Writing skills, honed in the courtrooms of the North-East, have helped a former Northern Echo court reporter to launch a successful business...producing murder mysteries. PETER BARRON reports

AS a court reporter, Sara West was used to covering murders – writing about the twists and turns of grisly crimes committed by real-life killers.

Two decades on, she’s plotting her own murders, and turning them into a business that’s proved to be a surprising lockdown hit.

Tall Tales Mysteries, created from Sara’s home in the County Durham village of Gainford, is not only keeping folk entertained nationwide and abroad, but providing a “lifeline” for actors left scrabbling for work by the pandemic.

The business model is dead simple: Sara uses her writing skills to produce a series of murder mysteries, hires freelance actors to play the parts, and sells performances to anyone looking for an evening of fun and intrigue.

Up to March last year, the business was flying, with shows taking place in a variety of venues. But then coronavirus struck, the country went into the first national lockdown, and the curtain came down.

“I honestly thought that was it – that we should call it a day,” she recalls. “Regular customers kept saying that we should do them on Zoom, but I couldn’t see how it would work – where’s the fun in that?”

Her fears proved to be unfounded because virtual murder mysteries have proved to be the answer for an array of groups desperately searching for excitement without having to leave their own homes.

“It’s gone better than I dared hope, and the feedback’s been incredible,” says Sara, whose journalistic career began on her local paper, the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, in Sussex.

Her biggest claim to fame remains securing an interview with a teenage Christian Bale, who lived in Bournemouth at the time of his breakthrough role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

That brush with glamour aside, Bexhill-on-Sea proved to be on the sleepy side, so Sara headed to the North-East in search of “harder news”, first on the Evening Gazette, in Middlesbrough, and then The Northern Echo’s Hartlepool office.

An opportunity quickly arose to cover Teesside Crown Court, and Sara jumped at the chance. “I only intended to do it for a few weeks, but I loved it,” says Sara. “You just get all these fantastic stories handed to you on a plate.”

Her dream job also led to her meeting her future husband – barrister, Ian West – and Sara left The Northern Echo in 2000, with the couple going on to have two sons, Aidan and Angus.

The seeds for Tall Tales Mysteries were sown when one of Sara’s friends – a member of Bishop Auckland Women’s Institute – asked her to write a murder mystery to spice up a forthcoming meeting. Sara scripted Murder On The Menu, appropriately set in a cake competition. Eldest son, Aidan, who’d expressed ambitions to train as an actor, played the detective, while WI members filled the other roles.

It was just a bit of fun, but it went down well enough to encourage Sara to write other plots. Originally, the idea was to box them up as DIY murder mysteries but, as interest grew, the business went down the path of hiring actors.

Village halls were followed by bigger venues, such as Tennants auction rooms; Acklam Hall, Wynyard Hall, and Ormesby Hall. Hotels increasingly used the murder mysteries as an additional attraction, while birthday parties, anniversaries, and company team-building exercises all become fertile ground.

The last physical performance before lockdown was at Walworth Castle and – after a two-month break – a company asked for a Zoom version. Despite Sara’s initial reservations, it proved to be a resounding success.

Word spread, and Tall Tales Mysteries was soon producing at least one online version per week.

“It’s provided a way to stay connected, have fun and socialise during lockdown, and people have been so grateful,” says Sara.

“We also made a decision early on to use actors who were falling between the cracks, with no income or Government support during the lockdown, so it’s helped to keep some of them off the breadline.”

One of the actors, Lee Morris, of Darlington, describes himself as “among the lucky ones” because he also has a full-time job as an IT trainer, but he has no doubt about the value of Tall Tales Mysteries.

“For some of the actors, there’s no doubt it’s been an absolute lifeline,” says Lee, whose wide-ranging roles have included playing a Russian ballet dancer, called Nikolai Leapov, and Charlie Champion, husband of silent movie star Gerda Loynes.

“It’s surreal because there you are, performing in front of a screen in your own dining room, with your wife and kids in the next room, but it’s fantastic fun,” he adds.

However long the pandemic lasts, the plot looks sure to thicken for Tall Tales Mysteries. Sara has around 20 plots to call on – including the original Murder On The Menu – and is busy writing new scripts as the bookings continue to come in.

Between January 22 and 24, the business is staging a virtual murder mystery weekend, comprising performances on Friday and Saturday nights, plus a chance to meet crime writers, for £40 per household.

And even when the pandemic is over, the virtual whodunnits will remain part of the mix. “It will be great to get back out to the venues, but regular customers have asked us to carry on providing online mysteries at least once a month,” says Sara. “As long as there’s a demand, we’ll keep going.”

With customers as far afield as America, Germany, South Africa, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal – as well as the UK – the evidence is clear that Tall Tales Mysteries has unlocked a winning formula.

Some might even say it’s making a killing.

• Go to www.talltalesmysteries.com to find out more

IF there’s a local politician who resembles Santa Claus, it’s former Mayor of Darlington, Councillor Gerald Lee, pictured below.

With his trademark white hair and beard, Gerald represents Heighington and Coniscliffe on the borough council. And, every year, he and his wife, Ruth, help organise a “Silent Santa” appeal to collect gifts for children who might otherwise go without.

Despite the lockdown, the response to this year’s appeal has been overwhelming, with Gerald’s New Year letter confirming that gifts of toys, selection boxes, scarves and gloves have been distributed to more than 600 children.

We live in troubled times, but goodness really isn’t hard to find.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, back to another murder mystery…A dog walker sparked a major police investigation last week after spotting a human toe sticking out of the soil in a field at Winlaton, on Tyneside.

It turned out to be a potato with a mushroom growing next to it.

Sounds like an open and shut case to me – feet and two veg.