CRACK ON with North East comedian Gavin Webster

The first comic I heard that brought on huge belly laughs was Richard Pryor when I watched the video of his 1979 live show from Long Beach, California. I mentioned this to Gavin when I met him in Newcastle’s Centurion bar.

I met his daughter after a show for multiple sclerosis, that’s what he died of. I asked her about his films and other work, and yes she was a nice woman. She does all the legacy stuff like Keith Thompson does for Bobby Thompson – there’s always one child who keeps it going with all the memorabilia.

Richard Pryor.

SCHOOLS OUT

When I was at school I was quite withdrawn, sometimes I’d open up but only to people I knew well. I wasn’t the class clown. My family are probably on the spectrum of autism, back in the day you were called eccentrics. My mother was involved in amateur dramatics and sang in choirs in Blaydon where I was brought up during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s living on a council estate you went to these types of societies in working class areas. It was post war coming out of austerity and getting some hobbies to colour your life. People were too busy with their different clubs to have a popular uprising or revolution like in Russia. There was plenty sporting clubs, and things like the Welsh speaking society.

Here we are next to the Lit and Phil in Newcastle (Literary & Philosophical Society) and it’s not full of hoity toitys, our obsession to be part of clubs and getting together stops us from taking up arms.

GENERATIONS

Stand up is the loneliest job – you’re on stage with just a microphone, and when I started people were shouting ‘Tell us a joke’ but you don’t really get that now and nobody says ‘I can’t understand these comedians now, they don’t tell jokes anymore, it’s all stories’. That’s all changed, we’ve moved on.

We’re both old enough to know a generation of people before popular music. They weren’t appalled by rap or punk, they were shocked by rock n roll. But where’s the rebellious phase now ? The Sex Pistols are over 65 – the games up.

CRACK ON

When I stumbled into this in the early ‘90s it was called Alternative Comedy so I missed out the working men’s club circuit. A friend of mine, Les Stewart took me to The Cumberland Arms in Byker in 1992 on a night called The Crack club. Tyne Tees TV were filming a documentary there. Ross Noble was doing one of his first gigs, Tony Mendoza and a few others were on. At the end of the night Les said ‘Right we’re doing this next month as a double act’.

I wasn’t sure at all but he gave me all the straight man lines to his funnies. I thought it was terrible. We were called Scarborough and Thick, like Morecambe and Wise. We ended up doing it a few times, I wasn’t keen. But we ended up doing our own night at The Barley Mow in Gateshead and I had my own 5 minutes. There was a buzz for the whole scene.

A year later Les drifted out and I reverted back to my own name and done a few more shows. It was a lot of North East gigs but you’d meet other acts from Manchester, Glasgow or Cardiff who’d pass on numbers of promoters for different venues around the country. There’d be a few opportunities and they’d lead to ringing up clubs in London. Really it was much more innocent then cos there was only 40 comics in the whole country.

ACROSS THE BORDER

When I first went to London people called you Northern, but sometimes we can be arrogant thinking everybody should know where Geordies come from. But they see you as generically Northern. For a long time people thought Newcastle was in Scotland. It’s more of a distinction now with Ant and Dec on the telly.

In 1995 I done a talent show in The Guilded Balloon in Edinburgh called ‘So You Think You’re Funny’. The organiser wanted regional heats to make it more like a proper national competition. She got me in this heat by practically twisting my arm but I didn’t get through in the end, so I thought that’s it I ‘ve had a good couple of years I’m not going to be a comic now.

The winner of our heat was Johnny Vegas (Benidorm) and the overall winner was Lee Mac (Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You). I since heard that the little competition in 1995, had by 2012 over 45,000 applications. There was preliminary heats, regional heats and eventually whittled down to semi-finals in Edinburgh and the big final. So what’s happened in society for those numbers to change ? Is it just a nice career option ?

In the North East you sometimes need a few strings to your bow to work in entertainment but on TV I don’t want to see stand-up comics presenting cookery shows. I think surely that’s not what you got into this for ?

You can just have a great Edinburgh which can lead to a BBC TV show which can be down to good marketing and hype or having a bit of good luck – or bad. Some people have got the confidence, they can make it sound like they have invented something when they didn’t – history is written by the winners as they say.

It’s the ones who can capture the imagination of the British public, not necessarily the ones that are the most original. There are loads of examples in popular culture, music and art.

NEW YORK TERROR ATTACKS 2001

I think from what I remember I worked on the Wednesday (the next night) after 9/11. It was at Manchester Comedy Store and it was for a topical satire show ironically enough.

The whole show with about five of us on the bill wasn’t so much a humorous take on the week’s news like it was every week previous for the past two years, rather it was a fairly sombre night wondering whether the world as we knew it would be intact by next week.

It was more surreal than very sad but it did have a dark cloud hanging over it and was like no other gig I’ve done before or since.

SHOW MUST GO ON

I’ve got a show at the Tyne Theatre in November, I’ve done a few for them before in the venue. I’m working on it now, nothings finalised for it, could be great – or a disaster. I’m working on new stuff and you can’t not mention what’s happened over the last 15 months it would be absurd to not talk about what’s gone on.

I’ll just talk about how its been for me you can’t pretend to get angry or tell it how it is because I’m not that type of person – you’ve just got to do your take on it.

Tickets available from Tyne Theatre & Opera House NOW for 12th November 2021.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  June 2021

THE FIXER – in conversation with former Impulse Studio and Neat Records owner David Wood

The next person to feature on this blog was owner of probably the most influential independent heavy metal record label in the 1980’s, a label that spawned Chief Headbangers Raven and Venom, who were major influences on the multi-million selling Americans, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeath.

So, what was he like? Was he the Don Arden of Tyneside? Am I to be flown out by private jet to a yacht on the French Riviera or picked up by a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce and driven off to an exclusive restaurant?

Sadly no, it was just a misty September morning when I nipped on a ferry, crossed the River Tyne and taken to a café in North Tyneside by a man wearing a fez.

What or who inspired you to start Impulse Studio ?

When I left school, I ended up as a Park Keeper in Wallsend Park then found a half decent job as a Technical Assistant at Proctor and Gamble. I was there for three years, it was well paid at £11 a week so I had a few quid to go out on a Friday night with me mates, but I couldn’t see myself staying there.

For a 21st birthday present off my parents I was given a ticket to go to America on the Queen Mary.

While sightseeing in New York I came across this recording studio called Talent Masters. I went in and got talking to a guy who worked there called Chris Huston. I found out he used to be guitarist in The Undertakers from Liverpool. They had a hit record, but he left the UK to be a tape technician in the studio.

I’d always liked music, my instrument is the piano while not much of a player but was really interested in this studio.

So, when I returned home on the Queen Elizabeth ship, I began to play around with a bit of sound recording. At that time a teenager’s club was open in The Borough Theatre in Wallsend called The Manhole. This was around 1966 and people were listening to The Beatles and locally The Animals had made their name.

It was a great meeting place was The Manhole, graphics painted on the walls, flower power you know, and a lot of good bands played there.

That’s where I really got interested in the music scene. There was a similar place in Tynemouth called The Cave which was underneath The Gate of India Restaurant.

There was also a teenagers club in Beach Road, South Shields called The Cellar Club run by Stan Henry and his mother. Stan later opened The Latino and The New Cellar Club where Cream and Jimi Hendrix played.

cellaradvert

Advert for the opening of The New Cellar Club, South Shields. Taken from The Shields Gazette December 1967.

Yes, I used to go to The Cellar. I’d drive to the ferry at Howdon, get on there with my car, you could in them days, then get off at Jarrow. It was a great building I think it was in the basement of their house where Stan’s mother ran the club.

South Shields and Sunderland had their own places to run music from, it was great. I ended up doing some work for Stan, we ended up doing his sound equipment and for a lot of other people to keep the business ticking over.

In the Manhole club I met a band called The Chosen Few, and in them were Alan Hull, Alan ‘Bumper’ Brown on bass, singer was Rod Hood, guitarist I think was John Gibson and keyboards was Micky Gallagher who eventually played for The Blockheads, and he’d also played in The Animals when Alan Price left.

They were really good and had a recording contract with PYE records. They recorded down in the West End of London at Radio Luxembourg studios. They put a couple of singles out.

Going back to The Manhole Club, that just shut one day and never reopened. I don’t know why maybe someone out there knows something about that.

The Borough Theatre was built in 1906, it was a music hall at first, then a cinema, then a bingo hall. I got to know the manager and asked him for some space to run a studio.

The studio was in the dressing room and the entrance to the studio was through the old stage door. There was a little booth where the doorman would have sat, well before our time (laughs).

How did you develop the space into a recording studio ?

Literally built it up from scratch Gary, it took years to get it all done. At first we used egg boxes for sound proofing then bricked up all the windows. Anything was used for padding because we never had enough money then and at first we only had a mono then a stereo studio.

We then purchased a 4 track, then an 8 track, eventually a 24-track machine but this was done over ten or twelve years.

This was all by the 1980’s and by then we had the run of all the building and moved the studio to the top floor, which wasn’t very popular with the bands as we had no lift. Eventually Impulse Studios were on all three floors.

What bands did you record and who did you get in as sound engineer ?

One day I bumped into Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) by then The Chosen Few had split up, he was working as a nurse at St Nicholas Mental Hospital and still writing songs so I invited him down to record some. Impulse at that time recorded local bands.

We were a progressive studio and probably recorded most people in the region who sang and played at one time in their careers. Everything then was recorded onto quarter inch tape. At that time, we started to organise pressing records.

Sound engineer was Micky Sweeney, a great character, really popular with everyone. I used to do some recording as well. Micky ended up working with Lindisfarne who were born in the studio because it was there that Alan Hull got together with various members of Downtown Faction. They played together and got to know each other and it all came together.

You recorded an album with North East comedian Bobby Thompson, how did that come about ?

I knew his manager Brian Shelley and he said Bobby is doing really well around the clubs do you fancy recording him ? I thought yeah, we’ll give it a go.

So, we recorded him in Rhyope Poplars Club and Newcastle Mayfair. This was around 1978. It was around an hours recording that we put out and got Vaux breweries to sponsor it, ironically Bobby didn’t drink then and there he was on a promo poster with a pint of beer.

Soon as we put the record out it took off, they couldn’t get enough off it, straight to number one in the local charts. Every shop was selling bucket loads. It was phenomenal.

Nobody could have appreciated the way it took off like it did, he even appeared on the Wogan show. But his humour didn’t travel well, he was shy of being in other places but up here in the North East he was absolutely fantastic.

He could relate to the man in the street up here – the debt, the poverty, the wife and the war, he was incredible really.

With the label doing well, was Bobby responsible for Neat records ?

Ha ha well with the profits from Bobby the studio came on in leaps and bounds in no time at all, so yeah, we’ve got to thank him for it.

We started Neat records as an alternative to what we were doing. A couple of early singles and one by a band called Motorway which was pop, not heavy metal, then a song by Jayne McKenzie written and engineered by Steve Thompson.

Then Tygers of Pan Tang, Raven and Fist came along and suddenly we’ve got what became a New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Venom added to that and before we knew it we’ve built up a library of metal records.

Was there any rivalry between the top four North East metal bands – Fist, Raven, Venom and the Tygers ?

Ha ha yeah they probably hated each other. No, listen, musicians are very much their own people you know. I don’t blame them.

If they are the guitarist they are a ‘great guitarist’, you can’t perform in front of a dozen, hundreds, or thousands of people if you haven’t got an ego. You couldn’t stand on stage if you are a wimp, you’ve got to have something about ya – and they all do.

For Venom, first gig they played was at a church hall in Wallsend and they decided to have pyrotechnics and smoke. That all went off at the start and that’s the last we saw of the band for the whole set – they were playing behind a screen of smoke.

Did you deal with any managers or did the bands represent themselves ?

I dealt with Raven directly but some of the bands had managers. One of them was a butcher (laughs) then Venom ended up with Eric Cook who really worked hard for them. He was very enthusiastic and got a lot of things going for them.

Thing was he had no experience but nobody else did really with this New Wave of Heavy Metal, it was all new. And that is something to remember about that whole scene, they were trying to play and we were trying to market, we (Neat) were all on the same level.

We were balancing the recording, arranging tours, marketing, it was all interesting times, sort of in development, and some nightmare situations.

How did recording on the Neat label work for bands ?

We did singles at first and they were tasters trying to get some interest, get picked up by bigger labels, that sort of thing. Some of them would end up on compilation lp’s later and some of the early Neat stuff were the demos.

The first Raven album went into the national charts which was a surprise to all of us. But that was the progress we were trying to make.

How did Tygers of Pan Tang end up on MCA record label ?

MCA were interested in the Tygers first single and put it out on their label which put the Tygers in a position to sign an album deal. Through their enquiries I got to know Stuart Watson who was head of A&R so I took the whole Neat project to MCA.

They ended up recording albums by Fist and White Spirit. But MCA didn’t get their teeth into what we were doing so it all came back to us.

It could have gone further but major companies are looking for big numbers, they didn’t want to sell 5,000 albums they wanted to sell 50,000 albums. We would have been happy to sell 1,000!

If you did sell that many how would the profit be used ?

It would all go in the kitty, we wanted to progress the studio and the label – but we didn’t have any Lamborghini’s you know.

How did the label work for Raven ?

We ended up doing three albums with them and took them to America and worked with Johnny Z at Megaforce Records based in New Jersey. They did some touring over there and Neat were managing the band at the time, paying them a retainer every week.

When they came back the band had signed with the Americans. ‘Thanks for telling us’ I said, but hey that’s all in the past and we came to an agreement to release I think a live album over there.

Was that the bands natural progression to go to a bigger label ?

Yes, I suppose that’s fair comment to say that. We had gone as far as we could as basically a smaller outfit. I liked the band, I liked the idea of a three piece because it makes it easier to ship around.

A five piece band can be much more challenging to get around on tour and in the studio.

Did the label have contacts to sell records in other countries ?

We tried to get like-minded people in European countries, Holland, Italy etc, to do that but sometimes it was hard. A lot of time was spent trying to get it up and running but perhaps the label never reached it’s full potential.

We sold to local record shops in the North East but a good outlet was actually mail order.

How does it work for a band if they released a single in say 1980 and the track ends up on a compilation album years later ?

All the contracts were given over to Sanctuary and they had a section to deal with all the necessary releases.

What were Neat paying for as in terms of recording and tours ?

We would put money up for tours and we once bought a tour bus for Fist, which was a big mistake cos it got wrecked inside. Their first single was ‘Name, Rank & Serial Number’ and ‘The Wanderer’ came much later, Status Quo ended up doing that, sounding very similar.

Doing a more commercial song is a way in. Again I liked Fist and thought they had great potential, Keith Satchfield is a great singer and songwriter.

But just managing it all, controlling it all was a nightmare. There wasn’t a bottomless pit to fund it and you just try your best with the resources.

What was surprising about bands playing in the UK was there wasn’t many chances to play on the big festivals, England was a hard place to play. America and Europe was mainly where the market was. I remember Holland was a good place for the bands to go.

Neat released a lot of singles would that have put the label in a good position ?

Yes, it helped the studio, marketing etc when the next single or album come along to record and promote.

Was there a time when Neat wasn’t in a good position ?

Yes often, I remember one time a band wanted to go on tour, and it was £4,000. A lot to lay out because you don’t get it back cos the band don’t make much playing live. There was a lot of costs involved with going on the road.

When did Neat records fold ?

Jess Cox (former Tygers of Pan Tang vocalist) got involved and we set up a separate label called Neat Metal, we put a different catalogue together, started licencing from different labels – a different approach to it.

At one time we didn’t have any of the original Neat stuff on the catalogue. Eventually Sanctuary Records came in for the label and did some re-releases. A lot of independent labels have been moved around over the years.

With that I checked my watch and time was getting on so we agreed to meet up again soon where Dave will tell more stories about Impulse Studio including Cilla Black, Joan Armatrading and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

Interview by Gary Alikivi    September 2019.

TALK SHOW – in conversation with former TV director Michael Metcalf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other music shows did you direct ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were there any awkward performers on the show ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Gary Alikivi    September 2019.

PUTTIN’ ON A SHOW – in conversation with North East entertainer Helen Russell

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First time I worked with a stripper in the clubs. It was a Sunday morning. I walked into the club ‘Are ye’ the strippa or what ?’ said a bloke there. ‘I’m the what’ I replied (laughs).

The stripper walks into the dressing room with just a bag. I walked in with all my gear, microphone, speakers and stage costume. She did a five-minute act then taxi to her next gig. She did four clubs in a morning. Not bad work but I couldn’t do it. I’ll stick to singing.

A few week’s ago the blog featured stories from entertainer’s who performed in workingmen’s clubs. Ned Kelly, Jack Berry and a few more shared some great memories.

Carrying on that theme I spent time with Helen Russell at her home in South Shields. Helen hasn’t been feeling too well lately so I’m very grateful to her for taking the time to share her story….

As a kid I was an autograph hunter, all the stars like Laurence Olivier and John Mills. Great times. We weren’t a musical family but my dad could sing, he was in the Royal Navy.

You see I was born in the heart of London and when I was 15 I went into Entertainment National Service Association or otherwise known as Every Night Something Awful (laughs).

ENSA was an organisation set up in 1939 by Basil Dean to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during World War Two.

They held the auditions in the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane in London. They liked me and took me on. I toured all over the UK with ENSA. I was earning £7 per week and that was damn good money. Top act’s and names were getting £10 per week. It was a long time ago, I’m 95 now.

Where did you perform with ENSA ?

We played in the munitions factories when the workers were having their lunch breaks. We entertained in the theatres and clubs.

I sang Hey Neighbour and Sally that was a big number. I did imitations of Gracie Fields but never sang any Vera Lynn songs and I always finished my act with a tap routine.

I gave up when I got married. It was the done thing in those days. We met when I was entertaining in Belfast. Eventually we moved to England, and I got a job performing in the clubs.

The first club I played in South Shields was on Ocean Road which is long gone now.

At this time, we lived in South Frederick Street, and we had no telephone. I used to go down into the street to the telephone box and ring up the clubs to get gigs. I’d ask for the concert secretary, book the show and arrange the fee. I did that for years before the agent’s came in. Plus, we had no transport in those days.

For a show in Stanley, County Durham I’d pack my case with stage clothes, music sheets for the pianist, get the bus up from South Shields to Worswick Street in Newcastle, then carry my case across town to Marlborough Crescent bus station and go to a club in Stanley another 10 mile away. We had to be off stage and out by 10pm to get the last bus all the way back home.

A pianist joined us, he had a car. He charged us one and sixpence each for petrol. I also had to pay a babysitter seven and six a time. The first working man’s club I ever played was Windy Nook and we earned £1 each, there were seven of us.

Johnny Gaffney who wrote for The Shields Gazette, he had a great voice. No stage technique whatsoever but what a beautiful voice.

I went solo after that when agents came in and started working through the Beverly Agency. They got me lots of work around the North East and over to Carlisle a few times, lovely crowds there.

Money was coming through the clubs then, so concert chairman would only deal with agency’s. Which was great for me. No running around telephone boxes, made it much easier and as I was solo the money was much better.

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Helen second from right. in Balmbras, Newcastle.

Can you tell me about the photo above ?

Yes, that was in Balmbras old time music hall, Newcastle. I had been performing there. Bobby Thompson has played there, also Dick Urwin who was a good writer and great comedian.

You had to put him on in the first half because by the second he had too many drinks and would insult the audience. In Newcastle I also performed on stage at the Mayfair.

Can you remember the story behind this record ?

That was recorded in 1980 over the River Tyne in Impulse Studio, Wallsend. Corrinne Wilde had written a song about Bobby Thompson and she knew I could write, so I added a chorus. It was a lovely thing to do.

But selling records is a lot harder than making them. I sold a few at gigs. Bobby Thompson paid for the photographer which was nice.

Helen starts singing the chorus…..

Bobby T, Bobby T, you’re the Geordie lad for me

With yer ganzie hangin’ doon below yer knees,

You’re as Geordie as the Tyne, and for the sake of Auld Lang Syne,

We’ll tell the world we love you, Bobby T.

Did you record anymore of your work ?

I recorded voice overs for radio and appeared on TV a number of times. I remember a part on a show with Martin Clunes, he was only 18 or 19 playing the part of a punk.

I was in a lot of productions including Emmerdale, that was in 1993, also children’s television and the latest Comedy Playhouse. I also played somebody’s wife in Spender written by Jimmy Nail. It was a nice part and I get paid repeats on some of them.

I have a book full of work and gig’s I’ve done over the years plus the fees. There’s a Spender episode written down in it as a repeat in Sweden, I got £9.56 for it (laughs).

Were you working through an agent ?

Yes Janet Plater, she represents a lot of actors in the North East. The original fee for Spender was very good I remember. The last job I did for Janet was a Tesco advert.

You have appeared at your local theatre The Customs House in South Shields…

I’ve worked on a number of plays at The Customs House where Ray Spencer is now Director and an MBE. I got to know Ray in the ’80s when he was looking for a partner to work alongside him putting on some Geordie entertainment. Somebody recommended me and we worked together for a long time.

Our first gig was the Post House Hotel, Washington in 1988. I have my book here and for the Post House there is a note next to it ‘Ray has the receipts’ (laughs).

The writer Tom Kelly put me in a few shows and that got me and the same team work on Dirty Dusting written by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood. That was very popular, we did it in about 2002. The show still sell’s today in different countries.

Helen recalls another memory from working in the clubs…

A lot of times I was the only woman because I was entertaining there and these were men’s clubs. I couldn’t get a drink at the bar. I had to give a man the money. He paid the man behind the bar, got the change and passed it to me with my drink !

Tell you what though, I never want to see another bingo card in my life (laughs).

Finally, what has working in entertainment meant to you ?

I wouldn’t still be doing it in my 90’s if it didn’t mean anything to me. I was born to do it.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   July 2019.