COUNTRY MAN with ex-BBC Radio presenter Stan Laundon

Magic times don’t come around too often but David Bowie had a few with ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ where he could be wagging his finger singing the brilliant nursery rhyme lyric ‘My mama said, to get things done, You’d better not mess with Major Tom’.  After watching the TV series Life on the Road with Brian Johnson his guest was Dolly Parton telling him that her two biggest hits, ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ were written in the same night – not just a magic time, that’s a magic hour. With ‘I Will Always Love You’ Whitney Houston banked millions for DP in song writing credits while ‘Jolene’ has been covered by many artists including dark goth rock band The Sisters of Mercy.

Dolly features in this interview with former Radio presenter Stan Laundon who throughout his career has interviewed and worked for many stars… In 1974 I made my first ever visit to Nashville, Tennessee, and because of my BBC connections I met up with a host of country stars including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and one of my own idols, Jerry Reed. Jerry wrote US Male and Guitar Man both tracks eventually recorded by Elvis Presley. During my time in Nashville I was looked after by a public relations man who asked me where I was from and I told him Hartlepool, and gave him the story of the Hartlepool Monkey.

(Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars a shipwrecked monkey was hanged by the people of Hartlepool, believing him to be a French spy. To this day, people from Hartlepool are affectionately known as ‘monkey hangers’).

Unknown to me he relayed the story to Dolly Parton, who I met three times in the week I was there. On my third meeting Dolly smiled and held her hands to her throat! When I asked her what all that was about she replied ‘You’re a Monkey hanger!’ So I’m proud to have been called that by such a huge star (laughs).

Dolly Parton

Stan with Dolly Parton in Nashville, Tennessee June 1974. Photograph © Shay Brogan.

Are you from a musical family Stan ? No my parents rarely listened to the radio when I was young. I got interested in music when I was at school. There were one or two lads who played guitar at break times and I thought, maybe I’d like to play the guitar one day. I remember I was introduced to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan for the first time when one of the teachers arranged for the schoolboys and girls to stage HMS Pinafore.

However, it was my time away from school when, like many teenagers I listened every night to Radio Luxembourg, early pop music and especially Lonnie Donegan. It was a few years later when the British pop scene took hold and I got into the music of Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd and The Pirates and so on. It was round this time when I was introduced to country music and enjoyed the early recordings of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens.

After leaving school what was your first job ? As my father had been at sea for most of his early life I thought it might be a good idea to try to follow in his footsteps. My father agreed but my mother said an abrupt ‘No!’ she said I’d be better off serving an apprenticeship. So it was off to Richardsons and Westgarth to serve my time as a turner.

Also round this time I persuaded my mother to buy me a guitar. I bought a copy of Bert Weedon’s tutor book Play In A Day and a friend of mine also gave me lessons. My time in the factory also introduced me to another musician, Alan Lindridge. He used to laugh at me singing songs by Lonnie Donegan. The laughter turned to friendship and both me and my neighbour, Billy Crallan, joined up with Alan in his pop group The Trakkers about 1959/60.

You ran Joe Brown’s Fan Club, how did that come about ? When I was about 18 I was a member of Joe’s Fan Club and was told that the young lady who ran the club was about to give it up to go and train as a nurse. The idea of running Joe’s fan club appealed to me so I tried to arrange a meeting with him at a theatre in Sunderland. Thankfully, the management passed on my request and I managed to meet up with him after the show.

Coincidentally, I met Billy Fury in the hotel car park who took me into a reception area when he called Joe to come down to meet me. After some discussion Joe said he’d like me to run the fan club and I had to write to his manager in London about our conversation. After the paperwork was completed the Official Joe Brown Fan Club was run by me from my mother’s house in Dyke Street, West Hartlepool.

What were your duties in running the fan club ? When Joe had his number one hit with A Picture of You in 1962 the number of fan letters he was receiving went from just a couple of dozen a week to hundreds! I was a busy young man at this time – playing with The Trakkers, working in the factory and running Joe’s fan club. This was long before the days of computers – so all fan mail replies had to be written on a typewriter. I couldn’t do it all so I telephoned Joe and said I can’t continue. He said ‘Then pack it in’ I said I was sorry it had come to this and he said ‘No, you don’t understand, I mean pack your job in and come and work for me in London!’ I didn’t think twice, so at the tender age of 19, I did as he said and moved to London and spent four happy years with him down there from ‘62 until ‘66.

On my arrival in London I was fortunate enough to be staying with Joe’s mother in Wanstead and, after six or seven months, things were about to change again. Joe called round one day and said ‘I want you to pack it in!’ I thought what have I done wrong. ‘I’m sorry’ I said. He then replied ‘No, get someone else to run the fan club because I want you on the road with me!’  So I became his road manager – even though I couldn’t drive at the time – and I travelled all over the country with him doing shows with Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd and others. I even met The Beatles and Roy Orbison at The Empire Pool, Wembley in March 1963.

Eventually Joe stopped touring as he went into the West End to appear in a musical called Charley Girl with Dame Anna Neagle. I was beginning to get a little bored and decided to find another job and say my goodbye’s to Joe which I did in October ‘66 and moved back home to Hartlepool. For the next few years I did some freelance work as a journalist writing a country music column in Hartlepool Mail as ‘Country Boy’ and following motor sport at Croft, near Darlington, and reporting on that too.

How did you get involved in radio Stan ? In 1970 I read in my local paper that a BBC radio station was planned for Teesside. With my musical background I applied for a job and was fortunate enough to be given a position as a technical operator at BBC Radio Teesside in September 1970.

The radio station went on air for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1970 and because of my interest in country music, the management allowed me to present a programme called ‘Country Time’ which was broadcast for 25 minutes. This proved to be popular and in February ‘71 they increased the programme running time from 45 minutes. Then in 1972 it went to an hour before eventually running live for two hours every Sunday afternoon. The programme ran for 21 years!

Looking back how would you sum up your career in radio ? I had 23 very enjoyable years at the BBC, starting as it was as BBC Radio Teesside, becoming BBC Radio Cleveland in 1974 and now BBC Tees. Needless to say I was a very happy man and they invited me back in April 2011 to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of local radio on Teesside when I presented another two hour show on Easter Sunday!

To contact Stan check his official website: 

www.stanlaundon.com 

 Interview by Gary Alikivi  February 2020.

 

The Story of the Geordie Pantsman

I was watching TV one night and saw this guy on Rude Tube setting a world record for putting on the most t-shirts and thought ’I could do something like that’said Whitburn resident Gary Craig. However, t-shirts seemed boring and potentially expensive so I came up with the idea of underpants and an alter ego ‘Geordie Pantsman’. Not to be confused with the Australian slang, Gary explains…At school I was always second best at sport, the unused substitute on the football team standing in the freezing cold for two hours. At the age of 51 I decided I wanted to be number 1 at something.

I investigated whether there was a world record for putting on the most pants, but couldn’t find one. Great I thought, I’ll just bang on 50 pairs or so, and establish a new Guinness record with ease. But in 2009 I was informed that there was a record of someone putting on 170 pairs of underpants so I set out to put on 190.

What happened when you contacted Guinness ? The Guinness rules were actually quite strict. You had to wear ‘y’ fronts, not boxer shorts, you had to do it in a relatively public place, film and photograph it, and obtain witness statements otherwise you had to pay thousands of pounds to have a Guinness adjudicator present.

I began buying the cheapest underpants available in a variety of sizes including the biggest pants available in the UK  – 60 inch waist, and I decided to attempt the record on April Fools Day 2010 so no one would know if it was a joke or not.

I had a friend with a t-shirt printing company who allowed me to get a name, a photo, or a message printed on the pants so basically sold advertising space on my backside. Encouraging friends, family, and local business people to sponsor me, with the highest amounts earning a space on the biggest, record breaking pants.

In the end I raised £3000 which was split between two local charities – Cancer Connections and a drop in centre for the unemployed and underprivileged in South Tyneside.

Did you rehearse your record attempt ? Yes but in truth, practise went very badly. I found that I didn’t have enough big pants. I wasn’t that slim and it became painful trying to squeeze into large numbers of underpants. My wife got the job of arranging pants in the correct order and would sit for ages putting pants over her knees ready to slip on.

 

Where did you hold the event ? I agreed to attempt the record in Dusk Nightclub, South Shields with around 150 friends and family as witnesses – there was no turning back. The way it works with Guinness is that there may be other people attempting the record elsewhere in the world so you get updated on any new record that has been set shortly before your attempt.

Literally a week before my attempt I was informed that a new record had just been set in Australia and I was now going to need to beat 190 pairs! I only had 190 pairs of pants in total and it was too late to order any of the really big ones so I had to go out and buy whatever I could.

April 1st came around very quickly. Dusk opened the bar early and DJ Wayne whipped the crowd into a frenzy. He thought it would be fun for me to come on to the tune Eye of the Tiger in true ‘Rocky’ style. Once the attempt started everyone had to count the pairs as I put them on with the DJ announcing who was sponsoring each pair. There was fantastic support in the room as I reached 211 pairs – every pair of underpants I owned!

There was a nervous wait over many weeks whilst all the evidence was collected, submitted to Guinness and scrutinised. Finally I received the e-mail I was waiting for – a Guinness world record and I was finally number 1 at something.

How long did you hold the record ? In truth it didn’t even last long enough to make that year’s Guinness Records book. Within a few months an American woman had taken the record to 249. I had a problem with that as she was stick thin and appeared to have used woman’s knickers which don’t have the same thickness or elastication, but you can’t really call for a steward’s enquiry with Guinness.

In any case I had other distractions. My film crew had a few TV connections and next thing I knew footage of the record was being used as a question on Have I Got News For You! More importantly for me, I was contacted by Rude Tube and appeared on the Ultimate Champions top 50 internet clips of the year, and the Rude Tube film crew came to my house to do a special feature for the Rude Tube Xmas DVD.

In 2011 I was approached by Britain’s Got Talent production team and devised a comedy routine that involved plastering the judges faces over my crouch! The audition was so funny the cameraman couldn’t keep the camera still for laughing. I appeared in front of the judges at that time – Amanda Holden, Michael McIntyre, and David Hasselhoff. I was buzzed off, but they filmed the Geordie Pantsman for hours backstage.

Without any prior notice they gave my details to The Sun newspaper and the Geordie Pantsman became the main feature of a 2 page spread billed as potentially the craziest person ever to appear on BGT! I was advertised for a few seconds in trailers for the show, but Geordie Pantsman ended up ‘on the cutting room floor’! With my new back story further TV opportunities followed.

I appeared on Britains Best Dish, presenting Mary Nightingale with a pair of underpants bearing the BBD logo, and on a little known program called The Great British Taste Tour where I won £1000, the only money I ever got from my ‘career’ as the Pantsman.

The Media seemed to have caught the Pantsman bug….I’m convinced that had I appeared on BGT as promised I would have become world famous. In 2012 I was asked to appear on a world records based show for NIPPON TV in Japan. Their programs typically have around 20,000,000 viewers so I knew that world domination was again beckoning Geordie Pantsman, only for it to be called off days before I was due to be flown out for filming.

Similar situations arose for a number of new and existing TV shows including Russell Howards Good News where I was lined up to appear then discarded at the last minute like a pair of used pants!

Was that the end for Pantsman ? No I decided to give the record one last go. I was going to smash it – set a record that would be almost impossible to beat and get it out of my system once and for all! I contacted Guinness again and through a friend was given permission to make another attempt at the record in the Great North Run Finishers Marquee in front of 1000+ people. I got a personal trainer to help lose weight and I bought the largest pants available in such large quantities that the manufacturers were virtually giving them to me.

Guinness had made the rules even more complicated – they basically expected you to get the Local Mayor to witness your attempt, with an independent ‘expert’ witness. How do you find an expert at putting on underpants ? I ended up using an Accountant who was taking part in the Great North Run. This record attempt was pure craziness!

In the marquee we had a small stage roped off and as the tent started to fill up I had to wait to see whether my independent adjudicator was going to finish the run. He duly arrived while local band The Gaslighters and that bloke off Emmerdale who also sang in a band kept the crowd entertained. They would stop at regular intervals to let the crowd know how I was doing. But a Gazette reporter interrupted the cameraman when he was supposed to be counting the pants, one or two pairs got twisted and had to come off then be put back on again so by the time I’d finished no one knew how many pants I’d put on.

I always tried to pull up as many of the underpants as possible until they became impossible to reach, at which point my wife would help to pull them past my knees. In bending over some slipped down and I ended looking like a Subbuteo player.

I had to pile the slightly warm, sweaty pants in a corner for my accountant friend to count and finally came up with the official figure of 302. I submitted the usual evidence to Guinness in full confidence that I had totally smashed the world record.

Weeks later I received my reply. Even though there was no rule about how far you had to pull the pants up Guinness had decided that I hadn’t met ‘the spirit of the record’ as I hadn’t pulled the pants up far enough. To say I was gutted was an understatement – the pants were just under my knees, well clear of the floor, and there’s a limit to how far up they can go.

Did you appeal against the decision ? I thought about an appeal, but Guinness are a law to themselves. In the end I decided to be happy in the knowledge that I had put on more pairs of underpants than anyone else on the planet. Even though the original record was set in 2010 people still bring it up when I meet them and the TV Companies have kept my details as they know I’m game for a laugh.

In 2017 I appeared on the one and only series of Cannonball, a Saturday evening ITV show hosted by ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff. I made the final, even though I didn’t win I became the hero of my episode and star of Cannonball’s compilation show in December that year.

What next for Geordie Pantsman ? Who knows? I still have the pants. I’d love to take ‘Geordie’ to the Edinburgh Fringe or somewhere just as silly. Never say never.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

TRADING PLACES – 250 years of South Shields Market

In September 2018 I made a short documentary about South Shields market with former Shields Gazette award winning journalist Janis Blower. Janis has a wide knowledge of local history through producing the Cookson Country feature in The Shields Gazette and working on the books ‘Aall T’githor Like Folk O’ Shields’. An interview with Janis talking about her work featured in the blog ‘Have You Heard the News’  (27th January 2020).

We had previously worked together in 2016 on a film about South Shields Photographer and Historian Amy Flagg. Janis added the voice of Amy in the short film ‘Westoe Rose’. Included here is the full script that Janis wrote about the 250 year old South Shields market, a link to the film is at the end.

Trading Places

Author Joseph Conrad is said to have refreshed himself in its ample public houses on his voyage from life before the mast to The Heart of Darkness. It has rung to the strident tones of politics and religion. Marked the coronations and deaths of monarchs; been a centre of commerce and conviviality. A public forum one day, a fairground the next. War almost did for it. Peace would prove no less transformative.

Over the 250 years of its existence, the fortunes of South Shields’s historic Market Place have fluctuated with those of the wider town. Both have had to adjust to social and economic change. Within the lifetime of many townsfolk, that has included the decline of the market itself.

The rise of the discount retailer has seen a corresponding fall in the numbers of bargain hunters. Gone too is the tradition for Shields folk to put on their glad rags on a Saturday afternoon and go ‘down-street,’ to stroll up one side of King Street to the Market, and down the other.

For a post-war generation, this was the era of stalls piled high with crockery, pans and nylons – to be sifted through to find a matching pair, of reconditioned boiler suits and other stalls selling goldfish and rabbits. In winter the lamps would flare in the chilly dusk. By then, the market was no longer open until 10 o’ clock at night, as it had been before the war when, the later the hour, the more the cost of Sunday’s joint fell.

In those days visitors would also have found Harry Randall’s toffee stand where homemade toffee, with a free bag of horehound candy, could be bought for sixpence. Also the stall piled high with assorted tripe into which the stall holder would shove his hands, shouting: “Come on, get amongst it!”

And there was the painless dentist, who guaranteed to pull a tooth with his finger and thumb for a shilling: This was the market as part-public service, part-spectacle, like the stocks that a century earlier had once stood opposite St Hilda’s Church. Or the fairs that would visit, in spring and autumn, with their prancing horses and shuggy boat rides or, likewise, the travelling  menageries that would also descend at regular intervals.

The Friday flea market has in recent years returned the square to aspects of what it was then, at least commercially, though the old clothes stalls are no longer confined to the side nearest the church. South Shields-born poet James Kirkup immortalised these in a poem, writing:  “The old jackets rub shoulders on the rack of life and death, the crumpled trousers all undone swing in a driving wind, a boneless abandon, soft-shoe shuffle in the sands of time. Laid away, the painter’s dungarees are dingy white, stained with forgotten schemes for houses decorated out of sight…”

Gone, though, is the fresh fish market: also the groups of men who, hands cupped round their Woodbines or Capstan Full Strength, would gather around the Old Town Hall in the hope of being tapped for work on the river.

An old Shieldsman, writing of his Victorian childhood, remembered each trade having it’s own beat. “While the Church side was common to most parties”. Men milled in this way, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers, until as late as the 1960s, before the skyline increasingly ceased to be criss-crossed by cranes.

The Market Place pulsed with life, not only in the numerous pubs – of which there were at least six before the First World War and as many again in the surrounding streets – but also in the shops. Marks and Spencer started out in the town with a Penny Bazaar here. Barbour’s with a shop on the west side of the square, specialised in weatherproof clothes that would evolve into the garb of aristrocats. Crofton’s, the legendary department store on the corner of King Street, would survive one disastrous fire early in it’s existence but not a second.

That catastrophe was visited one autumn night in 1941 when the town suffered the biggest air raid of the war. In a matter of hours two sides of the square had been reduced to smoking ruins. The then-170-year-old Town Hall – miraculously stood firm, albeit not undamaged. The ‘Old Cross,’ as it was affectionately known was left looking out over a sea of devastation.

Over the next 20 years, new buildings would grow-up around it. There would be no attempt to reconstruct a square which had once been likened to the market place at Bruges. Post-war modernity won the day, in keeping with a town which, under Borough Engineer John Reid, was sweeping away much of its Victorian housing and redrawing its commercial heart.

Concrete took the place of brick, with new pubs going up on the site of the old and the building of a new tax office, Wouldhave House, with shops adjacent. Small thoroughfares which had run in and out of the square for much of its existence, like Thrift Street and little West Street, disappeared. East Street and Union Alley, became backwaters.

Today the square continues to evolve. Words remain its currency, – not those of the fairground barker, or the radical anymore, but as the home of the town’s main library, housed within an award winning building dedicated to writing and creativity.

The Market Place own story, meanwhile, continues to unfold….

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

ACTING IS A TOUGH BUSINESS – in conversation with author & actor Steve Wraith

My ambition is to play a villain in Coronation Street, I want to be walking in Newcastle city centre where a granny with a purple rinse comes up to me and hits us with her handbag cos I’ve killed her favourite character.  Some people say to me why not be a Bond villain ? But I can’t see there being a Geordie Bond villain can you’.laughs Steve as we sat down for a chat in The Centurion bar in Newcastle Central Station.

Do you think people watching is a great tool for actors ? Yes that’s how you get the best out of your characterisations is by watching other people.  When I wasn’t acting I was working with the general public, we ran a Post Office and I’ve worked as a bouncer on the doors of nightclubs. I’ve seen the best and worst of people from your solicitor who can’t handle his drink to your charver who can’t get in cos he’s got tracksuit bottoms on. I’ve met and talked to all the major criminals, the Kray Twins in prison, the train robbers, all the hard men up here in Newcastle. So I’ve got a fair knowledge about those people and as an actor I am one of the few who love being typecast. I’ve got two agents, Sam Claypole in Darlington and in London, Shirley Lewis, both of them laugh when I get cast but I’m happy to play a gangster. Can you really see me where I’m the vicar or the loving dad ? (laughs).

You are involved in a number of films, The Krays, To Be Someone, The Middle Men, where are they at ? They’re all at different stages, I’m involved in The Sayers project in Newcastle which is great because I wrote the book Tried and Tested at the Highest Level. An autobiography of Stephen Sayers a former criminal in the West End of Newcastle, he and his two brothers Michael and John became quite notorious. The book has done fantastically well and the next step is try and get a film made but we didn’t expect it to come as quickly. We were focusing on doing another book, maybe a documentary but then we were approached by Garry Fraser from Edinburgh. He picked up a copy of the book from a friend of his who is in Stephens former line of business shall we say. He read the book in two days, loved it, so we met up.

I had done research on Garry’s background and found he had a degree of success with getting work from book to screen, he had also won 2 BAFTA’s, he didn’t mention that when we first sat down and talked. One of his BAFTA’s was for a documentary he had made basically about his hard upbringing in the housing schemes of Edinburgh, getting into drugs, becoming a drug dealer then ultimately sent to prison. In Everybody’s Child he revisited places that were very painful to him, hence it won an award in Best Documentary category. He caught interest from author Irvine Welsh, he introduced him to Danny Boyle who involved him in Trainspotting 2. Also the BBC have just commissioned a short series that he has written called The Grey Area, so he’s gradually turned his life around in the last 6 or 7 years making short films and perfecting a particular genre.

With all this background and living the life and most importantly understanding it, we were interested in getting him on board with Stephens film so it was great news that he liked the book and wanted to get involved.

Over the last 12 months we have met and got on well, another good thing that came from meeting up was he asked if I was interested in working behind the camera. Now my main focus is being an actor and I’ve got a little experience of production when I worked on the Freddie Foreman documentary for Salon Pictures, so I said yeah anything to learn from that side of the camera will be beneficial.

How did the film come together ? We held open auditions at The Tyneside Irish Club in Newcastle where 130 people turned up in this big concert room. Garry set up a few scenes, a kitchen over here, a police interview there, there was a bar and we roughly done about 3-4 hours worth of improvisation. A unique way of doing it, improv is not unique but done on a big scale was, and it worked. He got it down to 25 people of which I was one, we got a call back with some scripts and I was cast as Stephen Sayers. I thought I was going to play the younger brother Michael but Garry saw something and asked me to play the lead role. I’ve known Stephen 20 years so it was an honour to be asked.

Do you feel any pressure to get it right ? I don’t feel pressure from Stephen that comes from myself, always wanting to learn the craft. I’ve just come off the back of the new Quadrophenia film To Be Someone which comes out this year. Ray Burdis was directing and I was playing a villain alongside my friend from Glasgow, Scott Peden. He was doing things on set which I loved, really playing with his villain character putting things in, taking stuff out, I learnt so much and I told him. Some things I took into the Sayers rehearsals with Garry and he said ‘Great, you made it real’.

Some writers are very precious about their words in the script….I have worked on things where that has been the case and it has to be said because it leads to the next scene or pops up 6 scenes later so I can see why people work like that. With this, Garry tends to work with non-actors, his BBC series The Grey Area includes mostly reformed drug addicts, some years ago I watched and really liked a film called  ‘Shooters’ where bouncers played bouncers, drug dealers played drug dealers you know like that, reaching for realism.

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Steve with Melly Barnes and Alfie Dobson playing the Sayers brothers.

What can we expect in the film ? Stephen is a humorous character so there is room for Northern humour in there but when you read the book it’s very graphic as regards the trauma he suffered as a child, his hard upbringing and schooling in criminal ways.  The film is a journey from Stephens early life where his Dad was a heavy drinker, had a day job and being a criminal. All fascinating stories but there is humour in there it’s not like the films The Rise of the Footsoldier, I acted in the third film of the franchise working with Shaun Ryder (The Happy Mondays). That’s just about beating people up really but Garry’s film comes at the story from a different angle. The aim is not to glorify criminality it doesn’t make Stephen a hero.

When we received feedback from the book people felt sorry for Stephen, especially women who wanted to mother him. Some people will detest it because he was a criminal, but it doesn’t shy away from telling his story, his start in life and what he decided to do. I’d love to do the wider story of 120 years of the Sayers family in Newcastle. It’s like Catherine Cookson meets the Goodfellas, if the film was picked up it would be like Peaky Blinders in Newcastle.

You talk about humour being in the book…. Yeah one time the Mam got a tip off that the police were coming round to the house, well the kids were well trained in what they had to do. Run around the house looking for stuff and get rid of anything that would incriminate their Dad. Well this one day they found a suitcase and their mam told them to hide it outside. They buried it underneath a loose tombstone in Elswick Cemetery just across the way from their home. Michael, Stephen and John hid with the suitcase and looked over to the house where they saw police leave empty handed. They looked in the suitcase and seen it absolutely stacked with cash (laughs).

Another story is about the time Stephen would be hanging outside the pub waiting for his Dad, there was always a woman there called Big Jean.  She would chat blokes up in the pub,  when they were half cut get them outside and bash them over the head with her handbag, then rob them and off she’d go. Turns out she had a big brick in it (laughs). There is little stories like that and depending on budget those scenes would be great to see in the film.

Lately I’ve watched the Italian crime drama Gomorrah and the addition of a great soundtrack help lift the story on screen. Is that something you’re looking to do ? We’d love to be able to use music from the times we’re telling the story in, but budget restraints don’t make that possible. There has already been North East based musicians asking about the project and putting themselves forward, we’d love to use them if it fits the text. The aim is to showcase North East talent and we’re really excited about the whole thing. You can see the stories being dramatized and it’s exciting for me cos the stories can be put together on screen with the music and it could do the North East proud.

What next Steve ? We’re filming a trailer for the Sayers film in March and I’m going down to London soon where I’ve been cast in the new Krays film, then working on a second draft of the new Freddie Foreman script which is close to my heart as I am very good friends with him.

To buy the book ‘Tried and Tested at the Highest Level’ go to WWW.THESAYERS.CO.UK

Part two of this interview will be posted soon.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

 

 

 

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

A journalist for 44 years Janis’ first and only job was at The Shields Gazette… I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to do but the only subject I was any good at in school was English and History, so it was always going to have to be something to do with writing of some sort. My brother in law John had been a reporter at the Gazette and my sister Pam worked on the front counter reception, that’s how they met. When I left school I wrote to the editor at the Shields Gazette, Jim Sinton, asking for a job, nowadays you would need a Media degree from University but I just sent the letter in.

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

What was the job of a journalist then ? I spent a lot of time covering court cases, council meetings, area health meetings that sort of thing. Then if you were covering a story where somebody had done something or something awful had happened to them you would go out with a photographer, interview them, take some photographs, get back to the office and write your story up. Sometimes you would get the story over a telephone interview but I liked going out and seeing people because it was the only way of getting the feel of the story plus you picked up other things as well.

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

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

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

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

Years ago The Shields Gazette on a Monday would have a celebratory page of wedding pictures …Yes there was always certain jobs that you did before the end of the week, one was the Agoes which was snippets of what happened 25 or 50 years ago that went in to the paper and the other was the wedding reports. People would come into the office and pick up a form that had to be filled in with the details of the bride and groom, their parents, what they did for a living, what the bride and bridesmaids would be wearing, anything special about it and name of the church. You wrote the report from that, then the photographer would go take the picture on the Saturday. You would see them married up together on the Monday. There was a kudos of having it in the Gazette. Do people realize now just how valued the Gazette was, you had achieved something if you were in the paper.

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

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

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

Can you remember any stories or photographs that caught your attention, that stood out ?  I think what I was struck by most and this had come out of Cookson in a way was how hard people’s lives had been. I did a bit about guys gathering sea coal, you had all this coal that was washed from out of the ground seams and spilled off ships, and men would go and gather it. I can still remember the tidal edge along the beach down there was black with all the coal washed up on the beach. I wasn’t aware how poor parts of Shields had been, the riverside area especially, that was a learning curve. Also to see how much the place had changed, then how in some instances it had stayed the same. There are still huge parts of Shields that are still recognizable from 100 years ago.

This photograph (above left) is at the top of Mile End Road of the old corporation staithes where all the midnight mechanics would go round and empty the ash closets, then it was all taken to the staithes put in hoppers, taken out to sea and dumped. You could never imagine that there was something on the riverside that looked like that. God knows how old some of these buildings were. That was the biggest revelation, coming to realise that there had been this whole riverside town parts of which probably dated back a very long time, and it’s just gone. It used to be one street with pubs and shop’s along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with it’s little streets, we had that. But because it was so dilapidated and insanitary it was all cleared.

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

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

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

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

Gary Alikivi  Interview January 2020

EVERYBODY’S LIFE WAS TOUCHED BY COAL with artist Bob Olley

 

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Between 2009 and 2016 I made over 20 films. ‘Vanished’ was a documentary about the lost industry of coal, shipyards and railways made in 2012. Also featured was the lost village of Marsden, once situated on the cliff top near Souter Lighthouse and Whitburn pit. (pic above courtesy of Marsden Banner Group). This extract is taken from an interview featured in the film with former miner now Artist, Bob Olley….

Well I worked at Whitburn Colliery from 1957 till the colliery closed in ’68. Whitburn was a wet pit mostly and I was working in the east yard seam 3 miles out under the North Sea. It took us three quarters of an hour to get in and three quarters of an hour to get out. I think it’s because it’s such an adverse industry, danger, and whatever else, a sense of humour developed.

When the colliery closed it was the push I needed to get out. When I first went into the artistic side of my life the stuff I did was very dour, mostly pen and ink work. Then I moved away from coal mining for about 15 years then suddenly I got this urge to go back to the subject and this was the type of thing I was doing (points to picture next to him).

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Up to about 15 years ago I would say most people in the North East their lives was influenced by the coal industry. The amount of people that were involved with the transportation of coal, the winning of the coal, the processing of the coal, everybody’s life was touched by coal.

Gary Alikivi   January 2020.

SMOULT THE BOLT

In 2006 the idea was to make a number of short documentaries in South Shields featuring residents of the town and their hobbies, interests or passion. The first was Colin Smoult, this was his story and a link to the 4 minute film is at the end. 

South Shields has always been a rock town and even when music has faded and past like the indie culture of the late ‘80s, the big dance boom of the ‘90s then you’ve still got the rock scene. We might be gettin’ older, greyer, fatter but I think a lot of people in this town will always have a place in their heart for rock music. We’ve always had people from this town that’s been so fanatical for the bands that they have followed. I’ve grown up with many of them from my late teens onwards and some of them remain just as passionate about their music now as they did over 25 years ago.

My name’s Colin Smoult I’m 42 years old and I live in a town where I was born, South Shields. A small seaside town 10 miles east of Newcastle. My occupation is a shopkeeper, it’s essentially what people used to refer to as a head shop. I sell things like pipes and bongs which 20 years ago might have been seen as very risqué. But this day and age it’s all fairly acceptable. It’s only a tiny shop with a minimum amount of trade but I’m me own boss and if it pays the bills I’m quite happy. That allows me plenty of time to pursue my other hobbies and interests – my main one is local live music.

I’ve been the singer and guitarist in a band called Shovelmouth for the past 11 years now and we play various gigs in pubs scattered right across the region. The songs are all rock cover versions but the pub rock scene is huge in the North East of England. On a Friday and Saturday night there are probably 100 pubs and more putting on live entertainment featuring full on rock bands.

South Shields alone has half a dozen pubs that put on live music and the largest of these is called The Office. Not only does my band get to play there but I am responsible for booking the acts every weekend. The acts are normally small local bands playing a variety of covers but now and then we put on special events that feature tribute bands, some of these are from out the area.

I’m a rocker at heart but I find there is a lot of people who love this kind of music so I book the bands that people want to see the most. I’m pretty passionate about live music and only book the very best from the talent that we have.

Some people may see it as a bit sad and may view it as a bunch of middle aged folkies trying to re-live their youth but nostalgia is a big booming industry and if people want to see songs from their youth played live in their local pub – then who am I to deny them. Whether I’m the bloke singing the songs or the man who books the bands I’m content to know I’m doing my bit to allow people to have a good time after a long week at work.

I’m also involved with a website called Riffs which pushes and promotes local bands, and apart from news pages and gig guides I also post up my own reviews of the many bands that I get to see here. So I suppose my hobby is full time because as well as being directly involved every weekend, during the week I am always writing things up and arranging things for the venue and my own band.

I like to keep in touch with lots of groups out there and there’s quite a lot of time spent gob shyting with people on the internet as well. Don’t get us wrong I get a big buzz out of being on stage and entertaining people, but if you’ve got any band up there on stage with a superb crowd watching them, for me the atmosphere in the room is just as enjoyable.

The standard of musicianship on the local circuit is extremely high and is way beyond what people would term as pub bands in other parts of the country. The old club scene has become a lot more pop orientated in the last 20 years and a lot of the rock players that used to play that circuit have now moved into the pubs instead. So the end result is that we have some amazing musicians kicking around and most of the bands that you get to see are free admission too.

So for a lot of people aged in their ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s watching a live band on a Saturday night is a very cheap way to have a fantastic night out. If I’m not playing with my own band then I’m here at The Office watching them instead. Either way for me every weekend is dominated by my love for live music. I got tons of pride in what I do. But for me there’s only one true satisfaction and that’s putting a smile on people’s faces.

If I can be involved in any way with live music that others gain a lot of pleasure from I get immense satisfaction from doing that. I suppose as I get older I won’t be able to bounce around on stage in the same way, then eventually there will come a time when I’ll have to retire from live performances, but I’ll always stay involved with the local band scene even if I have to be brought in on a wheelchair.

I’ve jokingly said that when I die I want my ashes scattered under the stage of The Office. But honestly it’s as good a place as any and that way I’ll always be close to what I love.

 

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

BLACK CANDLE – new album by UK darkwave band Psykobilly

Psykobilly is a solo project by Bill Newton, ex-guitarist and songwriter from early 80’s North East new wave band Silent Scream who featured in November 2019 blog……The debut album, Black Candle, has taken a year to write, record, produce and master. I’m pretty pleased with how the album has turned out Newton continued….The album’s overall sound has been described as ‘darkwave’, although there is a mix of pop, rock, ballads and synth-driven songs. Listeners have already made comparisons with Nick Cave, The Cure, Scott Walker and Morrissey…Obviously, I’m honoured and pretty amazed to even be mentioned in the same breath as such legends and heroes of mine.

Who were the other musicians that you worked with on the album ? I am fortunate to have talented friends. Four of the songs were recorded with Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard (The Alarm, Archive) at his Sunshine Corner Recording Studios in Hampshire. He drums, plays bass, sings and produces. We had Pete Kirby on keyboards and piano and James Walsh who sings on two songs. The other 60% of the album is essentially me at home with my MacBook and Logic Pro X recording software, my Auden Chester acoustic and Yamaha SG2000 guitars.

Is there a story behind the album ‘Black Candle’ ? The album’s title is metaphorical although essentially refers to the dark but illuminating nature of the songs. They’re all personal, I always ask people to look beyond some of the technical shortcomings and focus on the honesty and passion in the music and lyrics.

Are you looking to play the album live ? It’s unlikely you’ll see me perform live as the songs are pretty complex arrangements. They can all be stripped back and played acoustically but to get near the sound of the album I’d need two or three guitars, piano, keyboards, strings, backing vocals and maybe a choir of angels! Give a listen to the last track on the album, Remains.

One of the sweetest things that has happened was when a friend of mine played the song Remains at one of his gigs, a very emotional lady approached him and asked if she could use the song at her mum’s funeral as she felt a personal connection with it.

Are there any plans in the pipeline for Psykobilly ? It’s just so hard to make any break through these days. It’s pretty rare that small, independent artists get any mainstream recognition, and there is very little financial reward. My first single Leave It All Behind has been streamed 1500 times around the world in the four months since it was released and the official video has been watched over 2000 times on YouTube but I’ve only made £5 from this ! I’m not complaining though and prefer artistic praise over money anyway.

Ideally, I would like to write for other people. I’m not in any way arrogant about any ability I might have, and would describe myself as humble and self-deprecating. However, I do think that the songs are strong enough to be performed by more established and talented artists who could reach a wider audience. I can always live in hope that a small label might offer to release my music or that Miley Cyrus comes calling!

Black Candle is available now on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes and all other major digital platforms.

https://psykobilly.bandcamp.com/album/black-candle

https://open.spotify.com/album/1I0IJmxNhIllIhjAnDBwoq?si=ndh570p8QNuYpknA07yuNQ

https://music.apple.com/gb/album/black-candle/1494508478

Gary Alikivi  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 year 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. 10 year later he had two shops trading as a grocer and confectioner out of 17 & 19 Eldon Street. 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 5 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 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 around 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.