Spotlight's Great Annual Balloon Debate 1995 - 2006.

A Brief History...

1995 - Spotlight's Balloon Debate was first staged as a free event during Lancaster's litfest festival at The Yorkshire House pub on 26th October 1995. It pre-dated the first actual Spotlight by two months and its success was one of the contributing factors in the decision to establish Spotlight as a monthly event in December of that year. In 1995 The Yo-Ho (as the pub is known locally) had an upstairs room with no stage, no PA and no lighting - and the performance area was directly in front of the doors to the ladies and gents toilets! The brief was simple: Four performers would dress as famous writers and improvise a debate as to which of them had the right to remain in a hot air balloon while the others were hurled to ignominous oblivion. The event was compered by Ian Marchant - who was to become Spotlight's regular compere until publishing success took him to pastures new. Guest poet for the evening was local writer Pauline Keith who gave a reading before the four intrepid contenders stepped into the balloon. So it was that Brendan Behan, aka Pascal Desmond, Barbara Cartland, aka Sue Shand, William Shakespeare, aka Colin Tweddle and William Wordsworth, aka event organiser Ron Baker, became the first passengers of this ricketty conveyance. In a series of rounds which included readings from their work, Q & A sessions with the audience, vitriolic character assassinations and improvised debate, William Shakespeare eventually emerged as the audience's chosen winner and was duly crowned king of the first balloon debate.

1996 - Twelve month's later Spotlight had become established as a monthly event with its door proceeds being donated to litfest. On 2nd November 1996 the 2nd Great Annual Balloon Debate was held at The Yo-Ho as a fund-raiser for Spotlight itself. Again Ian Marchant compered with guest spots from Lancaster actor Steve Ashton and Preston performance poet Steeve The Poet. Yet more variety was added by the inclusion of two music spots, firstly from Lancaster duo Skeleton Staff and, to close the show Kath Cross and Angie Palmer, two of Lancaster's most popular singer-songwriters coming together in a stunning musical collaboration. With such formidable support acts it was a very packed room that welcomed the debate contenders Jane Austin (Jacqui Greaves), Conan Doyle (Colin Tweddle), William McGonnagol (Ron Baker) and Anna Nonymous (Pascal Desmond). In a closely fought contest McGonnagol eventually emerged victorious.

1997 - The 3rd debate took place at The Yo-Ho during litfest on 25th October 1997. Not failing to spot a winning combination Ian Marchant again compered guest spots from Steve Ashton and Steeve the Poet while music came from University student Rachel McCarron and, this time solo, Kath Cross. The debaters were also the same successful improvising foursome who took to the newly installed stage in the guises of Enid Blyton (Colin Tweddle), Erica De Jong (Jacqui Greaves), Flan O'Brian (Pascal Desmond) and Alfred Wainwright (Ron Baker). It was The Lancashire Rambler Wainwright who this time took the audience plaudits.

1998 - Another litfest and another Spotlight Balloon Debate which took place on 24th October 1998. While the two previous debates, with attendant guests, had attracted huge audiences, the event had become a leviathan running for over three and a half hours! It was too big for its own boots and the guest spots were cut leaving Ian Marchant to compere and also, in the guise of 'Your Dad', to provide music accompanied by keyboard virtuoso Chas Ambler. Pascal Desmond assumed a new role as The Grim Reaper, hoyking contestants from the stage with his scythe, as George Elliot (Saleel Nurbhai), Geoffrey Archer (Steeve The Poet) and Samuel Taylor Colleridge (Ron Baker) eventually left God (Colin Tweddle) as (appropriately?) the sole survivor.

1999 - The 5th debate took place on 23rd October 1999 again with Ian Marchant as inimitable compere to music from Pete Ball and, all the way from Bolton, Maria Brothers. Avante guarde artist Alan Alvarez provided a suitably bizarre warm up to the contenders: Geoffrey Archer's Less Famous Brother (George Green), Jim 'Auto Repair Manuals' Haynes (Ron Baker), the wholly fictitious (and eventually winner) Constance Payne (Sarah Fiske) and Dr'Cat In A Hat' Zeus.

2000 - In 2000 Spotlight's 'fund-raising' relationship with litfest was brought to a mutually agreed close as Spotlight successfully applied for, and was awarded, its own lottery funding. For the first time, on Friday 13th October 2000, the 6th Great Annual Balloon Debate took over the monthly Spotlight event. Steeve The Poet provided a solo spot as did musicians Skeleton Staff and Maria Brothers. Prior to leaving Lancaster for literary acclaim (and his own website: Ian Marchant compered his last balloon debate as Pascal Desmond reprised his Brendan Behan, Colin Tweddle presented a frock-coated Jules Verne and Ron Baker demanded William The Conquerer be given author status. But it was Sarah Fiske who stormed to a mesmeric victory of improvisation as Lady Baden-Powell.

2001 - The 7th Spotlight debate was held at The Yo-Ho on 21st December 2001 with Colin Tweddle stepping into the compere role to introduce long serving guest Steeve The Poet and final music from The Jelly Bean Jug Band. The debate proper saw The Reverend Awdry (Ron Baker) defend the reputation of Thomas The Tank Engine in the face of gallic abuse from 'Asterix' author Rene de Goscinny (Patrick Burton). And while Pascal Desmond, aided by manservant Jomar de Vrind, beat himself to a pulp as The Marquis de Sade Sarah Fiske once again took the honours in a portrayal of Beatrix Potter that would have made Renee Zellweger turn green.

2002 - Colin Tweddle again compered guest Steeve The poet in the 8th debate on 20th December 2002 with music this time coming from singer-songwriter Mollie Baxter. Once more Pascal Desmond as The Grim Reaper stalked the contestants as David Attenborough (Jomar de Vrind), Samuel Pepys (John Freeman) and Nell Dunn (Sarah Fiske) lost their balance and toppled to a storming portrayal of William Blake (Ron Baker).

2004 - A change of venue led to a slightly delayed 9th annual debate as the balloon drifted away from the confines of the Yorkshire House and settled itself above the much larger stage at The Gregson Arts Centre on 16th January 2004. DJ Doug Leece added a new spin with his Meltdown disco to end the night. Along with the change of venue came a change of the rules as an unprecedented five debaters battled for supremacy under the watchful eye of compere Ron Baker in the guise of God. With the assistance of chubby cherubs Pascal Desmond and Jomar de Vrind the audience and God cast down a petulant Bramwell Bronte (Steeve The Poet), naughty boy Joe Orton (Marian Hughes), the dirty little tyke D H Lawrence (Patrick Burton), and mad mamma Edith Sitwell - to leave Robert E Howard's creation Conan The Barbarian (Colin Tweddle) in a bizarre head to head with the delicate and refined Sei Shonagon (Mollie Baxter). As Sei Shonagon made tea Conan knelt and capitulated as the diminutive authoress left with the laurels.

2005 - Ten years of anything is worth a celebration and so it was at The Gregson Centre on 14th January 2005 as Spotlight's Great Annual Balloon Debate made it into double figures. This time DJ Donald provided the musical backing as, at the last minute, Steeve The Poet stepped into the role of compere in place of Sarah Fiske who had been lain low by a mystery illness. With Pascal Desmond once more Grimly Reaping the balloonists went into improvisational free fall. Dylan Thomas (Patrick Burton), Ann Rice (Mollie Baxter), Barbara Cartland (Marian Hughes) and Bram Stoker (Colin Tweddle) all fell dizzily from the wicker as William McGonnagol (Ron Baker) once more proved Ye Canny Keep A Goode Man Doon.

2006 - Ah... Well... It was to have been but in the end it was not. Cancelled at the eleventh hour due to that other old cliche - unforeseen circumstances, the balloon has drifted emptily since 2005 and its reappearance on the skyline over Lancaster is now long overdue. But look! Up there! Is it a bird? - Is it a plane? - Is it Superman? - NO!! - IT IS - IT's A BALLLLOOOOON!!!

Watch this space...