TAKE A BOW – writer, actress & theatre producer, Leah Bell

The last 17 months have been surreal, I don’t want to live my life behind a glass window and frightened – I’m double jabbed and ready to rock n roll said Leah as we sat down in The Centurion bar in Newcastle Central Station.

‘Dirty Dusting’ full cast – Andrew Green, Vicky Entwistle (Coronation Street), Vicki Michelle (Allo, Allo) & Leah Bell.

I got a call from Ed Waugh ‘Would you be interested in putting on Dirty Dusting at Whitley Bay Playhouse for a week ? I saw it around 20 years ago when it opened so was interested in picking it up. He sent me the script and I thought I’m not learning all this for one week.

So I asked Ed and Trevor Wood (Writers) if I could make a few alterations to make it more current. Well Ed had been to review our pantomime at Consett Empire and had seen me do other variety shows so he knew I was comedy based. They said ‘You know what’s working when you’re doing it – go ahead’.

So I pushed it along and here we are with 31 dates on our ninth tour. It’s a sign of a good play when it can last as long as it has. I hope to start touring at the end of September, I love getting up and setting off to the next venue.

WE ARE FAMILY

The meeting of the cast for the photo call and press launch was in my niece’s dance studio in Bedlington where I live, so very handy to pop in to my house, the restaurant and the pub. It’s very important that everybody gets on and gels – they did and we had a great time.

Dirt Dusting starts in Blyth Phoenix and for all the dates the cast go into a theatre family. We have Vicki Michelle (Yvette Carte-Blanche in Allo, Allo) still a very glamorous lady, and Vicky Entwistle (Janice Battersby in Coronation Street) just so funny.

In the past young people have told me they brought their gran to the show because they thought they would like it. But it’s the young people who like it, one girl said to me ‘I never went on my phone once’. What an accolade (laughs).

I just hope people are not frightened to come back to theatre because at some point we have to make a decision how we are going to live the rest of our life. If people want to come into the theatre and keep a mask on fine, it might be mandatory anyway.

Promo pic for Beverley Artists Agency, South Shields.

THE CLUBS

When I was 12 year old I was putting play’s on in the backyard roping in my school friends and hanging my mother’s sheet up as the backcloth. Nobody in our family had any connection to the entertainment industry so I don’t know where it came from, my mother couldn’t understand it. I didn’t go to stage school, I was more academic and looking at being a teacher or a lawyer, but somewhere, somehow, I wanted to be on stage.

I was born in Benwell on the banks of the river Tyne, I didn’t come up through Jesmond when everything is there for you. I came up where you learned to survive and work. My brothers and sisters were the same – cut from the same cloth. From my experience I think North East women are strong.

At 15 I started for Beverly’s Agency in the North East. The working men’s clubs is where I learnt my craft. And I’m eternally grateful. The clubs were different back then they were always a discerning audience. The men didn’t go in the concert room if they didn’t have a suit and tie on.

I think that background stood me in good stead for working in showbusiness. Especially when I moved out of the North East into more of a national market, you realise it’s a tough industry. You can’t be easily knocked down.

DODDY TIME

I was very happy going into places doing what I felt I have to do – entertain. I started off singing but because the audience in clubs are close to you, and some aren’t adverse to talking to you, I learnt how to speak to them on a personal level. I didn’t realise at first but it translated into comedy, and from that I won club and stage awards.

I went on a summer season in Jersey and from there Ken Dodd put me on his UK tour in the early ‘70s. He used to stand in the wings which is very disconcerting. When I came off stage he would say ‘You’re timing that gag wrong, this is how you time it’. So I had for free, one of the best teachers of comedy. If I’m writing a gag or a comedy sketch his words on timing echo in my ear.

Ken Dodd put me on with him at the Victoria Palace, London when I was young and I’m glad because when you’re young you’re brave. I never thought if the London people would understand me. Will my approach be acceptable in the West End ? I just went on and did my act and spoke to people.

Leah with David Jason. Promo pic by Newcastle Chronicle for Cinderella at Newcastle Theatre Royal 1980.

OH YES HE IS

I worked with Bobby Thompson a lot, he was a nice man. His act was of its time, the poverty, the war – very funny. We done a panto in Newcastle Theatre Royal with David Jason (Only Fools and Horses). Being in the North East was like being sent to the Antarctic for him ‘Blaady ‘ell’ he’d say in his Cockney accent (laughs).

David didn’t know Bobby Thompson at all, Bobby never rehearsed with us, there was no interaction. So Bobby done his Cabaret piece at the start of act two, and afterwards backstage would shuffle around saying hello to people. David used to say to me ‘What a shame for that old fella, fancy having to work at his age, I’ve just give him some money for a cup of tea’. I said ‘What ! he gets dropped off in a limousine (laughs)’. 

One night David said ‘He’s never in the finale, it’s nice of the theatre to let him go early he must be tired’. Really Bobby was doubling up and playing the late spot at Newcastle Mayfair. Bobby had great delivery, clear, distinctive and not draggy. It can sound like he’s just talking along but it’s not, it’s very precise. He was a one off.

SHOW MUST GO ON

But there has been low times like when I was doing final rehearsals for a touring show that was just stopped completely because of what happened in New York on 9/11 – the show just didn’t go ahead. But if the theatre permits it I’ve always gone on after terrible events.

When Princess Diana died I was in Jersey, and you could tell the mood of the island and all the holidaymakers, the whole world was watching news 24/7. It was decided that nothing would proceed that actual night, but from the next day it would carry on.

We were doing a fabulous ‘50s and swinging ‘60s show, I would do the opening and make a remark about it and say we need to carry on. The audience applauded that and relaxed into the show. It was like people were waiting for it and wanting us to acknowledge what had happened.

When I used to work on the cruise lines I was on the Canberra and we would be doing the rota, and none of us wanted to go on stage after we had stopped in Jerusalem. When the tourists got back on board they were very sombre and serious because they had been on a religious tour. We felt we would be far too flippant for them after they had spent the day there.

TURN BACK TIME

If I could go back and change anything I would like to have in my thirties the frame of mind I’ve got now. When you go through showbusiness you really have your heart on your sleeve all the time, you are trying to please everybody and doing what you think they want you to do.

I worried about performances when working for people when really I should have just enjoyed it more. I should have made more of the opportunities rather than worry about them. As I say to all the cast before they go out to do any show ‘Remember above all, try not to be shite’ (laughs).

LIGHTS UP

An old lady stopped me on Bedlington Front Street the other day and said ‘Leah are you gaan on at the Blyth, cos we’ve had our tickets cancelled from the Christmas show.

I said ‘yes I’m going on’.  ‘Good’ she said ‘we’re glad to be gaan oot cos we’re sick of stopping in’

I walked off saying ‘If the theatre is shut, I’ll do it in the car park behind ASDA’.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   June 2021