Downton Abbey star joins with Hollyoaks actor for Doncaster video project to get children reading

What do you get if you mix Downton Abbey, Hollyoaks, and a television adaptation of the book Billionaire Boy?

Wednesday, 10th June 2020, 10:12 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th June 2020, 10:13 am

Turns out it will be a reading of a classic kids book designed to get Doncaster children keen on reading!

Back in October, a project was set up with the backing of the National Literacy Trust, to convince youngsters across Doncaster that reading was fun.

But after an initial launch, and a series of special events held in schools all across the borough, the Doncaster Stories project hit a problem when lockdown caused the closure of schools across the borough.

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Thomas Howes in the Doncaster Stories video

The former primary school teacher who is running the project has got around that by taking the scheme online – and he recruited some of Doncaster’s best known faces to help him.

The latest form of that scheme has been a specially filmed reading of the famous children’s book Going on a Bear Hunt. And it involves among others the Downton Abbey actor Thomas Howes, ex Hollyoaks star Ryan Cerenko, and young actor Elliot Sprakes, who was the child star of Billionare Boy when it was done for television on the BBC.

They are joined by a number of schoolteachers from across Doncaster, including Alan Roberts, from Kirk Sandall Juniors, who is in contact with the actors from his work with Doncaster Little Theatre, as well as the famous children’s author and illustrator Liz Million. Teachers from Hayfield Lane Primary, St Peter's Primary, Atlas Academy, Dunsville Primary, and Bentley High Street Primary, also appear.

Phil Sheppard, the project officer for the scheme, is himself a former teacher at Hexthorpe Primary School,

Elliot Sprakes in the Doncaster Stories video

Each filmed a section of the story, and sent it to Phil to put into the final product.

He said: “Everyone was really easy to work with – there were no divas! They were free to interpret their section how they liked.

“I’m pleased with the results – it’s lots of fun and good for literacy. It shows what fun reading is.

“We wanted to create something to encourage reading in a fun and light-hearted way. Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt is a favourite amongst families, especially during the lockdown in which people have been putting teddies in their windows to create their own neighbourhood bear hunts. We hope that the video is a reminder that reading can bring people together and that sharing stories is not only fun but can also really help to support people’s wellbeing. I’m pleased that so many local people wanted to get involved - such role models can have a huge influence on sparking a child’s love of reading and stories.”

Ryan Cerenko in the Doncaster Stories video

Phil has had to make big changes to his plans for the project, which is run by the National Literacy Trust in partnership with the Doncaster Opportunity Area scheme. It is intended to boost literacy levels in the town by spreading a love of reading.

Initially, he took the project into schools and other venues, including The Point arts centre. The scheme also gave away hundreds of books which had been donated by the publishing industry.

“We had lots planned,” said Phil. “But that had to be change because of lockdown.

“We had plans to put on an event at Conisbrough Castle, around ghosts. We had plans do do work in Mexborough around the book Iron Man, which was written by Ted Hughes, who used to live there.

Kirk Sandall teacher Alan Roberts in the Doncaster Stories video

“But we had to regenerate all that into online challenges. In a way, that made things more difficult, but we’ve risen to it. Now we’re workng more directly with families, and schools where we can.”

Now they have set up Doncaster themed challenges online.

Phil, who has worked as a writer and illustrator before working as a teacher, created a picture of Conisbrough Castle surrounded by ghosts and used it as a writing challenge for youngsters online. It has inspired children to write their own ghost stories. Similarly, he has persuaded youngsters to write about an imaginary cyclops in the Frenchgate shopping centre.

“It’s been really inspiring to see what the children have written,” he said.

The project has also find new ways to get reading material out to the children children of Doncaster.

Publishing companies have offered his project copies of comics that they have been unable to sell during lockdown. The project made contact with some of Doncaster’s foodbanks, and they are now distributing them with food packages to families in need of help during the current crisis.

Phil Sheppard and a colleage at Doncaster Stories giving out books at Balby Central Primary Academy before lockdown

The scheme is now looking towards what to do for its next projects, and keeping tabs on when schools are likely to re-open. But Phil said he was not sure when outside organisations like Doncaster Stories would likely to be invited into schools again, even after they re-open.

“I think there will be a lot done online for some time,” he said. “We might look at getting youngsters to create a complilation poem together at some point in the future.”

Doncaster Stories can be found on Facebook or its website,

Pupils durig a visit from Doncaster stories, before lockdown