Why all this ‘woe is us’ when the glass is actually half full?

Bethesda Chapel in Hanley.

Bethesda Chapel in Hanley.

If I had a quid for every time someone had written Stoke-on-Trent off, put us down, belittled us, taken the mickey out of us or moaned about our lot during my time at The Sentinel then I’d be a very rich man.

There is one letter writer who starts every missive with ‘It beggars belief’ (honestly) while another uses every possible obtuse angle and off-beat topic as a stick to beat ‘lazy Civic Centre staff’ with.

If you believe the doom-mongers then Whitehall always ignores us, the city council is utterly hopeless and beyond redemption and even our professional, showpiece pantomime is a second class affair.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our default position here in the Potteries is ‘woe is us’.

What’s worse is that we cast around looking for scapegoats while waiting for someone else to ride to the rescue of our economy/local services/The Regent Theatre panto – insert as applicable.

(I am currently picturing one of the Chuckle Brothers or Russ Abbott passing through Hanley on a white horse).

Well, as a journalist for 20 years, I have more right than most to be cynical.

After all, I’ve read and written about the unfairness of central Government funding and the ineptitude of local authorities many times.

As for the aforementioned Christmas show, I grew a beard for it and embarrassed myself in front of 25,000 people and so I know exactly what goes into it.

Today I’m going to set the record straight.

Firstly, there is no cavalry coming over the hill any time soon to create tens of thousands of new jobs to replace those lost in our traditional industries.

By the same token, there is no quick fix to the problem of our sink estates, our poor housing, our obesity problems, our teenage pregnancy rate, our low aspirations or even our propensity to wallow in self-pity.

Basically, to all intents and purposes, we’re on our own and it is therefore time we rolled our sleeves up and started dealing with our own problems.

Gloomy as that sounds, I’m also here to tell you that, despite what others may think, the glass here in North Staffordshire is actually half full.

I believe we stand at a crossroads. We are just a few jigsaw pieces away from the great economic, social and cultural renaissance of our area.

For example, we are only a new bus station, a Bethesda Chapel restoration and a Staffordshire Hoard exhibition away from having a Cultural Quarter worth the name.

I sense a growing momentum for change borne out of decades of frustration and a long-overdue acknowledgement that North Staffordshire has many strengths which are ripe for exploitation.

Yes, occasionally, organisations or individuals must be held to account when they drop a clanger.

But now is definitely not the time to stick the knife in or to be perpetuating this myth that somehow anything and everything that happens in the ST postcode area is either doomed to failure or second rate.

I’m fed up of hearing the negativity and reading about all the things we can’t do.
What about the things we can do?

On Saturday my day spent at the Victoria Hall was filled with pride and optimism in North Staffordshire – or should I say its people?

I watched all ages overcome their nerves and try their very best to reach the finals of this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition.

The sheer joy in the faces of the dancers from The Masque Theatre Company summed up just how inspirational this aspirational event, championed by Jonathan Wilkes, truly is.

After judging Stoke’s Top Talent I headed over to a marquee in the Italian Gardens of the Trentham estate for another equally uplifting occasion.

It was the launch of the Realise Foundation – a new regeneration charity backed by Aspire Housing – which, among other things, aims to give young people the skills they need to find jobs while improving the local environment.

If any charity sums up the ethos required to break the cycle of apathy and to get North Staffordshire off its backside then the Realise Foundation is it.

What’s more, it’s a local charity run by local people.

Its patron? Jonny Wilkes.

Yes, our Jonny: The oft-maligned stage star who has single-handedly rescued The Regent Theatre’s Christmas show in the last five years – yet someone who still cops flak from the lazy and ill-informed who are happy to ignore cold commercial reality and the wishes of the majority of paying theatre-goers.

Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.

My mantra these days is pretty simple: Ignore the vocal minority. Stoke-on-Trent is going places – with or without the whingers.

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Panto star Wilkesy has had his day? Oh no he hasn’t…

It’s A straightforward question: Do you want Jonathan Wilkes back again this Christmas at the Regent Theatre?

‘Oh no we don’t!’ cry a vocal minority. ‘Oh yes we do’, answer his legion of fans.

And so the debate rumbles on in The Sentinel’s letters pages.

As we struggle to get to grips with the worst recession since the ’30s, I suppose who stars in this year’s premier Potteries pantomime is hardly a pressing issue.

Then again, you’d be surprised how exercised people can become when threatened with the Chuckle Brothers or Joe Pasquale.

This will be Wilkesy’s fifth year taking the starring role at the Hanley venue.

Critics say they’ve had enough of Baddeley Green’s finest and they want, nay deserve, a change.

They claim his local-boy ‘Ay up, me ducks’ is wearing thin and point to other cities where the cast is fresh every year and a new headliner attracts first-time theatregoers.

Well, even if I didn’t know the bloke, people would have a hard time convincing me that his star is waning just yet.

We could go round in circles debating the quality of the pantos. (I think last year’s was Wilkesy’s best to date.)

However, the facts speak for themselves. The 2008 production of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs broke box office records for a Regent panto for the fourth year running.

And isn’t that, ultimately, what it’s all about? Yep… bums on seats.

If the Ambassador Theatre Group which runs the Regent thought for a second that Wilkesy couldn’t bring home the bacon, don’t you think he’d be looking for work elsewhere over the festive season?

Of course, the Regent isn’t alone in having a star return year after year.

Other examples include Gerard Kelly in Glasgow, Billy Pearce in Wolverhampton and John Barrowman in Birmingham.

It is also interesting to note that when the Regent surveyed 100 random pantomime ticket buyers this year, none of them said they wanted rid of Wilkesy.

It seems that here in the Potteries, the punters keep on coming because they love the star turn and are happy with the parochial nature of much of the comedy.

I think they have learned to appreciate the huge amount of work and the incredible attention to detail which gears each production to the local audience.

Presumably they also love the use of upcoming talent in the form of local youngsters who take on the roles of dancers, etc.

Certainly, the warm reception afforded to the winner of the inaugural Stoke’s Top Talent competition (Daniel Hewitt), who went on to star alongside Wilkesy for three months, underlined the appetite for home-grown performers.

Indeed, I think the unique selling point of the Regent’s panto is that it is, perhaps more than any other festive theatre show in the UK, tailored to its audience and brimming with talent from North Staffordshire.

Sure, you still get the fantastic costumes, the slapstick humour and the singalongs, but we also get video messages from the likes of Robbie Williams (the genie of the lamp), or a magic mirror voiced by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

If we didn’t have Wilkesy, we could, of course, have a big name from soap land to head the cast.

But, hang on a minute… we had Corrie’s Shobna Gulati in 2007 and the lovely Claire Sweeney last year.

So, for my money, we are getting the best of both worlds.

In short, I’m not really sure what the detractors are bleating on about.

More to the point, they can boo and hiss all they like – Wilkesy will still be compering Stoke’s Top Talent in September and stepping into Dick Whittington’s well-worn boots this Christmas.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel