THE HOUSE THAT OLGA BUILT – interview with The Toy Dolls frontman

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In 2019 The Toy Dolls will celebrate 40 years of being in the business but back in 82 The Dolls played in the foyer of live British tv music show The Tube, broadcast from Tyne Tees Studio in Newcastle. While ripping through ‘She Goes to Finos’ behind the band was a huge yellow backdrop and bank of tv screens. Presenter Muriel Gray said “That incredibly energetic and slightly mad bunch are The Toy Dolls. A Sunderland based band. They were signed with EMI but unfortunately EMI let the contract lapse after only 12 month and one single. But happily a two man Newcastle based recording company called Volume snatched them back from impending obscurity. Well hope they are favouring(?) any damage done in the foyer”.

When did the music bug hit you Olga ? ‘I got into playing music after watching Suzi Quatro on Top of the Pops. I knew from that moment what I was gonna do! Be a bass player. I saved up for a bass guitar for a year by doing a paper round, but when I went to buy it, it had gone up by £1! So I just bought a guitar instead’.

Early influences for Olga were Dr Feelgood, Status Quo, The Pirates…’Also listened to Slade, Suzi Quatro, The Sweet, Eddie & the Hot Rods and most of the early Punk bands, The Jam/Clash/Pistols’.

Since 79 many drummers have been and gone, plus a few bassists, but the line up for The Toy Dolls in 2018 are Olga: Guitar & Lead Vocals. Tommy Goober: Bass & Vocals. The Amazing Mr Duncan: Drums & Vocals. Olga and Duncan both live in London and Tommy lives in Germany.

Back in Sunderland during the late 70s Olga played in local band ‘Straw Dogs’ then formed The Toy Dolls… ‘Started in October 1979 and for a long time we just played locally around the North East UK. Then the Angelic Upstarts gave us a support slot on their UK tour, to whom we are eternally grateful. In 1985 we met our manager, Dave (RIP). He got us gigs worldwide for the next 30+ years’.

When you were based in the North East where did the band record ? ‘At first it was Guardian Studios in Pity Me, Durham. That was where we always went from the beginning and for many years to follow. I think it was about £40 a day then, which was expensive for the early 80s. We recorded singles mainly, until 1983, when we recorded our first album Dig That Groove Baby’.

At a time when Eurythmics, George Michael and Spandau Ballet were regularly hitting top ten and the Band Aid single was number 1, The Dolls crashed the UK singles chart in December 84 with a cover of ‘Nellie the Elephant’. It entered the chart at 16 and reached number 4. They also filmed a music video for one of their songs at Penshaw Monument in their home town of Sunderland. The band also recorded some TV appearances…‘Yep quite a few. The usual pop shows in the UK like Razzmatazz, Top of the Pops and quite a few TV shows in Germany, Holland and Switzerland’.

Have you any funny stories from playing gigs ? ‘Ha, too many to mention. One story I will never forget is the first time we played in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A skinhead managed to climb over 4,000 people, through the security, got on stage and smashed me in the face, knocking my tooth out. And he was a fan can you believe! He even came backstage after the gig to say how much he loved the show. No apology though!’

 After being involved in music for over 40 years what does music mean to you ? ‘What else am I gonna do ! Busy writing a new Toy Dolls album at the moment, and almost finished! “Music was my first love and it will be my last”…. Ha, pass me the sick bucket, though its true!’

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Along with writing a new album, the rest of the year has a couple of live European dates in December including a sold out show in Geneva. With a feature on the bands website ‘Ask Olga’ where fans ask questions about touring, records or Olga’s chewing gum – he’ll always be busy. Go on ask him!

http://www.thetoydolls.com/index.html

Interview by Gary Alikivi November 2018.

FEEL THE MUSIC IN ME with British soul artist Sulene Fleming

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A number of vocalists have performed with Brand New Heavies since they formed in London in the 80s. 2016 saw Sulene adding her vocals to the Heavies tour of Europe and Japan. One of the dates was in the North East… Yeah, when I worked with the Heavies we played in Newcastle at the fab Hoochie Coochie club. The owner Warren always treats the artists well, he’s a great guy. It’s an intimate venue and the vibe is quite special, and they were an awesome crowd. I had played there before with another band I work with The Fantastics. We are in the mixing and mastering stage of a third album that will be finished early 2019. I sang and wrote some songs on the second album ‘All the People’ along with the forthcoming album. We will be performing songs when they are booked in’.

 What else have you got planned ? ‘In January I will be recording with a popular band from the mid 80s, but I can’t say who just yet. I’m a fan, so looking forward to working with them. I also write for music production libraries used in TV and Film. I also perform a lot doing private functions. Added with a two and a half year old daughter it’s not easy to juggle everything, but the journey is interesting to say the least’.

Looking back when did you start listening to music. Did your parents sing or play an instrument ? ‘Growing up my brother and me were blessed with the sound of music throughout the house. The music was varied from 50s to 80s from The Everly Brothers, Bob Marley, George Benson to Al Green. I loved looking at the record covers and the inlays, there was so much detail in the artwork.

We all enjoyed listening to a lot of different genres. I don’t think I disliked any of the music that was played, I just loved how it made me feel. We watched Top of the Pops religiously every week and remember hearing ’The Final Countdown’ by Europe, I was rocking out with a sweeping brush haha’

When did you start singing and was there a moment when you said ‘I can do this’ ? ‘I started to sing from a very early age, I dreamed about being a singer but no, I didn’t truly believe it would be my career path. A few things occurred growing up where I thought it could be possible to potentially sing for a living.

When I was around 14 at school I was forever getting into trouble for hanging out in places where I shouldn’t have been. It was a strange place to hang, but all the girls would spend too much time in the school toilets!  Chatting, smoking and I’d always break into song. My friends always said I had a great voice. When the teachers caught me, yet again they used to say…‘Sulene, Sulene the toilet queen!  Not the best way to be greeted I must admit, but true.

My first step into music semi-professionally, was at the age of 15. I had been approached by a youth worker named Maurine. She told me about a new youth centre they had opened. The first time I attended I absolutely loved it. There was a DJ set up and microphones with a small recording studio.

I went there for a few months, then Maurine had set up an audition for me at a small talent show in London for my first live performance. The show was televised but unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the show. I was the youngest of all the contestants and think I came third.

My first paid gig was at a ‘Women Coming Together’ awards. I was very nervous. I think I got around 50 quid which was great for me at that age.

Aged 15 I joined a new band, they were called Tropicana and we cut our first record. This was my first pro-experience in music. I loved being in a large recording studio and learning a little of how the music industry worked. We released a Christmas song and the b side was a cover version of Saturday Night by Whitfield. I think it got to number 50 in the charts or was it 100 haha, I can’t recall.

One of the cover songs we recorded was ‘Do You Love Me’ by The Contours. Then one day we were sitting and chatting in a café when we heard the song on the radio, it had been recorded by another artist! We felt that we had been ripped off as this was too much of a coincidence. That was the day I realised how tough it was in music.

Every song we recorded was a cover with a reggae spin, but even at the age of 15 I knew it wasn’t really going to go anywhere. To cut a long story short, we decided to call it a day. Looking back it was a great laugh at 15 years old and I gained a lot of experience which was to set me up for the future’.

Can you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio ? ‘The very first time was on Pulse radio and I was 15 years old. This was the Christmas song I mentioned earlier ‘Reggae Christmas’. I did think WOW this is a nice feeling’.

As well as being a songwriter Sulene has also added her voice to countless numbers of studio sessions and live backing vocals. She has also performed along side artists including Sonique, Beverly Knight and Mica Paris. What does music mean to you ? ‘It’s scientifically proven that music can help to change your mind set, can aid in relaxation and help when feeling negative emotions. It is an outlet for expressing any feeling you may be having. Particularly for me, when performing live you can let all emotions run free no matter what they are. It’s a beautiful thing!

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 Have you any plans for the remainder of 2018  ? ‘On New Years Eve I’m performing at Cool Cats in Singapore, it will be my third time in Singapore this year. I’ll be backing Leroy Hudson again and the Jazz Café just after Christmas and have quite a few private gigs to keep me busy through December’.

Contact Sulene on her official website https://www.sulenefleming.com/

Interview by Gary Alikivi November 2018

DANCING IN THE MOONLIGHT with Sunderland musician Ian Munro

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As a co-founder of the 90s dance band Opus 3, Ian Munro (pic. on right) had a big hit in 1992 with ‘It’s a Fine Day’. But the song had an earlier beginning… ‘In the 80s Manchester musician Edward Barton wrote and recorded ‘It’s a Fine Day’. I first saw him playing on live TV programme The Tube. The song was also played on Radio 1 but didn’t chart. One Sunday evening at our studio in Sunderland I remembered that ‘Fine Day’ was acapella, so we sampled it and in about 3 hours it was basically done. We had no doubt it was going to be a hit !

The song reached number 5 in the UK and number 1 in the US dance charts with  appearences on Top of the Pops, The Word, Jonathan Ross show, and performed live in Paris and Japan.

‘From ‘It’s Crucial’ a band I joined in 1984, to A.S.K. and Opus 3 my constant musical partners were Nigel Walton and Kevin Dodds. We needed new vocals on ‘It’s a Fine Day’ so we recruited Kirsty Hawkshaw who was Kevin’s ex-girlfriend. We met Kirsty during our first stint in London.

Opus 3 was me on keyboards, Kevin was keyboards engineer, Nigel was the drum programmer and our vocalist Kirsty was from Hertfordshire. We were signed to PWL records and Warner Brothers. Kirsty had a good musical background. Her father Alan Hawkshaw had a long and distinguished music career. Playing with The Shadows, co-writing for Elvis, Streisand and popular TV theme tunes. Her Mum used to run the UK Osmonds Fan Club and Alison Moyet lived next door. During the 90s we were in London when it was amazing. Living in the coolest city on earth heading towards a new millennia. It  was a blur of musicians, clubs and parties’.

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‘Our house parties at 131 Queenstown Road in Battersea had a balcony that overlooked the famous Power Station that Pink Floyd used on an album sleeve. One very long night saw some excellent DJ’s grace the long counter in the kitchen. Those nights were magical even the police were okay with us. The extreme was hiring a 2.5 k PA rig for a birthday party. Afterwards the system was cabbed back to my mates flat and along with a few DJs, went on till 10am when the hire company came to collect the PA.

But back then our music management were crap and contributed nothing to help our success. One was a real gangster and threatened to damage my fingers. They had offices in Soho and as their first group we were zero priority. In a vicious meeting one of the managers who was semi-employed by PWL, sided with them and not us. After the disappointing performances of the singles and second album we were dropped.

Orbital sampled ‘It’s a Fine Day’. They spun it backwards and got co-writing credits. We only got 5k out of this. It was a bad deal.

British businessman and polo player Bryan Morrison became our publisher. He had worked with T.Rex, The Pretty Things, Pink Floyd and George Michael. Morrison was the most arrogant man I’ve met. Part barrow boy and part Dracula actor Christopher Lee. He was financially drunk on George Michael’s huge success’.

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play ? ‘Watching The Tube TV show coming from my home area made anything seem possible. At 15 I played my first gig at The Dovecot Arts Centre. In South Shields we played at The Marsden Inn supporting a band managed by Chas Chandler.

As A.S.K we played at the South Shields nightclub Banwells. At large events we were billed with a wide range of bands like Blur, D-Ream, Ramones, dance/techno band 2Unlimited, Ace of Bass, the lovely girl group Eternal and rapper from the States – LL Cool J. Then at a gig in the USA we were playing in a venue off Broadway in New York, where Moby was our warm up DJ !

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What were your experiences of recording ? ‘1984 to 1985 we recorded in Desert Sounds in Felling near Gateshead and then went into Prism studio in Newcastle. We also had some home studio equipment. By 87-90 we used various studios in London including Rooster 2, Pye studios, Matrix Maison Rouge and Mayfair. Then we built a mega home studio at The Elms, West Ashbrooke in Sunderland. Then back in London again we had our own studio in Brixton.

In 1989 ASK released ‘Kiss and Tell’ on EMI. We were signed to Capitol and MCA where we recorded Freedom We Cry in 1990. As  Ashbrooke Allstars we released ‘Dubbin`up the Pieces’ in 1991 on East West records.

Opus 3 released ‘It’s a Fine Day’ and ‘I Talk to the Wind’ in 92. ‘Hand in Hand’ and ’When You Made the Mountain’ was 94. These two from the 2nd album were co-writes with Sunderland lad Martin Brammer of the Kane Gang.

Opus 3 released two albums. Mind Fruit in 1992 and Guru Mother 1994. In 1998 DJ Paul Oakenfolds Grace covered the Opus 3 record ’Hand in Hand’. That charted at 38 in 1997 so we weren’t a one hit wonder !

Have you any stories when you were in the band? ‘Seeing Joey Ramone whilst in a health spa in a Finnish hotel or at breakfast after an all night partying session in Pete Waterman’s studio there was a decommissioned missile in the TV room. Countless moments. After a few early drinks in Clapham my friends and I returned to my flat before going to The West End to be met by a distressed Terrier dog. I took him home and rang the number on his collar to no avail and headed out to a club. The next morning I got a call from a woman with a Northern accent. She said ‘I am Vivienne Westwood thanks for  rescuing my dog’.

Opus 3 played The Supper Club off Times Square in 1994. Moby had remixed the second disastrous single and we all loved his single ‘Go’. That night we got out of the limo and our singer Kirsty was dressed as a cyber Statue of Liberty. She looked amazing and upstaged onlookers the B52s and Miss Keir from Dee Lite. Madonna was invited but didn`t show’.

What does music mean to you ?Everything, it’s my love and my torment ! I still play and write. Music to me isn’t work just complicated demanding fun that takes a while. Would I like to change any mistakes made…Yes …Do I regret leaving a boring job as a Clerk ? No. Failing a dream is better than succeeding in a nightmare’.

Interview by Gary Alikivi November 2018.

MARTYR TO THE NEW BLOOD – Def-Con-One are back & release new single

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With a new line up, British metal band Def-Con-One, featuring ex Venom drummer Antton Lant have released a new single ‘Martyr to the New Blood’. Andy Mallaby bassist with North East deathcore band Osiah mixed and mastered the track in Colossus Studios in Newcastle, UK…. ‘Fans and people in the music bizz have responded really well to the new track so I’m buzzing about that and can’t wait to get this band back on the road’ said Antton.

The band have been in the studio writing, rehearsing and recording tracks for the new album, as yet untitled. But promise this to be a killer from start to finish. ‘I’ve been working with Crol for quite a while now and it’s great to work with such a great player and talented musician. I can play guitar as well so we hit the rehearsal room and jam out some riffs. We have about 12 tracks for the album. They keep evolving and growing, nothing is set in stone yet. We are still tightening up on a few of them’.

Plans for future live shows include next years HRH Metal festival in Birmingham… ‘Last time on stage was HRH 2017 so funnily enough we are carrying on where we left off. There has been a few changes since then. Since forming the band the line up has always been evolving and the chemistry between this line-up could not be better. It took a wee while to get everyone on board but it was worth the wait for sure’.

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Vocals Danny Hagar Jnr (vocals)

Guitars Crol ‘Crolossal’ Dunn (guitars)

Brian ‘Sass’ Bell (bass)

Antton Lant (drums)

New single Martyr to the New Blood’ out now.

Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018.

 

 

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – interview with Director Bob Smeaton

‘You can play a hundred gigs and reach a thousand people. You can do one television show and reach millions’…..When White Heat broke up in 1982, Tyne Tees art show ‘Check it Out’ filmed a half hour special on the band which Geoff Wonfor directed (later at live TV music programme The Tube). The special was broadcast during February 1982 a week before their farewell gig at the Mayfair… ’When we told Geoff Wonfor that White Heat were splitting up he told us that Tyne Tees should make a documentary about the band. Geoff was able to convince them that they should do it and that he should direct it. We filmed our second last gig at the Gulbenkian Studios near the Haymarket in Newcastle. What a lot of people don’t know is that we mimed a whole set of songs from our album In the Zero Hour and then mixed that in with film from the actual gig. So we in fact played each of the songs twice. After we had mimed to all of those songs I had almost blown my voice out. Even though we were miming I still used to sing the songs. All the audio that was used in the documentary came from the album, none of it was live. We also shot some stuff of me returning to the shipyards. One of the followers of White Heat has put it up on You Tube’.

 

White Heat. Circa 1978

White Heat (circa 1978)

The blog is heading for 50,000 views so a great way to mark this milestone is to feature Director Bob Smeaton. If you’ve ever watched the Classic Album series, caught a Hendrix documentary or any TV with big names from the music world on- Bob’s probably directed it. Along with being nominated three times for an Emmy as director of music and arts documentaries, he’s a double Grammy award winner. In 2017 he worked with fellow Geordie, and ex AC/DC vocalist, Brian Johnson for the Sky Arts series A Life On the Road. Before working in film and television, Bob was lead vocalist and songwriter with North East rock band White Heat. Signed to Virgin records, the band toured extensively and released one album and two singles. This is his story…..

‘When I was around fifteen me and my mates became obsessed with guitars. I couldn’t afford a guitar so I became a singer, it was the cheaper option. All you needed was a mic and you were up and running. I was never going to be the best singer in the North East. But I had learnt a lesson that if you put on a show that helped hide any bum notes then you stood a fighting chance. There were loads of great singers around at the time, Mick Whitaker, Dave Taggart to name but two. I was never going to be as good a singer as those guys and over the years rather than develop as a singer I was getting better as a front man’.

Who were your influences in music ? ‘My dad had a large record collection when I was growing up. The first records that I listened to were his. I would have been around eight years old at the time. He had records by everyone from Slim Whitman to Elvis Presley. I always loved songs that told stories and I used to love learning the words and singing along to their records. I had no idea what any of the singers looked like aside from what I saw on the record covers. So as far as I was concerned there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the likes of Slim Whitman, Elvis and Tom Jones. They were just great singers who were singing great songs. Then in my early teens I started hearing Tamla Motown on the radio and at my local youth club disco. Again great singers and great songs. But I still had very little idea of what the artists looked like as I very rarely saw them on television. The big moment for me was when I started getting into rock music. This was the first time when the visual side became as important as the musical side. It all came together, the songs, the musicianship and the way the bands looked. Even though I hadn’t as yet been to see a live gig. Just the pictures I saw in the music press, Sounds, NME and the Melody Maker was enough to get me excited’.

‘The first band that I saw performing live that had an affect on me were The Showbiz Kids. I was working as a floor waiter at the Scotswood Social Club and they were one of the bands that appeared. What made them stand out was the singer, Rob Coyle, he grabbed your attention and demanded that you look at him.

Up to that point the audience in the club would pretty much ignore the bands until the end of the evening then they would all be up dancing. With Rob it was different, you had to watch him. He was like Mick Jagger. And he made me realise that if you put on a show you would get the audience attention. I think Rob Coyle is not only one of the greatest front men to come out of the North East, but one of the greatest front men, period. I saw him a couple of years ago fronting Dr Feelgood and he was still brilliant. Rob was a massive influence on me. I remember meeting him for the first time and I was really made up that he knew who I was and had heard of my band’.

 

Was there a defining moment when you said ‘I want to do that’ was it watching a band or hearing a song ? ’Again this comes back to seeing Rob Coyle and the Showbiz Kids. But the moment when I thought ‘I could do that and be a contender’ was when I saw The Clash at Newcastle Polytechnic. Up to that point I had seen loads of bands, Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company, all who had great singers but way out of my league as far as aspiring to be like them. When I saw Joe Strummer I realised that with punk rock you didn’t have to be a great singer in order to make it. If you had the right attitude then you were well on your way. Strummer had attitude by the shed load and he looked great on stage, you believed in him 100%’.

 

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play. Was it in the immediate area or travelling long distances and did you support name touring bands ? ’I started doing gigs with my first band Hartbreaker around the mid 70s. The band were, me on vocals, Bryan Younger on guitar, Colin Roberts on bass and John Miller on drums. We didn’t want to play the working men’s clubs as we didn’t want to do cover versions and I wasn’t great at singing other peoples songs. Therefore, we started writing our own songs and began playing gigs on the Newcastle pub circuit. The Bridge Hotel, Cooperage, Gosforth Hotel and Newton Park. At the time our goal was to be as good as another local band, Southbound, they were brilliant and we got a couple of gigs supporting them. They are another one of those great North East bands that never ‘made it’. I remember they once brought a demo that they had recorded to play to me when I was still living at home at my mam’s in Benwell. It was brilliant, if they had come from Alabama rather than Sunderland I am convinced they would have been as big as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Hartbreaker built up quite a following, but it was still just a side-line to our day jobs. 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. By then we had changed our name to White Heat and had added an extra guitarist, Alan Fish’.

 

 

 

What were your experiences of recording ? ‘Around 1976 we had acquired a manager, Brian Mawson, who also managed the record department of Windows music store in Newcastle. Brian got us studio time at Impulse Studio in Wallsend. I would nip up the road from the shipyards at lunchtime and lay down a vocal while in my overalls then head back to work.

I never enjoyed the studio as much as I did the live gigs. In the studio there was no place to hide any dodgy vocals. White Heat were much better live than on record.

Mond Cowie (ex-Angelic Upstarts) also worked in the yards and I remember him telling me that he was quitting his job to go full time with the band. I was really jealous. I hated the yards but it was something to kick against and a lot of my lyrics were influenced by working there and wanting to get out of the place.

White Heat released an independent single called Nervous Breakdown which we recorded at Impulse,  it was produced by Mickey Sweeney. Mick produced everyone who came through the door at Impulse, from the Angelic Upstarts to Alan Hull. He was a great guy and full of enthusiasm for the band. The studio was run by a guy called Dave Woods. Dave like Mick loved the band and around this time set up Neat Records. I thought at one time we might have ended up on Neat Records but instead we released Nervous Breakdown on our own label called Vallium. The record did really well in the North East and we started attracting the attention of the major record labels. I quit my job as a welder and became a full time musician. It was the best decision that I ever made. We eventually signed a deal with Virgin music publishing and Virgin Records. We toured with the likes of Judas Priest, the Vapours and did the odd gig supporting amongst others the Climax Blues Band, Gen X, Split Enz and the Tom Robinson band’.

 

By 1981 the band had released their 10 track album ‘In the Zero Hour’ and Bob looks back on that time…‘When we were recording parts of In the Zero Hour at Rock City Studios which is in the film complex of Shepperton Studios, James Cagney was there filming the movie, Ragtime. I went into the canteen one day and saw him sitting there having his breakfast. I asked one of the production people if I could go over and say hello to him. I was told he wasn’t feeling too good and maybe I should ask again tomorrow. The next day he didn’t turn up. Ragtime turned out to be his last ever film. I wish I had got to speak to him as he died shortly afterwards. But it was great to see him in the flesh. If anyone ever asks me who my favourite film actors are I always used to say, Elvis Presley, Stan Laurel and James Cagney’.

 

Did the band have any help or supporters ? ’We we really lucky in that I became great mates with a guy called Geoff Wonfor who was a television director working at the BBC. Geoff would make film clips of the band and get these shown on the local BBC channel. This helped the band reach a wider audience and soon we were playing bigger gigs. By now we were playing places such as the Mayfair.  I loved doing television performances, just to see yourself on the telly was such a buzz. Nervous Breakdown did really well and we were hovering outside the national charts. If we had made it onto Top of the Pops I am convinced we would have been massive, but we only ever did local television.

In the TV documentary there is a backstage scene of the band getting together and shouting ‘Nice one’. Was that a pre gig ritual or a set up just for the camera ? ’We used to have a roadie called Paul Elliott who when we came off stage would always tell us that the gig had been a ‘nice one’. Regardless of how good or bad we felt it had been, that always made us feel better. We adopted that line and it became part of our pre-gig ritual. It was a bonding thing, always raised a laugh and was a good way to loosen up the vocal chords. We used to come on stage to the theme song from the James Cagney film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, that was because I was a massive fan of Cagney and he was once in a film called White Heat which was another connection’.

White Heat at the Marquee.

White Heat live at The Marquee, London.

Looking back what do you think of the Bob Smeaton then, and have you still got the white jacket you wore on the documentary ? ’I watched the Check it Out documentary when I was writing my book. I thought I came across like a right cocky bastard. But I was young and I was cocky and I thought I looked great. I even thought that the white jacket looked great, but not sure it quite went with the braces!! I no longer have the white jacket. I threw it into the crowd at the end of the final White Heat gig. A bit like a cowboy hanging up his guns. I still get asked if I can still do the press ups that I used to do during the solo of Nervous Breakdown – and I can. But I feel a bit knackered afterwards.

If anyone looks at the Nervous Breakdown clip on You Tube they will notice that the performance is all captured in a single shot, there are no edits in it. Geoff Wonfor was on stage with the cameraman and I would push the the camera in the direction of where I thought it should be filming. That was all spontaneous and it’s a great clip. In fact, I would probably go as far as to say that Nervous Breakdown is the best song that White Heat ever wrote and that along with that video clip pretty much summed up what the band was all about.

It was a strange dichotomy with White Heat. I never wanted us to be considered a ‘local band’ I wanted us to succeed on a national level but so much of the success we did achieve was because of the following we had in the North East. We did do a number of gigs in London but we really should have moved down there if we wanted to really grow a fan base. But we were all local lads and maybe the desire to make that big step wasn’t present within all the band members’.

Have you any stories from playing gigs ? ‘I have just written my memoir which is coming out in November and I have written about touring with the band. Those were the best days ever; they were not so much funny as really exciting. Touring is the best thing in the world. I have been fortunate to have made music my life, but nothing compares to performing with a band. White Heat went from playing to fifty people at the Bridge Hotel to selling out the Mayfair at our final gig playing to 2,000 plus. I really miss performing live, the size of the crowd is secondary. It’s as good performing in front of a hundred people as it is two thousand. I have done both in fact we once played a gig just outside of London to eight people. That’s the smallest crowd we ever played too. The biggest crowd was probably around three thousand when we were supporting Judas Priest on tour and played Sheffield City Hall’.

 

After White Heat did any other bands enquire about you as their frontman ? ’After White Heat split I didn’t want to join another North East band I always felt that would have been a come down. I moved to London for six months and joined a band called Agent Orange who were made up of ex members of the mod group The Chords, along with Mick Talbot who used to be in the Merton Parkers and then later formed the Style Council with Paul Weller. I recorded almost an albums worth of material with Agent Orange, the studio time was paid for by Polydor who The Chords used to be signed with. Polydor were keen to sign the band and we were in the process of arranging some gigs so that they could see the band live. But I bailed out as I missed being home in Newcastle. The lads in White Heat were my mates. The Chords were not really my mates. I wanted to ‘make it’ but not at any cost. Those days with White Heat were the best times and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Also I felt we split up at the right time’.

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What does music mean to you ? ’It sounds like a cliché but music changed my life. If I had not become obsessed with music I don’t know what would have become of me. I have been many things, an actor, television presenter and now a director of music documentaries. But this all came about through my love of music. It has been the gateway to everything that I have done. I still love seeing live bands and hearing new records. There is so much great music around now, you just have to sift through it to find the gems. A good song and a good singer, that is still my yardstick’.

What are you doing now and are you still involved with music ? ‘I was really fortunate in that thanks to my friendship with Geoff Wonfor I got involved in making music videos. This led to working on a great number of music documentaries. For the past twenty-five years or so that is pretty much what I have been doing. I have been lucky to have worked with a number of the bands that I grew up listening too. The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. My background in music, and having played in a band has been a great help when working with those people. They realise pretty early on that when it comes to music I seem to know what I’m talking about.

If any young kids read this and are thinking about playing music, I would say go ahead and do it. You have got to get out of your bedroom and start playing music with your mates. Its one of the best feelings in the world. Even if you don’t ‘make it’ just to walk out on stage and perform in front of an audience is something that you will never regret’.

 

Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018.

Bob Smeaton memoir ‘From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond’ out now.

SOUNDS ALIVE: The Power of Music

The adrenalin rush of the thunderclap from Icelandic football fans. The guitar intro to Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers. Kurt Cobains anger on the Nirvana anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit. And what about John Bonhams bombastic drums on When the Levee Breaks ? Sound has a real strength and songs have unforgetable moments. What’s yours ? 

orig 2000

Music has a power to ignite and heal. Rewind to the 80s. A charity single aimed at raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Pop and rock stars of the day including the Durans, Spandau, Quo, Sting, Bono and not forgetting Bananarama crammed into Sarm West studio in London. Songwriters Bob Geldoff and Midge Ure realised they didn’t have a nice little charity single on their hands but a major pop record when George Michael and Boy George laid down their vocal tracks on ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’. The song raised millions and the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium followed. Bono becoming Bono. Freddy’s Big Night Out. And Geldof salutes ‘The lesson today is how to die’. History was made. The power of music.

The shelves in my local library are full of music related books. Lately I’ve read biographies by Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing and the Russian classical composer, Prokofiev. Complete contrasts ? Prokofiev has his lighter moments but listen to Dance of the Pagan Master. That’s Heavy Metal from way back. You’ll also find a bit of Prokofiev in Greg Lakes ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’. Check out the horse drawn sleigh in ’Troika’. Wonderful sound. What am I saying here ? Well, not only do we want to listen to music, but read about it and talk about it. That’s the power of music.

Of course we all have our own tastes and top ten lists. But music is a leveller and it can be used to sum up our feelings at any given moment. After the England football team were beaten in the Euro 96 semi finals Walk Away by Cast was played on TV over pictures of the manager Terry Venables head down, hands in pockets walking down the touch line. Knowing this was probably his last match in charge. In that team Geordies Gazza and Shearer stood tall. But football didn’t come home that day. 

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The internet in the late 90s. Is that when music started to lose it’s value ? I’m not talking about value that rings the till. More of a value that can be considered important. Even cherished. In interviews guitarist Noel Gallagher talked of Oasis not being the most popular band in the 90s, but the most important. Blur might have something to say on that one, but they never had quarter of a million at Knebworth.

What is the attraction of music ? Some songs have great stories. You’ll have your own favourites like the first records you bought. The songs that marked important moments in your life. The inspiration behind them, who wrote the lyrics and what it means to you. And finally your funeral song. Yep, some people have their favourites ready for when they finally check out. Music really is the soundtrack to our lives. From beginning to the end.

Well the music is your special friend. Dance on fire as it intends 

Music is your only friend. Until the end.  (Jim Morrison, When the Music’s Over). 

Gary Alikivi October 2018.

ALIKIVI

Recommended:

1980 The Year Metal was Forged on Tyneside   11th Feb. 2018.

Rockin’ All Over the Toon  22nd May 2018.

Rockin’ All Over the Toon Again  14th Sept. 2018.

When the Music’s (not) Over 24th Sept. 2018.

For more Tyneside stories why not subscribe to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

BOMBS IN THE BLACKOUT – interview with author John Orton

This is the third blog on a series of books written about South Shields by author John Orton. The first appearing on 1st October ‘Bobbies, Bookies and Beer’ and a second installment last week ‘Bread, Jam and Cow Heel Pie’…John takes up the story…. ‘I had just published the Five Stone Steps: tales of a Policeman’s life in 1920s South Shields. I was writing a sequel and wanted a last story about the War years. Sergeant ‘Jock’ Gordon whose memoirs inspired the book does not say a lot about the war and most of that is taken up and criticising the War Reserve Police. I started doing my own research. I had no idea how bad things became for everyone during the War, and in particular how much the town of Shields had suffered during the Blitz. There was enough material for a book let alone one story.

When people think of the War their first thoughts are of the heroes on the front line but the battle at home during the German blitzkrieg was in its own way just as tough. There was a whole army of young and old, men and women, who became ARP Wardens, street firewatchers, auxiliary fire-fighters, and ambulance crew, war reserve police, rescue squads and the WVS who took out the mobile canteens for the rescue workers’.

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National Fire Service

‘Then I discovered the PAMs – police auxiliary messengers – lads between 16 and 18 with their own bikes who would go out during and after raids to deliver messages – when the phone lines were down they were the only way of getting messages through. The thought of young lads riding their bikes in the blackout, with bombs flying round their ears, was the inspiration behind Blitz PAMs. Once I’d got the idea and finished my research I found the perfect voice for the story – Mossie Hamed, a 16 year old delivery boy, of mixed English and Arab stock, who speaks with a broad Shields accent. The story told itself and sometimes I had a job keeping up with it! The book was finished in about 6 months which is quick for me’.

How much of the book is fact or fiction ? ’The story of the book is how six young PAMs, Mossie, Davey, Jimmy, Freddie, Mattie and Jackie, who turns out to be a lass, live through the blitz on Shields, and cope with life knowing that their name might be on the next bomb. Their adventures, scrapes and adolescent fumblings with lasses, paint a vivid picture of what life was like for teenagers in the war.

The PAMs are all fictional characters but their exploits – uncovering a black market racket, exposing a Policeman who is looting bomb sites, and rescuing a budgie from the ruins, are all things that happened during the war.  The descriptions of the air raids themselves, the death and damage they caused are all based on fact. A German Henkel did crash land on the seafront and the German pilot who baled out was killed when he landed on the live trolley bus wires. A 1000kg bomb did crash through the roof of the power station landing on the top of one of the boilers without exploding; a direct hit on the underground shelter in the market place killed at least 12 people who were sheltering inside. The foreman of a rescue squad was awarded the George Medal for bravery’.

Did researching the book effect you in any way ? Where you saddened or shocked at the amount of war damage done to Shields ? ’I was really moved by the resilience of all the emergency services and their auxiliary/volunteer helpers in the face of the German bombing. These were people who for the main part had full time jobs but still turned out at night if there was a raid. On Wednesday 9th April 1941 a major raid targeted the riverside. About 6,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Once The Lawe Top area lit up it was a perfect target for the bombers. Mile End Road and the surrounding streets were hit hard’.

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Mile End Road, South Shields

‘This shelter was surrounded by houses – they were all blown to smithereens but the shelter stood firm – you can see the six inch crack that went from the ceiling to the ground but all inside were kept safe. The unsung heroes in this case were the corporation brickies who built the shelter – thank heavens they didn’t have a team of cowboys who are putting up modern houses! During this raid the Shields ARP called for mutual aid from surrounding towns. Sunderland sent their fire-fighters who took on the fires at the dockside. The ferocity of two other raids did shock and sadden me. They were only a couple of days apart and left a lot of the town in ruins’.

Can you tell us a story from the book ? ’There are many humorous passages but here is one that brings home how dangerous life could be for the PAMS. The action takes place during the raid on the Market Place on 2nd October 1941. Mossie and Freddie have been sent out on their bikes to the Market Place to see what help is needed. Freddie has had an on and off relationship with Gertie, one of the auxiliary ambulance drivers. As they near the Market Square Freddie sees Gertie in her ambulance.  Mossie takes over the account of what happened next…..

“I’ll cut them off,” Freddie called oot as he tore strite across the Market Place standing on his pedals. I was way behind, and riding ower cobbles is bad enough when you’re gan’ slow. He was past the auld Town Hall and took one hand off the handle bars to wave to the ambulance driver, and then the bombs came doon. I dain’t kna’ how many there were but the last thing I saw was Freddie flying through the air, and then the blast caught me. I was oot for a couple of minutes and didn’t kna’ where I was. I came to, feeling a bit sick, and couldn’t hear owt. I was just behind the auld Town Hall and that must have saved me from the full force of the blast. All I could see was flames all roond. Me bike was on top of me and I pushed it away and got to me feet. I had a stab of pain in me left leg and had a job putting any weight on it, but that was all. A trolley bus ootside the Tram was alight.

I then saw Gertie get oot of the ambulance. You couldn’t mistake her. She was running towards where I’d last seen Freddie. Then she was doon as there was a geet big explosion from Dunn’s Paint stores, and blazing tins of paint and oil were gan’ up like rockets and then coming doon like fire bombs. She got up and ran forward and I limped across as quick as I could. I saw her bend ower and pick something up – it looked like a pile of rags. I was nearly there and realised that it was Freddie – I was reet beside her but she was strong enough and then something dropped doon. I bent ower to pick it up and it was the bottom part of a leg with a boot on. Gertie had stopped as well. “What should I de with it?” I started puking. “Bring it with you, Mossie. We’ll keep him all together. He’s still breathing”.

blitz pams cover

If you want to know what happens to Mossie and his ‘marra’s’ read ‘Blitz PAMS’. Out now on e-book or paperback through Amazon or you can order copies at The Word bookshop, South Shields. What else have you been working on John ? ’After I’d finished Blitz PAMs I started on ‘A Chill Wind off the Tyne’. My sequel to the Five Stone Steps had been put on hold while I wrote Blitz PAMs. I went back to it but it was one of those works that you’re never really satisfied with and I rewrote it several times. It tells the lives of the working class in South Shields in the first half of the twentieth century. The harsh working conditions, the pit lock-outs of 1921 and 1926, the riots in Shields when Arab and white seamen fought over jobs in the streets. Life on Tyneside during the depression of the 20s and 30s was hard but folk got on with it, laughed and loved, liked a pint and a bet. Bought their shopping on tick and ate bread and dripping, tripe, brawn and even cow heel pie… ‘Well, you’ll eat owt when you’re hungry’.

Photographs courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

Recommended:

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.

Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment 6th September 2018.

John Orton, Bobbies, Bookies & Beer 1st October 2018.

John Orton, Bread, Jam & Cow Heel Pie 17th October 2018.

Why not subscribe to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more Tyneside stories. You will find the link on the ‘About’ page.

BREAD, JAM & COW HEEL PIE Hard times in Shields with author John Orton

After posting on 1st October ‘Bobbies, Bookies & Beer’ featuring the work of author John Orton. I caught up with John  again and we talked about his new and third book ‘A Chill Wind Off the Tyne’. He described it as a companion volume to his previous books about South Shields, ‘Five Stone Steps’ and ‘Blitz PAMs’. What led you to write it John ? ‘It took ages to write and I sometimes nearly gave up on it. After I’d finished The Five Stone Steps. I didn’t get very far trying to get it published, so put it to one side, and thought that I’d work on a sequel. The problem was that I’d already used up most of the material in Sergeant Jock Gordon’s memoirs, and was having a job finding inspiration for new fictional stories. 

I’d finally got something I was reasonably happy with and then wrote Blitz PAMs, which was originally intended to be a final chapter on the war years but turned into a new book. After Blitz PAMs was published, I looked again at the sequel and basically re-wrote it. I then decided that rather than concentrate on the stories from a police angle I should tell the story of the characters in The Five Stone Steps and also delve into the life of ordinary working class folk during the great Depression of the 20s and 30s. 

This involved a lot more research but it was worth it. I also wanted to tell a bit more about some of the characters who’d appeared in The Five Stone Steps. In telling the story of Geordie Hussain who appeared in A Pair of Blue Eyes in The Five Stone Steps I went back to his birth in Shields in Holborn in 1904. I then added more stories in the late 1930s about the burning down of the Casino, the raid on the Trow Rocks pitch and toss schools and was finally happy with the result. Tom Duncan who told his own stories in The Five Stone Steps was not about in Shields in the early 1900s and was a peripheral figure in some of the later chapters so I needed a new narrator. ‘Titch’ Foster who first appeared in The Five Stone Steps in A Sure Thing,  a pathetic specimen who’d been in and out of Durham and who’d do anything for money but work for it’ came in very handy’.

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The first chapters are set in the early 1900s before the Great War – you give detailed descriptions of the riverside areas of Holborn, Wapping Street and Shadwell Street and the people who lived there – what research did you have to do ? ’A lot and it was not easy. I had an idea of what life was like in the Laygate area from the tales told by my Nan who had lived in Maxwell Street but the original riverside areas had all been cleared in the 30s and was just ancient history to me. The town of Shields owes its prosperity to its location. Salt pans were in operation from medieval times in the Holborn area – salt preserves fish – put them together and you have a roaring export trade. The clinker from the salt pans and the ballast from the ships made the hills where Holborn was built. 

My main difficulty was getting an idea of the street layout. The main roads were East and West Holborn, Nile Street, Cone Street and Laygate Street and in between were many little Banks, Courts and Places. I spent hours going over old maps, and looking at the hundreds of old photos of Holborn on http://www.southtynesidehistory.co.uk  before I was familiar enough to start writing. 

One of the problems was that pubs and shops changed hands and were often renamed. Many pubs in Holborn were taken over as Arab lodging houses, or cafés. The Yemeni seamen who settled in their hundreds in Holborn and Laygate did not drink so there was less need for pubs. Wapping Street, Shadwell Street and the Lawe Top were the home of the ‘Townenders’, or as the locals would say the ‘skeuytenders’ – this was probably the first part of the town to be lived in by fishermen and sailors. 

It is now the area around River Drive but used to be a warren of quays and courts, the oldest house in Shields dated from Tudor times. Conditions were basic. In Holborn there was no running water until the later part of the 19th century. Women would carry a ‘skeel’ of water on their heads to have it filled at a ‘pant’ (private well). The skeel carried about three and a quarter gallons and would cost a farthing to fill’.

Mill Dam

Two main storylines concern the depression of the 1920s and how it affects the mining and shipping industries, with tales about the 1921 and 1926 pit lockouts and the Mill Dam riots. How much of the stories in your book are based on fact and how much is fiction ?  ’Shields was a major seaport and also a coal mining town. In 1921 over 2,000 men worked at St. Hilda’s, 3,400 at Harton, and 3,500 at Marsden collieries. Lloyd Geroge had nationalised the mines for the war effort and pitmen had been earning good money but in 1921 he gave the mines back to the private owners. They cut wages and increased the working hours – a hewer who had been earning nearly four pounds a week would now take home just over two pounds. The colliery owners locked the pit gates and you only got back in if you accepted the new conditions – no one in their right mind would and the 1921 lock-out started. 

These troubles continued through the 20s ending with the National Strike of 1926. The three Shields collieries were out for between 6 to 10 months but the miners were starved into submission. Similar difficulties hit the shipping trade. Yemeni seamen had been recruited in their thousands during the war and many gave their lives at sea. Many sailed from Shields, and after the war the returning demobbed ex servicemen who were after a job at sea found themselves in competition with the Arab seamen. There were riots in 1919 in Shields and also in Cardiff and Liverpool for the same reasons. 

The Yemeni seamen were unmarried; they did not drink, and were bringing in good money – many local lasses fell for them – some wed their man, but others were unlucky and gave birth out of wedlock. By the late twenties the Arab seamen had all but taken over Holborn and pubs gave way to lodging houses and cafés. The simmering tensions and the continuing difficulty of finding work at sea resulted in the Mill Dam Riots of 1930. 

This is the factual background – to create authentic tales of how life still went on I developed the characters from my previous book the The Five Stone Steps, brought in some new ones and weaved their lives into the stories of hardship and humour’.

Smart Touch TIFF File

There is a lot of humour in the book but also a lot of hardship – hard times and hard people – bare knuckle fights in the back lanes and pitch and toss at Trow Rocks. Do you think that your book accurately describes the poverty, hardship and the way folk stuck together ?  ’To put it into perspective, young people today might think that my life in the early 50s was hard. No heating upstairs; no duvets on the bed – which meant ice cold white cotton sheets – bed socks and hot water bottles were the norm. My mam or dad had to come downstairs to light the stove in the kitchen first thing in the morning. A bath once a week; one telly with only one channel to start with – get up to turn it on or to turn up the volume ! 

Life in the early 1900s, by comparison, was not only hard it was brutal – in 1906 there were 465 shoeless children in the town. The Council did what it could – the Police set up the Shoeless Children Fund. Boots were provided – probably having learnt the hard way, the Police ensured that the boots had holes made in the leather at the top to prevent them ending up in the pawn shop. 

There was no such thing as five fruit and veg a day – bread and jam or dripping was a staple for many – folk ate tripe, brawn and even cow heel pie – as Titch Foster says ‘When you’re hungry you’d eat owt.’ My Grandfather went down the mines at the age of twelve – the work was hard and dangerous. Fatalities and serious accidents were common particularly among the young lads who might have been thinking of something else and been hit by a tub, or got hooked to a cage as it was going up the shaft. 

All the pits had their boxing champions – unskilled, bare-knuckle sluggers for the most part. Drinking and gambling were common place which explains why there were so many pawn shops –  not necessarily a last resort for the housewife when the wages had gone over the bar counter, or lost an a Sunday morning at the pitch and toss schools at Trow Rocks. 

There was a hardness about people, men and women, which you probably don’t find now, but in the long terraced streets you’d know all your neighbours and folk would help each other out. They really were all in it together in those days’.

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John Orton

Is ‘A Chill Wind off the Tyne’ the final book in the series, or can we expect another ? ‘A ‘Chill Wind does complete the series, Tales of Old South Shields. I’m taking a breather at the moment and certainly don’t have any immediate plans for another prequel or sequel. I do like writing so something else may crop up. I’ve just had an email back from one of my friends who’s just finished A Chill Wind he said he didn’t want it to end and could I write a fourth! 

All images courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

A Chill Wind off the Tyne, on UKBookPublishing along with The Five Stone Steps and Blitz PAMs is on sale at The Word bookshop, South Shields. You can also get it as a kindle or paperback from Amazon. The Book Depository offers free world wide delivery if you’re an expat.

Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018

Recommended:

John Orton, Bobbies, Bookies & Beer, 1st October 2018.

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.

Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment, 6th September 2018.

Why not subscribe to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.

You will find the link on the ‘About’ page.

TRAIN OF THOUGHTS

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It’s all quiet. Nothing happening here. Then a sudden burst of energy that carries through a day, a week or longer. But a deep low follows. What brings it on ? Probably a number of things but in 2013 I was in a high/low that lasted for most of the year. 

I was making a documentary about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, to cut a long story short Eileen was born in South Shields and was George Orwells first wife. Research and filming were going really well with one lead connecting to another. When filming around the country even delays and cancellations on the trains weren’t too bad. On long train journeys random thoughts and memories would pop in. The notebook come out. New page. 

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Everton and Republic of Ireland international Kevin Sheedy.

Whenever 80s Everton and Republic of Ireland footballer Kevin Sheedy was mentioned, football commentators and pundits would talk about his cultured left foot. And what is the best Girls Aloud song ? Is it Call the Shots with the lyricFull of twilight, dreams that glitter  or Untouchable with the lineLike beautiful robots dancing alone’. 

Go on have a listen. It’s neck and neck. Looking back through my 2013 diary I worked on a number of different projects. During Spring I was working on ‘Wildflower’. I was also editing ’Tyne Harbour’ and had a couple of meetings in April for a new project. Late May through to June were busy producing ‘Lizards’. There was a visit to Greystone House near Stockton where Eileen and Orwell lived for a short time, so piecing that together. During July 1977 three big events happened in Shields and somewhere I must have seen a newspaper cutting about one or all of them. King, Queen, Punk. It stuck. 

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Artwork by Neil Simms.

Then on the 8th of August I walked into Inkredible Ink (now Body Art) in South Shields. The Tattoo studio run by artist Neil Simms and we arranged some filming. Below is some diary entries from August until late October including dates of screenings. ’The King, The Queen & The Punk’ originally called ‘1977’ was finally edited by early November and by the end of the month final work on ‘Wildflower’ was done. 

 August 

15th 10.30am Neil Simms filming at Inkredible Ink

16th 10am Neil Newton interview/camera for Designs for Life

20th 11am Darren int. House of Ink

24th 4pm Angus McDonald int. Designs for Life

September  2nd 1pm Gav Gray int. Designs for Life

7th – 11th  edit Designs for Life

12th 2pm screen Tyne Harbour & Tyne Stories Library Theatre, S/S

13th  11am screen Vanished & Tyne Dock Borders at The Customs House, S/S. 

16th 7pm Colin Smoult, narration Designs for Life

17th 2pm Decca Wade int. 1977

20th 10am Neil Newton int. 1977

20th 2pm Mond Cowie int. 1977

28th 10am Caroline Vincent int. Designs for Life

29th 10am Derek Cajiao int. Sea Hotel,  1977

30th 1pm Mensi int. Alexander Hotel 1977

October 1st 1.30pm Pat Robinson int. Whitburn 1977

2nd  2pm  screen Lizards & Tyne Harbour at Central Library 

3rd  2pm Richard Barber int. Bents Park Cabin 1977

14th Neil Simms artwork for Designs for Life

17th 10am Valonia Tattoo int. Frederick St Designs for Life

19th 11am screen On the Front Line & Jarrow Voices at Armstrong Hall, S/S 

The quiet lasted through a cold winter until a new idea popped in. Said hello. And here we go again.

Gary Alikivi October 2018

Recommended:

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Why not subscribe to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.

SOUL MAN – in conversation with North East actor Jamie Brown

Jamie Brown as Jack Ford - When The Boat Comes In

How did you get your latest role as Jack Ford in When the Boat Comes In ? ‘Ray Spencer, Director of The Customs House, had put it on my radar saying this is happening, why not put your hat in the ring?  I had a good discussion with Katy Weir, who was lined up to direct the project – she had seen me in a few things I’d done, and we were fans of each other’s work. I suppose the rest is history. It was a risk, there was pressure – I’d heard of the TV programme but didn’t fully anticipate how engaging and enigmatic James Bolam was when he played Jack Ford. When I sat down and watched the show it was like, wow this is great, we’re getting working class values, women being the heads of households, supporting the miners on strike, shellshock after the war, homosexuality in the Armed Forces…..all in the first episode!  It blew my mind. The programme was made in the 70s but his performance hasn’t aged, and the themes are still relevant today. There was a heap of expectation, but these are the types of roles that you want – the big, meaty characters – one’s that will hopefully be remembered’.

What is your background and how did you get into acting ? ‘I was born on the Leam Lane Estate in Gateshead in the mid 80’s. From 4 years old, I was stood in the street with a ball at my feet. The only religion was football, and we didn’t make ‘future plans’ – we made plans to escape. You see, at the time, the area was seen as an underprivileged sort of place, but we were always happy and had just enough to make ends meet. All the lads wanted to be footballers and make amounts of money they could only ever dream about, so every night after school was football. Then at Roman Road Primary School, somebody noticed I could hold a tune in assembly.  After that, I was asked to sing in special assemblies, concerts, and by secondary school (Heworth Grange) I somehow ended up in the pantomime. It was my first ‘proper’ performance. As well as the football, I was in the rugby team (fly-half) at the time, and the director thought it’d be a laugh to have me and the rest of the team prancing around as Robin Hood’s Merry Men...but then I somehow ended up as the dame!’

Did you watch anything on TV or did you attend any shows which inspired you ? ‘I loved the stories that were being told in films. There were certain actors, like Pacino and Day-Lewis, where you just went wow!  But they seemed to be on another planet – they didn’t seem accessible. I never thought ‘I want to be that person,’ because they weren’t even on my radar of what was possible, you know. Footballers looked more reachable – you could walk past St James’ Park – but Hollywood, and even London, seemed so far away. Also, because of the cost, and the culture of where I was brought up, it just didn’t seem open to someone like me. 

Music and sport were ways of expressing yourself – an escapism – and many kids were looking for that.  I was lucky, at my school we were all made to do Drama until at least Year 9. Today, you are lucky to get to touch on it for a few lessons! But I got my G.C.S.E in Drama, A-levels in Performing Arts and, with the help of the Local Authority, I was able to afford a place at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire to train in Acting for three years’.

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What is it about drama that attracted you? ’I was fascinated at the thought of being able to step into other people’s shoes. Getting a chance to explore the decisions people make – to dive in and experience their lives as well as lead my own. I once described it to a friend as being like collecting souls…we laughed, but it’s not as ridiculous as it first sounds really. In my work to date, I have walked at least 8 different people’s journeys through World War One, for example. It fascinates me. I quickly started to become attracted to what really matters, you know, deeper theatre over more commercial theatre – though there’s a place for both’.

What was your first professional job ? ‘I moved to London and I got my first professional gig with Chapterhouse Theatre Company, who toured Shakespeare outdoors: castles, stately homes, National Trust sites – that sort of thing. It wasn’t well paid, but they provided accommodation, food, and travel, which is where a lot of money would go anyway I suppose. It was a big adventure – I was a 21-year-old kid fresh out of drama school.  I hadn’t travelled much before, so I had nothing to lose. The tour went around the UK, and we did several weeks in Ireland. It was great, everybody just mucked in.  It was all out of the back of 2 vans: we threw the lights up, set the scenes, sorted the costumes, put the show on, then took it all back down the same night. Then, next night, another town.  

I remember one night, the rain was pouring down but 6 people still turned up to watch the show, with kagools on and brollies! Very few shows were called off through bad weather. It was great, while some shows would have a few hundred in the audience others only a handful of people turned up – it was an education’.

How long did you stay in London ? ‘About 6 or 7 years, though I was away touring throughout a lot of that. I kept pretty busy. One year I spent about ten months as Scooby-Doo! Warner Brothers and A.E.G produced a feature-length episode to be performed live on stage, and we toured to around thirty #1 venues across the UK. Now, that sounds like cartoony fun, you know, but behind it all was pretty exhausting physical theatre. It was also my first chance to perform on stages I’d dreamed of playing – Hammersmith Apollo, Sunderland Empire, Glasgow Kings, Edinburgh Playhouse, Birmingham Hippodrome, to name just a few. I had an amazing time, and I gained financially from it – the glitz and glamour of the show was great, but I was hungry for more depth…I suppose you might call it artistic value’. 

How did you get involved with theatre at The Customs House in South Shields ? ‘Around 2010, I applied to audition for a part in The Machine Gunners musical. I was cast as Rudi, a German pilot, alongside a large cast of North-Eastern actors. At the end of day one in rehearsal, veteran actor Donald McBride came up to me and said ‘You’ll do well, you.  Only piece of advice I can give you: just be nae bother. Be nae bother…and you’ll be reet’.  This is a people business – I’ve been in it now for nearly 13 years and you can be as good or better than anybody else, but if you are a nightmare to work with nobody wants to know. Be nae bother…they were wise words’. 

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Jackie Fielding

I saw you in The Man and the Donkey at The Customs House, how did that come about ? ’Off the back of The Machine Gunners, I was cast in the Romeo and Juliet play staged in South Marine Park, South Shields. Director Jackie Fielding (RIP) saw it, and later she was looking for a leading man to play John Simpson Kirkpatrick in The Man and the Donkey. Viktoria Kay, a fellow actor and good friend, may have also put me on her radar, but, either way I ended up in an audition. I knew immediately that I’d met a kindred spirit. I loved Jackie – I still do – and I’ll will always be thankful that she took a leap of faith and handed me my first leading start at The Customs House, and in the North-East. That show was special – it was one of the first times where I felt the heart, and depth, and regional significance, that I had been looking for. It took theatre and performance to a whole different level for me: it changed my outlook. Shortly after that, I came home and resettled in the North-East on a permanent basis. I’ve never looked back’. 

Jamie Brown as John Simpson Kirkpatrick - The Man and The Donkey 1

Whats coming next ? ‘Well, When the Boat Comes In is having another run early next year (March) before the sequel premieres next September. People are constantly asking when Hadaway Harry is returning – and I’m told it’ll happen at some point, so we’ll see. I’ve also started doing some directing over the past few years, and I’m currently involved in the development of something in the offing between local production company ION Productions and The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation for next year. So, there are irons in fires – it’s an exciting time to be involved in theatre in the North-East’.

Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018.

Recommended:

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.

Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment, 6th September 2018.

Why not check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.