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How Rev Mark and his singers make up a more than OK chorale

By Eddie McIlwaine

It's nearly carol time again for King's Chorale, the choir that puts the harmony into the festive season. And, this year, the chorale has an extra Christmas present for its faithful followers at its two concerts - at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Saturday, December 2, and at St Catherine's Parish Church in Aldergrove on Saturday, December 9.

But that surprise gift is still a closely guarded secret. All will be revealed when the chorale appear on stage at those special, Yule-flavoured nights.

Conductor Mark Spratt and his male and female singers have been rehearsing for weeks and are promising two events of real Christmas cheer.

You could say that Mark (57) leads a double life. To put it another way, he is, more formally, the Rev Mark Spratt.

Away from the chorale's rostrum, he steps into the pulpit of Kilmore Presbyterian Church, near Crossgar, where he is the minister.

But he sees nothing remarkable about delivering sermons on the Sabbath and being a musical director and conductor of the chorale on Tuesday practice nights and at concerts.

In fact, he is looking forward to bringing the chorale to Kilmore, where he trains the choir as well as preaches.

Mark was only 14 when he became an organist at 1st Killyleagh Presbyterian and conducted the adult choir.

It was still music all the way for him when he joined the Stranmillis Singers during his time at teacher training college.

He taught music at Mossley Primary School before moving into the Presbyterian ministry.

At 1st Portadown, where Mark was assistant, he also trained the choir, and he is still remembered by choir members at Hamilton Road Church in Bangor.

"The church and music are my life," Mark tells me.

Mark and his wife, Mary, who have two sons and a daughter, will be celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary on Thursday, December 21.

The Fisherwick concert has been happening for years and is now well-established as part of the Belfast scene at Christmas.

The King's Chorale was born out of the ashes of the famous Christian Endeavour Choir, which after a long and successful career from its beginnings in 1966, took a final bow in the mid-1980s, when veteran members decided to retire.

Why mum's the word for actress Caroline

It's all happening for the charming Caroline Curran, with the festive season just round the corner.

First of all, the talented Belfast actress was a heavily pregnant bridesmaid at pal Julie Maxwell's wedding to Welshman Rhodri Lewis.

And then, just two weeks later, Caroline (33), whose partner is Christopher Williamson, gave birth to daughter Molly. Now, Caroline and Julie (34) are about to play nurses in a comedy called The Nightshift Before Christmas, which is due to open at the Theatre at the Mill in Mossley on Tuesday, December 5. It runs until the end of the month.

The pair also wrote the show, which is set in a fictional hospital, so you could say it's all happening for Julie, too.

Gary, the sinking woman's idol

Singer-songwriter Gary Barlow might pop into the Dunadry Inn at Templepatrick when he is here next spring - just for old times' sake.

You see, way back in 1990, when he was staying in the hotel with Take That, with whom he first found success with bandmates Jason Orange, Mark Owen, Howard Donald and Robbie Williams, Gary and his pals had to go to the assistance of two 18-year-old female fans who got a little bit too enthusiastic in an attempt to see their heroes.

The pair of them toppled into the Dunadry River, a tributary of the Six Mile Water that flows past the hotel.

The girls were in no real danger, but they were already soaking wet when a couple of the Take That stars went to their aid and pulled them out of the stream.

Gary has always been modest about his role in the minor rescue. Perhaps he will tell us about it when he is at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast next May 7 and 8. You never know, he might even stop at the Dunadry for a paddle.

Perhaps those two young ladies - now a little wiser - will turn up at one of the gigs, too.

Chewing the Fats on Carnmoney Hill

The death of Fats Domino at the age of 89 the other day reminds me of how I used to go wandering over Carnmoney Hill in times past, singing my version of his best-known song to the rabbits and crows and anyone else who would listen.

Fats' hit, of course, was Blueberry Hill, to which I made subtle changes so that the lyrics of one verse read:

The moon stood still

On Carnmoney Hill

And lingered until

My dream came true

So, what was the dream I was crooning about to the livestock donkeys' years ago, I hear you ask.

Well, you'll have to wait a while yet for the answer. Perhaps it never came true at all. Mind you, I still love Fats' version, recorded in 1956.

Let's get one thing straight: Fats didn't compose the words, or the melody.

The writers were Larry Stock, Vincent Rose and Al Lewis, and one of the earliest recordings was by the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, in 1940.

Then, Fats fell for Blueberry Hill and insisted on recording the ballad - in spite of resistance from his management, who said the lyrics were rubbish.

Limavady's colourful history brought to life in exhibition

The history of Limavady and the Roe Valley is being celebrated in a special exhibition to mark the release of a beautiful new book.

Roe Valley Memories, by Nelson McGonagle, who is from Limavady, is the second volume of the author's work, the first being Limavady & The Roe Valley, People and Places.

The exhibition will feature a selection of photographs, characters, poems and quotations from the book, which provides an insight into Limavady's past, and will inspire memories of the town's characters. This exhibition runs until January 25.

The Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, located on Main Street in Limavady, is open Monday to Wednesday from 9.30am to 5pm, Thursdays and Fridays from 9.30am to 9.30pm, and Saturdays from 9.30am to 5pm.

What happened when editor Utley took on Paisley in general election?

Columnist Tom Utley explains in a national newspaper how his late father, the distinguished editor TE Utley, who was blind from childhood, stood against the Rev Ian Paisley in the North Antrim constituency at the 1974 general election.

Mr Utley senior was over here representing the Ulster Unionist Party, while the Rev Paisley was, of course, DUP.

What son Utley doesn't explain in his column is that his father won a 21% share of the vote, which represented 13,651 votes. Paisley's share was 63.5%, with 41,282 votes.

Editor Utley was a respected personality for whom I once set up a meeting with the late Brian Faulkner (the sixth and last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, from 1971-1972).

Just why he decided to become an election candidate here, I could never understand.

Our girl Michelle returning to save day in gritty Army drama

Delighted to tell you today that Michelle Keegan will be pulling on her Army uniform again in the New Year for another series of the hit drama Our Girl.

The 30-year-old actress from Stockport, who is well known from her roles in Coronation Street and Tina and Bobby, will be in the cast once more as Corporal Georgie Lane in the story of dedicated British soldiers helping out in Nepal, where an earthquake has caused great devastation.

In the final scenes of the last series of Our Girl, soldier Georgie found true love with handsome officer Elvis Harte (Luke Pasqualino) only to have him die in her arms after being blasted by a hidden bomb.

Will she recover from the grief and heartache when Our Girl returns?

This is a series that takes a realistic look at the dangers facing countries like Nepal today.

Michelle is perfectly cast.

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