Poet, journalist, playwright and broadcaster, Ian McMillan, along with fellow Barnsley celebrity, veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson are backing a major £5 million fund-raising campaign to renovate The Civic, in their home town, to become a world-class destination for the arts by 2023.
So who better to interview Ian McMillan than me, being a born-and-bred Yorkshire lass, thanks to my mum, with half of my roots firmly planted in Barnsley. To be specific it’s Jump…that’s the name of the village, not a request!
“I know Jump,” says Ian. “I was in Darfield, which is just next door to Wombwell. It’s nice. Jump is interesting. It’s been undergoing a real transformation, there’s all sorts happening.”
‘Interesting’ was never a word used by my Mum to describe Jump. In her day it was, she recalls, more of a dump!
But over the years Barnsley has slowly been re-inventing its surroundings and a major changes are certainly occurring in the heart of Barnsley and The Civic Theatre.
“As a child, I remember going to the pantomime and later on I’d go with my wife to the folk club upstairs in the Centenary Rooms at the Civic,” Ian says.
“It was a great big night out and in the early seventies. The folk club was the place to go. Every other week they’d have a guest singer. Mike Harding was a regular there.” Even Ian performed there with his band, Oscar the Frog Neck.
“I had no drums, just Tupperware and no drumsticks, just my mam’s knitting needles”
“I did a couple of support spots too, but it was hard for me to get my Tupperware drums up the stairs,” he laughs.
“I had no drums, just Tupperware and no drumsticks, just my mam’s knitting needles and then they sacked me. I was the world’s worst drummer. I wasn’t so bad on my Tupperware, it was the actual jazz drums I found really hard. I tried my best but I struggle to move my hands and my feet at the same time. The rhythmic thing was really hard so I don’t blame them for sacking me!”
Ian has fond memories of The Civic and is excited by the theatre’s regeneration.
“It’s going to be transformed. It was shut for a while and then it had a re-boot a few years ago. One of the things about The Civic is that the old entrance used to be on he main street. There’s nothing there, just a couple of council offices and the main entrance is round the back. When you enter you’re faced with a fantastic, but slightly off-putting staircase. I always have this feeling as a lot of people do that it might put people off. They might arrive at the Civic and think ‘Look at all those posh people going up them stairs’.
“So what we’re hoping to do is get the front entrance back where it was originally. The Civic is vast, there’s a gallery and a main theatre space and then above that there are spaces rented out to artists and to the Barnsley Music Service, but there’s also two completely unused floors. We’re hoping to have another theatre downstairs, a smaller space downstairs, a bigger cafe, shops and rehearsal spaces.
“It’ll take a while to raise the money but it’s a great thing and it’s part of the huge confidence that there is at the moment in Barnsley. We’ve got five wonderful museums and a heritage action zone, in times when other places are actually shrinking their museums. In Barnsley things are going well.
“Barnsley has got spirit and a sense of defiance which it’s always had. It’s trying to reinvent itself. You can’t just lie down and die. I’m very interested in the way that a lot of towns all across the North are trying to reverse the narrative of decline that’s been part of this austerity for a few years.
“Barnsley has got spirit and a sense of defiance which it’s always had”
“There’s so much happening there and it’s just these small pockets of resistance to the idea that the North can be just some kind of pale reflection of the South.”
There’s a lot of that happening, in terms of trying to work on theatres that are going downhill like the Empire in Burnley.
“A lot of these are places are more or less derelict, nothing is happening there, but the ‘Save the Empire’ campaign are trying their best to get something going there, and it’s a response to hard times. People are getting together and doing things. To me it’s the only good thing about austerity. Austerity is a terrible thing but the good thing about it is that people are getting together and trying to make things happen.”
Ian admits there’s a North/South divide but does he believe there’s a Yorkshire/Lancashire divide?
“I like the white rose/red rose rivalry but I think we can bridge it. I don’t like that phrase the Northern powerhouse but in the end Lancashire and Yorkshire are a kind of Northern powerhouse. There’s a lot happening between us and the rivalry simply helps it work harder. The final straw was when I saw Lancashire Tea on sale in a shop in Wombwell.”
Ian is passionate about putting pen to paper. “In terms of writing, anyone can put their two pennorth in.”
“I’ve always had total support so that’s why I always encourage people because life is hard enough without people telling you ‘You can’t do it’. I always say ‘Have a go.’
“I write all the time, I write every day and tweet a lot. I get up really early, I go for a walk, I tweet, once I’ve had my walk, I get back and then I just sit and write. I have to be disciplined.”
“I don’t have a special room for writing, I just sit in the house and write, and I’ve always found the buzz of life around me helps me to think.”
And when Ian isn’t writing, he’s performing everywhere from schools right through to prisons.
“Performing is my favourite thing, it’s just great. I work a lot with Tony Husband on a show called The Cartoon History of Here.
Just getting up there is fantastic because you never quite know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it fails, not very often.
“I’ve started doing house concerts where I do a gig in somebody’s house. I did one recently with 30 people in the house. I get paid and the organiser gives you cup of tea and spare room to sleep in or you go home.
Famous for being a proud Yorkshireman, Ian’s roots are actually in Scotland and Lancashire.
“My dad was from Scotland, my mam was from near Bolton, and they met as pen pals during the war. My dad was in the Navy and my mam was in the WAP and they wrote to each other as pen pals. They couldn’t actually meet because it was the war. I wrote a play about it that was on Radio 4.
“My mam was near Wigan and my dad would dock in Plymouth and they kept trying to meet for afternoon tea at The Queens Hotel. They kept just missing each other because of the war. They only went out twice before they got married.
“My dad sent a telegram to my mam saying: ‘Get leave now’. Meanwhile he got on the train to where her family lived, they had their banns read and they’re going to get married but my mam couldn’t get leave. She applied for leave and they wouldn’t give it so she climbed over the fence and went AWOL. She got off at the wrong station then ran up to the house in her uniform and got married.
“They had one night together in Tantino Hotel on the main street and my dad went off.”
So it’s down to the written word that initially formed Ian right from the word go.
“That’s exactly what it is, it’s them writing to each other. Writing has always been a part of my DNA. My dad had an aunty called Bella Haworth and she was a poet. She was a kind of Victorian rhyming balladeer. She wrote to my dad with rhyming letters, so writing comes from there.
So how Yorkshire is he really? Can he make a Yorkshire pudding?
“Oh god aye! Every Sunday I tweak my Yorkshire pudding mix. What I love about Yorkshire puddings is the mix is the same – same way, same amount of time, and sometimes they rise up and sometimes they look like beer mats. Why is that?
I always say that they are a cultural statement. I’m a big Yorkshire pudding fan, so that makes me very Yorkshire.
If you’d like Ian to perform at your house go to www.ian-mcmillan.co.uk.