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.

CENTRE STAGE in conversation with North East entertainer Pete Peverly

Have you ever had a proper job ? I’ve never done a day’s work in my life as me da’ would say (laughs). I’ve never worked in a bar, or had a day job, there were times when I maybe should have. It’s tough not knowing when or if the next job is coming. I’ve always earned enough.

I’m not rich but I’ve got a house, a family, four kids. I’ve managed. When things have got tough I’ve tried busking a few times, and that get’s you your £25 or so in really difficult times. I’ve had some great jobs, I keep positive and always have something nice to look forward too. Keep optimistic is how to go on.

In the 80s did you watch live music show The Tube ? Yes definitely. I look back at clips of the show on You Tube. One night I had a ticket to see Ozzy Osbourne at Newcastle Mayfair and beforehand he was on The Tube. I watched it with me dad and Ozzy can be a bit ropey singing live. Well me da’ said How much did yapay to see him ! (laughs).

I remember watching a show with the Tygers of Pan Tang and Twisted Sister, I was still at school and on that night we had a rock disco and a heavy metal band playing. It was wow you know. Loved it.

When I started working on dramas in Tyne Tees TV it was great to just be in the same studio where all those iconic performances happened.

When were you at Tyne Tees ? It was the early ‘90s. I had trained as an actor at Newcastle College from ’88 -’90 and there was quite a lot of TV and theatre happening in the region. Writers were working, Byker Grove was starting and a season of new dramas were scheduled so I ended up doing a couple of those.

They were like period crime dramas and some were filmed at Beamish Museum. I done a few seasons on Byker Grove, a few days here and there on Emmerdale and Spender but TV’s not something I’ve been able to get a foothold in because I got really busy with theatre.

I was with the Northern Stage Ensemble for 15 years, working on big tours for months at a time rather than being a jobbing actor getting work here and there. That’s the choice I made while being a jobbing actor has worked well for others.

In 2004 I was at a Sunday for Sammy concert at Newcastle City Hall and you performed a tribute to Bobby Thompson. How did that come about ? A bunch of friends got together and formed the Red and White Theatre Company and we produced a musical about Bobby’s life. We were young and looking back we might cringe a bit (laughs).

We toured it around clubs and community venues and we were nominated for a Northern Arts award in 1990. We appeared on the  Northern Arts awards show. It was hosted by Melvyn Bragg in Tyne Tees studio.

Previous to that we put together a show about the history of Sunderland and in that I performed a tribute to Bobby. It was very popular so that’s where the idea came from to do a musical about his life. For research we met Bobby’s family, it was just after he died, and started a friendship with Keith his son.

How is the show received by the family ? Bobby had two sons. Sadly Michael passed away about 5 years ago but Keith supports it fully. I always ask him about any new stuff going into the show, it’s important to let him know what I’m up to with his Dad’s memory.

Do you think the Bobby Thompson story would travel to audiences around the country ? I’m putting together a short project for the Tyne Idols bus tours around Newcastle so I’ve been thinking about the whole Bobby story again and his accent wasn’t just Geordie it was Pitmatic. That’s very strong and yes it was a barrier but one of the reasons why he didn’t make it outside the region was because I think he didn’t want to, he had everything up here.

He might have had more ambition in the early part of his career when he was doing Wot Cheor Geordie for the BBC. Maybe he thought about pushing it further but certainly not during the ‘70s.

All of the other regional comics and entertainers who made it nationally were all- rounders, actors, comedians, song and dance men, Bobby wasn’t. He was a pit comedian from the Durham coalfields talking specifically to that community.

Over the years the tribute show has been very popular but lately the audiences are not there as much now, they are getting much older. He will survive in North East culture as The Little Waster, just like Cushy Butterfield and all those characters, but as for a modern audience I haven’t got the skills as a comedy writer to create strong enough material to bring him up to the modern era.

Somebody could do that, the last Sunday for Sammy concert, with the help of writers Jason Cook and Steffen Peddie, we had him as an angel talking about modern day stuff like Brexit and Donald Trump. So who knows it might work.

How did you start in entertainment ? My dad was in bands playing the clubs so I just got into playing in bands when I was a teenager. There was a brilliant scene down at Washington Arts Centre of a music collective, a vibrant theatre group and talented writers.

So as well as being a musician I got involved in theatre and really enjoyed it. But it was like spinning plates, I was making a living playing music in the clubs and enjoying the theatre side of things.

In the end I decided to go to college and do drama because in 1988, I got invited for a month to perform in the Furness Mystery plays at Furness Abby in Barrow and really enjoyed, it so that swung it for me. Still kept my hand in playing in bands and after finishing the course I got my first job at Live Theatre.

Who were you listening to when you were younger ? In my teens I was playing guitar and it was rock music, typical ‘80s stuff like Ozzy, Y&T, Journey but then started learning other instruments like clarinet so went through a sort of Jazz phase. Then harmony stuff like The Beatles and The Eagles, today I like a bit of modern country music that’s out now.

As a songwriter I try to listen to modern stuff to see what’s going on. Music has always been there and I write, record and perform today.

What made you want to play guitar ? When I was young I wanted to play the drums. I’d mime along with knitting needles to War of the Worlds (laughs). But then I heard Queen and Brian May’s guitar had an amazing sound. The big ‘Brighton Rock guitar solo with the echo’s. I just fell in love with it.

Who was your first gig ? AC/DC in ’82 at Newcastle City Hall. For Those About to Rock tour when they played three nights. But I remember seeing Gary Moore around ’84 and he had a sideman called I think Neil Carter. He played guitar, keyboards, backing vocals, he was really good and I thought that looks a good gig. He done loads of sessions with other musicians and bands.

I thought that would be great working with lots of different people. So subconsciously that’s always been there so that’s why I do lots of different projects now.

Once_152

That can keep you ticking over….Yes when the theatre work slackens off I can jump into playing working men’s clubs and do acoustic gigs. Last year was a good run on theatre work with various jobs around the country then back up north at the Theatre Royal for panto.

Next year I have a big tour with a show called Once the Musical.  It’s the first time it’s toured the UK since its West End run four years ago.  It’s playing Newcastle Theatre Royal in June 2020

There are actor/muso shows happening now which are popular in theatres where actors play the instruments. Colleges have added specific courses now to specialise in this type of performance so the players are now at such a good standard.

Do you think theatre is still a big gamble though ? Yes you have to duck and dive, it’s hard to make a living, it’s not easy. I’ve done a bit drama teaching in collages and  community groups with young and older people, that’s rewarding, but you have to be dedicated to do it. Luckily it’s worked for me although at my age I couldn’t do much else now (laughs).

I was an audience member of live music show The Tube filmed in Tyne Tees studio. After a few weeks I noticed the camera, lights and stage set ups and thought I would love to be involved in something like this. Have you had moments that you can look back on that have affected your life in a big way ? Yes they happen without you realising it at the time. Those big moments in your life are only realised years later. That big year for me in theatre, 2018, they do happen but you have to be ready for them. There has been opportunities in the past which haven’t worked out but I think I wasn’t ready for them. You’ve got to learn to take the opportunities.

Around 30 year ago I was in a darkroom working on a black and white picture that I had taken, I saw the image on the photographic paper coming through the chemicals and thought it was magic. Have you had any magic moments ?  This sounds horrible and pretentious so forgive me because I’ve read accounts from actors who’ve said things like this and I thought What a wanker. (laughs)

I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company for three years and you get understudy roles. I was on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Stratford and was playing Friar Lawrence. Understudies get a full run as well. So we were playing to a full house and I was going full throttle Shakespearean actor, giving it the welly and I had that feeling that I’d read about, the wanker actors sayingI was shaking with emotion, with those words, how they were coming out, they were just so’. You know how pretentious is that. But it did happen to me. It really was an amazing moment.

Last year I did a show called Beyond the End of the Road with the company November Club, touring village hall’s in Northumberland. Stripped back stage, a couple of lights, I mean where’s the glamour in that ? (laughs). But we had some really amazing moments on that tour. The sharing of telling stories is really magic no matter where you are. It doesn’t have to be profile job that gives you that magic.

Another time was when I put together a Playhouse Theatre band for one evening.  One of our guests was Brian Johnson from AC/DC. He was there with the late Brendon Healy and Paul Thompson, who was the drummer from Roxy Music. I had just worked with Brian on the Sunday for Sammy concert and when he arrived he was very complimentary about the band which was nice.

Later in the evening he said ‘Pete I might fancy getting up and doing a couple of songs with ya’ if you don’t mind‘. Wow! Absolutely! So towards the end of the night Brian, Brendon and Paul got up. It was a rock and roll dream come true to play with Brian ‘Johnna‘ Johnson from AC/DC. The first band I’d seen live. Amazing!

Have you had any nightmare moments on stage ? I think we’ve all had moments on stage when we’ve thought we’d rather not be there. I was doing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in London in 2012, I was having a bad time cos I lost my dad not long before that. You’ve got to go on and do the biz tho’. Audiences have paid for it.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve had some great times but the working men’s clubs can be tough. Sometimes you think it’s not where you planned to be, but you have to be disciplined enough to give it your best it terms of your vocals and sound, production. You can just be tired or have a cold, or it’s a Sunday night gig after a long week and in your darkest moment you think I’m 50 I don’t wanna be here, but you are so you have to deliver.

Have you noticed the changes to working mens clubs ? I played the clubs in the ‘80s and saw the changes when I came back around 2007. They are still changing now. I played the Whitley Bay Comrades club last Sunday afternoon. People don’t want to be out on the night now, they have the bingo on, an entertainer, yeah it’s good.

Have you any last thoughts ? As you get older you value the good times even more.  Working in theatre you more often than not are working with amazing people.  The company becomes like a family. Those jobs might not come around again for a couple of years so you have to make the most of them.

The Stratford job was great but I was away from home for three years but my kids came down for holidays and loved it. You value those times.

Contact Pete on the official website:

petepev.com

Interview by Gary Alikivi  September 2019.

NO ORDINARY JOE – in conversation with Alan Fish former guitarist with WHITE HEAT

Alan Cluny pic 2

Who was the first band you saw ? My first band was Ten Years After in 1971/72 at Newcastle City Hall, supported by Supertramp. It was a fantastic gig with Alvin Lee ‘the fastest guitar player in the world’. He had just come off the back of playing at Woodstock. I had an instant connection to the blues and rock music.

I used to go to the match, Newcastle United, and have that feeling of disappointment when we got beat. But going to gigs at the City Hall was a lot more positive outcome to spending my pocket money (laughs). First game I went to was a European game against Feyenoord and we won the Fairs cup that season, I didn’t think it was going to be all downhill from there.

When did you first start playing in bands ? I first started playing in club bands doing covers, I was still at school. We played a lot of night club gigs on the chicken in a basket scene supporting bigger bands like The Fortunes and The Casuals, who were sort of one hit wonder bands. But these were ‘60s bands on the way down really.

There were hundreds of clubs so if you were a competent musician who could put a band together, play some songs off the radio, there was plenty work out there. I ended up playing Thursday night, Friday night, two gigs on a Saturday and a Sunday night.

But your gear was expensive, a Les Paul guitar in 1979 was around £300 and I was never away from Mortons in Newcastle having my amp’s repaired.

But one thing about the clubs is the more you played they more you learned a discipline and etiquette. First set not too loud and if you didn’t hit the level of acceptance you would be paid off. And you had to dismantle your gear in full view of the audience with the Concert Chairman telling everyone ‘We’ve paid them off (laughs)’. So by the time I was 19 I was so ready to play in an original band.

How did the job with White Heat come about ? There was a four piece band called Hartbraker very much a Zeppelin/Free rock sound and they were playing to young people, and playing loud. They were essentially a Bry Younger band, a vehicle for his prodigious guitar playing.

I had been offered a tour of Germany playing American Army Bases with the club band, I wasn’t keen. One night we were playing at the Guildhall and Bry Younger from Hartbraker came in and asked if I would be interested in joining the band. That was a lifeline for me really. This was time to explore my song writing abilities and the band were receptive to that.

Opportunity never comes to the front door it always comes to the side or the back door. Just always have your radar ready. It’ll be something innocuous, it’ll not be a certain thing but it’ll lead you onto the next step.

Line up for Hartbraker was Bry Younger (guitar) Col Roberts (bass) John Miller (drums) Bob Smeaton (vocals) Alan Fish (guitar). White Heat had the same line up with Alan adding backing vocals and when John Miller took a break, George Waters stepped in on drums.

Bands like Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and The Boomtown Rats were around and for some gigs we used to throw in a Small Faces cover into the set. The sound was changing from the blues/rock of Hartbraker so we changed the name to White Heat.

Bob was a big fan of James Cagney so he took the name from his film. This was around the time of New Wave and everything fitted as we shortened the guitar breaks, sharpened everything up and Bob’s lyrics fitted great.

How were the song writing duties shared around the band ? In White Heat it was very cut and dried. Out of the band frontman Bob Smeaton had most to say. He had a more challenging life to us and had more to shout about. He would give me a load of lyrics I would leaf through and find bits that could be formulated into songs. I had a gift for melody and you can hear a lot of it in the instrumentation. That would leave space for Bob to have a go at what’s wrong with society (laughs).

Did you play any gigs with name bands ?  If there was a big band in Newcastle at the Mayfair or the City Hall that needed an opener we would be one of the bands who would be contacted. At the last minute we got a call to support Judas Priest at the City Hall. We got on well with them so they asked us to stay on the tour. That was exciting playing to those audiences even though we weren’t exactly the same genre there was a crossover there.

The sound crew said ‘You’re going down really well, we know your songs next gig we’ll have it nailed’. But we didn’t get the next gig as another band from the same label as Priest were called in.

What were your highlights from being in White Heat ? As an up and coming band we played the Bedrock Festival and it was a fantastic gig people told us we were the highlight and we picked up management from that gig.

Local businessman Brian Mawson said to us ‘I’ll get you in the studio, on the radio, tv’ and he came good on these claims. He ran Rubber Records and was involved with Windows musical instrument and record shop in Newcastle. When somebody else puts faith in you it supercharges it, it was a pivotal moment.

Back in the late ‘70s getting in a studio was a difficult thing, it was an absolute fortune but one of the best thing’s we wrote was the first thing we recorded in Impulse Studios, Wallsend. It was a precise pop song, short and snappy, it was ‘Nervous Breakdown’. That got airplay and John Peel made it his record of the week. It started peaking the interest of record companies. Virgin finally signed us in 1980.

One of your songs ‘Bad Jokes’ has a New York Dolls feel to it. Is that a band you listened to ? Not me. I loved The Who and The Kinks. Maybe Bob was a Johnny Thunders fan (laughs).

White Heat called it a day in 1982 and Tyne Tees TV filmed the last ever gig for a 30 minute documentary. What was the atmosphere like around the band knowing it was coming to an end ? It was a really good atmosphere and there was a big sense of relief. For a number of years we were fully committed and chasing the big deal, but towards the end there was an air of desperation when Virgin dropped us. That was a big disappointment because we knew it would be very difficult to get signed again.

When you have been signed and then dropped, you still have the debt. So for a second record company to come in and sign you they have to buy you out of your previous deal. That’s not going to happen.

When we made the decision to call it a day we all collectively breathed a sigh of relief. We had put everything into it and it was time to regroup. I remember telling the lad’s that was it for me. They were originally a four piece before I joined so I thought they would go back to doing that. But I was surprised they were having the same thoughts about leaving and glad I jumped first.

We left in a constructive fashion because we had good support from management and Geoff Wonfor from Tyne Tees. People had put a lot of time and energy into us and we wanted to go out with a bit of a statement.

Brian Mawson set up our last hurrah at The Mayfair and said let’s finish on a friendly basis and go forward on a friendly basis. I liked that. I can talk calmly about it now but when you are young you think your world is falling apart. There is an amount of rage and uncertainty. So looking back it’s a good thing as a band we stepped away from it calmly.

Having a half hour programme broadcast is big exposure, was there not a thought that an agent might pop in with an offer ? There might have been a small amount of that but the concept of the show was a band in it’s final stages….but you never know (laughs).

Did you make any plans what to do after the band  ? The time you invest and the fact you are paralysed by poverty for want of a better expression, I had to get working again. I was offered a few interesting music projects but wasn’t interested. Fortunately I got a job off shore as an Electrical Engineer in the Petro Chemical Industry. The money was ok and it was a chance to get back pretty even you know. I was taking my guitar off shore I learnt harmonica and we had a bit of a band out there.

Then I heard from my song writing partner in White Heat, Bob Smeaton, he had got a small deal with a spin off company from Virgin called Static. He said I need some songs so I left the rigs and we ended up in 10CC’s studio in Surrey.

I was there only as a songwriter, we didn’t have a band. I was looking for a niche in the music industry just as a songwriter and I’d be happy with that. Unfortunately nothing materialised but we got a call from Geoff Wonfor who was putting together a programme for Channel Four featuring up and coming acts called ‘Famous for Fifteen Minutes’. That’s what led to the formation of a band called The Loud Guitars.

Have you any road stories from your time in White Heat ? When we recorded at Townhouse Studio in Shepherds Bush it was Virgins residential studio and there was another band there. It was the time just after Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne was getting Blizzard of Oz together. Randy Rhoades was there, he was a phenomenal guitar player.

Ozzy came in the studio to listen to one of our sessions ‘I love you guys you’re great’ he said. He was with Sharon his girlfriend and manager, she was delighted that Ozzy had found someone to play with, not musically just to get him out of her hair (laughs).

We used to go out for a few drinks together, there were no airs or graces he just liked a good drink and a laugh. We’d go back to the residential and he’d be in the best suite, Sharon would be there and order in a Chinese meal cos she recognised we were skint and starving so they looked after us quite well. We used to distract them so we could pinch their booze out of the cupboard. One morning Ozzy came into the studio and said in his Brummie accent ‘Ere lads we must have had a good session last night cos there’s no booze left in me cupboard’ (laughs).

By coincidence we met Sharon’s dad, Don Arden. Years after White Heat split up we were offered a decent amount of money to play a comeback gig at the Exhibition Park in Newcastle. Aswad, Haircut 100 were on and a few others plus us as a local band who went down a storm.

After the gig in our trailer in walks this bull like character dripping with gold and says ‘Lads I’m gonna sign you. Meet me at The Gosforth Hotel for breakfast and bring any contracts you’ve got’. We didn’t tell him this was a one off gig but we were interested in what he had to say. But in the end we didn’t get breakfast cos when he looked at the contracts he said he would be throwing good money after bad. ‘Right Alan’ he said ‘You’re stuffed no one will buy you out of this’.

What type of record contract did the band have ? Brian Mawson was still managing us but we obviously had Virgin representation from Richard Draper. The actual record deal was £70,000 and the publishing deal was £40,000. Virgin put a lot of money into us.  What I do know is the money went quickly (laughs). We made a lot of naïve mistakes. We spent more on recording than The Police did on their third album.

White Heat were a really good live band. That’s where we built our reputation. The chemistry between the members contributed to that. But that’s not good enough for the industry cos you are signing a recording deal. You’ve got to make the transition from live to recording. We failed to do that. The money that went into it, it just wasn’t good enough.

Part two of this interview will be posted soon, Alan will be talking about what he is doing now and another few road stories from his time in White Heat.

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

WRITE FATHER, WRITE SON with author Peter Mitchell

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Did you watch ‘When the Boat Comes In’ or catch the world premier of the play at The Customs House last year ? There are two events during September in South Shields that will interest you.

David Whale is host of Heritage Talks at The Word and he’s invited writer Peter Mitchell to be guest speaker on Wednesday 4th September…. ‘I’m really looking forward to this event. It’s an opportunity to talk about my Dad’s work and his life as an extremely successful writer as well as my own career in broadcasting. David has asked me to look at this from a very personal perspective and I’m keen to share the story.

My Dad left Shields when I was six-years-old to concentrate on a new life and career in London. I spent much of my childhood travelling between Shields and the capital on ‘access’ visits. They were very different worlds and, obviously, had a profound effect on me growing up’.

Peter will also be talking about his career in the media… After leaving Tyne Tees I joined Zenith North – first as Director of Production and, later, as Managing Director. That company produced Byker Grove and The Dales Diary. A little while later, I formed my own production company and were able to take ‘The Diary’ with us. We continued to produce that until the final series was aired in 2008. They were fantastic days allowing us to explore and film some of the finest locations the Northern Hill Country has to offer’.

At The Customs House is ‘When the Boat Comes In: The Hungry Years’ written by Peter as a sequel to last year’s successful play…. ‘The first play focussed mainly on the aftermath of the Great War and a love story between two strong characters: Jack Ford, a man determined to be successful in the new Land Fit For Heroes and Jessie Seaton, a feisty, intelligent, young woman who wanted to change the world through politics.

The Hungry Years finds the two of them trying to come to terms with life without each other. The focus shifts to the politics of change but the legacy of world conflict is never far away’.

Tickets for the Wednesday Heritage Club, 4th September 2pm are £1.50 from The Word, Market Place, South Shields.

Tickets for The Customs House, South Shields  https://www.customshouse.co.uk/theatre/when-the-boat-comes-in-part-2%3A-the-hungr/

 Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

RUSSIA’S GEORDIE SPY with author Vin Arthey

Searching your family history can throw up a few surprises. My Great Uncle Alexander Allikivi was born in Russia at a time of political and social unrest resulting in two revolutions, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Soviet Union by the Bolsheviks. Have you ever wondered why some stubborn or awkward people are called bolshy ? Was it Bolshy Alex ?  

Little is known about the life of Allikivi. He lived in South Shields during the ‘20s until his death in 1933. I know he received two Mercantile Marine and British Medal ribbons by 1921, but what had he done before that ? When did he first arrive in the UK and why did he leave Russia ?

In the search for some clues I read ‘The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy’, a book by Vin Arthey about father and son Heinrich and William Fisher. Heinrich was born in Russia in 1871 and William was born in 1903 in Newcastle. In 1921 the Fishers were in Moscow. The Spielberg film ‘Bridge of Spies’ starring Tom Hanks features what happened to William.

Reading Vin’s book I came across this…’He (Heinrich Fischer) maintained all his political links. He remained a member of the Russian Socialist Democratic Workers Party and in UK politics aligned himself with the Social Democratic Federation members who seceded to found the British Socialist Party, working for the party south of the Tyne, in South Shields, rather than in Newcastle’.

Was Allikivi involved in politics ? Were other Russians attending the meetings in South Shields and would he be attracted to gatherings with people who spoke the same language as him ? He would look forward to having conversations rather than using a few words or short phrases when meeting friends and family.

Edinburgh-based author Vin Arthey on Fri 12 January 2018.

Vin Arthey photograph by Andy Catlin.

I decided to contact Vin and asked him what was the inspiration behind writing ‘The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy’ ? When I was freelancing in the ‘90s I was offered an Associate Producer role by Trevor Hearing who’d just had his series, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ commissioned by Tyne Tees TV.

This was a series of six half-hour dramas and drama documentaries covering true regional stories such as those of the Darlington MP who turned out to be an international outlaw and leader of an obscure Chinese cult, and the Newcastle auction mart owner and television hypnotist who was jailed for swindling his mother out of thousands of pounds, and the County Durham relief bank manager who correctly foretold that his bank would be robbed and that he would be killed during the robbery.

Another story I researched was of Newcastle born William Fisher who turned out to be a KGB spy, used the name Rudolf Abel and was jailed for espionage in the United States in 1957. Five year later he was exchanged across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge for the American U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Fisher’s birth in Newcastle had been ascertained by Newcastle University historian David Saunders, and I had a number of meetings with David during the pre-production phase.

Trevor Hearing and I were convinced that the story was worthy of a network production, but it was turned down by BBC 2’s Timewatch and Channel 4’s Secret History. However, I kept on researching and writing, because I was absolutely hooked by the story.

You see, I could remember when I was 12 year old watching the news story on my family’s first, rented, TV set, of the KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who was arrested, tried and jailed in New York in 1957. The Cold War was very real to me as a teenager in East Anglia.

My home was close to a number of United States airbases, and there were regular sightings of USAF Sabre, Phantom and Voodoo jet fighters and fighter-bombers.

I remember well the shooting down over the Soviet Union in May 1960 of Gary Powers high flying ‘weather reconnaissance’ aircraft, the ‘U-2’. As one of our teachers put it the day the news broke, ‘Awfully high weather we’re having these days,’.  Also I was still at school when the famous exchange of Powers and Abel took place.

You might imagine my excitement when I discovered that the Soviet spy at the centre of perhaps the greatest Cold War drama, the man who featured so strikingly in my school years, was a British subject, Newcastle born, at that. I couldn’t let the story go, and when I was approached by St Ermin’s Press to write a book I jumped at the chance.

St Ermin’s published it as a hardback with the title Like Father Like Son: A Dynasty of Spies. Later, Biteback Publishing bought the paperback rights and repackaged it as The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy: The Man They Swapped for Gary Powers.

When the Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies was released in 2015, Biteback reprinted with yet another title, Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers.

Did you do any readings or tour with the book ? The book (or should I say books!) have been well received, although I have to be realistic – Fisher was our enemy during the Cold War, a villain of the piece – a villain of the peace even!

Over the last dozen years I’ve given talks on the Fisher story in various places and at a range of venues in Newcastle, North Shields, South Shields, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Reading, and there has been great interest in the United States, where the books have been reviewed for the CIA’s ‘Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf’.

I visited the USA for research and subsequently got to speak at the Brooklyn Historical Society and at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.

What is your background Vin ? I was born, brought up and spent my early adult years in Ipswich, and although most of my life has now been spent in the North of England and in Scotland, I still regard myself as an East Anglian.

I follow Ipswich Town football team through thick and thin – thin at the moment as we’ve just been relegated to what I still call the Third Division, and our arch rivals Norwich City have just made it back to the Premiership.

I’ve had a dual career, in education and the media, teaching in schools and a college of education then, when the birth rate dropped and the colleges were closing and merging, I was at Newcastle Polytechnic where I taught drama and media studies.

While this was happening, I started freelance scripting and reviewing for BBC Radio Newcastle and Tyne Tees. In the early ‘80s an opportunity arose to work fulltime at Tyne Tees, so I took it. Researching and producing across the whole range of the station’s output – current affairs, religious programmes, comedy, arts and features.

I went freelance again in the mid ‘90s, but at the end of the decade went back into university teaching and to heading up the TV Production degrees at Teesside University. Now, I’m settled in Edinburgh and supplement my pension with income from writing and speaking.

What are you working on now ? I review books about espionage, the Cold War and Russia for newspapers ‘The Scotsman’ and ‘Scotland on Sunday’. I’ve just finished a piece of ghost writing – a privately commissioned piece for a retired hydroelectric power engineer, and I’m currently clearing my desk, and my head with a view to tackling a new book – still nonfiction, but still under wraps.

To hear from Vin check this link to an interview with Spy historian Vince Houghton at Spycast

https://www.spymuseum.org/multimedia/spycast/episode/the-real-story-of-rudolph-abel-an-interview-with-vin-arthey/

As for my Great Uncle from Russia, Alexander Allikivi, I am still searching for some answers.

Interview by Gary Alikivi July 2019