An old maid's tale offers new adventures for unlikely actress
I was once compared to a female Frank Spencer but I wasn't quite sure to take that as compliment or not - I mean I preferred '˜a ginger Michelle Pfeiffer'?'
Many might not recognise the name Joanne Halliwell straight off the tongue, however, her representations of ‘Betsy’ the scullery maid and the ‘Witch Demdike’ have become synonymous with audiences stretching from Cumbria to Merseyside, not to mention her home-from-home Samlesbury Hall; where you’ll catch ‘her’ over the next month.
For the past 10 years Joanne, based in Fulwood, has toured the north west with her self-penned characters performing ‘warts and all’ adventures of the life as a witch, her ‘beloved’ Betsy and a few more in between.
The story on how she came to set up her ‘historical comedy stories’ in itself is quite the tale, as Joanne stresses, she is not an actress.
Her passion, in fact, is for the written word and so much so she has an MA in script writing.
So successful was her story-telling as the ‘hysterical’ Betsy, she stepped out from behind the checkout at the local Booths supermarket and decided to make a living from it.
Mum-of-two Joanne says: “Famous without being famous but I’m not an actress. I had never even performed before and there is no-one in the family involved in the arts. My dad and brothers are builders!
“It never has been about the acting side for me although I do get such a great joy at playing Betsy, who lets be frank is ‘not the fullest shilling’. But there is a little bit of her in everyone, although as a personality, she and I are total polar opposites.”
Joanne, who grew up in Freckleton, in fact started out studying horticulture on leaving Carr Hill High School ,in Kirkham, but describes having a great love for history from a young age.
Her foray into public performing evolved from a chance encounter while working as a volunteer at the Museum of Lancashire.
She explains, “In the late 90s I had, for a couple of years, attended a History of Art class hosted by Stephen Sartin, the man’s a legend, and I asked him to write me a reference as I was applying to become a volunteer at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, which he did and I was successful.
“In the year 2000 came along the exhibition of Christianity. Dressed up in costume, I was spotted ‘interacting’ in character with the public, and then asked if I would like to join the Lancashire County Council freelance role-players and I thought ‘why not?’”
Joanne, 49, toured the county performing with school children at the Judges’ Lodgings, Gawthorpe Hall, Museum of Lancashire, Fleetwood Museum and Helmshore Mill.
And so it was Betsy the scullery maid was born.
As Joanne says, “Playing the role turned out to be a bit of a gift.”
The children took Betsy the scatty maid to heart and in between her entertaining mishaps, which always had a moral, the youngsters learned a little history too.
She says: “I really loved working with the children and I began writing stories as Betsy to tour the libraries, it was all going so well until I turned up one day and, like a comedy of errors and to my horror, a mix up meant there was a group of adults sat in the middle of the library.
“At first I told them they would have to cancel, what were this group of full grown people going to make of me in a mop cap and maid’s dress? - I’d be humiliated but then I was like right ‘well I’m here I may as well go for it.’
“‘Betsy’ loved it, she was a little more cheeky and the audience totally lapped her up.”
It was the success of this session which led Joanne to branch out and take on appearances at a few more private groups.
Joanne explains, “I began doing ‘Betsy’ under the rather grand title of ‘Public Speaker’ It was mainly Womens Institutes and a couple of church groups, nothing very big and nothing very far.
“Life was good under LCC but between 2003 and 2004 I took time out with the dream of becoming a midwife.”
That particular career route was suddenly cut short, with a degree under the belt.
Joanne says: “I found out that the smell of blood actually knocked me sick, so after knocking that on the head I worked part-time over the next several years while achieving my BA writing for television and MA script writing, all the while continuing to perform Betsy for the odd group here and there.”
She credits husband Martin with finally giving her that push to ‘go solo’ with the role -play and writing full-time.
Joanne says, “The year 2010 saw me marry my lovely, geeky sweetheart, Martin, my two daughters Rebecca, 27, and 25-year-old Rosie gave me away.
“Betsy had become such a big part of me by then I almost expected her to be sitting in the audience cheering.
“It was Martin who said ‘let’s give it two years then see how it goes’ - well it went a little bit further than I actually ever imagined.”
A ‘smattering’ of bookings kept her ticking over. She sent out a few flyers, launched a website and after a successful audition with the National Federation of Women’s Institute speakers board, the diary began filling up.
“Bookings have been flooding in since.”
“In April 2011, I met Sharon Jones, house manager at Samlesbury Hall for the very first time but had to wait until March 2012 for my first appearance there.
“Now I play not only Betsy but Janey the saucy witch, Mistress Marjory Tudor lady and Mrs Harrison, Victorian school teacher.”
Joanne adds: “Janey the saucy witch being by far the most popular with adults and children alike!”
Joanne will be appearing as ‘Betsy’ at Samlesbury Hall this August, Monday to Thursday, with a different story each week. The performances are suitable for all those aged three years plus.
Then there, of course, is her continuing circuit around the WIs, Probus and Rotary groups.
“With Betsy proving so very popular I wrote a sequel where the daft maid surprisingly becomes housekeeper and again on the strength of that I made her mistress of her own house in Betsy III – The Happy Ever After - how she got there?
“Most have actually seen all three instalments of Betsy but strangely I have been stopped out and about on the odd occasion and asked about her.”
So with Betsy one, two and three -will there be a final word from Betsy appearing at a social group or classroom somewhere near you any time soon?
Joanne says she has started tinkering with Betsy four, a little bit more, much will be the delight of her loyal audiences.
And when she’s not donning the mop cap and clogs, she’s busy renovating the house ‘a whole other project’, enjoying time with her four-year-old grandson and writing poetry.
She adds: “My passion is for writing, it has always ever been the writing.
“I love to research my characters and to perform my characters but it is the writing that is at the heart of me.
“My dream is to make Betsy into a book, also all the stories written and told by Betsy over the years for the children who visit Samlesbury Hall.”
l For more on Joanne’s work visit http://jhcomedyroles.com/