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Friday, 08 June 2018 00:00

Gyles Brandreth salutes The Witham

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“Give The Witham a gong” says Gyles Brandreth, who will be back at one of his favourite venues on 28 July with his new one-man show Break a leg!

I first heard about The Witham from one of my boyhood heroes, the great (if diminutive) ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood. ‘Wee’ Georgie was born in Jarrow in 1894 and at the height of his fame (when he was all of 4ft 9ins tall) he was known throughout the British Isles (and in America, too) as a music hall comedian and entertainer, radio star and film actor, who, even as an adult, appeared as a child – and a cheeky one at that. He went onto the stage at the age of five and went on working until he died, in his 85th year, in 1979. My father got to know him in the 1950s. I met him in the 1960s and found his stories about ‘the good old days’ of British theatre, variety and music hall completely compelling. 

He was prone to exaggeration and from his story of his visit to the Witham Hall you might be forgiven for thinking it was the tale of how ‘Wee’ George Wood won the war. It happened just after the start of the Second World War – on 14th September 1939 – when ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood and his stage partner Dolly Harmer appeared as the star turns in a morale-boosting fund-raising concert in aid of 'Boots and Clothing for Evacuee Children'. ‘Wee’ Georgie remembered because it was the first of many such shows he undertook during the war and more than 500 people crammed into the hall that night. Prepared for the worst, every member of the audience was required to bring their gas mask or they would be refused entry.

‘Wee’ Georgie Wood did a lot of good work over his long lifetime and richly deserved the OBE he received from King George VI in 1946 for his services to entertainment and the war effort. In my view, The Witham deserves a knighthood, if not the Garter, for its services to entertainment and the community over the years.

The Witham Hall has had many guises – from a dispensary of medicines for the poor to the Mechanics’ Institute and Library where everyone could access books. The Music Hall at The Witham has seen Victorian bazaars and shows of every kind, as well as dances in the wars where local children were handed prunes or sweets by soldiers. It was reported in the press that the official opening of the New Hall on 6 December 1860 lasted all day. The shops in the town closed at noon, and between 600 and 800 people were served refreshments. The evening concert was marred by the crush of people and the resulting excessive heat, which affected both performers and audience, but, all in all, it was considered to have been a great success.

The Witham went on to host countless events, among them balls, concerts, theatre and magic lantern shows, for the enjoyment of local people and the increasing numbers of visitors brought to Barnard Castle by road and rail. In 1948, it became Barnard Castle’s first public lending library and continued to provide space for public lectures, meetings, education and welfare. It has been calculated that, based on the Listed Buildings Register for England, 11 Mechanics’ Institutes survive today and continue to function as originally intended for the benefit of the community. Barnard Castle has one of them.

And Barnard Castle is blessed in The Witham. And those of us, like me, who are privileged to follow in the footsteps of the likes of ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood are blessed, too. It’s a privilege to come to Barney and perform in The Witham – a hall with a glorious heritage, a special atmosphere, a lovely audience, and, I hope, a future that’s as packed with variety and surprises as it’s fascinating past been. Give the Witham a gong. It deserves it.

Gyles Brandreth
Twitter: @GylesB1


Ruth has been in residence at The Witham this week as one of the nine artists selected for support from the North East Artist Development Network (NEADN) which is designed to support artists and companies at the earliest stages of developing their work, providing an opportunity to work up an idea, with the support of a venue, to the point where it is commission ready so that they are in a position to seek funding or other support to realise the work.

The NEADN is led by a steering group made up of influencers from regional theatres, arts centres and festivals, and is supported by a number of North East venues, including The Witham.

Ruth writes about her experiences at The Witham this week:

To be surrounded by beautiful scenery, historic buildings and lovely people is not a bad way to spend a week. On top of that, to be given space, time, support and encouragement to explore a risky idea, is truly a gift. And I have been the very happy recipient of that gift at The Witham this week.

As part of the NEADN residency programme, managed by Arc in Stockton and bringing a whole range of North East venues together to support artist development, I have been given the opportunity to explore my ideas and to interrogate my practice in the most beautiful of surroundings.

Having made work for a range of companies over the last 10 years and loved and learned from all of that experience, applying for this programme marked a new step for me to develop my own ideas and to interrogate my own practice. I predominantly make work for young audiences and their families and this is where my heart and passion is. I have also always been fascinated with the ways in which older narratives survive, rebirth and become new and resonate with the world today.

I started the week only knowing that the story of Chicken Licken was my starting point. And I then started to ask, What if? What if the audience are involved in a more active way? What if there is genuine collaboration that can happen between performers and audiences? And what if the audience can become authors and owners of their own artwork.

To help me ask some of these questions, I was lucky enough to have local and leading musical magicians Joe Johnston, Calum Howard and Jeremy Bradfield to come and play with me.

Without giving too much away, I am so excited to be developing a piece of work, that sits within a body of work for me, that truly wouldn’t have been possible to embark upon without the generous support of NEADN and The Witham and everyone who works there. I have been properly looked after; given advice, been served the best coffee I have tasted in a long time, access to printing, joined in wiggling and wobbling with a gang of very brilliant babies, been introduced to family chickens and been made to feel more than welcome by everyone I have met.

I have also been given the space and time to breathe, to reflect and to be ambitious, surrounded by beautiful scenery, historic buildings and lovely people.

Thanks for having me, The Witham!

Thanks for coming, Ruth! We have found it hugely rewarding to see your work develop in such an exciting, creative way over the week. We will look forward to welcoming you here again and seeing what happens to Chicken Licken.   Read more about Ruth Mary Johnson here and click here to discover what is on at The Witham for families.

Sarah Gent, Marketing Manager explains why The Witham team are celebrating...

We are delighted with this front page splash in the Darlington and Stockton Times today (read the article here) and the one in the Teesdale Mercury this week too (link to come shortly!

The Witham team are working hard not only to deliver excellent events and happenings, continue to improve our lovely cafe, entice people into the shop and the gallery but also work to raise awareness and ultimately funds for this small arts centre on Barnard Castle high street. This will enable us to do more and more with our local community and with the many visitors who come to events and explore our wonderful area.

As a registered charity, we have exciting plans to fundraise to support our work, building on the strong reputation we have established over the last four years. We've delivered so much of excellent quality, engaged with lots of exciting partners and increased footfall and ticket sales significantly since the refurb was complete in 2013.

And we plan to continue this growth with your help and a strong strategic approach led by the board of trustees and staff team.

So watch this space for future activities and thank you all for your ongoing support! 

The crowd really took Adrian to their hearts, when midway through his second set he called Andy and Moray on stage to perform a song he’d written called ‘Hold Your Light High’.

The show featured at the Witham on Saturday 16th September was headlined by Adrian Nation with special guests, Andy Yeadon and Moray Nellis. The show was the first promotion, (I hope of many) at the venue by Chilli Enterprises. The Witham is an ideal venue for the fare served up on the night. It’s cosy, intimate and friendly. As you’d expect from a recently refurbished building, the facilities are very good. I particularly liked being able to sit in the warm cafe area, enjoying a coffee, waiting for the doors to open, rather than being made to queue in the cold outside.

The show was compered by Mr Chilli Enterprises himself - Dave Palmer, who welcomed everyone and brought to the stage the special guests, the aforementioned Andy Yeadon and Moray Nellis. Most people reading this will know of Andy and his music, as in respect of the local music scene, he’s a bit of a Barney legend in his own lifetime. Performing with Andy was Moray Nellis, the daughter of Jimmy Nellis, a music legend of yesteryear in the Sunderland area. So, excellent credentials, but would it work?! It certainly did! I was fortunate to have a look at the set list before the show started and was pleased to see it crammed with great, self-penned songs of Andy’s that I’m familiar with. Songs such as ‘Love takes you everywhere’, ‘Right all along’, Standing here’ etc. 

The only slight reservation I had, was would the songs survive the transition from being played in a standard electric rock group format, to that of a single guitar accompaniment? I needn’t have worried. The songs were delivered in such a way that nothing was lost. Having only heard Andy playing electric guitar, his acoustic guitar playing was a revelation to me. I would have liked to have heard more of Moray taking a lead vocal or two, but that’s a minor carp.                                                                                                                                          
Next on, came top of the bill, Adrian Nation. Other than knowing of his reputation as being an excellent singer / songwriter and having immense prowess as a guitar player, Adrian and his music was fairly new to me. However, as soon as he started playing the intro of his first song, ‘The Coming of The Day’, I knew we were in for something special. He sounded like a one man band – there was bass, percussion and amazing finger- picking guitar, topped off by a good, strong singing voice, all in the mix. Armed with an array of five different guitars and exhibiting a mastery of effects, he captivated the appreciative crowd. As if that wasn’t enough, he proved to be an interesting raconteur. During the announcement of what he was going to sing next, he made a point of getting across to the audience, how his songs had came into being and which characters and places had inspired him to write that particular song, Some of the songs were about members of his family and friends, others such as ‘Dying of Democracy’ (from his forthcoming album Anarchy and Love) were more focused upon political issues. A lot of his songs, whether personal or political were powerful statements - some wistful, some strong and energetic. I would think that just as with good poetry, to fully realise the full impact of the message / story of Adrian’s songs, more than one ‘play’ is necessary. I’m sure that those people in the audience who took home with them a CD of Adrian’s work, will, in the days ahead, appreciate his work even more.                                                            

The crowd really took him to their hearts, when midway through his second spot he called Andy and Moray to join him on stage to perform a song he’d written called ‘Hold Your Light High’.
Adrian concluded a great show with a moving rendition of a song of his called ‘Set Fire to the Sky’. On his set list, he had as his final number, a cover of a well known Richard Thompson song, a favourite of mine, ‘Vincent Black Lightning’. I take it that he didn’t deliver this one due to time constraints. No matter, he’d put on an excellent performance, that I for one, will hope to see repeated at the Witham in the not too distant future (and then maybe I’ll get to hear his version of  ‘Vincent Black Lightning’!)

The management of the Witham and Chilli Enterprises should be congratulated, for putting on the show and I would hope that this show is only the first of many such joint promotions.


Thursday, 21 September 2017 09:14

Canary, A Teenage response

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Fun in the Oven Theatre Company presented Canary at The Witham on Wednesday 13 September 2017. Our reviewer Evie Brenkley (aged 14) reviews...

With bright yellow faces and dark blue overalls, the highly talented actresses of ‘Canary’ certainly caught one’s eye, and the play was equally striking. Darkly comedic and fabulous, the play was based on the ‘Canary Girls’ - brave women called upon during WW1 in a desperate time of need. When desperate for soldiers, Britain had raided all of its factories for men - and had no-one doing important jobs such as making the weaponry and explosives needed to fight. Once domestic slaves, the girls were now the key to pulling through and winning the war, making munitions and for the front line. Although it gave them illnesses, including yellow skin due to the toxic poisoning, many women enjoyed their new job as it gave them independence and a chance to live their life as their own. The play really gave us an in-depth detail of their lives and the entire thing was really fascinating. If you ever get the chance to go and see it - do, it is very enlightening and well worth watching.

The first part of the play is a sort of advert for the Canary Girls, with a narrator giving the girls life as they go about their daily tasks. This all changes, however, when an air raid strikes and the girls are left alone - just the three of them. When the actresses really discover themselves, we watch some heart-wrenching material whilst connecting to them on an emotional level. The entire play is very well choreographed and put together, constantly hilarious. The script was well written too and really emphasised showing us the women’s lives and also how they were being treated. The majority of it was still applicable to today’s society, making the play really thought-provoking at so many stages.

When the end of the air raid, and then the war was announced, everybody was given a short break, before the audience was allowed back into the theatre for a Q&A session with the actresses and their director. This was very interesting and allowed us all to gain a deeper understanding of the play. They all told us that they had such good fun producing the play, and improvising in rehearsals to discover their characters. They are still working on the final play, to make the whole thing really exciting so that “no one ever leaves the room.”

The audience loved it too, and it struck the teenagers there in particular. One of them told me they “thought the subject matter was very interesting and the physical way it was portrayed was excellent”. Another said, “the lighting flowed very clearly, and it came together well with the sound and the acting”. Certainly, the overriding consensus from all was that the play was incredibly enjoyable.

‘Canary’ has an excellent mix of fact and fiction, funny and heartbreaking; and the contrast between happy and sad is excellently portrayed. It is very well put together, with wonderful character development and the plot line is almost faultless, with every concept flowing together nicely. Considering this is still a work in progress, I can’t wait to see it develop and flourish in the future.


Friday, 15 September 2017 12:07

The Highlights Craft Tour 2017 - Luminosity training day

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Highlights Craft Tour 2017 - Luminosity.  

Promoters’ Training Day 

It’s approaching that time of year again, when The Witham will be welcoming the much anticipated Highlights Contemporary Craft Tour for 2017. Entitled “Luminosity”, this year’s exhibition is based around the theme of light and how the seven artists involved manipulate light as a crucial element or medium in their work.

In preparation for the exhibition The Witham staff members, Sarah and Halle, and volunteer, Marilyn, attended a Promoters Training Day to learn more.

After a pleasantly scenic journey across the tops to Shap, The Withamites joined a mixed group of staff and volunteers from other organisations, to be welcomed by Highlights Craft Tour officer Karen Babayan. One of the artists featuring in the tour, glass engraver Heather Gillespie, was also present and had brought along an exquisite vase, Zostera.  An indication of the quality of Heather’s work is that it is sold in shops such as Harrods and Liberty. Karen has the unenviable job of transporting Heather’s precious vase from place to place and we were very careful to view it from a respectful - and safe - distance. After all this was a vase with a name!

Karen began by giving an overview of the exhibition and the artists and craftspeople involved.  These include five exhibitors who are based in the North of England and two International artists, Statira Jazayeri from Sweden and Evagelia Hagikalfa from Greece. The ‘homegrown’ artists are Heather, Stuart Langley, Jason Taylor, Jan Hopkins and Sandra Balmer. Their work is very diverse and includes sculptural textiles, film and projection, glass, electronics and neon installations. The examples Karen showed on screen indicated that this will be a very special event of a kind we don’t often see in Teesdale and certainly whetted the appetite of all present.

It was interesting too, to hear the stories behind some of the works. There is the artist inspired by DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, and another who references genetics in her work, almost as an homage to her father and his interest in rabbit breeding. As Heather was present, she was able to describe the influences behind her own work which are largely marine based, such as the lovely seagrass-inspired engraving on her vase. Zostera, by the way, is a Japanese seagrass.

Heather went on to talk about her path as an artist and her year in the Czech Republic learning the ancient art of copper wheel glass engraving. Although this was no longer taught in the UK, thanks to Heather there are now a number of people practising this demanding craft.

Then came the hands on part of the day, as everyone was given the chance to try glass sandblasting. Following Heather’s instructions we tried to channel our inner artist by cutting a design on sticky plastic wrapped around a small glass. This was then sandblasted in Heather’s portable machine and judging by the smiles everyone enjoyed the activity and the results.

Following a delicious lunch - with many thanks to those responsible – the nitty-gritty of hosting the exhibition was mapped out, with considerations from risk-assessment, to selling work, the associated education programme and workshops being discussed. Thoroughly briefed and looking forward to seeing the exhibition in the flesh, the day ended as we left an anxious-looking Karen carefully re-packing Zostera in reams of bubble wrap and polystyrene.

At some point during the day, everyone had the opportunity to cross the road to The Old Courthouse, Shap’s own community arts building. An unloved building due to be demolished to make way for housing, it was saved by community action and brought back into use as a multi-purpose space. After a lot of hard work it now houses a library with computers, a gallery area and meeting spaces and is a facility the community can be proud of.

As Karen explained in her introduction, Highlights rural touring scheme aims to promote professional events in rural places, so that people living outside the main centres have access to high-quality arts experiences. And why shouldn’t we? Running from the 14th of October until the 4th of November, “Luminosity” certainly promises to be an outstanding exhibition and we in Teesdale are very fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy it. Spread the word and we’ll see you there...

Thank you to volunteer Marilyn Normanton for this blog post about the day!

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