Civic honours for Robbie Williams something we can all agree on

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Today The Sentinel celebrates the achievements of a local lad done good.

It’s a story that will please many but doubtless cause a vocal minority to reach for their keyboards or pens to condemn the council, The Sentinel and probably the bloke in question too.

It was as recently as November 15 that I suggested through this column that our city should do something to honour Robbie Williams’s achievements – both in terms of his career in music and his charity work.

This was on the back of plans for RWFanFest – a celebration led by fans being planned here in Stoke-on-Trent to mark Rob’s 40th birthday and to raise much-needed funds for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice (DLCH).

My contention was that it was about time the city did something to acknowledge one of its most famous sons – i.e. Robert Peter Williams, formerly of Take That, who has for some time been the UK’s most popular solo music artist.

This is because, until now, there has been nothing here in the Potteries to say that a bloke who has sold more than 70 million records and won more BRIT Awards than any other artist comes from our neck of the woods.

The statistics of his career to date are impressive enough in terms of concert tickets and albums sold, but when you add to that his charity endeavours then surely no-one would dispute that his home city can rightly be proud of the man known to millions as Robbie.

With his mate Jonny Wilkes he created the bi-annual Soccer Aid football match which has so far raised more than £11 million for children’s charity UNICEF.

Perhaps more pertinently Robbie has given away £5 million of his own money through his Give It Sum charity to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire and, let’s not forget, bought £250,000 worth of shares in his beloved Port Vale which, at the time, saved the club from going bust.

He has a Staffordshire knot tattoo on the back of his hand and constantly references both his birthplace and his football club through his music lyrics and when on stage in front of millions.

Robbie may not live in the ST postcode area anymore but no-one could accuse him of forgetting his roots – unlike many celebrities drawn to the bright lights of London or Los Angeles.

Today we announce that the city council has decided to create various legacy projects which not only honour Robbie for his achievements to date but also tap into the potential of brand RW for the benefit of the city in terms of raising its profile and helping to bring in tourists and visitors.

This is something which, I believe, Robbie himself would approve of and I’m sure he’s as chuffed as his mum and dad are that very soon there will be a tourist trail, streets named in honour of his music, a ‘Robbie Day’ in schools and a photographic and memorabilia exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG).

Hopefully, one day soon, (and inevitably incognito) he will arrive in Stoke-on-Trent to have a look for himself at the legacy work being done in his name.

When initiatives like this are undertaken critics often argue that the recipient of the honour isn’t worthy or cannot be compared to other famous names who have been paid similar tributes.

In the case of Stoke-on-Trent we are talking about the likes of Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell CBE and Sir Stanley Matthews CBE who have statues here in the Potteries and who have been honoured with street names and exhibitions.

Of course, to compare them with each other would be like comparing apples and pears. Both were sublime in their respective fields and I suspect both would be gracious enough to acknowledge a recording artist with the stature of Robbie Williams as someone worthy of recognition by his home city.

Another thing critics of initiatives such as those announced today often pick up on is the cost to council taxpayers so let’s nail that one now.

The cost for all the projects unveiled today is minuscule – primarily because they represent a partnership between the local authority, this newspaper, the DLCH, private firms, members of the community and individuals like Robbie’s mum and dad.

In my opinion spending a few thousand pounds on an exhibition at PMAG and creating a tourist trail (the other projects are cost neutral) is well worth the initial modest outlay when you think about the potential benefits.

This money wouldn’t have saved jobs or prevented a council-run facility from closing but it will definitely help brighten up our city and increase our ‘offer’, as they say in tourist-speak, to visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. Having a Robbie Day in schools sounds brilliant in terms of engaging children through music and art. Why not?

Naming streets with a nod to the bloke’s tunes costs nowt. It’s just a nice gesture so I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that – unless they want to pick fault with the names, that is. I guess someone’s bound to.

I’d like to think that down the line our temporary Robbie exhibition leads to a permanent one somewhere here in the Potteries – hopefully including items donated by the man himself.

The council and this newspaper are constantly criticised for being too negative about the city. Hopefully today will be one of those rare occasions where everyone can agree that the announcements represent a win/win for all concerned – especially, of course, a charity close to Robbie’s heart.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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It’s time our city honoured Robbie Williams

Fans waiting outside the home of Robbie Williams in 1994.

Fans waiting outside the home of Robbie Williams in 1994.

When I was a cub reporter in the early 1990s I was regularly sent out to Greenbank Road in Tunstall – and various other places across the Potteries – where groups of teenage girls would gather, hoping for a glimpse of their idol.

He was never there, of course, but that didn’t stop disciples of a certain Robert Peter Williams from congregating.

They travelled from all over the UK, and some from even further afield, snapping up Port Vale home shirts to take to concerts around the country in the hope the cheeky chappie from Tunstall would spot them in the crowd.

Take That were at the height of their powers back then, and our Robbie was young, single and extremely eligible.

Fast forward 20 years and much has changed. Robbie, as his fans know him, broke a million hearts by leaving the boy band which made him famous.

He enjoyed his time with numerous celebrity girlfriends, faced down his personal demons, launched a hugely successful solo career, amassed an eye-popping personal fortune, raised millions of pounds for charity, fell in love, got married and became a dad. Oh, and he saved the Vale along the way.

Everything has changed in two decades – except the fact that Rob has some of the most loyal fans of any star on the planet and it seems that a fair few of them will be heading to the Potteries in the New Year.

To mark the singer’s 40th birthday on February 13, the RWFanFest is being staged here in Rob’s home city with the twin aims of acknowledging the man’s remarkable achievements while raising money for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice (DLCH) at Trentham Lakes – a charity close to his heart.

Organisers are planning guided bus tours around Rob’s old stomping ground, along with a charity concert and auction and a fans’ art exhibition which is being shipped over from Milan to the Burslem School of Art. (Rob’s fans on the continent – in Italy and Germany especially – are second to none. See the Diario Italiano di Robbie Williams website if you don’t believe me).

Pottery firm Wade has offered to produce souvenir ware and Port Vale staff will be holding collections for DLCH at the home game against Swindon.

Your truly will also be getting together next week with Pete Conway to plan another exhibition involving pictures and cuttings from The Sentinel’s archive along with personal mementoes and memorabilia which Rob’s dad has been collecting over the years.

It’s an exciting prospect and one which I believe affords us a great opportunity to honour one of Stoke-on-Trent’s most famous sons while raising the city’s profile.

You see, as I was listening to plans for the festival it occurred to me that we really are missing a trick.

I can’t help but think that if Rob had originated from Liverpool or Manchester or Birmingham they‘d already have a tourist trail in his name and a statue of him taking pride of place in the city centre.

I’m convinced they’d have plaques on the walls of every building he’d ever lived in and a permanent display of memorabilia at a museum somewhere.

But the sad truth is that, after 20 years of staggering success, there’s absolutely nothing here in Stoke-on-Trent to indicate to visitors that the man who is one of the UK’s biggest ever solo artists grew up here.

I think this is a crying shame and I find it somewhat baffling that our city has not yet honoured Rob in some way.

There will always, of course, be the nay-sayers. Those who don’t like the bloke or his music. Those who will point to the fact that he has lived in Los Angeles for a decade or more and who will argue that his links with the Potteries are tenuous at best. Others still will say that he’s ‘just a pop star’ and that his achievements don’t merit civic recognition. I guess it’s a bit like saying Sir Stanley Matthews CBE was ‘just a footballer’.

If you haven’t seen Robbie live I would simply say that, in my opinion, he’s one of the most charismatic and versatile entertainers this country has ever produced and the closest thing we now have to the late, great Freddie Mercury.

I think we should be incredibly proud of the fact that someone who has used his God-given talents to entertain tens of millions of people around the world hails from our neck of the woods.

If you don’t agree with me then perhaps simple statistics will persuade you.
Rob has thus far accumulated album sales of more than 70 million, had seven UK number one singles and collected 17 Brit Awards (the most of any artist). I don’t have enough room on this page to list his other awards and firsts, or his successes overseas.

Suffice to say people all over the world think he can sing a bit.

Let’s also not forget the day in 2006, two years after he was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, when Rob entered the Guinness Book of World records for selling 1.6 million tickets for his tour… in just one day.

Then there’s Rob’s charity work. His biannual Soccer Aid venture – for which another Potteries star, Rob’s mate Jonny Wilkes, should also receive enormous credit – has to date raised more than £6.5 million for children’s charity UNICEF.

Robbie’s own charity Give It Sum, overseen by his mum Jan, has distributed more than £5 million to worthy causes here in his native North Staffordshire.

Now tell me that Robbie Williams doesn’t deserve a little acknowledgement from his home city.

If it were up to me I’d be giving him the freedom of Stoke-on-Trent in February, asking permission to create a permanent exhibition about him at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and perhaps even putting up a statue or naming something or somewhere in his honour.

I’d certainly rather see that than some pointless piece of art.

I’d also be putting up plaques around the city, telling visitors that our Rob once lived/was taught/bought an oatcake here.

If none of this happens then I’d simply ask that on February 13 you raise a glass to our Rob.

By anyone’s estimations, the boy done good.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Please help us to find and reward Our Heroes

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Yesterday The Sentinel launched this year’s search for unsung heroes from across its patch.

I am, of course, referring to the Our Heroes community awards campaign where this newspaper and its partner organisation – the Aspire Group – seek to highlight the lives and work of special individuals and organisations.

Categories range from Child of Courage and Bright Young Thing to Adult Carer Of the Year and Charity Champion/Fund-raiser Of The Year through to School Star and Hero Of The NHS.

We honour members of the emergency services and the Armed Forces as well as community groups whose efforts make such a difference to people’s lives.

The Sentinel publishes their stories then our panel of independent judges convenes to choose three individuals or groups from each category who will attend a glitzy, celebrity gala night.

That’s when the likes of Nick Hancock, Jonny Wilkes, Anthea Turner, Wendy Turner-Webster, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks, OBE, Mark Bright, Imran Sherwani, John Rudge, Peter Coates – among others – are only too happy to give the applause rather than to receive it.

They turn out each year on the red carpet to pay tribute to ordinary folk from across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire who have rather extraordinary stories to tell.

We’ve already had more than a dozen nominations but we’re going to need an awful lot more.
That’s where you come in.

Over the next three months The Sentinel will publish around 120 heart-warming stories which put paid to the myth that newspapers are all doom, gloom and negativity.

Remarkably, the biggest challenge when organising an awards event on this scale isn’t arranging the seating plan, shooting 30-plus videos, selecting a menu, or chasing up the VIPs.

It’s actually persuading Sentinel readers to vote for their friends, relatives and colleagues in one of the nine award categories.

You see, the problem is that round here people are rather backward in coming forward – precisely because they don’t believe that what the people they know do, day-in, day-out, is out of the ordinary.

They view their lives very much as the hand they’ve been dealt and just get on with it – whether that means caring for a relative round-the-clock, 365 days a year or coping with tragedy or illness.

Others devote their time to helping those less fortunate than themselves or making their neighbourhoods better places in which to live.

This is the eighth year of the Our Heroes awards and I can honestly say, hand on heart, it is one of the highlights of my year.

Anyone who has ever attended one of the ceremonies will tell you that they are truly inspirational occasions which showcase the triumphs of the human spirit.

They remind you just how lucky you are when you see the adversity others face and overcome and, put quite simply, make you want to be a better person when you see the selflessness and generosity of others.

Over the years The Sentinel has published more than 1,000 inspirational stories of people who have enriched the lives of those around them. People like Edward Dyster who came up with the idea of cycling 150 miles to raise money for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice at the age of just six.

People like Dylan Kelsall, aged nine, from Longton, who has a muscle-wasting disease which means he faces surgery every six months.

People like Stephen Allerton, from Meir, who gave up his job as an engineer to care for his mother, father and brother.

People like cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths and Dougie Mac’s record fund-raiser John Leese, AKA the ‘Tin Can Man’, who have both sadly passed away since receiving their Our Heroes awards.

People like Ralph Johnson, from Biddulph, formerly a teacher at my old school – Holden Lane High – who spent more than 50 years helping to rescue people who got stuck in caves.

People like Colour Sergeant Gary Golbey, originally from Kidsgrove, who won the Beyond The Call Of Duty category after battling back from a brain tumour to complete the full 22 years’ service in the Army.

People like paramedic Rita Davies who tackled a knife-wielding patient who tried to attack a colleague.

People like Graham and Pat Bourne, from May Bank, who have devoted more than 100 years to enriching the lives of youngsters through the Scouting movement.

Each story is unique. Each award recipient extremely deserving. Crucially, each story worth the telling.

On September 19 this year’s unassuming yet amazing nominees will gather for another night to remember.

If you know someone worthy of recognition please don’t hesitate to contact The Sentinel and help us to make them feel special.

*To nominate someone for an Our Heroes award simply email: martin.tideswell@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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

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

Vale fans: Give me your messages and I’ll hand them all to Mike Lloyd on March 13


On February 21 more than 250 people packed out Smallthorne Victory WMC as Port Vale Supporters’ Club presented its interim board candidates to the fans – as it had promised to do.
The gloves are now off as we head towards the long-awaited EGM which will hopefully remove the current discredited Port Vale board.
On March 13 at Vale Park, as a shareholder and journalist, I intend to present Messrs Miller, Oliver, Lloyd and Deakin (well, whoever turns up…) with a petition from the fans who are the lifeblood of our club.
Please leave your comments on this blog post – along with your name, age, details of shareholding or how long you have been a Vale fan.
I will add them to mine (and Wilkesy’s) and let’s shame these people out of our club.
Many thanks,

Martin

Dear Messrs Miller, Oliver, Lloyd and Deakin. After months of lies, misleading statements and missed deadlines I implore you to step down. You are ruining Port Vale football club and alienating its fanbase. After the nil-paid shares fiasco, the Blue Sky shambles, the scandal of the chairman’s remuneration package, the shameful treatment of Roy Sproson’s family and the mortgaging of Vale Park (among other horrific mistakes), I and the vast majority of supporters and shareholders want you to leave.

Martin Tideswell, Aged 39, Vale season ticket holder and shareholder

Martin, I’m with you all the way with Port Vale. All you true Vale fans need to let our voices be heard and get our club back.

Jonny Wilkes

Panto critics should be careful what they wish for

Two years ago I had the privilege of appearing in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime – Dick Whittington.

It was a fantastic experience during which I made many friends and gained something of an insight into the world of musical theatre.

Cast members included the supremely-talented Sheila Ferguson, Christian Patterson and Steve Serlin as well as my mate Jonathan Wilkes.

I can tell you that not only was Jonny the lead in the production, he also played a major role in script editing and directing the show.

I’m reliably informed that this is not the norm and I know that Jonny went that extra mile day after day because he was performing in his home city.

There’s no doubt that having this home-grown performer in the panto has put bums on seats year after year.

However, you can’t please everyone – which is why The Sentinel would receive a couple of dozen letters annually which basically said ‘Oh no, not him again’.

Well, these critics have got their wish and for the first time in six years Jonny won’t be appearing at The Regent this Christmas.

I’ll be there, as usual, on opening night – doing my level best not to compare this year’s offering with what has gone before.

I wish Joe Swash and the rest of the cast of Aladdin all the best for their tenure at what is a superb venue with wonderful audiences.

Meanwhile our Jonny will be doing his thing at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre and I can’t resist making the trip to see what we are missing.

It will be interesting to see if, by the end of December, theatre-goers in the Potteries are calling for Jonny’s return. Oh yes it will.