Belfast Telegraph

Opera House is Darcey's choice as best theatre in Northern Ireland barre none

By Eddie McIlwaine

Retired ballerina Darcey Bussell will be delighted to learn that one of her favourite places of entertainment, the Grand Opera House in Belfast, has just been voted Northern Ireland's Most Welcoming Theatre.

At the height of her career, Darcey appeared on the Grand Opera House stage several times and, after her final performance, presented a pair of her signed, custom-made dance pumps to a young Ian Wilson, a backstage assistant who looked after her during her time here.

She has never forgotten the theatre - or Ian, who is now the Grand Opera House's chief executive and who treasures those Bussell pumps (right).

One of these days, Ian hopes Darcey - now a judge on Strictly Come Dancing - will return to the theatre.

She became a principal dancer at only 20 with the Royal Ballet and is acclaimed today as one of the great ballerinas.

"But never mind her talent, Darcey was - and is - a truly nice person," says Ian.

She remained with the Royal Ballet for her whole 20-year career but also performed as a guest artist with other companies before finally retiring in 2007.

I know that Darcey has followed Ian Wilson's career and is aware that he and the Grand Opera House are on a shortlist of 12 for the UK's Most Welcoming Theatre Award.

But here is a Grand Opera House mystery I've yet to solve.

Film star Errol Flynn, a frequent visitor to Belfast in the Thirties to spend time with his father, Theodore, a lecturer at Queen's University, and his mother, Lily, dropped in at the Grand Opera House regularly.

He was in the stalls one night in the winter of 1935, a couple of hours after receiving a telegram at his dad's Stranmillis home, offering him the title role in Captain Blood - the role that turned him into a swashbuckling hero.

That much is showbiz history. Here's the mystery: who was the young lady sharing the box that night with Flynn?

I'm intrigued, although I'm confident there was no love affair developing. Perhaps the girl was one of Theodore's students.

Flynn was loved by women everywhere and there was worldwide mourning when he died in 1950, aged only 41, after too many years of hard living.

I like it when Charlotte steps out of line

TV newsreader and sometime reporter Charlotte Hawkins - my favourite competitor on Strictly Come Dancing - has been making a little bit of news of her own after her professional partner, Brendan Cole, put the judges in their place after they made unkind remarks about their performance.

So, I eagerly await the pair of them stepping into the camera's eye in the next round of Strictly tonight. Stand by for a little bit of drama.

I forecast that Charlotte and Brendan will go far in the competition - never mind their poor marks last time around.

In the audience, by the way, will be Eamonn Holmes, whose wife, Ruth Langsford, is also competing.

Eamonn and Charlotte once worked together on Sky breakfast show Sunrise. She is now with ITV's Good Morning Britain.

Charlotte is married to Mark Herbert, with whom she has a two-year-old daughter, Ella Rose.

I wouldn't bet on an Oasis reunion

Way back in the heyday of pop - 2002 to be exact - hit band Oasis were on a sell-out visit to Belfast and Noel Gallagher and I had a bet on a World Cup football match. I lost £20 to this likeable master musician. I backed England to beat Brazil and England lost. Noel, backing Brazil, got my money.

Here's my challenge to Noel as he is poised to return to the city in the near future: let's share another little gamble so I've a chance to win my money back.

I'll let Noel decide whether the bet will be on horses, football, or rugby.

I know he likes his football and his horses, so he and I will spend a little cash on a big match, or a big race.

We've plenty of time to think about it - Noel isn't due at the SSE Arena until May 9, 2018.

But what I would really like to see is Oasis back in action in Belfast.

Noel and his brother, Liam, split up some years ago, which is a shame.

Lovey-dovey tale strictly for the birds

There's an old legend out there in Christian tradition which explains that the dove is an emblem of the Holy Ghost. So, it is claimed that, while the Devil and his servants can transform themselves at will into any other bird, they can never assume the shape of the dove.

Actually, I learn from Superstitions of the Countryside, edited by Christina Hole, that doves were sacred in many ancient religions. In Greece, they were the birds held sacred by Aphrodite and pulled her chariot.

In Rome, they were associated with Venus, while among the Hebrews they were symbols of purity.

This absorbing paperback - now out of print, so I'm lucky to have stumbled on a secondhand copy - claims, too, that the heart of a pigeon, stuck with pins, was once used by lovesick girls in charms to summon their straying lovers back to them.

Did you ever read the like of it? But it might even be true.

How to be happy when nature begins to turn over a new leaf

Every time I venture into the garden these afternoons, I feel in danger of being buried under an avalanche of falling leaves. The lawns, the paths all of which were immaculate and debris-free a week ago, are now covered. I've never seen so many leaves this early in the season.

According to an old Co Antrim legend related to me years ago by the late Bob McKeown, as many falling leaves as can be caught in the hand will add up to the number of happy months that will follow. And Bob added that if you manage to catch only a single leaf, it will preserve you from colds and coughs.

Country folk will tell you that if you hear the leaves rattling or rustling then it is about to rain.

How the sight of the full moon sends me on a flight of fancy

One of the nice things about late autumn/early winter is that I can lie in bed at night and admire the full moon out of the window.

It's a lovely sight and, of course, the real moon up there in the heavens reminds me of that old classic song I See the Moon.

It was a No 1 in the UK for The Stargazers in 1954 and Nancy Sinatra released her version in 1963.

Here are some of the lyrics:

I see the moon, the moon sees me,

Down through the leaves of the old oak tree.

Please let the light that shines on me,

Shine on the one I love.

Another song about the moon was Fly Me To The Moon, recorded by Nancy's dad Frank Sinatra in 1964 which was associated with the Apollo lunar missions.

Phil's concert at the Mill will be a real corker of a show

The Town I Love So Well will never sound better than when Phil Coulter sings his tribute to home town Londonderry in the Theatre at the Mill at Mossley, Newtownabbey, on Sunday, November 5.

For in the stalls will be his old friend and former neighbour, ex-BBC NI controller Robin Walsh (and his wife Dorothy). As boys, Robin and Phil lived just around the corner from each other in Derry. But they haven't met up for ages and this get together at the Mill during Phil's tour around the province will be quite an occasion.

I'll be there, too. Both are pals of mine and the Mill is a special place for me.

When it was a Henry Campbell & Company linen mill, my late father, John McIlwaine, was a foreman in the dye works and he used to dye the corks of empty Guinness bottles all sorts of colours so that I could create make-believe animals.

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