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

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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”.

Will yours truly be any good in panto? Judge for yourself…

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Once the word got out, amid the hysterics from my colleagues, the first question I was asked was: “Do you have to share a sweaty costume with Robbie’s dad?”

The second question was: “Do you have to sing?”

Mercifully, the answer to both appears to be no – but yes I will be appearing in this year’s Christmas pantomime at Hanley’s Regent Theatre.

When I broke the news to The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief, he said it was a marvellous idea. He has, rather predictably, referred to me as ‘Buttons’, ever since.

The gaffer’s personal assistant laughed so hard at the thought of it I feared she had done herself an injury.

But that’s kind of the reaction you’re hoping for, I guess, if you are prepared to dress up in medieval garb and tights for a bit of slapstick festive comedy.

Working in a newsroom for 20 years makes you fairly thick-skinned anyway.

There’s what you might term a ‘robust’ atmosphere – i.e. everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else – and there’s very little room for shrinking violets.

The panto role came about when Jonny Wilkes rang me to ask how I felt about taking over from Pete Conway and playing his character in the second half of the run.

To be honest, it was a no-brainer – once I’d got the necessary permissions from my family and employer and convinced myself I wasn’t going to let anyone down.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Fonz (AKA American actor Henry Winkler who is appearing in panto in Liverpool), then it’s good enough for me.

Let’s face it, it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience what’s it’s like to be on stage in front of thousands of people for a couple of weeks with the likes of Wilkesy and the legendary Sheila Ferguson.

I’ll also get to see what really goes on behind the scenes (before, of course, dutifully reporting any gossip back to Sentinel readers).

In addition, this unexpected opportunity gives me the chance to work with Su-Annagib – winner of Stoke’s Top Talent 2009.

I was a judge again this year and, while the other Top Talent judges all bring theatrical expertise to the panel, I’m there very much as a representative of the audience.

Next year, however, I’ll be able to draw upon my own memories of Su’s panto journey – which will hopefully be her first step on the road to a career in musical theatre.

And it is not as though I am without some pedigree in the performing arts…

In 1981 I was the court chamberlain in a play at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green. I was nine.

Wearing a large cloak and strange hat, I carried a metal-tipped staff and banged it down hard on the stage three times.

What’s more, I can even remember my lines. I bellowed: “His majesty, the King!” Followed by: “Her majesty, the Queen!”

That was it.

I suspect I’ll have a few more words to say as Alderman FitzSentinel in The Regent’s production of Dick Whittington.

The draft script was 85 pages long and my character appears on at least half of them, so this is no walk in the park.

In fact, I’ve already had the ‘forgetting my lines on stage’ dream.

“Oh no you haven’t.” Oh yes, I honestly have.

Will I be any good? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.

However, I’m acutely aware that a lot of people pay good money to enjoy this Christmas tradition that I am privileged to be a part of and so I will give it my all.

There is, of course, a precedent for an amateur in this type of role at The Regent. Signal Radio’s Andy Goulding had this gig for a few years and I reckon anything a DJ can do a local newspaper hack can do just as well… if not better.

My daughters (aged three and five) weren’t too sure about it all when I told them dad would be on stage.

(They want to sit with me, you see, and share my pic ‘n’ mix).

But they soon warmed to the idea of me wearing a funny costume and making everyone laugh. At least, that’s the plan.

Recently, I spoke to my colleague John Abberley before he wrote very eloquently and powerfully about his battle with cancer. It was something I could identify with.

John reminded me that life is short – and so I’m seizing the moment.

Roll on December 23…

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