PLAY IT AGAIN – on TV & Stage with music documentary director, Bob Smeaton

Smeaton first featured on this blog back in November 2018 talking about his time as lead vocalist and frontman with Newcastle bands Hartbreaker, White Heat and Loud Guitars. Over 17 years Bob played over 400 gigs, his last was in 1991.

Some say White Heat were the best band to come out of Newcastle who ‘never made it’. They signed for Virgin records in 1980, went on tour with Judas Priest and headlined London Marquee – they set alight to the Tyne, but sadly not the Thames.

Smeaton turned to acting on stage and TV, and like most North East actors was cast in an episode of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

‘I was in the second series that was mostly filmed in Nottingham prior to them moving the action to Spain. I had known Jimmy Nail from when he used to come and see White Heat and had also met Tim Healy a number of times, as I had once worked with his wife Denise’ remembers Bob.

Nearly 40 years later the show about a group of British workers on a German building site is still being repeated on TV today. Even though some scenes have been chopped out – it still gets me smiling which is a hard ask at the best of times. I suppose it’s a great example of ‘feel good telly’ – and nothing comes close.

‘My role as shop assistant in a man’s boutique was very much blink and you miss it, and in fact it didn’t warrant a mention in my memoir. I’m sure that role could have been played by a hundred other actors. I was told recently that my scene has been cut from the re-runs on UK Drama but my name is still there in the end credits!

As chance would have it I was in a club in London a couple of years ago and a bloke came up to me pointed to my trousers and asked ‘Do they do the Italian paratrooper in your size’. Which was one of my lines from the scene. He then proceeded to run the whole scene with him playing the role of Oz and me reprising my role as the shop assistant’.

Fans of the programme still regard it with much affection and the interview with Auf Wiedersehen actress Lesley Saint John, is by far the most popular interview on this blog (link below). Lesley appears in ‘Hasta La Vista’, the episode that Bob appeared in.

It just goes to show what a brilliant series it was and how people still look upon it with great affection. I was also lucky to have been in a scene with Tim Spall, he is a genius and nothing like the character he played on screen.

Bob in his early days in White Heat.

TEENAGE DREAM

When my careers guidance teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school I told her I wanted to be an actor or singer. This didn’t seem like an option and she suggested the shipyards as a third option. As it turned out I have been fortunate to do all three.

Without doubt singing in a band was, and remains, the best thing that I’ve ever done. Nothing beats being on stage and performing to an audience. And my love of music was the springboard to my present job as a director of music documentaries. 

Even working in the yards had its upside, it gave me loads of material for song lyrics and made me realise ‘there must be more to life than this’.

Bob and Mick McNally shooting a scene from the Film on Four, Accounts.


STAGECRAFT

I always felt there was an element of acting in being in a band, you learnt your lines, put on a show and hopefully entertained an audience with a degree of honesty.
I first acted in school plays at junior school even though at South Benwell school we didn’t do drama. Therefore I would write plays and give myself the lead role. Often with a few songs thrown in for good measure.

When White Heat split I was very fortunate to be cast in a Film on Four called Accounts. The guy who wrote it, Micheal Wilcox, had seen me presenting a television show called The Colour Programme, and thought that I would be right to play the part of Andy Mawson.

The role had previously been performed on stage by Kevin Whately. Mike McNally played the role of my younger  brother, Donald. Mike and I have remained good friends and I look forward to getting up a doing a turn with him at ‘Jarra Tapas’ in the not too distant future.

15 MINUTES OF FAME

I thought that having had a lead role in a film would be the springboard to more acting work, but that wasn’t the case. I soon learnt that for every role there would be hundreds of actors going for the same part. I was up for roles alongside the likes of Robson Green and Joe Caffrey, great actors with more experience than I had.

As far as my acting career goes the thing that got me noticed most was an advert for McEwan’s Best Scotch. When it was broadcast I discovered what it was like to be famous for 15 minutes. The irony was I was recognised more for that ad than I did for being in a band. But I guess that’s that the power of television. It’s still out there on You Tube. And I can laugh at it now and it’s great to have a record of what I looked like all those years ago.

Like most local actors I did a Catherine Cookson. I was cast in the The Black Candle and had my throat cut about ten minutes into the film. My mam thought it was the best thing that I had ever done, and would watch on repeat my sad demise at the hands of some posh bloke.

Those Cookson’s were great and had really high production values and were a great source of work for a load of local actors. I am sure every actor in the North East will have a Cookson on their CV.

Bob during the time of making the McEwans Best Scotch commercial.

SCREEN TIME

Another show filmed in the North East was TV detective show Spender, broadcast 1991-93. The programme starred Jimmy Nail who created the series with Ian La Franais, who also wrote Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

I played the part of a drug dealer in Spender, I think Jimmy Nail put me forward for that role. I still see Jimmy occasionally but we never talk about acting. Like me I think his first love was and remains music, we talk about music and the sad demise of our football club.

I also did some Theatre work and my debut was in a play called Fur Coat and No Knickers by Mike Harding. This was at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff Upon Sea. My opening line was “Hello I’m Mark Greenhalgh I’m as bright as the inside of a cows bum”. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a good laugh.

Eastenders actor Ross Kemp was also in it. We became good mates, we also did The Wizard of Oz together. Me and telly hardman Ross Kemp in leotards playing munchkins was a sight to behold. I never really caught the theatre bug and much preferred television and film acting.

I did dip my toe back into acting when I finished working on the Beatles Anthology. Matthew Robinson cast me in Quayside a soap opera that was set on Tyneside. The television audience hated it and it got dropped after one series. I loved it and had a great time making it, the highpoint was getting to work alongside the great Joe Caffrey.

One time we were sat waiting to start filming and he was chatting away to me. I didn’t realise he was running the scene. It didn’t seem like he was acting. That was the difference between my acting and the likes of Joe, for him it was effortless.

Bob on stage at the Palace Theatre doing Wizard of Oz. Ross Kemp and Bob standing either side of Dorothy.

TV EXIT

I haven’t done any acting since Quayside (1997), the series was cancelled around the same time as my career as a director of music documentaries began to take off. My first love was always music, but I was very fortunate to have experienced what I was like to be an actor and I really enjoyed it and I would ‘never say never again’.

I really miss performing and although acting will never replace the buzz of being on stage with a band I feel it works a similar muscle. Performing is in my blood and I would like to think both of those doors remain open.

When I released my book someone got in touch and suggested trying to make a film of it and that I could play the role of my dad. Anyone who has read the book would realise me and my dad had a difficult relationship, but maybe playing him might have helped get rid of some demons. Also I would have got to get up and sing a bunch of Tom Jones songs.

YOU BETTER YOU BET

The year before the pandemic struck I broke my knee-cap and I was out of action for six months. I was finally back up and running at the start of 2020, then the pandemic struck.

I have been very fortunate to have been kept busy during this past year. I finished a documentary about the Who Sell Out album just before Christmas, this is due to air on Sky Arts around the end of April.

At present I am in the process of finishing a film about a big American band, I’m not at liberty to say who it is, it should hopefully get a cinema release later this year and will also screen on television.

GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

As we have not been able to get out and do much socialising, my evenings have been spent working on some new songs and practicing my singing and guitar playing. It would be great to get the songs recorded.

I am also pondering the possibility of getting out there and doing some gigs once the restrictions are lifted. I am not sure what form the gigs would take but I am keeping my options open. But I have always said that it’s as big a buzz playing to twenty people as it is to two thousand.

Bob Smeaton’s memoir – From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond

is available now through Newcastle Waterstones and Amazon.

Link to previous interview:

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – with Film & TV Director, Bob Smeaton | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Link to interview with Lesley Saint John:

TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Interview by Gary Alikivi   March 2021.

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