Farming stage produces star performers

From village halls to the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe, Martin Jones has played them all.

He started treading the boards while studying for his HND in agriculture at Harper Adams in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“It was the time of Monty Python and I would take part in any comedy reviews and sketches going on at the college,” says Martin, who acknowledges he has “one of those faces” that seem to make people laugh.

After college, the responsibility of taking on the tenancy of his own county council-owned Shropshire smallholding brought the curtains down on his showbusiness leanings.

That initial 5ha, seven cows and a Massey tractor were eventually upgraded to his own 12ha, then 30ha. He still has the tractor – but without missing a comedy beat points out there is a tree growing out of it now.

He occasionally had his arm twisted to do some after-dinner speaking, but it was a chance meeting in 1993 with the head of music from Shrewsbury School and BBC producer and broadcaster Chris Eldon Lee that saw him joining them for a show.

Farming's Got Talent

“I thought it would be a one-off, but from there we got some more bookings and Three Men in a Bow Tie just took off,” recalls Martin, who sold his dairy herd about five years ago and now rears about 60 dairy heifers.

“Ironically, we’ve very rarely been just three men in a bow tie. There have sometimes been four of us and we’ve also had two very talented ladies.

“A lot of farmers have a fairly black sense of humour; they see the extremes – life and death, joy and misery – almost every day of their working lives.

“If you were an outsider looking in you would wonder how a poem about a calf dying or a tractor not starting could have people killing themselves laughing, but it does.

“It has to be said, though, that they will take it from me – as a fellow farmer – but they wouldn’t take it from the other two. They would think: ‘Who do they think they are, taking the mickey out of us?’”

No subject, from BSE to the horrors of foot-and-mouth, has proved too risqué to make a joke out of.

Bread-and-butter audience

While the bow ties, as they are fondly known, did manage to become one of the few acts to actually break even at the end of a two-week run at the Edinburgh Festival, Martin is the first to admit that their bread-and-butter is rural audiences.

Three Men in a Bow Tie: Martin Jones, Sally Tonge and Chris Eldon Lee

Three Men in a Bow Tie: Martin Jones, Sally Tonge and Chris Eldon Lee

The current line-up is Martin (who also appears as former land army girl Freda Brace-Cock) and fellow original member Chris Eldon Lee, along with folk singer, musician and storyteller Sally Tonge.

“We didn’t have time to get delusions of grandeur after our successful run at the festival,” recalls Martin. “We were back changing in a broom cupboard and playing in a village hall before any fancy ideas could creep in.”

Martin, who has three grown-up children in their 30s, said when he was milking, and with a younger family, it was often worse than hard work to get to a gig and then be up again at 6.30am the next morning.

“As soon as I get out there, all the worry about work and normal life is forgotten,” says Martin. “Comedy is like surfing; if it goes right you catch the wave and run with it – nothing else matters.

The great thing about there being three of us is that if one isn’t quite catching the wave the other two will be. It’s a lot less pressure than going out there as a one-man show.”

While his fee has been a modest-yet-useful farm diversification in its own right, Martin says it’s the feedback from the audience that keeps him going after about 750 shows.

Comedy heroes

“People really identify with my characters,” says 65-year-old Martin, whose comedy heroes are the likes of Tony Hancock and Tommy Cooper.

“Simple observations such as the chap at the farm sale, baler band around his torn jacket and shoulders slumped, trying desperately to look as if he hasn’t a penny to his name.

“Wearing his clothes as a badge of suffering – look how hard I’m working yet how poor I am…

“Most farmers have an old scraper tractor and when I’m on stage it always goes down well if I get a phone call and end up talking somebody through the intricacies of how to start the tractor.

“In the same way, even non-farming audiences seem to ‘get’ the humour of talking a student though calving a heifer.”

Martin says being self-employed has been useful when it came to committing to shows, which have prevented his life from being as isolated as many farmers’.

“The shows get me out and they keep my brain sharp; there’s a lot of keeping up with current affairs to keep the material fresh and up-to-date,” he says.

“Anybody who gets the opportunity to perform – like I did at Harper Adams – should grab it with both hands …”

For more information visit

‘I’ve done magic tricks since I was a boy’

Sean Sparling, full-time agronomist and part-time magician, knows how to make an impression. His close-up magic can leave guests open-mouthed with amazement.

“I’ve never seen anyone render my wife speechless,” wrote actor Bob Hoskins after one of Sean’s performance.

“No way did you just float in the air!” marvelled another punter.

This second career began some 25 years ago, when Sean started writing wedding speeches for tongue-tied best men. Then, at one dinner, he was asked to say the proverbial few words.

Sean Sparling doing a magic trick

©Mark Turnbull

On another occasion he performed some magic tricks, word got out and the bookings started piling in.

Now Sean performs as a magician and after-dinner speaker across the country and even across the Channel.

Events range from hosting awards ceremonies and acting as master of ceremonies at black tie dinners, to performing at balls and weddings.

He has entertained sporting stars from David Beckham to the Ryder Cup team, rubbed shoulders with magicians Paul Daniels, Wayne Dobson and Dynamo, and won accolades for his wit and delivery from the likes of broadcaster Jeremy Vine and writer Richard Curtis.

“With magic, I only do the stuff that makes me step back,” Sean says. “Things you can’t fake.”

He specialises in close-up magic using cards, money and everyday objects. His calling card is a rubber-band trick. “I’ve always done magic tricks since I was a little boy,” he explains.

“It becomes a habit. I always have to carry something in my pocket.”

Testimonials pay tribute to his ability to fox even the oldest hands. “I’ve seen a lot of magicians on the cruises and on the circuit and I reckon you’d baffle all of them with the stuff you did tonight,” wrote comedian Duggie Brown in 2006.

Sean’s mantra has always been the harder the work, the luckier you get. His perseverance paid off when he was named deuce (runner-up) at the 2004 British Magical Close-up Championships, organised by the the Blackpool Magicians’ Club.

“I was performing in front of 3,000 top magicians and everything I did was relayed to the audience on large TV screens,” Sean recalls. “It was incredibly scary.”

But for all the magician’s razzmatazz, Sean’s favourite gig has to be speaking at the House of Lords. “There’s no better feeling than making 1,000 people in a room laugh,” he says.

Despite many urging him to do magic and after-dinner speaking for a living, Sean is sticking to the day job and his home county.

“My family farmed at Harrington for six generations,” says Sean, who lives near Market Rasen with his wife, Andrea.

He travels 160 miles/day across the county, visiting his 23 clients once a week. “Apparently, I’m one of a dying breed of field-walking agronomists,” he laughs.

In his 20 years as an independent agronomist, Sean has garnered many awards, including being nominated a finalist in the Crops Arable Adviser of the Year in 2007.

He’s also had a 13 year-tenure of a slot on Lincs FM’s Farming Programme and supports the Lincolnshire Rural Support Network, a charity providing pastoral and practical aid to farming and rural people during periods of anxiety, stress and family or business problems.

During the peak arable months, when he’s responsible for some 8903ha, Sean limits his performing engagements to one a month, but from mid-November to the end of January he packs in on average 25-plus engagements.

It’s a busy life, but Sean says he finds all strands of his career “equally rewarding”.

“Agronomy defines me,” he says. “With the magic and after-dinner speaking, it’s a case of following my father’s mantra: ‘If you can do it, do it’.”

The key to his success, Sean believes, is to get people involved. “At a dinner, I will work the tables and do 300 in a sitting,” he says. On stage, he’ll pull up a senior figure and get him helping out.

“Humour and magic both depend on universality,” he adds. “You have to believe in what you are doing and get people on your side.

“You’ve also got to not mind making a fool of yourself. My father’s family is Irish, with no inhibitions, which helps. I like taking the mickey, but I don’t make people look foolish.”

The trick now is to keep all these balls in the air. “I want to keep people laughing and making farmers money,” Sean says.

No doubt, when he pulls a couple of rubber bands from his pocket while walking the fields with a client, he manages to do both.

For more information, visit

See more