Why Tim Stedman is as happy as Harry to be Harrogate panto’s daft lad for 20 years

Tim Stedman as Happy Harry in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre

TIM Stedman has made his name playing the silly billy in Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime for 20 years: Buttons, Muddles, Simple Simon, Idle Jack. You know, the daft lad; the dimwit; the village idiot, the baffled buffoon.

Now he is adding a new name to that portfolio of fools, Happy Harry, in Snow White, but isn’t that traditionally Muddles’s panto patch?

What’s going on, Tim? “Well, I dare say, in the present PC climate, calling me names like Silly Billy may not be politically correct, so we’ve changed the name from Muddles. For this reason, we’ve changed it to Happy Harry, and some people have now suggested using the same name every year,” he says.

“I don’t have a problem with these PC issues myself, and I do think my pantomime character is of a simple type. He has a foolish innocence about him; he’s either happy or sad, and everything is new to him each time he goes through the door. When he says something or thinks something, it’s a wonderful, fresh, beautiful thing, just like children experience things.

“Like at one of our performances, where, when I said ‘I’m exhausted’, someone shouted out, ‘Well, don’t run then’! You can’t argue with that.”

Tim made his Harrogate debut in Sleeping Beauty in 2000, having been brought to North Yorkshire by Rob Swain. “He’d been a very good director at the New Vic, where he was associate to director Peter Cheeseman, and I got a job there in Hansel And Gretel straight out of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the mid-1990s.

“I also did The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice there, playing the nervous telephone repair man Billy, and when Rob moved to Harrogate Theatre to be artistic director, he invited me there.”

In the room too was director Lennox Greaves. “I said I was really nervous, and he said he was really nervous too as he’d never done panto, so we really hit it off straightaway,” Tim recalls.

” I made my character a little bit vulnerable, a little bit impetuous, and very innocent, so children can laugh at that combination ,” says Harrogate Theatre pantomime buffoon Tim Stedman

Greaves gave him a good piece of advice: “Lennox was very clear: he said, ‘the dame is there to entertain the adults; you are there to keep the children entertained’.

“I made my character a little bit vulnerable, a little bit impetuous, and very innocent, so children can laugh at that combination.”

Tim was blessed to work for his first seven years with Scottish beanpole actor Alan McMahon as the Harrogate dame. “He’s such a talented man and I learnt a lot from him. I was the baby of the bunch at the start and I knew I needed to be good, but I couldn’t help but learn from Lennox and Alan.

“Alan was very encouraging from the start, telling me that ‘if you’re the comic, have a gag whenever you come on’. That’s why I started doing the cracker jokes and the straightforward physical jokes; jokes children tell in the playground the next day and will irritate the adults!”

Tim remembers his first note from Rob Swain. “It said: ‘Make us feel safe when we watch you’. His second one was ‘Don’t let your first mistake become your second, or you will make another one’.

“If I did make a mistake that first year, Alan would turn to the audience and say, ‘well, it is his first job’!”

Twenty years later, the Harrogate Theatre pantomime revolves around Stedman’s brand of strawberry-cheeked, squeaky-voiced buffoonery, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. Ahead of the first of 76 performances of Snow White, he admitted: “Even after 20 years, I still feel nervy. You never lose that.

“I do feel a sense of pressure to make it better each year. I’m terrified of complacency. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this to you, but I’m terrified of people writing things that aren’t positive.”

Tim Stedman’s Happy Harry, left, with Howard Chadwick’s No Nonsense Nora the Nanny, Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White, Pamela Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow, Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee, front, and Polly Smith’s Wicked Queen Ethel Burger in Harrogate Theatre’s Snow White

Rest assured, Tim, the reviews have been typically enthusiastic, but he is quick to point out that the show’s success is not down to him. Instead, he emphasises the importance of being a team player. “Anything extraneous I keep brief, like the ad-libs, because if we focus on the story and the characters in the story, that’s far better than putting Tim Stedman out front, because it’s not about me,” he says.

“If the story’s good, that’s what matters. I put the icing on the cake and maybe the cherry.”

Snow White marks Phil Lowe’s 13th year as director and his 11th in pantomime partnership with co-writer David Bown, Harrogate Theatre’s chief executive, and they are as important to the show as Stedman.

”If we can do it in the same vein each year, like when I grew up watching Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies every Christmas, we can entertain everyone from age three to 93, and if we can do it with a bit of magic, then hey, we’ve done our job!” says Tim.

Could he ever envisage playing a different pantomime role? “It’s been mooted…though I quite like what I’m doing! And you have that ego problem with actors, thinking that because you’re good at something, you can do something else just as well!” he says.

“I’ve worked with some really good dames, Alan McMahon, now Howard Chadwick, and it’s different from what I do.”

What about moving over to the dark side as the panto baddie? “They have the most fun, but I suspect there would be uproar if I came on as the villain, though I’ve often suggested it would be fun for the villain to have an assistant coming on from a different side,” says Tim.

Surely he will return for pantomime number 21, Cinderella, come November 25? “I’ve not been asked yet, but I love doing what I do here, and it’s so lovely when people come up in the street to say hello,” he says. “Harrogate is such a lovely place to work.”

Tim Stedman plays Happy Harry in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre until January 19. Box office: 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Did you know?

Tim Stedman has appeared in three roles in Emmerdale: Kevin Harmon in March 2014; locum veterinary surgeon Joseph Gibson in April 2016, and Jeremy, the leader of a surrogacy support group, in March 2019.

Charles Hutchinson

Say Owt kicks off new decade with Slam #24 contest at City Screen’s Basement

Special guest: Lisette Auton will perform at Say Owt Slam #24

SAY Owt, York’s most raucous spoken-word hub, returns on February 1 for its first competitive slam of the new decade at The Basement, City Screen.

Slots are open to take part in Say Owt Slam #24 by emailing info@sayowt.co.uk. Artistic director Henry Raby, the York performance poet, playwright and activist, says: “Poets get a maximum of three minutes each to wow the audience with their words, culminating in the winner receiving a cash prize and bragging rights.

“Whether travelling from across the country or a homegrown York talent, each one brings a totally different style of humour, politics and heart to the gig.”

Say Owt has run slams for five years, being highly commended in the 2018 York Culture Awards and prompting audience members to comment: “Expertly put together, a delightful extravaganza”; “I love it here!” and “Felt so welcome at my first slam, great atmosphere. Not what I expected”.

“Each poet brings a totally different style of humour, politics and heart to Say Owt Slam,” says artistic director Henry Raby

Say Owt Slam invariably feature a special guest too, on this occasion award-winning Darlington disabled activist, writer, poet, spoken-word artist, theatre-maker and creative practitioner Lisette Auton.

“I do stuff with words,” says Lisette, a Penguin Random House UK WriteNow mentee for her children’s novel inspired by the North East coast.

“Her poetry is full of stories, humour and lyrical warmth and all of her work seeks to make the invisible visible,” says Henry.

Tickets for this 7.30pm show cost £6 from the City Screen box office or at ticketing.picturehouses.com or £7 on the door.

Nothing special happened in YORKshire’s artland in 2019…or did it? Time for the Hutch Awards to decide

Veteran Yorkshire arts journalist CHARLES HUTCHINSON doffs his cap to the makers and shakers who made and shook the arts world in York and beyond in 2019.

Alan Ayckbourn at 80 in Scarborough. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

New play of the year: Alan Ayckbourn’s Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from September 4

Sir Alan Ayckbourn penned one play to mark his 80th birthday, then decided it wasn’t the right one. Instead, writing more quickly than he had in years, he constructed a piece around…birthdays. Still the master of comedy of awkward truths.

Honourable mention: Kay Mellor’s Band Of Gold, Leeds Grand Theatre, November 28 to December 14.

Lili Miller (Catherine) and Pedro Leandro (Rodolpho) in A View From The Bridge at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Ian Hodgson

You Should Have Seen It production of the year: Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, York Theatre Royal, September 20 to October 12.

Once more, the sage Arthur Miller bafflingly did not draw the crowds – a Bridge too far? – but Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster found resonance anew for this age of rising intolerance in Trumped-Up America and Brexit Britain.

Chris Knight as Donkey in York Stage Musicals’ Shrek The Musical

York’s home-grown show of the year: York Stage Musicals in Shrek The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, September 12 to 21

Nik Briggs swapped directing for his stage return after five years in the wind-assisted title role and stunk the place out in Shrek tradition in a good way. Jacqueline Bell‘s Princess Fiona and Chris Knight’s Donkey were terrific too.

Honourable mention: Pick Me Up Theatre in Monster Makers, 41 Monkgate, October 23 to 27

Rigmarole Theatre in When The Rain Stops Falling

Company launch of the year: Rigmarole Theatre in When The Rain Stops Falling, 41 Monkgate, York, November 14 to 16

MAGGIE Smales, a previous Hutch Award winner for her all-female Henry V for York Shakespeare Project, set up Rigmarole to mount Andrew Bovell’s apocalyptic Anglo-Aussie family drama. More please.

Comic capers: Mischief Theatre in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Touring play of the year: The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Grand Opera House, York, February 5 to 12

Crime pays for Mischief Theatre with a riotous show, so diamond-cutter sharp, so rewarding, in its comedy, that it is even better than the original botched masterplan, The Play That Goes Wrong.

Honourable mention: Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, November 19 to 23

Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon in Handbagged at York Theatre Royal

Political play of the year: Handbagged, York Theatre Royal, April 24 to May 11

In a play of wit, brio and intelligence, Moira Buffini presents a double double act of 20th century titans, Margaret Thatcher and The Queen, one from when both ruled, the other looking back at those days, as they talk but don’t actually engage in a conversation.

Emma Rice: director of the year

Director of the year: Emma Rice for Wise Children’s Wise Children, in March,  and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, in September, both at York Theatre Royal

Emma Rice, once of Cornwall’s pioneering Kneehigh Theatre and somewhat briefly of Shakespeare’s Globe, has found her mojo again with her new company Wise Children, forming a fruitful relationship with York Theatre Royal to boot. Watch out for Wuthering Heights in 2021.

Director John R Wilkinson in rehearsals for Hello And Goodbye at York Theatre Royal

York director of the year: John R Wilkinson, Hello And Goodbye, York Theatre Royal Studio, November

Theatre Royal associate artist John R Wilkinson had long called for the return of in-house productions in the Studio and what he called “the blue magic of that space”. He duly delivered a superb reading of Athol Fugard’s apartheid-era South African work starring Jo Mousley and Emilio Iannucci.

Oh what a knight: Sir Ian McKellen

Comedy show of the year: Sir Ian McKellen in Ian McKellen On Stage With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others…And You, Grand Opera House, York, June 17

A delightful variation on the An Evening With…format, wherein Sir Ian McKellen celebrated his 80th birthday with a tour through his past. His guide to Shakespeare’s 37 plays was a particular joy.

Honourable mention: John Osborne in John Peel’s Shed/Circled In The Radio Times, Pocklington Arts Centre bar, March 27

Bonnie Milnes of Bonneville And The Bailers

Event launch of the year: Live In Libraries York, York Explore, autumn

In the wood-panelled Marriott Room, veteran busker David Ward Maclean and Explore York mounted a series of four intimate, low-key concerts, the pick of them being Bonnieville And The Bailers’ magical set on October 25. Along with The Howl & The Hum’s Sam Griffiths, Bonnie Milnes is the blossoming York songwriter to watch in 2020.

Meet The Caravan Guys:Theo Mason Wood, left, and Albert Haddenham discuss masculinity in How To Beat Up Your Dad at The Arts Barge’s Riverside Festival

Festival of the Year: The Arts Barge’s Riverside Festival, by the Ouse, July and August

Under the umbrella of Martin Witts’s Great Yorkshire Fringe, but celebrating its own identity too, The Arts Barge found firm footing with two locations, an ever-busy tent and, hurrah, the newly docked, freshly painted barge, the Selby Tony. The Young Thugs showcase, Henry Raby, Rory Motion, Katie Greenbrown, jazz gigs, a naked Theo Mason Wood; so many highs.

Honourable mentions: York Festival of Ideas, June; Aesthetica Short Film Festival, November.

Terry Hall: leading The Specials at York Barbican. Picture: Simon Bartle

York Barbican gig of the year: The Specials, May 9

Still The Specials, still special, on their 40th anniversary world tour, as the Coventry ska veterans promoted their first studio album in 39 years, Encore, still hitting the political nail on the head as assuredly as ever.

Honourable mentions: David Gray, March 30; Art Garfunkel, April 18; Kelly Jones, September 14.

Mocking Malvolio: Cassie Vallance’s Fabian, back left, Andrew Phelps’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fine Time Fontayne’s Sir Toby Belch wind up Claire Storey’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Happiest nights of the year: Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in Twelfth Night, Castle car park, York, July 4 and September 1

JOYCE Branagh, Kenneth’s sister, set Shakespeare’s comedy in the Jazz Age, serving up “Comedy Glamour” with a Charleston dash and double acts at the double. “Why, this is very midsummer madness,” the play exhorts, and it was, gloriously so, especially on the last night, when no-one knew what lay just around the corner for the doomed Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.

Samuel Edward Cook in Glory Dazed

Most moving night of the year: Glory Dazed, East Riding Theatre, Beverley, January 26

Cat Jones’s play, starring York actor Samuel Edward Cook, brings to light issues surrounding the mental health of ex-servicemen as they seek to re-integrate into civilian society while struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The post-show discussion with ex-soldiers from Hull spoke even louder.

Serena Manteghi in Build A Rockdet. Picture: Sam Taylor

Solo show of the year: Serena Manteghi in Build A Rocket, autumn tour

NO sooner had she finished playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s Hamlet than Serena Manteghi revived her remarkable role as a seaside resort teenage single mum in Christopher York’s award-winning coruscating  play.

Honourable mention: James Swanton in Irving Undead, York Medical Society, October 10 to 12.

A Blessed encounter: interviewing Yorkshireman Brian

Favourite interview of the year: Brian Blessed, giving oxygen to his An Evening With Brian Blessed show at Grand Opera House, York, in August

The exuberance for life in Brian – Yorkshire man mountain, actor, mountaineer and space travel enthusiast – at the age of 83 would inspire anyone to climb Everest or reach for the stars.

Old soul in a Newman: John Newman’s hot, hot gig at The Crescent

Gig of the year: John Newman, The Out Of The Blue Tour, The Crescent, York, June 30

THE unsettled Settle sound of soul, John Newman, and his soul mates parked their old camper van outside the almost unbearably hot Crescent, threw caution to the wind and burnt the house down  on a night that must have been like watching Joe Cocker or Otis Redding on the rise in the Sixties.

Honourable mentions: Nick Lowe’s Quality Rock’n’Roll Revue, Pocklington Arts Centre, June 25; The Howl & The Hum, The Crescent, York, December 14

Van Gogh: ‘ere, there and everywhere at York St Mary’s

Exhibition of the year: Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, York St Mary’s, York, now extended to April 2020

This 360-degree digital art installation uses technology to create a constantly moving projected gallery of 200 of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous 19th century works in the former church. Breathtaking, innovative, and, yes, worth the admission charge.

Honourable mention: Ruskin, Turner and The Storm Cloud, Watercolours and Drawings, York Art Gallery, from March 28

Agatha Meehan, centre, as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz at Leeds Playhouse

Christmas production of the year: The Wizard Of Oz, Leeds Playhouse, until January 25

AFTER its £15.8 million transformation from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to Leeds Playhouse, artistic director James Brining gave West Yorkshire’s premier theatre the grandest, dandiest of re-opening hits. Still time to travel down the Yellow Brick Road with Agatha Meehan, 12, from York, as Dorothy.

Dame Berwick Kaler’s fina;l wave at the end of his 40 years of pantomimes at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Anthony Robling

Exit stage left: Berwick Kaler, retiring on February 2 after 40 years as York Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame; Tim Hornsby, bowing out from booking acts for Fibbers on June 29, after 27 years and 7,500 shows in York; Damian Cruden, leaving the Theatre Royal on July 26 after 22 years as artistic director; James Cundall’s Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, in September, after hitting the financial icebergs .

Richard Bainbridge R.I.P.

Gone but not forgotten:  York Musical Theatre Company leading man, director, teacher, chairman, bon viveur and pub guvnor Richard Bainbridge, who died on July 6.

All Change for The Real People Theatre Company in positive mood for auditions

” We want to see how we can get a grip on the negative and bring about positive change,” says artistic director Sue Lister

THE Real People Theatre Company will hold auditions on Saturday for All Change, their contribution to the 2020 International Women’s Week.

The York women’s theatre group will be staging their 21st annual production at York St John University on March 13 and 14, directed by Rose Drew in tandem with Missoon El Gomati and Tanya Nightingale.

All Change will explore how the world is changing and how changes must be made to secure our future well-being on our planet.

Artistic director Sue Lister, who co-founded Real People with Ann Murray in 1999, says: “This is a chance to bring women together to change the current narrative of our lives. We want to see how we can get a grip on the negative and bring about positive change.”

Saturday’s auditions will be held at the Tesco Community Room, Tadcaster Road, York, from 12.30pm. Just turn up!

HIV+ queer artist Nathaniel Hall tells all as he recalls the first time on Yorkshire tour. UPDATED

Heart-breaking: Nathaniel Hall in his one-man show First Time at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Pictures: Andrew Perry

CAN you remember your first time? Nathaniel Hall can’t seem to forget his. To be fair, he has had it playing on repeat for the last 15 years, and now he is telling all in his one-man show on tour in North Yorkshire next month.

After playing the VAULT Festival in London, he will embark on his travels, taking in the McCarthy at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on February 4, Harrogate Theatre’s Studio Theatre on February 5 and York Theatre Royal Studio on February 6, as part of Studio Discoveries, a week of new theatre chosen by Visionari, the Theatre Royal’s community programme group.

The party is over, the balloons have all burst and Nathaniel is left living his best queer life: brunching on pills and Googling ancient condoms and human cesspits on a weekday morning…or is he?

After playing the Edinburgh Fringe for four weeks last summer, HIV+ queer artist and theatre-maker Hall brings First Time to Scarborough, Harrogate and York as he strives to stay positive in a negative world. “Join me as I blow the lid on the secret I’ve been keeping all these years,” he says.

 “Join me as I blow the lid on the secret I’ve been keeping all these years,” says Nathaniel Hall

Conceived, written and performed by HIV activist Hall, this humorous but heart-breaking 75-minute autobiographical show is based on his personal experience of living with HIV after contracting the virus from his first sexual encounter at 16.

“Narratives of HIV often portray people living with the virus as the victim. First Time doesn’t accept this stance,” says Hall. “It not only transforms audiences into HIV allies, but also helps them rid toxic shame from their own lives.”

First Time takes up Hall’s story after an all-night party, when “he hasn’t been to bed and he hasn’t prepared anything for the show. He’s only had 12 months and a grant from the Arts Council, but he can’t avoid the spotlight anymore and is forced to revisit his troubled past”.

“First Time not only transforms audiences into HIV allies, but also helps them rid toxic shame from their own lives ,” says Nathaniel Hall

His path leads from sharing a stolen chicken and stuffing sandwich with a Will Young lookalike aged 16, through receiving the devastating news aged 17 and heart-breaking scenes devouring pills and powder for breakfast, to a candlelit vigil and finally a surprising ending full of reconciliation, hope…and a houseplant from Mum.

Commissioned by Waterside Arts and Creative industries Trafford and developed with Dibby Theatre, the original production led the Borough of Trafford’s 30th World AIDS Day commemorations in 2018.

Directed by Chris Hoyle and designed by Irene Jade, with music and sound design by Hall, First Time will be staged at 7.45pm at each location. Tickets: Scarborough, 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com. Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Fry’s delight at taking his Town Crier role into pantoland for Snow White

Ben Fry’s Town Crier and Mark Little’s Lord Chamberlain of Trumpville in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. . Picture: David Harrison

FOURTEEN years had passed since Ben Fry’s one and only appearance in pantomime, but the City of York Town Crier was quick to say Oyez, Oyez, Oyez to starring in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs this winter.

The Minster FM breakfast show co-presenter is playing, you guessed it, the Town Crier at the Grand Opera House until Saturday, in the company of ’Allo, ’Allo! star Vicki Michelle’s Wicked Queen and Australian comedian Mark Little’s Lord Chamberlain of Trumpville.

“I did panto once before at the Scarborough Spa in 2005 when I was at Yorkshire Coast Radio, and I played one of the Ugly Sisters – she was called Ugly Sister Whitby – in Cinderella,” recalls Ben.

“I remember it was a Tony Peers production: he was a panto legend, who gave me plenty of good advice, so I was able to go from nothing to playing Ugly Sister in one leap! It felt like an episode of Big Brother, where every experience is heightened; every emotion is heightened.”

Ben may have the gift of the gab as a cheeky radio presenter, speaking off the cuff each morning, but performing in pantomime makes contrasting demands. “Having to follow a script and learn lines is a different experience, which is interesting to do, though once you’re into the show, the performances are flexible, and the next show can be nothing like the last one!”  he says.

“Part of the fun with pantomime is that no two performances are ever the same, and while it might be a bit of a treadmill, it’s never boring.”

Ben is candid about his acting skills. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “I’m not in Snow White for my acting prowess, am I?! I’m a walking, talking PR machine on the radio, to make as many people as possible know about it.

“So, I’m being the Town Crier for the show almost as much off stage as I am on stage. I see my job as being to get bums on seats, then I hand it over to the professionals.

“I think we only agreed I should be in the show once the rest of the cast was in place, so Chris [Three Bears Productions’ director and co-producer Chris Moreno] then shoe-horned me into the show here and there. No-one is coming specially to see me, but hopefully because I’ve plugged the show.

“I don’t think anyone will be saying, ‘it was fantastic, but I’d hoped there would be more bell ringing’.”

Vicki Michelle as the Wicked Queen in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison

Ben is being unduly modest. He more than holds his own in the Busy Bee, Busy Bee slapstick scene with Martin Daniels’ Muddles, and he plays not only the Town Crier but also a second uncredited role.

Ben’s “costume” is the official City of York Town Crier livery, coupled with the City of York bell. “So, anyone who’s seen me around town since May will recognise me on stage,” he says. “It’s all a bit ‘meta’: the real Town Crier being the real Town Crier ion pantomime, whereas Vicki Michelle is not playing a wartime French waitress!”

As a son of York, Ben is “very proud to represent the city” both in his presenter’s role on Minster FM and now as the Town Crier too. “The Town Crier is the embodiment of York: I like the pageantry, the history, and it adds something else to people’s experience when they come to the city,” he says.

Picking out highlights from his first year in office, Ben selects pop star Ellie Goulding and Casper Jopling’s wedding ceremony at York Minster on August 31. “Welcoming Ellie to the Minster…and meeting Katy Perry that day was obviously the greatest day of my life – and that includes my wedding day and the birth of my two children,” he says, with his tongue by now nudging his cheek.

“The Mayor-making ceremony was a good day too, and I enjoyed the ceremonies for Yorkshire Day [August 1] , reading out the declarations at four bars where you enter the city, and the Christmas Lights switch-on in front of the Minster was pretty special too.”

Maybe Ben was destined to put his voice to public use as York’s Town Crier. “When I was a child, people always said that I had to grow into my voice, as even then I had a loud, bellowing voice,” he says.

It was a voice that stood out. “! got picked to play Bob Cratchit in Scrooge when I was at Westfield Primary School in Acomb,” Ben recalls.

That voice led him all the way to becoming the matchday pitch announcer at Elland Road during Ken Bates’s turbulent chairmanship of Leeds United, when Ben also would interview “Mr Chairman” on Bates’s station, Yorkshire Radio.

“It was a difficult time for Leeds United, as there was a great deal of unrest, and I was seen by some as a frontman for Ken as I was doing a lot of interviews with him, as well as doing the matchday stuff on the pitch,” he says.

“But I’d always wanted to work in football, and you don’t know when the chance will come. Those moments under the Elland Road floodlights, like when Luciano Becchio put Leeds ahead against Chelsea, were special.

“I’ll never forget the game against Bristol Rovers when Leeds won promotion, going around the pitch with [centre forward] Jermaine Beckford after the final whistle, in a yellow high-vis jacket, and being asked by the police to tell all the fans to get off the pitch. It was possibly the most futile thing I’ve ever been asked to do in my career!”

No stranger to performing to crowds, Ben is taking his pantomime role in his stride as he sees in the New Year.  What’s next? “We’ll be doing the Minster FM Search For A Local Hero in February, and the Town Crier is available for any fete or envelope opening, of course,” says Ben. “Just go to the York BID website and make a request there.”

Ben Fry plays Town Crier in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, until January 4. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york. Charles Hutchinson

Berwick Kaler Foundation in the running for funding boost from Great Panto Run

Dress like Dame Berwick Kaler? Great Panto Run runners will be encouraged to wear fancy dress on January 18. Picture: Anthony Robling

THIS is one show guaranteed to run and run, namely York’s first ever Great Panto Run on January 18 in aid of the Berwick Kaler Foundation.

“Who knows who might be running? Perhaps Snow White or Aladdin, the Ugly Sisters or even Patricia the pantomime cow,” says York Theatre Royal press officer Steve Pratt.

Event organisers See York Run York are inviting runners to put on their best pantomime costume for a five-mile trail run for the charity established to continue the legacy of retired Theatre Royal panto dame Berwick Kaler.

The inaugural Great Panto Run at Rawcliffe Bar Country Park, in York, comprises two laps of an out-and-back route through woodland, fields and pathway on a course suitable for first-time trail runners and experienced runners alike. In addition, there will be a family fun run of two laps of the park, just over a mile in length.

“Fancy dress is encouraged but not compulsory, but there will be a prize for the best fancy-dressed runner,” says Steve.

A team from York Theatre Royal – last seen running the Yorkshire Marathon Relay – will be putting their running shoes back on for the Great Panto Run and are looking for sponsors. “Donations via the Wonderful.org website are fee free, so 100 per cent of your donation will go directly to the Berwick Kaler Foundation, which aims to bring families, friends and communities together to enjoy all that theatre has to offer,” says Steve.

Further information on the January 18 run can be found on the fundraising page at wonderful.org/fundraiser/thegreatpantorunseeyorkrunyork-991a792b.

Will Dame Berwick be involved on the day? Wait and see.

REVIEW: Agatha Meehan so at home in The Wizard Of Oz, Leeds Playhouse *****

Agatha Meehan, from York, in the lead role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz at Leeds Playhouse, All pictures: The Other Richard

The Wizard Of Oz, Leeds Playhouse, until January 25 2020. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk

AGATHA Meehan is going places. Right now, the blossoming York acting talent is travelling in a whirling tornado from her Kansas farm to Oz and the Emerald City in the lead role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz.

Already she has starred in the West End as Summer Hathaway in School Of Rock and Annie in Annie, a part she first played for York Musical Theatre Company in March 2017 while a pupil at St George’s RC Primary School.

After adding Jane in the UK premiere of A Little Princess at the Royal Festival Hall to her London credits, now she is alternating Dorothy with Lucy Sherman in the first Christmas family musical in the Quarry Theatre since the Leeds Playhouse’s £15.8 million redevelopment. All this, and she is only 12 years old. What a whirlwind rise.

Sam Harrison’s Tinman leading a merry dance in The Wizard Of Oz

There’s no place that Agatha feels more at home than on stage, and she gives a remarkably assured performance, from the moment she sings the iconic Over The Rainbow.

Her Kansas accent is spot on; her Dorothy, in pigtails and farm dungarees and later the ever-evocative blue gingham dress, is a stoical young girl of moral conviction, passion and determination, challenging adult authority and inertia in Baum’s  Kansas of the 1900s and Emerald City alike.

Combining Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg’s songs from the more innocent 1939 MGM film with John Kane’s witty, somewhat knowing 1987 script for the Royal Shakespeare Company, artistic director James Brining’s production delivers on an epic, filmic scale, full of heart and humour, joy and jeopardy, Munchkins and monkeys, mystery and magic.

Eleanor Sutton’s Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz

Meehan’s Dorothy is surrounded by a combination of hi-tech and lo-tech, and likewise the familiar and the freshened up, with Jitterbug re-introduced as one of two premier league showstoppers alongside The Merry Old Land Of Oz, choreographed to dazzling effect by Lucy Cullingford.

Phil Cole’s Uncle Henry and Angela Wynter’s Aunt Em are a mixed-race couple; Eleanor Sutton is a female Scarecrow; Sam Harrison’s Tinman is gay and the outstanding Marcus Ayton is a black timorous Lion, with boxing moves and a knock-out singing voice to boot for If I Were King Of The Forest.

Simon Wainwright, from innovative Leeds company Imitating The Dog, provides the video projections for the twister scene that combine with the time-honoured skills of spinning aerialists. Toto the dog is played by a real dog before the storm, then by a puppet animated so expressively by Ailsa Dalling in Oz. Look out too for the crow puppets, and be sure to duck when the Wicked Witch of the West and her dive-bombing monkeys are flying overhead.

A roaring success: Marcus Ayton’s outstanding Lion in The Wizard Of Oz at Leeds Playhouse

Polly Lister is terrifically terrifying as the mean, twisted neighbour Miss Gulch and the cackling, droll Wicked Witch, whose vamp camp air never quite ventures into pantomime villainy.

As you would expect of a major-city Christmas show, this is a big, big production:  a cast of 20, supported by a young Leeds community company as the Munchkins; a band of 11 directed with panache by Tamara Saringer; and wonderful set and costume designs by Simon Higlett, whose palette progresses from parched, dustbowl Kansas with its plain farmhouse and water tower, to the spectacular greens and yellows of a futuristic Emerald City.

Click your ruby red heels, make a wish and find yourself having a wizard time on the Yellow Brick Road at Leeds Playhouse this winter.

Toto and puppeteer Ailsa Dalling in The Wizard Of Oz

Review by Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Tim Stedman’s 20th anniversary in Snow White, Harrogate Theatre ****

Tim Stedman’s Happy Harry, left, Howard Chadwick’s Nora the Nanny, Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White, Pamela Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow (back), Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee (front) and Polly Smith’s Wicked Queen Ethel Burger in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre

Snow White, Harrogate Theatre, until January 19 2020.  Box office: 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk

JUST by the entrance to the stalls is a sign. Snow White contains Smoke/Haze, Pyrotechnics, Flashing Lights. The usual, in other words, but then it adds Poison Apples.

A-ha. This is why Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime is such a joy for adults, as well as the children they bring along. The witty extra details.

This latest pantomime collaboration between director Phil Lowe and co-writer and chief executive David Bown doesn’t contain “And The Seven Dwarfs” in the title, but it does contain Tim Stedman in his 20th year as Harrogate’s strawberry-cheeked, squeaky-voiced daft lad.

Back to Stedman in a moment, but first more of those details that make the difference: the sign on stage that points to Base Camp and Too Camp; Harrogate being renamed Happygate in the county of Yawnshire; and the pop-culture words to spot in Wicked Queen Ethel Burger’s castle lair. Spells For Teen Spirits (one for Nirvana fans); Keep Calm & Cast Spells; Tears/Fears.

Then there are the regular mentions of Harrogate’s event of the year:September’s week-long cycling festival, the UCI Road World Championships, that turned the Stray into looking more like a Waif and Stray. “And the bikes have been put away,” came the first mention. “It’s only grass, it will grow back,” we were re-assured by Stedman and on the back page of a mocked-up Happygate Advertiser.

Lowe and Bown certainly have fun stoking the fires of this hot topic that vexes more than agitated letter writers to the local paper.

On a happier note, Stedman’s 20 years of putting the funny ha-ha in Harrogate is a cause for celebration, albeit that his silly billy is given a new name for these politically correct times: Happy Harry, rather than the usual Muddles. Happy to report, however, that he is still the sharpest fool in the foolbox, and the fool is still making fools of others, just as he did in Shakespeare’s plays.

Stedman’s jaunty jester is in cracking clowning form, picking his “victim for humiliation” with a Catch The Apple game that ends with teacher Mrs Smith – an appropriate name, he notes – as his stooge for this particular performance.

His Wheel of Happiness – we should all have one installed at home – is a thing of joy with its tension-building Slice of Danger and his hapless slapstick scene with Pamela Dwyer’s Scottish Hunter the Handyman recalls Laurel and Hardy, while the terrible Christmas cracker jokes keep rolling by. “What do call an exploding monkey?” he asks. “A ba-boon!” Cue groans.

Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee and Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White keep the romance and soppy ballad count ticking over and the seven dwarfs make their appearances as big puppet heads, while Alice Barrott’s Magic Mirror is a frank-speaking Southerner in a northern town.

In a piece of metatheatre, Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow makes a point of stepping outside the pantomime boundaries to explain that “technically fairies aren’t allowed to be around humans but you can keep my secret safe” as she transforms into castle dogsbody Hunter the Handyman. Both roles are handled with aplomb.

Polly Smith returns to the Harrogate panto, this time as Wicked Queen Ethel Burger, a role with plenty of bite and spite, while fellow returnee Howard Chadwick’s grouchy dame lives up to his name of No Nonsense Nora the Nanny, banning the singing of Baby Shark. Look out for his paintbrush hair-do, one of many delights in Morgan Brind’s designs that provide humour and spectacle in equal measure.

Nick Lacey’s sprightly musical direction and David Kar-Hing Lee’s zesty choreographer add to the enjoyment as Harrogate Theatre revels in the restlessly cheeky Stedman’s 20th anniversary. He’ll return for Cinderella next Christmas, and surely the Stray grass will be back by then too. Won’t it?

Charles Hutchinson