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 night’s 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 were four or five 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 into 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 shops along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with its 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.

Alikivi      Interview January 2020

FAMILY PORTRAIT – Downey photography studios in South Shields & London

As I was sorting out some books this picture card fell out of one of them. It’s something I picked up at Shields Market a few years ago.

I’m not sure who the sitter is but the photo was taken by the Downey brothers, William and Daniel, who along with older brother James, had studios in the North East then moved to London.

Commercial photography was in it’s infancy when the brothers were taking pictures of royalty and personalities like Oscar Wilde.

Looking back to photographers in South Shields if it was a competition I couldn’t call it, they have different qualities. There was James Cleet with his housing clearance pictures during the 1930’s, and reported to be a bit of a showman in his mac and bowler hat, especially at Tyneside ship launches he would signify when he was finished by making a large sweep of his bowler hat and take a deep bow in front of the crowds.

Amy Flagg’s unforgettable Second World War images of a scarred town after the German bombs hit, then in her own darkroom printing photographs of devastating images of a town she loved, important pictures that still have a huge impact today.

Records show the Downey brothers worked out of a studio in London, but before that were based in South Shields.

William Downey was born in King Street, South Shields in 1829, with help from his older brother James and together with brother Daniel, they set up a photographic business in the Market Square in 1860.

The studio became successful resulting in branches opening across the North East in Blyth, Morpeth and old Eldon Square in Newcastle.

In 1862 Queen Victoria commissioned William Downey to take a series of photographs illustrating the Hartley Colliery disaster, near Blyth.

Soon after William and his brother Daniel moved to London where they accepted commissions from dignitaries and aristocracy including the UK royal family, the Emperor of Russia and King of Norway.

The brothers also took pictures of show business personalities from their studio at 57 & 61 Ebury Street in Belgravia, while older brother James, as well as his grocery business, kept a studio open in South Shields.

Big brother James was a huge help to William and Daniel. He was a grocer and importer of German yeast, with premises in West Holborn in 1865. Ten year later he had two shops trading as a grocer and confectioner out of 17 & 19 Eldon Street in the Laygate area of the town.

By 1881 he had one shop for his grocery business and opened the other as a photography studio. There is a record of a Frederick Downey at 19 Eldon Street, I suspect that he was James’ son who carried on the family photography business.

Meanwhile in London, Daniel and William continued their work of royal sittings and portraits. Sadly, Daniel passed away in Bethnal Green in 1881 while William died in Kensington in 1915. His son, William Edward, kept on the family business, as did his son, Arthur.

A lasting record of their work is an impressive set of five books called ‘The Cabinet Gallery’ printed by Cassell & Company of London, Paris and Melbourne in 1890. The volumes include 36 photographs each, plus a summary of the subject.

Kings, Queens, Professors and actors all sat for a Downey portrait, the attention to detail made them stand out among other photographers and ensured customers would return. Their stamp is on the back of some pages.

Throughout the early 1900’s there is records for a Downey photography studio at 17 & 19 Eldon Street, but unfortunately by 1912 the trail goes cold. What happened to the Downeys in London and South Shields? Is there more to their story? If you have any information to add please get in touch.

Source: Census records, Burgess Rolls, Wards Directories, Wikipedia, The Word South Shields.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019

THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS – James Cleet, South Shields Photographer 1876 -1959

In a previous post I talked about coming across photographs by James Cleet over 10 years ago, particularly the housing clearances in South Shields during the 1930’s.

After looking at the images in South Shields Library for a number of weeks I was curious who he was and what he looked like.

I had only seen his shadow in some pictures that he had taken – the outline of his cloak hunched over a tripod and camera.

Then one day while researching through old newspapers I came across a story about him and there he was, looking straight at me, a camera in hand covering half his face – he had a look of the artist Salvadore Dali.

On his death at the age of 82, local newspaper The Shields Gazette reported…

‘Mr Jimmy Cleet, a photographer for 68 years has died at his home in Wardle Avenue, South Shields. From the day he moved into the world of cameras as a 13 year old plate boy photography was his bread and butter, his hobby and his greatest interest in life. 

He never cared much for flashlights, which he thought ruined details in portraits, and until he retired last year, he still used a camera which he had bought 30 years previously in preference to a modern one. But if his equipment was a little old his finished photographs were never below the standard of excellent’.

They were and had an instantly recognizable look among all other photographers I researched. The Gazette added… ‘James Henry Cleet, the first South Shields man to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (1933), served a seven-year apprenticeship in commercial photography and studied art at the old South Shields High School. As a young man he went to Fleet Street and worked as press photographer for The Daily Mirror and soon established a lasting reputation that he would get pictures whatever the difficulties.

On one of his first assignments, he was given 20 minutes to produce a picture of Lady Londonderry as she left Charing Cross Station. No one could get near her, but he solved this problem by carrying some of her luggage to the train’.

When researching his family history, I found that in the late 1800’s James’ Grandfather was a Master Mariner, the family owned several ships, and they lived in Heugh Street on the banks of the Tyne.

But unfortunately, a downturn in business led to his father becoming a shipwright and the family moved to Bath Street.

On the 26th December 1908 James married Eva Aspery, they had a son James, but sadly he died at 4-year-old. An event that would have had a deep effect on the couple.

The newspaper report carried on his story…

Later he concentrated on his love of old marine photography and went to sea in all weathers to get his pictures. He had a deep affection for the Tyne, tug boatmen were always ready to help him.

A small man wearing a bowler hat, he was a familiar figure in every Tyneside shipyard. When he took pictures at a launch he would photograph the ship then the launching party, then with a magnificent sweep of his bowler hat and a deep bow he would signify he had finished’.

For one month a year from 1930-38 James recorded what was called the ‘slums’ of South Shields, mainly around the Holborn and riverside area of the town.

The photographs were commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department and displayed in a book published by Side Photographic Gallery in 1979. This features in a previous blog (24th December 2019).

Sadly, James Cleet died on 2nd June 1959, the Gazette article ended by saying…

His photographs of South Shields form a remarkable record of the town, and like many photographers he objected to having pictures taken of himself’.

Source: The Shields Gazette, Census records, Wards Directories.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

JARROVIANS – Vince Rae’s photographic record of Jarrow in 1978.

For 30 years Vince Rae ran the Bede Gallery in Jarrow which featured paintings, sculpture and photographs reflecting the town’s history. Included was material relating to the 1936 Jarrow March and the execution of William Jobling, the last man to be gibbeted in the North.

I knew of Vince Rae’s work as I’d read a couple of books that he had published about old Jarrow and came across his photography through the 1990’s. But first talked to him around 2001 when I was running a Community Video Project in South Shields.

He was organising an exhibition about the Jarrow Crusade and was looking for a video projector. We didn’t have one, but I went along to the Viking shopping centre in Jarrow to see the exhibition.

Then in 2008 I called him up explaining that I was making a documentary in Jarrow called Little Ireland. The film was going to look at the Irish immigration into Jarrow and could I use some of his photographs.

He agreed straight away ‘Yeah no bother son just send me a copy when it’s done’.

If we go back to around 2002 I was filming in Jarrow and in a newsagents, I saw a book called ‘Jarrovians’. Inside were some amazing black & white documentary photographs of people and places around Jarrow, all taken by Vince during 1978. I handed my tenner over.

Packed with images of drinkers and barmaids from pubs like the Royal Oak, Prince of Wales, Tunnel Tavern and the Viking Bar. There are gadgies suppin’ pints and playing domino’s, kids on the streets setting up bonfires, homeless men in Simpsons Hostal, women’s darts team in The Western pub. Dogs, horses and Joblings gibbet – all life is here in its working-class glory.

With few exceptions, the overall feel of the collection of photographs is people simply enjoying themselves, being out of the house and among friends sharing their time together.

Most people are happy to get their photograph taken but looking at some of the images Vince might not have asked first.

The Jarrovians was first published in 2001 by Vince and Willa Rae at The Bede Gallery, Jarrow.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

STOCKIN’ FILLERS

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 varthey@gmail.com ‘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 groundbreaking show.

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

 Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

EYES WIDE OPEN – in conversation with photographer Rik Walton

rock 062

The only time I had a press pass was when David Bowie was on and only six were given out. When Paul McCartney came to the hall, I was a big fan, I phoned up his press agent and he was great, ‘See you at the stage door 7.30pm’ he said.

But anxiously I turned up two hours early and his press agent was really nice and let me in. I spent the next hour and a half in the dressing room with Paul and Linda McCartney, Henry McCulloch and Denny Laine.

I used up all my film in the dressing room. Looking back, I made very little money photographing bands at Newcastle City Hall, but I did get in for free (laughs).

How did you get interested in music ?

I saw Bob Dylan in 1965 in the City Hall when they filmed Don’t Look Now and a year later at Newcastle Odeon on his electric tour.

A friend of mine’s father was manager of the Odeon. One day he said we have this actor coming over from USA promoting his second film and I don’t know what to do with him, can you take him to a pub.

So, we did and we took Clint Eastwood to The Lord Crewe in Blanchland. He was a lovely man and was quite worried about the level of violence in the two movies – A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More.

You were involved in the earliest photo sessions with the Tygers of Pan Tang, how did that come about ?

I was involved in a show called Bedrock at Radio Newcastle. Back then the radio shut down at 10pm so Dick Godfrey, local journalist, got a remit to play local bands and interviews. It would go on for hours.

The team was Arthur Brown, Ian Penman, myself and Tom Noble who was manager of Tygers of Pan Tang. We took some of the earliest photograph’s of the band at Whitley Bay.

I went to Reading rock festival with them, I was their driver and we stayed in the Mount Pleasant Hotel or as it become known the Unpleasant.

Did you get on well with the bands or did any of them give you any grief ?

I photographed bands over a long time, and never became really friendly, I wanted to be the fly on the wall. To become too friendly made my job more difficult in a way.

I started two magazines and done a lot of interviews backstage at Newcastle City Hall with some ‘famous’ people and early on I realised you don’t gush or pretend to be their best mate.

Looking back Captain Beefheart was a really interesting guy and a good interview and to my surprise when I next met him he picked up the conversation from before, that was very interesting.

I was asked to photograph the Newcastle Jazz festival then started working for Folkworks so the music really changed for me – rock to jazz to folk.

I got to know Sting through photographing the big band in the early 70’s. I lived in Jesmond and across the road lived Andy Hudson, conductor of the Newcastle Jazz Big Band. I photographed them in The Guildhall during the first Newcastle Jazz Festival.

They used the photo for the cover of their album. I then went onto photograph Stings band, Last Exit and of course The Police.

Motorhead were playing in Newcastle, can’t remember where, but I was going to take some photographs of the soundcheck and I walked into the place and Lemmy was having a meltdown on the stage, a real strop about something. I wasn’t sure what it was about but I got out there quickly.

The first time I cried at a rock concert was when I heard Peter Gabriel sing ‘Biko’ for the first time. A couple of years later I went along with journalist Phil Sutcliffe on a Gabriel tour for a few days doing an in-depth story about him for Sounds.

I remember playing croquet with Peter at 1am outside our hotel, being a public schoolboy, he carried a croquet set around with him on tour.

He was a very nice guy I found him very shy compared to his on-stage persona. I did get to know him but always keeping a slight distance.

How did you get access to take photographs front row in Newcastle City Hall ?

One of the first bands I took photos of was Downtown Faction who were playing in the Polytechnic. Then a few year later I fell in with a guy called Joe Robertson. Joe was an entrepreneur with an office in Handyside Arcade.

He opened bars in Newcastle and was very much the man ‘in the know’. He’d seen my photos and one day said ‘I’m going to go into pirate pop posters I will give you £10 for each picture I use and here’s a ticket for the Rolling Stones in 1972’.

So, I went on the night but my seat was right at the back so I went to the front and asked the stewards if I could take pictures there and they said fine.

So, for the next 12 years I never paid to get into the City Hall and most times got in by the stage door as the stewards got to know me. When a punk band was on they even made a cordon around me to stop me getting pogoed to death.

You worked on some great early photographs of North East bands. Can you remember the sessions with Venom, Raven, Angelic Upstarts or Penetration ?

Yes, the Venom session was arranged through Dave Wood at Neat records. We went around the back of Neat where there was some wasteland. One of them had white make up and was putting it on as it started to rain so it was just dripping down his face. We hid under a bush until it stopped.

The Upstarts were doing a gig in Tynemouth and Phil Sutcliffe from Sounds was doing an interview with the band. Their manager, who had a fearsome reputation, came up to me and said very calmly ‘Rik, I like you, and I want you to know that if you have any problems me and the lads will sort it out’. I felt that he’d be true to his word.

I photographed Raven just around the corner from here – we’re in Newcastle City Library – at Spectro Arts. That is where they rehearsed, I think, I can’t remember taking any live shots of them.

Again, like a lot of the bands they were nice lads and through Neat records I would get passed from one band to another but always retaining a distance to let them get on and do what they do.

For my entire professional life, I’ve been zooming in on things and sometimes you can take away the atmosphere, you might get a great shot of someone in action but miss some surroundings.

I got a great shot of Pauline Murray and Penetration, on stage kneeling down surrounded by some punk lads, great shot. Bizarrely before I moved to Canada two years ago one of the last things I did was to photograph Penetration for the first time in 37 years.

What got you started in photography ?

After I left school I worked on a building site as a plumber, I really wanted to be an airline pilot but for various reasons that never worked out either.

My grandfather and father were interested in photography and when my father died, I was only 13, one of the things he left me was a camera. I started taking photos and my then girlfriend’s father was a chemist, so I got free developing and printing.

She also knew of a Visual Communications course at Sunderland College of Art, so I went on that. From that experience I learnt the language needed for design, typography and photography.

At this time I worked alongside another photographer, Ian Dixon, on the Newcastle Festival in 1972. That’s pretty much how it started and then I got a job as photography technician at the polytechnic where I stayed until 1988. Teaching came into it at the college after then and I really enjoyed it.

I worked as photographer at The Newcastle University Theatre, now called Northern Stage, for 15 years photographing the dress rehearsals and getting the prints on the wall for opening night.

I realised then that my job was to be in front of the stage recording what was happening. The only person who ruined that was Bob Geldof.

I was photographing The Boomtown Rats in the City Hall and you might remember they done a song called Photograph where they grab someone from the audience and pull them onstage – guess who they grabbed!

I was hauled up on stage where I froze. That’s when I realised my place is down there and they do their stuff up here.

Were there any photograph sessions that turned into a nightmare ?

No because with music photography there was never any pressure on me, I got in free at the City hall and I enjoyed doing it. Nothing unpleasant from the bands in fact it was The Beach Boys who taught me to frisbee in the Newcastle City Hall.

I was there to interview Mike Love for Out Now, a magazine I helped to start. But to my questions I only got five yes’s and two no’s because the questions were too long and basically contained the answer.

Has photography given you anything unexpected ?

I was in the West Bank in Palestine three years ago teaching photography in a refugee camp. Freedom Theatre company runs video, photography and theatre courses, it’s to take people away from the things that are happening around them, and to give them useable skills.

The founder was a lovely man, he was a half Arab half Jewish guy that wanted to give people an alternative to what was happening around them. Sadly, he was murdered outside the theatre.

Everyday going to work I had to walk across the ground where he was killed. That gives you a profound sense of where you are and who you are. I learnt an enormous amount when I was there and it was an amazing experience, would love to go back.

You know Gary there was no plan, it’s just been a series of bumping into things and one thing leading to another. You can hit a groove you know.

I started taking photographs of musicians because I loved music. I didn’t go in thinking I would have a career as a photographer.

For further information contact the official website:    http://www.rikwalton.com

Interview by Gary Alikivi   October 2019.

FAMILY AFFAIR in conversation with North East songwriter Alan Fish

Loud Guitars Playhouse 4

The Loud Guitars live at Newcastle Playhouse (pic. Paul Hill).

Last time I interviewed Alan (Sept.13th 2019) he talked about his time in North East band White Heat who were signed to Richard Bransons label Virgin. After they folded in ’82, The Loud Guitars were born….

There was three of us from White Heat, me, Bob Smeaton, and Col Roberts, we decided to control everything. Fund the gigs our self and not look for management or deals.

Because there was a dark cloud over the ending of White Heat we thought this self-containment idea would help clear it. Virgin eventually let us go so we had total control, it was very cathartic.

For recording we funded it all, brought in some really good players, professional and slightly younger so from a live point of view they super charged the band. We had Martin Campbell, brilliant rock guitar player, Gary Cowey and Stu Haikney were involved early on as they had their own studio.

Bob and I had songs left over from The White Heat days and really it was a very important time for us to be able to do it independently. When I look back on what I’ve done I’ve always been happier when it’s independent.

We built on the legacy of White Heat and we put out new material with professional musicians who we paid. Now that sounds obvious to pay them but it is the correct way, the job is done well and it makes for a happier work place.

By the early ‘90s The Loud Guitars run their course then I made the decision that was it. From the recordings I felt we pushed the quality up from White Heat days as in that band I felt our studio output didn’t reflect what we were like live.

However, we still weren’t getting a lot of radio play and I became obsessed to write and record music of a standard that would get radio play.

I took time out, this was when technology was advancing at a fair old rate and recording facilities were becoming affordable. So, I invested quite a bit in new instruments, microphones and developed a skillset to record my own stuff.

I set up my home demo studio where I could take the song to a certain point, essentially getting the song down in the right key, right speed, then taking it to my studio of choice, The Cluny Studios in Newcastle run by Tony Davis.

Tony is a fantastic engineer and a brilliant musician so we’ve developed a good relationship over the years where I might play a bit guitar for him on some of his recordings. A lot of North East bands would have recorded there in what is a highly competitive industry.

Att Skrs Cluny Studios with Tony Davis, Paul Liddell, Stu Haikney

In The Cluny Studio, Newcastle (left to right) Tony Davis, Paul Liddell, Alan Fish & Stu Haikney.

When did you put the Attention Seekers together ?

The concept has been around for ten years now, it was to be primarily song writing and recording. I wanted a change from what I’d previously done because the main thrust of White Heat and Loud Guitars was live performance. In a way having the band has unified my family.

When I was song writing in the studio with Bob Smeaton on the record deal after White Heat had finished, I would only do it if I could bring my wife Viv down with me. I’ve seen too much destruction with musicians and their nomadic lifestyle (laughs).

We wanted to share this experience and enhance our life together, but they weren’t happy, so I walked away from it. A few days later I got a call saying, ‘Ok bring her down but she’ll have to cook (laughs)’.

Viv came down and we enjoyed the time together. It’s always been like that since those days. We bought a people carrier to get to gigs, my daughter has played in the band and Viv’s the road manager when we go out at gigs.

I didn’t trade on the back of previous bands because Attention Seekers were so different. We didn’t want people turning up to a White Heat rock gig and end up listening to three acoustic players.

In fact, our first gigs were on busker’s nights where we tried out new material and there was no pressure. My eldest daughter was becoming a proficient violin player so she came along, my brother in law had a nice voice and had never sung live so we eased him in and that added to the busker night.

Publicans were impressed after a few songs and asked us to return and do a full gig. This was around ’98 when we started getting around the pub circuit and we adopted a very low-key policy of no individuals, no front men. This attracted really good musicians who liked the non-committal feel to the band.

I explained this wasn’t about a unit of a traditional band it was about bringing in the right people when they were available because they still had their main bands with regular gigs.

We were getting popular on the whole circuit, places like The Magnesium Bank in North Shields, The Smugglers in Sunderland and Tyneside Irish Centre in Newcastle.

Sounds like there was more emphasis on the song rather than a band ?

Yes, there was I had done the live band thing which I enjoyed but if I had something with a promoter or radio it would always be labelled as The Attention Seekers. There is a consistent feel that runs through the songs.

I’ve found by taking this approach local radio play has increased significantly with Paddy McDee and Julia Hankin playing us on a regular basis. St James’ Park (Newcastle United) play us because some songs have a regional feel about them.

The album ‘A Song for Tomorrow’ has overall sound of Crowded House/Waterboys with an acoustic version of the Boomtown Rats song ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in the middle. A strange choice compared to the other songs ?

Yes, playing original music can be a big ask to an audience and sometimes you’ve got to give them something back. Something familiar. We arranged it without the bombastic drama of the original with the ‘Tell me why’ sentiment slightly changed.

The audience realize what song it is by the second verse. It’s ‘Tell me why’ this is still happening because that song is nearly 40 years old.

It’s talking about mass shootings in America that happened and are still happening. It’s a very difficult situation for USA to solve because of the gun laws.

The American singer, Jesse Terry, gave the song another edge with his accent and we wanted to give the song an anti-gun feel. But from the beginning we know it is a very good Boomtown Rats song, the melody, the lyrics all fitted together so you knew it wasn’t going to fall apart.

How did American singer/songwriter Jesse Terry get involved in The Attention Seekers ?

I was watching the TV program Tyne and Wear live and the music show Cookin’ in the Kitchen’came on. There was a great performance from Jesse on there and I wanted to pass on my comments so tracked him down.

It was like serendipity, he was looking for a UK based guitarist and had checked me out on You Tube – the upshot was, would I be interested? And I was looking for a vocalist to record with Attention Seekers – you don’t turn away from these moments so a deal was struck.

The album A Song for Tomorrow is the result of our coming together. Jesse has quite a following in the States and gets the songs played out there.

For more information contact the official website:

http://the-attention-seekers.co.uk

Interview by Gary Alikivi  October 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 its 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’

contact:   dorothyfleet60@gmail.com  

Interview by Gary Alikivi   November 2019.                                                                 

TALK SHOW – in conversation with former TV director Michael Metcalf

Michael talked earlier on this blog about his career in TV, but knowing he had a few more stories we met up in Newcastle again…

I remember working on North East music show TX45 when we filmed AC/DC singer Brian Johnson in a working men’s club near the River Tyne. We had a great afternoon with him because what ya’ see is what yer get.

He asked me if I do this all the time, but I told him I work on drama as well and one of them was called ‘The World Cup – A Captains Tale’.

We filmed it all over the North East and in Turin where the final was played. Tim Healey was in it, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard Griffiths, and the captain was played by Dennis Waterman.

Brian said I know that drama and yer not gonna believe this, but we’ve got A Captains Tale on video and we always play it on the AC/DC tour bus.

Now we’ve seen it so many times we put it on without the sound and we all take the parts. The thought of AC/DC playing these Geordie characters is amazing.

Another time we heard about a heavy rock band that were getting popular so Jeff Brown (producer) and I went to see them, not my type of music but thought they would be great for the show.

We met them after the gig and one of them asked ‘How much will it cost to be on’? We answered ‘It doesn’t work like that. We pay you. We pay you the Musicians Union rate’. They couldn’t believe they were going to be on telly and getting paid for it (laughs).

The name of the band escapes me, hey it was over 30 years ago but I remember on the day of recording they brought us a crate of Newcastle Brown Ale.

TX45 was broadcast from Studio 5 at Tyne Tees TV and hosted by Chris Cowey who features on this blog.  I was in the audience for one of the shows in 1985 that featured Newcastle glam punks Sweet Trash, at the end of the show the singer dived off the stage into the audience….

Yes, I directed that one. We were working on it all day, setting the stages and lighting. After the show we had to edit the program ready for broadcast.

The show was like a baby Tube and all the bands and audience were excited to be there in this inner sanctum of the same studio where The Tube was recorded.

We also had some comedy on. Bobby Thompson was the man in the North East for that but he had stopped working by then. Jeff Brown tracked him down and we went along to his home and had a chat, we didn’t film it.

We felt so privileged to be with this icon of Northern Comedy. Bobby had some well documented problems with alcohol, so he wasn’t drinking but his housekeeper brought us a bottle of whisky to drink.

We sat for hours talking, laughing and of course Bobby was a great storyteller. Tyne Tees had recorded a whole show of his from Percy Main Club so I think we used a bit of that in the feature.

But a Northern comedian that we did get on was Roy Chubby Brown. I think it was his first TV appearance. Off camera a completely different person but as soon as he is on stage and performing – I don’t know who was shocked the most. We were saying in the control room that a lot of editing was needed for this show!

Michael also directed editions of live music programme The Tube and I asked him what was the impact of that show…

It got all around the world. I once went for an interview to do some work for New Zealand TV and they looked on my cv and said, ‘Oh you’ve worked on The Tube’. When you have worked on something so iconic it becomes your calling card.

We went to Belfast at the height of the troubles in Ireland. It was a surreal experience filming bands over there when all that was going on. We stayed in the Europa which was known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

Housekeeping kept the curtains closed all night so snipers couldn’t see in. There was dimmed lighting in the corridors. We were terrified but had a fantastic time. Every day we filmed a different band and afterwards they’d invite us back to their homes for a sing song and a few drinks.

When we got back to London the team went out and got drunk because we were so relieved to get back because the stress of actually having to be frisked before you went into places, standing with your arms up and seeing armed soldiers everywhere.

The opportunities to travel to places was fantastic, we went to Berlin before the wall came down. As we flew in the pilot said we know when we have hit west Berlin because we see lights, the East will be in darkness.

We went on a recce through Checkpoint Charlie to see some bands. We ended up being told to film in a sports centre in East Berlin. A young band were playing with not much equipment.

When we got back to the West we met Christiane F. in a club. It was great getting those opportunities, looking back, just incredible.

Christiane F. was the focus of a cult bio film made in 1981 capturing the drug scene in West Berlin. The film starred David Bowie who also recorded the soundtrack.

What other music shows did you direct ?

The Roxy Chart show. CBS were ready to drop the boy band Bros, things weren’t working for them. But I thought they looked gorgeous and would be great for the show so we booked them.

When they played the audience went wild. Sometimes something a bit special happens and it did on that night. The senior cameraman said to me ‘I’ve never seen a reaction like that since the likes of The Beatles’.

But we had a policy like Top of the Pops, if a song went down in the charts, we didn’t transmit it. We got in touch with their management and asked them to release another single. They did but again we couldn’t transmit it because Tyne Tees went on strike.

We eventually got them on a third time with ‘When Will I Be Famous’ and as they say the rest is history.

We had a wide range of artists coming on and one of them was Shakin’ Stevens another CBS act. He had a manager called Freya who had a reputation as being very tough. You didn’t cross her.

In rehearsals we were in the studio and as usual I was on the studio floor watching his performance and working out how to film it. He also had four dancers on stage with him. Freya appeared next to me and said ‘What you gonna do here then’? I said ‘I haven’t got a clue’.

Eventually I worked out a routine and plan for the cameras to do multiple passes. Which are recording the same song from different angles. After the performance the CBS plugger Robbie McIntosh came up to me and said you are coming to dinner with us.

Freya was so impressed with your work, and you are the first director to tell her that you didn’t have a clue what you were going to do! She loved my honesty, and we became great mates over the years.

Were there any awkward performers on the show ?

There was an Italian singer called Spagna who had one hit ‘Call Me’. She wanted to call the shots. Her idea was for a white out on the stage, white backdrop and white sides, like being in a white cube. She also had spikey blonde hair so it would all look burnt out. We were reluctant to do this because we thought it would take ages to do.

But she insisted on doing it, the toys were out of the pram you know, it wasn’t as if she was a well-known singer with a rack of hit singles. But we did do it in the end, and it looked good (laughs).

I directed Big World Café from Brixton Academy for Channel 4, we had Mariella Fostrup and Eagle Eye Cherry presenting. It was a pretty eclectic music show and the line up on one of them was Soul to Soul, New Order, Diamanda Galas and a young indie guitar band who I can’t remember the name of.

We were in rehearsal and the indie band would turn their backs on the camera whenever I was getting a shot and the red light was on them. So, I came out of the outside broadcast truck and told the floor manager I’m coming onto the studio floor. Which to the crew means I’m not happy.

The band said that turning their backs was just their style. I told them that their style ‘Was better suited to radio and stop fucking about or you’re off the show’.

When you have an artist performing and getting the best out of the time they have on screen it’s magical, they’ve really got to work it even if they are miming.

In rehearsal I give them a few simple tips that if they want to play to the camera I will stick with the shot. If they take the mic off the stand they are to take the mic stand away from the front of the stage because an empty mic stand looks awkward for the camera.

I also directed for Hits Studio International for Fujisankei Television all done live in a studio in London. It was the first time the studio was used, and the program was going out to 28 countries linking up with a studio in America and Japan.

We got the countdown to start and just as we were going live the cameras went off one by one. Now you’d think it would be pandemonium in the control room but as a director of live TV you’ve got to be so calm. The cameras were fixed but for 40 seconds I only had two working cameras.

Why did the North East have a reputation for producing quality music TV ?

Tyne Tees had a reputation for showcasing Northern talent and having passionate production team members to achieve that. Part of their regional brief was to support and document local talent, and up here there is such a wealth of talent going back to Eric Burdon and The Animals who played at the Club a Go-Go in Newcastle. The murals on the walls were designed by Bryan Ferry who of course was singer with Roxy Music, but everybody who said they saw Jimi Hendrix play at the Club a Go-Go, well the club would be the size of St James’ Park (laughs).

Interview by Gary Alikivi    September 2019.

DIRECT ACTION – with TV/Media director & producer Chris Cowey.

On Tyne Tees programme ‘Check it Out’ broadcast in 1979, presenters Chris Cowey and Lynn Spencer interviewed punk band Public Image Limited featuring ex Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten (Lydon). The piece also featured Mond Cowie from Angelic Upstarts….

Firstly, Mond Cowie isn’t related to me, his name is the rich branch of the family, like Sir Tom, with an ie rather than my Durham pit yakker spelling of ey. Mond is a top bloke and a damn good guitar player. Angelic Upstarts were an underrated band I reckon.

The infamous PIL chat was my first live studio interview and a real baptism of fire. I was and remain a big fan of Lydon and his music. The whole pantomime was their way of getting themselves noticed and being in the press, which sells records.

The programme of course was instrumental, even complicit, and the interview with Mond was designed to wind them up.

I was, as you can tell from the clip, just a teenager and thought I was going to have the shortest TV career ever, but a lot of people realised that and sympathised with me.

I was kind of numbed by the whole thing. But a sort of survival instinct kicks in, the fact that viewers and press backed me made me feel better, but I still would rather have had a proper discussion, rather than a childish strop.

My memory of the show is that the band had got themselves really relaxed by the time the studio session started, and they were ready to do their usual argumentative schtick but were out manoeuvred this time.

The point of the interview, which gets lost in the aggro, was that they’d just brought out their Metal Box album, which was a set of 12-inch singles in an elaborate film-tin type of packaging.

It was hugely expensive, and very designer chic for someone who was supposed to be so street, anyway everyone won, they sold records, the Check It Out show was on the map, and I did about seven series of it.

It was a combination of Check It Out and the music show Alright Now that prompted Channel 4 to commission The Tube, which of course PIL appeared on too, and I had a fabulous five years making the show.

Alright Now, Check it Out, The Tube – why did the North East have a reputation to produce good music shows ?

Tyne-Tees already did some good old entertainment shows before my time, like Geordie Scene or What Fettle, but they were obsessed about their ‘Geordieness’. The Tube and all those shows you mentioned really wasn’t, it was all about good music, because we were music obsessed.

It also had a great blend of old school time served TV people, blended with new people with fresh ideas, and a kind of irreverence which all blended and came out in those shows.

Having said that it was really important that it came from the North-East because of the passion and the swagger and the total commitment.

It’s not just that Geordies like showing off – although they undoubtedly DO! – it’s because the history and attitude of the region can be really inspiring, creative and hugely fun.

It really breaks my heart to see what’s happened, not only to Tyne Tees, but a load of gigs and venues, clubs and pubs across the whole area. I have an unshakable belief that it will rise again though…. don’t get me started though!

When did you first get interested in music and what was your first TV break ?

I was always obsessed with music and did school discos in the hall every lunchtime. When I was 17 and doing my A-levels I lied about my age and got a couple of jobs DJ’ing in nightclubs, the biggest of which was The Mecca in Sunderland.

It was a great learning curve for me, with a vast range of music from funk to metal. There were some amazing live bands too, Ian Gillan, Tom Robinson, Crown Heights Affair – check them out if it’s before your time!

There was live music just about every night I worked, I was bitten by the live music thing. I was also into Drama/Theatre/acting which led to my TV break, I guess.

My mentor was Malcolm Gerrie, who a lot of people will remember from his Tyne-Tees days. He’d been my English and Drama teacher from my Comprehensive school, and he suggested I audition for Check It Out.

A lot of the same gang of music fans were the nucleus of Check It Out, Alright Now, The Tube, TX45. Razzmatazz, production teams.

It was a real blend of old school Tyne-Tees TV expertise and young whippersnappers like me. That’s how it worked so well, we had a good run, but I could see it was going to dry up, so I bailed just before The Tube ended, because I knew it was going to be the last series.

Is entertainment in your family ?

My family all worked down coal mines, and some in breweries! I was very lucky that I had an older sister and brother who bombarded me with pop and rock music from an early age.

Also, my school was a real proper comprehensive that did ‘Tommy’ and ‘Stardust rather than Shakespeare or Gilbert & Sullivan. My school was amazing, great teachers, a radio station, school discos, drama, music, it really helped to shape my future. Just a regular comprehensive in a little County Durham former mining village. I loved Ryhope… I still miss it.

Lately I’ve interviewed North East bands Tygers of Pan Tang and White Heat and soon will be chatting to Dave Woods (Impulse Studio/Neat records). Did you come across any of them ?

Yeah, I knew all that bunch. They really did create a strong identity for the Newcastle music landscape. The city is world renowned as a major centre for good old fashioned rock’n’roll, and there’s nowt wrong with that.

Dave Woods is a North East music legend, we made many a film and studio show with his bands….a film about Venom is a fond memory. He was a really important figure in Newcastle’s rich musical history and heritage, and should be very proud of his achievements.

What differences did you find working at Tyne Tees then going to Top of the Pops, and how did that job come about ?

The BBC came and poached me to take over Top of the Pops after I made a C4 show called The White Room, which was like a stripped-down version of The Tube in some respects.

It wasn’t trying to re-create The Tube though, it was much more how I thought Top of the Pops should be if it wasn’t so weighed down by its own traditions.

So, when I got to the BBC as Executive Producer and director of the world’s biggest music show, I gave it a massive kick up the jaxi, and it worked.

It went from a show on the verge of being axed, to a huge national and international success, and I didn’t have any of my mates with me for once, except Big Clive.

It was great fun and I’m really proud of what I achieved there. I loved working at the BBC too. Massively different in many ways from Tyne-Tees, but I put together a diverse production team again, and made it a happy show, which is critical I think.

I did it for six years, but the BBC’s ambitions for the show weren’t the same as mine, so we parted company. The show sadly died after my successor turned it into a kids show again!

Was there a magic moment during your career when you had the feeling that ‘This is where I should be’ ?

Yeah, loads of times! Doing Top of the Pops, The Brit Awards, Glastonbury, The Tube, The White Room…. when there’s an amazing talent on stage, and I’m directing a load of cameras, having booked the act and devised the whole shebang….I get huge job satisfaction from that. I get paid for doing something that it’s a privilege to be involved in. I’m a very lucky lad.

Can you think of a couple of memorable moments in your career and also a nightmare situation where things went wrong ?  Memorable moments? SO many. The Foo Fighters, working with David Bowie, particularly the banter we had in New York. Or freaking Beyoncé out by taking a Concorde trip to see her.

I could go on for hours with stories and bore you to death. Not all good though, I had a bit of a tiff with George Michael, told Ricky Martin to F**k Off with his Persian Rug, and many a drinking session that seemed like a good idea at the time.

What are you doing now Chris ?

I’m still doing the same thing really, music, events, tv. The business has changed radically in my time, and I’ve diversified into all sorts of areas.

A lot of things go straight to Facebook or YouTube these days, but I’m still keen on regular broadcast tv, both here in the UK but also around the world, and there’s always something in development.

I’ve even directed video games and London West-End theatre, hi-tech, 3-D, holograms, all sorts really.I love new challenges and to keep learning new skills.

Of course, my heaven would be to make a new music show, so watch this space!

For further information contact Chris at    http://www.chriscowey.tv

Interview by Gary Alikivi    September 2019.