Velma Celli turns drag outlaw for alternative Guy Fawkes night at NCEM. Just add gin

Raising a glass to outlaws: Velma Celli evokes the spirit of Guy Fawkes at the National Centre for Early Music tonight

YORK drag diva deluxe Velma Celli invites you to “release your inner outlaw” at his outre Outlaw Live cabaret soiree tonight.

Hosted by York Gin at the National Centre for Early Music, in Walmgate, York, the night promises song, laughter and gin as Velma and friends “unleash a riot of glamorous outrage”.

“York is a city of outlaws: Guy Fawkes was born here. Dick Turpin was hanged here,” says York Gin Company events coordinator Harri Marshall. “It’s even home to the super-strength York Gin Outlaw, which comes with a warning: ‘Drink, with ice, tonic … and care’.

“Now – for one night only – one of the UK’s ‘baddest’ drag queens will be celebrating all that’s naughty, villainous and defiantly outrageous about York and its outlaws.”

Since returning home from a month of Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships shows, Velma Celli already has played a “banging show” at York Theatre Royal, presenting Me And My Divas, a celebration of “the songs and behaviour of all your favourite divas” with York singer Jess Steel and West End leading lady Gina Murray, at York Theatre Royal last Saturday.

Velma Celli in the WonderBar at Impossible York

That cabaret night of impressions and banter celebrated Whitney, Aretha, Bassey, Streisand, Garland, Cilla, Dolly, Madonna, Adele, Sia and latest addition Jessie J.

Tomorrow’s new show will raise a glass to the outlaw spirit of Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin and general naughtiness at large in York with a riot of rebellious songs and a gin cocktail on arrival.

“If you love drag, gin, and being just a little bit naughty, this one’s definitely for you,” says Velma, the vocal drag creation of West End musical actor Ian Stroughair, 39.

“It’ll be my first time at the NCEM., and the gig came about after I popped into York Gin in the week when I’d been doing Funny Girls in Blackpool, and it turned out the woman serving me had seen Funny Girls the night before,” says Ian.

“This led to the idea of doing this Outlaw Live show with me, a small band, Guy Fawkes-inspired songs; songs from Six, the musical about Henry VIII’s wives; songs related to baddies in history, and the opportunity for everyone to drink nice cocktails.

The poster for Velma Celli’s Outlaw Live concert with a dash of York Gin

“I’ll be in kind of Guy Fawkes mode, and the plan is that we’ll see how this one goes and then look at doing a night with a different York Gin theme.”

Meanwhile, Ian is spreading Velma’s wings at the drag diva’s regular haunt of Impossible York, in St Helen’s Square, adding to the repertoire of shows in the WonderBar.

He has resumed performing The Velma Celli Show at 8pm on the last Friday of each month (except this month, when the gig moved to last night (24/3/2022).

Two sittings of Velma’s Drag Brunch are held on the first Saturday of each month, to be joined on the second Saturday by the new Movie Musical Brunch from April 9, when Ian’s special guest will be West End musical star Zoe Curlett, who played Christine in The Phantom Of The Opera and Corsette in Les Miserables.

Velma also launched a new Back To The 80s night in the WonderBar on March 18, when the 8pm set gloried in the songs of David Bowie,  George, Michael, Wham! and more Eighties’ favourites besides.

Velma Celli in David Bowie mode for Irreplaceable

At the planning stage is a QNY (Queer Night York) regular night. “The idea behind it is that there isn’t an essentially gay venue in York that’s been successful, and what’s needed is a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people,” says Ian.

“QNY won’t be a Velma Celli night; there won’t be a performance; I’ll be hosting the night and DJing, and again it will be monthly in the WonderBar, with the starting date yet to be confirmed.”

One Velma Celli show fell by the wayside last month: the February 26 performance of Irreplaceable, a celebration of David Bowie, was cancelled at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

We must wait for that gift of sound and vision, but one day, hopefully, Irreplaceable will be added to Velma’s portfolio of York performances. “So far, I’ve done it in a week’s run of four shows in Southampton,” says Ian.

“It came about because my friend Sarah Walker is obsessed with Bowie, and I’ve created the show for her.”

Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag: Playing Pocklington Arts Centre this summer

Ian shares that passion. “There are so many amazing David Bowie songs, and in my case it was the Labyrinth era that I first loved, and also how he’s been so influential. Look at Lady Gaga, for example,” he says.

“In the show, my make-up is inspired by Aladdin Sane and my look is kind of androgynous: I wear a black suit jacket and a long, hooped skirt.

“I do a section about how Bowie was gender-bending before anyone else came out doing that, skipping around Manhattan in a catsuit, and there’s also a bit about RuPaul in there, who was such a big, big fan.”

Irreplaceable is yet to replace its scrapped Theatre@41 show, but one further show in the diary is Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag at Pocklington Arts Centre on June 30.

Velma Celli: Outlaw Live, presented by York Gin, at National Centre for Early Music, York, tonight (25/3/2022); doors, 7pm; show, 8pm to 10.30pm. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/yorkgin/590817/. For Pocklington, 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk. For Impossible York shows and brunches, visit impossibleyork.com.

What makes Hawkwind a ‘countercultural institution’? Ask Oz Hardwick, whose photographs at City Screen speak volumes

Hawkwind keyboardist Tim Blake and guitarist Dave Brock in concert . Picture: Oz Hardwick

YORK poet, musician, academic and photographer Oz Hardwick is exhibiting “very much a labour of long-standing obsession” at City Screen, York.

On show in the upstairs corridor until February 19 are his photographs of Hawkwind, one of the earliest space rock groups, who formed in Ladbroke Grove, London, in 1969 and have since gone through many incarnations, taking in hard rock, prog rock and psychedelic rock.

Lemmy, later of Motorhead, and Silver Machine, the June 1972 single that peaked at number three, are but part of a story that Oz has photographed from 1980 to 2021.

For many years he has focused on poetry and the academic world, way back in the 1970s, Plymouth-born Oz trained as a photographer, combining that skill with his passion for music and alternative culture.

Over the years, he has contributed to many album covers and books, most recently being the main photographic contributor to Martin Popoff’s Hawkwind: A Visual Biography, published by Wymer last year.

Oz exhibited a selection of his photographs at a festival at the Alhambra in Morecambe in 2018. “Then I was going to have a little exhibition to coincide with the band’s York Barbican show on their 50th anniversary but that didn’t quite work out,” he says.

“And so, it was going to be City Screen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of their first album [August 1970’s Hawkwind by Hawkwind], which was in 2020, so that didn’t happen either.

“But here it is at last, upstairs in City Screen, a bit of a celebration of a countercultural institution that’s probably been more influential than most people realise and is still going strong.”

Oz Hardwick: Poet, musician, professor of creative writing and photographer

Here Oz answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions about that “labour of long-standing obsession”.

What first drew you to Hawkwind, Oz?

“In 1972, I was a 12-year-old boy who loved music, with a particular enthusiasm for glam rock and a growing interest in heavy rock that came via my elder sister’s friends. I’ve read many times how David Bowie’s Starman on Top Of The Pops ‘changed everything’ for many people, and I remember the performance.

“However, it was the week after that Silver Machine appeared and for me that was really exciting. It’s up on YouTube now, but in those days all your friends would be watching the same thing at the same time, and I recall having to ask a friend the next day what this band had been called, because the clip – filmed in concert and cobbled together to accompany the single (and watched on a black-and-white TV) – had absolutely blown me away.

“I had no idea what was making some of those noises, the energy was like nothing I’d heard, and the band looked unhinged. It wasn’t just an exciting new group; it was a little glimpse of an alternative universe, which looked way more exciting than the one I was in. These people weren’t dressing up like Bolan and Bowie (who I really liked, by the way);  there was a sense of this being real

“And then, when I finally acquired an album the following year – the monumental Space Ritual – there were passages of poetry accompanied by unearthly electronic sounds. I’d picked up a love of poetry by osmosis from my grandfather who lived with us.

“He’d had no education, really, but had a passion for the Lake Poets and Burns, who were deeply attached to the places where he’d grown up and become a farm worker, and this was something which set that linguistic energy into the cultural context in which I was growing up – pop music, Apollo-era science fiction, and so on. And the artwork was amazing, too. It was the full package.”

Lemmy, photographed by Oz Hardwick in his post-Hawkwind years leading Motorhead. Not featured in the City Screen exhibition

Did you meet Lemmy [Hawkwind’s bass player from 1972 until being fired in 1975, when he formed Motorhead]?  If so, what are your memories?

“Lemmy was still in the band when I first saw Hawkwind in Plymouth Guildhall in February 1974, but I didn’t meet him until the early Motorhead days.

“When they started out, they were getting awful reviews and nobody much was interested as they were slogging around fairly grotty little clubs. I, of course, turned up to their first Plymouth gig early – I always wanted to get down the front – and the first few of us to arrive were roped into carrying a grand piano down the fire escape.

“Those were the days. It meant we got to hear the soundcheck, and I think we were let in free, too. And there was a bit of a tongue-tied greeting.

“They played a few times locally while they were still struggling along, and the band were always really welcoming, chatty, funny and down-to-earth. Then they went off to be pretty huge and no longer played to small but passionate audiences in sticky-floored clubs. “However, several years later I was at an open-air Hawkwind gig at Crystal Palace – the legendary event at which they shared the stage with Vera Lynn – and during the afternoon I happened to be walking vaguely towards Lemmy in the field.

“Amazingly, he stopped me and asked how I was. He was a fully-fledged rock star by then, but he still remembered those people who supported the band when there weren’t all that many of us. And I don’t think many people would be like that.”

Hawkwind’s stage set with the band logo at its heart. Picture: Oz Hardwick

You know the drill: “First three numbers only. No flash”. What are the challenges of photographing a band in concert under those circumstances?

“They will insist on moving about! I think the particular challenge with rock music is the lighting changes. It’s true with many artists, but Hawkwind were always particularly tricky as there was never much light on the band, who were quite often shadowy figures against brighter backgrounds. There’s still some of that, but less so than there used to be.”

Do you prefer photographing a band on stage, in the studio or off-guard?

“I much prefer photographing bands on stage. I’ve done some more posed off-stage work from time to time, but my enthusiasm has always been for capturing artists doing what they do, rather than imposing myself too much on things.

“When I was training as a photographer, I got really into theatre work, and it grew out of that, I think. Also, I’m a very socially awkward person (cripplingly so when younger), so it’s good to vanish into the background.

“In relation to this, I have to say how generous Hawkwind were, letting this awkward young bloke with a camera onto the side of the stage, into the dressing room, and so on. Again, I think this is probably quite unusual, to say the least.”

Where and when did you train in photography?

“I was at Plymouth College of Art in the late 1970s. I’d already learned the basics there on Saturday mornings while I was at school and I’d taken an O-level, so it was the logical next step – and I had no idea what else I might do.

“I’ve never been very career oriented. I’m now professor of creative writing over at Leeds Trinity University, but it’s not something I ever intended: I just always wanted to create things and was looking for ways to do so that worked for me. These days I only do a little bit of photography and it’s mostly writing, but they’ve both been constants for years, with just the balance shifting.”

Hawkwind: Black Sword. Picture: Oz Hardwick

You describe Hawkwind as a “countercultural institution”. In what ways?

“They emerged from that vibrant countercultural movement which had a bit more edge and political substance, which drew on agit-prop theatre, cutting-edge graphic design, the alternative press, and so on.

“They were effectively the ‘house band’ of that culture, supporting various causes, and while things have changed immensely, they have remained on the edge. They were at the heart of the free festival culture of the 1980s, for example, and they still have close associations with the Sea Shepherd and wildlife charities in particular.

“And they are a band who have evolved their own community, too, with their own small festivals and also taking artists under their wing to an extent.” 

How have Hawkwind “probably been more influential than most people realise”?

“Anyone with a vague interest in ‘classic’ rock music will know Silver Machine but the chances are good that they won’t know anything else. Their influence is disproportionate, though.

Hawkwind founder member Dave Brock: 53 years and counting. Picture: Oz Hardwick

“Because of the directness of their music and their disdain for the mainstream, they were a major – and frequently cited – influence on punk rock, while most of their contemporaries were being derided.

“Their experiments with electronics fed into ambient and New Age soundscapes and that was one of the roots of synth-pop, and the extended, repetitive structures are one of the foundations of the dance music that evolved from the late 1980s and continues to do so. In the diverse niches of contemporary alternative rock, they’re pretty much everywhere.”

Playing devil’s advocate, what does it take for a band to survive for 53 years on one hit?

“Now, that’s a complex one to answer, but part of it, I suspect, is that there was just the one hit. The follow-up, Urban Guerilla, was famously withdrawn amidst controversy as its release coincided with terrorist attacks, and that was pretty much it for pop stardom.

“Instead, they used the money from Silver Machine’s success to fund the elaborate staging of their ambitious Space Ritual tour, which led to the double album that is still regularly cited as one of the best live rock records ever.

“With the live reputation they built up, they didn’t really need to be on Top Of The Pops. I guess the ‘what if?’ scenario raises the question of whether, if they had managed a couple of follow-up hits, they might have had a brief flare at the top and just disappeared once they started slipping down the ratings.

“Interestingly, a couple of albums in recent years have made higher chart placings than anything they’ve released since the mid-’80s, so things haven’t worked out too bad. And, of course, they still have the instantly recognisable big hit on pretty much every ’70s rock compilation that gets released, which in itself is one up on thousands upon thousands of bands.”

Huw Lloyd-Langton in his days as a Hawkwind guitarist. Picture: Oz Hardwick

When did you first photograph Hawkwind; when did you last photograph them?

“My earliest (not great) photos are from 1980, the most recent from 2021. As it happens, though, the first time I ever took a camera to a gig was a Motorhead show in, I think, 1978, so there’s a connection there.”

What is the story behind you exhibiting your Hawkwind photos at a festival in 2018?

“The band organise their own little festivals and suchlike. In 2018, they had a weekend at the Alhambra in Morecambe, which was put together with poet, performer and all-round good guy Matt Panesh, to contribute towards keeping this beautiful old theatre open in quite a deprived part of the country.

“Hawkwind played a couple of times, along with assorted friends and relations; there were performances of plays by the late Robert Calvert (who, along with mainstay Dave Brock, wrote Silver Machine) and amongst the peripheral events and attractions I had a small photographic exhibition, with a number of pictures that had been on album covers, in books, and so on.”

How did you select the photos now on show in the City Screen corridor?  

“The exhibition features most of those I had printed for Morecambe, along with a few more oldies and some taken in 2021. Though it was another terrible year for the performing arts, Hawkwind managed a couple of shows.

“The highlight was definitely their Hawkfest over a sunny weekend in north Devon last summer. With a little under a thousand attendees and a great line-up – including two sets by Hawkwind and various members playing with other bands – and a lovely bunch of like-minded people getting together after months of lockdowns, it was a wonderful celebration of the music and of that community I mentioned earlier. There are a few photos from that weekend.”

Mr Dibs: Hawkwind’s vocalist, cellist, guitarist and bass player from 2007 to 2018. Picture: Oz Hardwick

How has the art of rock music photography changed over the past 40 years?

“I think it’s changed in the way all photography has changed. In the 1980s and 1990s, you’d really read the performance and get a few gems from your 36 or maybe 72 frames. Nowadays, anyone with a phone can get a couple of good shots from the 600 they take, all of which they upload onto Facebook.

“If I can get a bit cosmic for a second, though, the relationship between a photographer and the performance is very, very different. There’s an intensity of focus in the moment, coupled with a kind of acquired second sight, whereas I suspect someone waving their phone over their head is outside the moment. But we can maybe talk about ‘art’ another time!”

Which camera do you favour?

“The shorthand techie answer is Nikon for film and Canon for digital. Really, though, it’s anything that can capture a decent image (and most can) because all a camera does is capture what you see. It’s much more about looking than technology. As an aside, I do rather like seeing what the flaws in really poor cameras can do – I do like a bit of chaos.”

Do you keep a list of the album covers and books to which you have contributed photographs?

“I’m really bad at keeping records. I’ve built up quite a body of work in both writing and photography and am generally looking at the current project and the next thing. In terms of Hawkwind, the photos that have given me most satisfaction are the front cover and booklet of The Flicknife Years box set of 1980s’ recordings.

“I was following the band all over and really immersing myself in that wonderful world I glimpsed on Top Of The Pops back in ’72, and the idea of having something on the front of an album just seemed like fantasy.

“There were two United States reissues in the’90s – Zones and Do Not Panic – that came with posters of my photos, which were special to me in themselves, but also my parents had them on their hall wall for the rest of their lives and would proudly show them to all visitors. “Beyond that, there are a lot of album covers by the band and also off-shoots (there are a lot of ex-members after 53 years).

“Of the books, I’ve a number of pictures in Ian Abrahams’ Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins, the revised edition of which has one of mine on the front; and last year’s Hawkwind: A Visual Biography, by Martin Popoff, has well over 200 of my pictures, including the front cover. “Again, there are other books and magazines and so on. None of which I could even have imagined as I sat dumbstruck in front of that rented black-and-white telly half a century ago.”

Oz Hardwick’s Hawkwind exhibition runs at City Screen, York, until February 19.

Oz Hardwick’s book cover for Martin Popoff’s Hawkwind: A Visual Biography

Velma Celli marks birthday with Impossible York gig before American cruise ship shows

Velma Celli in the Wonderbar at Impossible York

YORK drag diva supreme Velma Celli is heading off to America for a month of cruise-ship shows, but not before a birthday bash at Impossible York.

Velma, the fabulous cabaret creation of West End musical actor Ian Stroughair, will mark Ian’s birthday on Thursday (13/1/2022) with an 8pm performance of The Velma Celli Show in the Wonderbar.

Then come those cruise-ship engagements for Atlantis Gay Cruises, whose publicity proclaims: “Gonna be FUN! Get on board the biggest event of 2022 for Atlantis’s 30th anniversary! 

“5,500 guys. Superstar performers. Cutting-edge productions. Legendary concerts. Mind-blowing parties. And you! All on the world’s largest and most spectacular ship.

“We’re finally turning 30 with the greatest production in Atlantis history as we sail the best of the Caribbean for the perfect start to 2022.” 

Here, CharlesHutchPress sets Velma/Ian the challenge of firing off quick answers to quick questions in a short break from packing for the travels ahead.

Velma Celli’s new show, God Save The Queens, will be premiered on the Atlantis Gay Cruises

How old will you be on Jan 13?

Twenty-one. It’s a New Year miracle!”

What would be the perfect birthday present?

“World peace.” 

What songs will you be performing at Impossible York?

“It’ll be a mixture of mine and the audience’s favourite from years gone by. A mixture of Whitney [Houston], Amy [Winehouse], Queen, Judy [Garland] and many more. Lots of impressions, banter and general camp fun! Doors at 7pm; show at 8pm.”

What show will you perform on the cruise ships and how often on each cruise?

“I’m performing two shows, A Brief History Of Drag and my new show, God Save The Queens, which is a celebration of British female recording artists. Adele. Annie Lennox. Amy. Dua Lipa. Four shows a week.”

Where will the two cruises sail to? 

“OOOOO, so many places! Miami, Bahamas, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Puerta Vallarta and many more!”

Have you worked with Atlantis Gay Cruises before? 

“I’m on contract number five. There should have been so many more but bl***y ‘Rona’ entered our lives, didn’t she!”

Any update on plans to present Irreplaceable, your David Bowie show, in York? 

“YES! February 26th at Theatre@41 Monkgate, 8pm, when I’ll be celebrating Bowie and the artists he inspired.”

Velma Celli’s Aladdin Sane sash for Irreplaceable, the Bowie tribute show

What’s coming up for you in York after that?

“Me And My Divas on March 19th on my return to York Theatre Royal, where I sold out A Brief History Of Drag last May. Line-up to be announced, but you can expect ‘an overindulgent diva fest celebrating the songs and behaviour of all your favourite divas: Céline, Mariah, Whitney, Aretha, Cher, Britney (maybe not!) and many more.”

Of all those divas in that show – 2021 Best Cabaret winner at the Perth Fringeworld in Australia – who is your favourite vocalist and why? 

“Whitney Houston! Hands down the greatest singer of all time, in my humble opinion.” 

What else is in your diary for 2022?

“SO many more gigs at Impossible York, including my Drag Brunches and solo shows. We’re starting a new evening show called Back To The 80s and another brunch called Matinee Musicals Brunch! Tickets go live soon!” 

What are your hopes for this year? 

“No more ‘Rona’, lots of laughter and PEACE!” 

What are your hopes for the arts world at large this year?

“A thriving community and lots of new writing! We all love a ‘Les Mis’ etc, but ’tis time to shine a light on new writing, artists, creatives and producers. A shout-out to Lambert Jackson Productions, who have been smashing compelling and fantastic new work pre and throughout this pandemic. Proud!”

The Velma Celli Show, Impossible York, St Helen’s Square, York, Thursday, January 13; doors at 7pm; show, 8pm. Box office: ticketweb.uk/event/the-velma-celli-show-impossible-york-tickets/11662445.

Velma Celli: Irreplaceable, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 26, 8pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Velma Celli: Me And My Divas, York Theatre Royal, March 19, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

PS. Ian Stroughair will turn 39 on January 13.

‘Style is what comes from you,’ says artist Alex Utley as he runs Our Style project

York artist Alex Utley: Finding inspiration in Marvel

YORK artist Alex Utley reckons “fashion is about someone else deciding what looks good on you but style is what comes from you”.

His comment comes as New Visuality’s Our Style project is kickstarted in York after receiving a National Lottery award from the National Lottery Community Fund.

In the lead-up to Christmas, the project is working with 20 young people who have experienced learning difficulties or physical disabilities.

Sessions have been running in York city centre, led by Alex as chief curator. The Our Style At Christmas event at Guildhall’s ArtSpace saw more than 50 people drop in to buy jewellery, candles and T-shirts, and the project has had a presence at the Blueberry Christmas Fayre at York’s Melbourne Centre too. 

Charlie Pickering photographing models

When asked who he thought had blazed the trail to help to hammer home how style, not fashion, had provided lifelines to so many struggling people, Alex does not hesitate: “I like people who march to the beat of their own drum,” he says.

“You get Harry Styles and Yungblud from this generation, and from days gone by you had people like David Bowie or Elton John – he wore some right stuff!”

Alex is bringing his own energy inspired by these trailblazers to the project, although it is less their stylistic choices that have galvanised him, more that they have burst through closing doors.

“My stylistic choices are my choices,” he says. “I don’t look at Bowie and say, ‘That’s a good look, I’m going to wear that’. It’s more, ‘They did this at this moment in time to help people like me choose more freely’.

Lou Hicken and Lauren Farrow at the Blueberry Pop-Up

“So, someone who is comfortable enough in their own masculinity to wear a dress doesn’t change who I am. It helps strengthen my own outlook on life.”

Alex is speaking from his home in Acomb, but he is a regular learner at Blueberry Academy and has led on many previous New Visuality projects. He sees Our Style as a chance to “bring to the light many issues previously touched on”. 

“Clothes rightly or wrongly come accompanied with such powerful associations, but they should never be more powerful than the wearer,” he stresses. “My style doesn’t change who I am. My jumper or dress doesn’t have a gender; it is fabric.  I might like it, and if I like it, I’m going to wear it. My heroes have helped me to stop thinking about others’ opinions and to just do it.”

Over the years, Alex’s philosophy has consolidated. “I’ve hopefully made a small difference up to now. During certain youth groups and football sessions, I feel I may have changed people’s perceptions.

Lauren Farrow taking part New Visuality’s Our Style project

“A mate’s younger sister couldn’t wrap her head around seeing a different version of me. She had my old self stuck in their mind, and she used my dead name because she just couldn’t see that I was now Alex. 

“So I used an analogy: when Transformers change, they change because they weren’t happy as, say, a car; they couldn’t be themselves, they transformed into robots, more powerful. She seemed to get it! This project, Our Style, will hopefully build on that.”

Alex is not only relishing the opportunity to curate the participants’ artwork, he also sees the celebration of style as a chance to balance out past negative experiences.

“Everyone sees disability first,” he asserts. “There’s so much ableism, even in areas you wouldn’t expect. Disabled people could wear the same thing as able-bodied people and the mainstream media might refuse to publish or show it.

Jordan O’Brien in one of the T-shirts from New Visuality’s Our Style project

“It’s not just the mainstream media; it happens in areas where you would otherwise expect more acceptance. The main reason why I do my hair in different colours is because I want people to see me before the wheelchair, before the splints, before the tubes.

“Back in the day, the amount of people that would look at my legs, my arm, the tubes, before seeing me as even half a person, was depressing. The second I dye my hair, they see the colour and the person before they begin staring without shame at parts of my life I have to live with.”

This month’s continuing art sessions and next year’s events and happenings in locations around York will have Alex’s stamp all over them.  “It’s a great project. It’s an opportunity for young people to have fun in areas that have previously been marginalised and their ideas unexplored,” he says.

“We’re grateful to the National Lottery Community Fund and indeed everyone who continues to buy National Lottery tickets. It’s good to be able to show that all that money goes a long way in helping the most vulnerable people in our communities take their fair share of celebrating their communities.”

For art and items of clothing created in Our Style projects, check out According To McGee’s gallery, opposite Clifford’s Tower, and the Blueberry Pop-Up Shop in Micklegate, York.

From Bowie to Nick Cave, Costello’s teddy to Morrissey’s chin, Simon Cooper captures rock icons in caricature at Pocklington show

Chin up, Morrissey: The Smiths, as portrayed by Simon Cooper

EAST Yorkshire illustrator Simon Cooper has worked for NME, Time Out, the Radio Times and Punch magazines.

Now, he has launched an exhibition of original art, illustrations and prints at Pocklington Arts Centre (PAC) that will run in the Studio until January 6.

On show are many of his commissions for NME (New Musical Express, as was), inspired by Simon’s lifelong love of music. 

“Music has always been an important part of my life,” he says.” For as long as I can remember I’ve immersed myself in records, live shows and the music press. When I got my degree in illustration and started to work for Sounds and NME, it was my dream gig.”

Knuckling down: Elvis Costello teaches teddy a lesson, by Simon Cooper

He ended up working for the two rock music weeklies for almost 20 years, producing hundreds of illustrations during that time. 

“The first two pictures were of Malcolm McLaren and the Beastie Boys and the last two were of Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers,” he says. 

Simon, who lives in Everingham, near Pocklington, had graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, in Dundee, before moving to London to pursue his career as an illustrator.

“My four years at art college, surrounded by like-minded creative types, were particularly inspiring and motivating,” he says. 

Beastie Boys: Simon Cooper’s first illustration for New Musical Express

He worked almost exclusively for magazines before going on to illustrate many children’s books for Pan Macmillan, Penguin and Oxford University Press, among others.

Simon names Chuck Jones, Ronald Searle, Rene Magritte, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall among his artistic inspirations, alongside his penchant for comic books. “I’ve always had a love of comics and cartoons and consequently my style usually errs in that direction,” he says.  

His latest piece, The Owl And The Pussycat, is his favourite new work among the collection in PAC’s Studio. “It’s got music, romance and a dreamlike quality,” reasons Simon, who now focuses on independent projects, creating artwork and illustrations for sale at galleries, art shows and through his online shop at etsy.com/uk/shop/Cooperillo. 

Illustrator and caricaturist Simon Cooper

Here CharlesHutchPress puts quick questions to Simon Cooper for sketch-quick answers.

Why did you first choose musicians for your subject matter as opposed to film stars, comedians, politicians?

“Because music was my first love and it will be my last. Music of the future and music of the past. [Editor: Spot the reference to John Miles’s grandiose 1976 top three hit Music]. 

How did you settle on your distinctive style of illustrations? Trial and error? Gradually? 

“A bit of both. My style develops all the time. I’m inspired and influenced by new things every day.” 

Has your style changed over the years?

“My style, the way I work and the way I see things, has changed a lot over the years. These days most of my work has a digital element but when I started, I only used pencil, ink and paint.”

Cave art: Simon Cooper’s illustration of Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave

What do you like most about black-and-white caricatures?

“I’m so old that when I first started working for the music press they were only printing in black and white! I had to develop a style that looked bold in newsprint. I still enjoy doing the occasional black-and-white image – like my recent Nick Cave picture – although most of my work now is in full colour.” 

What do you like most about colour caricatures?

“Working in colour allows me to use more textures and take a more painterly approach.” 

What source material do you work from? Moving imagery? Photographs?

“It would be nice to have the musicians come and sit for me but I have to make do with looking at their photos while listening to their music!”

Rubberband girl: Kate Bush, at a stretch, by Simon Cooper

What have musicians said about your depictions of them? Have you had face-to-face encounters with any of them?!

“Sadly no face-to-face encounters, unless you count seeing them in a live performance, though I have had positive feedback from musicians via magazine editors and one or two phone calls and emails from the artists themselves.” 

Your tone is generally light-hearted and humorous? Why?

“It’s perhaps what separated my work from everyone else’s at art college. I’ve always preferred to include humour or visual puns in my work rather than any lofty narrative.” 

How did you first land commissions with NME and Sounds?

“I left Dundee College of Art and headed to London with my portfolio under my arm. I knocked on doors and asked for appointments with art editors of my favourite magazines. I’m probably making it sound easier than it was, but I think my timing was right and the humorous element worked to my advantage.”  

Space odyssey: Simon Cooper’s David Bowie

What have been the career highlights of your other illustrative work?

“I’ve won a couple of awards for children’s book covers for Pan Macmillan. 

“I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of commissions over the years from high-profile magazines such as Punch, Radio Times, Time Out. 

“I’ve worked for the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight And Sound for the past ten years. That’s been an absolute pleasure as film is another of my passions.”  

How have Chuck Jones, Ronald Searle, Rene Magritte, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall inspired you? Humour? Playfulness? Artistic style?

“Chuck Jones and Ronald Searle’s humour, Magritte’s playfulness and Chagall and Matisse’s artistic style.” 

Do you have a favourite among your music portraits? If so, which one and why?

“Tom Waits, because I’m a huge fan. Years ago, I was commissioned by Sounds magazine to produce a picture of him. I happened to have tickets to see him that night at Hammersmith Odeon. I went to the gig, which was magnificent. I went straight home, feeling very inspired, finished the picture and delivered it to Sounds the very next morning.” 

Tom Waits: Simon Cooper’s favourite among his music portraits

What are you working on at present?

“I’m just finishing a Led Zeppelin picture. Another of my all-time favourites.”

How would you sum up your Pocklington show?

“Plenty of aesthetically pleasing images, a hint of quirky humour and a slice of rock’n’roll nostalgia for music fans.” 

This feature runs to 1,034 words. Can a picture say more than 1,000 words?

“Yes, give or take a few hundred words.”

Simon Cooper: Art, Illustration & Prints, Pocklington Arts Centre, until January 6 2022. Admission is free during opening hours only. For more information, visit pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk or call the box office on 01759 301547.

Simon Cooper’s poster for his Pocklington Arts Centre exhibition

Bertt deBaldock launches Covid-era second volume of Good Rabbits Gone tributes in aid of St Leonard’s Hospice

The artist behind the mask: Terry Brett in his nom d’art guise as The Scribbler, memorial tribute cartoonist Bertt deBaldock

YORK cartoonist Bertt deBaldock’s new volume of rabbit valedictories to celebrities and remarkable individuals covers February 2020 to July 2021.

“That happens to be the period of the start and possible end of the pandemic,” says Terry Brett, the Pyramid Gallery owner and artist behind “The Scribbler” Bertt’s memorial works.

“Hence Good Rabbits Gone 2 has a subtitle, The Covid Years, and the book looks like a strange diary of the pandemic,” he reflects ahead of Saturday’s launch.

The 92 pages contain tributes to luminaries such as Terry Jones of Monty Python, rock’n’roll pioneer Little Richard, World Cup winners Nobby Stiles and Diego Maradona, television and radio personality Tim Brooke-Taylor, forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn and Bond Girls Honor Blackman and Dame Diana Rigg, alongside the most venerable Bond, Sir Sean Connery.

“But also there’s a visual list of several pandemic crises such as ‘lockdown’, ‘beer going down the drain’ and the ‘demise of the office’, all portrayed as rabbits,” says Terry.

Bertt deBaldock’s first Good Rabbits Gone tribute: David Bowie with his Aladdin Sane sash

First prompted by the exit stage left of David Bowie on January 10 2016 – the day the music died in a year when it died again and again and again [Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael on Christmas Day] – Terry set about drawing cartoons “in a rush” at the time of the “unique individual’s” passing and publishing them on Twitter and Facebook at #GoodRabbitsGone.

He then assembled 64 celebrities, accompanied by his own tributes or memories, in Good Rabbits Gone, Volume One In A Million, published in November 2020 in a Covid Lockdown project where he gave away 200 limited-edition copies and raised £1,700 for St Leonard’s Hospice from donations.

This Saturday, Good Rabbits Gone 2, Volume Two To Infinity will be launched at Pyramid Gallery, in Stonegate, between 11am and 3pm, when Bertt deBaldock will be on hand to sign copies.

Funded by the gallery, the new book again will be given away, and once more voluntary donations to the charity are invited. “From my experience with the first volume, people enjoy being given the book,” says Terry. “Most of those people have then offered a donation, at the gallery or via justgiving.com/fundraising/Terry-Brett6.”

Pyramid Gallery owner and curator Terry Brett with his second volume of Good Rabbit Gone valedictories

Here, Terry answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on rabbits, death notices, the balance between imagery and wording, the impact of Covid on Good Rabbits Gone and the choice of charity for donations.

For those new to Good Rabbits, why did you choose rabbits as the motif for your valedictory tributes, Terry?

“When my daughters were ten and seven, they had a pet rabbit, which I looked after. We were making a family wall-hanging using stencils. This rabbit appeared as I was cutting a shape in card using scissors. I’ve now been drawing it on Christmas cards for 26 years.

“When David Bowie died, I felt a great sadness. It just seemed natural to me to draw a rabbit for him. Then, three weeks later Terry Wogan. Gradually I started to add facial features to the drawings. After four years, I had 64 drawings and the pandemic lockdown gave me some time to put them in a book.

“It might seem weird to be creating memorials to people by representing them as a rabbit, but I don’t see the need to question it too much. I find the act of drawing helps relieve the sense of loss and my own anxiety about mortality. The process of reading about the individual’s life and trying to capture a tiny segment of their character in a simple drawing is a little bit cathartic. 

“The rabbit body and ears create a limitation in the final drawing, preventing each portrait from being too complicated or serious. All the individuals become united by the addition of rabbit ears!”

Rock’n’roll over and out: Bertt deBaldock’s farewell to Little Richard

Or, in a nutshell…?

“There’s a long-held belief in the Bertt/Brett household that if you have lived a good life, well, let’s say a mostly good life, i.e. if you have been nice or have achieved something for the benefit of others, then when you die you will become a rabbit.”

How do the newly RIP VIPs quality for a Bertt deBaldock tribute? Has that changed at all for Volume Two?

“Well, most names who hit the headlines qualify on the basis that they have done something amazing in their life. I can’t really tell whether or not they have actually been a good human being, though with many people there’s so much written about them, that there’s no closet in which to hide the skeletons. 

“I was disappointed not to be able include Motown producer Phil Spector, ruled out on the basis that he was found guilty of second-degree murder. There are many others that I could have included, lots of actors and actresses, but I like to find some other attribute in their make-up that goes beyond acting.

Honor Blackman: Wartime despatch rider, judo black belt and Bond Girl

“Honor Blackman, for instance, was a Second World War despatch rider and a judo blackbelt before she became an actress. Reading about iconic individuals fascinates me.”

Do you consider the wording to be as important as the imagery, with much greater scope than on a gravestone?

“I want to make the page entertaining or give the impression that the individual was a person of substance. Some people’s faces, or eccentric dress, say most of what needs to be said, but the addition of a quotation can put across something of great importance to that individual.

“For Albert Roux, I merely added his quote ‘Don’t let love interfere with your appetite’, which says all you need to know about a man who holds food up above all other human needs.

“But I enjoyed adding a bit of humour to that with the dates of his birth and death: Hors D’oeuvres 8 Octobre 1935, Digestif 4 Janvier 2021. As well as being amusing, it tells the reader that he was both a chef and French. 

Bertt deBaldock’s food for thought on Albert Roux OBE

“Sometimes, I like to add an anecdote about myself or my family. Some people have said that these are their favourite pages! For the astronaut Michael Collins, I say only a little about him as Apollo Command Module pilot and the moonwalk by Neil Armstrong, but a lot about me delivering newspapers in the rain, while they were at the crux of their mission. It brings things down to earth a little.”

This set of tributes covers the Covid period: how much does that cast a shadow over the memorials,  even prompting the subtitle and your reflection that it “looks like a strange diary of the pandemic”?

“The whole world was in a state of panicked confusion. Some of these great people died of Covid.  I was really shocked that Tim Brooke-Taylor was an early victim. I felt that if he can’t be saved, then we are all very vulnerable.

“The book would have been incomplete without some acknowledgement of the pandemic, and I wanted to record some poignant moments, such as the Thursday night applause we gave to the NHS and essential workers.

“I drew the hands clapping in rainbow colours, with the hands gradually becoming rabbits. This is a subtle dig at the Government. If they think that saying thank-you to NHS is enough, then they don’t understand what the public is feeling about the years of under-funding the NHS.

“Sometimes, I like to add an anecdote about myself or my family. Some people have said that these are their favourite pages!” says Terry Brett, with reference to his Michael Collins memorial

“If all we can do is applaud the NHS for the sacrifices made, then the NHS itself will become a [Bertt] rabbit. Other European nations were better prepared for the crisis than the UK, more ventilators, more nurses and better provision of PPE. It was right to clap for the NHS but they need more funds and better planning. 

“I didn’t set out to make points about the politics, but it just couldn’t be ignored. There was also a lot of humour put out on social media about Covid. I think it helps us all get through.”

How have you responded to Covid in the broader subject matter for (with reference to ‘Lockdown’, ‘Beer Going Down The Drain’, ‘Freedom – Italy’ and ‘The Demise Of The Office’)?

“The Demise Of The Office was added in right at the end. It was difficult to find a tag that would be amusing. It’s just a boring subject that I needed to find some humour in.

“I was looking for something to say about the Minke whale that died after swimming up the Thames, which was too upsetting to turn into humour. Once I decided to put these two stories together, it became very poignant. The empty streets tempted the Minke Whale to move in! It’s one of my favourite pages.

Freedom – Italy, March 2020, by Bertt deBaldock

“To keep it light-hearted, I also gave an office block some rabbit ears, as if the building itself has died. The page about ‘Beer’ was fun, though the knowledge that 50 million pints went down the drains was a catastrophe that could have been avoided.”

Usually, your tributes raise a nostalgic smile, but do Covid-related tributes have to be more serious?

“There are only four people featured here that I know for sure died from Covid – Dr  Li Wenliang, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Alexander Thynn and Captain Tom Moore – but I suspect that many others have had Covid but it’s just not been mentioned to the press as a cause of death. 

“Four Covid cases out of a total 72 people is probably about a third of the proportion of Covid deaths to non-Covid deaths for the whole population, so we should have expected the number in this book to be about 12. 

“I had considered including the first nurse and the first bus driver etc who died, but I don’t feel it would be appropriate to make entertainment out of such tragedy. Which makes me question why it seems appropriate to pay tribute in a humorous manner to celebrities. I do wonder if it is appropriate and whether or not they would choose to be included or not, but I can only guess at what their response might be.

The fundraising Yorkshireman, Captain Sir Tom Moore, who walked and walked and walked towards his 100th birthday in aid of the NHS

“So, in answer to this question, I think the cause of death makes no difference as to the way I would represent the individual, except perhaps in the case of Dr Li Wenliang, whose demise was especially sad, unjust for political reasons, premature and included here to make a point about the gross ineptitude of the authorities and leaders in China, who could have mitigated the effects of the virus by making different decisions.

“In a broader sense, I hope that most of the individuals here, if they could make a comment, would like what I have done or at least find it mildly amusing, though some of the scribbled portraits might not really do the person justice!

“I would love to know what the Queen would think of my tribute to Prince Philip, but I’m not expecting a knighthood for it. We are very fortunate to live in a culture that allows freedom of expression without fear for our lives!”

Why will donations be going to St Leonard’s Hospice from the charity launch night?

“My father died of prostate cancer at the too early age of 76. Partly because he wasn’t diagnosed. I asked him if was angry about the disease and he told me to go and get a test. I felt sorry for him because he was in denial about his predicament.

Bertt deBaldock’s cartoon drawing to mark the passing of Prince Philip. “I would love to know what the Queen would think of my tribute, but I’m not expecting a knighthood for it,” says Bertt

“He simply carried on life as if there was nothing to concern himself about, but when the time came, he booked himself into a hospice and died the next day. I think the existence of the hospice allowed him to take control and make that decision. You cannot just book yourself into a hospital and who would want to?

“The hospice doctor simply chatted to him and asked him what he wanted, to which he answered, ‘ice cream’. He was dead two hours later. I’m proud of him for that. And I want to tell everyone that dying can be dignified and that the hospice movement do this very well.

“I have supported St Leonard’s Hospice ever since that day. The hospice is largely funded by donations from individuals, as well as government grants. I feel the hospice needs to have independence.”

Bertt deBaldock/Terry Brett launches Good Rabbits Gone 2 at Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, on Saturday (16/10/2021) with a book-signing session and charity fundraiser for St Leonard’s Hospice from 11am to 3pm.

Vaccine Day, by Bertt deBaldock

Who are the NEW artists in 2021’s York Open Studios? Meet another six-pack…

Pamela Thorby: Recorder virtuoso turned ceramicist

AFTER the Covid-enforced fallow year of 2020, York Open Studios returns this weekend for its 20th parade of the city’s creative talent.

Preceded by Friday’s preview evening, the event will see 145 artists and makers open 95 studios, homes and workplaces on July 10 and 11 and July 17 and 18, from 10am to 5pm.

Among them will be 43 debutants, prompting CharlesHutchPress to highlight six newcomers a day over the week ahead, in map guide order, as York prepares for a showcase of ceramic, collage, digital art, illustration, jewellery, mixed media, painting, print, photography, furniture, sculpture and textiles skills this month.

“My work aims to abstract the modern, decaying landscape with textures and geometric composition,” says Mick Leach

Mick Leach, painting, 3 Thorpe Street, Scarcroft Road, York

AS a self-taught artist and full-time worker, Mick’s side-career in painting has been taking shape steadily since early 2016. “I’m still learning,” he says.

He works mainly with acrylic paint and chalk powder, along with other media, that he applies to MDF board to achieve a layered, industrial aesthetic in his abstract paintings.

Mick Leach: Self-taught abstract artist

He draws inspiration from El Lissitzky, the Russian artist, designer, photographer, typographer, polemicist and architect, and Kazemir Malevich, the pioneering fellow Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist.  

“Pursuing my urge to create, my work aims to abstract the modern, decaying landscape with textures and geometric composition,” says Mick, who won the 2019 Art& York Best Raw Talent award.

Look out too for Evie Leach’s jewellery designs in the same house. Both Mick and Evie will take part in the preview evening from 6pm to 9pm.

Ceramicist Pietro Sanna in his studio

Pietro Sanna, ceramics, 44 Dale Street, York

BORN in Sardinia and now working and living in York, Pietro has always been interested in art. During his degree studies in Contemporary 3D Craft at York College, he started to focus on the use of the ceramic medium.

Since graduating, he has taken part in The Kunsthuis Annual Ceramics Show, at the Dutch House, Mill Green Farm, Crayke, and in exhibitions at the Silson Contemporary Gallery, in Harrogate, where he is a gallery artist.

Pietro creates hand-built vessels as carriers for broad types of narratives; his practice taking inspiration from experimentation with clay and the possibilities it offers during the act of making.

Charlotte Dawson: Artist and facilitator

Charlotte Dawson, painting, 44 Dale Street, York

PIETRO’S partner, Charlotte is a vital player in York’s art scene, organising the York River Art Market, by Lendal Bridge, where artists and craftspeople set up stalls on Dame Judi Dench Walk at weekends in the summer months.

In her own work, facilitator Charlotte is a multi-disciplined artist, focusing on abstract painting and jewellery. She began her formal arts education in 1996 at Westwood Art College, Scarborough, later taking a short course at York School of Jewellery in 2010.

“My painting seeks to create a visual language, working intuitively to discover interesting compositions and colours through energetic mark making,” says Charlotte Dawson

After completing an Access course in Art & Design at York College in 2012,  she gained a BA Hons in Art & Design Interdisciplinary at Leeds University of Art in 2015.

“My painting seeks to create a visual language, working intuitively to discover interesting compositions and colours through energetic mark making, while my jewellery designs are led by technique and colour to create contemporary and everyday pieces,” says Charlotte.

A ghostly artwork by Caroline Lewis

Caroline Lewis, collage, 24 Hob Moor Terrace, York

LANDSCAPES and ghosts vie for centre stage in Caroline’s artwork.

Scenes of (mainly) Yorkshire inspire the landscapes, depicted in collage, lino print and paint. As for the ghosts, images sparked by Covid-19 and abandoned places are captured in collage, transfer printing and paint.

Caroline Lewis: Ceramicist, jewellery designer, delicatessen owner, gardener, pianist and collage artist

Caroline has a BA Hons in ceramics from West Surrey College of Art and studied on a one-year jewellery course full time at Maidenhead College of Art.

She owned a delicatessen for 30 years until taking early retirement in 2017 to give her more time to take up art again, along with gardening, re-learning the piano, walking and just enjoying life full stop.

David Bowie, portrait, by Lucie Wake. “It’s all about the eyes,” she says, and indeed the eyes have it

Lucie Wake, painting, 15 Slingsby Grove, York

ART runs like a seam through the life of Lucie, who has a BA Hons in Ceramics.

She built up a successful licensing company, Hocus Pocus, her designs adorning many products across most of the high-street stores. In 2005, she ventured into painting, concentrating on portraits, both of people and animals.

Lucie captures the soul of her portrait subjects through her expressive use of delicious slabs of oil paint on canvas. “It’s all about the eyes, they capture your attention,” she says.

Lucie Wake: Portrait artist for people and canines alike

Lucie, who promotes her art via Facet Painting, will be participating in Friday’s preview night from 6pm to 9pm and will be giving demonstrations over the two weekends.

Her work also can be found in the Momentum Summer Show, presented by the York art group Westside Artists at Blossom Street Gallery, by Micklegate Bar, York, until September 26. Gallery opening hours are: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 10am to 4pm; Covid safety measures are in place.

Stoneware-fired porcelain sculptural vessels by Pamela Thorby

Pamela Thorby, ceramics, 11 Middlethorpe Grove, York 

PAMELA left behind a distinguished career in music as a recorder virtuoso and academic to pursue a new path in fine art.

Her stoneware-fired porcelain sculptural vessels are “imagined but reminiscent of a multiplicity of organic forms”: whether interstellar, fossil, micro-organism or coral.

“I aspire to make work light enough to be hung in the air; strong enough to be placed piece inside piece, creating new possibilities of form and meaning,” says Pamela. “My aim is to translate the dynamism and sensitivity of my former career as a musician into a ‘visual music’ in clay.”

She is “so excited” to have been selected for her first participation in York Open Studios. “This was another one of the goals that I set myself and here we are, in my third year as a ceramicist, and I’m working towards a major body of work for this month’s fantastic event,” she says.

“I aspire to make work light enough to be hung in the air,” says Pamela Thorby

During lockdown, Pamela worked intensively towards a collection of thrown functional stoneware to partner with her sculptural hand-built porcelain forms. “The concentrated discipline of daily wheel practice has provided meditative solace and structure in extraordinary times,” she says.

In her esteemed career in music, Pamela was professor of recorder at the Royal Academy of Music in London until 2019; the regular recorder player for Welsh composer Sir Karl Jenkins’s projects and a member of such groups as La Serenissima, New London Consort and Palladian Ensemble with Baroque violinist Rachel Podger.

In May 2007, she performed a radical fusion of jazz and folk music with Perfect Houseplants at the National Centre for Early Music in York, an innovative experience she described memorably as: “I’m a bit like a gherkin on a salad plate: I’m adding piquancy to the mix.”

She will give demonstrations during the two YOS weekends and will be opening up her home studio for the Friday preview too.

TOMORROW: Mark Druery, Kate Akrill, Lisa Lundqvist, Nick Kobyluch, Lucy McElroy and Liz O’Connell.

REVIEW: Drag diva Velmi Celli at York Theatre Royal and Impossible, York

Velma Celli: York’s queen of vocal drag in the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race. PIcture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Velma Celli, Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, 29/5/2021; Velma Celli’s Impossible Drag Brunch, Impossible Wonderbar, Impossible, York, 5/6/2021

IT takes balls to be a drag act.

Velma Celli knows it, shows it and indeed sometimes them too in a leg-crossing, leg-uncrossing, let’s-sit-and-chat-on-the-stage-lip moment at York Theatre Royal.

In York drag diva deluxe Velma’s case, it takes more than balls, however. Pointedly, the fabulous, fruity, funny creation of musical actor Ian Stroughair bills herself as “the queen of vocal drag”.

“I can sing,” says Velma, throwing a ta-da shoulder shrug as she calls out the parade of kitch’n’synch acts that strut and pout on RuPaul’s Drag Race conveyor belt.

Velma Celli’s regular poster for international hit A Brief History Of Drag

Velma, or rather Ian, first sang on his home-city Theatre Royal stage in a musical version of Kes – that sounds camp!  – at the age of 14. Twenty-four years later, coinciding with theatre’s return from a long Covid quarantine, Ian/Velma is back on this stage at last, and not before time, bitches, as Velma is wont to address the throng.

“Can I just say, it must be such a privilege for you to be here tonight,” says Velma, who has wrapped a clingy, plunging little black number over his very tall, leggy frame. Although this night is not all glamour: off come the false eyelashes when they start playing up in the stinging heat.

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago in the West End. Wednesday was meet-up night for the boys from Chicago, Priscilla etc at Madame Jojo’s, the legendary Soho home of burlesque and cabaret, dressing up glam to sing.

Ian went as Chicago’s nightclub star and murderess Velma Kelly, slurped on his vermacilli dish, and took to the stage. Velma Celli was born, or rather, “unleashed”, as Ian puts it.

“When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you,” promises Velma Celli in her signature showstopper

This is but one story from A Brief History Of Drag, a show that Ian put together when stuck in Tanzania and has since taken to Australia and the USA, as he celebrates “burlesque, debauchery, defiance and…shoes”. Velma duly points to a silvery pair that glisten even more than Dorothy’s heel-clickers in The Wizard Of Oz.

“Unleashed” is exactly the right word for a Velma Celli performance: a tornado, a toreador in vocal form, here stirred to ever greater heights by super-talented musical director Ben Papworth, high-heeled boots tucked beneath his keyboards.

This is a proper, proper show: Velma, up front and out there; three-piece band (Papworth, keys, Clark Howard, drums and gold lamé jacket; Al Morrison, guitar); two backing singers, Kimberley Ensor and rising York talent Grace Lancaster; two guests, soul queen Jessica Steel, York partner in lockdown streamed concerts, and musical actor Jordan Fox, partner in pantomime for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.

When Velma takes the stand beneath a rockabilly quiff, she can not only sing the sing and dance the dance, she can talk the talk too, witty and waspish, as we learn of drag’s history, Velma and Ian’s past, her staging posts, the abiding influence of unloving mothers and the importance of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York in 1969 and the Stonewall LGBT charity over here.

The poster for the first Impossible Drag Brunch on a York Saturday afternoon

For the Theatre Royal’s Love Season, love is in the air and in the one-off prefix to the show title: Love Is Love. Omnipresent is the love of song and those who take risks: for example, Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Show’s Sweet Transvestite); Freddie Mercury and David Bowie – the latter, Velma’s astute choice for her next show – for a spectacular Under Pressure and La Cage Aux Folles’ Albin for the climactic I Am What I Am.

Mind you, Velma can be picky, not liking Culture Club’s hits, but loving Boy George’s musical, Taboo, and its signature number, Stranger In This World. Gorgeous, Georgeous.

Velma loves a duet too, taking a seat side by side with Jess for a stand-out Always Remember Us This Way (from Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born), accompanied on guitar by Stuart Allan. Later, in the latest update to the show in a nod to the impact of Russell T Davies’s devastating series It’s A Sin, Velma is joined by Fox for the Pet Shop Boys’ anthem, poignant yet celebratory too.

Velma’s voice warms, expands, stretches and strengthens as the show progresses, shown off to the max in a set-piece send up of lip-synching acts on RuPaul’s Drag Race, mimicking their physical impersonations while accentuating the vocal tics and mannerisms of Britney, Bjork, Bassey, Gabrielle, Cher et al.

Ending with an encore medley from Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Velma/Ian will surely not have to wait for another 24 years to return to the Theatre Royal.

Fancy a Shambles Mule? The cocktails list at the Impossible Drag Brunch

In the meantime, Velma is bedding in a new monthly residency for The Velma Celli Show in the big-windowed first-floor Wonderbar at Impossible, York, and last Saturday afternoon Velma Celli’s Drag Brunch was launched there too. Covid-safe; socially distanced; no masks needed when seated, but yes if you want to stand to dance around.

Judging by the support for the two sittings at 12.30pm and 2.30pm, it is likely to become a monthly fixture too as part of Impossible’s cabaret and comedy portfolio.

The show is fast-moving, fizzy and fun, with “bottomless cocktails, small plates and a side order”  (Halloumi Bites and Truffle Chips for CH) and two sets by Velma, introduced by DJ Zoe on afternoon release from Funny Girls in Blackpool, armed with a potty mouth, party-igniting disco classics and the backing tracks for Velma’s vocal tour de force.

It may not surprise you to learn that, looking around, the debut Drag Brunch partygoers are predominantly female, but the smattering of men are having a fab time too (but need to be willing to be the butt of DJ Zoe’s bawdy humour).

York, 3.50pm, June 5: Velma Celli and her ladies at the climax to the Impossible Drag Brunch

The Wonderbar, with its profusion of plants, wood and glass, recalls the conservatories and cocktail bars of the 1930s and makes for a fabulous cabaret setting. The cocktails list embraces the classics and the up to date (Salted Caramel Espresso), the Mojito and the No-jito (for the mocktail option).

General manager Stephanie Powell’s staff are everywhere, busy, busy, busy with their table service of drinks and choice of Chicken Skewers/Halloumi Bites/Cauliflower Wings/Hotdog (mini-version) with Skinny Salted Fries/Truffle Chips/Salad.

Gliding down the stairs, Velma is in sparkly black and silver, topped off in the second set with a shimmering silvery bob wig, and as she promises: “When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you”. From Feeling Good to the obligatory Divas-meets-Drag Acts setpiece, I Want To  Break Free to “torches out” for Bowie’s Starman and a ruder lyric for Queen’s Somebody To Love, Velma walks the room as she works the  crowd. Everything is drag, nothing drags.

Girls, and boys, make sure to be in Velma’s camp for your Saturday afternoon pleasure.

Cheers! Another “bottomless” cocktail hits the rocks at the Impossible Drag Brunch

Why Grayson Perry is Top of the Pots, Kinky Sex plate and all…

Kinky Sex: Grayson Perry’s first ceramic, from his Pre-Therapy Years exhibition at York Art Gallery

SHEER art attack podcasters Chalmers & Hutch discuss the cracking ceramics exhibition Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years at York Theatre Royal in episode 45 of Two Big Egos In A Small Car.

What’s on Graham’s Lonely Film Club Night list?

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Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says. “I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Velma Celli in David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane trademark make-up

Now, he is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter.

“I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” says Ian, whose “Irreplaceable. The Almighty Who Inspired Legends” show will “celebrate Bowie and the artists he inspired”.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

Copyright of The Press, York