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Sullithon superheroes!

Three cheers for the heroic enthusiasts who took part in the Sulllithon at Birmingham Town Hall, battling their way through every verse from every one of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, hour after hour through the long night until the rest of Britain was starting to wake up on Sunday morning. For organisers PHIL and KATHY LOVELL, whose lives were taken over by the event for weeks beforehand, it was the culmination of hope, anxiety and determination. But now, Kathy can look back with well-deserved satisfaction – and gratitude to everyone who took part.

WELL – we did it!  The Sullithon was a huge success in the end and everyone involved had a wonderful time.  We must have had about 100 singers altogether, not as many as in 1990 when there were 250 but Gilbert & Sullivan was more popular then and we were 20 years younger with the knowledge of the operas fresh in our minds.

 We originally hoped to have at least 300 participants. There was a steady trickle of audience, too, throughout the day (and night) which was good this time – and one couple were still there at the end and we applauded them for their staying-power.  The Town Hall is a massive venue and the facilities were great. We ran over time a little but finished the last operetta, Trial by Jury, at about 7am on Sunday. 

 There were cheers all round that we had managed to complete the marathon.  Adrenalin is a wonderful thing to keep you going – Phil and I had been up for a total of 27 hours without sleep.  We still haven't caught up and we have rehearsals for The Pirates of Penzance, which runs March 16-20. 

The Lord Mayor, Coun Michael Wilkes, came back at the end and so did Ed Doolan.  The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (who performed the duet I Once Was a Very Abandoned Person from Ruddigore) were astonished at the money raised so far, as the climate for charity fund-raising at present is very poor.  The predicted amount at close of play was £8,000 and rising.  This was more than we hoped for, taking everything into consideration.

So we have been congratulated on the success but it would have been greater if we could have got more publicity in the media.  Our costumed photo-shoot pictures were sent to about 20 newspapers but we've heard nothing by way of feedback.  What is happening out there? People have sat on the paperwork, not answered emails, or moaned that they had not had the forms.

I am intending to write an article regarding the Sullithon and hopefully get it into NODA magazine, but when that will happen I can't say.  We have been asked whether there will be a Sullithon next year but I think we would have a nervous breakdown first.I feel my head dropping and eyes closing and I'm typing gobbledegook so must away to my bed before I fall off this chair.

* Behind the Arras is happy to add its congratulations to everyone concerned – and add its lamentations for the failure of the media generally, to which it was not party. We carried a preliminary publicity article, a supportive letter and that impressive photograph – we have published it again above – of people in costumes that represented every operetta before they undertook the Sullithon marathon.

Off the stage, into the garden,

back in two minutes – 20 years older

HE is the man who has the distinction of going off stage, ostensibly to go into the garden, and returning two minutes later by way of a quick change and having aged 20 years.

“I came back with talcum powder streaming from my head, and the backstage crew and everybody on stage laughing their heads off.”

Furthermore, it is on official record – in a Dudley Little Theatre programme – that there are very few females in the group who have not been either married to him or busy having an affair with him. All in the cause of art, of course, with the progress or otherwise of true love dictated by the script of the moment, and the age of his character clearly subject to unexpected fluctuation.


This is John Lucock, the man who had been involved in drama at school and in commercial-apprentice productions but who came seriously to amateur acting in 1974 only because his eight-year-old son Steven attended Birmingham Theatre School and wanted to see backstage.

“I took him behind the scenes at Dudley Little Theatre, the Grand Theatre at Wolverhampton and then the Prince of Wales in London – you only have to ask and they are happy to let you have a look round.”

At Dudley Little Theatre they asked whether he would like to do a small part. The rest is Black Country theatre history. John has played more parts that he could shake a stick at and is now the DLT chairman and drama representative for Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council. The bar is constantly being raised in respect of legal, health and safety requirements, and through Dudley Arts Council he is involved with formal courses in backstage and front-of-house work.

“We are planning to do first-aid courses and we've trained people to be chaperones. It's a changing world and theatre has to keep pace. Health and Safety is so important these days and in theatre you have 300 different people to look after every night. You have to make sure if you're messing about with pyrotechnics that you know what you're doing. And if flats collapse on stage a lot of people could be injured.”


John is 67, semi-retired, a consultant in automotive engineering after being automotive project manager for steel manufacturer Corus. He was born in Oldbury but has lived in Dudley since 1966.

He will be on-stage in An Inspector Calls in March and finds no problem in pinpointing the appeal of theatre, for which his commitment is undeniable. For a role that demanded a Spanish accent, he found and consulted a Spaniard. Before and after a production, he is liable to be found driving hundreds of miles to pick up or return costumes and props and van-loads of stage furniture. He is equally at home behind the scenes and onstage and frequently becomes stage manager. But there is a special pleasure.

“It started off with the acting bug, but as I get older I get an awful lot of enjoyment out of seeing young people being encouraged to take up the hobby. I have the pleasure of seeing them come in, getting to know each other and working together in theatre.”

The man who aged 20 years in two minutes is content.

 John Slim

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Murder, she writes

IT must be the most comfortably satisfying detective work of all, working out who was the murderer – and often who was the victim – in the teasing mystery thriller playlets that Angela Lanyon (pictured right) always manages to have ready in time for Christmas at Worcester's Swan Theatre. After all, the theatre provides festive fare for the patrons at her studio productions to enjoy while considering the clues during the interval.

For seven years, she has been watching them washing down her red herrings with a glass of wine or two – and with last year's production, Séance for Murder, now behind her, she is thinking ever more deeply about the 2010 offering, which is already three-quarters written. If this seems a little precipitate, it is because finishing the script is only the first part of the operation.

She explains: “The chairman and the committee look at it to see if there are any holes in it.”


If there are, it's down to her to plug the gaps and ensure that everything is worryingly watertight for all the amateur sleuths who will be muttering over the mince pies in the interval. Usually, the customary requirement is a double puzzle, with the audience trying to identify not only the murderer but the victim as well. Auditions are held in August and rehearsals start in September.

The horrid crime usually happens off-stage – although last year it came in the course of the action, when somebody was stabbed on-stage with a knitting needle during the lighting failure that was part of the plot.

What has become the longest-established tradition in the Swan Theatre calendar was launched with a four-performance production that was sold out in 2003.  For the last three years, there have been seven performances, and now there are plans to let it run after Christmas as well as beforehand.


Angela began writing for the Swan in the early 1970s, when Michael Winter, the then artistic director, asked whether she had written anything for children. She said of course she had – then went home and wrote something. The result was that she then wrote a children's play once a month for four years, laying the firm foundations for the Swan Children's Theatre that still brings in the younger set on Saturday mornings.

 Then she moved to the Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, in Essex, and wrote some more there and was involved in touring them round schools for three weeks each term.

She found four seasons in management at the Chichester Festival Theatre to be “stultifying, set in aspic”, before she moved into management at the newly-built Theatre Royal in Plymouth as house manager and deputy to the general manager – just after it had got its roof on. She returned to Worcester after being made redundant in 1989 and got involved with the Swan again, writing more one-act plays and plays for children until she was invited to write her first murder mystery.

She is a grandmother six times over and lives a convenient five-minute walk from the theatre. When she is not planning somebody's unexpected demise she likes to get down to cooking, bread-making, painting and gardening.

Oh, yes, and reading thrillers – and she was much encouraged to learn that when Agatha Christie reached the end of her current whodunit she sometimes went back and changed the murderer. Now who else does she know who does that. . ?

John Slim

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Youngsters are the pawns

in Nanny's nonsense game


JOHN SLIM looks at the problems facing theatre groups brave enough to include children in their productions.

THINGS don't get any easier for theatre groups hoping to give children a grounding in how theatre works and what it is all about. Indeed, any child – and legislation includes 16-year-olds under the label – who thinks about the pettifogging, nitpicking nonsense with which his grown-up friends have to contend in order to start and to further his on-stage education must surely first laugh himself silly and then decide that it's not for him.

Soon after children in theatre became a subject ripe for upsetting by Nanny State, I spoke to a veteran member of a group in whose production he and his grandchild were both involved. Grandchild and grandfather had the temerity to share a spontaneous hug in the wings. Affronted Officialdom at once proclaimed, “You must not do that!” It received an equally affronted response: “I'm her bloody grandfather!”

It is now compulsory routine for licensing authorities to require a duly completed form, full of details and accompanied by a copy of the birth certificate, for each child in a show – each form having been first despatched and returned between a group and a child's parents or guardians for signature. Every group has to find – and pay for – official chaperones, the number dependent upon how many youngsters are involved.


If it is lucky, group members may themselves take on the responsibility, but only after being checked for their criminal proclivities and only when a tidy sum has been paid for their being certified as reliable and trustworthy and not a menace to little Michael.

For the luckless group member charged with managing the forms, it is a bureaucratic nightmare, particularly if the young members of the cast live in different licensing areas, all with different demands and requirements. And woe betide you if a youngster in your charge is not out of the theatre or village hall by 10 pm, even if the parent or guardian has not turned up to resume responsibility as official escort. It's no good little Michael getting upset at being compelled to miss the curtain-call.

It was this particular stupidity that stirred me to wonder why there is such anxiety on behalf of children in a theatre or village hall among adults they have, in many cases, known for years, while the ball-boys at Wimbledon this year were still on television, on view to any channel-hopping paedophile, for the duration of an Andy Murray marathon match that did not finish until 10.45 pm.

I rang the Lawn Tennis Association, which clearly did not know the answer. The half-hearted attempt at an explanation was that there are different rules for tennis and theatre. Not very optimistically, I said that this was the very reason for my call. As I had expected, it got me nowhere.

As far as director Stephen Duckham is concerned, his views were shaped by a woman from the council who arrived to inspect a production on which he was working and asked him to make sure that the children were out of the theatre by 10pm. He said that the show came down before then so there would be no problem – but then he asked her what would happen if it had been a production such as The Sound of Music that finished later and required the children to be on stage for the final scene.


Her immediate response was, "You'd have to cut something out". When he asked her whether she knew about the law of copyright, she said, "What's that?"

Up and down Britain, theatre groups feel picked on and are understandably fed up. Oliver! and Annie! have become logistical nightmares to be avoided at all costs. The Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa, has gone a stage further – and I am sure it is not alone in taking a drastic step to dodge the daftness – by turning its back on aspiring actors under the age of 18, at least for the time being.

Faced with the demand that CRB-cleared chaperones must be available every night, plus rules requiring separate dressing rooms and toilets for youngsters, it decided that the effort involved was out of all proportion to the benefit.

Then, I understand, there is the new Vetting and Barring legislation, covering young people up to the age of 18. The Loft does not know what its rules will be and has not been able to find anyone, including the new Independent Safeguarding Agency, to shed any light – but it suspects that all adults with whom children might have contact in the theatre would have to be CRB-checked at a cost of £64 each.

Rather than expose itself to some unknown future risk, the theatre is turning its back on young performers, at least for the time being. It's not happy.

How on earth have the thespian arts managed to struggle along without Nanny until now? For heaven's sake, don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.

When a cow has wings to worry about - Small Thoughts

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Meet the man who talked Sir Norman out of retirement

 NIGEL Davey likes to go and watch his local dramatic society as often as he can. He actually took part in one production – but only on the final night. 

That was because, with the production already under way, a young man who was in the cast for Rubery Drama Group's Spring and Port Wine suddenly announced that he wouldn't be there on Saturday, the final night, because he had to go to a wedding and be best man. 

Nigel (seen below with Finty Williams, the daughter of Judi Dench) received an emergency telephone call from director David Morris, asking if he fancied taking part in four days' time. Shocked but not wanting to let anybody down, he agreed. 

“I went along on the Friday and stood at the back of the church hall to watch the man who had been rehearsing for six months, and for 1½ hours I wrote down everything he did.”

 The next night, he was on stage, his script covered by white paper, pretending his character was a bookworm, doing nothing but read the book on his lap. 

Usually his involvement with acting and actors has less heroic but possibly more “important” overtones – which is why he is more customarily to be found taking parts on television, ranging from Richard III on Channel 4, which he achieved in the same week as he was seen on Crimewatch as a drug addict and a homeless man.


 He reckons his shoulder-length hair has had something to do with it.

 “In the last ten years, because of my hair, I have normally played period dramas, or beggars or drug addicts.”

But before that, having found not a lot of help 20 years ago for his dyslexia, he became a fixture in the Great Britain team as a runner, cyclist and swimmer – which occupied him until what he calls his mid-life crisis made him decide he had to get back into acting.

Six years ago, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company presenting All's Well That Ends Well at Stratford-upon-Avon invited him to see the show and then to go with him afterwards to the pub on the other side of the road – the popularly misnamed Dirty Duck, where he met Judi Dench, who invited him to sit down. They embarked on a chat which included lots of helpful advice from one of theatre's grandes dames – and they have been in touch by letter and telephone ever since.

Dame Judi gave her active backing when Nigel co-produced To Cancer and Beyond, starring Hannah Waterman and Jean Boht, at Solihull Library Theatre in September, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. It was on for two nights, both sell-outs, and raised £2,000. Nigel says it's “a nice charity to be involved in” – which is why he has also been involved in co-producing two short humorous DVDs to help Macmillan.


His television connections ensured that he got big names involved, like Richard Lloyd, Les Dennis, John Alderton, Geoffrey Hughes, Don Maclean, Susan Jameson, Finty Williams and Dani Harmer – all of them to be found at the Hillscourt Teacher Training Centre at Rednal, Birmingham, where Waiting in Rhyme was filmed with the rhyming script for the doctor's waiting-room setting written by Giovanni “Spoz” Esposito, Birmingham's poet laureate.

And, most remarkable of all, he persuaded nonagenarian Sir Norman Wisdom out of retirement in the Isle of Man for a cameo part in Expresso, set in a café and filmed in the Waseley Hills, near Rubery, having promised that there would be no words involved.

 “He's only on screen for about two minutes, but he had a lovely day. He came with his daughter-in-law. Quite a lot of things had to line up and we had a five-hour window: meet the press, make the film and get him away. It was his final acting role and it was quite an operation for him a week after his 92nd birthday.”

Another hero was Geoffrey Hughes – Coronation Street, Keeping Up Appearances, The Royle Family – who left his home on the Isle of Wight at 5 am, arrived at 11 am, did his role and went back home, where he arrived at 1 am, having insisted that he wanted nothing but coffee and biscuits.

Nigel – for professional purposes, he uses his full name, Martin Nigel Davey – got the idea for the film after seeing a succession of people come and go at a table in a Covent Garden café. He had no idea what he was starting when he rang director Kevin Powis, with whom he had worked on television.

Somehow, things went on from there. Certainly, Macmillan is grateful.

John Slim

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A pedal-push in search of sponsors


EX-HALL GREEN Little Theatre man Nick Hennegan plans a bike ride from Shakespeare's Globe in South London to Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre. It's a 120-mile effort and it's not unconnected with the arrival at the Alex of Maverick Theatre's production of Hancock's Finest Hour, due in the week commencing June 14. 

Maverick, which he founded after his Hall Green Days, has always been a not-for-profit organisation, but now it is about to become a full charity. So Nick is thinking of leaping into the saddle to take the route Shakespeare probably took between London and Stratford-upon-Avon.  

He says, “It's about 120 miles and links the first show Maverick did – Henry V – Lion of England –and our association with the 'big time' with Hancock's Finest Hour.  Those who know me also know I'm more Falstaff than Romeo and it looks like it will be a solo attempt – so I hope that people may think about sponsoring me and, therefore, Maverick.” 

Meanwhile, there are still some places at £79 on Saturday, November 21, for the Introduction to Creative Producing workshop he is repeating at Birmingham Rep. It was a sell-out success at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and is returning there in March. 

One of the things that came out of the first workshop was the difficulty of affordable marketing on little or no budget – so he is also going to run a new workshop in London entitled Theatre Marketing and PR on a Tiny Budget, prompted in part by his memory of Maverick's early days at the Billesley pub in Birmingham – which would often sell out despite their minimal funding. 

Details of the courses are at www.mavericktheatre.co.uk/107015.html and on 0121 444 0933.

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