Retirement? It'll just have to wait...
Mike Bettison is a man of many parts. He is a director of The Teesdale Village Halls Consortium and a trustee of Bowes Village Hall. He is the artistic director of Blaize, a community arts company which has been working in rural areas since 1980. For the Music@the Heart of Teesdale youth music project he is the lead researcher and he runs Singing for the Brain sessions for the Alzheimer’s Society in Barnard Castle, Middleton-in-Teesdale and Bishop Auckland. He played melodeon and sang with the folk group Flowers & Frolics and performed with the Fabulous Salami Brothers street theatre act for 20 years. In November 2019 a short video of him playing for his good friend Pete Baynes who was doing his ostrich impersonation went viral. It has been viewed by over 25 million people.
What first sparked your interest in the arts?
I went to a secondary boarding school and immediately joined the chapel choir, which sang every morning and twice on Sundays – except for Saturdays, which was rehearsal day. The school also had a strong theatrical tradition, so I performed in something most terms. I guess that kicked it all off.
Was it always your ambition to follow a career in the arts in some shape or form?
Not really. I went to City University in London and studied economics. There was no drama society at the time so I started one and directed a few shows. I started a Morris Dance group, then a Mummers group. A few of the Morris musicians formed a band.
After a while I found that people wanted to pay me for doing this which was quite exciting. Thus a career began.
Over the years, you’ve done pretty much every role on stage and behind the scenes – do you have a favourite, or do you enjoy the challenges they all throw at you?
I’ve always enjoyed all the challenges. You soon learn that not everything you do is going to be great. So you take the rough with the smooth.
If I had to pick a favourite , it would be producing and directing a piece of new theatrical writing – putting the creative team together and casting, then finally seeing it happen on stage. A favourite journey rather than a favourite thing.
Has there been a career highlight – or do you prefer to look forward rather than back?
Performing at two World Expos – Vancouver in 1986 and Brisbane in 1988 – were both very memorable. I was very pleased with “Joan & Jimmy” which we toured in March last year.
But I do look forward. Perhaps I should be retiring, but doesn’t seem to be on the horizon at the moment.
In recent years, you have also been involved with Music at the Heart of Teesdale. Why is it important to connect the dale’s young people with the music traditions of the area?
This answer could be a thesis!
Briefly, I believe we need to connect with our home landscapes, both physical and cultural.
An understanding of that informs how we create now and in the future.
You are also involved with the Music and Memories project both in Barney and the upper dale. How did this come about and what benefits does it bring to those who go along?
In the spring of 2014, I was contacted by Mark Wilkes who was then working for the Alzheimer’s Society and they were looking to set up a Singing for the Brain group in Barney.
We met for a coffee and he explained what they were planning and was I interested in applying.
My mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s so I had an added reason to be interested. The last session I did in Barney before lockdown was session number 136. The sessions at Utass began in 2016 and these have continued on line this year, currently every four weeks.
You are currently artistic director of Blaize Community Arts. What are the aims of this organisation?
It’s a community performing arts company that delivers a variety of artistic projects.
These range from producing plays, the song and music projects to running the rural touring schemes (like Highlights here) in the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.
Where does your love of folk music come from?
I just love its directness. Although it has its stars and virtuoso performers, it is a music of the people. It all ties in with the community arts ethos – people doing things themselves.
From an arts point of view, what have you missed most since March 2020?
Live performing of course, but also sitting and being part of an audience.
Again from an arts point of view, are you optimistic for the future or has the sector been irreparably damaged?
I think that the cultural sector will pull through but there will have been some casualties on the way and it will not be exactly the same. A phoenix will rise from the ashes, but it might be a different sort of beast.