THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT in conversation with Ray Spencer MBE, Director of South Shields Theatre, The Customs House.

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Ray didn’t have the traditional arts related background associated with most theatres….‘I was born in Biddick Hall and my dad was a caulker burner who worked in the Middle Docks (Next to The Customs House where we are sitting). My mam worked in Wright’s biscuit factory. We didn’t have a big library of books in the house but my dad liked the Readers Digest. My first experience of showbiz was I went into a television studio I was 3. That was for the 1 o’clock show for Tyne Tees. A charabanc from the street went up to Tyne Tees and there’s a shot of me sitting on the stairs eating Spanish omelette. My first taste of Theatre was watching The Scottish Children’s Theatre at The Marine & Tech.  My first taste of Panto probably seeing the Happy Go Luckies at St Aidians Hall doing Puss in Boots. The first professional pantomime I saw was at The Sunderland Empire my brother worked at Cigarette Components and got me on their trip. My first performance was at Biddick Hall Infants as the inn keeper in the Tinder Box I moved on to shepherd in the nativity. At Secondary school there was always a big end of year show. Eddie McNamee was one of the teacher’s there and when I was 16 he suggested that I go and join the Westovians. (Amateur stage group) I appeared in my first panto with them in 1974 and met Bob Stott who became my partner in panto the following year. When I was 20 I appeared in a show with musician Alan Price and his drummer Theodore Thunder asked me what my next job was. Well I was training to be an accountant at the hospital so I said I was going back there. But he said I should be out there doing this. Anyway the show went out on a programme called Arena on BBC1. The play was written by Tom Kelly and that was the first time our paths crossed. Tom encouraged me and I went off to do a degree in drama and stayed in the area. There were opportunities to join companies outside the area but I wanted to stay here’.

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Ray Spencer and Bob Stott.

Can you remember any funny moments on stage ? ‘I was working with Bob Stott who was my panto mother for many years and we were doing a panto back in the 80’s. I was dressed as a teenage ninja mutant turtle bouncing up and down and I mentioned to the stage manager that the thrust stage, the extension bit, was flexing as I was jumping up and down shouting ‘cowabunga cowabunga’. And he said well it’ll last… it’ll be ok. A fortnight into the show and I jumped up, landed, and it snapped. Went straight through. The audience could only see my head and shoulders, they were roaring with laughter. Bob looked at me, then looked at the audience and said ‘Don’t laugh at him, it’s only a stage he’s going through’. I’ve never forgotten that ad-lib. Brilliant. Wish I’d said it’.

Did you do any other jobs then ? ‘I started selling video tapes. I used to drive down to the distributors near Crystal Palace in London for the latest films. Whip back here and go around nearly every mining community in the North East and sell them to the shop’s. The shop’s would then hire them out. Now say a video like Superman 3 was around £54 per tape, we got a margin of around 15%. The miners worked funny shifts and could afford video recorders but during the strike of 84-85 buying a video was the last thing they wanted to do. So I walked into South Tyneside College in ’84 and asked to train as a teacher.  When I put my qualifications down they said have you really got a degree in drama ? Ended up 7 hours a week doing drama. I also had an HNC in business studies so they asked me to do a bit of this and that. So I ended up being a part time lecturer and within 6 months, full time’. 

Did you enjoy your time at South Tyneside College ? ‘I was there over 15 years starting in Vocational Preparation and then teaching performing arts working with Tom Kelly and Carole Cook. I was aware Tom ( with Ken Reay) had written, a musical with John Miles called Machine Gunners. With the group of students we had I said we can do this. So we did, and took it to Edinburgh Festival for 3 weeks. While we were there we talked about what to do next. Catherine Cookson had just died. So we thought of a musical of their lives together rather than an adaptation of one of her books. We launched in Februry ’99, Tom and I went on Tyne Tees and played the first song that John Miles had written, which made the presenter Mike Neville quite teary. We had forgotten to tell The Customs House we were going on telly and they were inundated with calls for tickets for the September dates for Tom and Catherine – it sold out’. 

Ray also took on the role of entertainer Tommy the Trumpeter for 25 years… ‘South Tyneside council wanted a mascot for the Summer Festival. There were no guidelines, no job description or blueprint. Nobody knew what he was going to be. Tommy’s theme tune was written by Tom Kelly and the team behind Tommy were Richard Jago, Brian, Michelle, Kari and Andy – great team. We did things that kid’s would remember, from Betty bought Bob to marching to Tommy’s song.. It all developed along the way. At first they said can you do it for a fortnight. By the end thousands of people came, we had 25 summers down at the amphitheatre’. 

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How did Tommy the Trumpeter come about ?Tommy the Tuba was the original name and there were 2 people in for it but as time approached they both couldn’t do it so I got a call. I got shown a picture of what they wanted. I went to Tom Kelly’s wife, Carol, showed her the image and asked her to knock up a uniform for us. And she did. I borrowed a tuba from the Salvation Army went along to the press launch and was put in a box in an empty room. There were press camera’s there and local TV. They said they would tap on the box when they were ready and I would pop out. I could hear speeches outside, droning on. I was getting bored. I was making tuba noises inside the box. Eventually they tapped, I burst out said hello my name is Tommy the Tuba and if you come down to South Tyneside this summer you’ll have a magical time. Paul Frost who presented ITV then, said ‘Bizarre press conference today when even the central character didn’t even know his name’  Because between being told and the press release going out somebody, somewhere had changed it to from Tuba to Trumpeter. 

I remember I’d walk the length of the harbour telling tourists what was on. I bumped into a guy on the beach and said ‘By the way Jimmy Cricket’s on at the Bents Park at 2 o’clock if you want to see him’. He turned around and said ‘I know’. It was Jimmy Cricket sitting on the beach with his bairn. I went through the Marine Park with its lake telling people what was on and they would get up and go to the Bents Park. I remember I had to stay away from the fairground. One day some lads from the fairground came over and said ‘What’s red and blue and floats in the marine park lake?’. You!!! 

They didn’t like me taking their customers away. That was in the early days but as I become more established I was more accepted’.

In the late 90’s I remember filming at an event, Tommy turned up and the look on kid’s faces’Yes I know. I once got a call from a mother who said can you call in and see my daughter in the Ingham Infirmary. She’s been knocked down. I also got a call from the Children’s Centre about a girl who had been through a hell of a lot.  ‘She’s wrote down her good things and bad things on 2 lists. Tommy the Trumpeter is on her good list so can you come and see her’. I went to see her and it fill’s me with emotion because it was such a touching thing. But also a positive thing and I didn’t realise how important he’d become to many people. The final 2 Tommy parties were attended by a couple from London who took the time off to come up and see the shows. I got letters from New Zealand, Italy…big boxes full of cards full of lovely messages. I hadn’t realised how important he’d become’. 

Before you became Director at The Customs House you had a successful career at South Tyneside College, Tommy the Trumpeter was going well, you were compering at Summer Festivals and events like Youth Arts Week. But I remember The Customs House was dying on it’s arse – what happened next ?  ‘In the September we were in rehearsal for Tom and Catherine the musical. Gordon Bates, who was Interim Director here at The Customs House, called me into his office and said ‘You’re going to want to pay your company aren’t you ? But I gotta tell you there’s no money’. ‘What ? we’ve sold all the tickets’ I said. They had used all that money to keep the place open. Gordon got the council to intervene and keep the place sustainable. Then I was asked for lunch by the Arts Council, they had never asked me for lunch before. We chatted about what was happening and ultimately I applied for the job. I was interviewed by a panel and they appointed me as 5th Director of The Customs House in 5 years. I remember the Arts Council representative  saying “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to the office and tell them we’ve appointed Tommy the Trumpeter to do the job!’

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Ray compering at Youth Arts Week 1998 held at The Customs House. (Alikivi pic.)

What was your first job here at The Customs House, was it to build a team to get stuff done ? ‘Well I have to say Trish, my better half, was remarkable because when I think back we had one child and I was saying I was going to give up the security of college, a pension and holidays, to come here on a temporary 6 month contract to turn it around. The first thing on my desk was a strategic stock take report written by the Arts Council. It said many things but the thing that struck me was the phrase”The Customs House has neither a regional or national significance and is not worthy of our support.” That really resonated in my head and I had to write a recovery plan. We got around £250,000 to start to change things here. Which we did. Some people felt that being  Tommy the Trumpeter,was a hinderence to the doing the job, but it was the most positive thing. The place had been programmed for the community not with them. When Tommy was running the place they felt comfortable coming in. Let’s support Tommy kind of thing. We needed to talk more to people what they wanted to see rather than assuming who knew best. What’s been a passion of mine is to tell stories about people that are local a bit like yourself and your documentaries. Our stories aren’t shared enough. Getting back to your question I’ve always been very cautious with The Customs House. I didn’t do a massive clear out. A lot of people come and go but that’s the same in any organisation. But the building was unloved, unwelcoming and only 5 years old. So the money we got was to invest in the place. It gave us the computers we needed, gave us the box office that we needed, we wanted better carpets, clean the seats that sort of thing rather than move the old staff. The staff change is continual as it always has been over the years. The big change was when we started to win Arts Council contracts. At one time we delivered arts in schools all around North and South Tyneside. We were the first independent trust to deliver Creative Partnerships and  Find Your Talent a Gordon Brown PM initiative. So for a brief moment we had signed contracts worth £1.6 million. But then a change of Government and I got an email saying ‘make staff redundant & close the programmes down”. These were tough days and have remained tough for the last decade South Tyneside Council have kept faith and we have retained our position as a National Portfolio Organisation with the Arts Council but our public funding has reduced by over half’. 

With the demise of the pub’s and clubs have you seen any changes in audiences over the years at The Customs House ? ‘In terms of music programming the thing that impacted most was The Sage. When Customs House opened there was no Gala in Durham, there was no Exchange in North Shields, there was no Sage or Baltic in Gateshead and no 10 screen multi-plex up the road in Boldon. So we were a venue to do all things for all men – and women. When The Sage opened it just destroyed our guitar festival, a lot of musical acts that used to come here simply stopped. They were going there to play a big shiny building. So our music content has been damaged. We still get musicians play here but we are not known solely as a music venue but neither should we be because we are an arts centre. Sometimes we get people here who wouldn’t normally play a theatre. I have to say if they’ve come from that tradition of pub’s and club’s they love playing here. Not only are they lit correctly and the sound’s good but the audience sit and listen to them. So their sound is not background, people come here and buy a ticket because they want to see them. The driver here is what’s on stage thats why people come in. In pubs and clubs the driver was people going for a beer and meet up with friends. That’s why they were such a good training ground because if you could hook an audience who didn’t really turn up to see you then you were half way there. You must be doing something right and be good at what you are doing’.

What are you doing different compared to other Arts managers ? ‘The measure of success is that we are open and we’d be missed if we were shut. So there’s an ownership of the building. I feel the community love the place now. We are out on our own we aren’t a place in the centre of town where people walk by, you have to make the journey here. Some of the new shiny buildings are loved because they are shiny but the organisation inside isn’t necessarily loved’. 

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With the regeneration of the town centre of South Shields how does The Customs House fit into those plans ? ‘I had this radical suggestion that The Customs House should move to King Street back to where the theatres originally were. Let us run the multiplex, let us have the state of the art space, which would be the theatre. In doing that you would immediately bring 200,000 people a year to King Street. That’s how many people use this building. So your night time economy would happen because people would be going to the theatre. At the minute 4,000 people are coming to see the latest show When the Boat Comes In. They would be walking down King Street. Half ten this morning people are in to see the film they’d be walking down King Street. Then back again when it’s finished. I think it’s really exciting what’s happening in South Tyneside because we never had that Millenium project. But with The Word, Haven Point, Jarrow hub, Hebburn hub there’s been quite a lot of investment and it’s because of bold, brave leadership by officers and elected members. It reminds me so much of what happened in Gateshead – Newcastle in the 80’s. I hope it adds to what we have and not in direct competition to, so we have a bigger menu of cultural events. Just up the road St Hilda’s Pit head is opening up as a cultural space which is good. And I don’t just mean our immediate area of the Mill Dam to flourish, I would like our relationships with Jarrow Hall, Souter Point, Arbeia and the museum to blossom’.

How important are the arts as an outlet here in South Tyneside ? ‘Well I’m biased really. A lot of people will say more money should be spent on nursing homes or transport you know I can’t really argue with that. There are so many good things you can spend money on that are important but there is something about having a centre for celebration. A centre for people to see themselves and hear their stories, there is something important about that. However much technology we have there is a primeval need for people to get together and share things. When I was a kid the population got up together, got the buses to the factories, mines or shipyards. All came home together and all went to the pubs and clubs together. So there was a lot more togetherness and that’s why the Great North Run, the many festivals we have are so important now. I remember people lining the riverbanks for ship launches, celebrations for Westoe Pit doing 1 million tonnes of coal one year, we don’t have those to focus on now. I like to think we put on shows for people to come together, celebrate and feel positive about where we are’.

Performers from South Tyneside like Joe McElderry, Jade and Perrie from Little Mix, Sarah Millican, Chris Ramsey, all on a certain level now. Is that because they fight harder to reach that level ? ’I think talent will out wherever you are born and whatever you do. Brilliant performers like Bobby Pattison and Bobby Thompson, best seller in the North East. I remember he knocked Grease off the number 1 North East chart for best selling record when his act came out on LP. But he never made a break through. I just think there are a lot of talented people who are from the North East, is it the magic of South Tyneside? Perhaps the sea air and the river, but there’s certainly something here. There was always a very long tradition of amateur theatre. A big, big thing was to become part of South Shields Amateurs, or the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Westovians or Jarrow. There was Hebburn Operatics and Jarrow Male Voice Choir. Don’t forget the brass bands and Richard Thornton who started the Moss Stoll Empire, born in South Shields and buried in Westoe Cemetery. There has always been that strong performance element in this borough and that still comes through if you look across all the different drama and dance schools. When I was a kid working in arts and entertainment wasn’t seen as a proper job, digging roads and building ships was a proper job but now people can see a route forward’.

‘Joe McElderry performed here in 2008, he was just a little lad but what an enormous voice and you just went wow, this is the genuine thing here. He belonged performing and that’s what he does so well. Why here though ? I don’t know. Jason Cook who wrote Hebburn has just shot another film, and Peter Flannery from Jarrow who wrote Our Friends in the North – he’s coming here soon. At The Customs House we have an Honorary Fellowship from film to opera, stand up to acting, singing to visual arts we have and will produce brilliant performers & creatives. we’ve got a lot to honour. A lot to celebrate’.  

Check out what’s on at http://www.customshouse.co.uk

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018. 

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