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Little Wolf: panto at its best that takes all year

The first time I came across Morgan Brind he was wearing an outfit consisting of a large Martini glass with a straw coming out of one side and a huge strawberry on his head. “Every woman needs a simple cocktail dress!” he revealed to an audience at Derby Theatre.

The occasion last July was the presentation of the Eagle Awards, an annual event celebrating amateur theatre in Derby. Morgan’s opening gambit before he handed out one of the awards was for me the funniest part of the evening.

Four months later Morgan, looking casual but studious in dark-framed glasses, and his business partner Alan Bowles sit opposite me in a coffee shop in Loughborough where they are rehearsing this year’s panto, Robin Hood, at the Town Hall.

It’s not the only production that they’re concentrating on: Morgan and Alan’s company Little Wolf Entertainment have picked up their biggest gig so far in their relatively short history, the panto at Derby Arena. They have chosen to stage Beauty and the Beast.

In a fascinating conversation they tell me about how they’re probably the only company in the world who produce every aspect of a pantomime, how they’re already planning shows for next Christmas and why this year they’ve had to import glitter from the Middle East.

It’s obvious after the first few minutes that Morgan and Alan are totally engrossed in panto and have the same ethos. When one is losing his train of thought the other takes over to make a succinct point. And they have a similar sense of humour.

Morgan is 31 “although panto has greyed me prematurely”. He was born in Derby and went to youth theatres where he got the bug for being on stage.

                     Morgan Brind and Alan Bowles outside Derby Arena

After training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, he did lots of freelance acting jobs, going on tours and living and working in Venice for six months.

Alan, five years older, grew up just outside Dunstable. At the age of 18 he went to Guildford School of Acting. He appeared in musicals and a play that was taken to Cyprus. Then he toured the world with a four-piece vocal group as well as being lead singer in a band that performed on cruise ships.

It’s only in the last few years that he has based himself in Derby. Little Wolf have their own office and warehouse in Little Eaton.

The pair met in 2008 when both appeared in panto for Slough borough council. Ironically it was Beauty and the Beast.

The following year Slough was going to cancel its panto, so Morgan rang Alan and said: “Why don’t we give it a go?”

“If we’d ever logically sat down and worked out what we were getting into, we wouldn’t have done it.”

They had spent the previous Christmas in a dressing room in Slough saying they could do better, so they felt it was time to take action. Morgan admits they were “young and stupid” back then, but to Slough council’s credit they took a punt on the pair. The 2009 panto Robin Hood was the result.

“If we’d ever logically sat down and worked out what we were getting into, we wouldn’t have done it,” says Morgan. “But I wouldn’t have changed it.

“What’s been nice is that from Slough we realised that we quite like making panto but we didn’t really like Slough – which I think is a conclusion a lot of people have come to over the years.”

They didn’t have a lot of experience but they certainly had enterprise. They searched for areas of population without a panto and that led them to Berwick-on-Tweed.

                                The cast of Beauty and the Beast

Alan was on tour and ran into Miles Gregory, chief executive of The Maltings Theatre in Berwick. “Rather cheekily I said ‘you don’t have a panto, do you? Would you like one?’

“Based entirely on half a dozen promotional shots and a rather grainy video of our production in Slough, he gave us two weeks at his theatre and an awful lot of support. We did five years there and outsold ourselves every year.”

Managers from Loughborough Town Hall travelled all the way up to Berwick to watch the show and commissioned Little Wolf to produce their panto. Then the company tendered for the Derby LIVE festive show and won it despite competition from much bigger organisations.

Morgan admits it’s been a slow process. “We’ve taken our time to go from 200 to 1,500 seats. But I quite like the fact that we’ve had time to make mistakes and now hopefully we know what we’re doing.”

Alan chimes up: “As you always say, Morgan, we’ve made mistakes cheaply!”

“And it doesn’t cost much to put it right,” admits Morgan.

“We’re putting on what we hope is real quality theatre.”

Alan explains their philosophy: “We’ve seen several companies turn up, get a raft of venues and before you know it they’ve gone again because they’ve run out of cash. They try to put on relatively cheap panto and get a quick return.

“We’re the opposite. We’re putting on what we hope is real quality theatre. It costs money and it’s taken eight years but we’re getting somewhere now. It’s built on a foundation of experience rather than just a quick flash in the pan.”

The Derby panto means Little Wolf have had to go up another gear but the pair are really excited about that: “The people coming to see this show are my neighbours – I’ve got to do a good one!” says Morgan.

Alan adds with a glint in his eye: “It’s fun driving around town and Morgan’s face is everywhere on posters – but it’s also slightly alarming.”

Gwen Taylor (The Enchantress), Ben Faulks (Idle Jacques) and Morgan Brind (Betty Brioche) in Beauty and the Beast

For Beauty and the Beast Morgan and Alan have signed up Derby actress Gwen Taylor to play The Enchantress and Ben Faulks, better known as CBeebies’ Mr Bloom, as Idle Jacques.

“In both Ben and Gwen we’ve found really terrific actors who are going to do great performances,” says Alan. “And the fact that they happen to have a profile on top of being a good actor is great for ticket sales.”

Morgan is a big fan of 78-year-old Gwen: “We were a bit worried because she’s a national treasure and you’ve got to be careful with her. But she’s really up for challenging herself and getting stuck in. This is why she’s a legend – not only is she talented, she’s also a completely lovely human being as well.”

Beauty and the Beast will be totally new – Little Wolf don’t have a stock of pantos on a shelf which they bring out every few years.

Morgan has written Beauty and the Beast which will be set in 17th century France in a place called Spondon sur le Seine. He plays Betty Brioche who runs Le Birds the bakery.

He says his wardrobe will be outrageous. He will wear nine different costumes, each of them costing about £3,500.

As well as being the dame in Derby and writing and designing Beauty and the Beast, Morgan is the writer, director and designer of Robin Hood in Loughborough. He has even found time to design two more pantos for other companies.

But this year Little Wolf has had a particular problem: one of its glitter suppliers suffered a mechanical breakdown, so Morgan and Alan have had to import more than 12 stones (80 kilos) of glitter from Dubai to go on their sets in Derby and Loughborough.

It’s all part of giving audiences an unforgettable evening’s entertainment: “We’re the only panto company in the country and therefore the world that we know of who write, design, build, paint, act – we do the whole lot,” says Alan.

“If you give people more than they expect, make it funnier, better, more exciting, more engaging, they’ll come back.”

“That means we can work on every aspect and make it all work together seamlessly to create what we consider to be great shows.”

Morgan chimes in: “A lot of the time people say ‘oh it’s only panto, it’ll do’. We’ve never had that attitude and I sincerely hope we never will because if you give people more than they expect, make it funnier, better, more exciting, more engaging, they’ll come back.”

Little Wolf are already well into planning 2018’s pantos, Jack and the Beanstalk in Derby and a completely new Beauty and the Beast for the smaller Loughborough Town Hall. For Morgan and Alan pantomime has become a business that takes all year.

“By the time we’ve put away last year’s show, tidied everything away, sorted everything out, finished paying the bills and wound down, we have a week off and then we’re back into the swing of the next one,” Alan points out.

Some people may turn their nose up about panto which they feel isn’t top-quality entertainment. Morgan agrees that not all companies have the right attitude.

“I’ve gone to see some pantos and maybe there’s a smile in each act. But we hope that everyone has a brilliant night out. That’s our sole focus.

“We really hope people will take a punt on Beauty and the Beast this year because it’s our first year at Derby Arena. We hope we can repay them with a cracking night out at the theatre.”

This article appeared in the December 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Adam Penford: taking over at Nottingham Playhouse

Adam Penford sitting outsideWhen Adam Penford was about six years old, he went to a panto at Nottingham Playhouse but was too scared when invited to go on stage with other children to join in the entertainment.

Despite returning every Christmas, he was never asked to go up again and always regretted it.

This is how he assesses that experience: “You have to seize opportunities as they come and put yourself out of your comfort zone sometimes.”

Now that the young lad has grown up, he recognises an opportunity and goes for it: he has just taken over at the helm of Nottingham Playhouse.

At the age of 37 Adam is relatively young to be an artistic director. He has already made his mark, announcing not only his first season but his first year in charge of one of the most important regional theatres in the country. And some people may be astonished to learn that he has secured a television megastar to appear in one of his productions.

Mark Gatiss is known as one of The League of Gentlemen, has appeared in Doctor Who and played Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock alongside Benedict Cumberbatch.

He has agreed to come to Nottingham in November 2018 to play the lead in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III. So how did Adam persuade Gatiss to take the role?

Mark Gatiss as King George in The Madness of George III

Mark Gatiss as King George in The Madness of George III

“I’ve worked with Mark before. I knew that I wanted to end 2018 with a big play, something quite spectacular. I love The Madness of George III – I think it’s a modern classic. But I knew I wouldn’t want to programme it unless I knew who was going to play the title character.

“When I started to think about actors who could play it, I thought of Mark Gatiss. He’s not afraid to go to a slightly dark side and George III isn’t a wholly sympathetic character – he’s quite belligerent and pretty grumpy.

“Mark’s an actor of real range and I just offered it to him. It turns out he’d always coveted the role, he knew Nottingham Playhouse’s work and he was happy to sign up 18 months in advance.

“The truth is we’re very lucky. He’s very much in demand – he’s an Olivier Award winner, so it’s a real privilege.”

Adam admits it’s difficult to get actors, directors and designers to leave London and come to the provinces.

“The truth is the money isn’t great regionally. So it’s about being canny and offering people an opportunity that they might not necessarily get in London.”

Adam Penford was born on March 1st 1980. His father was a painter and decorator while his mother was a primary school teacher.

It was when his parents took him to the panto that he got the theatre bug.

“I always thought one day I’d love to be an artistic director and I always thought the ideal venue would be Nottingham Playhouse”

“I remember walking into the auditorium as a child and there was an adrenalin rush. That led to me seeing a much wider variety of shows when I was a teenager.

“I had a real love for the building. I always thought one day I’d love to be an artistic director and I always thought the ideal venue would be Nottingham Playhouse. That’s how it’s worked out.”

After attending Arnold Hill School and Bilborough College, Adam was accepted by Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts – the drama school started by Paul McCartney.

But within weeks of beginning the course he realised it was a mistake. He was going to drop out but then showed an interest in directing.

Adam Penford colourFor the past 15 years Adam has been a freelance director, working at theatres including the Watermill in Newbury, Salisbury Playhouse and London’s highly rated Donmar Warehouse.

He says he learned a huge amount at the National Theatre where Nick Hytner, the artistic director at the time, took Adam under his wing.

He met Mark Gatiss while they were working on Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings in 2010. After that Adam was Hytner’s assistant on One Man, Two Guvnors featuring James Corden.

“I moved up to being the revival director which essentially meant that I was directing Nick’s production with new casts in the West End, on Broadway and around the world. That was an amazing experience.

“I was also Nick’s associate on the National Theatre 50th anniversary celebrations a couple of years ago when we got to work with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I expect will never be topped.”

Adam spent the first 18 years of his life in Nottingham, went away for 18 years and is now back in his home city, taking over as Playhouse artistic director from Giles Croft who, coincidentally, held the post for 18 years.

Adam admits that Giles is a tough act to follow: “Some of the stuff that Giles has accomplished has been amazing. He’s produced over 50 new plays in those 18 years. It’s really admirable.”

The new man is welcoming, cheerful and simply can’t hide his passion for the theatre. He also admits that bits of his new job are daunting.

“It felt really important to me that the audience should be entertained. But there are also themes which will challenge the audience.”

“There’s no training course for artistic directors. There’s a huge amount of stuff which you have to learn on the job by making mistakes and taking the guidance of others. It’s occasionally daunting but it’s really exciting. You’re learning stuff every day and I relish that.”

Adam points out that his first season at the Playhouse is varied and there’s something for everyone. It includes the musical Sweet Charity, a play about the miners’ strike and a family show Holes, the stage version of the Disney film.

“It felt really important to me that the audience should be entertained. But there are also themes which will challenge the audience. That’s what theatre should do.”

He’s keen to attract people who haven’t been to the Playhouse before, especially younger theatregoers. And he believes that theatre is for everyone.

Former Nottingham Playhouse artistic director Giles Croft

Former Nottingham Playhouse artistic director Giles Croft

“Some programming can be elitist. Much of the work (in the new season) is challenging but it should be a good night out. It shouldn’t be tortuous, it shouldn’t be boring.”

So what does Adam see as his biggest challenge during his tenure as the Playhouse’s artistic director?

“All arts organisations are being squeezed because local authority funding is disappearing. That’s because they’re being squeezed in turn by the government. That’s a real challenge.

“All theatres are having to try to bring in more income to replace the public subsidy which is disappearing. I think there’ll be a breaking point at some stage so we’ve got to keep arguing the case for arts funding.”

He also says it’s understandable that some people don’t like the change that comes when a new artistic director takes over.

“It’s making sure we take our audience with us while building a new audience. We do well in terms of sales but we absolutely could do better. That’s the big challenge that hopefully the 2018 programme will start to address.”

Adam Penford may not stay in his new job for the next 18 years but it will be interesting to see whether this driven yet personable young man makes as big an impact as his predecessor.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Thomas Spencer: an amazing and inspiring story

thomas-spencerIt’s one of the most amazing and inspiring stories you’re likely to hear: a singer from South Derbyshire believed so much in his talent that he travelled more than 5,000 miles to Los Angeles for a five-minute meeting.

A potential new manager was so impressed that the following day he invited the singer to a recording studio where he was asked to perform in front of opera legend Placido Domingo and two other world music scene heavyweights.

Domingo was astounded and described classical crossover tenor Thomas Spencer as “the voice of the next generation”.

So how did a Castle Gresley lad succeed where others have failed? Thomas and his brother Oliver, a composer and songwriter, had managed to raise enough money to record a first album and felt Thomas needed an established manager to take his career further.

They sat in their home at Castle Gresley and did a global internet search for managers. They came up with Brian Avnet who looks after Josh Groban, the American singer who has sold more than 25 million records worldwide.

Fortunately Thomas knew a New York publicist and hired her to do only one thing: get him a five-minute meeting with Brian Avnet. She was to call Avnet every day. “We thought we’d either get a meeting or a harassment lawsuit!” laughs Thomas.

“Being in that circle where Oliver and myself were the only people who hadn’t won a Grammy, an Emmy or a Golden Globe was a really great opportunity”

After three weeks Avnet agreed to the meeting: “Five minutes – but just stop calling me!” he told the publicist.

In the recording studio with Placido Domingo were Humberto Gatica, the Chilean-born American record producer who has won 16 Grammy Awards and is now Thomas’s producer, and singer and composer Tony Renis who produced Andrea Bocelli’s last album.

“Being in that circle where Oliver and myself were the only people who hadn’t won a Grammy, an Emmy or a Golden Globe was a really great opportunity,” says Thomas.

Avnet’s health problems would put the relationship on hold and Paul Faberman, who’d been looking after Celine Dion for 17 years, became Thomas’ manager.

“The expectation to bring out another level in me as a singer – I can’t really describe it.”

Now his second album, appropriately called The Journey, has been released in the UK and it will shortly be available in other countries.

Thomas can hardly contain his excitement at how his career is progressing.

“The way Humberto works in the studio is on a whole new level. The expectation to bring out another level in me as a singer – I can’t really describe it.

“You always work hard and you always give everything. Just to be around somebody who has worked with people like Bocelli and Michael Bublé is inspiring.

Thomas Spencer haircut“We were pinching ourselves. We were in Castle Gresley one week and the next we’re making music with a Grammy Award-winning legend. It was quite surreal. When we came out we said, ‘did that really happen?’ It was like walking into a bubble.”

Thomas says he’s got where he is through being ambitious, working hard and not settling for a compromise.

“It’s been a physical journey going to LA, it’s been an emotional journey because it’s taken such a long time to make the album and musically it’s been a bit of a journey as well. Oliver and I are totally different musicians now from what we were six or seven years ago. I think we’re better versions of ourselves.”

Thomas is backed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on The Journey. It was recorded in Los Angeles, Thailand, Prague and Abbey Road Studios, London. He agrees it was a costly venture.

“It’s like throwing yourself down a rabbit hole. Do you turn around or do you let yourself fall a bit further? The guys in LA were coming up with new ideas, Oliver was writing new songs all the time and if they were better than the ones we originally had on the album, we just kept replacing them. So we ended up with 30 or 40 songs.”

That has been whittled down to 15 numbers including their mum’s favourite The Sound Of Silence, Don McLean’s And I Love You So – memorably a hit for Perry Como – and a version of The Who’s Baba O’Riley in Italian.

He was born Thomas Spencer-Wortley on 8 May 1982 although he has now dropped the Wortley from his stage name. He was brought up in Castle Gresley and had singing and piano lessons when he was very young. His grandfather was a trumpeter who spurned an opportunity to tour the world with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, instead opting for the security of working as a miner.

“To be paid for something you love doing was special, especially when it’s your first job out of college.”

His first production was playing the lead in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! for Burton amateur company the Mellow Dramatics. He counts himself “very lucky” to have as his singing teacher there professional voice coach Coral Gould.

After going to Trinity College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London, Thomas secured the part of Schlomo in the national tour of the musical Fame.

“To be paid for something you love doing was special, especially when it’s your first job out of college. I actually played violin in that show.”

But he struggled to get other parts, getting close only to have a celebrity or someone from a TV show beating him to a role.

Thomas Spencer with Placido Domingo

Thomas Spencer with Placido Domingo

So Thomas and Oliver decided to raise Thomas’ profile by making an album which merged classical and contemporary styles, allowing him to find his own voice. They recorded Thomas’ first album Credere mostly in their kitchen.

“It went to number 16 in the independent charts which was mainly due to my grandma telling everyone to go out and buy it.”

The LA adventure began five years later. In the meantime Thomas didn’t sit back waiting for anything to happen. He joined Metro Voices, a London-based group of session singers, and he appears on the soundtracks of blockbusters such as The Life Of Pi, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda.

A staunch football fan, he has sung at Derby County and Burton Albion matches.

Back to The Journey, and discussions are under way for it to be released in Australia, the Far East and, when his management decides the time is right, the States.

Now Thomas is looking for a base in LA although he will return to Castle Gresley whenever he is in England.

Next on his agenda is visiting choirs, schools, community groups and Women’s Institutes across England and Wales to talk about his music before he begins globetrotting. He is also close to securing his first acting role in a feature film.

“It’s always nice to dream big but it’s also important to put one foot in front of the other.”

“There’s a lot of travelling and a lot of hard work but I’m living the dream,” says Thomas.

“I’ve got an ambition to work in films and I’ve got an ambition for the album to have a really positive growth around the world.

“Oliver and I want to go into film with writing music and acting, so it could be Grammys and Oscars long term! It’s always nice to dream big but it’s also important to put one foot in front of the other.”

It’s been an eventful journey so far – but it may have only just started for the voice of the next generation.

This article appeared in the October 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Kev Fegan: four plays on the stage in one month

Kev

Kev Fegan (photo: Hannah Fox)

He’s written more than 50 plays including one about Barack Obama’s brother and he was responsible for getting Deirdre Barlow out of jail in Coronation Street. Now Derbyshire playwright and poet Kev Fegan has a busy month even by his own prolific standards, with no fewer than four plays all coming to the stage.

One of Derbyshire’s most famous women Bess of Hardwick will be put under the spotlight and another premiere is a site-specific play at a railway museum near Chesterfield which features “the nation’s favourite locomotive” the Flying Scotsman.

So how does a Shirebrook-born lad who was brought up in Mansfield manage to have four plays on the go at the same time? Kev puts it down to coincidence.

“You’re always developing work, so things are usually at different stages. It just happens that this year they’re all being produced in September.

“It’s not easy when I want to be in all four rehearsals. I enjoy rehearsals and I’m good at being a team player in terms of getting the best for a production. But I can’t physically be in four places at once so I’ve got to work out who needs me most and respond to that.”

Bess will be a one-woman show mixing theatre with film. Playing Bess is Michelle Todd who was in the same class as Kev at junior school. She lives in Canada but was visiting her mum in Sutton-in-Ashfield when Kev’s name cropped up.

When she came over here again she met Kev for the first time in 50 years. She said she had always wanted to do a show about Bess of Hardwick and gave him a book about the woman who was married four times and rose to the highest levels of English nobility.

Bess“I read the book and immediately knew this is a great story. There’s real drama here. So then we set about trying to make it happen. I managed to get funding from First Art who are the Arts Council organisation for North Notts and North Derbyshire and they commissioned it.”

Kev, who speaks quietly with a reasonably strong local accent, feels that writing a one-woman play is no different from writing for a full cast –it’s just a different challenge.

“All drama is storytelling but you really have to be inventive with how you tell the story when you’ve only got one live performer. Although there’s only Michelle on stage playing Bess, there are other characters who appear in her story but they’re on film.

“Three of her four husbands appear on screen along with two imaginary characters who are in Bess’s head.

Only a week before Bess has its premiere, Kev’s community play Down The Line will be staged at Barrow Hill Roundhouse railway museum at Chesterfield.

Before he put pen to paper he was told the museum could probably get the Flying Scotsman, so Kev has written it into the play and admits that it’s “a bit of a coup”.

“There’ll also be 40-odd actors, a community choir and Ireland Colliery Chesterfield Brass Band. It’s going to be quite a spectacular show.

Layout 1“The play starts in roughly the 1840s, the dawn of the railway age in this area. One of the scenes early on is a steam engine coming towards the villagers. What interests me is that they will never have seen a steam engine before and what that must have been like.

“I’m interested in ordinary people who would look at it and think ‘what is that? How is it moving? Where are the horses?’ You can have a lot of fun with that.”

Kev’s other two plays this month are The Shed Crew, an adaptation of Bernard Hare’s book about feral inner-city kids, which will be staged in Leeds, and The Ruck, a touring show about a girls’ rugby league team.

He actually went to Australia on tour with the Batley Bulldogs girls’ team to research the play in the same way that he went to Nairobi to meet George Hussein Obama, half-brother of the former US president, before writing his acclaimed play Obama – The Mamba.

“I think if you’re going to take a subject on, in order to do your best you need to understand it. You have to work out what your perspective is on it and how you want to treat it as a play.

“All plays have to work as an entertainment first and foremost. But I want it to be more than that. As a punter, when I go to see shows I want things that work on different levels. I suppose that’s what you try to write, something that you would enjoy yourself as a theatregoer.”

Kevin Fegan was born on 25 July 1957. As a child he had a lot of energy and was impatient to find out what he was good at.

He says when he was 15 he had an epiphany. “I kicked off in loads of different ways and on one of those days I took a pen and, like a lot of adolescents, just wrote what was in my head.

“It’s a long apprenticeship . . . slowly moving from selling something to being paid to write. That’s a big transition.”

“Out came this poem and as soon as I wrote it I thought ‘this is what I’m looking for – it feels a lot better than anything I’ve done up to this point.’

“It’s a long apprenticeship, seeing if you’re any good, practising and then slowly moving from selling something to being paid to write. That’s a big transition. It takes a long time.”

He admits –without a hint of conceit – that he was good at passing exams. So he went to Manchester University to study English literature and philosophy.

In his final year at uni he saw an advert calling for new plays to take to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His “abstract” play The Leather Rat was accepted.

Kevin Fegan stern“Seeing that show performed gave me confidence. It made me think: ‘yeah, I can do this and I do want to do this’.”

After university he realised he was not going to make money from writing immediately so he did labouring and driving jobs to pay the bills “and then wrote like a maniac in the evening”.

Now the man described by one magazine as “Britain’s most innovative playwright” has lost count of the number of plays he has written.

As well as stage work he has penned seven plays for BBC Radio 4, published ten books of poetry and worked as a storyline writer for Coronation Street. In a matter-of-fact way he reveals he came up with the storyline that ended with Deirdre Barlow being released from prison after wrongly being convicted of fraud.

Kev worked on the soap for about six months. “I can remember really struggling to pay the bills and feed my kids. I wrote round all the soaps asking if there was any work going.”

The executive producer of Coronation Street took him on but after a while said to Kev, “your heart’s not really in this, is it?”

Kev admitted he was doing it for the money and they parted company.

“I knew I didn’t just want to be a TV writer – it would drive me crazy. In theatre things tend to get made. In TV and especially in film, so much gets commissioned and never made.”

For more than 30 years Kev has been commissioned to write. In fact if he has an idea for a play but can’t get funding for it, he simply won’t write it.

“I’ve got ideas that I’m chasing and we’ll have to see if they come to fruition.”

But he is so well-known now that people often approach him with ideas, believing he is the right writer for a particular project.

As for the future, Kev is hoping that Bess will tour, hopefully starting with a week at Hardwick Hall in the autumn next year. He also wants to take it to Canada. Apart from that, he doesn’t know what’s in store, apart from pursuing more work.

“I’ve got ideas that I’m chasing and we’ll have to see if they come to fruition.”

Somehow I don’t think Kev Fegan will have to chase too hard for his next success.

 This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Patricia Greene: world’s longest-serving soap star

Patricia Greene 1There’s no trace of a Derbyshire accent and Patricia Greene is without doubt a received pronunciation speaker. An essential quality for someone who wanted to become a classical actress – but Patricia, or Paddy as she’s also known, has a different claim to fame, as the world’s longest-serving performer in a soap opera.

She joined the BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers 60 years ago. Now more than four million listeners tune in each week to find out whether interfering Jill Archer has managed to upset members of her family again.

Patricia Greene isn’t just a one-role actress. She has taken parts in television dramas including Casualty and Doctors and has also been on stage, touring in plays by Shakespeare and other esteemed playwrights. But at the age of 86 she counts herself fortunate still to be working.

In a fascinating chat she spoke about the debt of gratitude she owes to two girls she met while she was a conductor on a trolley bus in Derby, how a tutor told her she would never be on the radio because she sounded like “a fairy in hockey boots” and her love for the much-maligned ITV soap Crossroads.

She describes as “unbelievable” the fact that she has been in a soap longer than anyone else: “You don’t think about it really – you just do your job.”

She must be good at it because she is still performing the role she first took on when she was 26. Now that she doesn’t drive, she is picked up from her home in the Thames Valley and taken to the BBC studios at The Mailbox in Birmingham to record The Archers.

“I’m very fortunate: I get fetched and taken home. It’s really wonderful. We record a whole month’s episodes in a few days. We’ll do something like Sunday until Thursday one week and then two days the next week and then we’re finished. That’s good for people who are young who want to do other work and who need to do other work because you can’t live on the salary you get from The Archers.

“It’s under 15 minutes so it isn’t asking anybody to invest an awful lot of their life into it”

“When I joined I was 26, hell bent on being a classical actress. That didn’t happen because life overtakes you – you get used to the money, things happen in your private life and you think ‘I’ll just do it for a bit longer’.

Paddy has a theory why The Archers has lasted for so long: “It’s under 15 minutes so it isn’t asking anybody to invest an awful lot of their life into it. Some people have grown up with the programme and, what’s more, their mothers and grandmothers grew up with it. So I think it’s partly habit.

“It’s also partly because we’re all curious about people and you want to know what’s going to happen to these characters.”

She pays tribute to the scriptwriters who occasionally come with storylines that surprise even the actors. But she’s also been able to stamp her personality on Jill Archer.

Patricia Greene sitting“Jill had absolutely no sense of humour. But I have and as time has gone by I’ve imbued her with a chuckle. Every now and then you’re allowed to laugh a bit even though it isn’t in the script.”

Paddy readily admits that Jill has many faults: “She’s quite dense. Things happen to her family and she has no idea they’re happening. She’s by no means a paragon of virtue – she’s just a human being.”

One person who thought Paddy would never broadcast was her tutor at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.

“He said, ‘you’ll never do it so forget it.’ I wanted to be a classical actress, so it didn’t bother me at all. A fairy in hockey boots – that was the phrase he used.”

She auditioned for The Archers when she was out of work. Most actors did radio auditions in the hope of being spotted. There was little television in those days.

“I hated doing radio auditions and I was awfully bad at it. But I did a little piece at the end which was what I’d heard when I was a trolley bus conductor in one of my out-of-work periods in Derby.

“I heard these girls chatting. They were made me laugh. They’d been in the closed market in Derby. It was what they were going to give their dad for tea. One of them was going to do mushrooms on toast and the other one was just going to buy some plums – I don’t know what she was going to do with them. But they mixed the bags up. One of them got home without her mushrooms, so she had to give him fried bloomin’ plums for his tea.

“Sexy blonde in a tea tent”

“My Archers audition was ridiculous. They just said do a few pieces. You go in this little cubicle, you’re away from everybody, just with your script and your trembling hands. I did a poem in French, can you believe. I did something with a Brooklyn accent and I’d never been anywhere near America. It’s stupid. But the fried plums worked.”

Paddy was offered a six-week contract to play Jill who was described by the director as a “sexy blonde in a tea tent”. She passed the audition but said she could not do it because she was going on tour with a “posh play” – a Shakespeare comedy. Fortunately bosses at The Archers said they would wait for her.

“It’s the only time the BBC have ever said anything like that to me and they shifted the storyline a bit.”

Patricia Honor Greene MBE was born in 1931 in Allenton. She attended Ashgate Infants’ School on Ashbourne Road and after her family moved to Chester Green, she went to St Paul’s Junior School and Parkfields Cedars Grammar School.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Pro Chancellor and Chair of the Governing Council Christopher Hughes, Patricia Greene and the Chancellor of the University, the Duke of Devonshire

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Pro Chancellor and Chair of the Governing Council Christopher Hughes, Patricia Greene and the Chancellor of the University, the Duke of Devonshire

Her father was an engineer, completing an apprenticeship at pipe makers Aiton’s – but then like so many others he lost his job.

“You were very useful in the last year of your apprenticeship because you were getting an apprentice’s pay but you were doing a man’s work,” says Paddy. “When you were due for a proper man’s salary they sacked you. Everybody did it.

“He couldn’t get a job as an engineer for a long time. He was the shyest man ever. On my birth certificate he was down as a piano salesman. He couldn’t sell a loaf to a dying man.”

But Paddy’s father was into amateur dramatics. He met another Derby arts stalwart John Dexter who went on to become a theatre, opera and film director, working with Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Joan Plowright.

“He weaned my father away from ordinary amateur dramatics. The first play we did was Noah by (prominent French playwright) André Obey – quite a step. John Dexter was a hard taskmaster. He pushed us about a bit – he was very clever.”

At one stage Paddy was in the same amateur group as one of Derby’s greatest actors, Alan Bates.

“I’d taken some of my father’s genes on. My mother was also in a dancing troupe so they both had a bit of glitter about them.”

Paddy flirted being a schoolteacher but her heart wasn’t in it. She failed her exams because she was always rehearsing plays.

Checking into the Crossroads motel

Apart from being a trolley bus conductor she did some “funny” jobs which she was not cut out for. So she went back to school and asked for help to get into acting.

Her career began to blossom. At one point The Archers was being recorded at the BBC’s studios on Broad Street, Birmingham – just down the road from ATV where Crossroads was filmed.

Paddy ended up with several roles in the television series: “You always started off being a guest at the motel. I was a policewoman in charge of putting Noele Gordon in the cells in one storyline and then I got an ongoing part.

“Crossroads had Tuesday off, so I used to pop along to the BBC and do The Archers on a Tuesday and then go back to Crossroads. The people in it were such fun. I had a ball.”

Paddy married English actor George Selway in 1959. They divorced and she married Cyril Austen Richardson in 1972. They had a son Charles who was born the same year. She was widowed in 1986.

“There was a lot of flirting going on”

She was awarded an MBE for services to radio drama in the 1997 Queen’s birthday honours list and the University of Derby has just conferred an honorary masters of the arts for the same reason.

Although Paddy rarely visits Derbyshire these days, she was keen to talk about Derby and her recollections of it. She asked me if Derby still had an open market and she has vivid memories of shopping at Mabel’s pot stall as well as the fish and poultry market.

She also recalls the coffee scene and how teenagers used to meet in the café upstairs at Boots on St Peter’s Street on a Saturday morning.

“There was a lot of flirting going on. It was a real café society.”

As for the future, Paddy will still be expressing her forthright opinions and putting family first as Jill Archer. Fans of the series have 60 years’ worth of reasons to thank those two girls on the trolley bus with their fried bloomin’ plums.

* This article appeared in the August 2017 edition of Country Images magazine