“Give The Witham a gong” says Gyles Brandreth, who will be back at one of his favourite venues on 28 July with his new one-man show Break a leg!
I first heard about The Witham from one of my boyhood heroes, the great (if diminutive) ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood. ‘Wee’ Georgie was born in Jarrow in 1894 and at the height of his fame (when he was all of 4ft 9ins tall) he was known throughout the British Isles (and in America, too) as a music hall comedian and entertainer, radio star and film actor, who, even as an adult, appeared as a child – and a cheeky one at that. He went onto the stage at the age of five and went on working until he died, in his 85th year, in 1979. My father got to know him in the 1950s. I met him in the 1960s and found his stories about ‘the good old days’ of British theatre, variety and music hall completely compelling.
He was prone to exaggeration and from his story of his visit to the Witham Hall you might be forgiven for thinking it was the tale of how ‘Wee’ George Wood won the war. It happened just after the start of the Second World War – on 14th September 1939 – when ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood and his stage partner Dolly Harmer appeared as the star turns in a morale-boosting fund-raising concert in aid of 'Boots and Clothing for Evacuee Children'. ‘Wee’ Georgie remembered because it was the first of many such shows he undertook during the war and more than 500 people crammed into the hall that night. Prepared for the worst, every member of the audience was required to bring their gas mask or they would be refused entry.
‘Wee’ Georgie Wood did a lot of good work over his long lifetime and richly deserved the OBE he received from King George VI in 1946 for his services to entertainment and the war effort. In my view, The Witham deserves a knighthood, if not the Garter, for its services to entertainment and the community over the years.
The Witham Hall has had many guises – from a dispensary of medicines for the poor to the Mechanics’ Institute and Library where everyone could access books. The Music Hall at The Witham has seen Victorian bazaars and shows of every kind, as well as dances in the wars where local children were handed prunes or sweets by soldiers. It was reported in the press that the official opening of the New Hall on 6 December 1860 lasted all day. The shops in the town closed at noon, and between 600 and 800 people were served refreshments. The evening concert was marred by the crush of people and the resulting excessive heat, which affected both performers and audience, but, all in all, it was considered to have been a great success.
The Witham went on to host countless events, among them balls, concerts, theatre and magic lantern shows, for the enjoyment of local people and the increasing numbers of visitors brought to Barnard Castle by road and rail. In 1948, it became Barnard Castle’s first public lending library and continued to provide space for public lectures, meetings, education and welfare. It has been calculated that, based on the Listed Buildings Register for England, 11 Mechanics’ Institutes survive today and continue to function as originally intended for the benefit of the community. Barnard Castle has one of them.
And Barnard Castle is blessed in The Witham. And those of us, like me, who are privileged to follow in the footsteps of the likes of ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood are blessed, too. It’s a privilege to come to Barney and perform in The Witham – a hall with a glorious heritage, a special atmosphere, a lovely audience, and, I hope, a future that’s as packed with variety and surprises as it’s fascinating past been. Give the Witham a gong. It deserves it.