Blog An Immersive Northumbrian Experience Fiona Ellis has worn many hats, metaphorically speaking, during a career which she describes as more “a series of accidents… very happy accidents”. Her most prominent role was as founding director of Northern Rock Foundation (NRF) which granted millions of pounds to North East good causes during her 11-year tenure. The flow of cash (£27.3 million in 2006 alone) became a trickle after the financial crisis of 2007-8 brought the downfall of Northern Rock and Fiona left the following year. But one of her other ‘hats’ is as a writer which is why her name is now to the fore. Her series of audio tales, “with some reference to old fairy tales but bringing them into a Northumberland context”, is the special new lockdown production from theatre company November Club. Image (c) Hannah Fox A public launch event for Lost, Found and Told is to be live streamed on December 16 with Fiona on the platform with director Cinzia Hardy and other key members of the production team. “I’m kind of thrilled,” admits Fiona. “This was going to be a live show, Cinzia’s last (she steps down as founding director of Morpeth-based November Club at the end of the year). “The original idea was I’d write the outline of the stories and the actors would animate them with puppetry and object manipulation and movement. There would be very few words. “When it came to this Covid idea of producing them as audio tales I went back and wrote them with more consideration and more… well, I hope with a little more artistry.” For theatre companies across the country, this has been a uniquely challenging year. A tour of November Club’s new show inspired by the life of 18th Century Northumberland cook Hannah Glasse, Foods and Feuds: Two Cooks of Hexham, had to be cancelled. Fiona had done the research and is credited as the writer. But as she says: “Writers are always the ones tucked behind… because we’re not really the visible ones. “The audience thinks the actors make it up themselves, the design is always very clear and conspicuous and the music very emotional.” Sounding quite cheerful about it, she adds: “To be honest, I was always very happy with that.” But a writer’s input should be acknowledged. As Durham poet Anne Stevenson, who died in September, once remarked: “I think anybody who writes likes to have their work recognised.” Re-imagining the stories of Lost, Found and Told as an audio work is something new for November Club and it makes Fiona’s role in the project more prominent. Beguilingly, the recording’s introduction tells us: “There are stories of loss and finding; of courage, the fake and the true kind; of love and kindness in unexpected places; and of the strength and resilience of Northumberlanders. “They’re not true – and yet they’re all true, as stories with magic always are.” The tales can be listened to at home or outdoors where they are set. Originally from Belfast, Fiona says a career in academia rather than the theatre had been her youthful ambition. She studied English Literature at Oxford and then gained further degrees in America and York. The aim was to be a medievalist. Moving to London to study for a PhD, she volunteered to work at a theatre in a converted mortuary and “got sucked into it. “I abandoned my PhD, to my mother’s horror, because I’d been ploughing a lonely furrow and thought collaborative work was more fun. I wanted to work in theatre because I liked it. “I chased the idea of being a director but decided I probably wasn’t very good at it, so the theatre didn’t really work out for me at that stage. I started writing short stories and things like that. “Of course, the need to earn a living tends to get in the way.” By the time she moved to the North East in 1998, Fiona had been assistant director (arts) for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and built an impressive CV in the charitable sector. Northern Rock, transforming from building society to bank, hired her to set up and run its new foundation. It was, she reflects, “the biggest and busiest job I ever had”. It was also “a brilliant concept by the bank. The Foundation owned 15% of the bank’s shares and it received, in lieu of dividends, 5% of the bank’s pre-tax profits every year, which amounted to a hefty sum as the bank became more and more profitable. “The theory, and it was a very good theory, was that after 10 years we could have sold those shares and been massively rich. Unfortunately, the 10th year was when the shares got taken away. “There should have been a fund in perpetuity, an asset for the people of the North East forever, basically.” How does she reflect on it all now? “Well, you try not to because it’s gone. But it was fantastic. “It’s so tragic that it didn’t achieve the goal the bank had set for it as being a foundation in perpetuity, but there you go.” Arts and culture were significant beneficiaries of NRF in its heyday. Its annual writer’s award, granting a published North East writer £60,000 over three years, was a notable headline-grabber. “It was bigger than the Booker but its pond to draw from was smaller,” says Fiona. Anne Stevenson, the first recipient in 2002, made the aforementioned remark in a film showing the benefits of winning. Fiona kept her hand in as a writer by turning out plays for her local village hall in Northumberland. “They were kind enough to indulge me,” she says modestly. After she left NRF there was “a period of thinking”. Then began the collaboration with November Club, suggested by Cinzia, her partner, who she had “dragged” with her to the North East: “My gift to Northumberland,” jokes Fiona. She was offered the chance to write November Club’s first production for Wallington Hall, which became Teacups, Zebras and Dancing Kaisers, inspired by past occupants of the National Trust property. “I said I couldn’t possibly. Too much responsibility. But I said, ‘Tell you what: I’ll have a go good and early and if it isn’t good enough you can get a proper writer in to do it.’” It went well and Fiona has provided the words for most of November Club’s productions ever since, bringing her back into the theatre world she had flirted with years ago. It is not her sole preoccupation. As a former member of the Durham University Council, she was invited back to chair its highly publicised Commission on Respect, Values and Behaviour in 2018. “I did that. The report was held up because of Covid and various other things but we have reported and now I’m going to be deputy chair of the oversight group that the university is setting up to hold its feet to the fire.” Recent unfortunate publicity concerning the behaviour of some students at Durham has highlighted the importance of the report and what follows. Fiona says: “It’s a very transparent and honest approach and I’ve been impressed by it.” Meanwhile, she has no plan to stop writing and neither she nor Cinzia wants to move. “We like it here. We like to think of ourselves as new Northumbrians.” Favourite spots include Wallington, Cragside and the Ingram Valley. A love of the landscape of England’s most northern county comes out in Fiona’s words and the music of Lost, Found and Told. Details of how to buy a digital copy of the stories, narrated by North East actors, can be found on Bandcamp: November Club (bandcamp.com) - Details of how you can view the live streamed event coming soon.