Uncovered! Steve Harley reveals acoustic album release and Harrogate concert

Making him smile: Steve Harley looking forward to playing with his Acoustic Band at Harrogate Theatre next month. Picture: MIke Callow

STEVE Harley, the original Cockney Rebel, will lead his Acoustic Band in an Uncovered gig at Harrogate Theatre on February 21, the very day he releases his album of the same title.

Uncovered features interpretations of “nine painstakingly chosen songs” created in many instances by peers and contemporaries of 68-year-old Harley; those with shared histories and some that he admired from afar. 

These are songs with heft and honesty, Harley says, that have always connected and resonated within him; material he has always wanted to perform and may even wish he had written.

Those tracks are David Bowie’s Absolute Beginners; Robbie Burns’s Ae Fond Kiss; Hot Chocolate’s Emma; Cat Stevens’s How Can I Tell You?; The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen A Face; Jagger and Richards’s Out Of Time; the traditional Star Of Belle Isle; Longpigs’ Lose Myself and Bob Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece.

These are complemented by two re-worked Harley compositions: (Love) Compared With You (Your Eyes Don’t Seem To Age), replete with a new third verse, and Only You, played live for several years but here recorded for the first time.

This diverse collection of Interpretations is “in some ways an almanac, rather than a set of great tracks”. Harley’s links with some of the songwriters go back to the start of their careers: Bowie in Beckenham; Dylan throughout his early teens; Cat Stevens/Yusuf and Paul McCartney, both early influences.

The newly founded Steve Harley Acoustic Band features Barry Wickens on viola, violin and acoustic guitar; Oli Hayhurst on double bass; Tom Hooper on percussion and roots music luminary Martin Simpson on the album, although the unavailable Simpson will be replaced by David Delarre on lead acoustic guitar on tour.

At the recording sessions, Scottish singer Eddi Reader joined Harley on Star Of Belle Isle, while Jim Cregan contributed a stirring guitar solo to Emma.

Those sessions were a joy, full of virtuosity and grit, recalls Harley. “I was roaring with stamina and passion when I went in to sing the final versions. I sang all 11 in one and a half days,” he says. “The hunger and desire to perform was almost primitive. Engineer Matt Butler has recorded my voice up-close and unaffected. I sing out but seem mostly restrained.”  

Londoner Harley is no stranger to acoustic music, having toured with his Acoustic Trio – as well as the full Cockney Rebel rock band – for years en route to receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for Acoustic Music in 2018.

His acoustic set at Harrogate Theatre will combine songs from Uncovered with such Harley highs as Mr Soft, Judy Teen, Sebastian and Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me).

Looking forward to touring with his new line-up, Harley says: “We have real adventures on tour. I’ve seen the Northern Lights, the Midnight Sun and dozens of wonderful galleries, museums and great cities, all on my down-time. I have a great life as a wandering minstrel.”

Tickets for February 21’s 7.30pm concert are on sale on 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

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

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