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Immaculate community theatre and popular TV culture history lesson served with dinner in Bristol’s alternative “West End”

By Claire Sully, community engagement expert and festival organiser

I had an unexpected treat last night.  My friend Annie took me to see:  Fanny and Jonnie Cradock Cook the Great American Songbook at the Hen and Chicken, Southville.

Annie’s friend is theatre producer Sheila Hannon.  I met Sheila at the entrance of the venue – she was unassuming as she sat there checking people in.  Although she had no idea who I was when she met me (and I had no idea who she was at that point) but she took my hand in both of hers, stood up, and gave me the warmest greeting, saying how pleased she was to meet me.  

In a fleeting moment, as she held my hand for what seemed like a long time and looked me full on in the eyes with the warmest and most welcoming smile, I felt as if I had come along as the show’s special guest.

This reminded me of stories I’ve heard about famously charming people, like Bill Clinton, whose charisma and exuberance was irresistible to those he met – often people would say “he made me feel like the important one!”

At that point all I knew was that Sheila was the person on the door, ticking off names, but somehow I knew in an instant I had met an interesting person who I would like to meet again.

This production, starring local actress and jazz singer Kate McNab and John Telfer (who  plays Alan Franks in The Archers) as Fanny and Johnnie Cradock, is a musical show that has comedy, skewed cookery demonstrations, popular cultural history and great music while the audience are served dinner  - a two-course Abigail party- esque delight featuring Prawn Cocktail and Chicken a la Falklands (vegetarian option available to Fanny’s digust!).

So here we were having dinner in a pub whilst watching theatre at its very best.   What heartened me was that the audience were not the usual types that I’m used to seeing in theatres or classical concerts. Refreshingly just ordinary Bristol folk, who fill the streets, shops, pubs and football matches in the local area.  

This resonated with me as  I was still feeling bruised from attending a recent Nigel Kennedy concert at the Colston Hall where all hell was let loose because I dared to breath and utter five hushed words  to my companion while Nigel was improvising  a lively piece of music with his fellow musicians.

What I experienced at the Nigel Kennedy concert was verbal aggression from fellow concert goers (two people) who were outraged at me expressing a reaction not ordained by the concert-goer rule book that no one tells you about until you put a foot wrong.

My spoken words, while Nigel played, were expressing enthusiasm for the music, but that wasn’t of any consequence to anyone as I ended up having to move my seat and feeling miserable and oppressed.

The irony was that I was actually watching a “rule-breaking” musician “of the people” who has tried to popularise classical music and open it out to a wider audience other than those who felt the need to enforce stifling and restrictive audience rules via an all-exclusive etiquette.

Incidentally, Nigel Kennedy’s concert was deemed at such a level that even the front of house staff felt the need to be subversive with flyers promoting a forthcoming Julian Clary show.  

One Colston Hall employee told me and my companion on our way out that they weren’t allowed to put Julian’s flyers with Nigel Kennedy’s programme (orders from above),  but if we wanted a flyer he would get one for us – all spoken in hushed tone to us alone.  

I guess myself and my companion must have been singled out as  people who could be told that Julian Clary was soon to be performing there.

But that was not a problem in the Hen and Chicken, and for this show I felt I was experiencing community spirit, being among extended family from different generations enjoying a show and a meal together and a bit of a sing song.  

The actors – who were top class, both great musicians/singers and actors – interacted with the audience, got us laughing, singing and enjoying a fine hearty meal.

So I was intrigued by this production that had returned following a sell-out run and even an appearance on the BBC’s The Hairy Bikers.  

The writing was clever, weaving in comedy, social history and biographical details of these eccentric characters.   The actors gave us a snapshot into the lives of these contradictory people, who said so much in a glance or lines littered with double meaning and innuendo.  

But the backdrop to the performance included a wonderful tapestry of American musical song that ingeniously helped to build the picture of these TV icons from the past, while being a brilliant comedy device – Kate McNab aka Fanny singing “I’ve got you under my skin” in all serious and emotional intensity – whilst her hands up a chicken’s backside was side-splittingly funny and not to be forgotten.

So who wrote this extraordinary piece – that elicited the very best performances from such accomplished actors?  It was Sheila and no mention of her name anywhere!  You can read more here about this production and Sheila’s theatre company. More dates are planned, thank goodness.

I’ll leave you with the words of a very famous continuity error – voiced in this show by “Johnny”: “… and I hope all your donuts look like Fanny’s”.

Recruiting Assistant/Junior web developer

We’re expanding our development team to support our growing client base and looking for a self-motivated and enthusiastic junior coder to join our ranks.

The role would suit a recent graduate or young developer with evidence of commitment and enthusiasm and examples of recent commercial coding work.

Skills required include:
Knowledge of hosting environments

We believe strongly in developing talent internally, and the right candidate would have the opportunity to grow their position into a more senior role.

Absolute requirements are a genuine enthusiasm for coding, a willingness to learn, attention to detail and a strong work ethic.

Please reply with a brief CV, contact details and examples of your work, to jobs@tickboxmarketing.co.uk

Absolutely no agencies please.

Does my bum look big in this? Opinions on public sector ICT procurement

Honestly, you look great

Being asked for feedback by organisations you supply – either directly or indirectly – is a bit like being asked “does my bum look big in this?”.

You know what you should say if you are being honest, but do you really want to go there!?

So we were pleasantly surprised – and  a little nervous – to be asked by Bristol City Council to give feedback on what it was like to work with them.

We are one of seven Bristol agencies on their ICT procurement framework, and the council is committed to procuring even more services from local ICT suppliers.

It’s a move we’d love to see echoed by other authorities in the UK. And not just because we are a supplier – but because we genuinely believe it’s an approach that offers the best value for money for taxpayers and the greatest scope for effective use of IT by local authorities.

The following are some of the key points we made about general public sector ICT procurement which we think would be useful for any local authority (or business for that matter) to take on board when commissioning web projects.

Thankfully for us, BCC is largely not guilty on all counts.

Think of it as a wish list from a digital agency that would really just like to be able to do a good job for you!

1: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”

FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) is still the biggest enemy of innovation and devourer of budgets in public procurement. The old adage about IBM still holds true – when a publicly-funded ICT project is procured there is a strong institutional sense of self-preservation that leads to using large, established businesses rather than trying more innovative, cost-efficient approaches that carry a perceived risk of the unknown.

Unfortunately – as evidenced in any number of large public ICT disasters – the only risk being avoided is the risk of being blamed for having taken an innovative approach. The risk to the project is often less taking on “unknowns” as long as they are, to quote Mr Rumsfeld, “known unknowns”.

Getting to know your local suppliers, understanding what makes a good one, building up relationships with them so you know strengths and weaknesses, matching groups of smaller suppliers into partnerships with capacity to deliver – these are what make your “known unknowns”, and – I’m glad to say – what BCC seems to be doing.

Also, collectives of individual expertise usually provide a much more fertile environment for innovation and flexibility than the more monolithic approach of larger organisations.

2: Letting technology drive marketing strategy

Its still common to see the public sector treating web development as though it is a pure IT discipline. IT departments often run web projects when 90% of what you are trying to solve with a web development are strategic, administrative and engagement problems, not technical ones.

We see a lot of public sector tenders, and in the vast majority of cases the focus of questions is on technology – or technology/design. There seems to be little consideration of digital strategy – and where there is, suppliers are being asked to set out strategy without the necessary knowledge and insight of organisational goals, audience, strategy, capacity etc to make anything but an educated guess.

BCC is largely an honourable exception here – although there was still an element, certainly at the beginning of the local supplier engagement programme, of trying to decide on platforms/technologies etc before sitting down to work out what we trying to achieve from a strategic point of view.

Quite often public sector web tenders are sent out before being market ready. They make assumptions on functionality and design that have not been validated in planning and consequently what is being asked for tends not to be the best solution – and as suppliers trying to win tenders we find ourselves having to commit to an approach to a project
that might well be the wrong one.

Personally, I think this is the single most cost-effective thing any public sector (and indeed private sector) organisation can do when commissioning a website.

3: Clarity on budget

Quite often tenders come out without a clear budget. This is significant as the entire approach to coming up with the most effective solution is hugely influenced by budget.

In all cases where we are asked to provide details of a solution, we will suggest the most effective approach with the best potential for ROI. This will, of course, often be the most costly approach in terms of initial investment. However, if there is a limited budget that doesn’t allow optimum solutions there will often be a “next-best” approach.

We’ve seen tenders where we have lost on price by suggesting an optimum approach. With guidance on budgets, we would have been able to take a budget-conscious “next-best” approach to the tender which would have at least allowed us to compete on a level playing field with those agencies that had guessed the right budget.

It would be very helpful to have budget clarity. If we still thought that you would achieve more ROI by spending more, at least we could flag this up rather than build our tender approach around an unachievable budget.

As I say, BCC is just about the only public sector organisation we know that seems to be moving in the right direction with this stuff – which is probably why its the only one brave enough to ask for public feedback on it!

Never mind the trouser press – where’s the wi-fi?

Better connection up here than in my hotel. Hmm..

I’ve just got back from a week away in beautiful Snowdonia (no, that’s not my 4×4) and found myself reminded yet again that the best things in life are free – fresh air, mountain scenery, wi-fi.

And like all the best things, you don’t always appreciate them till they are gone. Getting away from it all is great, as long as “all” doesn’t include the ability to communicate.

Yet again, I was struck by the fact that so many leisure businesses fail to understand that free access to good quality wi-fi is as fundamental to their customers’ needs as toilet facilities.

Spending a penny

You don’t ask me to type in a 14 digit codeword, set up an account and pay a premium rate before I can take a wizz, so don’t ask me to do it to access wi-fi. That’s if you have wi-fi in the first place.

So much of what we do on holiday – from deciding where to go to booking a ticket to keeping up with gossip at home – is done online that to have no, or restricted, access to the internet has a huge impact on the quality of your stay.

The place we stayed was fine – but I’ll never go there again. Don’t give me a trouser press but no free internet access and a terrible connection speed.

When I find I have faster access to the internet on my smartphone at the top of Wales’s highest mountain than I do in my hotel, it’s time to find a new hotel.

Time and again I come across restaurants that either have no wi-fi access, or lock it down with a price to log in. It seems almost unbelievable that there are still hotels that don’t have free access to wi-fi.

If you are in the business of accommodating people – whether that’s in your rooms, your tables or your conference facilities – wi-fi should just be there. Like running water, lightbulbs, chairs, toilet paper..

Internet access is a fundamental, basic requirement not a premium add-on. If you don’t get that, don’t be surprised if you don’t get customers.

Blogging your way in – BCC and why it’s good to talk

We’re delighted to have just been officially unveiled as one of the magnificent seven Bristol agencies working on the new Bristol City Council web project.

We’re even more delighted that this has come about because BCC actually did something many councils talk about but rarely do in such a meaningful way – consulting with industry.

Conversation starter

Last year, BCC announced that it was going to take opinion from Bristol’s digital community on the re-development of the council’s website.

Naturally, we were interested and attended a round-table discussion on the project, after which I wrote a blog piece picking up on the fact that I felt the engagement was missing a trick.

I was delighted – and the cynic in me a little surprised – when I received a reply from the council’s communications and marketing director Peter Holt opening up a dialogue about the subject we’d raised.


The discussions that followed led to our engaging with the procurement process for approved suppliers to work on the project – at the end of which we’re extremely pleased to have been selected.

It’s been a refreshing process to go through – and a rare one in procurement – where a public sector body has gone to industry happy to say it doesn’t have all the answers and asking them to contribute ideas to a project rather than presenting them with tender documentation for a fait accompli.

Having gone through the process with BCC, I’m convinced this approach has led to a much more carefully thought out and strategised web project than would have been the case if consultation had not occurred on the same level.

It’s a very exciting project to be involved in, and hopefully one that will set the benchmark for similar projects across the UK.