Street Life: Oh no it isn’t!

Pantomime has proved to be one of the most enduring forms of entertainment for all classes and every age group. There must be something innate about it, because within minutes of the curtain rising on their first theatre visit, the tiniest tot will be calling out “it’s behind you”, like a veteran.

Over the years, small innovations may have crept in, but woe betide companies who ignore sacred panto traditions. One is that the (good) fairy comes on stage from the right, while the (evil) villain always enters from the left. Other conventions are that cross-dressing is mandatory, the dame’s voluminous union jack bloomers must be exhibited at every possible opportunity, and topical or local jokes get the biggest laughs.

Even the wardrobe department has traditions to maintain. Costumes for the finale must be so outrageously fabulous they command rapturous applause when, two by two, the cast enters. Goodies take their bows, hand in hand with baddies, to show that all ill will has been put aside for another year.

Oldham Coliseum pantomime Cinderella 2018.

Panto has proved to be a money spinner, so companies are prepared to push the boat out with costumes, scenery and special effects.

Live animals and local dance troupes go down well, but perhaps the real favourite are the ‘skin roles’ which don’t really exist outside pantomime. An actor named George Conquest built a career around playing animals in panto. The most ambitious of his costumes was an octopus 28 foot wide. Skin roles didn’t seem to do an actor’s career any harm either. Henry Irving once played the wolf in Red Riding Hood, while Charlie Chaplin was the front of a pantomime horse in Stockport.

Panto has enriched the language with words and phrases everyone recognises. Cinderella is shorthand for a drudge, or something unvalued. And we are warned not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The name of an inferior brand of green tea called Widow Twankey would no doubt have disappeared unremarked if it hadn’t been immortalised by Pantomime.

I never went to a lavishly produced extravaganza at a large theatre. I regret not seeing Norman Evans, the ultimate dame in my opinion, when he appeared at the Palace theatre, Manchester in 1952. But that year, without being aware of it, I was taking a tiny part in local panto history.

Queen’s Park Hippodrome on Turkey Lane was our nearest theatre. By the time I was old enough to go, saucy French variety acts had become its normal bill of fare. However, in 1952, there was one last pantomime before the theatre closed altogether, and I was there.

Buttons had us singing along to ‘you push the damper in and pull the damper out and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same’, so I guess it was Cinderella. I was only 5, and my clearest memory is of the long, cold walk home up Church Lane afterwards.

With the exception of that one visit to the Hippodrome, all my childhood pantomime recollections are of amateur productions at St. John’s church hall. What we really loved about it was that, with the exception of the name, nothing ever seemed to change.

Year after year, the pianist’s ‘victory roll’ hair style stayed the same, the Sunday school superintendent played the dame, and the kids you went to school with, were the ‘village folk’.

Sunday school benches formed the front three rows, and they were exclusively for children. Adults were accommodated on chairs behind them.

Our move to New Moston meant I left St. John’s Sunday school when I was nine. That was the minimum age to audition, so 1956’s panto would have been my first.

As a painfully shy, ungainly child, any part I got would have been entirely due to regular Sunday attendance rather than talent.

Despite being devastated at missing my chance to participate, I still looked forward to going to the pantomime as usual. When the curtains opened on the ‘village square’, I was horrified to see that amongst the ‘villagers’, there was a girl from my class at Lily Lane.

She didn’t go to Sunday school in my time, so must have joined just before the audition. How was it that a part, that should rightfully have been mine, went to this interloper?

It might be over sixty years, VH, but don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet…

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My Wild City: North Manchester Nature Network

How lucky are we? Parks, lakes, woodland and open fields all right on our doorstep. Some are well known, busy with visitors whilst others are quiet little pockets of nature.

They’re all part of a special project that Russell Hedley of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been working on since April.

“Funded by Cadent Foundation, it will engage members of the public to volunteer and help protect nature at existing Sites of Biological Importance between Bailey’s Wood and Moston Brook. Community groups and schools will also be involved.”

Meet Russ Hedley, nature encyclopedia on legs, and utterly charming

In addition to Bailey’s Wood and Moston Brook the other ‘sites’ are Boggart Hole Clough, Broadhurst Clough and The Fairway Nature Reserve.

Russ has been working with a group of volunteers who meet up each week and has also organised nature themed events throughout the summer. It’s a year-long project…

“…connecting people to wildlife, tackling isolation and loneliness and increasing nature’s diversity”.

Here are some examples of what’s been going on…

Balsam Bashing: Balsam is not an ugly plant by any means, the problem is, it’s invasive and prolific. That means it doesn’t really belong here, has no insect predators to control it so it spreads like mad. It prevents other plants from flourishing and the environment as a whole suffers. There’s a ‘window’ for getting rid of it so any time prior to the seed pods appearing is fine. After that, attempts to destroy it are more likely to aid its spread.

The root system is small for such a large plant so you just pull up and pile up (out of sight preferrably) and let it rot down.

Bashing the balsam in Boggart Hole Clough

Rhododendron is also an invasive species. It’s trickier to remove so it’s cut back and the branches woven into low hedges rather than left in a pile. The hedges provide the perfect habitat for small mammals and insects.

Sapling removal: At a time when tree planting is actively encouraged you may wonder why sapling removal is important. It depends on where the saplings are. We created a clearing near the pond on Broadhurst Clough to prevent them overtaking it and giving smaller plants access to light.

Wild flower planting:  Hundreds of wild flowers have been planted across all the sites to increase diversity and encourage insects to spread from one site to another. Planting a few in your own garden would help too.

Bat Walks: Russ led several of these towards the end of summer. I went on one and it was AMAZING. Bats are fascinating creatures and most of the time you wouldn’t know they were there. The UK has 18 species, which is a lot! They’re excellent pollinators and can eat around 3,000 insects a night. Their numbers have been in decline though so the more we learn about how they thrive the better we can help them.

Fungi walks: Led by Fungi expert Dave Winnard. What can I say? The man is a legend. We were truly entertained and even managed to find some mushrooms in the unusually dry tracts of the Fairway Nature Reserve. This is Manchester: It rains, except when you want it to. I haven’t stopped spotting mushrooms ever since though and, I quote, “they are one of the primary pillars of the food web…playing a critical role keeping forests and fields healthy”. Some have rather dubious properties – or so I understand!

In addition to these, Russ has also led Wildlife and Wellbeing Sessions at the NEPHRA centre, bug hunts, nature walks, litter picks, dinosaur trails, bioblitz events and he’s got plans for more activities over the coming months.

The project ends next spring so there are still lots of opportunities to get involved. Keep an eye out on Social media.

If you fancy volunteering contact Russ at mywildcity@lancswt.org.uk for details. You learn something new every time, meet fantastic people with a shared interest and give nature a helping hand.

Making small changes to your garden can help nature too. Think ‘insect friendly’ when you’re buying plants or have a veg patch. Leave a bit of lawn ‘unmown’ for a while, have a corner with a few old logs in or make a small pond – an old washing up bowl will do. The diversity will provide lots of wonderful habitats for natures little beasties.

Or, take a walk around our local countryside and just enjoy the green space.

Here are some links to keep an eye on: Moston Brook Friends Group and Forever Harpuhey and Moston on Facebook, The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Memories of Boggart Hole Clough on Facebook.

David Winnard’s Discover the Wild website is definitely worth a look at and the iNaturalist uk app is brilliant for recording the wildlife you see.

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North West Theatre Arts Company – Phantom Memories

The new season at North West Theatre Arts Company, Lightbowne Rd, Moston is under way and what a great start!

Phantom Memories is set in a disused theatre that four youngsters find their way into. Dusty props, odd items of costume and pieces of faded scenery present a creepy, haunted atmosphere. They’re caught red handed by the ageing caretaker, Bud Berger, superbly played by the young Harry Gardner. They run off leaving one young lady behind.

Finding herself alone she curiously starts to sort through the dusty objects. Each one she touches conjures us up ghostly images taking her, and the audience, back in time as they perform their memories from past musicals.

NWTAC’s theatre school term started just 4 weeks ago and the cast represents the full range of students including the newest members and the most experienced. A month is not a lot of rehearsal time so it was ‘in at the deep end’ for the newbies. They did so well. Early nerves soon dissipated and everyone grew in confidence as the show unfolded.

The musical numbers showcased a variety of West End productions, big box office films and the best of Hollywood hits such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Evita, South Pacific, The Wizard of Oz, Half a Sixpence and more. Something to suit everyone.

The full company kicked off with The Phantom of the Opera, closing the show two hours later with Born to Hand Jive and You’ll Never Walk Alone. In between we had solos, duets, comedy pieces and one or two cheeky numbers too.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is one of my all-time favourites. It’s just ‘up there’ and Amelia Zatorska sang it so sweetly that I and the rest of the audience melted. Gareth Maudsley’s rendition of Flash! Bang! Wallop! was brilliantly energetic and I’m convinced he’s related to Tommy Steele. If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It by Maria Collins was soooo tongue in cheek it made us blush. James Llewellyn Burke nailed all of his numbers including Gethsemene and Madame Guillotine with real passion, matched by Solomon Asante-Owusu and Lois Ormerod’s ‘crime of passion’ with We Both Reached For the Gun.

All these numbers would have fallen flat without the brilliant staging and direction of the production team. It’s easy to overlook the skills involved. Some of dance routines were complex yet executed with precision and that’s a tricky challenge for such a large cast, so, well done to Choreographer Katie Gough. A total of 39 musical numbers must have left Bethany Singh, Musical Director, feeling very proud and rightly so.

This was the first of a season of 8 shows that NWTAC will perform over the coming months and the script was inspired: A lovely trip down memory lane. What can beat a live performance, close to home and it doesn’t break the bank to go and watch?

If you have never been to NWTAC’s theatre and don’t know what to expect this is a view of the interior with the show’s Director, Prab Singh in the foreground…

NWTAC are truly a talented group of people but don’t take my word for it. Go and see for yourself. Winter Wonderland, a variety concert to get you in the mood for Christmas, comes up next from the 18th to 20th November. See you there.

Details of all forthcoming shows, how to join the mailing list and book tickets etc., can be found on NWTAC’s website here, along with details of the North West Stage School.

You can also follow them on Facebook, just click here.

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