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Settle Stories Reviews


FRIDAY 1/4/16


It was a fitting start to this year’s festival that the very first event should be held in honour of a man who had been so involved with Settle Storytelling festival and so involved in telling the story of Settle itself: W R (Bill) Mitchell. Over the course of his life he wrote over 200 books, hundreds of articles, and delivered many talks on the history and physical and natural evolution of North Britain, with particular emphasis on The Yorkshire Dales, Lancashire and The Lake District. However, this session was less about the “great man” and more about “Bill” as seen by friends and family. Through the reminiscences of  festival director Sita Brand, friend and walking companion Bob Swallow and Bill’s son David we learned of hidden facets of Bill’s character and shared in personal memories: Bill the clumsy walker who was so busy making notes in a notepad that he forgot to look where he was going and fell over and knocked himself out; Bill the earnest Dad bowling cricket balls awry and helping his daughter to make state props for Settle Amateur Operatic Society and Bill the hoarder – leaving behind a complete archive of material to be sorted through including every edition of the Dalesman since 1943. He also left behind 63 volumes of personal diaries, which have proved an invaluable resource for the project recently undertaken by David and The Dalesman as later this year they will be producing a book entitled “Bill Mitchell’s Yorkshire”. This will re-tell the story of his life through his own words and feature a number of previously unpublished pieces.  As well as being an affectionate tribute to Bill this informal session provided an opportunity for those present to swap their own stories about him and also to view the exhibition based on his archive material and where possible to add further information to identify the characters in the photographs and so continue Bill’s work of recording life in the Dales.




The Yarnsmith of Norwich is every inch a mesmeric character, from the tip of his expressive finger-tips to the tilt of tall hat his stage persona grabs the audience’s attention – and his warmth and immediate rapport with the audience ensures that he retains it from his first words to the very last silence which greets the conclusion to his final tale.  In addition to his considerable talents as a storyteller, he is also an accomplished historian and in this show manages to skillfully combine his two great interests to produce a fascinating show. This is not the storytelling of the renowned Elizabethan playwrights – though they do get mentioned in passing – but the tales of the common people which originally began as jests and gossip told in alehouse yards and then embroidered and padded out to make comic yarns to be told by travelling traders. In his capable hands these stories come alive today and are as relevant today as they were when they were first told. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing off a group of wily villagers getting one over on a cruel King by pretending to be mad, or of a pompous priest brought low and made to dance like a pig in the thorn bushes! The stories themselves are irreverent and full of cunning and revel in life and are told with great flair and a real twinkle in the eye. Yet they are also told with a real awareness of pace and structure, recognising the value of repetition and a well turned phrase. His use of alliteration is masterful and lends at times a hypnotic quality to his storytelling, magically drawing you deeper into the tale – so that while it may appear to be very casual and relaxed it is actually very carefully structured . The mixture of riddles and stories appealed to all ages present and the poignancy of the final story was masterfully presented. A real joy to listen to.





When the BBC approached him about his tax affairs, Jeff Thomas probably had no idea that it would lead him into the bizarre world of Amsterdam sandwiches, Double Irish and post office boxes which allegedly hold 200 workers. Agreeing to work with them however was clearly a life changing decision as it not only opened his eyes to the way in which major corporations work but also the way in which governments seem to condone their actions and it has, he admits, left him feeling considerably more cynical than he was when his involvement began.  Working on the premise that for many of the  UK’s biggest companies, paying corporation tax appears to have become almost optional the BBC approached a number of small towns which had mainly independent traders and businesses  to see if it was possible to set up a way of developing a tax avoidance scheme similar to that used by large firms.  The town they chose was Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons, where Jeff Thomas runs a business. The resulting programme , “The Town That Took On The Taxman”  aired earlier this year and showed how using extremely complicated – but completely legal – accounting techniques, large firms can run rings around HMRC.  In order to show this the town tried to set up a similar scheme and showed some of the ways in which these large firms avoid payments. Jeff is keen to explain that the programme’s aim was never for Crickhowell to actually cheat on its tax, but to use this as a means to expose how this is done by 98%  of the FTSE 100 top businesses, at huge cost to the national income.  His talk was highly entertaining as he explained the actual processes involved in setting up double accounts so that money can be banked outside the system in an off-shore company and then transferred elsewhere in the form of loans and  how the sale of “intellectual property” such as logos can save large corporations millions of pounds as they sell these to their own off-shore company and then lease them back so that the money appears to have be earned in tax havens.  As well as setting up a similar scheme the townsfolk also attempted to talk to companies already involved in such schemes and tried to find ways of getting them to compromise themselves, including by asking to talk to employees in mythical headquarters.  Fascinating though the talk and discussion which followed were, the conclusion sadly is that there does not seem to be a political will to change the system, either here or in Europe and that therefore the only way in which to bring pressure to bear is by exposing the companies who indulge in such schemes. The greatest moral pressure at present appears to be by use of social media to raise awareness and to spread the story of what is happening and how it is essentially robbing the poorest section of society by extending the need for austerity cuts.  There are many stories in the world and many different ways of telling them, but in highlighting this current topic and allowing Jeff Thomas to tell his story the festival has provided a platform to do something which is common to many stories – help to right a wrong and give people an opportunity to find their voice.





One of the hardest parts of being a stand up comedian must surely be finding the material – this is clearly where Alfie Moore must rate as being luckier than most. A police sergeant in Scunthorpe with eighteen years of experience he has a wide range of experience on which to draw and a nice line in gallows humour with which to deliver it. It’s a shame therefore that at times he tends to stoop to rather contrived jokes and tacky smut more reminiscent of 80’s TV shows. These odd deviations apart this was an extremely funny performance. He began well with a number of telling comparisons between Settle and Scunthorpe, particularly the difference in crime in the area as reported in local press. Having established his credentials with the audience he moved on to the tale of how he spent months on the trail of a local flasher who would appear to vulnerable women dressed only in shower hat and flip-flops. Running alongside this story were deviations into his initial thoughts about police work and how he’d expected it to be more like the American TV cop shows.  Much of the comedy in his script relied on his excellent sense of timing, but underneath this there was a dark vein of sarcasm as he reflected on trends in policing which mean that at times there appears to be more emphasis on political correctness than actual action to protect the community. Therefore when his search is hampered by not only by the local attention seeker who confesses to every crime, but also by his inspector who disapproves of everything and remedies it by sending him on courses it all provides more material for his biting cynicism. The humour also overlies a genuine concern that while the police and society as a whole continue to regard “minor” sex crimes as being of no real importance there is a real danger that the perpetrator can become more dangerous and prey on ever more vulnerable victims.  While inviting us to laugh at aspects of this story he is actually making a serious point about how we view this kind of crime. It is without doubt a witty and intelligent performance and while the American cop show ending with the secateurs wielding granny and the tasering of the flasher is funnier, the truth is that this situation is not funny and the fact that the flasher simply was allowed to walk free is both alarming for the public and frustrating for the police.  With a deftness of wit and a dose of healthy sarcasm he keeps the pace moving briskly and delivers an amusing view of a policeman’s lot.


SATURDAY: 2.4.16



Can a story change the world? This question is perhaps not as foolish as it might first appear as it kept echoing across the events of the weekend. In this discussion session the two participants explained how in their work they are using stories to change the world one mind at a time. Alia Alzougbi works with the Global Learning Centre in London and uses stories as a way of getting young people to explore their own values and perception. Introducing children to philosophy techniques she encourages them to look at all sides to a story and to question them so that they begin to view things more critically and question the stereotypes which they encounter.  Clearly very passionate about the way in which stories can help to foster empathy and understanding she described how she felt it was important to tell the stories of the people who otherwise would go unheard by history. Githanda Githae approaches the subject from a different angle but with equal passion. Working with Zamaleo ACT in Kenya he aims to keep alive a pride in Kenyan heritage and stories in order to assist people to identify with their own culture. He explained how stories can help us to identify the core values of our culture and that by keeping these stories alive we actually keep our society strong as we all then share a common understanding. This then led to a fascinating discussion as to how stories in our own culture are becoming depleted by becoming too “generic” as instead of a storyteller who relates to an audience we rely on a television or film screen or modern technology for our interpretations. This means that once a story is told it becomes “fossilised” as the “real version” – as can be seen in the “disneyfication” of many fairy stories and other variations become lost. Similarly it was felt that the stories which identify a culture can easily be shed by the desire to be seen as part of a homogenous group which perhaps explains why there are fewer “English” stories than there are “Celtic”. This thought provoking discussion managed to highlight many issues which arose in other sessions throughout the day and provided an excellent base from which to explore the power of stories and the importance of storytelling.





When Ursula Holden Gill steps on to the stage your first impression is of a Victorian urchin with a somewhat impish twinkle in her eyes.  However, you very swiftly realise that she is in fact a one woman whirlwind able to inhabit any number of characters at the drop of a usually invisible hat! There truly is something magical in the way she summons up so many clearly delineated characters at such breakneck speed, peppering her stories with hilarious descriptions and the most ingenious comparisons to flesh out her physical actions. Her physicality is itself quite stunning as she twists and cavorts about the stage as a batty old crone one moment and then the next is controlled and poised as an opera diva.  This was the premiere of an entirely new show looking at the themes of life and love against the odds, consequently it covered a vast emotional range and yet her performance held the audience enchanted from beginning to end whether she was singing, clog-dancing, strutting the stage as Elvis or performing an operatic aria. Three diverse stories were woven together to focus on the theme of people who live at the very edge of society and who manage to dare to be different. The first episode was an extremely funny tale about a rescued dog and how it eventually finds a new home as the result of the intervention of a caring but disorganised student, an ardent animal lover and a wealthy woman. This allowed full scope for the creation of fantastical characters and laugh out loud comedy. The second tale had darker elements and concerned a boy who was stifled by his father’s obsession with Elvis and love of drink. This focused heavily on the dramatic telling of the story, particularly during the critical scene where the boy is saved from drowning and again showed how incredibly versatile Ursula Holden Gill is as a performer. The third part of the trio “The Ladies Who Live Together” was both poignant and thought provoking, shot through with touches of comedy amidst the cruelty of a couple with impeccable good taste who are brutalised by the ignorant attitudes of the society around them. It is however ultimately very moving and perceptive. The show itself is very insightful and gives much to think about and is performed in an incredibly high octane style by a lady of great charm.




Billed as one of the events for children this actually turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking and powerful stories which I heard during the course of the day and is certainly one which will remain with me for a very long time.  In Two Parts Mischief, Geoff Bird has created a very engaging central character who is “two parts mischief and one part firework” and who is very human. The story itself is incredibly simple but works an a variety of levels and it is this which gives it such power and resonance.  Stan is a happy boy who enjoys life and fits in until a cold wind comes along and changes his world. The story explores the impact this has on Stan and essentially is about how sometimes we have to know sad before we know joy.  On a personal level I would be hard pressed to find a more accurate and eloquent  explanation  of what it is like to suffer from depression, something which the author himself acknowledged during the brief discussion afterwards where he talked about how he had been taken aback by the strength of response which there has been from adults to the story and how it has in fact become a conduit to allow them to talk about their emotions.  The actual performance was also b e simple but extremely moving as Geoff Bird read the story aloud in time to a musical soundtrack which has been composed specially to complement the story. The mingling of the clarinet and the gentle tone of his voice perfectly caught the melancholic nature of the cold wind and made the experience quite ethereal.  The story is actually written in rhyme but like the best rhymes, it never actually intrudes but rather it enhances adding to the dream-like experience. A very simple and profound tale, told with understated power and all the more memorable because of this.




There are a lot of stories which begin once upon a time and then go on to tell about magical events in far away lands. This one is different: it begins very mundanely with a man hitting a tree with a stick and goes on to tell about a very everyday sort of magic which happens in Camden High Street.  Moving effortlessly between two countries and two very different cultures Clair Whitfield performs her hour long one woman show with great gusto and confidence. However, as she explained after the show – the joy of performing your own material is that you are the only one who knows if you get something wrong! Not that she did put a foot wrong as she deftly hopped from one character to another, summoning up Ajna Jan the bereaved martial arts warrior and Katie, the gap-year student who opens a cafe and the salsa dancing sultry temptress Camilla.  The unlikely friendship which develops between Ajna Jan and Katie forms the core of the show and it has to be said there are numerous examples of mouthwatering cuisine described as they discuss recipes, appealing to all the senses with descriptions of taste and scent and touch. Running in parallel with this is the story of Aina Jan’s ability to fashion magical insoles for the shoes he repairs so that each person finds themselves gradually changed more and more towards the person that they wish to be. Through his intervention they are not just “heeled” but healed and he mends damaged souls as he repairs soles.  The real magical element in this story is within the performer, using minimal props, the versatility of her voice and her very apparent love of language she is not only able to create a range of characters but also to swiftly sketch a vast canvas of scenes as a backdrop to the action. There is a truly moving moment where she describes how Aina Jan floats candles on the muddy Thames in memory of his lost family where the poetry of the language adds to the poignancy of the actions.  This is an undoubtedly moving story and beautifully told, but it is also a very accomplished piece of poetry and written with great skill and insight.  A wonderful  experience which deserved to be greeted with respectful silence before rapturous applause.




Arabic storyteller Alia Alzougbi presented a very modern take on the traditional theme of Arabian nights. She actively researches stories from the Arab world and the Middle East to keep them alive and breathing, and develops them as a way of promoting cross-cultural understanding and ensuring that the voices of the ones who get forgotten in society are actually remembered. In her version of the Arabian nights there is no beautiful princess telling stories to keep herself alive, but a learned and wise woman who uses her wiles and words to survive as an activist in a difficult world.  Watching her perform it is very clear that she is not only a very accomplished actress but also that she has considerable skill when it comes to holding the attention of an audience, in this case a very wide age range of audience.  This involves actually involving the audience in the performance, with various members becoming photographers for example and also leaving them with questions to consider rather than a neat conclusion to a story.  The first of her stories was based around the traditional idea of the woman using her feminine wiles to trick those who would seduce her, but was transposed to a modern setting which highlighted the problems encountered by those who speak out against the regime.  In a traditional tale from Yemen there were again modern resonances as the female central character was only able to be successful when dressed as a man, but finally escaped her pre-ordained fate by quite literally finding her voice and defying expectations.  The added bonus to the day was the inclusion of two tales of Juha, which were delivered almost as an aside. In Middle Eastern tradition he is a wise fool, a person who sees the world in a rather convoluted way so that it is difficult to decide if he is the wisest of all  or just plain stupid.  Most memorable was the twist on Little Red Riding Hood, who as little Red Riding Hijab learned a very salutary lesson when it comes to equality and the wolf realised that he should not discriminate when it comes to little girls wandering in the woods. It was this spark of quirkiness which brought her stories to life so that instead of them sounding very earnest they actually became amusing and thoughtful in equal measure – much like the experience of Juha.




There should perhaps be a sign outside any event where Martin Shaw is participating which reads, “Forget anything you have ever learned about stories and storytelling.” Witnessing Martin Shaw inhabit a story is quite unlike anything else you will have ever experienced.  His stories work on many levels and he is keen to explain that you don’t claim a story, it claims you.  His work is deeply engaging, so that you find yourself being lulled into the story in a way which he describes as being wrapped in the myth “like a  swan feather cloak”. His mastery of language is such that his words do seem to cast a spell and you can find yourself drifting into an enchantment and then just a suddenly the bubble is punctured by the deliberate insertion of a incongruous phrase or comparison or an outrageously inappropriate accent that has you laughing out loud. It is these sparks of wit and bang up to date references which keep the stories fresh and the audience on edge, eagerly anticipating more.  His style is a bizarre mixture that plays to the anticipated stereotype with repetition, ritual and following of set formula and then suddenly completely overturns it when least expected.  Witty and learned, traditional and anarchist he is an unusual mixture who adds a real personal spice to the most familiar of tales and ensures that his audience is always left wanting more.



Settle at night benefits from any number of dark ginnels and old buildings to create creepy backdrops for spooky tales of dark deeds and death. It therefore comes as something of a surprise that no-one else has developed its potential for a ghost walk, unless of course previous residents of the town have been so law-abiding and happy that there are no troubled spirits haunting the nooks and crannies of the town.  The stories on this walk were not specifically about the town itself but were more of the generic kind of story of the unusual and supernatural which is guaranteed to set spines tingling when told in a suitably dramatic manner in an appropriately eerie venue. However, with tales of this sort the other key ingredient is the storyteller as in less experienced hands the tension evaporates and the story becomes little more than a poorly told joke whereas in the hands of a masterly teller of tales such as the Yarnsmith of Norwich the characters come to ghostly life and the group huddles ever closer to the lantern to avoid the shadows at the edge of the circle.  This really was a thoroughly enjoyable wander through the night-time streets with stories clearly tailored to suit the surroundings.  Below the viaduct on Church St with creaking trees in a poorly lit alley it was easy to imagine the shadow of a gallows and hacked corpse while a churchyard in upper Settle  perfectly suited a tale of love which survived beyond the grave. Equally huddled in the doorway of the Folly, with the sounds of drinkers in nearby pubs filtering through the night air it was only too easy to imagine a  similar scene in a medieval market town, where three young men who had drunk too much set out to challenge death and found him when they least expected it.  The skill of the storyteller, the clever choice of locations and selection of stories combined to make this a very different night out in Settle!




The theme for the walk was journeys and during a pleasant amble by the Ribble and then down to Tems Beck in Giggleswick, Dave Tonge entertained a mixed age group with a wide variety of riddles and tales.  Yarnsmith of Norwich, Dave has an easy charm which lends itself well to telling stories in intimate situations as he draws his audience into his tale by involving them at every stage of the action. Soon you are quite happily providing the sound effects for creaking doors, horse’s hoofbeats, clunking keys or whatever else may be required and are so absorbed in what is happening that the everyday matters of a Sunday morning such as passing cyclists and clanging church bells become unwarranted interruptions.   There are lots of vocal tricks, reversal of phrases and repetitions to keep the tales moving and maintain a steady rhythm and familiarity to the telling and all done with such ease that you are not really aware of them until you suddenly find yourself wondering, “how did I know that was coming next?”  Like any good smith, Dave Tonge is a master of his craft, juggling with words and spinning yarns with skill and yet making it look no more than child’s play.  This delightful mix of stories, some old and some new, the pleasant walk in lovely scenery and good company, and a bit of brainwork on solving riddles made for a gentle and pleasant start to Sunday’s Festival.




There are as many ways of telling stories as there are storytellers and as many versions of many stories as there are storytellers. Ian Scott Massie is a poet, author, painter and musician who has drawn his inspiration from the local landscape and its mythology. Collecting together legends, trivia, anecdotes and historic records about the area he has created the “Tales from The Dales” exhibition of pictures and its accompanying book.  The book tended to be the main focus for this session which in many respects was a great pity as it would have been interesting to hear from him some of the stories behind his paintings and how the stories had actually suggested the images to him. Instead it seemed as if these were merely incidental to the event and although very striking and atmospheric in many instances they were not alluded to when talking about the different locations. The stories however were fascinating as he clearly has gathered together a miscellany of information of all kinds. Like any enthusiast when asked to share details of his passion was able to contribute a range of interesting tales, interestingly he was very positive about the way in which modern communications such as facebook and twitter have allowed people to share both stories and information and to also track down documentary evidence to support local folk tales. He spoke also about how many stories bear similarities to one another regardless of location eg the predominance of tales in which people are turned into stones as a means of explaining various standing stones and yet a story familiar in one dale may be scarcely known in another.  This was very much a taster of dales tales, with stories being little more than skeleton outlines, swiftly recounted and touched on rather than developed, but undoubtedly in the pages of this volume there lies sufficient material for a number of festival acts covering gory tales such as the Hand of Glory, tales of barghests, the temperance witch of Dent and tragedies such as railway disasters and drownings at the Strid.




When Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland, her sister Lorina was most vexed. She’d been entrusted to look after Alice and if anything went awry then it was very unlikely that Lorina would be allowed to go to the dance that evening. Which left Lorina with only one option, to go and find Alice and bring her back!  From this starting point Sita Brand weaves a magical story of an adventure every bit as surreal as Alice’s own adventures.  Nothing is quite as it seems as each character which she meets tells her a story and from each story she learns another lesson which will help her to find her sister.  The tales flow together well and while a knowledge of the original Alice in Wonderland would help with identification of the key characters it is not essential to the overall understanding of the story. Unlike her sister, Lorina is a far more bolshie character and is not about to take these strange events lying down and so tackles her encounters with magical beings in a very much more practical way. There are some wonderful moments when Sita as Lorina squares up to her interrogators and it is this ability to skip neatly between the characters which adds to the credibility of the performance. Sita is a performer of great integrity and while there are certainly a number of stories within a story, which at times can become quite convoluted, there is never any doubt that she will lose her way. Gradually Lorina learns her lessons and realises that she is seeking Alice simply because she loves her and filled with her new won knowledge she is able to open any door. This was a wonderful premiere of an interesting piece which picked up on many of the themes apparent elsewhere in this year’s festival.



Nine years and 131 days ago, so we were informed during the performance, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, died in London as a result of drinking a fatally posioned cup of tea. To date there has not been a definitive explanation as to who was responsible for his death. There have, however, been a large number of theories and these were explored in this very cleverly written and staged two-hander.  2Magpies Theatre present their investigation into his death in the form of a tea-party, at which the audience as guests drink green tea out of china cups and at times find themselves playing the characters in the story as it unfolds. In a tightly choreographed piece of theatre the two performers, Matt Wilks and Tom Barnes, recreate the events of the day on which it is believed that Litvinenko ingested the poison: re-enacting his meals, dance class and meetings they examine the various possible suspects and opportunities for murder as well as giving some insights into the motivations which might lie behind his death. Both Tom and Matt studied  for an MA in International Security and Terrorism after completing their degrees in English and it was partly this that led them to be fascinated by the story of Litvinenko as they felt that if it had been simply a story it would have been dismissed by the majority of publishers as being beyond credibility. Using only a small square in the centre of the dining room and surrounded by their tea-drinking audience they use a mop, a raw chicken, yards of wool, and numerous cups of tea to engage the to lead us through the events of the day in a way which is almost comic at times and then in sudden solemnity  leave us wondering as to what did actually happen and why. The effect is stunning. The direction is crisp, the dialogue almost clinical at times, the concept unusual and the impact incredibly powerful. Towards the end of the piece a recording is played of the speech which Litvinenko dictated on his deathbed in which he accused Putin of ordering his death. The overall effect is chilling.

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