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

New building, new gaffer… but The Sentinel carries on

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Last week was a momentous one for Sentinel staff with the announcement of the impending move to the city centre and the departure of our Editor-in-Chief.

We had known about both decisions for some time and, while they were tinged with sadness, they also mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the newspaper’s history.

They remind us that while buildings and people may change, the newspaper itself continues inexorably – constantly adapting and evolving to suit its readership and patch.

Relocating to Hanley, where The Sentinel has been based for most of its 159 years, represents a return to our spiritual home.

The move makes absolute sense as we no longer have a print works here at Etruria and, happily, it coincides with the multi-million regeneration of the city centre.

Our new home from the Autumn, the former Bethesda Sunday School, is steeped in history and we couldn’t have chosen a better base for a company which has been part of the fabric of life in this neck of the woods since 1854.

Handily located next to the Cultural Quarter and the proposed Central Business District, it means shoppers and anyone working in the area can nip in for a chat with a Sentinel reporter.

We’ll also only be a stone’s throw away from Hanley Police Station, Hanley Community Fire Station, the crown court and our contacts at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, The Regent Theatre and the Vicki Hall – among others.

That’s not to say that moving won’t be a wrench. The Sentinel has been at Festival Park since 1987 and many of us have fond memories of colleagues, past editions and countless hours spent here at this sprawling site next to the canal where the last remnants of Josiah Wedgwood’s original factory stand as a reminder of the city’s proud industrial heritage.

For exactly half the 15 years yours truly has been with my home-town newspaper, the man who has just vacated the big chair has been my ‘gaffer’.

I knew Mike Sassi before he arrived in North Staffordshire, having previously worked with him at the Derby Telegraph.

No two Editors are ever the same and, believe me, the appointment of the top man, or woman, is still a matter of great significance – and not just for the writers and photographers who report to them.

To my mind a newspaper, partisan or non-partisan, will always reflect the personality and passions of its Editor.

In that respect, I think we dropped lucky when Mike Sassi took over in December 2005 (I can say that without being accused of fishing for a pay rise because he’s gone).

I think it’s fair to say that he was at the helm during some of the most turbulent years that the newspaper industry has faced – given the economic situation and the way in which the internet has changed the game.

However, rather than retreating, Mike had us reaching out to our readership in new and innovative ways, staging major public events and forging partnerships with a variety of organisations.

The Our Heroes awards, the Class Act campaign which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools, the Young Journalist Awards, and the hugely-popular Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition all happened on his watch.

These weren’t events intended to make us money or flog papers. Rather they were intended to cement The Sentinel at the heart of the communities it serves.

The campaigns we ran were the same: From Save Our Staffords which successfully fought to preserve the name of our local regiment with a 17,000-strong petition, through to the battle to bring the Staffordshire Hoard at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

But perhaps what I will remember most about Mike’s tenure was a night in December 2011 when yours truly was up to his neck in the troubles engulfing Port Vale.

It was Mike’s brave decision to run with the stories exposing how supporters had been misled by the then board of directors which led to the resignation of the club’s chief executive and the subsequent sacking of its chairman.

Any journalist will tell you that having the support of your Editor when the big calls are made is absolutely priceless.

Mike Sassi worked extremely hard to try to learn what makes North Staffordshire and its people tick.

He was as excited as anyone with Stoke City’s appearance at Wembley and the club’s adventures in Europe; Chuffed to bits with Vale’s recent promotion and genuinely proud to see the Staffordshire Saxon statue unveiled at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I think our loss is genuinely the Nottingham Post’s gain but, as Mike will tell you himself, any Editor is simply the custodian – the caretaker, if you will – for the brand. He’ll hate this fuss but he’s earned it, in my opinion, and I’d like to wish Mike all the best in his new job.

Meanwhile, the original Neverending Story that is The Sentinel continues…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

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

Why not try the theatre? You might just enjoy yourself

It would certainly make for interesting reading if the people of North Staffordshire were surveyed to ask them whether or not they go to the theatre on a regular basis.

I suspect the numbers who would answer ‘yes’ are pretty small. Maybe 10 per cent at best.

The truth is that, aside from the annual trip for a Christmas pantomime, most families don’t give much thought to watching live stage productions.

It’s simply not high on their list of priorities.

While tens of thousands flock to watch Premier League Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium once a fortnight and 5,000-plus visit Vale Park to see my lot play, local theatres are forced to eke out an existence.

This is a crying shame when you consider the wonderful venues we have here in the Potteries.

In The New Vic at Basford we have Europe’s first, purpose-built theatre-in-the-round putting on many home-cooked shows every year as well as top-drawer touring productions.

In Hanley we have no less than three superb auditoriums. The newly-refurbished Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, the magnificent Regent theatre and the grand old Victoria Hall.

Those of us with long memories may still wince at the city council’s Cultural Quarter overspend but no-one can say the project didn’t gift us two bloody great, very distinct city centre venues.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the Queen’s Theatre in Burslem and equally fine Stoke-on-Trent Repertory Theatre on Leek Road.

All of the above put on superb live entertainment but, sadly, this is very often in front of half-empty houses.

Despite being privately-run businesses, many theatres rely heavily on local authority subsidies which – in the current climate – are harder to justify than ever before.

So why the apathy? Why aren’t more people choosing the theatre for a good night out?

Some people will doubtless blame the cost – although it’s certainly less expensive than tickets for a football match (depending where you sit) – and probably on a par with a trip to the cinema.

Others will blame the lack of variety and the quality of the shows on offer.

However, the reality is that if you look across all our local venues there is usually something to suit the taste (and pockets) of everyone.

If you ask me I reckon the reason that most people don’t go to the theatre is because a) they view it as the preserve of the middle classes or b) they’ve never experienced a live show. Or both.

Perhaps it’s the fault of schools. Or perhaps it’s our demographic.

I know some blokes who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a theatre – preferring to sit in their local boozer or in front of the telly every night than stepping outside of their comfort zone to watch a stage performance.

The great tragedy of this is that they don’t know what they are missing and the theatres are missing them.

The great irony is that local drama schools are filled with bright-eyed, enthusiastic and multi-talented youngsters itching to perform in front of bigger audiences.

Many of them, along with a few contestants who are a little longer in the tooth, will be taking part in this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition which kicks off in less than two weeks’ time.

All of them, I know, would dearly love your support.

The show is called Stoke’s Top Talent but in truth the acts will come from all over The Sentinel’s patch – from Biddulph and Congleton to Newcastle, Leek, Stafford and Stone – as well as the Potteries.

Through the competition, which offers cash prizes and a pantomime contract, they will get to appear on stage at the Victoria Hall and possibly The Regent theatre where the heats and grand final will take place.

Among the 170-plus acts taking part in the auditions will be bands, singers, musicians, dancers, impersonators, magicians and comedians.

The competition is championed by our own stage star Jonny Wilkes who gives up his time for free to work with the contestants and compere the show.

Stoke’s Top Talent is the reason that teenage dancer Aaron Corden, from Abbey Hulton, is now living the dream of working towards a career in musical theatre.

Self-taught from watching videos of Michael Jackson on the internet, he once carried a bench from Northwood Park to The Regent theatre to provide a prop for his act.

Having performed as a dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas over the last 18 months, he is now one of the top students at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge.

But a week on Saturday Aaron will be back at the Victoria Hall where his journey began, to watch this year’s hopefuls as they try to impress the judges.

Why don’t you join him and a very partisan crowd for the auditions?

It is a free-of-charge family day out and gives people who have perhaps never seen inside the place which recently played host to made-in-Stoke-on-Trent rock god Slash the chance to look around.

As someone who’s been lucky enough to appear in panto at The Regent and be a judge for Stoke’s Top Talent, I can assure you that you’ll be in for a treat.

*The auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent are free to watch and take place at the Victoria Hall in Hanley from 10am on Saturday, July 28 – with the call-backs the following Saturday, August 4.

The closing date for entries for Stoke’s Top Talent is Friday, July 20, and anyone interested in entering can download the application form by logging on to: http://www.stokestoptalent.com

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday