has been a backing dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas.

Last year he was named best student and won a scholarship at Bodywork which meant that his course fees were paid for. Now the ‘ginger ninja’, as I like to call him, is one of the ensemble dancers in Dick Whittington – with a very proud Jonny Wilkes looking on.

Even to my untrained eye two years ago, it was obvious Aaron was a bit special – combining astonishing athletic ability with an admirable work ethic.

Unfortunately, having landed a role in Dick Whittington at The Regent, he broke his leg very early in the run and then had to watch from the sidelines as we all had a ball and yours truly made a fool of himself.

During panto rehearsals at The Regent I remember sitting in the auditorium talking to Aaron and being blown away by his enthusiasm and how grateful he was for the opportunity to be on stage.
On the X-Factor it is a pre-requisite that everyone has to say the dream of becoming an entertainer means the world to them.

Aaron Corden is someone who not only talks this talk – he walks the walk too.

Let’s not forget that he and his cousin Andrew were completely self-taught – learning dance routines and moves by watching videos of artists like Michael Jackson on the internet.

Now, with just a year of his college course to go, Aaron is hot property and has more than earned his role in the Aylesbury re-run of the panto he missed out on.

He’s a break-dancing rat, a shark in the ultra-violet scene and does all sorts of other bits ’n bobs during the show which require him to do quick costume changes.

According to a fellow dancer in the panto Aaron is the best student in his year and, such is his prowess, I’m sure the theatre-goers of Aylesbury just assume he’s been doing what he does for ages.

It makes me incredibly proud to see a young lad from Stoke-on-Trent using his God-given talent to give our Jonny a run for his money by brightening up the festive season for so many people.
There are, of course, no guarantees in an industry where even established names often live a hand-to-mouth existence.

But if natural ability, hard work and application are anything to go by then this 19-year-old from the Abbey has a very bright future ahead of him in musical theatre.

Happy Christmas, Aaron: This one’s for you, mate.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Why panto will always have a special place in my heart

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

By the time this year’s panto finishes, I will have performed in front of more than 25,000 people.

That figure includes family, friends and colleagues who all came to see me dressed up as an old duffer – wearing make-up, singing, dancing (after a fashion) and making a fool of myself.

I have suffered for my art. No, honestly I have. I mean, you wouldn’t grow a beard like this under normal circumstances. Would you?

Having lived in this strange panto cocoon for seven weeks now and with 22 shows under my belt, I finally feel able to comment properly on the alien world that this cynical old hack has been inhabiting.

I’ve always been the outsider here. That’s no-one’s fault – it’s simply a fact that when the curtain comes down for the final time on Sunday night yours truly will return to The Sentinel HQ all suited and booted, while the rest of the cast will move on to their next show.

I know I’ll be sad to leave, The Regent’s become like a second home to me.

I’ll miss Caroline’s voice over the Tannoy summoning us to vocal warm-up, or announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen of the company – this is your Act One beginners’ call, your Act One beginners’ call, please.”

I’ll miss the adrenalin rush that hits you the moment you walk out on stage for the first time and the sense of relief when your first gag gets a laugh.

I’ll miss the camaraderie of people like Jonny Wilkes, our ever-popular dame Christian Patterson, Steve Serlin and director Matt Salisbury who have taken me under their wings and shown me genuine kindness and boundless patience.

I’ll miss the wonderful staff at The Regent who have always made me feel so welcome, despite the fact they have proper stars to look after.

But, most of all, I will miss the incredible warmth of Potteries audiences, who make The Regent pantomime the runaway success it is.

I don’t mind telling you it’s bloody hard work.

There were times when I doubted I could do it as I tried to juggle the panto role, my day job and family commitments.

I remember, on the morning of my second show, literally clinging on to the set for grim death before my entrance – much like a drowning man might cling to a barrel thrown overboard as his ship capsized.

I can look back and laugh, because walking on stage is like falling off a log to me now.

The hard part is making each show feel as fresh and vibrant as the first, even though you may have used the same lines, gestures and facial expressions two dozen times.

I guess that’s what makes people like Wilkesy and our dame so good and why they put bums on seats in the Cultural Quarter.

You see, this isn’t Milton Keynes or Wimbledon.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a very strong sense of place and identity.

That being the case, you can keep your foreign celebrities and soap stars for the lead roles. What we have here in North Staffordshire every Christmas is a dynamic that so obviously works.

So why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?

Why would you want to lose the strong local flavour running through a show like The Regent panto, or swap your main men for outsiders who will take the money and go through the motions?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always plain sailing back stage.

I remember one night approaching Christian’s dressing room and hearing him and Jonny going at it hammer and tongues.

It transpired they were actually arguing about lines in the show and it was a row that was over as quickly as it had begun.

The fact is they care passionately about delivering the very best shows they can and that filters down to the rest of us.

Make no bones about it, being away from your family is the hardest part of being involved in a show like this.

Christmas was a blur.

I feel like it passed me by. I mean, I haven’t even seen the face of the new Doctor Who yet.

But, even if I never tread the boards again, I can always say I’ve been there and done it.

I have some wonderful memories and I hope I held my own up there.

One thing’s for sure, one look at the audiences who forgot their troubles with us for just a few hours knocks on the head any notion that theatres are elitist.

Young or old, rich or poor, pantomime has the ability to connect with everyone on so many levels and it will always have a special place in my heart.

Theatre star Christian Patterson’s review of my panto performance


Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell is appearing in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime Dick Whittington. Here, pantomime dame Christian Patterson – a firm favourite with Potteries audiences – reviews Martin’s first night…

It’s not often that you have two first nights – but with this production of Dick Whittington the part of Alderman Fitzwarren has been divided between Pete Conway and Martin Tideswell.

Pete’s final performance was on Tuesday night and as I write this he is sitting beside a pool in Los Angeles leaving Martin to pick up the pieces in snowy Stoke-on-Trent.

From day one of rehearsals, nerves aside, Martin showed an abundance of enthusiasm towards the cast, the panto and his part.

As Fitzwarren he is quicker than his predecessor and delivers an all-round performance full of gusto.

He delivers the laugh lines beautifully and his presence on stage is warm, generous and giving – as is Martin himself.

His dancing, or rather his sense of rhythm, is quite another story. In fact I would go as far to say that Martin is to dance what King Herod is to babysitting.

However, he tries – I’ll give him that.

That aside he is as welcome a cast member as any other. And it gives me great pride that we will share the stage together until January 10.

Amy Diamond as Alice continues to sparkle, as her name suggests she would. Kayleigh McIntyre as Tommy the Cat is as cute as ever. Steve Serlin, who plays King Rat, and his evil ratlings continue to draw the boos and the hisses with great style and aplomb.

Shelia Ferguson as Fairy Oatcakes belts out her songs better than any diva that you’ll see this side of the Atlantic. Su Annagib is outstanding in her first stage performance; her natural singing and acting ability is nothing short of brilliant.

And so to Jonny Wilkes. In my opinion, Jonny is to The Regent panto what the ravens are to the Tower of London.

If he ever left I would fear the whole thing would collapse. Melodramatic? Not in my opinion. Jonny is a wonderful actor, has an incredible singing voice and is the glue that holds it all together.

But it is his passion for Stoke-on-Trent and its residents that is truly overwhelming.

For the three years that I have shared the stage with him, his mantra to me has always been “I want to make this the best one yet”.

This is Jonny’s fifth panto appearance at The Regent, and if he wasn’t here I fear they would be no choice but to ship in a foreign actor or soap star who had no affinity with the Potteries or its people.

It is in no small part due to Jonny, under the guidance of director Matt Salisbury, that the panto continues to draw wonderful audiences that leave the theatre having had a genuinely funny panto experience.

It is a joy to have had the last three years at The Regent. I‘d like to thank all the staff at the theatre, especially the its chief executive Richard Wingate, Jonny Wilkes and every member of the audience that has made my time here the happiest of my career.

This sounds like I’m leaving but there’s not a chance! All being well, I’ll be back on December 9, 2010. Meanwhile, in the words of Dick Whittington “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.