TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John

1983 I was glued to the telly on a Friday night when the first season of Auf Wiedersehen Pet hit the screen. The show proved to be popular around the UK when the second season was broadcast and it got high ratings, confirming the show was going to be a TV classic. Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, who already had a hit show starring North East characters in The Likely Lads.

Summer ‘85 I was upstairs in Newcastle Airport sweating it – my first time flying. I was about to go on a lads holiday to Ibiza when suddenly there was a commotion from the check-in area downstairs. We ran over to the balcony to look down and see a couple of actors from the show waiting in line. I noticed the red streaks in Wayne’s (Gary Holton) black hair. The area was being roped off and they started filming a scene. It wasn’t until season 2 in 1986 when I saw this episode being broadcast and there was a bit of a buzz watching how it had been put together. So for this blog I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to interview one of the stars of that memorable series.

Good interviews have honesty and laughter and there was plenty of that when I met up with Lesley Saint-John who played Vicky in the second season… Vicky was a Manicurist from South Shields (laughs). You wouldn’t believe how much attention the show attracts. I did 5 years on Byker Grove, a Catherine Cookson film, but Auf Wiedersehen is the one that’s talked about the most. There is a AWP fan club, and because the show is constantly repeated on tv, people often come up to me and say Vicky’s lines, they know them off by heart. It’s great people remember it.

How did the job on Auf Wiedersehen come about ? I was just a normal jobbing actor in the North East, the majority of work I had done was up here, including tv shows, commercials and corporate training videos, as well as stage work. I had heard of the show because the first season had been on telly but to be honest I didn’t really watch it. My mother rang me up one night and said ‘Have you seen that Auf Wiedersehen Pet on the telly, you’ve gotta watch it’. I said ‘I’ve flicked over it but it just seems to be men sitting in a hut’. She said it was brilliant and I should start watching it.

Then my agent sent me for the audition held in Newcastle, which was great because normally a lot of auditions I would have to get on a coach or train travelling hours down to London.

How did the audition go? It went fine there was a big panel of people, normally there is 1 or 2 with the casting director but this was different. Sometimes auditions seem to go well but you don’t get the job, others you’re not sure of but you’re called back. I knew the part was for someone called Vicky but didn’t know if it was for just 1 or 2 episodes, it ended up 10 out of the 13 episodes in series 2.

Then I got a call again from my agent saying that they wanted me back to test with the rest of the cast in London and play a scene out with one of the characters. That turned out to be Gary Holton who played Wayne, who sadly is no longer with us.

Did you like Vicky, your character in the show? Yeah, I think she was quite honest, maybe people thought she was a money grabber because she was with an older man with money, but she really did care for Ally. It was Ally Fraser who was interested in money and how he could make more, Vicky was almost like the asset on his arm. It was a good relationship at the beginning but by the end it went sour.

Looking back what are your memories of the show? The scenes in Spain were filmed around Marbella in about 6 weeks, I remember having a nanny out there for my daughter who was nearly 4 at the time. Ally’s villa was up in the hills near Puerto Banus, and at the time we were filming it was actually a concrete shell being built, so after the guys had filmed their scenes real Spanish builders would come in the evenings, to do more work on it. The next day it looked like the lads had put the brick and extra tiles on the pool. Now you can rent the villa and I’ve been told by fans of the show that they clubbed together for a holiday there.

People remind me of this ‘green bikini’ scene we filmed in the Costa Del Sol, which really if I hadn’t had photographic evidence I would never of believed I was ever that slim! (laughs). But to let you know how scenes are filmed out of order with what you see on the programme, that scene outside the villa on the terrace was filmed in about August then the next scene, which continues an argument with Ally, is when we walk into the villa, and is actually January in a studio in Nottingham. So that 20 second walk was actually 4 or 5 months apart, it was a very cold studio and I had to have false tan on (laughs).

There was a line in one of the shows where I said I was going to Annabels club, well apparently there was a problem with that because there actually was a club called Annabels in Sunderland. So months later I had to go down to Central Television in Nottingham where we used to film all the indoor scenes, and go into a recording booth and record the line saying I was going to Cannibals because we couldn’t use the name Annabels. It had to be something similar because we couldn’t reshoot the whole scene because it was with Gary Holton who had passed away during the production.

The whole thing was very eery because I was by myself in the recording booth, but what they didn’t tell me was the line Gary had filmed would come through my headphones first. I was never warned and when his distinctive cockney voice came through I was silent. It completely threw me, it was if he was in the room.

The North East has a pedigree of strong women, do you think you fit into that ? For people living in London or the south auditions can be ten a penny, easy to get to, but for me coming down from the North East sometimes it felt like an expensive ordeal. I am strong…ish, but could definitely do with toughening up. But when I went to London for an audition I met someone also going for the same part, funnily enough she ended up becoming my London agent. We talked about it and me getting the part and not her, I asked how she felt and she just said it wasn’t to be. I want to be that philosophical about it, but I still take it personal, I still need to toughen up.

How did you get into acting? When I was around 12 I wanted to go to stage school in London but my parents couldn’t afford it. Today you can get a degree in performing arts there was nothing like that up here when I was growing up. I was brought up on the stage because my parents were in Amateur Dramatics and playing the lead roles, they met at a choir in Gateshead. They used to put on shows and concert parties in Old people’s homes and I would go with them, sing a couple of songs and do my ballet or tap dancing. I’d just always knew I wanted to be on stage as some sort of performer.

I was listening to music then and when I was about eight, the first album I bought was Chopin, I can’t remember why, but I loved it. Then as a teenager I listened to T.Rex, Status Quo, Roxy Music and Alice Cooper. I saw all of them at Newcastle City Hall except Alice Cooper who I loved.

But the way I got into acting as a profession was singing on stage in a band to get my Equity card. You had to have 40 weeks on stage and be nominated by somebody. So I joined a band at 19 year old where I did 2 or 3 solo’s and the rest backing vocals in workingmen’s clubs all around the North East. My songs were like Blondie and Dionne Warwick ‘If you see me walking down the street, just walk on by’ (sings). I never thought of myself as a strong singer but that’s how I got in because you had to be in Equity in those days before you could work in tv. This is all I ever wanted to do I just never got as far as I wanted to get.

When was the time you thought you had missed an opportunity? After Auf Wiedersehen Pet came out, my London agent asked if I was going to move to London but I didn’t because my personal circumstances of being a single parent after my husband left made it difficult. The practicalities of buying a house and not having my parents to support looking after my daughter might have been too much. A lot of woman go away from the scene and have their kids so when they come back, if they do, people have forgotten them or moved on.

I think there is a massive amount of untapped talent here, but to get really established like, some of my colleagues from Byker Grove, Jill Halfpenny, Ant and Dec, you have to make the move down South or you will be making the journey up and down the motorway for auditions and shows. A good thing is today there are more chances to get out there with all the social media and magazines. So looking back it was sort of missing a trick there, it might not have worked, but if I had my way I would have been in London when I was 12 (laughs).

How did working on Byker Grove come about? Straight off the back of an audition I done, in the show my character Kath (Dobson) had 3 daughters, Jill Halfpenny was the eldest one. What also helped was that we looked similar, we had dark hair, and I have freckles like the youngest, plus it was in the curly perm days (laughs). The guy who played my husband was Tony Hodge who was in a big North Eastern band, The Piranha Brothers.

Kath was very different from Vicky. Vicky was glamorous with the clothes and great locations. In nearly all my scenes as Kath, wardrobe gave me navy blue fuddy duddy skirts and button upped blouses to wear, and not much make up, just housewife scenes of making the meals, getting the kids to school, it was great playing a totally different role. The Dobson’s used a real house in Newcastle where we filmed their scenes and our internal shots were set in The Mitre building in Benwell, Newcastle.

After leaving Byker Grove Lesley had a role in the tv series ‘Harry’ starring Michael Elphick, then took on another part…In 1996 I was in the Catherine Cookson film The Girl, I played Nancy Boyle who has a daughter, wears raggy clothes and I’m dying of T.B. I go to the big house and tell the master that this is his daughter, and as I’m dying he’s got to look after her. Typical Cookson film but I love all these different looks that I’ve done.

What’s next Lesley? It can be 10 or 20 years when you find yourself working with people again and it’s like you’ve never been apart because I’m in a show called Moreland’s Firm, a criminal family from Newcastle where Michael Moreland is trying to become a businessman and go straight. I play the mother Rose Moreland, and my son Michael is played by Craig Conway who in real life was married to Jill Halfpenny. So it’s weird to have played both their mothers. Tony Hodge, who was also in Byker Grove plays opposite me, in fact he was one of Roses clients as she starts the show as an alcoholic prostitute (laughs).

Rose Moreland swears and I never swear in real life, I had to slap Michaels face and tell him to f..off, his face was going really red it was like ‘We’ll just do one more’. He said just go for it but I could see the shock on his face after I slapped him. But Rose comes good in the end (laughs).

Craig Conway who is producing it, is looking to get the programme commissioned, we shot a lot of footage so he has got something to show rather than just an idea or bit of script.

What would be your favourite role ? My favourite job would be one of the co-hosts on Loose Women because I love talking, and I love debating or be a character in Emmerdale. But yeah, Loose Women I’d do that in a heartbeat.

I will be performing at Newcastle Arena this weekend in ‘Sunday for Sammy’ (23 Feb) I love it as I get to catch up with loads of old friends and it’s all for Charity. I am really looking forward to that. Can’t wait!!

 

Interview by Gary Alikivi  February 2020.

COUNTRY MAN with ex-BBC Radio presenter Stan Laundon

Magic times don’t come around too often but David Bowie had a few with ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ where he could be wagging his finger singing the brilliant nursery rhyme lyric ‘My mama said, to get things done, You’d better not mess with Major Tom’.  After watching the TV series Life on the Road with Brian Johnson his guest was Dolly Parton telling him that her two biggest hits, ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ were written in the same night – not just a magic time, that’s a magic hour. With ‘I Will Always Love You’ Whitney Houston banked millions for DP in song writing credits while ‘Jolene’ has been covered by many artists including dark goth rock band The Sisters of Mercy.

Dolly features in this interview with former Radio presenter Stan Laundon who throughout his career has interviewed and worked for many stars… In 1974 I made my first ever visit to Nashville, Tennessee, and because of my BBC connections I met up with a host of country stars including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and one of my own idols, Jerry Reed. Jerry wrote US Male and Guitar Man both tracks eventually recorded by Elvis Presley. During my time in Nashville I was looked after by a public relations man who asked me where I was from and I told him Hartlepool, and gave him the story of the Hartlepool Monkey.

(Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars a shipwrecked monkey was hanged by the people of Hartlepool, believing him to be a French spy. To this day, people from Hartlepool are affectionately known as ‘monkey hangers’).

Unknown to me he relayed the story to Dolly Parton, who I met three times in the week I was there. On my third meeting Dolly smiled and held her hands to her throat! When I asked her what all that was about she replied ‘You’re a Monkey hanger!’ So I’m proud to have been called that by such a huge star (laughs).

Dolly Parton

Stan with Dolly Parton in Nashville, Tennessee June 1974. Photograph © Shay Brogan.

Are you from a musical family Stan ? No my parents rarely listened to the radio when I was young. I got interested in music when I was at school. There were one or two lads who played guitar at break times and I thought, maybe I’d like to play the guitar one day. I remember I was introduced to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan for the first time when one of the teachers arranged for the schoolboys and girls to stage HMS Pinafore.

However, it was my time away from school when, like many teenagers I listened every night to Radio Luxembourg, early pop music and especially Lonnie Donegan. It was a few years later when the British pop scene took hold and I got into the music of Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd and The Pirates and so on. It was round this time when I was introduced to country music and enjoyed the early recordings of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens.

After leaving school what was your first job ? As my father had been at sea for most of his early life I thought it might be a good idea to try to follow in his footsteps. My father agreed but my mother said an abrupt ‘No!’ she said I’d be better off serving an apprenticeship. So it was off to Richardsons and Westgarth to serve my time as a turner.

Also round this time I persuaded my mother to buy me a guitar. I bought a copy of Bert Weedon’s tutor book Play In A Day and a friend of mine also gave me lessons. My time in the factory also introduced me to another musician, Alan Lindridge. He used to laugh at me singing songs by Lonnie Donegan. The laughter turned to friendship and both me and my neighbour, Billy Crallan, joined up with Alan in his pop group The Trakkers about 1959/60.

You ran Joe Brown’s Fan Club, how did that come about ? When I was about 18 I was a member of Joe’s Fan Club and was told that the young lady who ran the club was about to give it up to go and train as a nurse. The idea of running Joe’s fan club appealed to me so I tried to arrange a meeting with him at a theatre in Sunderland. Thankfully, the management passed on my request and I managed to meet up with him after the show.

Coincidentally, I met Billy Fury in the hotel car park who took me into a reception area when he called Joe to come down to meet me. After some discussion Joe said he’d like me to run the fan club and I had to write to his manager in London about our conversation. After the paperwork was completed the Official Joe Brown Fan Club was run by me from my mother’s house in Dyke Street, West Hartlepool.

What were your duties in running the fan club ? When Joe had his number one hit with A Picture of You in 1962 the number of fan letters he was receiving went from just a couple of dozen a week to hundreds! I was a busy young man at this time – playing with The Trakkers, working in the factory and running Joe’s fan club. This was long before the days of computers – so all fan mail replies had to be written on a typewriter. I couldn’t do it all so I telephoned Joe and said I can’t continue. He said ‘Then pack it in’ I said I was sorry it had come to this and he said ‘No, you don’t understand, I mean pack your job in and come and work for me in London!’ I didn’t think twice, so at the tender age of 19, I did as he said and moved to London and spent four happy years with him down there from ‘62 until ‘66.

On my arrival in London I was fortunate enough to be staying with Joe’s mother in Wanstead and, after six or seven months, things were about to change again. Joe called round one day and said ‘I want you to pack it in!’ I thought what have I done wrong. ‘I’m sorry’ I said. He then replied ‘No, get someone else to run the fan club because I want you on the road with me!’  So I became his road manager – even though I couldn’t drive at the time – and I travelled all over the country with him doing shows with Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd and others. I even met The Beatles and Roy Orbison at The Empire Pool, Wembley in March 1963.

Eventually Joe stopped touring as he went into the West End to appear in a musical called Charley Girl with Dame Anna Neagle. I was beginning to get a little bored and decided to find another job and say my goodbye’s to Joe which I did in October ‘66 and moved back home to Hartlepool. For the next few years I did some freelance work as a journalist writing a country music column in Hartlepool Mail as ‘Country Boy’ and following motor sport at Croft, near Darlington, and reporting on that too.

How did you get involved in radio Stan ? In 1970 I read in my local paper that a BBC radio station was planned for Teesside. With my musical background I applied for a job and was fortunate enough to be given a position as a technical operator at BBC Radio Teesside in September 1970.

The radio station went on air for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1970 and because of my interest in country music, the management allowed me to present a programme called ‘Country Time’ which was broadcast for 25 minutes. This proved to be popular and in February ‘71 they increased the programme running time from 45 minutes. Then in 1972 it went to an hour before eventually running live for two hours every Sunday afternoon. The programme ran for 21 years!

Looking back how would you sum up your career in radio ? I had 23 very enjoyable years at the BBC, starting as it was as BBC Radio Teesside, becoming BBC Radio Cleveland in 1974 and now BBC Tees. Needless to say I was a very happy man and they invited me back in April 2011 to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of local radio on Teesside when I presented another two hour show on Easter Sunday!

To contact Stan check his official website: 

www.stanlaundon.com 

 Interview by Gary Alikivi  February 2020.

 

The Story of the Geordie Pantsman

I was watching TV one night and saw this guy on Rude Tube setting a world record for putting on the most t-shirts and thought ’I could do something like that’said Whitburn resident Gary Craig. However, t-shirts seemed boring and potentially expensive so I came up with the idea of underpants and an alter ego ‘Geordie Pantsman’. Not to be confused with the Australian slang, Gary explains…At school I was always second best at sport, the unused substitute on the football team standing in the freezing cold for two hours. At the age of 51 I decided I wanted to be number 1 at something.

I investigated whether there was a world record for putting on the most pants, but couldn’t find one. Great I thought, I’ll just bang on 50 pairs or so, and establish a new Guinness record with ease. But in 2009 I was informed that there was a record of someone putting on 170 pairs of underpants so I set out to put on 190.

What happened when you contacted Guinness ? The Guinness rules were actually quite strict. You had to wear ‘y’ fronts, not boxer shorts, you had to do it in a relatively public place, film and photograph it, and obtain witness statements otherwise you had to pay thousands of pounds to have a Guinness adjudicator present.

I began buying the cheapest underpants available in a variety of sizes including the biggest pants available in the UK  – 60 inch waist, and I decided to attempt the record on April Fools Day 2010 so no one would know if it was a joke or not.

I had a friend with a t-shirt printing company who allowed me to get a name, a photo, or a message printed on the pants so basically sold advertising space on my backside. Encouraging friends, family, and local business people to sponsor me, with the highest amounts earning a space on the biggest, record breaking pants.

In the end I raised £3000 which was split between two local charities – Cancer Connections and a drop in centre for the unemployed and underprivileged in South Tyneside.

Did you rehearse your record attempt ? Yes but in truth, practise went very badly. I found that I didn’t have enough big pants. I wasn’t that slim and it became painful trying to squeeze into large numbers of underpants. My wife got the job of arranging pants in the correct order and would sit for ages putting pants over her knees ready to slip on.

 

Where did you hold the event ? I agreed to attempt the record in Dusk Nightclub, South Shields with around 150 friends and family as witnesses – there was no turning back. The way it works with Guinness is that there may be other people attempting the record elsewhere in the world so you get updated on any new record that has been set shortly before your attempt.

Literally a week before my attempt I was informed that a new record had just been set in Australia and I was now going to need to beat 190 pairs! I only had 190 pairs of pants in total and it was too late to order any of the really big ones so I had to go out and buy whatever I could.

April 1st came around very quickly. Dusk opened the bar early and DJ Wayne whipped the crowd into a frenzy. He thought it would be fun for me to come on to the tune Eye of the Tiger in true ‘Rocky’ style. Once the attempt started everyone had to count the pairs as I put them on with the DJ announcing who was sponsoring each pair. There was fantastic support in the room as I reached 211 pairs – every pair of underpants I owned!

There was a nervous wait over many weeks whilst all the evidence was collected, submitted to Guinness and scrutinised. Finally I received the e-mail I was waiting for – a Guinness world record and I was finally number 1 at something.

How long did you hold the record ? In truth it didn’t even last long enough to make that year’s Guinness Records book. Within a few months an American woman had taken the record to 249. I had a problem with that as she was stick thin and appeared to have used woman’s knickers which don’t have the same thickness or elastication, but you can’t really call for a steward’s enquiry with Guinness.

In any case I had other distractions. My film crew had a few TV connections and next thing I knew footage of the record was being used as a question on Have I Got News For You! More importantly for me, I was contacted by Rude Tube and appeared on the Ultimate Champions top 50 internet clips of the year, and the Rude Tube film crew came to my house to do a special feature for the Rude Tube Xmas DVD.

In 2011 I was approached by Britain’s Got Talent production team and devised a comedy routine that involved plastering the judges faces over my crouch! The audition was so funny the cameraman couldn’t keep the camera still for laughing. I appeared in front of the judges at that time – Amanda Holden, Michael McIntyre, and David Hasselhoff. I was buzzed off, but they filmed the Geordie Pantsman for hours backstage.

Without any prior notice they gave my details to The Sun newspaper and the Geordie Pantsman became the main feature of a 2 page spread billed as potentially the craziest person ever to appear on BGT! I was advertised for a few seconds in trailers for the show, but Geordie Pantsman ended up ‘on the cutting room floor’! With my new back story further TV opportunities followed.

I appeared on Britains Best Dish, presenting Mary Nightingale with a pair of underpants bearing the BBD logo, and on a little known program called The Great British Taste Tour where I won £1000, the only money I ever got from my ‘career’ as the Pantsman.

The Media seemed to have caught the Pantsman bug….I’m convinced that had I appeared on BGT as promised I would have become world famous. In 2012 I was asked to appear on a world records based show for NIPPON TV in Japan. Their programs typically have around 20,000,000 viewers so I knew that world domination was again beckoning Geordie Pantsman, only for it to be called off days before I was due to be flown out for filming.

Similar situations arose for a number of new and existing TV shows including Russell Howards Good News where I was lined up to appear then discarded at the last minute like a pair of used pants!

Was that the end for Pantsman ? No I decided to give the record one last go. I was going to smash it – set a record that would be almost impossible to beat and get it out of my system once and for all! I contacted Guinness again and through a friend was given permission to make another attempt at the record in the Great North Run Finishers Marquee in front of 1000+ people. I got a personal trainer to help lose weight and I bought the largest pants available in such large quantities that the manufacturers were virtually giving them to me.

Guinness had made the rules even more complicated – they basically expected you to get the Local Mayor to witness your attempt, with an independent ‘expert’ witness. How do you find an expert at putting on underpants ? I ended up using an Accountant who was taking part in the Great North Run. This record attempt was pure craziness!

In the marquee we had a small stage roped off and as the tent started to fill up I had to wait to see whether my independent adjudicator was going to finish the run. He duly arrived while local band The Gaslighters and that bloke off Emmerdale who also sang in a band kept the crowd entertained. They would stop at regular intervals to let the crowd know how I was doing. But a Gazette reporter interrupted the cameraman when he was supposed to be counting the pants, one or two pairs got twisted and had to come off then be put back on again so by the time I’d finished no one knew how many pants I’d put on.

I always tried to pull up as many of the underpants as possible until they became impossible to reach, at which point my wife would help to pull them past my knees. In bending over some slipped down and I ended looking like a Subbuteo player.

I had to pile the slightly warm, sweaty pants in a corner for my accountant friend to count and finally came up with the official figure of 302. I submitted the usual evidence to Guinness in full confidence that I had totally smashed the world record.

Weeks later I received my reply. Even though there was no rule about how far you had to pull the pants up Guinness had decided that I hadn’t met ‘the spirit of the record’ as I hadn’t pulled the pants up far enough. To say I was gutted was an understatement – the pants were just under my knees, well clear of the floor, and there’s a limit to how far up they can go.

Did you appeal against the decision ? I thought about an appeal, but Guinness are a law to themselves. In the end I decided to be happy in the knowledge that I had put on more pairs of underpants than anyone else on the planet. Even though the original record was set in 2010 people still bring it up when I meet them and the TV Companies have kept my details as they know I’m game for a laugh.

In 2017 I appeared on the one and only series of Cannonball, a Saturday evening ITV show hosted by ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff. I made the final, even though I didn’t win I became the hero of my episode and star of Cannonball’s compilation show in December that year.

What next for Geordie Pantsman ? Who knows? I still have the pants. I’d love to take ‘Geordie’ to the Edinburgh Fringe or somewhere just as silly. Never say never.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

TRADING PLACES – 250 years of South Shields Market

In September 2018 I made a short documentary about South Shields market with former Shields Gazette award winning journalist Janis Blower. Janis has a wide knowledge of local history through producing the Cookson Country feature in The Shields Gazette and working on the books ‘Aall T’githor Like Folk O’ Shields’. An interview with Janis talking about her work featured in the blog ‘Have You Heard the News’  (27th January 2020).

We had previously worked together in 2016 on a film about South Shields Photographer and Historian Amy Flagg. Janis added the voice of Amy in the short film ‘Westoe Rose’. Included here is the full script that Janis wrote about the 250 year old South Shields market, a link to the film is at the end.

Trading Places

Author Joseph Conrad is said to have refreshed himself in its ample public houses on his voyage from life before the mast to The Heart of Darkness. It has rung to the strident tones of politics and religion. Marked the coronations and deaths of monarchs; been a centre of commerce and conviviality. A public forum one day, a fairground the next. War almost did for it. Peace would prove no less transformative.

Over the 250 years of its existence, the fortunes of South Shields’s historic Market Place have fluctuated with those of the wider town. Both have had to adjust to social and economic change. Within the lifetime of many townsfolk, that has included the decline of the market itself.

The rise of the discount retailer has seen a corresponding fall in the numbers of bargain hunters. Gone too is the tradition for Shields folk to put on their glad rags on a Saturday afternoon and go ‘down-street,’ to stroll up one side of King Street to the Market, and down the other.

For a post-war generation, this was the era of stalls piled high with crockery, pans and nylons – to be sifted through to find a matching pair, of reconditioned boiler suits and other stalls selling goldfish and rabbits. In winter the lamps would flare in the chilly dusk. By then, the market was no longer open until 10 o’ clock at night, as it had been before the war when, the later the hour, the more the cost of Sunday’s joint fell.

In those days visitors would also have found Harry Randall’s toffee stand where homemade toffee, with a free bag of horehound candy, could be bought for sixpence. Also the stall piled high with assorted tripe into which the stall holder would shove his hands, shouting: “Come on, get amongst it!”

And there was the painless dentist, who guaranteed to pull a tooth with his finger and thumb for a shilling: This was the market as part-public service, part-spectacle, like the stocks that a century earlier had once stood opposite St Hilda’s Church. Or the fairs that would visit, in spring and autumn, with their prancing horses and shuggy boat rides or, likewise, the travelling  menageries that would also descend at regular intervals.

The Friday flea market has in recent years returned the square to aspects of what it was then, at least commercially, though the old clothes stalls are no longer confined to the side nearest the church. South Shields-born poet James Kirkup immortalised these in a poem, writing:  “The old jackets rub shoulders on the rack of life and death, the crumpled trousers all undone swing in a driving wind, a boneless abandon, soft-shoe shuffle in the sands of time. Laid away, the painter’s dungarees are dingy white, stained with forgotten schemes for houses decorated out of sight…”

Gone, though, is the fresh fish market: also the groups of men who, hands cupped round their Woodbines or Capstan Full Strength, would gather around the Old Town Hall in the hope of being tapped for work on the river.

An old Shieldsman, writing of his Victorian childhood, remembered each trade having it’s own beat. “While the Church side was common to most parties”. Men milled in this way, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers, until as late as the 1960s, before the skyline increasingly ceased to be criss-crossed by cranes.

The Market Place pulsed with life, not only in the numerous pubs – of which there were at least six before the First World War and as many again in the surrounding streets – but also in the shops. Marks and Spencer started out in the town with a Penny Bazaar here. Barbour’s with a shop on the west side of the square, specialised in weatherproof clothes that would evolve into the garb of aristrocats. Crofton’s, the legendary department store on the corner of King Street, would survive one disastrous fire early in it’s existence but not a second.

That catastrophe was visited one autumn night in 1941 when the town suffered the biggest air raid of the war. In a matter of hours two sides of the square had been reduced to smoking ruins. The then-170-year-old Town Hall – miraculously stood firm, albeit not undamaged. The ‘Old Cross,’ as it was affectionately known was left looking out over a sea of devastation.

Over the next 20 years, new buildings would grow-up around it. There would be no attempt to reconstruct a square which had once been likened to the market place at Bruges. Post-war modernity won the day, in keeping with a town which, under Borough Engineer John Reid, was sweeping away much of its Victorian housing and redrawing its commercial heart.

Concrete took the place of brick, with new pubs going up on the site of the old and the building of a new tax office, Wouldhave House, with shops adjacent. Small thoroughfares which had run in and out of the square for much of its existence, like Thrift Street and little West Street, disappeared. East Street and Union Alley, became backwaters.

Today the square continues to evolve. Words remain its currency, – not those of the fairground barker, or the radical anymore, but as the home of the town’s main library, housed within an award winning building dedicated to writing and creativity.

The Market Place own story, meanwhile, continues to unfold….

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

ACTING IS A TOUGH BUSINESS – in conversation with author & actor Steve Wraith

My ambition is to play a villain in Coronation Street, I want to be walking in Newcastle city centre where a granny with a purple rinse comes up to me and hits us with her handbag cos I’ve killed her favourite character.  Some people say to me why not be a Bond villain ? But I can’t see there being a Geordie Bond villain can you’.laughs Steve as we sat down for a chat in The Centurion bar in Newcastle Central Station.

Do you think people watching is a great tool for actors ? Yes that’s how you get the best out of your characterisations is by watching other people.  When I wasn’t acting I was working with the general public, we ran a Post Office and I’ve worked as a bouncer on the doors of nightclubs. I’ve seen the best and worst of people from your solicitor who can’t handle his drink to your charver who can’t get in cos he’s got tracksuit bottoms on. I’ve met and talked to all the major criminals, the Kray Twins in prison, the train robbers, all the hard men up here in Newcastle. So I’ve got a fair knowledge about those people and as an actor I am one of the few who love being typecast. I’ve got two agents, Sam Claypole in Darlington and in London, Shirley Lewis, both of them laugh when I get cast but I’m happy to play a gangster. Can you really see me where I’m the vicar or the loving dad ? (laughs).

You are involved in a number of films, The Krays, To Be Someone, The Middle Men, where are they at ? They’re all at different stages, I’m involved in The Sayers project in Newcastle which is great because I wrote the book Tried and Tested at the Highest Level. An autobiography of Stephen Sayers a former criminal in the West End of Newcastle, he and his two brothers Michael and John became quite notorious. The book has done fantastically well and the next step is try and get a film made but we didn’t expect it to come as quickly. We were focusing on doing another book, maybe a documentary but then we were approached by Garry Fraser from Edinburgh. He picked up a copy of the book from a friend of his who is in Stephens former line of business shall we say. He read the book in two days, loved it, so we met up.

I had done research on Garry’s background and found he had a degree of success with getting work from book to screen, he had also won 2 BAFTA’s, he didn’t mention that when we first sat down and talked. One of his BAFTA’s was for a documentary he had made basically about his hard upbringing in the housing schemes of Edinburgh, getting into drugs, becoming a drug dealer then ultimately sent to prison. In Everybody’s Child he revisited places that were very painful to him, hence it won an award in Best Documentary category. He caught interest from author Irvine Welsh, he introduced him to Danny Boyle who involved him in Trainspotting 2. Also the BBC have just commissioned a short series that he has written called The Grey Area, so he’s gradually turned his life around in the last 6 or 7 years making short films and perfecting a particular genre.

With all this background and living the life and most importantly understanding it, we were interested in getting him on board with Stephens film so it was great news that he liked the book and wanted to get involved.

Over the last 12 months we have met and got on well, another good thing that came from meeting up was he asked if I was interested in working behind the camera. Now my main focus is being an actor and I’ve got a little experience of production when I worked on the Freddie Foreman documentary for Salon Pictures, so I said yeah anything to learn from that side of the camera will be beneficial.

How did the film come together ? We held open auditions at The Tyneside Irish Club in Newcastle where 130 people turned up in this big concert room. Garry set up a few scenes, a kitchen over here, a police interview there, there was a bar and we roughly done about 3-4 hours worth of improvisation. A unique way of doing it, improv is not unique but done on a big scale was, and it worked. He got it down to 25 people of which I was one, we got a call back with some scripts and I was cast as Stephen Sayers. I thought I was going to play the younger brother Michael but Garry saw something and asked me to play the lead role. I’ve known Stephen 20 years so it was an honour to be asked.

Do you feel any pressure to get it right ? I don’t feel pressure from Stephen that comes from myself, always wanting to learn the craft. I’ve just come off the back of the new Quadrophenia film To Be Someone which comes out this year. Ray Burdis was directing and I was playing a villain alongside my friend from Glasgow, Scott Peden. He was doing things on set which I loved, really playing with his villain character putting things in, taking stuff out, I learnt so much and I told him. Some things I took into the Sayers rehearsals with Garry and he said ‘Great, you made it real’.

Some writers are very precious about their words in the script….I have worked on things where that has been the case and it has to be said because it leads to the next scene or pops up 6 scenes later so I can see why people work like that. With this, Garry tends to work with non-actors, his BBC series The Grey Area includes mostly reformed drug addicts, some years ago I watched and really liked a film called  ‘Shooters’ where bouncers played bouncers, drug dealers played drug dealers you know like that, reaching for realism.

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Steve with Melly Barnes and Alfie Dobson playing the Sayers brothers.

What can we expect in the film ? Stephen is a humorous character so there is room for Northern humour in there but when you read the book it’s very graphic as regards the trauma he suffered as a child, his hard upbringing and schooling in criminal ways.  The film is a journey from Stephens early life where his Dad was a heavy drinker, had a day job and being a criminal. All fascinating stories but there is humour in there it’s not like the films The Rise of the Footsoldier, I acted in the third film of the franchise working with Shaun Ryder (The Happy Mondays). That’s just about beating people up really but Garry’s film comes at the story from a different angle. The aim is not to glorify criminality it doesn’t make Stephen a hero.

When we received feedback from the book people felt sorry for Stephen, especially women who wanted to mother him. Some people will detest it because he was a criminal, but it doesn’t shy away from telling his story, his start in life and what he decided to do. I’d love to do the wider story of 120 years of the Sayers family in Newcastle. It’s like Catherine Cookson meets the Goodfellas, if the film was picked up it would be like Peaky Blinders in Newcastle.

You talk about humour being in the book…. Yeah one time the Mam got a tip off that the police were coming round to the house, well the kids were well trained in what they had to do. Run around the house looking for stuff and get rid of anything that would incriminate their Dad. Well this one day they found a suitcase and their mam told them to hide it outside. They buried it underneath a loose tombstone in Elswick Cemetery just across the way from their home. Michael, Stephen and John hid with the suitcase and looked over to the house where they saw police leave empty handed. They looked in the suitcase and seen it absolutely stacked with cash (laughs).

Another story is about the time Stephen would be hanging outside the pub waiting for his Dad, there was always a woman there called Big Jean.  She would chat blokes up in the pub,  when they were half cut get them outside and bash them over the head with her handbag, then rob them and off she’d go. Turns out she had a big brick in it (laughs). There is little stories like that and depending on budget those scenes would be great to see in the film.

Lately I’ve watched the Italian crime drama Gomorrah and the addition of a great soundtrack help lift the story on screen. Is that something you’re looking to do ? We’d love to be able to use music from the times we’re telling the story in, but budget restraints don’t make that possible. There has already been North East based musicians asking about the project and putting themselves forward, we’d love to use them if it fits the text. The aim is to showcase North East talent and we’re really excited about the whole thing. You can see the stories being dramatized and it’s exciting for me cos the stories can be put together on screen with the music and it could do the North East proud.

What next Steve ? We’re filming a trailer for the Sayers film in March and I’m going down to London soon where I’ve been cast in the new Krays film, then working on a second draft of the new Freddie Foreman script which is close to my heart as I am very good friends with him.

To buy the book ‘Tried and Tested at the Highest Level’ go to WWW.THESAYERS.CO.UK

Part two of this interview will be posted soon.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2020.