'Im not afraid to fail' - storyteller Ursula Holden Gill, interview

Ursula Holden-Gill is an award-winning storyteller, writer and educator. Described as a “one woman tour de force,” her blend of music and storytelling is captivating and sparks the imagination. 

Ursula is an enchanting, highly engaging storyteller. She takes her audience on an absorbing journey of laughter, wonder and surprise.” (BBC Writers Room, 2015)

Ursula initially became known for her acting work in shows such as Eastenders and Teachers as well as on the stage and on radio, before establishing herself as a unique talent in the world of storytelling in 2009. She has since worked with companies such as Opera North, Action for Children, The National Trust, Social Services and she has performed for Settle Stories in the past to huge success. 

Her storytelling crosses many genres from adaptations of ancient folk tales, to personal stories, and each piece she performs engages her audience and makes them laugh, cry, reflect and beg for more. 

I caught up with Ursula and asked her a few questions about the root of her creativity and who is her artistic idol . . . 

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

A: Without doubt, I’d say my biggest achievement was actually turning things around for myself as a teenager and getting myself off to university. Until I was seventeen it was touch and go whether I’d actually ever achieve anything! Once I’d left Blackburn and got to Lancaster, the rest fell into place. 

Q: What inspires your creativity?

A: Real Life Role Models, The Folk Heritage of the UK and specifically that of Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Social Injustice, Memories, Improvising, Magic, Border Lands, the multi-disciplinary skill of the Music Hall performer, Woods, Forests and the Folkloric Significance of Trees, Talking things through with my Partner – Keith Donnelly… animal rights - It's a theme that comes up in most of my stories and something that's really important to me.

Q: Give one piece of advice to your younger self.

A: Do what fulfils you and makes you happy. 

Q: Who is your artistic idol & why?

A: I’m not really the sort of person who idolises anything as such (apart from my eight-year-old Patterdale Terrier). However, I’ve been a fan of the American Singer Song Writer Natalie Merchant since I first came across her in 1993 because of the way she tells poignant and evocative stories through music (which is always beautifully arranged) and because of her distinctively haunting and plaintive voice. It makes me want to go on a long car drive to somewhere very remote and think. I’ve always admired the work of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennet too. The former because of the way she successfully brought Music Hall into the 21st century and incorporated spoken word, music and song to create an inclusive and immediately accessible comedic style that made your neighbour’s domestic day to day happenings amusing for everyone (well, north of Watford). The latter because of his ability to embed pathos in his work. I think ‘The Lady in the Van’ is my favourite story of all time and has been since I first read it in 1998. (Yes, it was a story long before it became a play).   

Q: What is your key goal with your artistic practice?

A: To continue to invest in doing work that is meaningful to others and creatively (and ideally spiritually) fulfilling for me.  

Q: What are the stakes? What happens if you fail?

A: There are no stakes. I’m not afraid to fail. I spent much of my early life failing and I learned a lot about myself and others through that. I’d like to think that it made me a more compassionate person. Worst case scenario when my work flops or doesn’t quite go to plan is that I bore Keith or a good friend for an afternoon or three while I figure out how best to move forward in my head.

Q: If you could be any literary character, who would you be and why?

A: Anne of Green Gables. Seriously. She was a life jacket in the ‘80’s. Though everything was stacked against her she still came good. I’ve still not been to Prince Edward Island in Canada where her story was set. It’s tip top of my bucket list places to go. If anyone reading this can put me in touch with someone there who might fancy having me over to story tell, or just to swan about…I’d be over the moon!

Q: What do you want your tombstone to say?

A: Nothing. I want to be an Alder Tree


Ursula is performing at the 2018 Settle Stories Festival:

'The Queen & the Jester' a festival premiere with Keith Donnelly. 

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

'How to tell a story - workshop'


Interview by Charlotte Furness