IN SHARP FOCUS a conversation with actor Steve Wraith

How did you get involved in acting ? My first acting role was King Canute when I was at school, from that moment on I always wanted to be an actor. I’d fallen behind at school and I couldn’t read or write so my parents put me into private education.

I was entering poetry competitions in the Durham area and doing well, that’s where I learned reading lines. The school were impressed so encouraged my parents to push my stage work further.

So I went along to The Peoples Theatre in Newcastle on a Saturday morning, the exercises built up to putting on a play 3 times a year, it was a fantastic training ground. I met new people and got the chance to play some good parts. I think that’s where I got to play the villain like I do now, they just cast me in them roles from day one. I really enjoy them, I played the Artful Dodger and never looked back (laughs).

I was there until I was 16 and did two trips abroad with them, 3 weeks in America doing Under Milk Wood in places like New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Then we went to Russia where I played the Artful Dodger it was fantastic, we were there as communism was starting to fall, the whole western influence and McDonalds being built.

Then I went to Newcastle College and I was all set to be an actor because I never stuck in at school really, before I left school they asked me what I wanted to be and the headmaster laughed when I said an actor.

That’s a great incentive though isn’t it…..Yes, funny I regularly meet one or two teachers still, we go for a coffee now and then. But I packed in college when I was promised a certain amount of money plus an Equity card to do a panto, by the end I had done 54 shows but what I was promised never materialised.

I was involved in not only doing two shows a day but putting the set up and taking it down then travelling to the next venue, really when a promise is given you should be rewarded. The guy who was responsible for the production shall remain nameless. Looking back I thought if that’s acting you can stuff it, the one thing I wanted to do I was walking away from.

But I’ve come back to it after a break away, it happened after my experiences meeting with the Kray Twins and actors Mike Read and John Altman (both ex-Eastenders). John was doing a play called Bouncers by John Godber at Sunderland Empire. He rang me up ‘I’m coming up to your neck of the woods do you want to meet up ?’ We arranged for him to do a night on the door of the nightclub where I was working at the time.

On the night he was watching my mannerisms, everything I was doing on the door, even when there was a fight on.

6 months later I took my mother and my wife to see the play he was in with Nigel Pavaro and Chris Connel who I knew from college. We were walking up to the Empire and lo and behold who was standing on the door in his doormen gear…it was John and nobody recognised him.

Afterwards we went on a great night out in Newcastle and the conversation got round to me being an actor years ago and John recommended that I should get back into it. I was happy working on the doors but fellow Geordie Chris Connel passed me a number for Janet Plater who was setting up an extras agency. He said there will be a lot of sitting around but give it a go so I met up with Janet and signed up, that was around 15 years ago.

What was your first job as an extra ? My first job was on a new TV series called The Night Detective, later became 55 Degrees North. It was a speaking part which Janet wasn’t sure I would get, so I went to The Mitre in Benwell, where they used to film Byker Grove. Thing was I had been singing a bit too hard at the Newcastle match the previous night, they had won so I had a few drinks and ended up with a sore throat and thick head.

When I got to The Mitre I met the director who to be fair, was also looking a bit rough. He said ‘You’re looking a bit ropey Steve’. I told him where I’d been and he laughed ‘So was I’. We spent the next 20 minutes talking about the match.

Finally I started reading the script and was playing a wheel clamper who clamped the villains car. When we had finished I left the Mitre and 20 minutes later Janet called saying ‘You’ve got it, you’ve got the part’.

Filming on that programme felt great I thoroughly enjoyed it. The script arrived in the post I had two scenes to film that’s two days work at £750 a day. They sent a car to pick me up, I had my own caravan with ‘Wheel Camper 1’ written on the door, I could have been sitting smoking a cigar thinking I’ve finally arrived (laughs).

Then it was sitting waiting for the phone to ring from Hollywood. Janet rings ‘I got you a part in Byker Grove, you’re playing a security guard, just a background artist. Get to the Monument for 7am’. Well I was back to earth with a bump, welcome to the world of the extras. That was where I was gonna have to cut my teeth really.

But I enjoyed it and I got to say Ricky Gervais absolutely nails what being an extra is all about in his TV series. You hear people saying ‘I’m an actor really I’m just doing this in between jobs’. It is funny but I networked a lot mostly with the techies on camera and sound, lighting guys, a lot knew me and we got on really well because of my love of Newcastle United.

Then after 3 years of extra work I wanted to give acting another go because the lads I got to know were contacting me about work coming up. I rang my mate Steve Melville Head of Drama at Gateshead College he suggested a course which I did and enjoyed it, we done a play at the end of the year and I got the buzz back.

Have you had any magic moments on stage ? You know you’re in the zone when you’re words are perfect and you let the character do the talking. I can’t remember much about it just applause at the end and thinking this is what I want to do.

I never finished the original college course all those years ago so I done a full time degree at the age of 37. I learnt a lot about myself, the craft and proving to myself that I’ve trained properly and turn up at an agents door and say right I’m ready.

I went back to Janet Plater but she didn’t share the same enthusiasm and didn’t take me on as an actor so I put my notice in as an extra. Meanwhile I saw an acting job for a low budget film based in the North East called ‘In Our Name’, the role was a Sergeant Major playing scenes with Joanne Froggatt from Coronation Street. I went to the casting and got the part.

The Scottish director Brian Welsh was struggling for contacts to venues like a boxing ring and nightclub, with my contacts I provided that for him and we hit it off really well. At the wrap party he said ‘What can I do for you?’ I was looking for an agent so he hooked me up with Sam Claypool and in 2011 I done a cast for her, she said ‘You’re raw but I think I can do something for you’.

How did working on the TV series Vera come about ? Sam got me the part in Vera, I’d cast 5 times for the TV show and in 2015 I was lucky to get it. That was 3 times self-taping and twice face to face. The process at first isn’t face to face it’s self-taping where you pick a blank wall behind you and with a camera or phone you do your bit and send it to the director.

The part in Vera was called Big Pete who wasn’t a nice character and ran a restaurant. He was running illegal immigrants through his kitchen and paying them in food. It was a great opportunity, six and a half million viewers, being on a big show like that is great for the cv.

From that I was cast in The Rise of the Footsoldier working alongside Shaun Ryder in his first and last acting role (laughs). Also working with people I’ve watched on films over the years and suddenly now I’m in the green room with them and on set. Fantastic to work with them, we choreograph the fight scenes a week earlier then go down to film.


What you got planned for 2020 Steve ? It’s an exciting year Shirley Lewis is representing me in London for other acting parts where she can put me in front of directors.

I have other interests like my publishing company working on various books and an Event Management company where we promote boxing events, in March we have Floyd Mayweather up here again so there’s tickets to be sold for that, yes an exciting year with plenty to look forward too.

Interview by 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 aristocrats. 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 six 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.


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.

HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS ? in conversation with award winning journalist Janis Blower

A journalist for 44 years Janis’ first and only job was at The Shields Gazette… I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to do but the only subject I was any good at in school was English and History, so it was always going to have to be something to do with writing of some sort.

My brother in law John had been a reporter at the Gazette and my sister Pam worked on the front counter reception, that’s how they met. When I left school I wrote to the editor at the Shields Gazette, Jim Sinton, asking for a job, nowadays you would need a Media degree from University but I just sent the letter in.

I fell very lucky and got taken on as trainee reporter and signed my indentures for three years. I literally learnt on the job then periodically being sent to college learning the law and shorthand, then at the end of the three years got my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency certificate.

What was the job of a journalist then ? I spent a lot of time covering court cases, council meetings, area health meetings that sort of thing. Then if you were covering a story where somebody had done something or something awful had happened to them you would go out with a photographer, interview them, take some photographs, get back to the office and write your story up.

Sometimes you would get the story over a telephone interview but I liked going out and seeing people because it was the only way of getting the feel of the story plus you picked up other things as well.

In interviews I’ve found most people are open to talking not only about good times but also bad, did you find that ? The dreaded part of the job is what is called these days, the death knock, and a lot of times you ended up getting the bums rush. It was having to go and see somebody where someone had died possibly in tragic circumstances. You would start by saying I understand if you don’t want to talk to me but…..  You always had to brace yourself for being told to f off which did happen sometimes and I totally respect that.

A lot of time people would speak to you because they wanted the story to be right, to make sure you understand what the person who had died was like. So yeah it can be a surprise to find how willing people are to talk.

Were there any deadlines that you had to work to ? There was nothing written in stone you just knew to get your story in as soon as possible, it was more instinctive than anything else. You’d been to the event, got your notes down then find a telephone box and hope you’ve got the right money. If you didn’t you’d reverse the charges (laughs).

You are writing it in your head as you are dictating it down the phone line. Hoping to hell you are getting it right. Terrifying at times but brilliant training. We used to go to court in the morning and write the stories up, taking down a note from one case and writing the previous one by hand (laughs).

The messenger would come across from the office pick your story up, take it back and that would get in that nights paper. That’s how current it was. Even covering trials in Newcastle Crown Court you would phone your copy over after an hour or two of the trial for that night’s paper. There was 4 or 5 copy girls who would take dictation. The early edition used to come out around 1pm and that was basically yesterday’s final edition with a bit of updating in it. But the final would come out at 4pm.

Years ago The Shields Gazette on a Monday would have a celebratory page of wedding pictures …Yes there was always certain jobs that you did before the end of the week, one was the Agoes which was snippets of what happened 25 or 50 years ago that went in to the paper and the other was the wedding reports.

People would come into the office and pick up a form that had to be filled in with the details of the bride and groom, their parents, what they did for a living, what the bride and bridesmaids would be wearing, anything special about it and name of the church. You wrote the report from that, then the photographer would go take the picture on the Saturday.

You would see them married up together on the Monday. There was a kudos of having it in the Gazette. Do people realize now just how valued the Gazette was, you had achieved something if you were in the paper.

Janis wrote a daily column called Cookson Country featuring people and places around the town it’s popularity led to the books ‘Aall Tgithor Like the Folk O’Shields’. How did that come about ? Cookson Country in the paper started in the late 1980’s and it had been such a success with the use of the old photographs. I can’t remember who brought up the idea, it was maybe the editor or management but they said ‘Why don’t we do a book, a spin off from Cookson’. That’s when the paper was still owned by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers who had their own publishing arm, they were doing books and magazines commercially. So it was ‘Yeah I’ll give it a go by all means’.

The first one was very popular, we done that about 1993 or 4 because my son Alexander was only a baby. I look back now and wonder how I accomplished it really, working, having a small child and doing them. There’s five of them in all with the last one in 1999.

Did you find it hard work to put them together or did they fall into place ? No it wasn’t hard work I think for the first one, the blue one, I settled on the things around the town that were most well-known, like the Market, Old Town Hall, Comical Corner, Marsden Grotto and Marine Parks so it was easy to come up with a selection of things to do, and the Gazette did have this wonderful collection of old pictures. For the text the Gazette had this detailed cuttings archive dating back to just before the Second World War. So no it wasn’t a chore to put it together.

Can you remember any stories or photographs that caught your attention, that stood out ?  I think what I was struck by most and this had come out of Cookson in a way was how hard people’s lives had been. I did a bit about guys gathering sea coal, you had all this coal that was washed from out of the ground seams and spilled off ships, and men would go and gather it. I can still remember the tidal edge along the beach down there was black with all the coal washed up on the beach.

I wasn’t aware how poor parts of Shields had been, the riverside area especially, that was a learning curve. Also to see how much the place had changed, then how in some instances it had stayed the same. There are still huge parts of Shields that are still recognizable from 100 years ago.

This photograph (above left) is at the top of Mile End Road of the old corporation staithes where all the midnight mechanics would go round and empty the ash closets, then it was all taken to the staithes put in hoppers, taken out to sea and dumped. You could never imagine that there was something on the riverside that looked like that. God knows how old some of these buildings were.

That was the biggest revelation, coming to realise that there had been this whole riverside town parts of which probably dated back a very long time, and it’s just gone. It used to be one street with pubs and shop’s along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with it’s little streets, we had that. But because it was so dilapidated and insanitary it was all cleared.

How important do you think local history is ? It’s important, you’ve got to know and understand where we have come from and how the town has been shaped. But I have a profound dislike of the word nostalgia. I hated it when Cookson page was referred to as nostalgia. There is a saying that nostalgia is a seductive liar. Nostalgia now for people can be the 1980s, when I started doing Cookson a lot of the readers memories were going back to war time.

I never tried to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, you look at those old photographs in the books we’ve talked about, families in those houses on the riverside were living in appalling conditions, the sewage, the water supply was poor, walls of the houses full of bugs, people were hungry, they were dirty – there’s no nostalgia for that. It is important that we know about these things so you can see what improvements we have made, how much we’ve come on in that time.

Now that you are retired do you still keep your hand in ? Since I’ve retired I have done some work with school children and they are absolutely fascinated by things you tell them. I’ve taken some on walks along the riverside, to The Customs House and where Brighams dock was and tell them they would have been covered in coal dust sitting near The Customs House, where the old coal staithes where. Then behind you is the top of St Hilda Colliery pit head, can you imagine 150 year ago little children your age working down that pit ?

They are fascinated about it, I tell them to go home and talk to their parents, talk to Granda and Grandma what life was like when they where children. Don’t get seduced by nostalgia for the olden days, cos they were hard…really hard.

Gary Alikivi  Interview January 2020

BILLY’S STORY -The artist formerly known as Meths.

A few weeks ago a story was sent in from a South Shields resident who signed out as Tinwhistler. After initial contact they didn’t offer anymore clues about their identity. Was this Shields version of the X-Files Deep Throat ? A big exclusive or was this just a wind-up.

But after reading the story I remember the old guy in the article – Billy Meths. I often saw Billy, real name Billy Roberts, in South Shields Town Centre during late ‘70s early ‘80s, most times sitting on a bench comforting a bottle of cider.

The story also brought back a reminder of another couple of characters that hung around Shields. During the ‘80s I often saw a guy known locally as ‘Cowboy’ cos of his boots. I wasn’t sure if he was homeless or staying in a hostel.

Then during the noughties hanging around the Mill Dam and river area of the town was ‘Wavey Davey’, he got that label from waving at passing ships. Where are they now ? There will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town like Billy Meths – this is Tinwhistlers…..

    Billy Meths cracking pic.

Billy’s home was South Shields. Most of us exist in a finite amount of square feet on 1 or 2 floors that come with restraints known as mortgage, freehold or tenancy and all the rules and regulations that go with them. That is what we call our home. Billy viewed the town as his home, picking random points that could serve as a base when it suited.

Back in the early ‘70s society enjoyed virtual full employment and homelessness was not a national issue. But there was always going to be those in society that seemed displaced and show a preference for living outside the parameters of a normal existence, preferring a much harsher alternative.

Constantly battling the elements, hunger, alcohol (or lack of it) and the occasional assistance of passers-by. Billy Roberts was one of them. But I want to go back in time to the era where I first heard of and met Billy Roberts, the artist formerly known as Meths.

He was one of several who sought cover in the Town Centre particularly in the Market Place. Someone your parents might tell you to avoid, someone that was barred from every public house in the town yet with his singing, dancing and playing of music either with harmonica or his ‘bones’, would entertain the pub’s punters on the streets.

He had a nickname ‘Billy Meths’ a name that was maybe  bestowed in the previous decade by cruel kids that saw a loner drinking from a bottle in the street. His demeanor and mood would fluctuate depending on alcohol intake.

Some of the older workers in the licensing business referred to him as ‘Gypsy Roberts’, perhaps because of his nomadic lifestyle and no set official residence. Nor would he likely have had his lobes pierced though I came across him once wearing a clipped on hoop that was so big a dolphin could’ve jumped through it.

Perhaps Billy considered the whole of South Shields his home, setting down at various locations depending upon the season. As I grew a bit older I’d venture into town and would often see him around as I’d be visiting record shops.

Sheltering from the elements he’d sometimes be in a bus stop with a bottle of cider, causing anxiety to those waiting for a bus. He might not be seen for a while but then when least expected, he’d appear pushing a barrow of scrap and rags that he’s moving on to turn into cash for cider in order to attain his preferred state of consciousness.

Leaving school and entering a life of work afforded me the dubious pleasure of sampling the weekend night life and I’d see Billy more often. At the junction of Mile End Road, Ocean Road and King Street there would be stationed a police vehicle and officers with dogs to attend any possible outbreaks of Saturday night violence.

Billy would be drawn to the Ship & Royal pub, peering in through large windows, the pub had floor to ceiling glass windows that gave the customer a great view of the outside world. He would be weighing up the paying customers, also wondering what mischief might be achieved.

He might begin with a knock on the glass then maybe lewd hand gestures, face pulling, a sparring routine. Of course if you knew him you’d maybe laugh, smile and wave him on. But there was always one who was not aware of this growing legend in our midst who would remonstrate, return the hand jiving and on Billy pushing his face right up to the glass his target would then bolt for the door in order to deal with Billy in a pugilistic fashion.

Billy’s timing was impeccable and his walk away followed by his collaring by a drunken assailant takes place in full view of the police. Those watching through the big windows see a police response to an older gentleman being harassed by a young drunken bully. They’d spring into action and Billy had another ‘kill’.

Summer ‘76 I was working in the family’s retail business and my father was a beer drinker. I suppose out of family loyalty I would accompany him for a sup. Again in the Ship & Royal, as usual the bar was busy with workers and shoppers relaxing before returning home. On this occasion Billy entered the pub resplendent in a three piece navy suit that looked a remarkable fit, he had an open necked white shirt and a cigar in one hand, the other hand behind his back.

A barmaid was fulfilling a large order and loaded drinks onto a tray ready to carry them over. ‘Large brandy please’ was Billy’s request. ‘Out Billy, you know you’re not served in here’. She then began to walk toward her customers carrying a full tray.

His response was something like ‘Ok love no problem’ and went toward the door to exit. He was now behind the barmaid and his other hand came from behind his back revealing a fully inflated balloon. He held it out and brought the lit cigar to touch it. I saw this so didn’t jump, but the barmaid shrieked, dropped the tray and drinks went all over both table and punters.

Another occasion I was on Ocean Road and Billy was in the bus shelter. He had his companion of Gaymers or Bulmers cider with him and seemed fairly lucid when I sat talking with him. He volunteered the fact that he originally hailed from Blaydon and that at one time he had been a keen amateur boxer. ‘No trophies son, no trophies, just memories’.

I did partake of a drink from his bottle on the assurance that there was no added substance and stayed for a little while. But unfortunately I can’t remember other pearls of wisdom he volunteered that night.

There was a time when a friend of a friend was sufficiently displaced to need to share accommodation with Mr Roberts. Luckily it was summer but he stated how cold it had been that night. He slept underneath the Waltzer at the  Fairground which was Billy’s summer residence.

There was a previous summer residence, the Tyne lifeboat, a landmark at the pier end of Ocean Road. I believe he put in for an exchange when he alleged that he was being harassed by police and on one occasion 2 cadet officers did urinate on him.

My father told me he bumped into him whilst on his way for a pint or three. ‘Good evening Mr Roberts and where are we off to this fine evening ? ‘Good evening sir. I’m now moving to my winter residence as it’s starting to get a little bit cold during the evening. Mulligans Mansions, top floor, is where I’ll be for the coming winter’. Where he meant was the multi-story car park situated just off Mile End Road.

Some weeks later my dad bumped into Billy and asked how he was settling in. Now below the car park at ground level there was a night club originally known as Banwells… ‘I’ve got noisy bloody neighbours’ he stated. ‘I’ve been down several times to complain and ask them to keep it quiet as I cannot get a night’s sleep’.

Trying to visualize the scenario where 2 burly doormen respond to rapping on the door and seeing a bedraggled gentleman of the road type, possibly holding a blanket and complaining, had me in fits.

When his spirits were high he’d often break into song, do a jig and bring out a harmonica or his ‘bones’ to entertain. When low he could be found somewhere with a bottle going through some sparring routines, beating the pulp out of his invisible opponent.

Billy’s musical talents had not gone unnoticed as another of the town’s characters, Brian Batey, would invite him to gigs to sing on stage with the band Brian sang with, The Letters. He was recorded at Bolingbroke Hall in 1981 and is on You Tube.

Billy’s lifestyle eventually took its toll and his health  deteriorated. He was cared for at the Ingham Infirmary and afforded a private room by the then casualty consultant, Miss Seymour. Seymour was an eccentric born again Christian who had spent the earlier years of her medical career attending to the sick and dying in the Congo. She now attended to the needs of Billy Roberts and may well have assisted financially with his funeral.

He died I think circa November 1984 ? I’m sure there will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town. Thanks Billy.

Is there another Tinwhistler out there ?

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.


2019 has seen nearly 100 interviews posted mostly musicians, but also featured artists, poets and authors. If yer lookin’ for a Christmas present to buy why not take a butchers at these books that featured on the blog this year.

It’s not often that anyone has a visual record of their life – but Sheila Graber from Shields has done it in a book that is packed with illustrations created of our area since 1951. ‘The book is packed with anecdotes of my life as a Sandancer, it’s ideal for sending to folks abroad as a memento of Canny Shields’.

‘My Tyneside’ is available from The Word in South Shields and on Amazon. Check Sheila’s website

When doing some local history research I came across a new book about Westoe written by Dorothy Fleet…This book tells the story of each of the houses and the families who lived there from the mid-1700s. More recently the Village has undergone a revival and many houses have been restored as cherished family homes. Although now totally surrounded by our busy town, Westoe Village remains a place apart’.

For further information about ‘Westoe, a History of the Village and it’s Residents’ contact

Burglary, prostitution and gambling all appear in ‘Five Stone Steps’ a fictional account of life in South Shields Police Force during the 1920’s. The book is written by former Shields lad John Orton‘I needed some info about the police in Shields and my very good friend Tommy Gordon helped. His father served in Shields police and he told me some of his stories’.

The book is available to order at The Word, South Shields and on kindle plus paperback via Amazon.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019.


If yer lookin’ for a Christmas present to buy why not have a butchers at these books that featured on the blog this year. 2019 has seen nearly 100 interviews posted mostly musicians but also featured authors and poets like Keith Armstrong I was interested in people like Dylan Thomas, the rhythm of his poetry. Actors like Richard Harris, hell raisers like Oliver Reed – all good role models! Yeah in my early days I loved the old bohemian lifestyle of reading poetry and getting tanked up. Order direct from Northern Voices Community Projects, 35 Hillsden Road, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE25 9XF.

More than four decades after the BBC’s iconic TV series ‘When the Boat Comes In’ was first screened, ‘Jack High’ a novel by Peter Mitchell tells the story of Jack Ford’s missing years. ‘This is a man who has found a family in war. He interacts with union men, upper crusts, politicians….all he knows is how to survive and when he see’s a chance he takes the opportunity’. ‘Jack High’ is available through Amazon.

Some authors talked about growing up in the North East, like former White Heat front man now music documentary director Bob Smeaton I was working as a welder at Swan Hunter Shipyards at the time. When punk and new wave happened around 76/77 that’s when I started thinking I could possibly make a career out of music. The doors had been kicked wide open’.

‘From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle & Beyond’ available on Amazon or can be ordered in Waterstones, Newcastle.

Earlier this year I read a great book ‘The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy’ and got in touch with the author Vin Arthey… Newcastle born William Fisher turned out to be a KGB spy, he used the name Rudolf Abel and was jailed for espionage in the United States in 1957. He was exchanged across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge for the American U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The Tom Hanks film ‘Bridge of Spies’ tells the story of how it happened.

Contact Vin at ‘I have a few pristine copies on my shelf but with p&p, it would come out at £10 more than the Amazon price’.

A big influence on my life was watching and being in the audience of ‘80s live music show The Tube, so when I got the chance to talk to former music TV producer Chris Phipps about the program, I didn’t miss the opportunity

‘As an ex-BBC producer I initially only signed up for 3 months on this unknown program and it became 5 years! I was mainly hired because of my track record for producing rock and reggae shows in the Midlands’. Chris released ‘Namedropper’ revealing backstage stories from the ground breaking show.

The book is available at Newcastle City Library or through Amazon.

 Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

NUTS & POETS with Sheila Wakefield at Red Squirrel Press

I came across the prolific South Shields born writer and poet James Kirkup in 2010 when working on a short film which was made about him in the ‘70s. The film needed some editing, plus synching Kirkup’s narration to the images and digitized onto DVD. The completed film was screened in 2010 at a poetry event for Kirkup in London.

He was born in 1918 and until his death in 2009 he wrote a number of books including novels and plays….I first came across James when I was at school… remembers Sheila…. and the Red Squirrel Press ran the James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Prize for many years, the prize was publication of a pamphlet, sometimes I published the runners-up. I no longer do the Kirkup Memorial as it’s very difficult to check hundreds of entries in order to police plagiarism, which is a shame.

Red Squirrel Press is an independently self-funded small press based in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. Over 200 titles have been published to date, showcasing young poets such as Claire Askew and Andrew McMillan as well as more established names like James McGonigal and Tim Turnbull. Red Squirrel has been shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial award three times.

When did you start Red Squirrel ? I’d always wanted to run a small press so after graduating with an MA in Creative Writing from Northumbria University in late 2005, and completing a short play writing course, I started the press in April 2006 in Northumberland where I was living then, surrounded by red squirrels.

The first books I remember reading were Beatrix Potter’s, particularly Squirrel Nutkin which started a lifelong love of red squirrels. My first event was a soft launch at Cafè Nero in Hexham as part of Hexham Book Festival.

Do poets surprise you with what they choose to write about ? I like unusual subject matter and poets sometimes surprise me with poems about vulnerability, history and science.

Have Red Squirrel planned any events soon? We have the launch of Tom Kelly’s new poetry collection, ‘This Small Patch’ at 7.00pm on Monday 2 December at the Literary and Philosophical Society, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 1SE. The event is free, wine and soft drinks are on sale and everyone is welcome.

For more information contact:

Interview by Gary Alikivi  November 2019.

THE VILLAGE PEOPLE – new local history book about Westoe, South Shields by Dorothy Fleet.

In 2016 I made a documentary ‘Westoe Rose’ about South Shields photographer and local historian Amy Flagg who lived in the Westoe area of the town. Her most notable work was recording the impact of bomb damage on South Shields during the Second World War. When doing some local history research in The Word I came across a new book about Westoe.

The book goes into great detail not only of the houses but it’s residents. The section on Chapel House, where the Flagg family lived, includes a copy of an inventory of furniture which Amy listed for 21st May 1941.

It includes a typewriter and photographic equipment in an attic, a what not and stirrup pump in the hall, with a gongstand in the breakfast room – it’s all in the detail. To find out more I talked to the book’s author and member of South Shields Local History group, Dorothy Fleet…. 

More recently the Village has undergone a revival and many houses have been restored as cherished family homes. It has regained it’s elegance and has a sense of the atmosphere of yesteryear. Although it is now totally surrounded by our busy town, Westoe Village remains a place apart.

This book tells the story of each of the houses and the families who lived there from the mid-1700s. About 200 years ago it gradually became the desired location for families of successful local businessmen, who often worked together for the successful development of the town. For centuries before then it was a remote rural village of farms and cottages.

(Map of 1768 with the River Tyne flowing out into the German Ocean, now the North Sea. A blue arrow points to Westoe at the bottom of the pic).

One of the stories in my book about the history and notable residents of the Village concerns Mrs Paine and her family. In 1780 a dashing Royal Navy Lieutenant called William Fox was in command of the ‘Speedwell’, an armed vessel on press gang duty in Peggy’s Hole on the North Shields bank of the river Tyne.

Mrs Paine’s young daughter, Catherine, fell in love with William and they arranged to elope to Gretna Green. Catherine joined William in a horse drawn carriage and they travelled at speed, changing horses at the posting stations along the way. Married by the blacksmith at Gretna, they returned home the following day and their marriage was accepted by the family. The following year Catherine gave birth to their son, George Townsend Fox.

Their romantic story ended tragically when William fell (or was pushed) into the icy cold river late one night when boarding the ‘Speedwell’. His fellow crew members recovered his body but, with no knowledge of hypothermia, presumed he was dead.

Left almost penniless Catherine returned to her family home. By 1807 her son George Townsend had married and had eight children, one was William who emigrated to New Zealand. After a highly successful legal and political career there, he served four terms as their Prime Minister and his childhood home in the Village is now a privately run hotel that bears his name.

The book is already selling well and with all proceeds going to the Local History Group to hopefully keep the group going forward and remaining solvent. With all the research, design and illustrations it’s been a real team effort.

For further information about ‘Westoe, a History of the Village and it’s Residents’


Interview by Gary Alikivi November 2019.                                                                 

POLTERGEIST – Dan Green investigates Mysterious Tyneside

Mysteries of the world are fascinating subjects and we rely on scientists, archaeologists and storytellers to bring them out of the dark. Finding a mystery closer to home can add more interest.

This was the case for former South Shields resident Dan Green. Dan is a British author, broadcaster, researcher and writer, he recently got in touch and told me some interesting stories that he researched when living in the town.

Until 2013 when it went out of publication, I was a writer for the well-known monthly national magazine ‘Paranormal’. Issue 63 bore the cover ‘The South Shields Poltergeist’, a bizarre candidate for this country’s most well witnessed and intensely frightening case on record, if true.

It was the horror encountered by a young couple and their 3 year old son whilst living in a terraced house in the town during the winter of 2005. A saga that was to last for one full year before the poltergeist phenomena, as it usually does, left just as mysteriously as it had arrived.

It left a steadily escalating trail of terror the sort of stuff Hollywood movies are made of – objects balanced at angles defying logic and gravity, macabre threatening messages left on paper and the child’s Etch-A-Sketch, even text messages and emails on a mobile that couldn’t be traced back to any source. There were all forms of attack leveled at the family.

Before skeptics cry ‘Hoax!’ the phenomena was witnessed by a number of people on different occasions and thoroughly researched by local paranormal investigators Darren Ritson and Mike Hallowell. Darren himself on one occasion witnessing the ‘large black shadow’ responsible.

The full account of the twelve month assault can be found in their book ‘The South Shields Poltergeist’. Was this caused by a disturbed unconscious mind of a young child, or some controlling intelligence? Who can say for sure.

Unfortunately we will never know the true identities of the family involved or the address of the property, as all such details were changed to preserve anonymity and perhaps sanity. Who would want to knowingly live in, or even next door, to a house that may well have once housed what remains the most frightening paranormal manifestation of poltergeist in the UK.

For further information about the work of author Dan Green contact

Gary Alikivi October 2019.