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Ponteland school-girl takes to the stage with her Grandpa to commemorate Armistice Centenary

Eleven year old Bella Cram from Ponteland will take on a poignant role when she joins her Grandpa on stage to narrate Songs and Stories of the Great War at Sage Gateshead on Sunday 11 November. The event will commemorate the end of World War 1, marking exactly one hundred years since the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

Bella, who is a pupil at Ponteland Community Middle School, is no stranger to being in the spotlight. A member of Tyne Theatre Stage School she takes classes in dance, drama, musical theatre and singing and appears regularly in their Gala shows including the upcoming Christmas Gala. Recently she had the opportunity to audition for CBBC.

The event in Sage Two on 11th November will be a mix of story-telling, poetry, drama, humour and music including trench songs, folk songs and choral songs of remembrance; a collection of songs and stories of a life on the Western Front, in turn both uplifting, cheerful and unbearably sad.

For Bella’s Grandpa, Rob Barnes from South Shields, the originator and producer of Songs and Stories of the Great War, marking the Armistice Centenary with a special and unique event will be the culmination of his lifelong interest in the Great War and in one man in particular: Private Fielding Pickard, service number MS/1051 of the 7th Auxiliary Mechanical Transport Company of the Army Service Corps.

As Rob explains: “Rather than just a Remembrance service, our event at Sage Gateshead will be a celebration of the story of a wartime ‘Everyman’ character – an unsung hero, the epitome of the spirit of the British Tommy – the good times, the tragic times, the laughter and the tears. Our inspiration comes from the experience of Private Fielding Pickard, one of the lucky ones who did return home.

“When my wife’s aunt died we were bequeathed a set of postcards which had been sent or brought back from the Western Front during World War 1 by her uncle, Fielding Pickard. He’d collected these postcards from the different places he’d visited whilst on his tour of duty, between Rouen and Flanders, for the whole duration of the war. It was amazing. We could trace his actual route.”

The postcards took on a new meaning for Rob and his wife Sue when they set off to Northern France last year with a small representative sample of the cards and took their own photos of the same locations as they are now, 100 years on. The end result is a remarkable album of ‘then and now’ pictures showing that in many places, such as Corbie near Amiens and Saint-Omer, things have not changed much in the intervening century.

“I’d always been fascinated by this particular war,” says Rob, “ever since, as a boy of around Bella’s age, I used to look at cartoons, poems and stories from a hardback volume of ‘The Best of Punch Magazine 1900-1930’ which belonged to my parents. I loved the poetry, the humour, the cartoons and the stories of everyday life at the Front. I was fascinated that in the later editions, as the war went on, the tendency to make light of what was going on became more reflective and less ‘elevated’. Reading ‘Mr Punch in Wartime’ as a boy made a huge impression on me which has stayed with me to this day, so when I saw the postcards sent back by Private Fielding Pickard I had to find out more about him.”

Rob discovered that Private Pickard was a 44 year old family man from Broughton in Manchester who joined up on 6thAugust 1914, just two days after war was declared.

“He was really too old for enlistment but as a driver for Boddington’s Brewery, he had a special skill so he was allocated to the Army Service Corps as a Motor Driver. He addressed his postcards from the Western Front to his wife, Pauline and his son, Louis, who poignantly, was aged 11 when war started – the same age as Bella is now. Louis sadly died of meningitis, aged 15, in 1918.”

Rob explains that it was discovering Fielding Pickard who helped him put together a more coherent story about the war:

“For me, he’s the link. The things I had read as I child were not just about the heroes fighting in the trenches. They were a narrative based on real lives both at home and on the battlefield – a window on to what ordinary people were thinking and feeling. I wanted to celebrate not only those at the front, but all those supporting them behind the lines – not just the ‘actors’ but the ‘stagehands’ too.

In keeping with the family theme Rob will narrate the story with the help of Bella who is his elder grand-daughter. Also taking part will be members of Fenham Ensemble chamber choir, conducted by Glenn Davis; Northumbrian piper Kathy Palmer; pianist Ruth Carlisle and singers from Hotspur Primary School in Heaton. The event will be conducted by Glenn Davis.

When asked to be involved in Songs and Stories of the Great War at the Sage, Bella said:

“I am so proud to be acting alongside my Grandpa in this production. I know how important it is for all generations to know what we as a country went through in the First World War.”

Rob hopes that people from around the region will see ‘Songs & Stories of the Great War’ as an easily accessible opportunity to commemorate the Armistice with their families on this important anniversary.

“In this one man’s story, we’re offered an insight into what people were saying, writing, singing about and feeling at that time, not just the soldiers, but the country as a whole. It is a celebration of all those who played their part in this ‘war to end all wars’; those who fought for King and Country, those who supported them at the Front, those who patched them up and kept them alive, those who kept their homes and the country going in their absence and those who have kept their memory and their actions alive over the last 100 years.

“Every family who has lived in Britain for five or six generations will have their own ‘Fielding Pickard’ – a family man who went to fight for King and Country without a second thought. This could be your family’s story.”

See Songs and Stories of the Great War (1914-1918) at 5pm on Sunday 11 November