PLAY IT AGAIN – on TV & Stage with music documentary director, Bob Smeaton

Smeaton first featured on this blog back in November 2018 talking about his time as lead vocalist and frontman with Newcastle bands Hartbreaker, White Heat and Loud Guitars. Over 17 years Bob played over 400 gigs, his last was in 1991.

Some say White Heat were the best band to come out of Newcastle who ‘never made it’. They signed for Virgin records in 1980, went on tour with Judas Priest and headlined London Marquee – they set alight to the Tyne, but sadly not the Thames.

Smeaton turned to acting on stage and TV, and like most North East actors was cast in an episode of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

‘I was in the second series that was mostly filmed in Nottingham prior to them moving the action to Spain. I had known Jimmy Nail from when he used to come and see White Heat and had also met Tim Healy a number of times, as I had once worked with his wife Denise’ remembers Bob.

Nearly 40 years later the show about a group of British workers on a German building site is still being repeated on TV today. Even though some scenes have been chopped out – it still gets me smiling which is a hard ask at the best of times. I suppose it’s a great example of ‘feel good telly’ – and nothing comes close.

‘My role as shop assistant in a man’s boutique was very much blink and you miss it, and in fact it didn’t warrant a mention in my memoir. I’m sure that role could have been played by a hundred other actors. I was told recently that my scene has been cut from the re-runs on UK Drama but my name is still there in the end credits!

As chance would have it I was in a club in London a couple of years ago and a bloke came up to me pointed to my trousers and asked ‘Do they do the Italian paratrooper in your size’. Which was one of my lines from the scene. He then proceeded to run the whole scene with him playing the role of Oz and me reprising my role as the shop assistant’.

Fans of the programme still regard it with much affection and the interview with Auf Wiedersehen actress Lesley Saint John, is by far the most popular interview on this blog (link below). Lesley appears in ‘Hasta La Vista’, the episode that Bob appeared in.

It just goes to show what a brilliant series it was and how people still look upon it with great affection. I was also lucky to have been in a scene with Tim Spall, he is a genius and nothing like the character he played on screen.

Bob in his early days in White Heat.

TEENAGE DREAM

When my careers guidance teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school I told her I wanted to be an actor or singer. This didn’t seem like an option and she suggested the shipyards as a third option. As it turned out I have been fortunate to do all three.

Without doubt singing in a band was, and remains, the best thing that I’ve ever done. Nothing beats being on stage and performing to an audience. And my love of music was the springboard to my present job as a director of music documentaries. 

Even working in the yards had its upside, it gave me loads of material for song lyrics and made me realise ‘there must be more to life than this’.

Bob and Mick McNally shooting a scene from the Film on Four, Accounts.


STAGECRAFT

I always felt there was an element of acting in being in a band, you learnt your lines, put on a show and hopefully entertained an audience with a degree of honesty.
I first acted in school plays at junior school even though at South Benwell school we didn’t do drama. Therefore I would write plays and give myself the lead role. Often with a few songs thrown in for good measure.

When White Heat split I was very fortunate to be cast in a Film on Four called Accounts. The guy who wrote it, Micheal Wilcox, had seen me presenting a television show called The Colour Programme, and thought that I would be right to play the part of Andy Mawson.

The role had previously been performed on stage by Kevin Whately. Mike McNally played the role of my younger  brother, Donald. Mike and I have remained good friends and I look forward to getting up a doing a turn with him at ‘Jarra Tapas’ in the not too distant future.

15 MINUTES OF FAME

I thought that having had a lead role in a film would be the springboard to more acting work, but that wasn’t the case. I soon learnt that for every role there would be hundreds of actors going for the same part. I was up for roles alongside the likes of Robson Green and Joe Caffrey, great actors with more experience than I had.

As far as my acting career goes the thing that got me noticed most was an advert for McEwan’s Best Scotch. When it was broadcast I discovered what it was like to be famous for 15 minutes. The irony was I was recognised more for that ad than I did for being in a band. But I guess that’s that the power of television. It’s still out there on You Tube. And I can laugh at it now and it’s great to have a record of what I looked like all those years ago.

Like most local actors I did a Catherine Cookson. I was cast in the The Black Candle and had my throat cut about ten minutes into the film. My mam thought it was the best thing that I had ever done, and would watch on repeat my sad demise at the hands of some posh bloke.

Those Cookson’s were great and had really high production values and were a great source of work for a load of local actors. I am sure every actor in the North East will have a Cookson on their CV.

Bob during the time of making the McEwans Best Scotch commercial.

SCREEN TIME

Another show filmed in the North East was TV detective show Spender, broadcast 1991-93. The programme starred Jimmy Nail who created the series with Ian La Franais, who also wrote Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

I played the part of a drug dealer in Spender, I think Jimmy Nail put me forward for that role. I still see Jimmy occasionally but we never talk about acting. Like me I think his first love was and remains music, we talk about music and the sad demise of our football club.

I also did some Theatre work and my debut was in a play called Fur Coat and No Knickers by Mike Harding. This was at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff Upon Sea. My opening line was “Hello I’m Mark Greenhalgh I’m as bright as the inside of a cows bum”. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a good laugh.

Eastenders actor Ross Kemp was also in it. We became good mates, we also did The Wizard of Oz together. Me and telly hardman Ross Kemp in leotards playing munchkins was a sight to behold. I never really caught the theatre bug and much preferred television and film acting.

I did dip my toe back into acting when I finished working on the Beatles Anthology. Matthew Robinson cast me in Quayside a soap opera that was set on Tyneside. The television audience hated it and it got dropped after one series. I loved it and had a great time making it, the highpoint was getting to work alongside the great Joe Caffrey.

One time we were sat waiting to start filming and he was chatting away to me. I didn’t realise he was running the scene. It didn’t seem like he was acting. That was the difference between my acting and the likes of Joe, for him it was effortless.

Bob on stage at the Palace Theatre doing Wizard of Oz. Ross Kemp and Bob standing either side of Dorothy.

TV EXIT

I haven’t done any acting since Quayside (1997), the series was cancelled around the same time as my career as a director of music documentaries began to take off. My first love was always music, but I was very fortunate to have experienced what I was like to be an actor and I really enjoyed it and I would ‘never say never again’.

I really miss performing and although acting will never replace the buzz of being on stage with a band I feel it works a similar muscle. Performing is in my blood and I would like to think both of those doors remain open.

When I released my book someone got in touch and suggested trying to make a film of it and that I could play the role of my dad. Anyone who has read the book would realise me and my dad had a difficult relationship, but maybe playing him might have helped get rid of some demons. Also I would have got to get up and sing a bunch of Tom Jones songs.

YOU BETTER YOU BET

The year before the pandemic struck I broke my knee-cap and I was out of action for six months. I was finally back up and running at the start of 2020, then the pandemic struck.

I have been very fortunate to have been kept busy during this past year. I finished a documentary about the Who Sell Out album just before Christmas, this is due to air on Sky Arts around the end of April.

At present I am in the process of finishing a film about a big American band, I’m not at liberty to say who it is, it should hopefully get a cinema release later this year and will also screen on television.

GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

As we have not been able to get out and do much socialising, my evenings have been spent working on some new songs and practicing my singing and guitar playing. It would be great to get the songs recorded.

I am also pondering the possibility of getting out there and doing some gigs once the restrictions are lifted. I am not sure what form the gigs would take but I am keeping my options open. But I have always said that it’s as big a buzz playing to twenty people as it is to two thousand.

Bob Smeaton’s memoir – From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond

is available now through Newcastle Waterstones and Amazon.

Link to previous interview:

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – with Film & TV Director, Bob Smeaton | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Link to interview with Lesley Saint John:

TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Interview by Gary Alikivi   March 2021.

TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John

1983 I was glued to the telly on a Friday night when the first season of Auf Wiedersehen Pet hit the screen. The show proved to be popular around the UK and confirmed the programme a TV classic. Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais who already had a hit show starring North East characters in The Likely Lads.

Summer ‘85 I was upstairs in Newcastle Airport sweating it – my first time flying. I was about to go on a lads holiday to Ibiza when suddenly there was a commotion from the check-in area downstairs. We ran over to the balcony to look down and see a couple of actors from the show waiting in line. I noticed the red streaks in Wayne’s (Gary Holton) black hair.

The area was being roped off and they started filming a scene. It wasn’t until season two in 1986 when I saw this episode being broadcast and there was a bit of a buzz watching how it had been put together. So for this blog, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to interview one of the stars of that memorable series.

Good interviews have honesty and laughter and there was plenty of that when I met up with Lesley Saint-John who played Vicky in the second season… Vicky was a Manicurist from South Shields. You wouldn’t believe how much attention the show attracts. I did five years on Byker Grove, a Catherine Cookson film, but Auf Wiedersehen is the one that’s talked about the most.

There is a AWP fan club, and because the show is constantly repeated on tv, people often come up to me and say Vicky’s lines, they know them off by heart. It’s great people remember it.

How did the job on Auf Wiedersehen come about ? I was just a normal jobbing actor in the North East, the majority of work I had done was up here, including tv shows, commercials and corporate training videos, as well as stage work.

I’d heard of the show because the first season had been on telly but to be honest I didn’t really watch it. My mother rang me up one night and said ‘Have you seen that Auf Wiedersehen Pet on the telly, you’ve gotta watch it’. I said ‘I’ve flicked over it but it just seems to be men sitting in a hut’. She said it was brilliant and I should start watching it.

Then my agent sent me for the audition held in Newcastle, which was great because normally a lot of auditions I would have to get on a coach or train travelling hours down to London.

How did the audition go? It went fine there was a big panel of people, normally there is one or two with the casting director but this was different. Sometimes auditions seem to go well but you don’t get the job, others you’re not sure of but you’re called back. I knew the part was for someone called Vicky but didn’t know if it was for just one or two episodes, it ended up 10 out of the 13 episodes in series two.

Then I got a call again from my agent saying that they wanted me back to test with the rest of the cast in London and play a scene out with one of the characters. That turned out to be Gary Holton who played Wayne, who sadly is no longer with us.

Did you like Vicky, your character in the show? Yeah, I think she was quite honest, maybe people thought she was a money grabber because she was with an older man with money, but she really did care for Ally. It was Ally Fraser who was interested in money and how he could make more, Vicky was almost like the asset on his arm. It was a good relationship at the beginning but by the end it went sour.

Looking back what are your memories of the show? The scenes in Spain were filmed around Marbella in about six weeks, I remember having a nanny out there for my daughter who was nearly four at the time. Ally’s villa was up in the hills near Puerto Banus, and at the time we were filming it was actually a concrete shell being built, so after the guys had filmed their scenes real Spanish builders would come in the evenings, to do more work on it.

The next day it looked like the lads had put the brick and extra tiles on the pool. Now you can rent the villa and I’ve been told by fans of the show that they clubbed together for a holiday there.

People remind me of this ‘green bikini’ scene we filmed in the Costa Del Sol, which really if I hadn’t had photographic evidence I would never of believed I was ever that slim! (laughs).

But to let you know how scenes are filmed out of order with what you see on the programme, that scene outside the villa on the terrace was filmed around August then the next scene, which continues an argument with Ally, is when we walk into the villa, and is actually January in a studio in Nottingham. So that 20 second walk was actually four or five months apart, it was a very cold studio and I had to have false tan on (laughs).

There was a line in one of the shows where I said I was going to Annabels club, well apparently there was a problem with that because there actually was a club called Annabels in Sunderland.

So months later I had to go down to Central Television in Nottingham where we used to film all the indoor scenes, and go into a recording booth and record the line saying I was going to Cannibals because we couldn’t use the name Annabels. It had to be something similar because we couldn’t reshoot the whole scene because it was with Gary Holton who had passed away during the production.

The whole thing was very eery because I was by myself in the recording booth, but what they didn’t tell me was the line Gary had filmed would come through my headphones first. I was never warned and when his distinctive cockney voice came through I was silent. It completely threw me, it was if he was in the room.

 

The North East has a pedigree of strong women, do you think you fit into that ? For people living in London or the south auditions can be ten a penny, easy to get to, but for me coming down from the North East sometimes it felt like an expensive ordeal. I am strong…ish, but could definitely do with toughening up.

But when I went to London for an audition I met someone also going for the same part, funnily enough she ended up becoming my London agent. We talked about it and me getting the part and not her, I asked how she felt and she just said it wasn’t to be. I want to be that philosophical about it, but I still take it personal, I still need to toughen up.

 

How did you get into acting? When I was around 12 I wanted to go to stage school in London but my parents couldn’t afford it. Today you can get a degree in performing arts there was nothing like that up here when I was growing up.

I was brought up on the stage because my parents were in Amateur Dramatics and playing the lead roles, they met at a choir in Gateshead. They used to put on shows and concert parties in Old people’s homes and I would go with them, sing a couple of songs and do my ballet or tap dancing. I’d just always knew I wanted to be on stage as some sort of performer.

I was listening to music then and when I was about eight, the first album I bought was Chopin, I can’t remember why, but I loved it. Then as a teenager I listened to T.Rex, Status Quo, Roxy Music and Alice Cooper. I saw all of them at Newcastle City Hall except Alice Cooper who I loved.

But the way I got into acting as a profession was singing on stage in a band to get my Equity card. You had to have 40 weeks on stage and be nominated by somebody. So I joined a band at 19 year old where I did two or three solo’s and the rest backing vocals in workingmen’s clubs all around the North East. My songs were like Blondie and Dionne Warwick ‘If you see me walking down the street, just walk on by’ (sings).

I never thought of myself as a strong singer but that’s how I got in because you had to be in Equity in those days before you could work in tv. This is all I ever wanted to do I just never got as far as I wanted to get.

When was the time you thought you had missed an opportunity? After Auf Wiedersehen Pet came out, my London agent asked if I was going to move to London but I didn’t because my personal circumstances of being a single parent after my husband left made it difficult.

The practicalities of buying a house and not having my parents to support looking after my daughter might have been too much. A lot of woman go away from the scene and have their kids so when they come back, if they do, people have forgotten them or moved on.

I think there is a massive amount of untapped talent here, but to get really established like, some of my colleagues from Byker Grove, Jill Halfpenny, Ant and Dec, you have to make the move down South or you will be making the journey up and down the motorway for auditions and shows. A good thing is today there are more chances to get out there with all the social media and magazines.

So looking back it was sort of missing a trick there, it might not have worked, but if I had my way I would have been in London when I was 12 (laughs).

How did working on Byker Grove come about? Straight off the back of an audition I done, in the show my character Kath (Dobson) had three daughters, Jill Halfpenny was the eldest one. What also helped was that we looked similar, we had dark hair, and I have freckles like the youngest, plus it was in the curly perm days (laughs). The guy who played my husband was Tony Hodge who was in a big North Eastern band, The Piranha Brothers.

Kath was very different from Vicky who was glamorous with the clothes and great locations. In nearly all my scenes as Kath, wardrobe gave me navy blue fuddy duddy skirts and button upped blouses to wear, and not much make up, just housewife scenes of making the meals, getting the kids to school, it was great playing a totally different role.

The Dobson’s used a real house in Newcastle where we filmed their scenes and our internal shots were set in The Mitre building in Benwell, Newcastle.

After leaving Byker Grove Lesley had a role in the tv series ‘Harry’ starring Michael Elphick, then took on another part…In 1996 I was in the Catherine Cookson film The Girl, I played Nancy Boyle who has a daughter, wears raggy clothes and I’m dying of T.B. I go to the big house and tell the master that this is his daughter, and as I’m dying he’s got to look after her. Typical Cookson film but I love all these different looks that I’ve done.

What’s next Lesley? It can be 10 or 20 years when you find yourself working with people again and it’s like you’ve never been apart because I’m in a show called Moreland’s Firm, a criminal family from Newcastle where Michael Moreland is trying to become a businessman and go straight. I play the mother Rose Moreland, and my son Michael is played by Craig Conway who in real life was married to Jill Halfpenny.

So it’s weird to have played both their mothers. Tony Hodge, who was also in Byker Grove plays opposite me, in fact he was one of Roses clients as she starts the show as an alcoholic prostitute (laughs).

Rose Moreland swears and I never swear in real life, I had to slap Michaels face and tell him to f..off, his face was going really red it was like ‘We’ll just do one more’. He said just go for it but I could see the shock on his face after I slapped him. But Rose comes good in the end (laughs).

Craig Conway who is producing it, is looking to get the programme commissioned, we shot a lot of footage so he has got something to show rather than just an idea or bit of script.

What would be your favourite role ? My favourite job would be one of the co-hosts on Loose Women because I love talking, and I love debating or be a character in Emmerdale. But yeah, Loose Women I’d do that in a heartbeat.

I will be performing at Newcastle Arena this weekend in ‘Sunday for Sammy’ (23 Feb) I love it as I get to catch up with loads of old friends and it’s all for Charity. I am really looking forward to that. Can’t wait!!

Interview by Gary Alikivi  February 2020.

TYNE DOCK BORDERS documentary about an area in the North East of England.

Growing up in the shadow of Tyne Dock arches, bombing around the streets on my Grifter, playing football on St Mary’s field and as a teenager, a member of Tyne Dock Youth Club in South Shields.

The club had a film night every Sunday. No matter what film was screening I’d get a chair and plonk myself down at the front. Three films stand out from those nights – Carrie by Stephen King, Monty Pythons Life of Brian and Duel by Stephen Speilberg. The films were projected from a room at the back of the hall. The pictures, colour and sound gripped me.  

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On my Grifter in front of Tyne Dock Arches being demolished in October 1977.

Around 2007 I started researching my family tree. The Local Studies Library in South Shields was a great resource to find information. Putting the story together I knew of a family connection to Ireland, but never realised the full impact that the Irish had on the North East and in my case, Jarrow. The research led to making Little Ireland. The documentary is available to watch on my You Tube channel.

Since then I have filmed a lot around South Tyneside recording stories by local people talking about memories of their home town. Skuetenders, War Stories, Home from Home, Westoe Rose and Secrets & Lies. It’s been interesting to uncover and record stories that would have been lost or forgotten.

The documentary Tyne Dock Borders filmed late 2011, includes interviews with local residents and features writers Catherine Cookson and James Mitchell who were born in Tyne Dock. Original running time was 70 minutes, but I have recently edited the film down. 

To view the film go to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel and subscribe to watch more.

Gary Alikivi 2018.