What links Dolly Parton, Gandalf and Community Halls?

Show notes (summary)

Our guest for this episode is TV and radio presenter Pam Rhodes, best known for the BBC’s Songs of Praise and for her many interviews with celebrities such as Sir Ian McKellen, Dolly Parton and Marcel Marceau. Pam talks about her career and a trilogy of books she’s written about Hope Hall, the centre of a fictional community packed with all kinds of intriguing and hilarious characters. Pam explains how the books represent all kinds of unsung heroes and wonderful people she’s met over the years. Listen to the end and discover how you can win one of three copies of the first two books in the Hope Hall series.

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 14

Johnny Thomson 00:01
Hello everyone and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, my guest today is a well known TV and radio presenter, an author, a cattery owner, and someone who has recently revealed, well a clear passion for the kind of people who run or are in some way involved in their local village, church or community hall. Pam Rhodes is probably best known as one of the presenters of the BBC’s Songs of Praise television programme. And today I have to confess to being a little bit nervous as I know she’s an incredibly experienced interviewer having chatted with, well everyone from Sir Ian McKellen (and yes, that means I’m speaking to someone who knows Gandalf) right through to Dolly Parton. She’s even interviewed the Pope! So hi Pam, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Pam Rhodes 01:00
Hello. Oh, it sounds to me as if we’re going to have a lovely conversation. You’re doing brilliantly. It’s lovely to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Johnny.

Johnny Thomson 01:07
Lovely. Thanks Pam. Now of course, we’re going to be talking about village halls today. And a very interesting hall in particular that you Pam, shall we say, know better than anyone. But before we get on to that, let me just ask you about your fabulous career. As I mentioned, you’ve met so many fascinating characters through your TV and radio work. So, give me a bit of a behind the scenes into what that’s all been like?

Pam Rhodes 01:32
Well, I’ve been presenting on Songs of Praise now for… I think I started in ’87. So, it must be 34 years. I already was a presenter working in news and current affairs before that, sort of fell into Songs of Praise quite by accident in a way really, but have been perhaps the most familiar face in those 30 years. Obviously, there’s a new generation now and I do realise that I am taking the diversity box now of being in OAP. But that’s absolutely fine. So I don’t do so many with Songs of Praise now. But the wonderful thing about that programme, bearing in mind that it’s 61 years old this year, is that it’s it really is about ordinary people down ordinary streets. It’s about your neighbours and mine. And the one thing about Songs of Praise, of course, is that so often those people are based around their local churches, all denominations all under one roof singing for the congregational singing over the years, mostly, but village halls and church halls are very familiar to all of them, and all the activities that go on in them. So yeah, Songs of Praise has been a real pleasure. I think partly because I have a real curiosity about people and, and feel it is a great privilege when not just during interviews on Songs of Praise, but during all the times when I’ve just been sitting alongside people or meeting them up and down the country, how they’ve shared their experiences, what they’ve been through. They share the human experience, actually, which is common to all of us, you know, where they go through, you know, grief and bereavement and illness. And well look at the pandemic and all of the emotions and fears it’s brought out there. The challenges, the ups and downs of life. And hearing how they’ve coped with that, in particular with Songs of Praise people, of course, how their faith has made a difference in coping with that, and how sometimes they’ve doubted their faith very much and how they’ve worked that through. I’ve always spoken to people on Songs of Praise, looking back on life and what that’s brought to them. And hindsight is a wonderful thing. And I think that’s been a great privilege really to hear about where they found strengths where they found themselves, fearful of failing, what’s meant most to them, their family, love, community, spirit, friendship, all of those things that… Pride, you know that sort of sense of belonging, just our society and how it breaks down and how you hear about it from different people. It’s been a great, great pleasure and of course, a rich source of meeting people when it comes to writing books.

Johnny Thomson 04:20
Of all the people you’ve spoken to, famous or not known at all Pam, is there anyone who kind of stands out?

Pam Rhodes 04:28
Well you mentioned Dolly Parton. I would never forget Dolly Parton. I met her at half past eight one morning and she looked like a film star then, she was beautifully made up, immaculately turned out. She seems to me to be only about four foot nothing. She’s diddy, but she is such a large and wonderful and warm personality. I absolutely loved meeting her and I remember her saying at some point in the interview, my mum said to me when I was a young girl, you should never go to church in a skirt that’s too short. And she said she hadn’t been in a church since. I doubt for one minute at all that that’s true, because she’s asked a great Christian lady who writes wonderful Christian songs. But that sense of humour is infectious, really.

Johnny Thomson 05:11

Pam Rhodes 05:12
The people that stay with me most, honestly, are just the people who are like you and me. You know, our neighbours up and down the country, because we all share that human experience. And very often, when people are brave and generous enough to talk about perhaps painful experiences they’ve been through, they will never know who they touch with their words. Because no one else’s experience is exactly the same, but it will echo some of the feeling, some of the challenges that other people are going along as they listen. And, you know, as they talk about looking back on a time that they felt they were in a deep dark tunnel and couldn’t see their way out, you know, glimmer at the end of it all, actually to hear how that that glimmer became a light and how that, you know, things became clearer to them can be incredibly encouraging, very, very touching. I mean, it’s so many people that I’ve met that I’ve been impressed by, and often they’ll speak about similar themes. One of them is forgiveness. I think a lot of people carry around with them the burden of resentment and anger, about things that have been said or done or divisions, sometimes very close to home in families in the past. And I’ve met some remarkable people who’ve spoken about forgiveness, like a wonderful man who was the teacher who was stabbed by his 14 year old pupil at a secondary school up in Yorkshire. And he talked about watching his life’s blood flowing away from him and thinking he was going to die. It happened at something like 8.30 in the morning. And fortunately, of course, his life was saved by the medics. I met him about 10 months later with his family. And about a month before that he’d been in court. And this young man 14 years old, who stabbed him for no other reason, except that this teacher taken his phone away, because he was using it in class the day before, when he was given 11 years of sentence both in a sort of juvenile situation and beyond and, you know, hoping that would give him some sort of healthy perspective on life. He, he yawned, he was bored to tears with the whole court procedure. And then Vincent, this man, Vincent Uzomah came out on the court steps and said, do you know I forgive him. You know, he said, I have to let it go, I can’t carry that hatred around with me. And I just hope that what he will find in what lies ahead for him in future years is a better way of living, a better way to view other people and to be part of our community. And he just said with his family, you know, I will pray for him. And he did meet up with him and sort of befriended him and kept in touch with him over the years. Many stories like that, that have really touched me and that I think are lessons for us all in life.

Johnny Thomson 08:10
Absolutely. It’s a strong message and one that’s very pertinent of course, for our times. I I think Pam the one you’ve spoken to that fascinates me more than anyone else, Gandalf aside of course, is the famous mime artist Marcel Marceau… Did he actually speak to you?

Pam Rhodes 08:29
Oh yes, no Ian Mcellen and Marcel Marceau I interviewed on Radio 2, I was presenting the afternoon interview programme on Radio 2 during the week for quite a while. And Ian came in then and I mean, he is a remarkable and very interesting man to talk to. But I was wondering how Marcel Marceau would, how this would work, but in fact he’s very talkative. He’s very informative. He’s no longer with us now. That was quite some time ago. But yeah, just remarkable people that I’ve had the chance to meet.

Johnny Thomson 09:03
I think I had this bizarre, surreal kind of image in my mind of a of an interview taking taking place via mime.

Pam Rhodes 09:13

Johnny Thomson 09:13
Yeah, you and I could talk about this all day, of course. But let’s talk village halls. You’ve recently written a trilogy of books Pam about somewhere called Hope Hall, which to be clear is entirely fictitious of course. And it’s bursting with interesting characters who are in one way or another involved with the village hall, and all with their own very intriguing backstories. So tell me a little bit more about Hope Hall Pam.

Pam Rhodes 09:46
Well, the last book in that series was book number 27 that I’ve written. So I love writing. And I started writing, first of all, because I was asked by a publisher to write about behind the scenes at Songs of Praise and I realised that couldn’t talk about real people that I’d met, because their stories will have continued and we’re really not mine to tell. So I ended up writing a fictional account of the songs of praise being made in East Anglia, where I could pull out some of the stories that have been shared with me by the many, many people I’ve met over the years on Songs of Praise, and create the strongest possible story for that book. And it was the start of loving writing novels, which always seem to include lots of characters and are based in communities. Well it was while I was on Songs of Praise, I went one afternoon to what turned out to be a great big hall in the middle of Bristol. And the story in a way that I was covering then was irrelevant. But when I walked into this building, it just had so many nooks and crannies, and it had an upstairs balcony bar. And it had lots of offices and separate meeting rooms around the back. And when I looked at the wall, where there was a timetable of all the things going on in this community hall, morning, afternoon, evening, and night-time, there was things going on. And I just thought that’s fascinating, because these halls are such a meeting place of people who would never normally meet in any other walk of life. And so that was what sowed the seed for me. And it took a while actually to get round to writing the books. But what a pleasure it was. So I’ve taken a year in the life of just one hall. And this hall, as you say, is fictional called Hope Hall. And rather than being a village hall, although the sentiment is just the same, this is an old Memorial Hall. And it happens to be based in 2020, the year of its 100th memorial. So in other words, it was built after the First World War as a memorial hall to the many young men in that town that hadn’t come back and how it had devastated people’s lives. And one of the storylines in it is that as it was built under the foundation stone, they did put a kind of time bomb of letters and information from the people who were involved in planning it and building it and reflecting what happened on its opening day that could then be opened and celebrated 100 years later. So I’ve divided the books into Springtime, Summertime and Christmas at Hope Hall. So, throughout the year there are a team really, a heart of people that you keep meeting. Tthe staff at Hope Hall, the administrator, the catering staff because they have a very busy cafe that’s open all day long to the public, it’s just off the high street, but also does catering for the OAPs lunch club and for all the other various clubs and events and anniversaries and funeral parties and gatherings of all sorts as you know that take place in a hall like that. But also there then could be these cameo stories throughout each of the books, where you just meet people for a short time while they’re taking part in that particular event. It could be the English as a foreign language class, it could be the dance night that goes on when you meet members of the group where the you know, the lead singer is a bit of a prima donna and is getting on everyone’s nervous. It could be the food bank, and the mysterious man who’s in rags who turns up, but he’s obviously very educated and trying to track down what has happened to him and to help him eventually. It could be the waggy dog club, dog training classes which of course are fraught with good fun.It could be the playgroup and all the various things going on there and the backstories of some of the people who are involved. It could be the Slimming World group only I can’t remember what I think I called it the fat club instead. Affectionately known as the fat club, just so many different things. So there’s a money advice group there as well that you can go for. It’s a very you know, discreetly done. And then yeah, all all the individual events that bring people along. The panto is great, good fun as well. There’s the dancing class as well and bringing in new kinds of dancing like breakdancing and tap dancing for older people and, and the tremendous sense of humour, especially of the older age groups there. All the history they have, all the stories they can tell, the great sense of fun. So yes just a real sort of look at life really all meeting at Hope Hall.

Johnny Thomson 14:36
Yeah, I think that’s what I loved about the books is as you said, such a such a, it’s jam packed full of different characters, and they bring almost different genres to the read. So you’ve got Kath who’s kind of the main driving force being the halls and there’s some romance there. And we’ve got Ray the Caretaker who is looking after his seriously ill wife. So there’s some sadness and tragedy of course, in that. Then we’ve got the wonderful and aptly named Can’t Sing Singers that I think are really my favourites, you know. And there’s the comedy element and they use the hall and I really love them because they epitomise how it’s sometimes the joy and taking part that counts rather than, shall we say, the standard of the performance.

Pam Rhodes 15:18
Well that’s right and the Can’t Sing Singers are mostly made up of what had been the church choir across the road. And for decades, they’d all been singing in the church choir. And to be fair, probably that the joyful sound they made on a Sunday morning was less than joyful on occasions. But they’d all been doing it for a long, long time. And when the organist who was the musical director at that church retired, they got a new man in and he embraced the choral tradition, and the high choral tradition at that, so he decided to audition everyone in the choir. Only one person got through had a good tenor voice, and the rest of them were all kicked out. And there were auditions held from people who were, you know, in, trained in choral choirs at very high level, and it was all very highfalutin all of a sudden. So the ones that got kicked up decided that really, they’d quite like to keep on singing. And through the dancing school, they met the pianist who did the ballet classes, and he’d come from the world of variety really, could play anything by ear and great sense of humour. And they eventually invited him along to see whether he’d be interested in taking them on. And he just did a kind of sing-a-long, all sorts of different things. They were dreadful. And he just said, I’d love to take you on, I like a challenge. And he said, I’ve never laughed so much in my life. And what he did, in the end, was allowed them to sing badly. But because it was so funny, and they were all very sincerely singing it, and you know, and obviously, part of the story of the joke as well, whenever they go on stage, people just end up singing along with them crying with laughter. And you’re right, it’s all about the taking part. And they are the most popular item on every event that happens at Hope Hall.

Johnny Thomson 17:05
Good old Ronnie the Pianist. He’s wonderful, because you can tell he is an absolute professional from his background, but he doesn’t care about that at all. It’s the fact that people are passionate about the singing that interests him.

Pam Rhodes 17:19
It’s the taking part, isn’t it Johnny? And I think that honestly, you know, people, especially this year, hasn’t it shown us how lonely it can be when you are locked in your own four walls. But it does take a lot of courage to go and join something, doesn’t it? But if you do have the courage to join a club that you’re drawn to, what you will find is lots of other people were drawn for the same reason. So you’re not meeting friends in an unnatural way you’re meeting them because you’ve got an interest in cooking or because you know, you’d all like to learn a foreign language, or you’d like to try dancing or line dancing or you’ve got a dog that’s misbehaving. And it just allows you to meet new people in your own community, which can have a greater depth to every aspect of your life.

Johnny Thomson 18:06
Yeah, as you say, especially at these these times. And you alluded to Covid there and I think it’s probably worth mentioning that there’s, there’s no element of COVID in the book at all, is there?

Pam Rhodes 18:17
No, because I’d actually written the first book, in fact, it was actually out and published, the Springtime Hope Hall when Covid first started last year, and the Summertime one would have come out a lot quicker, but in fact, it came out it just about June this year, and the Christmas one will be coming out in September. So by Christmas, all three of them will be there and this is the read that continues. So I think I can imagine if people enjoy the first but they’ve just been, you know, longing to read the next thrilling instalment. So I’m hoping that the fact that now all three will be out very shortly, it’s going to be, you know, an advantage, a bit more fulfilling for people than never knowing quite what happens in the end.

Johnny Thomson 18:57
Yeah. And I think it’s nice that that’s not part of the story as well, because it almost provides an escape, as well from from all of that as well. So it’s…

Pam Rhodes 19:05
I mean, who’s going to want to read about that in two years time? I think it’s very current, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s a timeless story, which just happens to be set in 2020. But it could be any year.

Johnny Thomson 19:16
Yeah. The thing that strikes me most of all about the books is that no one could really have written them without firstly having a deep understanding of people, but also of village hall life. Village halls are something you’re clearly clearly passionate about. So, broadly where does that where does that come from Pam?

Pam Rhodes 19:38
Do you know, I think it comes from loving dancing. Ever since I was a youngster and going along to dancing classes, ballet classes, of doing pantomimes you know all the things you do as well. There’s lots of things go on don’t they at church halls, rehearsals of all sorts? And then later on in life, teaching dancing myself, even more I first became a presenter I was teaching dancing in the East End of London and two other youth clubs, just dancing and drama just for fun. And, but in different church halls, and just realising what a focal point they are. And then I suppose years of being at church fetes and going along and being involved in church events. I do a lot, I’m a great anorak about hymns, I love hymns. And you know, I do sort of evenings of sing-along-a-hymns really, at various churches. I’ve been to church halls, up and down the country. And I just think they are such a such a welcoming environment for people. It’s such a wonderful way for communities to actually have almost like a living room that they can all be part of. And I think, sadly, very often, the organising comes down to just a few people who do all the work. But I think so many people loved the fact that those village halls are there and we need to support them. We need to support them and play our part to keep them going. They are a tremendous resource, which we will moan about losing. But we have to do our bit to keep them going don’t we?

Johnny Thomson 20:46
Absolutely. Can I ask Pam? We’re getting a little bit more deep here. But it almost feels like Hope Hall is is your way of highlighting the the unsung heroes that you’re mentioning there that lie behind this incredible network of village, church and community halls. And I mentioned at the beginning that you’ve interviewed many famous people, but it almost feels like through the Hope Hall books here, you’re paying tribute to the kind of people who are less well known but who do incredible things for their local communities yeah?

Pam Rhodes 21:42
Well, I think one of the things about Songs of Praise is, even if I’ve met them to do an interview about something quite tragic, or even quite newsworthy, that’s happened in their past, I always meet them afterwards. And what they share with me is always, although it might have started off with confusion and pain and worry, always ends up being quite upbeat. I meet the best people in the world. Over all these years, I’ve I’ve just had so many good news stories, really, I think there’s so much hope, so much love so much care for other people, which have focused on those sorts of communities that you’re talking about. And I just love to bring that out. On the other hand, though, of course, so many of those people have talked about things that have happened in their lives that they could never have imagined were going to happen. And I think that’s true of all of us, that bereavement might come and knock us sideways. The effect of retirement, perhaps even being laid off and worry about money, worry about relationships, worry about different generations in the family not understanding each other or needing to care for each other. So many different, but common experiences that people have. And I think that’s probably what I’ve reflected in Hope Hall. I wouldn’t say they’re based on real people, but they are based on the kind of real people that I’ve met. And some of those stories must definitely have been shared with me by people I’ve met in the past, perhaps I couldn’t even put a name to them. But I feel I’ve been very sponge-like about the things that they’ve told me over the years, which is gives me a huge sort of reservoir of characters that I can create and stories that might be their own. So, so yeah, I think a lot of that is reflecting the people that I’ve been fortunate to meet over many years of Songs of Praise and everything that else that’s been involved because of that.

Johnny Thomson 23:46
Yeah, yeah. Because that community, it’s about enjoyment and having fun. And those positive things, but it’s also, as you say, when when people have a time of need when they’re experiencing something negative in their life, being able to turn to the community in that way is so vitally important, as well.

Pam Rhodes 24:05
And also to remember some of the older generations. And there’s a lot about the older generations in this book, who are, they’re spiky and funny and rude. And just very down to earth. You know, they’re your Nan, do you know what I mean? They’re your Nan or the lady next door. But then there are insights throughout the book, where you get a glimpse of what they’ve been through, and a generation which in 2020 are in their 80s, have been through such a lot. And sometimes what they’ve been through has been incredibly painful and challenging and involved a lot of rebuilding, practical physical rebuilding, as well as emotionally rebuilding. Building families, again. Dealing with the past is something that they sometimes keep to themselves and so I think what I’ve done quite often, you get a bright and breezy view of someone and then occasionally you’ll get a glimpse of what lies beneath that. And I would say that I believe in each of us there is a precious person within, I think the person we were created to be with, with all our idiosyncrasies, our physical, our practical, our geographical, our skill set, all of the qualities that are ours, I think, creates what we are. But we can be very superficial when we meet people, we can really judge books by the cover, we can allow other people’s opinion to colour up opinion of people. And yet actually, if you scratch a little deeper, if you give someone the time to open up to you, you get a glimpse of that precious person within. And sometimes you will find that there are the most moving circumstances that have created them to be as reticent as defensive or aggressive, or shy or overwhelming or bossy as they are. However you find them, you’ll often find there is a reason why they’re like that if you take the time to get to know them. And you know halls, like village halls, community halls, church halls, allow us the chance to get to know people that we might see on the street for years, but never get to know in any other way.

Johnny Thomson 26:17
Yeah. Great message Pam. Thank you so much for that. It’s been absolutely great talking to you. And yeah, thanks so much. Before we go, tell me where can where can people find the Hope Hall books?

Pam Rhodes 26:30
Yes, I mean, I would say bookshops, but I… Most people would get it through Amazon or any other supplier. Lion Hudson are the publishers so you can get it from them. And also, you know, if people want me to sign it, tell them to look up my website and I can always just organise them to get them a copy that’s perhaps devoted to somebody that they’d like to give it to for birthday present, or whatever. So do contact me. And I’ll always help that way if I can.

Johnny Thomson 26:34
All good book stores yes? Definitely, we’ll do that. And I’ll put some links on our website for all of that and, and I’m delighted to say that we’ve got three copies of Springtime at Hope Hall, and Summer’s Out at Hope Hall to giveaway to our listeners. So listen up everyone. All you have to do is get on any of our social media pages. So that’s our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even the YouTube channel and follow or subscribe while leaving a like or a comment with the post for this episode. It’s as simple as that. We’ll select three random winners in a few weeks time and get in touch if you’re one of the lucky ones. And let me just say it’s well worth doing so because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the books so far, Pam, and I can’t wait for Christmas to come out in September, and hopefully…

Pam Rhodes 27:44
It all gets resolved one way or another.

Johnny Thomson 27:46
Yes I was going to say, I want answers to the many questions left over from Summer’s Out.

Pam Rhodes 27:51
Well we’ll have to have another talk won’t we when a few more people know what the whole story is.

Johnny Thomson 27:57
All I’d say is don’t leave me hanging Pam, you know.

Pam Rhodes 28:00
Certainly not. Thanks, Johnny.

Johnny Thomson 28:02
Yeah, no, brilliant. So thanks again Pam. Good luck with the books and congratulations, and best wishes with everything that you do.

Pam Rhodes 28:10
Ah, thank you and the same to all of you. And I’m delighted that you asked me, it’s a great pleasure.

Johnny Thomson 28:15
Thanks again. And that’s all folks for this episode. Don’t forget about our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition where you could win £1,000 for your village hall and £500 pound for yourself. You can find out more on a special page on our website. And of course, thank you to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again in two weeks time with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.