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The Woolly Tellers Talk Storytelling in Nottingham

12 December 16 words: Bridie Squires

This December, Wollaton Hall is to be taken over by two men who’ve got sacks of tales, stashed. After making a name for themselves as a couple of the best storytellers about, The Woolly Tellers are bringing those magical Christmas bangers that leave gobs on floors and tears in peepers…

When I was a kid, my grandad used to make up stories about me and my sister being contestants on The Price is Right – we got so caught up in the boggers that we’d end up dreaming about VHS players and naff cars. When owd Brucey wasn’t rattling around in our heads, we were tearing through the Egyptian skyline on a magic carpet, pointing at camels and sphinxes along the way.

It’s amazing what a few words and a bit of imagination can do for your excitement levels as a young one, but all-too-many of us lose that connection as we get older. It wasn’t until I recently rediscovered the form that I realised how engaging storytelling can still be. Two blokes who know the sentiment exactly are Dave Brookes and Mick Whysall – The Woolly Tellers. They humbly call themselves semi-professional, despite being booked by most venues in the city.

Mick’s a city councillor at Wollaton Hall. After working for thirty years as a designer, he retired and now works at Batman’s gaff for three days a week, giving talks on the history of the Hall and industrial museum. Dave’s a Derbyshire man, but worked as a policeman in Nottingham for thirty years. On horseback for the last ten, he used to host tours around the stables.

The pair met after being invited to Nottingham Storytellers group, headed by the late Pete Davis. Mick and Dave noticed that they were writing differently to everyone else, and decided to break out of the bubble together. “Storytellers love to listen to storytellers – it becomes a circle of like-minded people,” says Mick. “A lot are interested in telling traditional stories that date back through English history, but that’s totally alien to me. All my stuff is self-written.”

“Mick's a bit of a purist in that he won't tell anyone else's story, but if it's a good tune, I’ll steal it,” says Dave. “I’ll be telling one of Pete’s [Davis’] at Wollaton Hall, to keep it alive. And I use the story of the jack-o’-lantern for Halloween as an intro story. We’re far deeper than ghost stories, but it’s a good catalyst to use sometimes.

“Tales about human nature are far darker than ghosts,” continues Dave. The pair created a piece based on The Saville Trial in 1844, which was performed in the Galleries of Justice foyer. Saville is buried in the back yard. “It’s about putting meat on the bones of history,” says Dave. “I got the transcript from the archives, put it on a timeline, and we had a cup of tea amongst it and built the story.”

“I love romantic stories, and comedy too,” says Mick. “Being old, we’ve both got a lot of life experience to delve into. I’ve travelled all over the world, and Dave had a whole career as a cop, so he has a great ability to construct and place stories based on the human condition.”

“Mick amazes me,” says Dave. “He rolls up with a story that falls out of his head. When I make something, I have to keep coming back to it and tweaking it.”

“I’m dyslexic,” says Mick. “I don’t use a computer, have never sent a text. I hold all the stories in my head, but Dave’s got them all index copied. With the way we perform, we couldn’t do without each other.”

“Mick is a force of nature,” says Dave. “You tell him to go over by that chair, he'll be on the other side of the room. You can't fault it, because his delivery is so natural.”

The pair ordinarily perform in black, with a limited use of props, relying solely on the spoken word format to do the legwork. But it’s not as straightforward as it sounds – Mick and Dave are constantly trying to push their act forward.

“We’re extremely critical of each other, even when the audience enjoys it,” says Dave.

“I think when you reach the point when you say ‘That’ll do’, you may as well pack up,” says Mick.

To keep their performance fresh, the pair head to the venue early, walk around the space, do warm-up exercises, introduce new elements like music to their work, and meet up once a week to work on the anecdotal links between stories.

“There’s a lot to be said for space and silence,” says Mick. “Dave likes to stretch silence until it becomes uncomfortable, then he uses his policeman's voice to grab the audience.” The pair have also had weekends with movement directors and actors.

“You realise there’s a lot you can take from them,” says Dave. “For example, in one story, I hold a 'talisman' up in one hand and the audience are hooked, looking at it. There's nothing there, and when I throw it on the floor, the audience all look towards the point where it would have landed.”

“Audience reactions can be strange,” says Mick. “Sometimes people have blank expressions, but afterwards they say they absolutely loved it. We get a lot of good feedback from a younger audience too.”

“We told in Whymeswold Community Hall,” says Dave. “It was wonderful – there were about seven or eight kids sat on the floor eating bowls of crisps, and they really made the night.”

“It's storytelling for adults. We can do kids stories, but it's not preferred,” says Mick. “The beautiful thing about storytelling for grownups is when you can see people crying. It's a fantastic feeling to know you've achieved that rapport – that's what being human is all about.”

With all this literary stimulation of Nottingham’s populace, I wonder what the pair’s thoughts are on the UNESCO City of Literature status, and how they feel they fit into it.

“I would have instantly said I don't,” says Mick. “But you're right, the spoken word is equally as valid. We promote that very strongly, and our stories are always heavily connected with Nottingham. We're doing what we set out to do – promoting what storytelling is and what it can be. That's exactly what the UNESCO City of Literature is about.”

So much of Nottingham’s history seeps into the tales – from Mick’s love of the Georgian and Elizabethan eras, and beyond. “History about the poor was often written by the rich middle classes looking down,” says Dave. “The poor didn’t know they were deprived or poverty stricken, and we don't want to define that poverty or overstress it, but just tell a story from within that set of circumstances.”

A lot of their stories are also based in the fifties. “[They’re] entrenched in accent,” says Mick. “Now, we have this wonderful, diverse community, but the Nottingham I knew growing up was much different. We all had an abrupt, sharp accent with blunt letters and words, we were all ducks and boggers, and it really defined who we were to a large degree. People underestimate accent – it's how you receive the world, and how you put your perceptions out to other people.”

But what about this Christmas do at Wollaton Hall? Are we going to be hearing that Nottingham accent thick and fast?

“Whatever we do in Wollaton Hall, we won't outclass the venue,” says Mick. “When you shut those doors in the evening, suddenly you're in this magical place.”

“We performed Christmas last year and I was bouncing off the walls,” says Dave. “We’ve got heart-warming, funny tales, traditional tales, stories about the magic of Christmas.”

“I’m dead corny, I love Christmas,” says Mick. “We’ve got angels in derelict Manchester too.”

“We look at what commercialism makes you do,” says Dave. “Then we take it apart and question it.”

“We can’t wait. We’re doing this because we love it,” says Mick. “We’re too old to be wannabes. We could so easily do the same storytelling groups, but we want everybody to enjoy storytelling like stand-up. It's a mission, if you like.”

The Woolly Tellers’ Christmas Tales, Wollaton Hall, Friday 16 December, 7.30pm, £10. Wine and mince pies included.

The Woolly Tellers website

illustration: Dominic Murray

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