Monday, 27 March 2017

On the edge of the stage with David Robertson

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Teresa O'Driscoll, David Robertson, John Kilburn     Photo Richard Wilcocks
It was relaxed, sometimes endearingly random, intimate, informal and engagingly indulgent. In front of us, Dave Robertson, who is our grand old man of the theatre - at very least - together with the Retrolettes, a grand pair of melodic entertainers, all of them just the warm-blooded people we needed for the finale of this year's LitFest, especially as several of those in the audience had actually acted with him. Dave took us through his long career on stage, beginning with when he danced around as Jack at primary school, his Jill never reaching the well because her mother ordered her off stage before she showed her knickers to the assemblage. He moved on to when he became a student in Hugh Hunt's Manchester drama department, to a character in an absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco, to Guildenstern in a memorable Hamlet in which he repeatedly clunked his leg against some item of stage furniture, to King Lear, which is where all actors of note and of suitable grizzlement end up. Dave ended the first section of the evening in his parody of part of Lear, during which he was flung over a cliff by his daughter Cordelia, played by Teresa O'Driscoll, half of the Retrolettes, who briefly revealed a melodramatic acting style which could be put to good use in future entertainments. John Kilburn, the other Retrolette, also performed (without the ukelele) when, in T'Batley Faust he told the story of a Yorkshireman seduced by Mephistopheles to sell his soul in return for being made twenty-five again. It raised plenty of laughs, and was more accessible, less drawn-out than the over-embellished version peddled by that Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

Dave took us to the time when he was seriously wondering whether he could survive in the professional theatre, which is what all aspiring actors wonder - repeatedly. He decided he would start his own company, after just missing out on a teaching job in the USA which was offered to him, then withdrawn. This took a little while to come to fruition, and in the meantime he based himself at the Swarthmore Institute. I was particularly struck by Dave's reprise of his role as the caretaker in Pinter's play: Dave is good at psychotic rants. He's better at comedy, though. I wish I had got to see his improvised version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves - he provided the storyline while the characters were allowed to let rip. We could have done with more Chekhov - one of Dave's first loves - and I would have liked a little more of an airing of his great background knowledge of Elizabethan theatre: we got a few tiny insights - on how Shakespeare was inspired by Marlowe, for example, The Merchant of Venice spinning off from The Jew of Malta. The evening ended with 'You'll never walk alone' from Carousel. Dave was in this for Opera North as the speech-making doctor towards the end, and he admits to forgetting the words 'castor oil' on one occasion. He asked the cast, loudly, what it was he had dosed them with, to receive the desired reply. It's called thinking on your feet.

Audience Comments
A very enjoyable evening – David very engaging and 'human'.  Lovely vocals from Retrolettes

Friend of David and very much enjoy his work

Fascinating on his career

The Headingley Master!

The event was interesting both as the 'flow of memory' and the 'show of personality'.  Also the audience, largely, was part of the career being celebrated!  Thanks.

A relaxed celebration of theatrical ' goings on' in the world of David Robertson with great support from the Retrolettes!  A quirky, fun romp of an evening and a warm audience.  Good to share.

Great evening – great speeches from Dave and good music from John and Teresa.

Very relaxed evening with lovely theatre chat and delightful music.

Good fun – lots of memoirs of great theatre!

Real fun.  Well done.

An entertaining evening of theatrical memories and song.  Retrolettes great as usual.

Good night – human complexities in abundance and with (unreadable).  Salut.

Very enjoyable.

Very good music by Louis Armstrong as people were coming in and nice music during the evening as well.  Very good acting performances by David and by the Retrolettes as well (first time that I have seen them act).

A fitting finale to the LitFest.  Brilliant as ever.  Thanks David.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Amanda Owen - the Yorkshire Shepherdess #amandaowen

Amanda Owen          Photos Richard Wilcocks
Flock Star! by Sally Bavage:
Amanda Owen, also known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess, arrives in a whirl of activity fresh from a book-signing at a city centre bookshop and sets up her photomontage.  Hundreds – literally – of beautiful images of Ravenseat farm, her nine children (yes, you read that right), her two thousand sheep, her dogs, her horses, and the stunning landscape throughout all seasons.  And as if this wasn't entertaining enough, she answered first the interviewer's questions and then those of the audience with complete openness, honesty, down-to-earth humour and great charm.

Born and brought up in Huddersfield, she was inspired by the James Herriot books and decided she would become a contract shepherdess.  As you do.  Whilst on a visit to deliver a prime ram to a very isolated farm high up in Swaledale, near the Tan Hill pub (the highest in England), she met the incumbent, Clive Owen.  And her destiny -  they got married, farm Ravenseat together as a partnership and have managed to produce nine youngsters ranging in age from fifteen years to nine months. And with no live-in or part-time help of any kind – “I have no Spanish au pairs hidden away.”

Every time you ask her about what is a good day, or her ambitions for the future, she comes back to her children, wishing for them to become, or do, what they wish in life – though she suspects one son is a born engineer, another a farmer and a daughter will be a doctor.  She glows with pride as she mentions them.

Although realistic about farming – “livestock can sometimes be deadstock” - she is in fact a soft-hearted shepherdess, giving little lambs born too soon the warmth of the aga to try to bring them round, and hand-rearing a good number of lambs each year with the help of the children.  And all this before they set off for school just gone 7 am – there are horses and ponies to feed and muck out, sheep to feed and check, other chores to do all before they go off to school.  They all have a long and tiring day, but as she says “That is the reality of hill farming.”

She has continued to diversify the enterprises that make Ravenseat economically successful – for there is no fortune to be made from hill farming.  Cream tea for walkers on the Coast to Coast path (I have had one of these, scones fresh from the oven were simply delicious, and served with great aplomb by some of her children).  A shepherd's hut down by the river as a tiny B and B (Ade Edmondson stayed in this when interviewing her for ITV).  A locally-purchased farmhouse has just become a more conventional B&B.  A film is to be made of the lives they lead at Ravenseat.  She has written the foreword to a new print-run of the James Herriot books.  As she says, life's dream became a reality as they filmed some scenes for a commemoration of Alf Wight's (James Herriot) centenary birthday at Ravenseat itself.

Her books sell in their thousands, giving pleasure to many who enjoy reading about her life and her choices.  From the comfort of a fireside chair, I suspect, for it is indeed a gritty and determined lady who can sustain such a tough and uncompromising life. 

The Yorkshire Shepherdess, by Amanda Owen, paperback pub 2014, ISBN 978-0-283-07196-6

A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, paperback pub 2017, ISBN 978-1-4472-95-26-6

Sally Bavage adds:
Thank you, too, to the army of LitFest home bakers (especially Mary Francis and Rachel Harkess) who provided such a delicious array of cakes for the refreshments: almond and orange; chocolate Guinness; coffee and walnut; lemon drizzle; marmalade; stem ginger; tea loaf; treacle, walnut and date; Victoria sandwich. 

Mark Connors at The Chemic

Partnership event with Word Club

Mark Connors
The Chemic Tavern was heaving more than usual for the Word Club Special where Mark Connors launched his first full length poetry collection Nothing is Meant to be Broken. People (most of them poets of one stripe or another) stood shoulder to shoulder at the back in support, while others crammed on to chairs behind tables papered with poetry print-outs and green brochures advertising Headingley LitFest, which has only a couple of events left now. It's a good thing there's no smoking nowadays in back rooms like this.

Gill Lambert

Poet Gill Lambert, who was the amiable and efficient compere for the evening, mentioned smoking: she said she imagined, at one time, that poets were private, meditative characters who lived in small, book-lined rooms and puffed on pipes. Some of them no doubt did that, but they were not in evidence at this event.

The first and third sections were for open mic performers to strut their stuff, and Mark Connors had the middle - the jam in the sandwich as it were. He usually gives his work some exposure in the course of a session, delivered from the heart and well-rehearsed, but on this occasion he gave himself the airing he deserves, with a series of poems from the new book, to rich effect. The themes included love, sex and mental health - and there can be no instant, detailed scrutiny on a blog like this. Look elsewhere for that. It's enough to say that the audience loved it. He sang as well, and it is obvious that he should do more of that in future.

Mark Connors is a widely published poet who won the Ilkley Literature Festival Open Mic Competition in both 2014 and 2015. His debut pamphlet, Life is a Long Song (OWF Press, 2015) and debut novel, Stickleback (Armley Press, 2016) are both now in their second editions. 

Emily Gibbons writes:
One of Headingley LitFest’s last events was in conjunction with Word Club, banding together to create a platform for local poet Mark Connors to perform poems from his first poetry collection, Nothing is Meant to be Broken. The turn-out for the event was simply astounding, and the atmosphere was cosy and full of camaraderie.

The event was split into three sections, with open mic slots at the beginning and end, and the middle slot reserved for Connors. The variety of people performing was inspiring, and in the second half there were brilliant poems by various women from Word Club. In particular Samar Shahdad made an impression with her empowering poem for International Women’s Day, in which she declared ‘I am a woman of no man’.

Of course the star of the night was Mark Connors himself, prepared with copies of his novel Stickleback, Nothing is Meant to be Broken, and a splash of dark humour. Performing poems both old and new, most of which are in the collection, Connors owned the spotlight with words crossing the boundaries between love, sex, tragedy, death, and humour. Since the event I have devoured the entire contents of Nothing is Meant to be Broken, and his wordsmithery is obvious on the written page, although his deliberate, humorous delivery when performing really shows the true essence of his poetry.