IT is the longest-running religious television programme in the world, first broadcast by the BBC in the far-off black and white days of October 1961.

But the first episode of Songs of Praise in 2020 will have special relevance to the North-East and anyone suffering from the scourge of mental illness.

On January 5, Songs of Praise will be dedicated to mental health, and the programme will feature an inspirational project on Teesside, a proud area blighted by one of the highest suicides rates in the country.

As already highlighted in this column, the project is called One More Light, and is being magnificently marshalled by musician and community champion Mike McGrother.

It takes its name from a song written by Chester Bennington, with his bandmates Linkin Park, and it was first released when he took his own life two years ago.

Mike McGrother’s aim is to have a version   sung by 1,000 Teesside voices, including primary schoolchildren, the elderly, prisoners, members of the emergency services, doctors and nurses, and people from a variety of faiths.

As well as being performed by community choirs at Christmas Lights switch-on events across the five Tees Valley boroughs of Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool, Darlington and Redcar, the song will also be released online on November 22, with sales being used to tackle mental health issues.

Songs of Praise has now latched on to the project and a BBC camera crew was at The Arc, in Stockton, the other day to record the first proper rehearsal in preparation for the recording at Stockton Parish Church this Saturday.

“It’s fantastic to have a programme like Songs of Praise raising the profile of the project and mental health in general,” says Mike. “If even one person watches the programme, and realises they are not alone, then it will have been worthwhile.”

When the Songs of Praise producer asked him if the project was religious, he replied: “Not really – but, if Jesus was alive, I’m pretty sure he’d have bought the record.”

Meanwhile, in another exciting development, Saturday’s recording will be masterminded by musician and producer Danny McCormack, originally from Norton, Stockton, who has gone on to work with a range of artists, including Robbie Williams, Westlife, Van Morrison, and Wizard’s Roy Wood.

“Danny and I were in a band together as teenagers and we always promised we’d work together when the right opportunity came up – and this is it,” says Mike.

Saturday’s recording takes place between 3pm and 8pm, and anyone is welcome to turn up and take part, whether they’ve been to one of the rehearsals or not.

“We just want as many voices as possible on the recording because it’s about capturing the area’s community spirit,” says Mike.

IT was a privilege last week to be at Darlington Cricket Club for the funeral of the remarkable Geoffrey Gillow, who passed away at 103.

Geoffrey, who graced many a match at the old Feethams ground, is remembered for the menswear shop he opened in Darlington’s Grange Road in 1966, and for still being able to drive a car beyond his 100th birthday.

From the moment Geoffrey’s coffin entered the club – to the familiar, upbeat cricket anthem of Soul Limbo by Booker T & the MG’s – it was a joyous celebration, with plenty of laughs in memory of the grand old gentleman.

For example, his son, Bill, told of the time his father had travelled to Huddersfield to see his beloved Sunderland reach the FA Cup final of 1937 by beating Millwall 2-1 in the semi-final, with goals by Bobby Gurney and Patsy Gallacher.

After over-celebrating the historic win, Geoffrey managed to lose his false teeth down the toilet on the train.

“He managed to keep the next set for another 80 years,” quipped Bill.

There was also the time Geoffrey – in a desperate attempt find a cushy role in the war – applied for a job with the T.A.D. which he’d been led to believe stood for the Temporary Ammunition Depot at Harrogate.

It turned out to be the Tank Armoured Division and he ended up being sent off to Egypt to support General Montgomery in his fight with Rommel.

He still managed to keep his head down as a typist, but it wasn’t quite as comfortable as an admin job in Harrogate.

Rest in peace, Geoffrey, and congratulations on a wonderful innings.

FROM one Rommel to another…

The Northern Echo reported last week that a drugs dealer, intriguingly named Rommel Morgan, had been caught in Harrogate while running away from police.

“As he did so, his trousers fell down and 78 wraps of crack cocaine fell out,” the report continued.

If ever a drug was aptly named…