How Abbey’s ‘ginger ninja’ is doing us proud in panto land

Had it not been for the fact that Aylesbury has a new theatre I doubt I’d ever have visited the county town of Buckinghamshire.

But that’s where a certain Pete Conway and I headed down to in order to watch the pantomime we had appeared in up Hanley a couple of years ago be re-created by virtually the same cast.

The Aylesbury Waterside Theatre is a modern architectural wonder – all wood panelling, slate floors and sumptuous seating.

Granted, it’s not The Regent, but I can think of worse places to spend an evening.

Four seats to the right of me was actor Warwick Davis of Star Wars and Willow fame.

Three seats to the left of me was the national treasure that is David Jason. I brought him some popcorn to say thank you purely for the ‘Play it cool, Trig, play it cool’ scene in Only Fools And Horses.

But it wasn’t these showbiz luminaries I’d gone to see – it was my mate Wilkesy and the cast of Dick Whittington.

It’s basically Stoke’s patented panto on tour – the same lead (our Jonny), the same dame (Christian Patterson), the same villain (Steve Serlin) and many members of the original ensemble.

The show was great – even without my now legendarily-rubbish dancing – and although Jonny was missing his partisan Stokie crowd the ‘Ay up me ducks’ went down a treat.

Pete and I could still remember our lines off-by-heart and even though we saw the jokes coming a mile off they still cracked us up.

But the highlight of the night for me was seeing another local lad do his thing in front of hundreds of people.

Aaron Corden and his cousin Andrew, from Abbey Hulton, were runners-up in the Stoke’s Top Talent contest at The Regent in September 2009.

Both had applied to attend vocational courses at Stoke-on-Trent College until Phil ‘The Power’’ Taylor and Potteries businessman Will Bark stepped in and agreed to fund courses for them at the prestigious Bodywork Company Dance Studios.

Since then the lads have repaid this generosity by knuckling down and chasing their dreams hard.

Take Aaron, for example. In the last two years he has been a backing dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas.

Last year he was named best student and won a scholarship at Bodywork which meant that his course fees were paid for. Now the ‘ginger ninja’, as I like to call him, is one of the ensemble dancers in Dick Whittington – with a very proud Jonny Wilkes looking on.

Even to my untrained eye two years ago, it was obvious Aaron was a bit special – combining astonishing athletic ability with an admirable work ethic.

Unfortunately, having landed a role in Dick Whittington at The Regent, he broke his leg very early in the run and then had to watch from the sidelines as we all had a ball and yours truly made a fool of himself.

During panto rehearsals at The Regent I remember sitting in the auditorium talking to Aaron and being blown away by his enthusiasm and how grateful he was for the opportunity to be on stage.
On the X-Factor it is a pre-requisite that everyone has to say the dream of becoming an entertainer means the world to them.

Aaron Corden is someone who not only talks this talk – he walks the walk too.

Let’s not forget that he and his cousin Andrew were completely self-taught – learning dance routines and moves by watching videos of artists like Michael Jackson on the internet.

Now, with just a year of his college course to go, Aaron is hot property and has more than earned his role in the Aylesbury re-run of the panto he missed out on.

He’s a break-dancing rat, a shark in the ultra-violet scene and does all sorts of other bits ’n bobs during the show which require him to do quick costume changes.

According to a fellow dancer in the panto Aaron is the best student in his year and, such is his prowess, I’m sure the theatre-goers of Aylesbury just assume he’s been doing what he does for ages.

It makes me incredibly proud to see a young lad from Stoke-on-Trent using his God-given talent to give our Jonny a run for his money by brightening up the festive season for so many people.
There are, of course, no guarantees in an industry where even established names often live a hand-to-mouth existence.

But if natural ability, hard work and application are anything to go by then this 19-year-old from the Abbey has a very bright future ahead of him in musical theatre.

Happy Christmas, Aaron: This one’s for you, mate.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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Not such a Wacko idea, Darren…

I was chuffed to bits that someone I met last year through Stoke’s Top Talent is attempting to learn a living from his undoubted ability and devotion to his musical icon. Darren Cyples, from Burslem, has been working on his Michael Jackson dance routines for almost two decades and let me tell you he is awesome. Not only does he look the part and have all the Wacko Jacko garb, he has the King of Pop’s mannerisms and moves down to a tee. I remember speaking to Darren at the after-show party following the final of Stoke’s Top Talent at The Regent Theatre. He was disappointed not to have won but I told him not to give up. Now aged 38, Darren, who actually works for a taxi firm, is trying to earn a living as a Michael Jackson tribute act thanks to encouragement from friends and family. Good luck, mate. You deserve to succeed.

My wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011

Being so busy over the next few days, it’s unlikely that Father Christmas will deliver the presents I want for Stoke-on-Trent.
So here’s my wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011…
I hope that the families living on deprived neighbourhoods are not left to their fate with the winding down of Renew North Staffordshire at the end of March.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has worked hand in glove with the regeneration agency that was given hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to transform the Potteries.
Estates such as Cobridge must not simply be abandoned to inexorable decline. It is the responsibility of local politicians to champion their areas.
I hope that work will finally (finally!) commence on building a new bus station for Hanley.
This project, which has been on the drawing board since before yours truly was sitting his GCSEs, is vital to the ultimate renaissance of the city centre. Please can everyone make a note in their diaries on March 28 so that if we don’t see men with hard hats wandering around we can kick up an almighty fuss.
I hope the much-vaunted Local Enterprise Partnership or LEP becomes more than just a talking shop for men in suits – we’ve had too many of these in recent years.
The effectiveness of this body should be assessed on a regular basis by the amount of funding it is able to bring to North Staffordshire.
I hope that a decision can be taken as soon as possible to close the great white elephant that is Ceramica and find a new use for this iconic building. Burslem’s beautiful Grade II-listed Town Hall deserves better than a continuing depreciation in value and a trickle of visitors at this ill thought-ought carbuncle which loses money year after year.
I hope that we don’t all forget about the Staffordshire Hoard. We’ve got a unique tourist attraction – up at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. It’s all gone rather quiet, however. Let’s start marketing ourselves as the home of the hoard, build a great big statue of a Saxon warrior overlooking the M6 to brand our city as such, and start raising the money to have these breathtaking exhibits properly displayed.
I hope the wonderful Donna Louise Children’s Hospice – which is a credit to Stoke-on-Trent – is finally on a sound enough financial footing to be able to open its doors seven days a week.
I hope the project to build stronger links with Lidice in the Czech Republic is a roaring success. If ever a local campaign deserved to succeed – this is it – as it shows the people of the Potteries in their best, most selfless light.
The role our city played in breathing new life into a village which Hitler tried to wipe off the map must never be forgotten.
I’d like my beloved Port Vale to win automatic promotion, retain the services of Micky Adams and earn the kind of investment which secures the long-term future of the club. This would enable the current board of directors to step down with heads held high – rather than being hounded down Hamil Road by disaffected fans.
I wish Stoke City would make it into Europe – even if it’s in that Mickey Mouse competition that Liverpool are in this season.
As well as giving the Potteries more exposure, perhaps then the Match Of The Day crew would at last give Tony Pulis’s team their due and find alternative adjectives to ‘hard-working’, ‘physical’ and ‘well-organised’.
I’d like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor to finally get the recognition he deserves and win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Failing that, can we not give the bloke the Freedom of the City?
To round off the year I’d like my mate Jonny Wilkes to bring Paddy McGuinness and their adult pantomime to The Regent theatre. You never know, it may even shut up the critics who for years have slated Jonny for putting bums on seats at our premier theatre.
“Oh no it won’t…”

Rebirth of city is on target? We’ve heard that one before

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

I have quite a few fond memories of Hanley bus station.

There used to be a bakery in the underpass where my nan would buy warm, crusty bloomer loaves to take home to Bentilee.

I loved the smell and they were a real treat for someone who had been weaned on supermarket own-brand sliced bread.

Chico’s nightclub, part of the bus station complex, was also a regular haunt of me and my sixth-form college buddies.

It was here, at the age of 17, where the girl I’d been besotted with through high school first acknowledged my existence.

Hanley bus station was also the place that I returned to on a coach in the early hours of August 20, 1989, drunk with happiness having seen my first live rock concert – Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

Having said all of that, it’s still a dump. It’s an embarrassing eyesore – and has been for as long as I can remember.

It is little wonder that a national newspaper chose to use a picture of Hanley bus station to illustrate the infamous “Stoke-on-Trent is the worst place to live in England and Wales” story a few years back.

The story itself may have been nonsense, but who could argue with the image they used to illustrate the point?

Indeed, anyone who arrives in the Potteries on a bus could be forgiven for asking the driver to keep the doors closed and continue his journey.

The dirty great concrete behemoth is hardly a great advert for our city, located as it is just a stone’s throw away from The Victoria Hall.

Twenty years ago, I recall writing stories about plans to revamp the area around the bus station.
Numerous council administrations have come and gone since then and yet the city’s worst carbuncle remains.

Tom Macartney, managing director of the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership (NSRP), is pleading that his organisation be given more time to complete projects such as the bus station.
I’m sorry Tom, but we’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, your average taxpayer in Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t differentiate between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the NSRP.

Many don’t have a clue what the NSRP is, or that it even exists.

They don’t care who is charged with delivering change to the city’s tired infrastructure.
They just want something – anything – to change.

It’s not that anyone begrudges you your £150,000 a year salary, Tom.

It’s just most people are so jaundiced, so fed up, so disillusioned with the lack of progress in the last two decades (and the grand designs that never materialise) that they have accepted the status quo.

I believe Stoke-on-Trent stands at a crossroads and, irrespective of the financial climate, now is the time to think big.

RENEW North Staffordshire has achieved, not without problems, significant regeneration of the housing stock on some of the city’s most deprived estates.

However, since the refurbishment of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall more than a decade ago, little has changed to make more visitors want to go up ’Anley.

The Staffordshire Hoard presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market and rebrand our city and give our city centre a much-needed makeover.

I’m a huge supporter of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall, but these two venues and a few chairs and tables outside eateries in Piccadilly do not constitute a “Cultural Quarter”.

If we have any pretensions of being a city worth the name then I would suggest the area around Hanley bus station has to be regenerated as soon as possible to take advantage of the huge benefits that could come our way via the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is vital that people arriving in the city centre are confronted by clean, modern facilities, top-brand stores and dining opportunities that the people of Manchester and Birmingham take for granted.

At the moment, many theatre-goers must leave Hanley thinking “that was a great show, but what a dump Stoke-on-Trent is”.

My beloved nan isn’t with us anymore.

The sad truth is, however, that if Ethel Tideswell circa 1990, of Sundorne Place, Bentilee, arrived at Hanley bus station in June 2010 I doubt she’d spot any difference (other than, perhaps, the lack of crusty bloomer loaves).

The time for excuses really has passed.

I’m not that fussed about the new design, but surely we deserve a bus station that doesn’t look like the backdrop for an episode of Life On Mars.

Never mind the election… what about our manifesto?

As Gordon Brown and David Cameron are busy peddling the policies they hope will propel them to 10 Downing Street, I thought I’d have a dabble at my own manifesto – specifically for North Staffordshire.

As Stoke-on-Trent celebrates the centenary of the federation of the six towns, what better time to take stock of where we are as a city and a region and plot a vision for a brighter future?

With a newly-arrived chief executive at the city council, a new face arriving in the role of the Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and a transfusion of new blood via the local elections, I think opportunity genuinely knocks for our neck of the woods.

Let’s hope we don’t ignore it.

This is my wish-list to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century…

*Forget parochialism and create a North Staffordshire authority serving nigh on half a million people – including the city, Newcastle, Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle and do away with the present, inefficient hotchpotch of local councils. Let’s face it, we’ve all got more in common with each other than we have with Stafford, Tamworth or Lichfield. I would suggest it is better to start speaking with one voice which would give us far more clout nationally. Such a merger would also enable us to get rid of many of the public sector non-jobs created in recent years. Perhaps then we could balance our budgets.

*Get serious about regeneration and deliver the key foundations to our economic recovery and future prosperity. How many times have we been shown plans of glass bottle kilns and the like which never come to fruition? Hanley desperately needs the long-awaited new bus station and the East-West shopping precinct so let’s ride a coach and horses through the bureaucracy and get them built. The University Quarter, or UniQ, and the Business District must become a reality rather than limping along as artists’ impressions. By the same token, our MPs and councillors must lobby like their lives depend upon in it in the coming months to ensure that, irrespective of which party wins the General Election, the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding currently transforming our estates via regeneration agency Renew North Staffordshire doesn’t dry up halfway through the process.

*Throw all our weight behind the Next Stop Stoke campaign to ensure the £60 billion high-speed rail network comes to North Staffordshire. We must ensure Stoke-on-Trent is selected as a stop on the flagship HS2 inter-city project or we run the risk of missing out on investment, jobs and tourism.

*If we don’t want to become a cultural desert then we need to stop quibbling about subsidies for The Regent Theatre and accept that if you want a top class venue in the city centre then, like other major cities, you have to be prepared to spend serious public money to help a private operator earn a crust. The benefits to our economy, the social life of the sub-region and the aspirations of future generations are there for all to see.

*Bring our home-grown football stars, role-model Olympic hopefuls and local celebrities together for a campaign to tackle North Staffordshire’s chronic obesity problem run through every single school in the city, Newcastle and the Staffordshire Moorlands. Tie this in with major renovation and promotion of our parks, public open spaces and excellent cycle routes to encourage more people to become active and fitter.

*Act now to capitalise on the huge public interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. As I suggested previously, let’s have a campaign to build a huge, great statue of a Saxon warrior visible for miles just off the M6 passing through Stoke-on-Trent and luring in visitors to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Let’s market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and completely renovate the venue to make the Hoard exhibition a tourist attraction of international significance. The time has come for us to stop marketing ourselves solely on our industrial past and find a new identity.

Why panto will always have a special place in my heart

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

By the time this year’s panto finishes, I will have performed in front of more than 25,000 people.

That figure includes family, friends and colleagues who all came to see me dressed up as an old duffer – wearing make-up, singing, dancing (after a fashion) and making a fool of myself.

I have suffered for my art. No, honestly I have. I mean, you wouldn’t grow a beard like this under normal circumstances. Would you?

Having lived in this strange panto cocoon for seven weeks now and with 22 shows under my belt, I finally feel able to comment properly on the alien world that this cynical old hack has been inhabiting.

I’ve always been the outsider here. That’s no-one’s fault – it’s simply a fact that when the curtain comes down for the final time on Sunday night yours truly will return to The Sentinel HQ all suited and booted, while the rest of the cast will move on to their next show.

I know I’ll be sad to leave, The Regent’s become like a second home to me.

I’ll miss Caroline’s voice over the Tannoy summoning us to vocal warm-up, or announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen of the company – this is your Act One beginners’ call, your Act One beginners’ call, please.”

I’ll miss the adrenalin rush that hits you the moment you walk out on stage for the first time and the sense of relief when your first gag gets a laugh.

I’ll miss the camaraderie of people like Jonny Wilkes, our ever-popular dame Christian Patterson, Steve Serlin and director Matt Salisbury who have taken me under their wings and shown me genuine kindness and boundless patience.

I’ll miss the wonderful staff at The Regent who have always made me feel so welcome, despite the fact they have proper stars to look after.

But, most of all, I will miss the incredible warmth of Potteries audiences, who make The Regent pantomime the runaway success it is.

I don’t mind telling you it’s bloody hard work.

There were times when I doubted I could do it as I tried to juggle the panto role, my day job and family commitments.

I remember, on the morning of my second show, literally clinging on to the set for grim death before my entrance – much like a drowning man might cling to a barrel thrown overboard as his ship capsized.

I can look back and laugh, because walking on stage is like falling off a log to me now.

The hard part is making each show feel as fresh and vibrant as the first, even though you may have used the same lines, gestures and facial expressions two dozen times.

I guess that’s what makes people like Wilkesy and our dame so good and why they put bums on seats in the Cultural Quarter.

You see, this isn’t Milton Keynes or Wimbledon.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a very strong sense of place and identity.

That being the case, you can keep your foreign celebrities and soap stars for the lead roles. What we have here in North Staffordshire every Christmas is a dynamic that so obviously works.

So why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?

Why would you want to lose the strong local flavour running through a show like The Regent panto, or swap your main men for outsiders who will take the money and go through the motions?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always plain sailing back stage.

I remember one night approaching Christian’s dressing room and hearing him and Jonny going at it hammer and tongues.

It transpired they were actually arguing about lines in the show and it was a row that was over as quickly as it had begun.

The fact is they care passionately about delivering the very best shows they can and that filters down to the rest of us.

Make no bones about it, being away from your family is the hardest part of being involved in a show like this.

Christmas was a blur.

I feel like it passed me by. I mean, I haven’t even seen the face of the new Doctor Who yet.

But, even if I never tread the boards again, I can always say I’ve been there and done it.

I have some wonderful memories and I hope I held my own up there.

One thing’s for sure, one look at the audiences who forgot their troubles with us for just a few hours knocks on the head any notion that theatres are elitist.

Young or old, rich or poor, pantomime has the ability to connect with everyone on so many levels and it will always have a special place in my heart.

Theatre star Christian Patterson’s review of my panto performance


Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell is appearing in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime Dick Whittington. Here, pantomime dame Christian Patterson – a firm favourite with Potteries audiences – reviews Martin’s first night…

It’s not often that you have two first nights – but with this production of Dick Whittington the part of Alderman Fitzwarren has been divided between Pete Conway and Martin Tideswell.

Pete’s final performance was on Tuesday night and as I write this he is sitting beside a pool in Los Angeles leaving Martin to pick up the pieces in snowy Stoke-on-Trent.

From day one of rehearsals, nerves aside, Martin showed an abundance of enthusiasm towards the cast, the panto and his part.

As Fitzwarren he is quicker than his predecessor and delivers an all-round performance full of gusto.

He delivers the laugh lines beautifully and his presence on stage is warm, generous and giving – as is Martin himself.

His dancing, or rather his sense of rhythm, is quite another story. In fact I would go as far to say that Martin is to dance what King Herod is to babysitting.

However, he tries – I’ll give him that.

That aside he is as welcome a cast member as any other. And it gives me great pride that we will share the stage together until January 10.

Amy Diamond as Alice continues to sparkle, as her name suggests she would. Kayleigh McIntyre as Tommy the Cat is as cute as ever. Steve Serlin, who plays King Rat, and his evil ratlings continue to draw the boos and the hisses with great style and aplomb.

Shelia Ferguson as Fairy Oatcakes belts out her songs better than any diva that you’ll see this side of the Atlantic. Su Annagib is outstanding in her first stage performance; her natural singing and acting ability is nothing short of brilliant.

And so to Jonny Wilkes. In my opinion, Jonny is to The Regent panto what the ravens are to the Tower of London.

If he ever left I would fear the whole thing would collapse. Melodramatic? Not in my opinion. Jonny is a wonderful actor, has an incredible singing voice and is the glue that holds it all together.

But it is his passion for Stoke-on-Trent and its residents that is truly overwhelming.

For the three years that I have shared the stage with him, his mantra to me has always been “I want to make this the best one yet”.

This is Jonny’s fifth panto appearance at The Regent, and if he wasn’t here I fear they would be no choice but to ship in a foreign actor or soap star who had no affinity with the Potteries or its people.

It is in no small part due to Jonny, under the guidance of director Matt Salisbury, that the panto continues to draw wonderful audiences that leave the theatre having had a genuinely funny panto experience.

It is a joy to have had the last three years at The Regent. I‘d like to thank all the staff at the theatre, especially the its chief executive Richard Wingate, Jonny Wilkes and every member of the audience that has made my time here the happiest of my career.

This sounds like I’m leaving but there’s not a chance! All being well, I’ll be back on December 9, 2010. Meanwhile, in the words of Dick Whittington “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.