All quiet in the library but Explore York encourages Libraries from Home online opportunities. Here’s what you can do…

York Explore Library and Archive, the York hub of Explore York in Museum Street, York

THIS is the time to explore Explore York online, providing the Libraries from Home service during the Coronavirus lockdown.

“If you are confused or overwhelmed by the huge amount of information on offer, Explore can help,” says executive assistant Gillian Holmes, encouraging visits to the website, exploreyork.org.uk, “where it is simple to find what you need”.

This encouragement comes after all Explore York library buildings, reading cafes and the City Archives were closed to the public from 12 noon on March 21, in response to Government strictures.

“We are making it easy for people to find information and advice, as well as inspiration, as we all deal with the Coronavirus crisis.”

The Explore website has assorted useful links to help people cope during the coming weeks. “Some sites have always been part of our online offer and some are brand new,” says Gillian.

“We are also working with City of York Council and our many partners in York, so that our communities can join together and we continue to support their initiatives, just as we will when our buildings open again. 

“Organisations across the country are developing their online services in this challenging time. We are using our expertise to gather together the best offers and add them to the lists of sites we recommend.” 

Explore York will be developing online activities of its own, such as a Virtual Book Group. “We will be updating the website regularly as these new things come on stream and sharing on social media using #LibrariesFromHome,” says Gillian.

The York Explore building: Quiet in the library but still seeking to be busy online

What’s available online from Explore York:

Updates on how Explore is responding during the pandemic and updates about what’s new at https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/coronavirus/ 

Information and support during the Coronavirus crisis from official sources at exploreyork.org.uk/recommended-websites/coronavirus-resources/ 

5000 Ebooks and audio books for adults and children free to borrow from the online library at exploreyork.org.uk/digital/e-books/ 

The chance to visit the new York Images site to explore the history of the city through photographs, illustrations, maps and archival documents at exploreyork.org.uk/digital/york-images/ 

The opportunity to start your family tree using Ancestry and Find My Past. The library editions are both free to use from home at exploreyork.org.uk/digital/online-reference/

Reliable information about everything can be found on the Online Reference pages at exploreyork.org.uk/digital/online-reference/ 

“Everything is free to access,” says Gillian. “All you need is a library card. You can get a card online and start using it immediately at exploreyork.org.uk/getting-a-library-card-or-yorkcard/.” 

Nothing happening in these long lock-down days. Everything off. Here are 10 Things To Do on the home front, courtesy of The Press, York. Week two.

Nothing happening full stop. Now, with time on your frequently washed hands, home is where the art is and plenty else besides

EXIT 10 Things To See Next Week in York and beyond for the unforeseeable future. Enter home entertainment, wherever you may be, whether still together or in isolation, in the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic. From behind his closed door, CHARLES HUTCHINSON makes these further suggestions.

Compiling lists of best songs by favourite artists

THE Beatles, The Rolling Stones, solo Beatles, Van Morrison, Velvet Underground, solo Velvets, Bob Dylan, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, The Smiths, The Fall, whoever. Make a Top Ten or even Top 20, then send to friends to ask for their suggestions for the list and why they disagree with you.

You could also set up arguments: Kylie’s Top Ten versus Madonna; The Specials versus Madness; Holland Dozier Holland versus Bacharach and David; Rod Stewart versus Elton John; Abba versus Queen; U2 versus Coldplay. Any others?

Madness: More special than The Specials or is that utter madness?

Desert Island Slipped Discs

IF past editions of the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning staple have slipped your attention, it is never too late to discover the back catalogue at the Beeb online. You could pick a running theme, such as artists, musicians, poets, scientists, entrepreneurs, comedians, sportsmen, film stars, pioneers and church leaders.

Or, given the very necessary daily Covid-19 briefings from Number 10, how about politicians? Margaret Thatcher (1978); Edward Heath (1988); Enoch Powell (1989); Alan Clark (1995); Tony Blair (1996); Gordon Brown (1996); David Cameron (2006)…or, for a satirical variation, Spitting Image’s Peter Fluck and Roger Law (1987)?  

Picking his eight before making it to Number 10: Tony Blair on Desert Island Discs in 1996

Follow the advice of Stephen Fry

FOLLOWING up last Thursday’s 10 Things advice to make a timetable for the day, Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning interview on the Beeb with national treasure and former Cundall Manor prep school teacher Stephen Fry elicited one gem of a suggestion. Take time, take longer, to do things, whether cooking a dish from a recipe book, or even when brushing your teeth.

Fry, the president of MIND, also advocated taking up a new hobby, or re-discovering a craft, in his case, calligraphy. Further suggestions: learn a language; learn sign language; test yourself on road signs (when did you last do that?).

Meanwhile, Fry’s partner in comedy since Cambridge Footlights days, House doctor Hugh Laurie, says of Coronavirus: “We solve it together by staying apart.”  Couldn’t have put it better.

Time to take time: Stephen Fry’s philosophy for these Coronavirus clampdown days

Administer a spring clean

STUCK at home, as you really should be by now, key workers excepted, this is the chance to gut rooms; to go through files, drawers, cupboards; to work out what clothes to keep and which to donate to charity shops. Likewise, games; books; kitchen utensils. Update Christmas card lists and address books.

Make time for nostalgia

DIG out old scrapbooks (Leeds United, League Champions, 1973-1974; the Cardiff Candlewits revue show, The Rantings Of A Raw Prawn, at the 1982 Edinburgh Fringe; cookery crush Nigella Lawson’s recipes – more pictures than recipes, to be truthful – to give three Hutch examples). Ah, those were the days.

Likewise, take a look through old photo albums, sure to trigger memories and promote family discussions… and maybe even lead you to research your family ancestry in the manner of BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are?.

Scrapbook memories: Leeds United, champions, 1973-1974

Try to find good news

GREAT Yorkshire Show off. Ryedale Festival off. York Pride off. The Olympic Games off. The list of cancellations keeps growing. Against that backdrop, however, theatres, music venues and festivals are busy re-booking acts and shows for later in the year or next year.

Keep visiting websites for updates, whether York Barbican, York Theatre Royal, the Grand Opera House, wherever.

Look out too for the streaming of past shows. More and more theatres and arts companies are doing this.

Pyramid Gallery owner Terry Brett, on Stonegate, York, with a Piers Browne painting, before the Coronavirus shutdown

Online exhibitions

GALLERIES in York are going online to keep the art (and hopefully sales) going. Step forward Pyramid Gallery, in Stonegate, where owner Terry Brett has launched Strange Days.

This service is not only a website portal for works from this season’s Full Sunlight show, featuring Askrigg artist Piers Browne and Holtby sculptor Hannah Arnup, but Terry also is inviting the 144 artists from next month’s cancelled York Open Studios to show their work on there too.

One of Tom Wood’s paintings from The Abstract Crow, Lotte Inch Gallery’s first online-only exhibition

Anywhere else?

LOTTE Inch Gallery, at Fourteen Bootham, will host its first online-only exhibition, Yorkshire artist Tom Wood’s The Abstract Crow, from April 17 to May 16.

“Known for his imaginative and allusive abstract approach to painting, Tom will pay homage to his love for the natural world in his new paintings,” says Lotte.

Venturing outdoors 

AMID the stricter Government strictures, aside from walking the dog and one burst of exercise a day, gardening looks the most fruitful way to spend time outdoors. The first mow of the season; buds coming through; plants to plant; garden furniture to varnish: ready, steady, grow. 

One to follow on Twitter: Reasons To Stay Alive author Matt Haig. Picture: MIke Tipping

And what about…

Podcasts. Books. More podcasts. More books. Season two of Liar on Monday nights on ITV. Noughts + Crosses on BBC One on Thursdays. Writing a 10 Things like this one. Reading the regular Tweets from Matt Haig, the Reasons To Stay Alive author with the York past. Drinking hot drinks, gargling regularly, and building up your zinc levels, as well as all that hand-washing.

See you later, self-isolator.

Copyright of The Press, York

Postponed Friends! The Musical Parody will still play York Barbican…in a year’s time

Friends! The Musical Parody: new York Barbican date next March

FRIENDS! The Musical Parody has been rescheduled for March 3 2021 at York Barbican after the March 20 show was postponed under the Coronavirus strictures.

The lampooning show both celebrates and pokes fun at the misadventures of Manhattan 20-somethings Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey and Rachel from the cherished 1990s’ American TV sitcom as they navigate the pitfalls of work, life and love.

Friends! The Musical Parody is a “good-hearted romp through our favourite moments in an uncensored, hilarious, fast-paced, music-filled show” that opens on a typical day at New York coffee shop Central Perk. When an unexpected runaway bride enters the picture, it kicks the whole gang out of second gear.

The show will play York Barbican as part of the off-Broadway and Las Vegas musical’s now extended first UK and Irish tour. Tickets for the revised date are on sale at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

No shows, no gigs, no ideas? Feeling listless? Here are 10 Things To Do At Home, courtesy of The Press, York

Nothing happening full stop. Now, with time on your frequently washed hands, home is where the art is and plenty else besides

Exit 10 Things To See Next Week in York and beyond for the unforeseeable future. Enter home entertainment, wherever you may be, whether still together or in isolation, in the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic. From behind his closed door, CHARLES HUTCHINSON makes these suggestions.

Compiling your Desert Island Discs

CREATE your own Desert Island Discs and accompanying reasons, should you ever be called to answer Lauren Laverne’s questions on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday morning staple. Cue Eric Coates’s opening theme, By The Sleepy Lagoon, then your eight music choices, one book choice, one luxury.

Then play your list, but cutting it down to eight will be much harder than you first expect.

Make a cut-out of Lauren Laverne and do your own edition of Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs, suggestion number two

AND while you are about it, also take every opportunity to raid the Beeb’s Desert Island Discs back catalogue at BBC Sounds. Recommendations? Ian Wright, former footballer, turned broadcaster; Dr John Cooper Clarke, sage Salford stick insect and man of multitudinous words; Kathy Burke, Camden Town actress, comedian, writer, producer and director.

Make a timetable for the day

LIKE you would at work…though this timetable may not be possible, if indeed you are working from home.

Nevertheless, should the time need passing, allow, say, an hour for each activity, be it writing; reading; playing board games at the stipulated distances apart or card games, which can be done on your own, such as Patience; watching a movie, maybe a long-neglected DVD rescued from a dusty shelf; or whatever else is on your list.

“Puzzles are wonderfully relaxing yet keep the brain very active ,” says jigsaw enthusiast and York actor Ian Giles

Re-discover a childhood joy

PLUCKING one out of the air, how about jigsaw puzzles, a favourite of Mother Hutch and Granny Pyman before her.

“They are wonderfully relaxing yet keep the brain very active and there’s a feeling of creative satisfaction on completion,” recommends York actor Ian Giles, a devotee of such puzzle solving.

Singing

YORK singer Jessa Liversidge runs the Singing For All choir, as heard savouring I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing at Big Ian’s A Night To Remember at a packed York Barbican (remember those days?) on Leap Year Saturday.

Now, abiding by the Government’s Avoid Unnecessary Social Contact advice, to keep people singing, she is planning a range of online singing opportunities to suit not only her Singing For All and Easingwold Community Singers folks, but “any frustrated singers”. “Get in touch to find out how to join,” says Jessa, whose Twitter account is @jessaliversidge. She posts regularly.

Still on song: York singer Jessa Liversidge would like to reach the world to sing online

Lighting a candle

THE Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Dr John Sentamu, is asking us all to place a lighted candle in our window at 7pm this coming Sunday “as a sign of solidarity and hope in the light of Christ that can never be extinguished”.

Baking

ALL those cookbooks that you bought for the nice pictures, but have never opened since, are bursting with opportunities to try out a new dish…if the supermarket shelves have not been emptied by 10 o’clock in the morning.

Why not raid the store cupboard too, check the dates (and the dried dates from last Christmas) and see if anything may come in handy. The likelihood is more and more hours will have to be spent at home; this is a chance to stretch your culinary skills.

Candlelight: The Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Dr John Sentamu’s Sunday request

Gardening

HOPEFULLY, going for walks, maintaining a safe, previously anti-social distance, will still be a possibility, as advocated by Prime Minister Johnson, until otherwise stated.

If not, or if isolation is your way ahead, spring is in the air, gardens are turning green, the grass is growing. Gardening will surely be one of the unbroken joys of the ever-so-uncertain path that lies ahead.

Should you not have a garden, windowsills are havens for green-fingered pursuits: the seeds of much content.

And what about…

Podcasts. Books. More podcasts. More books. Box sets (yawn). Discovering a new band online, or maybe an old one you had long neglected. Writing a 10 Things like this one. Reading Bard of Barnsley Ian McMillan’s morning Tweets, or any time of day, in fact. Reading York musician and motivational speaker Big Ian Donaghy’s perennially positive thoughts for the day @trainingcarers, BIGIAN #DEMENTIAisAteamGAME. Watch Channel 4 News, especially Jon Snow, one bright-tied 72 year old who should defy the imminent Government “curfew” on the over-70s. (UPDATE: 19/3/2020. Or maybe not. Tonight he broadcast from his central London home.)

Poetry in motion: Ian McMillan’s joyous Tweets from his early-morning walks

And finally…

PLEASE stop flicking through social media at every turn…except for displays of the ever-so-British black humour in response to the new C-word.

Any suggestions for further editions of 10 Things To Do At Home And Beyond are most welcome. Please send to charles.hutchinson104@gmail.com

Thought for the morning after…Was this the day the music died?

Just what exactly did happen yesterday?

HAS there ever been a more cynical, anti-arts, pro-insurance industry posh pals statement from Prime Minister Johnson than yesterday’s first Coronavirus daily briefing?

For one so notoriously careless with words, despite his love of a luxuriant lexicon, his careful avoidance of enforcing a shutdown of pubs, clubs, theatres etc, in favour of merely recommending “avoiding unnecessary social” interaction, effectively amounts to washing his and his Government’s hands of the future of one of the power houses of British life: the entertainment industry.

No formal closures means no chance of insurance pay-outs. In an already increasingly intolerant, Right-veering Britain, with its Brexit V-sign to Europe, could it be this is another way to try to suffocate and stifle our potent, provocative, influential, politically challenging, counter-thinking, all-embracing, anti-divisive, collective-spirited, often radical, always relevant, life-enriching, rather than rich-enriching, font of free expression, protest and empowerment?

Was this the day the music died?

History shows that the arts, the pubs, the theatres, the counter-culture, has always found a way to bite back, to fight back, often at times of greatest repression and depression. No Margaret Thatcher, no Specials’ Ghost Town.

We and our very necessary social interactions shall be back, hopefully after only a short break. Meanwhile, we are all in the hands of science, that equally progressive bedfellow to the arts.

What, again Alan? Carr adds fourth York Barbican gig on his Not Again, Alan! tour

Alan Carr looks shocked as he learns he will play York Barbican four nights in a row in December

YET again, Alan?! Yes, comedian Alan Carr is adding a fourth night of his Not Again, Alan! show on December 16 as he turns York Barbican into York Carrbican.

Carr, ever-chatty son of former York City footballer Graham Carr, will play four successive Christmas nights in York, having already added December 17 to his December 18 and 19 gigs on his first tour in four years.

Tickets for the extra date are on sale on 0203 356 5441, at yorkbarbican.co.uk or in person from the Barbican box office.

Since his last comedy travels, chat-show host Carr has “managed to find himself in all sorts of dramas”, apparently. Such as? “Between his star-studded wedding day and becoming an accidental anarchist, from fearing for his life at border control to becoming a reluctant farmer, three words spring to mind…Not again, Alan!” says his tour publicity. “Join Alan on tour as he muses upon the things that make his life weird and wonderful.”

Even louder hailer: Alan Carr announces a fourth December night at York Barbican

Not Again, Alan! will be Carr’s fourth UK solo show in four-year cycles in the wake of Yap, Yap, Yap’s 200 dates in 2015 and 2016, Spexy Beast in 2011 and Tooth Fairy in 2007. He last brought his chat, chat, chat to York on the Yap, Yap, Yap! itinerary on July 11 2015 at the Barbican.

Later this year, Carr will host Alan Carr’s Epic Gameshow on ITV, wherein five all-time favourite game shows will be supersized and reinvigorated for a new audience: Play Your Cards Right, Take Your Pick, Strike It Lucky, Bullseye and The Price Is Right. In 2020 too, Carr will return to the judges’ panel on the second BBC series of RuPaul’s DragRace UK.

Given the ticket demand for Not Again, Alan! again and again, again and now yet again, York Barbican advises prompt booking.

Tom Rosenthal’s Manhood is an incisive comedy show with a cutting edge

Tom Rosenthal: “Maybe I’m stuck in adolescence, I don’t know,” he says. All pictures: Idil Sukan

PLEBS and Friday Night Dinner sitcom star Tom Rosenthal is bringing his first-ever stand-up tour to Pocklington Arts Centre on March 14.

Manhood is truly comedy with a cutting edge, wherein Rosenthal will be “avenging the theft of his foreskin”, as he discusses how he has suffered psychological distress ever since he realised he had been circumcised as a child.

Tom, the Hammersmith-born son of TV sports presenter Jim Rosenthal, applies the use of graphs, statistics, playful jokes and rigid research to tell his story, having spoken to experts on the subject matter.

He may have a Jewish background, but he was not brought up to be Jewish and that was not the reason for the circumcision. He duly felt anger towards his parents, the aforementioned Jim and his mother Chrissy Smith, a former Newsnight producer, when he was younger.

“Most comedy shows will not be an hour about genital-cutting practices,” says Tom Rosenthal of Manhood

“Maybe I’m stuck in adolescence. I don’t know,” says Tom. “As soon as I found out what happened to me, I was just constantly searching for a reason that made sense of it and I’ve still not found one. That’s sort of the driving force of the show: going through all the justifications for it being allowed.”

He is not anti-circumcision, however. “If you want to choose to do it when you’re old enough, go right ahead. It’s like any other kind of body modification, like a tattoo or a piercing,” he says.

“But to do it to a child against their will when they cannot take the decision to take that back, it feels as if it’s against our human rights. I want prospective parents to watch my show. Have a nice night out. Laugh with the boy from the sitcoms with the big nose, but also go away thinking ‘maybe that’s not cool actually’.”

Best known for playing Roman Empire nerd Marcus in ITV2’s Plebs and the perpetually adolescent prankster son, Jonny, in Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner, Tom has long wanted to do a stand-up tour. “The nicest thing about it is getting to meet the people who actually watch the TV programmes I’m in,” he says.

“I think the story of someone who is at odds with their body is something teenagers can relate to,” says Tom Rosenthal

“I’m also really proud of Manhood. It’s a show that I always wanted to make. It has a dual purpose for me. Obviously, I wanted to put on the funniest show that I can, but I also want fans to go away thinking about stuff which most people don’t really think about.

“It’s something that I think is slightly askew with our culture. I should add that this is not your typical comedy show. Most comedy shows will not be an hour about genital-cutting practices.”

After premiering Manhood at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe and playing dates last autumn, Tom is touring from February 8 to April 9. “I’m really a molly- coddled actor,” he says. “It has surprised me how tiring live comedy is. Some of my friends seem to be able to walk on stage and just be themselves, whereas I’m always nervous. I have the utmost respect for all comedians. I guess, by comparison, an actor’s life is quite easy.”

The tour marks a new phase in Rosenthal’s career. Although he started out as a stand-up, becoming joint winner of the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Award in 2011 after graduating from London University with a Philosophy degree, acting has taken up most of his time since then.

“I’m really proud of Manhood. It’s a show that I always wanted to make,” says Tom.

“I was reluctant to call myself a comedian despite the fact that I did stand-up. I felt like until you’ve done a tour, you can’t call yourself a comedian. So, one semi-benefit of doing Manhood is that now I’m a little bit more comfortable saying I’m a comedian as I’ve gone to towns, people have paid money to see me and I definitely heard some of them laugh.” 

Although the subject matter of Manhood may be personal, Rosenthal believes the feelings of alienation he discusses are universal. “I’ve had quite a lot of teenagers coming and I think the story of someone who is at odds with their body is something they can relate to,” he says. “What makes it interesting though also makes it quite odd. The fact that you are watching a guy talking about his penis quite a lot.”

His Pocklington audience next week will discover more about Tom in his Manhood show, but for those familiar with his television characters, does he consider himself to be closer to Marcus or Jonny?

“I probably feel I’m more Marcus,” he decides. “He’s a neurotic schemer who thinks that he’s smarter than he is, whereas Jonny is a sort of teenage boy prankster. Ultimately though, if you combine the two, that’s my whole terrible personality.”

Tom Rosenthal: Manhood, Pocklington Arts Centre, March 14, 8pm. Box office: 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Here come the boys as Weller, Manford, Dommett, Sloss and Aljaz’s dance crew head for York Barbican

Looking ecstatic to be back at York Barbican: Paul Weller , booked in for November 3

YORK Barbican has a fistful of new shows going on sale on Friday: Modfather Paul Weller, comedians Jason Manford, Joel Dommett and Daniel Sloss and the dance extravaganza Here Come The Boys.

Weller, 61, has sold out his May tour and will go back out on the road for 19 British and Irish dates in October and November, playing York on November 3.

Jason Manford: seeking approval at York Barbican next February

Weller will play an acoustic set for the Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on March 25 as a special guest of The Stereophonics and his new album, On Sunset, will be released on June 12 on Polydor, his new label.

He performed previously at York Barbican in March 2015 and August 2018 and his last North Yorkshire gig was at Dalby Forest, near Pickering, last June.

Joel Dommett: new show in December

His autumn travels also will take in further Yorkshire dates at Hull Bonus Arena on November 2 and Bradford St George’s Hall on November 17.

Jason Manford, who reached the final of ITV’s The Masked Singer this winter, will return to York Barbican in almost a year’s time, on February 17 2021, with his new stand-up show, Like Me.

Expect “observational comedy mixed with comic gold” from the Salford comedian, presenter and actor who chalked up three Barbican performances of his Muddle Class show in October 2018 and March 2019.

Smoke alarm: Daniel Sloss will be full of Hubris on October 3

Rockhampton comedian, actor and presenter Joel Dommett, host of The Masked Singer, will play York on December 11, delivering a new show after this 2016 I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here runner-up brought his Live 2018 tour to the Barbican in February that year.

Scottish comic Daniel Sloss will follow up his X show – taken to 40 countries, including Russia – with his new solo outing, Hubris, booked in for his Barbican bow on October 3.

Here come Michael, Aljaz, Pasha and Sam on June 24

Strictly Come Dancing’s Aljaž Škorjanec sold out his last appearance at York Barbican and will return on June 24, joined in the Here Come The Boys line-up by former Strictly favourite Pasha Kovalev, West End ballet star Sam Salter and NBC World Of Dance champion and Broadway star Michael Dameski, from Australia.

Ballroom, Latin, commercial, contemporary, ballet, acro and tap all will feature in a show where the Boys will perform alongside dancers, gymnasts, tap dancers and more.

Tickets can be booked from 10am on Friday (February 28) at 10am on 0203 356 5441, at yorkbarbican.co.uk or in person from Barbican box office.

REVIEW: Anything’s possible in a one-liner when Milton Jones spies a gag

Hair-raising: Milton Jones on a spying mission at York Barbican

REVIEW: Milton Jones: Milton Impossible, York Barbican, February 22

THE whole point of camouflage is not to be spotted, but in his new guise as an ex-MI5 spy, Milton Jones’s gaudy military fatigues looked like they hadn’t slept for days.

As for his fuchsia, frilly dress shirt, it would have guaranteed he had absolutely no fuchsia in spying, if blending into the background were a requirement. Definitely a case of Milton Impossible.

Mind you, Jones’s attire was not the only sartorial talking point of Saturday’s triple bill. Support act Tom Houghton was gently settling into revelations of being the Honourable Tom – now that his ex-Army chief father, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, was a Lord and the Constable of the Tower of London – when he was distracted by a Technicolor nightmare of a shirt making an even louder exit down the stairs.

“You’ve missed nothing,” said Houghton, lobbing a comedy bomb after the escapee. “Except fashion”. Boom, off went the bomb, as if he were sentencing him to the Tower for a fashion crime.

Cheeky, charming, posh-boy fledgling comic Houghton went on to define the rules of rugby – a game of backs and forwards and going backwards and forwards – with a wit that outwitted the well-worn tea towel trying to explain the laws of cricket.

Tom, a hawk: Tom Houghton was quick to spot fashion crimes in the York Barbican audience

“I always love to help underprivileged children,” said Jones drily later, but Houghton, one quarter of the improv comedy troupe The Noise Next Door, needs no leg-up through entitlement. Check out his upcoming tour at The Basement, City Screen, York, on June 12 or The Carriageworks, Leeds, the next night.  

Before Hon Tom, Milton’s waspish “grandfather” had opened the show, entering with a trampoline as his mobility aide, and combining a flat cap with a dressing gown for a dressing down on the real meaning of assorted familiar road signs.

If you could imagine a hopelessly ill-prepared learner driver trying to wing his written test with wild guesswork, Milton’s grandad goes even further. Rather than being merely daft or surrealist, however, the new meanings actually make weird sense, and the world would be a happier place if they were true.

Although, in this city of cycling, cyclists might not have enjoyed his dig at them not recognising the meaning of a red light.

Post-interval, Jones returned, his shock of hair madder than ever at 55, to go with the aforementioned psychedelic dress code. Seventy-five minutes of the matador of piercing one-liners ensued, ostensibly on his spying past, but ranging far and wide, his timing deadly, his manner deadpan. (Ideal qualities for a spy, you might say).

From his last tour, the Kew comedian revived his droll Brexit commentary through the novel format of national flags engaging in sparring conversations, each seeking the last word, and no Jones show would be complete without a run of “my other grandfather” gags.

Before the tour, Jones joked: “At a difficult time for our country, I believe there’s a chance this show could unite the nation. Admittedly quite a small chance.” True, but Milton is comedy paradise found, and you wish more could see the world through his eyes. It is a lovely place to be, warmly knowing but not devoid of a child’s sense of wonder, playful, not cynical, absurd yet spot on.

If you missed Milton Impossible in York, your next mission, and you really should accept it, is to make it to Hull City Hall on March 18 or Leeds Town Hall the next night, 19.30 on the dot. Box office: hulltheatres.co.uk; leedstownhall.co.uk.

Charles Hutchinson

“Who we think we are is not who we are,” says Mark Thomas in national identity show

Opinions this way: Mark Thomas welcomes you to his 50 Things About Us show

IN his new tour show, mischief-making activist comedian Mark Thomas is pondering “how we have come to inhabit this divided wasteland that some of us call the United Kingdom”.

On the road since January 23, the South London satirical writer, political agent provocateur, TV and radio presenter, journalist and podcaster is bringing 50 Things About Us: Work In Progress to The Crescent, York, on March 4.

“The Crescent has a certain ramshackle charm, and it’s run with absolute integrity,” says Mark, breaking away from cooking up a pot of a very British winter warmer, leek and potato soup, to take this interview call.

Introducing the show’s theme, he explains: “I was really struck by one thought: how on earth did we get to the point we’ve got to, and part of the answer is that we’ve never come to terms with who we are.”

Was he referring to the English or the British here? “Well, Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales; the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland too, and it’s been England that’s driven the creation of the union,” says Mark, whose show combines storytelling, stand-up, mischief and typically well-researched material.

“All these places have a very distinctive identity and culture, and it defies this binary, simplistic definition.

“The Irish language was kept alive by Presbyterians when the English buried it, and now the Irish language is being taught by Unionist women on the Falls Road [in Belfast], so it’s a fascinating place that defies your normal expectations.”

“People say, ‘can’t you say something positive?’, but there’s a load of positives in there ,” says Mark Thomas of his new show

Mark notes how “English culture is seen as part of the British empire, when Britain was ruling the world with this bombast, without understanding the implications of that”.

So, it may be a generalisation, Mark, but why is that people think the abiding negative aspects of the British empire are defined by Little Englander characteristics, not British ones?

“That’s the weird thing. Scotland joined England in the union in a time of fantastic prosperity, so Scotland doesn’t get out of its role in the empire,” he says.  “It’s fascinating that it’s about England adopting the empire as its nationalist cause, with everyone else slipping off.”

50 Things About Us is billed as “a show about money, history, identity, art, tradition, songs, gongs, wigs, guns, bungs, sods of soil and rich people”, as Thomas picks through the myths, facts and figures of our national identities to ask how we have so much feeling for such a hollow land”.

Summing up his night of story-telling, stand-up and subversion as a “sort of funny national edition of Who Do You Think You Are?”, Thomas says: ” It’s another slightly odd show, a sort of sweary, History Channel with laughs and creative mischief. If you’ve seen my shows before, this one’s in the vein of 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent.”

As a work in progress, the list of 50 Things is not set in stone. “It’s always being added to. You always do that. You keep going ‘b****y hell’ when you discover new things,” says Mark. “I found out the other day we’re the only nation that doesn’t have its name on its stamps.

“We have a picture of The Queen, not even a picture, but a silhouette, and there’s a certain weirdness about that. We won’t even say where we are! We say, ‘here’s The Queen, we’re better than everyone else’.”

Thomas, 56, has made his mark down the years by stopping arms deals; creating a manifesto and bringing the winning policy to parliament; walking the entire length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank and setting up a comedy club in the Palestinian city of Jenin.

“Just looking at who we think we are, this idea we can stand alone is completely myopic,” says Mark Thomas.

He has hosted six series on Channel 4, alongside several television documentaries and radio series; written books; grabbed a Guinness World Record; sold out numerous tours; won awards aplenty; nabbed himself a Medal of Honour and succeeded in changing some laws along the way. 

In other words, he is a man of both action and words. How are his latest words going down on tour? “People say, ‘can’t you say something positive?’, but there’s a load of positives in there, like Britain being one of only five countries that doesn’t have a [codified] written constitution. New Zealand is one other, Canada another,” says Mark.

“We have the Charter of the Forest, our economic charter that came in in 2017, which recognises that idea of shared assets of the country [the charter re-established for free men rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs] .

“It was there for our mutual benefit and no-one else has ever produced anything like it. It used to be read out four times a year in church, when the squirearchy were at the front, the peasants at the back.

“It was the statute that remained longest in force in England, but they just got rid of it in 1971 [when it was superseded by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act]. But it’s something to be proud of as part of our history; there’s an historic part of our character that, since 1217, says we have the right to run things for our common benefit.”

Where does Brexit fit into Mark’s exploration of who we are? “I think that notion that we are a country that can go it alone is really that characteristic of English exceptionalism, where we believe we’re different, we’re superior, because we’re the cleverer than anyone else, reckoning we won two World Wars and a World Cup by playing fair, which is nonsense,” he says. “Just looking at who we think we are, this idea we can stand alone is completely myopic.

“I’m not a great supporter of the European Union, but I did vote Remain reluctantly, as I don’t want a move to the far right, which is what we’ve ended up with.”

Mark Thomas’s Gilbert & George-style poster for his 50 Things About Us tour

Mark continues: “I’m a Socialist and I think massive changes are needed but when you ignore democracy [the Brexit referendum vote], it will bite you on the backside. If I were a Leave voter, I’d be b****y angry. This idea that people got it wrong, and we should vote again and again until we get it right is extremely patronising. The way they’ve been treated is pretty awful, though I’m not defending the far right.”

Why does Mark call Britain “a hollow land”? “The fact that masses of our history is ignored at the expense of our identity, like the history of the NHS…that sense of absence, because we don’t tell parts of our history, is wrong,” he says.

And now for the big question, after all Mark’s research, can he define who we are? “It’s an important question to answer, because we’re changing all the time, as a collective, as individuals, as parents, grandparents, how we see ourselves,” he says.

“Though interestingly, who we think we are is not who we are.” Let’s leave that thought hanging in the air, the perfect enticement to find out more at The Crescent on March 4.

Mark Thomas’s 50 Things About Us: Work In Progress tour also takes in further Yorkshire gigs at Sheffield Memorial Hall, March 1; Wakefield Theatre Royal, March 5, and Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, April 9.

Box office: York, 01904 622510 or at thecrescent.com; Sheffield, 0114 278 9789 or sheffieldcityhall.co.uk; Wakefield, 01924 211311; Leeds, 0845 644 1881 or cityvarieties.co.uk.

Did you know?

Mark Thomas also broadcasts 50 Things About Us as a podcast.