Have you ever had a real job ? I’ve never done a day’s work in my life as me da’ would say (laughs). I’ve never worked in a bar, or had a day job, there were times when I maybe should have. It’s tough not knowing when or if the next job is coming. I’ve always earned enough. I’m not rich but I’ve got a house, a family, 4 kids. I’ve managed. When things have got tough I’ve tried busking a few times, and that get’s you your £25 or so in really difficult times. I’ve had some great jobs, I keep positive and always have something nice to look forward too. Keep optimistic is how to go on.
In the ‘80s did you watch live music show The Tube ? Yes definitely. I look back at clips of the show on You Tube and there is a fantastic one of Madonna before she broke, she’s dancing and miming to one of her songs and there’s loads of Geordies standing watching her with their arms folded. You know what’s this, who’s she sort of thing (laughs).
One night I had a ticket to see Ozzy Osbourne at Newcastle Mayfair and beforehand he was on The Tube. I watched it with me dad and Ozzy can be a bit ropey singing live. Well me da’ said ‘How much did ya’ pay to see him !’ (laughs). I remember watching a show with the Tygers of Pan Tang and Twisted Sister, I was still at school and on that night we had a rock disco and a heavy metal band playing. It was wow you know. Loved it.
When I started working on dramas in Tyne Tees TV it was great to just be in the same studio where all those iconic performances happened.
When were you at Tyne Tees ? It was the early ‘90s. I had trained as an actor at Newcastle College from ’88 -’90 and there was quite a lot of TV and theatre happening in the region. Writers were working, Byker Grove was starting and a season of new dramas were scheduled so I ended up doing a couple of those. They were like period crime dramas and some were filmed at Beamish Museum. I done a few seasons on Byker Grove, a few days here and there on Emmerdale and Spender but TV’s not something I’ve been able to get a foothold in because I got really busy with theatre. I was with the Northern Stage Ensemble for 15 years, working on big tours for months at a time rather than being a jobbing actor getting work here and there. That’s the choice I made while being a jobbing actor has worked well for others.
In 2004 I was at a Sunday for Sammy concert at Newcastle City Hall and you performed a tribute to Bobby Thompson. How did that come about ? A bunch of friends got together and formed the Red and White Theatre Company and we produced a musical about Bobby’s life. We were young and looking back we might cringe a bit (laughs). We toured it around clubs and community venues and we were nominated for a Northern Arts award in 1990. We appeared on the Northern Arts awards show. It was hosted by Melvyn Bragg in Tyne Tees studio.
Previous to that we put together a show about the history of Sunderland and in that I performed a tribute to Bobby. It was very popular so that’s where the idea came from to do a musical about his life. For research we met Bobby’s family, it was just after he died, and started a friendship with Keith his son.
How is the show received by the family ? Bobby had two sons. Sadly Michael passed away about 5 years ago but Keith supports it fully. I always ask him about any new stuff going into the show, it’s important to let him know what I’m up to with his Dad’s memory.
Do you think the Bobby Thompson story would travel to audiences around the country ? I’m putting together a short project for the Tyne Idols bus tours around Newcastle so I’ve been thinking about the whole Bobby story again and his accent wasn’t just Geordie it was Pitmatic. That’s very strong and yes it was a barrier but one of the reasons why he didn’t make it outside the region was because I think he didn’t want to, he had everything up here. He might have had more ambition in the early part of his career when he was doing Wot Cheor Geordie for the BBC. Maybe he thought about pushing it further but certainly not during the ‘70s.
All of the other regional comics and entertainers who made it nationally were all- rounders, actors, comedians, song and dance men, Bobby wasn’t. He was a pit comedian from the Durham coalfields talking specifically to that community.
Over the years the tribute show has been very popular but lately the audiences are not there as much now, they are getting much older. He will survive in North East culture as The Little Waster, just like Cushy Butterfield and all those characters, but as for a modern audience I haven’t got the skills as a comedy writer to create strong enough material to bring him up to the modern era. Somebody could do that, the last Sunday for Sammy concert, with the help of writers Jason Cook and Steffen Peddie, we had him as an angel talking about modern day stuff like Brexit and Donald Trump. So who knows it might work.
How did you start in entertainment ? My dad was in bands playing the clubs so I just got into playing in bands when I was a teenager. There was a brilliant scene down at Washington Arts Centre of a music collective, a vibrant theatre group and talented writers. So as well as being a musician I got involved in theatre and really enjoyed it. But it was like spinning plates, I was making a living playing music in the clubs and enjoying the theatre side of things.
In the end I decided to go to college and do drama because in 1988, I got invited for a month to perform in the Furness Mystery plays at Furness Abby in Barrow and really enjoyed, it so that swung it for me. Still kept my hand in playing in bands and after finishing the course I got my first job at Live Theatre.
Who were you listening to when you were younger ? In my teens I was playing guitar and it was rock music, typical ‘80s stuff like Ozzy, Y&T, Journey but then started learning other instruments like clarinet so went through a sort of Jazz phase. Then harmony stuff like The Beatles and The Eagles, today I like a bit of modern country music that’s out now. As a songwriter I try to listen to modern stuff to see what’s going on. Music has always been there and I write, record and perform today.
What made you want to play guitar ? When I was young I wanted to play the drums. I’d mime along with knitting needles to War of the Worlds (laughs). But then I heard Queen and Brian May’s guitar had an amazing sound. The big ‘Brighton Rock’ guitar solo with the echo’s. I just fell in love with it.
Who was your first gig ? AC/DC in ’82 at Newcastle City Hall. For Those About to Rock tour when they played 3 nights. But I remember seeing Gary Moore around ’84 and he had a sideman called I think Neil Carter. He played guitar, keyboards, backing vocals, he was really good and I thought that looks a good gig. He done loads of sessions with other musicians and bands, I thought that would be great working with lots of different people. So subconsciously that’s always been there so that’s why I do lots of different projects now.
That can keep you ticking over….Yes when the theatre work slackens off I can jump into playing working men’s clubs and do acoustic gigs. Last year was a good run on theatre work with various jobs around the country then back up north at the Theatre Royal for panto. Next year I have a big tour with a show called Once the Musical. It’s the first time it’s toured the UK since its West End run 4 years ago. It’s playing Newcastle Theatre Royal in June 2020
There are actor/muso shows happening now which are popular in theatres where actors play the instruments. Colleges have added specific courses now to specialise in this type of performance so the players are now at such a good standard.
Do you think theatre is still a big gamble though ? Yes you have to duck and dive, it’s hard to make a living, it’s not easy. I’ve done a bit drama teaching in collages and community groups with young and older people, that’s rewarding, but you have to be dedicated to do it. Luckily it’s worked for me although at my age I couldn’t do much else now (laughs).
I was an audience member of live music show The Tube filmed in Tyne Tees studio. After a few weeks I noticed the camera, lights and stage set up’s and thought I would love to be involved in something like this. Have you had moments that you can look back on that have affected your life in a big way ? Yes they happen without you realising it at the time. Those big moments in your life are only realised years later. That big year for me in theatre, 2018, they do happen but you have to be ready for them. There has been opportunities in the past which haven’t worked out but I think I wasn’t ready for them. You’ve got to learn to take the opportunities.
Around 30 year ago I was in a darkroom working on a black and white picture that I had taken, I saw the image on the photographic paper coming through the chemicals and thought it was magic. Have you had any magic moments ? This sounds horrible and pretentious so forgive me because I’ve read accounts from actors who’ve said things like this and I thought ‘What a wanker’. (laughs)
I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company for 3 years and you get understudy roles. I was on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Stratford and was playing Friar Lawrence. Understudies get a full run as well. So we were playing to a full house and I was going full throttle Shakespearean actor, giving it the welly and I had that feeling that I’d read about, the wanker actors saying ‘I was shaking with emotion, with those words, how they were coming out, they were just so’. You know how pretentious is that. But it did happen to me. It really was an amazing moment.
Last year I did a show called Beyond the End of the Road with the company November Club, touring village hall’s in Northumberland. Stripped back stage, a couple of lights, I mean where’s the glamour in that ? (laughs). But we had some really amazing moments on that tour. The sharing of telling stories is really magic no matter where you are. It doesn’t have to be profile job that gives you that magic.
Another time was when I put together a Playhouse Theatre band for one evening. One of our guests was Brian Johnson from AC/DC. He was there with the late Brendon Healy and Paul Thompson, who was the drummer from Roxy Music. I had just worked with Brian on the Sunday for Sammy concert and when he arrived he was very complimentary about the band which was nice. Later in the evening he said ‘Pete I might fancy getting up and doing a couple of songs with ya’ if you don’t mind‘. Wow! Absolutely! So towards the end of the night Brian, Brendon and Paul got up. It was a rock and roll dream come true to play with Brian ‘Johnna‘ Johnson from AC/DC. The first band I’d seen live. Amazing!
Have you had any nightmare moments on stage ? I think we’ve all had moments on stage when we’ve thought we’d rather not be there. I was doing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in London in 2012, I was having a bad time cos I lost my dad not long before that. You’ve got to go on and do the biz tho’. Audiences have paid for it.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve had some great times but the working men’s clubs can be tough. Sometimes you think it’s not where you planned to be, but you have to be disciplined enough to give it your best it terms of your vocals and sound, production. You can just be tired or have a cold, or it’s a Sunday night gig after a long week and in your darkest moment you think I’m 50 I don’t wanna be here, but you are so you have to deliver.
Have you noticed the changes to working men’s clubs ? I played the clubs in the ‘80s and saw the changes when I came back around 2007. They are still changing now. I played the Whitley Bay Comrades club last Sunday afternoon. People don’t want to be out on the night now, they have the bingo on, an entertainer, yeah it’s good.
Have you any last thoughts ? As you get older you value the good times even more. Working in theatre you more often than not are working with amazing people. The company becomes like a family. Those jobs might not come around again for a couple of years so you have to make the most of them. The Stratford job was great but I was away from home for 3 years but my kids came down for holidays and loved it. You value those times.
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Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2019.