The Big Christmas Care Singalong concert returns as Big Ian Donaghy’s antidote to care home loneliness in the festive season

Singer Jess Steel and guitarist Stuart Allan, top left; harpist Sarah Dean and singer-guitarist Graham Hodge: All taking part in The Big Christmas Care Singalong

THE Big Christmas Care Singalong, an hour-long concert celebrating all those who live and work in social care, is running online from today through to the New Year.

The video is being broadcast in its premiere this afternoon in care homes, hospitals, hospices and people’s own homes in an effort to tackle loneliness among vulnerable people, loneliness only exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Returning for a second year, the “play as live” event has been spearheaded by Big Ian Donaghy, the prominent York advocate for the social care sector and motivational speaker, who has published the helping-hand books Dear Dementia, A Pocketful Of Kindness and The Missing Peace.

Donaghy and friends from everyLIFE Technologies launched the inaugural Christmas Singalong last winter when Christmas was called off, leaving families unable to visit loved ones.

The Big Christmas Care Singalong poster

“After a resounding success last Christmas, the support of the organisation continues again this year,” says Ian. “Last year’s event was watched by thousands of people who live and work in the social care sector, with viewers drawn from the UK and further afield in Australia, New Zealand and even Venezuela.

“The online concert, funny, heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure, was created in response to the isolation experienced by many vulnerable people during the festive period. With Covid-19 causing significant disruption to the social care sector, the Big Christmas Care Singalong was a welcome reprieve from the challenges of the pandemic.” 

This winter’s online Singalong is bigger and bolder, thanks to Big Ian and his team pushing through adversity to make a “festive feast to remember”.

Many of the performances were recorded in a purpose-made barn studio at York Maze, in Elvington Lane, during Storm Arwen. Recalling the recording sessions, Big Ian says: “It was freezing, snowing outside, and we were unsure if the roof was going to hold out, but sometimes adversity brings us even closer together.”

Charlie and Jim, “two of the Gogglebox critics”, enjoying the Big Christmas Care Singalong

The free-to-watch concert features care home residents and team members performing their favourite Christmas songs and wishing festive cheer to all, across the country. Viewers also can look forward to a brass performance of In The Bleak Midwinter, arranged and performed by trumpet player Johnny Thirkell, who has recorded previously with George Michael, Phil Collins, Kylie Minogue and Bruno Mars, no less.

York favourites Jess Steel, Graham Hodge, Sarah Dean (harp) and The Grand Old Uke of York take part in the show, along with Teesside soprano Samantha Holden.

“It also features people singing their festive favourites from all over the world to varying degrees of quality,” says Big Ian. “People with hearing aids may wish to turn them down for some sections of the show!”

The singalong is available to watch on demand at www.thebigchristmascaresingalong.com  from today over all the Christmas and New Year period. Already, on the first day, it has drawn viewers from Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as from the UK.

Santa hats aplenty at the Big Christmas Care Singalong

“We were determined to recreate the magic of last year’s singalong after seeing the beautiful response it generated. It proved to be more than an online concert: it was an opportunity for people across the entire care sector to come together and share their personal memories and love of Christmas,” says Big Ian.

“I’m incredibly excited about the release of this year’s video, which promises to once again galvanise all those who live and work in social care. Expect the unexpected. You will laugh, and you may cry, as people share their stories.”

Duncan Campbell, director at everyLIFE Technologies, provider of PASS, the care management platform, says: “The Big Christmas Care Singalong is quickly becoming a Christmas staple for those who live and work in social care sector.

“Its unique ability to bring people together, particularly in the wake of Covid-19, is a quality everyLIFE Technologies admires and fully supports. We’re proud to have partnered with Big Ian to create this year’s concert and look forward to seeing its positive impact across all care settings up and down the country.”

In addition, Big Ian and the rest of the Xmas Presence team will be busy in York on Christmas Day delivering hampers and Christmas dinners for older people living alone in this annual project run in conjunction with Age UK York.

“Unless you are very lucky…,” says Big Ian Donaghy, “…we either have to care for someone or be cared for!”

Velma Celli and Jess Steel to serve up streamed show from Earl Grey Tea Rooms

LOCKDOWN cabaret streaming duo Velma Celli and Jess Steel are going on location to the Earl Grey Tea Rooms for their Showbizzy Shambles show in York tomorrow (5/2/2021).

After the camply nautical, naughty fun of their water-themed Fabulously Flooded online gig last week, they are vacating the riverside abode of Ian Stroughair, drag diva Velma’s creator, by Lendal Bridge for light relief and camp cabaret belting.

“We’re getting the keys to the Earl Grey Tea Rooms in Shambles and filming it there,” says Ian/Velma. “We’ll be going vintage, so join in with your apparel, peeps, if ya feel like it. Not essential but fun.”

Tickets for Showbizzy Shambles grant access to the streamed show any time from 5pm tomorrow to Sunday evening (7/2/2021). Go to http://bit.ly/3pAtBAF for all the details. “Please feel free to invite all your mates,” says Ian/Velma.

Here, everything stops for tea questions and more besides as Charles Hutchinson grills Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli.

How is your house now, post-flooding?  Fully recovered?

“Yes! Thank RuPaul (God)! It took a lot of scrubbing, but I got there!” 

Where did you end up recording your January 22 show when water had seeped in through the front door and back door?

“Still in the house. The kitchen is lower than the living room, so we were cool.” 

What songs on a water theme did you perform in last week’s Fabulously Flooded show? Something by The Waterboys?  Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood?  (Lendal) Bridge Over Troubled Water, maybe? So many possibilities!

“Ha ha, so many! It’s Raining Men (obvs). Waterloo. River Deep Mountain High. Cry Me A River. You get the drift.” 

No! No song by The Waterboys featured in Velma and Jess’s water-themed cabaret show

How has the streamed gig at the Earl Grey Tea Rooms come about?

“Clare and Howard [Proctor] are very good old friends and they’re fabulous supporters of all my Velma and Ian appearances.

“I adore this place as much as its owners and it’s been a real struggle over the past year, as you’d imagine, so I wanted to raise them up.

“Not only because it’s such a fabulous tea room – to get you all chomping at the bit to visit, as soon as we move tiers – but also to highlight just how hard it is right now, not just in my sector of live performance but in the hospitality industry too!

“Clare and Howard have worked so hard for years, so I wanted to use my platform to shine a spotlight on them.”

Velma Celli and Jess Steel’s social-media artwork for their Fabulously Flooded show last week

In which room will you record the show?

“Undecided. Each one is so quaint. Will depend on lighting, darling.”

Water theme last week.  Any tea and cake songs this week? Can’t think of a crumpet song….

“We are going vintage. From the 1940s, but all the way up to Lady Gaga and everything in between.

“Why not prepare yourself an afternoon tea with scones, finger sandwiches, tea pots filled with fizz, and let us entertain you, direct and safely in your own home.”

What is your perfect afternoon tea and where? 

“Earl Grey Tea Rooms of course! Best scones ever. I love their Coronation Chicken jacket, followed by a cream tea with English brekky! You must all go as soon as they reopen. Such quality and atmosphere.”

Jess Steel: Showbizzy Shambles will be the sensational singing hairdresser’s last streamed concert with Velma Celli “for a few weeks”

Earl Grey, Darjeeling or Lapsang Souchong?

“All. But my favourite is English Breakfast in the morning and Orange Pekoe on an afternoon.” 

Cream first or jam first on a scone?

“Cream!!!!!!!!” 

Favourite cake?

“Traditional Victoria Sponge.” 

Have you ever left a cake out in the rain, a la MacArthur Park?

“No. Come rain or shine, Velma never neglects confection.” 

What’s coming next?

“Tomorrow is the last show with Jess and me for a few weeks as I have some solo live- stream bookings to perform.”

Come Hell or, in this case, high water, Velma Celli and Jess Steel WILL play streamed gig

Jess Steel and Ian Stroughair (aka Velma Celli) will defy a flooded house to perform their streamed gig in York

NOT even a flooded house will stop York drag diva divine Velma Celli and sensational singing hairdresser Jess Steel from recording their latest streamed gig.

“Streamed”…what an ironic word that is right now, as Velma’s creator, musical actor and international cabaret star Ian Stroughair, and “work bubble” Jess survey the “carnage” in Ian’s riverside pad by the Ouse.

Exit Storm Christoph, re-enter the defiant duo, who will follow up last Friday’s double bill with the second instalment of An Evening With Velma & Jess, put back from today (22/1/2021) to tomorrow, with the recording having had to be delayed.

Tickets are on sale at https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/an-evening-with-velma-and-live-stream-tickets/10829655 until 5pm tomorrow, when the link to watch the show will arrive moments later. Please note, the recording will remain available for viewing for 48 hours.

The show must go on for Velma Celli, even when the floodwater calls for wellies

Looking forward to still making a splash this weekend, Ian/Velma wades through Charles Hutchinson’s snappy questions.

How are you coping in the flood, Ian? What’s the latest state of play?

“It’s been a long, semi-sleepless couple of days. Fortunately, it hasn’t increased overnight but the kitchen is flooded and I cannot leave by either door. The back door is up to five feet in water and the front is inaccessible. It’s windows and wellies at the moment.”

Without giving the precise location, where is your riparian abode?

“I am right by Ouse Bridge. So, pretty much at the worse possible area but I have food and gin, so I’m gooooood!”

In which room will you now record the streamed gig?

“I think we may be OK to stick to the living room. If not, the four-poster master suite will be perfect!” 

Will you adjust the setlist to take in songs about rain and flooding?

“Ha ha! Of course! Titanic meets Babs meets Abba.” [Water-loo?, editor ponders].

Have you ever had to cancel a gig (other than for killjoy Covid) and, if so, what was the best reason for a gig not going ahead?

“It’s never fun to cancel. I did once get stuck in Oz longer than expected and had to cancel a London date.”

Can you say anything at this stage of your plan to play gigs in York restaurants?

“Not too much yet! We are sorting the finer details. As soon as York goes into a tier where we can eat in restaurants, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops.” 

Velma Celli and Jess Steel bubble up for York lockdown streamed concert tonight

A midwinter night’s stream: The poster for An Evening With Velma & Jess tonight

AFTER last Friday’s Large & Lit In Lockdown Again solo show online, York drag diva Velma Celli forms a bubble double bill with powerhouse singing hairdresser Jess Steel tonight.

Together they will be presenting An Evening With Velma & Jess, streamed from the riverside abode of Ian Stroughair, the musical actor inside the fabulous international cabaret creation.

Jess, leading light of Big Ian Donaghy’s fundraising A Night To Remember shows at York Barbican, runs the Rock The Barnet salon in Boroughbridge Road, where her clientele can listen to their favourite vinyl on a classic record player while having their hair styled or enjoying a beauty treatment.

Tonight’s 8pm show is the second in a new series of hour-long Velma Celli streamed gigs in lockdown. “It’s the day of the show, ya’ll,” says Velma on Facebook. “So much work and love has gone into this, so if you fancy some lockdown fun, please tune in and support Jess and I.

“Tickets come off sale at 5pm and you have 48 hours to watch it just in case ya busy, Barbra’s.” To book, go to: http://bit.ly/2XxMqrG.

Here Ian/Velma answers Charles Hutchinson’s rapid-fire questions ahead of showtime.

How did last week’s show go? What were the highlights?

“It was SO much fun and camp. I loved singing all new songs and just having a laugh… with myself!”

Having moved from Bishopthorpe to a riverside house, how did the new location work out?

“Lovely! I am living in my friend’s dreamy townhouse at the moment. Posh!” 

What will you be singing tonight?

“OOOOOO, Cilla, Disney, ’60s, ’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. It’s a real mixed bag this time.”

What will Jess be singing?

“Dolly. Gaga. Amy.” 

How come you can perform together in lockdown?

“I am in Jess’s bubble. Yes!”

How would you sum up Jess in five words?

“Talent. Kind. Hilarious. Generous. Fabulous.”

How did you celebrate your birthday yesterday in lockdown?

“With snacks. Facetime. Gin.”

What’s the best birthday present you have ever received?

“Another year to have a go at being better.”

Big Ian launches The Big Christmas Care Singalong for all manner of homes

Sax to the max: Saxophonist Snake Davis recording his solo rendition of Silent Night for The Big Christmas Care Singalong

BIG Ian Donaghy has launched The Big Christmas Care Singalong for care homes across the country and beyond.

In any other year, the York fundraiser, musician, public speaker and dementia campaigner would have been leading a team of volunteers giving a family Christmas Day to older people living alone in the city with his Xmas Presence gathering, as they have for the past five years.

“Unfortunately, as with almost everything this year, it’s had to be cancelled because of Covid-19,” says Ian, who instead has created a “Play as Live online event to bring everyone together to sing with one voice with The Big Christmas Care Singalong”.

Samantha Holden: one of the guest singers taking part in the Singalong

After hatching his plan to unite the world of care this Christmas with The Big Christmas Care Singalong, Ian took over a warehouse with the help of Mark Parker, of AV Matrix.

“Socially distanced with great care and a green screen, one by one, singers and musicians were invited to perform carols and other Christmas mainstays,” says Ian, who conscripted the talents of Jess Steel, Graham Hodge, Jessa Liversidge and Samantha Holden (who has performed with Michael Bublé), accompanied by the omnipresent George Hall on piano.

Saxophone player to the stars Snake Davis – his CV spans Amy Winehouse, Take That, Paul McCartney, The Eurythmics and George Michael – recorded a haunting solo sax version of Silent Night. London session singer and pianist Sam Tanner, who has played with members of The Rolling Stones, The Who and Rod Stewart, performed a reggae version of White Christmas.

Tony, once Brian Clough’s favourite pub landlord, pictured in his Nottingham care home, enjoying The Big Christmas Care Singalong

Expect a setlist ranging from the carols Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Away In A Manger and In The Bleak Midwinter to a soulful version of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and a raucous rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, bringing together people from all over the world.

“The performers are superb and the whole thing has a warmth to it that’s needed to lift this year,” says Ian. “A bespoke version of the Christmas Care Singalong created for Nottingham and care homes in the Midlands was broadcast on Tuesday, and afterwards they said: ‘It gave us a real lift to see some of our families involved on the screen sending messages and telling us about their Christmas memories’.

“In fact, the Singalong has already been seen by thousands of care homes all over the world with feedback like ‘Christmas ISN’T cancelled’, from Sam Barrington, an award-winning care consultant from Scarborough, and ‘the perfect gift to us this Christmas – thank you for bringing the UK and Australia together’, from Alana Parker in Sydney.”

Sam Tanner performing his reggae version of White Christmas for The Big Christmas Care Singalong

Ian is delighted that people from all over the world have sent in videos of their Christmas memories and of them singing their festive favourites. “Let’s just say there’s a range of quality but we have included everyone. We have people with learning difficulties and dementia singing alongside the people who support them,” he says.

Thousands of care homes will be playing the Christmas Singalong on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Hospitals and hospices are planning to make an event of it too.

For example, HC-One, the UK’s largest care provider, is embracing it in their 320 care homes. “Watching it on Tuesday, we laughed, cried and sang together – and this beautiful event features so many of our residents having fun,” says Roberta Roccella, HC-One’s head of Quality of Life.

George Hall playing piano for The Big Christmas Care Singalong

“This is a perfect event to bring everyone together. This has been the toughest year ever in care. Throughout the pandemic, Ian was asked to create the national film campaign for Health Education England to recruit the next generation of nurses into social care, so he saw the huge sacrifices people were making for those they cared for in the pandemic.”

During lockdown, when the venues where he usually does his public speaking were turned into Nightingale hospitals, Ian wrote and published a book, A Pocketful of Kindness, to celebrate the power of community and connection.

Now comes The Big Christmas Care Singalong. “This free online event has been universally welcomed by care homes, supported living, hospitals and hospices, both in the UK and Australia,” says Ian. “The joy of it is that if someone is isolated in their own room, they can have their very own private Christmas concert. Christmas can come to them.

Care home staff showing their support for The Big Christmas Care Singalong

“The Singalong can also be accessed in any home at www.thebigchristmassingalong.com, so you too can enjoy it and get an insight into the year people have had in care. In a year where very few television programmes are being made, it will be a welcome change from seeing celebrities on web cams or Del Boy as Batman yet again.”

The Big Christmas Care Singalong is going international in a year when embracing technology has been so vital to communication. “Alana Parker and Nick Wynn in Australia have got involved to spread the word far and wide beyond our shores,” says Ian. “Technology has come so far in the last year. Everyone is far more tech savvy.”

Soulful York singer Jess Steel recording her contribution to The Big Christmas Care Singalong

The online event also incorporates a Jackanory-style story narrated by the Bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan, with illustrations by Private Eye cartoonist Tony Husband. Television presenter Angela Rippon makes a surprise appearance too.

“Expect something that is somewhere between a Christmas concert, You’ve Been Framed and Gogglebox,” says Ian. “But we hope it will warm people’s hearts and show those who work in our care homes, hospitals and hospices just how invaluable they are.”

Summing up his wishes beyond the impact of The Big Christmas Care Singalong in Covid-19 2020, Ian says: “The vaccine has given us a light at the end of the tunnel but we are still in the tunnel! Despite some people’s wreckless behaviour and lack of consideration for others, we hope that the score at the end of this year will read Covid 19 Kindness 20.”

“Expect something that is somewhere between a Christmas concert, You’ve Been Framed and Gogglebox,” says Ian Donaghy, organiser of The Big Christmas Care Singalong