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

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

Vale’s loveable rogue who’s legacy is there for all to see

Port Vale Chairman Bill Bell celebrates with fans at the end of the 1993 season.

Port Vale Chairman Bill Bell celebrates with fans at the end of the 1993 season.

He was the archetypal cigar-chomping, Rolls-Royce driving football club chairman.

A man with a polished mahogany veneer but who was all solid, working class oak beneath.

Yes he may have divided opinion – indeed he still does.

I asked Vale fans on social media sites to sum up this most colourful of Potteries characters in one respectful word.

‘Shrewd’, ‘steadfast’, ‘cornerstone’, ‘foundation’, ‘wise’, ‘boss’, ‘astute’, ‘unique’, ‘character’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘entertaining’ and ‘rogue’ were some of the adjectives used.

Other words that cropped up included ‘promotions’ and, of course, ‘Spurs’.

Towards the end of his tenure at Vale Park, Bill Bell’s star was certainly waning – due in large part to the fracturing of his strained relationship with John Rudge.

During the Valiant 2001 era he was reviled by many as the man who sacked the club’s most successful manager and took Vale into administration.

Where had all the money gone from the sale of great players like Beckford, Guppy and Ainsworth? That’s what people wanted to know.

The former Chairman’s unconvential business methods certainly came under scrutiny like never before and it seemed that his reputation would forever be tarnished.

Had a group of Vale fans met in a pub 10 years ago I dare say their opinion of Bill Bell would have been negative as nerves were still raw.

But time, and perhaps the events of recent years, have served to put the man’s period at the helm in a different light.

I always got on well with Bill Bell. He was warm and generous and always had time for a chat or an interview.

Interestingly, some of the people who knew him best at the Vale – those who were there before he arrived – still hold him in the highest regard.

Groundsman Steve Speed is unequivocal.

He said: “Without Bill Bell I don’t think Port Vale would still be at Vale Park. We would have had to move to a smaller ground somewhere else.

“When he took over the place was literally falling apart and he laid the foundations for the stadium we have today. As Chairman he was so positive. He somehow managed to bring everyone together.

“It didn’t matter to him whether you were a cleaner, a player or the manager – we were all on the same team.

“Without his enthusiasm and his initial investments we wouldn’t have enjoyed the success we did – simple.

“I think towards the end he perhaps felt that he hadn’t received the credit he deserved for what he had done in partnership with John Rudge.

“It was very much a team effort. The Chairman would be down here seven days a week.”

Club Secretary Bill Lodey was Stadium Manager when Bill Bell took the reins at Vale Park and views the former Chairman as ‘Vale through and through’.

When I asked if Bill Bell had always been a Vale fan, Mr Lodey said: “Well he told me that when Vale Park was built he came along with his uncle and helped out with the work.

“He certainly put his heart and soul into the club while he was here.

“I think what’s crucial is that without the former Chairman’s initial investment to bring in the likes of Dean Glover and Neil Aspin – in the days before John Rudge was buying, polishing and selling-on players – we wouldn’t have gone on to enjoy the success we did.

“What’s more I’m pretty sure those investments, which were big money at the time, came out of his own pocket.

“He laid the foundations for the successful period when Vale fans enjoyed being in what is now the Championship and had numerous trips to Wembley and Cardiff.

“He was a classic wheeler-dealer. I think he paid about £4,000 for the second hand Sealand Road stand from Chester City and had it transported to Vale Park.

“What a piece of business that was. Just look at the stadium today to see what a difference he made.

“Bill Bell was also incredibly down to earth and carried the respect of everyone here at the club.

“Over the last decade or more I’ve heard more than a few people say: ‘This would never have happened under Bill (Bell)’. They’re right.

“He was a one-off and his partnership with John Rudge was exceptional.”

Potteries entertainer Pete Conway, father of pop superstar Robbie Williams knew Bill Bell for more than 50 years.

He said: “I think what is sad is that the Potteries has lost another of its most colourful characters.

“Bill delivered great times and wonderful memories for the Vale, however, and his legacy is the great stadium the club has today.”

Pick up a copy of today’s Sentinel (February 16, 2013) for more tributes to Bill Bell in the Green ‘Un.

Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”

Robbie’s got more important things on his mind than saving Port Vale

Jealousy is a terrible thing. It makes people do and say the daftest things – especially where celebrities are concerned.

I guess that’s why stars like the Potteries’ own Robbie Williams will always be a soft target and why he will never be able to do right in some people’s eyes.

On February 27, 2006, The Sentinel announced our Rob had effectively saved cash-strapped Port Vale by buying £265,000 worth of shares in the club.

At the time Vale Chairman Bill Bratt said: “It clearly shows he cares about Port Vale and its future. It’s now up to the board and all at Port Vale FC to ensure his investment is used wisely in helping to secure the future of our club.”

Fast-forward six years and Rob is now one of more than 1,000 creditors – including more than 900 ordinary Vale fans – who have lost their investment.

The club is back in administration and doesn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together.

Supporters are rattling collection buckets again and Vale’s future is far from certain.

Cue a procession of people asking why Robbie doesn’t buy the club, pay the costs of the administration process or stage a concert at Vale Park. After all, he’s minted, isn’t he?

Surely he wouldn’t miss a few million quid. It’s the equivalent of the rest of us chucking a hundred quid in the pot.

My answer to these questions would be: It’s his time and his money and it’s up to him what he does with them.

Back in 2006 it was made abundantly clear to the then Vale board of directors that Rob’s investment was a one-off – a goodwill gesture to the club he had supported all his life.

Of course, back then few people realised lightning could strike twice and that Vale would so soon be up the creek again without a paddle.

If Rob fancies doing something more to help the Vale then great. If he wants a Save The Vale tee-shirt for kick-abouts in California then I’ll send one to him via his dad.

But, to my mind, he’s done his bit – far more so than others I could mention.

For example, without Robbie’s shareholding – entrusted to the Supporters’ Club – ordinary fans wouldn’t have had a voice during the past tumultuous 12 months.

What I reckon we should be asking ourselves is why on earth he would want to do an Elton John and become more involved in a struggling League Two football club.

He’s indicated previously that he doesn’t have the time to devote such an undertaking and I’m not sure the basket case that is Port Vale would do the RW brand any favours right now.

Let’s say he did buy the club. It isn’t just a question of putting a few new seats in the Lorne Street stand and finishing off the infamous Robbie Williams suite.

As soon as things started to go pear-shaped on the field some fans would demand the club’s moneybags benefactor dip into his bank account for that star striker or desperate loan signing. And so it would go on.

No. What Port Vale needs is to be run by a businessman or woman who knows how to turn a profit while keeping his or her customers happy.

Let’s leave Rob to enjoy married life, carry on making music and continue contributing to the charities he supports – including many here in North Staffordshire.

You see, contrary to what Bill Shankly may have said, there are far more important things in life than football.

A few days ago Rob announced via the internet that he and his wife Ayda were announcing their first child.

The ‘tweet’ was an honest and emotional one from a man who, despite his worldwide fame and substantial fortune, has clearly realised that he’s about to have his world rocked by something entirely natural and human.

He’s soon to become a dad and, as any parent will tell you, it’s the best feeling in the world.

It doesn’t matter if he lives in a mansion in Los Angeles. It doesn’t matter if he’s Britain’s biggest music star. It doesn’t matter how much money he has.

Right now he’s Robert Peter Williams and he and his missus are about to have a baby.

I think he can be forgiven if he’s got more important things on his mind than Port Vale. He’s loving angels instead.

So let’s just be happy for a Potteries lad done-good and wish him and his family all the best.

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

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”.