The BBC White Paper and what it could mean for journalists

WHILE the main rumours circulating about the BBC’s future have been about the salaries of celebrity presenters and whether Strictly clashes with the X-Factor, there are more important issues buried in the paperwork — including whether the regional press is holding councils and quangos to account.

As a journalist and academic, I’ve been a member of the working group into the relationship between the BBC and the regional press since it was set up in June 2014. The group’s discussions fed into the white paper published today.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you raised the issue, over a pint in the pub, of whether the regional media has declined/failed/is dead, you’d get a tidal wave of negativity from people who claim never to read a paper anymore.

They wouldn’t understand that most of the information about their local team/school/hospital they get is still investigated and reported by the local media — but published online.

If they were not so overwhelmed by the demands of constant deadlines to feed their organisation’s websites, the journalists might be in the pub to point this out themselves, but those days are long gone. You’re far more likely to see a local reporter, be they from a paper, local radio or TV, in a Starbucks or McDonald’s car park, balancing a laptop and a phone on their knee while simultaneously trying to upload images and write the story straight on to pages via erratic free Wi-Fi.

“I don’t buy a papers, I get my news from Twitter and Facebook,” is a line guaranteed to bait the most unflappable of journalists. No. You don’t get news from social media, not the full story anyway. What you get is a headline, a tease, and you then click through to — guess what? — the newspapers and broadcasters you think you don’t read. Social media is simply a noisy vendor; a billboard, a town crier directing you to find out what’s going on. It’s rarely the actual story, except, of course, when it is eyewitnesses Tweeting live from an unfolding disaster, or a Facebook fundraiser for a poorly child. Even those live events will see readers looking for validation; for authority and confirmation, by checking what the established news providers are saying.

There is no doubt, regardless of how much the owners and managers of regional papers and broadcasters will tell you otherwise, that the number of journalists in the regions has rapidly decreased. Newspapers have closed high street offices and moved production into ‘hubs,’ often on industrial estates with no physical contact with the public, producing dozens of papers that may be many miles away. Reporters, if they’re lucky, may still be out on their ‘patch’, but instead of returning to an office to file their story, they do it from the aforementioned car park — wi-fi and phone signal permitting. Office-based staff are having to produce more copy faster than ever before, because they are now also writing all the ‘non-news’ text — the property edit, the what’s ons, the sports results — that used to be someone else’s job.

This is not confined to the newspapers, as both the commercial and BBC local TV reporters also have to cover larger and larger areas and often don’t have the time to attend, interview and edit for same-day broadcast deadlines. And yet the regions have a much larger audience than all the nationals put together.

The decline in print is not simply down to fewer people buying papers because they can get the same content via their smartphones. Newspapers never made their money through the cover price, they make it through advertising, and in the pre-internet years, that advertising was almost exclusively purchased in print. If you wanted to get a job, buy a house or sell a car, you bought a local paper. If you wanted to get eyes on these areas as a business, advertising in the local paper was the only, and often expensive, way to attract customers.

News and feature pages were essential to attract in those readers who might also want to buy a car, or a house, or whatever: the news media is a healthy business if you can make people pay for it, and if the cost of printing had not gone through the roof.

However much reporters want to be the messenger of truth between The Establishment and The People, bringing news is a business, and in print, those numbers just didn’t make the profits the ever-larger publishers wanted, and the online revenue has been slow in coming.

Even back in the most recent heyday, management were tasked with making savings, by reducing the number of editions, or making one reporter cover the job of two, by making expenses claims such a long-winded process that reporters simply stopped doing anything that required claiming. But it was unquestionably better staffed than today.

A big regional daily like the Yorkshire Post, Birmingham Mail or Manchester Evening News will still have a good number of ‘portfolioed’ reporters — like an education correspondent, court reporter and most likely a politics editor, covering council and the various authorities and quangos. The big papers will be making sure that issues like planning, schools, pub licensing, health, transport, leisure facilities and local councillors’ expenses are brought to the public’s attention. But on a weekly paper in a small town like Northampton? Maybe not.

Here you’re unlikely to find a reporter able to give their attention and expertise to one area like the council. They’re likely to be half the entire reporting staff on a given day, assuming no-one ever takes annual leave.
Council agendas (have a go at reading one, they’re online) take time to read and analyse. Meetings are usually in the evenings, and if you’ve been the only reporter on the day shift, it’s unlikely you’ll be awake enough to do the late shift too, and that’s assuming you have no life and responsibilities outside of the office.
And those ex-journalists who took redundancy in the last round of cuts, are now in council press offices, writing handy news-style, pro-council press releases, which are just so easy to slip into that gaping hole in your paper or website. They’ve done the hard work for you, haven’t they? The public can even watch the meeting on a council-run webcam.

So what has all this got to do with the BBC White Paper?

The BBC’s current Royal Charter — the agreement which sets the broadcaster’s rules and purpose — expires at the end of December and a public consultation into its future was launched last year.

Tory Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who oversees charter renewal, has published detailed government proposals for the BBC’s TV licence-fee-funded future in this White Paper.

Included was a section on “Supporting and invigorating local news provision across the UK”, which included a commitment to provide 150 extra

BBC-funded journalists nationwide, who will be based in newspaper offices but share content to all local providers, as “a Local Public Sector Reporting Service — investing in a service to report on local institutions.”

The White Paper continues: “… a service that sees the BBC providing some funding for local journalists to provide reporting for use by the BBC and other news providers. These proposals could provide a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of local news provision. The government welcomes the BBC’s commitment to continue to work with the industry to develop and implement these plans and its commitment to provide funding for 150 journalists from 2017, given the public interest in a plurality of local and regional news provision. This number could rise to 200…”

Hang on, why has the BBC got to prop up the staff of local (commercial) papers at a cost of £8million of BBC license-fee coffers?

Is it just to make friends? To stop criticism by the press that the liberally state-funded BBC killed local journalism with its early regional websites? (Press Gazette, 2007)

Going back to the original set-up of the working group by new BBC news chief James Harding in 2014, and further back still, there has always been ‘tension’ between the state-funded BBC journalists and everyone else.

Newspapers still think the BBC ‘steals’ their stories and simply reads them out on air, however vociferously BBC newsrooms will argue that they don’t, and that news is rarely exclusive.

A generation of current print editors will remember how they started their career on a paper on £7,000, while their fellow trainee reporters slithered into the BBC on £18,000 for doing the same job. They claimed it was impossible for commercial news providers to compete with well-staffed, state-funded newsrooms whose reporters were only writing-up one story a day, while their own staff covered half-a-dozen or more, only to see them ‘stolen’ by the BBC. They’ll say that the newspapers, both regional and national, do all the legwork on an investigation and the broadcasters will just mop up the headline and conclusion. This was still being claimed at the Revival of Local Journalism conference two years ago that sparked Harding’s working party.

I’ve been to every one of the meetings over the two years and made several observations: the most notable being that for all their efforts, the tensions between the BBC and the regional newspapers, and the Press Association, and hyperlocal independent publishers, the commercial regional TV stations, all represented on the panel, are still there.

Some are further evolved than others, and have joined schemes that see newspaper website stories cross-promoted on BBC regional sites (the data on whether this helps the newspapers is still to come). There have, as detailed in the White Paper, been ideas about sharing the vast BBC archive, creating a shared data unit and distributing video to regional publications to use online. This could easily happen if the technology allows.

Meanwhile, some editors will struggle to even contemplate liaising with their local BBC, who they view as their competition, along with whatever other rivals they may have in print.

The idea of the BBC funding ‘extra’ reporters was originally thrown into the mix at an early working party meeting, as a way of covering not council, but court. Many around the table thought court reporting was being neglected in all but the cities, but subsequent enquiries saw this idea discarded.

Then it appeared again last September in an announcement by BBC DG Tony Hall, this time as a potential way for the BBC to be seen to be spreading some of their funds to report on courts and council matters. The announcement came as a surprise to the working party who had previously been told it wasn’t a cost-effective idea, because all areas of the UK, even those where council was already adequately covered by larger papers, would have to be included. That’s before you even consider the logistics of where to put a BBC-paid reporter who wasn’t to be based in a BBC office and who would have to share content between rival newsgroups, much like a rota reporter on a royal visit.

The idea was again rubbished, especially by Ashley Highfield, head of newspaper publisher Johnston Press, and Vice Chair of the News Media Association (formerly the Newspaper Society). He accused the BBC of ‘recruitment of more BBC journalists through the back door.”

But away from the working party, meetings were arranged between Harding of the BBC, and regional newspaper bosses including Highfield, with presumably his JP hat on top of his NMA one, to thrash out an idea of the BBC funding journalists who would work within the newspaper groups, which is pretty much what was revealed today.

Two major questions:

If the BBC funds new reporters to cover council and quango matters for the newspapers, what’s to stop the newspaper groups getting rid of their existing reporting staff? I asked this at the last working party meeting and remain unconvinced that it will be prevented from happening by ‘editorial gatekeepers.’

If there are 150, or even 200 new reporters funded by the BBC in the regions, which everyone would welcome, newspapers would be able to ‘bid’ to have one. Why would happen if, say, the Chronicle & Echo ‘got’ a BBC-funded council reporter, and they were expected to share their brilliant council story (at exactly the same moment) with BBC Northampton and the Herald & Post? Anyone who knows journalists will know the idea of sharing is never as attractive as beating the opposition to a fat exclusive. And newspapers have high targets for reader ‘hits’ just as they do for maintaining high print circulation. A good exclusive will not be given up easily.

Will the 150 reporters ever materialize? If the time it’s taken to get this far is anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But I might cross my fingers, and meanwhile try and support my local papers by advertising, clicking through to pages online and picking up the print papers whenever possible. You might not think you need them but you’ll certainly miss them if they go, when the BBC could be the last man standing.

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Adult who complained about John Lewis toddler tantrum needs putting on the naughty step

THIS week I was asked to talk about whether it was right that a mum, whose 16-month-old toddler was throwing a full-on tantrum, was asked to leave a John Lewis store after a complaint from a customer. No, of course it bloody wasn’t.

Apparently, a customer complained about the crying noise to a member of the menswear department who then asked the frazzled new mum to leave.
I’m pretty sure this was a one-off by a member of staff who was either inexperienced, having a bad day, or simply moronic. What he should have done is walk the stupid moaner off the premises, not the mum.
Oh yes, I know it’s pretty irritating when a kid cries in a public place. It’s MEANT to be annoying, to get grown-up human beings to pay attention to a child who might be in peril. But this wasn’t in a restaurant, or a bar, or a library. No one goes shopping for the peace and quiet.

So hey, Mr John Lewis customer, why don’t you walk away for a few minutes and come back when the tantrum’s over rather than throwing your toys out of your pram and COMPLAINING? Clearly when you wanted your own way as a kid, your parents must have pandered to your every whim, instead of leaving you to bleat and cry until you realised it was pointless, and did what you were ruddy-well told.

Yes, I’ll happily admit to bribing and threatening my offspring to get them to stop them kicking off in public, but a 16-month-old? Too young to understand I’m afraid.
The only thing you can do as a parent with a screamer is ride it out, or carry them bodily somewhere else to distract them. I did have a particularly effective hard stare that would silence my older sons (not Bonnie, she just didn’t care), but not at this age. You can lose a finger trying to strap a wriggly, screaming pre-schooler into a buggy, or get kicked in the face by flailing feet. Parenting the under-fives is like an extreme sport. Done daily.
Trust me, most parents are also swearing under their breath when toddlers throw a paddy in public. It’s not a situation anyone enjoys.

So get over it, shoppers-without-babies. Walk away, put your headphones in, have some empathy. Because it’s these screaming kids, mine included, who will be working all hours to prop up the economy in a few years time, so you can have a pension in your old age. Move on tantrum police, there’s nothing to see here. . .

 

 

 

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For the cheek-tweakers out there, a column to update you on our fab four

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Bonnie, 8, Billy, 12, Jed, 18 and 16-year-old Dougie, whose childhoods were documented in local papers

MY 12-YEAR-OLD son is looking simultaneously horrified and delighted. His eyes are saying, “Get her off me!” while his mouth is showing a wide smile. His cheeks are being held adoringly by someone who could pass as his granny, but who is actually a complete stranger.

This mild-mannered mugging in the supermarket is not unusual for my children. They were once the subject of a weekly newspaper column, which detailed their early years and my often chaotic parenting. And unbeknown to them, they still have fans. Readers who saw them appear in print as chubby babies, naughty toddlers, and mischievous teens who still recognise them, although the column stopped when the paper ceased being a daily a few years ago.

“Look how you’ve grown!” beams the friendly stranger, leaving Billy unsure whether to thank her or correct her; because in his head he’s not grown enough, being one of the oldest but tiniest in his year at school.

Meanwhile the lady has moved on to ruffle the hair of eight-year-old Bonnie, now looking like a fully-formed human being rather than the wobbly toddler the reader remembered. “And don’t you look like your mum?” she asks. Bonnie has become used to this observation and doesn’t yet see it as the worst thing on earth (although no doubt that will change). I chat to the lady a little longer, filling her in on what our older two are doing and thanking her for keeping track of My Bloke’s career as editor of another paper.

As we bid our farewells to carry on shopping, Bill and Bonn start to question me along the lines of: Who the hell was that and why does she know so much about us? (They had been much younger when the columns ran and possibly thought that all children had their photos taken on a weekly basis.)

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Jed, Billy and Dougie, the early years

We carry on the discussion back at home with the elder sons, Jed and Dougie, now 18 and 16 respectively, who make sure the younger two understand that THEY were FAR more famous in their day, as they had their tantrums, birthdays, school applications, parents’ evenings and every other form of embarrassing scenario detailed to the public at large on a weekly basis for more than a decade. Cheek-tweaking by strangers was a weekly occurrence for us, not just a one-off, they claimed.

But how would they feel now if I’d kept writing about them? My change of job from full-time journalist to university journalism lecturer meant that I didn’t really get to discuss parenting mid-range teens. It would have been just as they hit the door-slamming years, and I would have had perfect source material for a parenting column, with topics like girlfriends, puberty, under-aged drinking, learning to drive, going abroad on their own or, critically at the moment, exams. But is it fair to expose the lives of your children as a paid job?

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Dougie, aged 8, baby Bonnie and Jed, at 10.

Social media would possibly have exacerbated their embarrassment even more, because ten years ago they wouldn’t have been so ‘shared’ via Twitter and Facebook, although they were online.(They don’t have their own social media open to us, quite wisely.)

Feedback was generally pretty good on the column, readers wrote letters and emails sympathising or sharing their own stories, and often it would be grandparents as much as parents who read it, because they could see how attitudes and styles of bringing up kids had changed so dramatically.

Unlike the plethora of parenting advice books, the column wasn’t there to lecture anyone about the best way to bring up kids, but to share experience and tips. Well, that was the intention anyway. I did get relatively regular letters written by someone claiming to represent the entire population of a nursing home who apparently detested me and spelled this out in no uncertain terms. Then there was the mother who wrote to tell me that she was so appalled that I didn’t give out party bags at one particular birthday that she was GLAD her children did not know mine. Ouch.

I’ve always found it curious how hate-mail tended to be from women, who you’d think would be more supportive of the sisterhood. But no, I’m afraid the most zealous critics were female. At least I can say they were engaged enough to be bothered to actually write, buy a stamp and take it to the postbox. Today we’d call them trolls.

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Jed and Doug today

Is writing about your own children in advice columns over-sharing? (And yes, of course I’m aware that I’m sharing their lives again, as I’m writing this right now). Is there a difference between parenting advice columns and the ubiquitous Facebook posts of the landmark events (or otherwise) of proud parents?

OK, so I did sit up in bed and write a column for the newspaper about the arrival of our new baby daughter on the day she was born. But because readers had spent nine months following the saga of my fourth pregnancy it seemed only fair to give them the conclusion. And to be frank, I was so pleased that having a home birth had been such a monumentally better experience than going into hospital, I wanted other people to understand there was nothing to be scared of. Plus, I was slightly off my head on post-partum painkillers.

DSC_0068If there was a story in the news about a particular parenting issue, like childcare, or health issues, I’d usually have experienced it one time or another, and knew how lonely, confusing and demoralising those early years as a mum can be. Jed and Doug are only 19-months apart in age, and like chalk and cheese, so I’d had a pretty intensive apprenticeship as a working parent, at a time when you were only allowed 3-6 months maternity leave. By the time Billy and then Bonnie came along, I had four children under ten and had given up caring what people thought of me.
I just wanted to tell people all the things I wish I’d done differently. Or even, and we probably don’t do enough of this, detailing parenting tips that had actually worked.

Today the urge to write about the offspring is somewhat offset by being able to share pictures and updates to family and friends via Facebook (which I try and use just for personal stuff). I will occasionally get asked to write the odd thing for a parenting site or magazine and happily rant away on BBC Radio Northampton whenever they are short of a guest with forthright opinions on bringing up baby.

Jed is now 18, just coming up to his A Levels, learning to drive, playing rugby, going out on the town and looking at universities. yes, terrifying, I know.
Dougie is almost 17, in the year below, doing AS Levels, playing first-team rugby (his team are in the Nat West Schools final at Twickenham in nine days time, and he’s fighting to get back from his first ever injury).
Billy , now 12, has started ‘big school’, also plays rugby, and does street dance, loves to cycle like his looky-likey dad, has successfully ingratiated himself with the sixth form at school, despite being a year seven.
Bonnie, now 8, doesn’t seem the slightest bit bothered that she’s the only one left at primary school, where she does gymnastics, yoga, recorder, ocarina, swimming and unlike her brothers, has never had a bad report. She’s girlier than you might expect (so much for nature/nurture) and somehow rules the roost. They are often hilarious and sometimes idiotic and make us incredibly proud.

Meanwhile, if you see my kids out and about, don’t be afraid to give them a tweak of the cheeks. They love it, really.

 

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Just found missing snowdrop named after my daughter

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This is galanthus ikariae Bonnie Scott, a snowdrop named after my daughter when she was a baby in 2008.
It was grown by famed snowdrop guru Jim Leatherland in Northamptonshire, and I thought I’d lost it. But buried among some overgrown hardy geranium, with a couple of flowers and its stripy leaves, there it is, nearly eight years on and still alive! 
I must split it and move it once it’s G finished flowering, this time writing down where it is!

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Review of Cinderella, with John Partridge and Cbeebies’ Sid, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2015

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John Partridge as the Prince Sid Sloane as Dandini Pics by Robert Day

Cinderella Review, Derngate theatre Northampton.

THERE’S a tradition with many families at Christmas that shows more faith than going to midnight mass – and that’s booking a year in advance for the Derngate panto.
Lots of Northamptonians do it – after all, the Derngate pantos are fairly traditional and you should reasonably expect something with a famous face, some sparkly costumes and the requisite number of ‘He’s behind you!’s.
They are always Qdos productions, a vast entertainment group who put on commercial, traditional pantos, usually with at least one celebrity turn, up and down the country. Next door at the Royal you’ll find something a little less panto and a little more ‘Christmas play’, and this year it’s the Snow Queen.

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Bobby Delaney as Ugly Sister (Cheryl) Ben Stock as Ugly Sister (Rita) Pics by Robert Day

If it’s dames and double entendres you’re after, Cinderella has those in abundance. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney as the Ugly Sisters give it the full-on panto dame routine, with amazing costumes and good comic timing. But they get rather pushed into the chorus by ex-Eastender and rumoured Big Brother contestant John Partridge as Prince Charming, whose stripping and whooping and winking make you think that Cinderella would be furiously swiping left on the fairytale version of Tinder.
When Partridge started singing, and he can certainly carry a tune, my 7-year-old turned to ask: “Is it the interval soon?” She and her 8-year-old friend fidgeted far more than they usually do at the theatre while our 12-year-old, trying his hardest not to sound un-cool, asked if some of the jokes were really suitable for kids, “as it isn’t even like you have to work out what they really mean, it’s just rude stuff.” Then he went back to playing games on his phone.
I’ll admit I was watching through gritted teeth through quite a lot of Cinderella, as young actress Rachel Flynn battled to be heard above her braying prince and the whiney Buttons, played by Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Danny Posthill, whose main talent was rapid-fire impressions.

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John Partridge as the Prince Sid Sloane as Dandini Pics by Robert Day

There was a big cheer from the audience when Cbeebies favourite Sid (Sloane) appeared, and he made the cheerful most of his role as the prince’s servant and sidekick Dandini. The beautiful glittery costumes and athletic dance moves of the girl dancers got our seven-year-old back watching and the audience seemed to be whooping along with it all. Either that or they’d been wise enough to have a proper drink beforehand.

There is an intended ‘wow’ moment involving a mechanical horse, some bubbly snow and some stage flying work, but I’m afraid I couldn’t stop laughing at the horse’s gammy leg.
I’ve been to a lot of pantomimes over the years and despite the jokey reputation for it being a long way from high art, the writing has to be good to carry the clichés and flamboyance that comes from having to recycle much-loved stories and carry slightly-famous non-actors.

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Rachel Flynn as Cinderella

With Cinderella I got the feeling that the production bosses just couldn’t be bothered this year. Stick some faces up there, work some good dancers into a few routines, call the local dance school for some sweet kids for the chorus, find someone off a TV talent show that at least the teens will recognise and shove in some fart jokes. Work them all solid for a couple of months and take the cash that people effectively pledged without knowing what they were really going to get.
If you’ve already got tickets, or were thinking of going, don’t let this put you off. But if you can, make sure you drop into the theatre’s new Bar Hygge beforehand, for a ‘quick stiffener’. There you go Qdos scriptwriters, you can have that one for next year.

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Oh no, not snow! Review Royal and Derngate, Northampton

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Kate Hearn as Polly. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

THERE’S a bunch of four and five-year-olds running up and down the steps in the bar area of Royal & Derngate, completely oblivious to everyone around them. The game escalates quite quickly into Slide-Down-The-Steps-On-Your-Tummy.
Oh, and they are all girls, most dressed in very sparkly dresses.
Our seven-year-old Bonnie has settled herself up onto a bar stool and is looking down on them, literally, while shaking her head: “Ah, reception kids,” she sighs, sounding more like a pensioner than her own grandparents. She’s read the blurb about the show we’re waiting to see and seen that it’s for under-fives – and she’s seven.
We’re here, Bonn and I, to see one of the Royal & Derngate’s famous ‘immersive’ shows for children. These are often linked to the Royal’s annual Christmas show and this year it’s Oh no, not snow! which references The Snow Queen, playing to rather larger audiences upstairs.
Oh No, not snow! (which will become ONNS for the purposes of word count) is being held in the Underground at R&D, an innovative space that allows directors to make sets as ‘rooms’ which the audience can walk through as part of the show.
The story has already started as the audience of kids and carers walk through to put away their coats. Sam (played by Max Gallagher) introduces himself and gets the smaller members of the audience to rip up paper to make snow.
Then his mum arrives and tells him to take his ‘friends’ (that’s us) to help tidy his bedroom.
What follows is a journey through a couple of self-contained rooms (I don’t want to spoil the surprise with too much detail, but there is a ‘wow’ moment) with the audience of parents and pre-schoolers in tow.
Director Chris Elmer-Gorry has created a delightful introduction to the fantasy world of theatre for the under-fives in ONNS, and I think it’s a real strength of R&D that they create these ‘tasters’ of theatre for the very young.

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Sam, played by Max Gallagher. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

There are moments where the tiniest tots, oblivious to the fact there is a story being told, get involved in the action, and the actors, particularly Kate Hearn as Polly, do well to manage and ad-lib around their impromptu cast members. Sometimes the children are invited to help the cast in certain tasks, and sometimes they just join in anyway, and it’s up to the skill of the performer to manage the situation without breaking the flow, as there’s already no ‘fourth wall’ of traditional theatre.
I’ve reviewed several of these immersive shows over recent years and in this case Bonnie, aged 7, was totally engrossed in the action and the story.
There are a couple of songs that went on marginally too long for some of the kids, who I watched chucking ‘snow’ in strangers faces instead. I think the age of the children, set at under 5, could go up to six or seven, but I’d also put a limit on the number of adults coming with each child, because at times it seemed that there were just too many big people in the room closely stalking their offspring, rather than sitting back and letting them join in the action with the other children.
Oh No, Not Snow runs in Derngate’s Underground until January 3, with limited tickets available from the Box Office on 01604 624811.

 

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Who could resist the sight of 2,000 Santas in Becket’s Park, Northampton? Sign me up!

Santa A4 Poster with Charity Logos.jpgI’ve been needing a deadline to get my lardy backside shuffling a little further than just once around Northampton’s Racecourse. What better excuse than joining several hundred people – and dogs – dressed as Father Christmas?
The Northampton Santa Run is to be held on Sunday December 13 at 10.30am, for a short 3km jog or (for those of us who plod) walk. You can enter with your kids and even enter with your dog – the aim is to raise much-needed cash for Northants-based charities.
The six charities who will benefit are the Cynthia Spencer Hospice, St John Ambulance, The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, Rotary Club of santa runmap.jpgNorthampton, The British Red Cross and Northamptonshire Health Charitable Fund.

The entry fee is £18 for adults and £8 for children and includes a Father Christmas outfit that you can take away with you and a finisher’s medal. Or you can raise even more by getting sponsorship for your run.
Organiser Chris Dolan said: “We’re hoping to see thousands of red and white bearded participants run, or walk, two laps of Becket’s Park, raising as much as possible for the six Northants charities. We’ll be doing lots of things to get people to sign up as Santas in coming days, so keep an eye out for us!”

If you sign up online you will be able to collect your Santa suit and race number from a pop-up shop in Northampton Town Centre before the race event on December 13, to avoid any queues on the day.
Anyone wishing to take part can apply online by visiting the event’s official website northamptonsantarun.com or for more information email chris@northamptonsantarun.com

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Lunching alone at Academy Coffee Haus, Northampton

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Once upon a time in the very distant past, I wrote regular restaurant reviews for the local daily paper.
We’d be allowed to claim £30 on expenses (for two, with drinks!), and always went incognito, so we’d be treated the same as any other paying member of the public.
Restaurant reviews were good ‘talkers’ for newspapers, as readers would like to share their opinions, especially once the Internet arrived and made commenting on stories far easier.
Anyway, in my reviewing days, I’d sometimes take Bloke, father of my children and fellow journo, who unfortunately considered food reviewing an almighty pain in the arse. He would prefer the Just Being A Normal Punter aspect to include Not Bloody Reviewing Everything.
Therefore my favourite restaurant reviews were with another journalist, Jess. For several years we’d use sporadic restaurant reviews as an excuse to catch up. We were both working full time, having babies and generally being rubbish at staying in touch. Restaurant reviews also meant we ate proper food rather than picking at the kids’ leftover fish fingers or eating nothing but crisps while driving from one job to another.

Reviews are not as easy as you might think. They can be utterly tedious to read if the writer insists on something along the lines of ‘we went here, we had this’ using words like ‘nice’ and ‘tasty’.
Reviews should paint a picture of the experience, even if the only picture published is a GV: a general shot of the restaurant from the outside.
They should ultimately tell your reader whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. Usually we were pretty happy with our experiences. Restaurateurs would display framed cuttings of reviews behind their tills. Sometimes they weren’t so happy: one threatened to pull their advertising from the paper because I’d said the service was slow. Another establishment, that had served us raw chicken, then served me, the editor and the newspaper group with writs claiming defamation in the review. It later transpired the place was being run by a crook, who had run out on other restaurants and debts around the UK, and he’d finally been caught.
Time moved on. Jess and I had yet more kids, our lives went in different directions, we were still good pals, but without the regular meals.
Then we met up again and made a date to meet for lunch, at Academy Coffee Haus, tucked away behind Debenhams in College Street Mews.
For once I wasn’t late, and even cycled there instead of driving (nearest parking would be in Marehold or on street on Bridge St). But Jess was poorly and couldn’t make it.
I decided to stay, and in the spirit of our previous culinary adventures, I’d review my lunch experience.
The cafe is small, it has around 30 covers, simple wooden chairs and a couple of padded benches. Ceiling fans add character and I presume some air in the summer months.
There’s a loo that is small and probably not wheelchair accessible, but which had a changing mat and emergency nappies and wipes, something I’d have appreciated when wrestling four children aged under ten around town in the past.
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I had a couple of good cappuccino coffees, in a decent sized cup with a biccy on the side, and a huge chicken and sundried tomato salad, with olives and pinenuts.
I think the menu did say it came with pesto bread, but I didn’t get any, and to be honest I totally forgot about this while eating, so it clearly wasn’t needed. The chicken was well seasoned and hot, and was delicious with both fresh and sundried tomatoes, pinenuts and black olives.
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Eating alone was actually a pretty sociable experience. I chatted with a young artist who had just moved back to Northampton from London after realising she just couldn’t go on simply earning money just to pay the extortionate rent. An old journo contact who now works in PR by coincidence arrived to have a coffee and cake lunch just to escape the office, and joined me for a chat too.
One waitress had to escape outside for five minutes due to an attack of the most entertaining hiccups I’ve ever heard, like a tiny puppy yelping. On another table a girl was telling her friend how desperately unhappy she was at work, and vowing to leave, while her pal tried to talk her round.
The staff were friendly but not intrusive, and my total bill came to £9.45, pretty good value for a warm and well fed couple of hours, with free WiFi.
If you’re in Northampton I’d recommended it, whether meeting friends or not. It’s far from a lonely experience.
****

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Review of Gaslight, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 2015.

Review of Gaslight, Royal & Derngate, Northampton. (Press night performance)

 

By Hilary Scott

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

YOU usually find mention of the set design for a new theatre production much further down in a review, but in Gaslight at Northampton’s Royal Theatre the stage is the first star you lay eyes on.

With the action confined to the classic ‘one-room-in-a-period-setting’, it’s a tough job to be original.

But William Dudley and the Royal’s set-production team have created a stunningly clever Ames Room – one of those that alters your perception of the things within it – which perfectly reflects the theme of the play: manipulation of someone’s mind to make them doubt their own sanity, or Gaslighting.

The use of clever modern video projection, in a 130-year-old theatre, for a play set in stifling the stifling late Victorian age shouldn’t work – yet it does, brilliantly (except for one very ridiculous section near the end which doesn’t, and made us laugh when we should be shocked).

We had no time to leaf through the programme beforehand, which is just as well, because then we had no spoilers or expectations. This is a psychological thriller, which made the entire audience shift uncomfortably in its seats as the stellar cast messed with our minds.

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald is exquisite as the vulnerable, bullied Bella Manningham, running the gauntlet in her own house between her domineering husband Jack, played menacingly by Jonathan Firth (I was two-thirds through before I recognized him as Colin’s brother), the servants, and her own sanity.

Fitzgerald stars in the globally popular Game of Thrones and I suspect a percentage of the packed audience was there to see her.

Is her encounter with her apparent saviour, the rosy-cheeked Inspector Rough (Paul Hunter), just another example of her mind playing tricks?

No spoilers: You’ll have to go and see for yourselves.

Gaslight, a Made in Northampton production, runs at Royal & Derngate until November 7. Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk

 

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Huxley’s Brave New World is Made in Northampton

Review of Brave New World, world premiere, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, running until Saturday September 25, before touring nationally. Press night performance.
By Hilary Scott

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble.
Photography by Manuel Harlan.

IT is a compelling, and at times uncomfortable, adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World which challenges the audience at Northampton’s Royal theatre.
Those not familiar with the original 1931 text will not struggle to find familiarity in its themes, particularly pertinent to contemporary issues of the stupefying capitalism of western society juxtaposed with the violence, poverty and despair of the abandoned poor.
And hey, you get the story that spawned the Hunger Games trilogy, and even a Poldark-esque shirt-off scene from the floppy-haired William Postlethwaite as the passionate outsider, John the Savage.
The production whacks the viewer straight between the eyes – opening with a boom of music and lights and steading with the sterility of the laboratory conditions of the hatchery and conditioning centre.
For this is a world 500 years in the future where parentless babies are grown in test tubes and genetically modified to join their caste of clones to work in factories and sewers, or to be the educated Alphas and Betas of the elite.
But there are no wars or crime; this is a society controlled not by pain and fear, but of perceived happiness, conditioned from birth and powered by sex, consumerism and drugs. In this manufactured utopia, nature and art are treated with distain, while gyms and gadgets are the trophies of the elite. The citizens of this World State have everything they think they want, no family bonds, no emotional ties, an ecstasy-style drug called Soma, promiscuity and entertainment, and an indifference to death. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Happiness is essential, and those misfits who aren’t happy and promiscuous are shipped off with their unwanted emotions to remote islands.
Brave New World - James Howard, David Burnett and ensemble 102 c Manuel Harlan[1]Meanwhile, out of sight and left to rot are the majority of the population, the Savages, who live ‘naturally’ while imprisoned in vast ‘reservations, occasionally gawped at like zoo animals by the holidaying Alphas.
These two cultures come into contact with the discovery of a young man accidentally born naturally in a reservation, and brought back to see the utopian world of his elite parents. John the Savage, educated in secret by reading the complete works of Shakespeare, sees the world through the constraints of ancient, Tudor rules, and is both enticed and repulsed by the hedonism of the World State.
On press night the theatre was packed, and any early-run technical issues had clearly been fixed, as the multimedia production was visually stunning. Huge video screens hung above and around the stage adding texture and depth while the original music by These New Puritans was perfect for the adaptation. The casting is excellent, particularly for the performances by Gruffudd Glyn as the bullied misfit Bernard Marx, Samantha Pearl’s naturalistic portrayal of conformist Polly, Olivia Morgan’s confident Lenina and Postlethwaite’s conflicted savage. All ones-to-watch.

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

Also in the talented cast of ten is Abigail McKern as Linda, the bedraggled former Beta elite and John’s reluctant mother, who gives both mature gravitas and light relief to the piece, while playwright Dawn King’s adaptation cleverly morphs the dictatorial World Controller Mustapha Mond into the female Margaret Mond, played with cold indifference by Sophie Ward.
There were issues – particularly with the pacing and delivery in the first half when the necessary set-up of the story meant the audience was starting to lull into a Soma-like stupor. It just needed to be faster, more dynamic and daring, to match the visual staging. There were a few fluffed lines in the second half, but nothing too distracting and I’m sure this is a production that will gain momentum and develop as the run continues.
It is a definite go see; an excellent story and a timely reflection, albeit written in the past about the distant future, on our own present. It’s no wonder Spielberg is planning a film version.
For tickets, visit royalandderngate.co.uk or call the box office on 01604 624811
Brave New World - Gruffudd Glyn and William Postlethwaite c Manuel Harlan-123[1]

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