Thursday, May 31, 2007

Temporary capital of culture

We've been on holiday, down in the English/Welsh Borders.
I'm blogging this from Hay on Wye, the second hand book capital of Europe, for their celebrated literature festival. (My first sniff at ethernet since we left home).

...and what great icon of cultural delight did we go to, I hear you ask?


To be fair, he does have a book out, a rather odd Children's story called Tim the Tiny Horse.

Here is Harry signing David's copy. We hadn't the heart to tell him we got in the discount shop in Hay!

Karen has returned home, leaving us boys to play. Woo Hoo!

Karen, David's favourite ice cream flavour remains blackcurrant.

UPDATE: More of Harry Hill HERE.

The appliance of Science

In my pre-teens, I had a motley selection of education magazines, called Understanding Science and Mind Alive. I wasn't particularly aware of where they had come from but I became conscious that there were a number of them missing. When working out from the index that a particular copy would help me in school I asked if there were others around. After deciding that I was old enough, my parents reveled a treasure trove of them in binders which I devoured with delight.

When I first went to senior school, a few days into the first week, an announcement was made in assembly about a meeting for those of us who were interested in science. The big hook that caught our attention was that the first event was on the topic of explosives.

I made my way to the hall balcony that lunchtime to find that there were about twenty other 11 year old hopefuls. A Sixth Former told us about the British Association of Young Scientists (BAYS) and what it got up to. I went to the first meeting the following week, a very noisy and entertaining lecture about bangs which culminated in the setting light of a wad of cotton wool- drenched in liquid oxygen. The resulting fireball stunned us all and I was well and truly hooked.

BAYS was the junior wing of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a venerable institution of Scientists that lived up to their legendary stereotypes. The most well known Member was Dr. Magnus Pyke (we jokingly called him Dr. Magnus Prick in newcastle BAYS). The BA was formed as an an alternative to the Royal Society which was regarded as rather aloof at the time (and still is).

BAYS held an event every month, half of them being lectures, the other half film shows. The movies were somewhat variable, generally being hand me downs from the likes of ICI and the oil companies about industrial processes and such. The film shows were held in the Newcastle University Faculty of Engineering Claremont Building which was distinguished only by having a tower block served by Paternoster lifts, an endless chain of slow moving two person cars that remained the right way up as they reached the top (& bottom) & changed direction.

The lectures were generally held in the Science faculty closer to town and this was memorable by having a pair of huge concave mirrors at either end of their long entrance hall. The topics were many and varied but in order to appeal, they were always very practical, with the emphasis on participation and showmanship.

I continued to attend throughout school, joining the organising committee in my 4th year and becoming the school rep in the 5th form as there were no VI formers interested. Despite a huge publicity campaign with posters on all the noticeboards and assembly announcements, my balcony briefing attracted a big fat zero response.

BAYS organised occasional events, the first one of which I attended was a "Micro meeting" at Huddersfield University which featured a lecture on fluorine (and probably the only chance anyone ever had to smell it) and a Saturday evening film show - Those mganificent men in their flying machines. I also went along to a number of annual Conferences which ran for a week during the Summer and attracted considerable press interest. (From memory I went to three, held at Stirling, Canterbury and Bristol, the latter being in the 80s).

I met one lad called Robert Spackman at Huddersfield who was a real character. He had passed his A levels at 16 with A Grades and was going on to a London University because Cambridge wouldn't take him until he was 17. He had been given his Gran's house in Penge (Sarf London) by his parents and he had a couple of lodgers. Several of the rooms were padlocked off for no obvious reason other than they were full of furniture. I went to stay with him a couple of times for events and for when I got onto the National Exec. He sneaked me into his former boarding school in the Medway area once for the sole purpose of watching Monty Python as he didn't have a telly.

Travelling down to see Robert (generally to align with an Exec Board meeting at BAYS HQ) involved going on the all night bus from Gallowgate Bus Station in Newcastle to Victoria Coach Station. Unfortunately, it took all night, leaving at 9pm and getting in at about 6am, stopping all over the place for pickups and toilet stops. Over the years I grew to intensely dislike Motel Leeming (now Leeming Services) near Northallerton as you had to go by then and it was turnstile toilets.

Then, one day, a letter arrived from the BAYS office with a black border. Robert had died in an (unexplained) accident at Waterloo Station. I was absolutely devastated, this was the first time a friend of mine had died and it was an unnerving experience. Then, about three weeks later, the phone went and my mate Keith told me to turn the box on, Robert Spackman was on the Telly. Indeed he was, making a posthumous appearance on University Challenge. This was unnerving and Keith reckoned that he had faked his death. The reality, of course, was much more mundane; the programme had been filmed many weeks previously.

Being involved with BAYS had two beneficial effects. The first one was that it helped me get my first job; being active at National level in such an organisation stood me in good stead at the bulk interviews to find twenty-four Technician Engineer recruits from the hundreds of applicants.

The second opportunity was to meet my first celebrity- the legendary Botanist, Dr. David Bellamy. The BA had organised a lecture by him in the University Curtis Auditorium and BAYS were invited along. The lecture was called the edge of evolution and it was all about moss & lichens at the land/ice boundary towards the North Pole. I have to say it was a rather dull lecture... about mosses and lichens, livened up only by a slide of their portable house being helicoptered in for the expedition. At the end, I was invited to join the BA luminaries for a meal in the University Refectory whilst the great hairy one held court at table, entertaining us with stories about his travels.

I was suprised to see David Bellamy in the celebrity audience for the Comic Relief 5000 Miles video (by Peter Kay and Matt Lucas with the Proclaimrs). More than thirty years on, he looks almost exactly the same, a bit ruddier & wrinkled in nose & face, but otherwise the character he has always been.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Newcastle Royal- seats at all prices...

When I was at newcastle, I took loads of photos knowing that with available light and without a tripod, some of them will turn out blurry no matter how fine they look on the small screen. These ones are passable.

I took shots from various places around the theatre auditorium. This is the back of the stalls.

The back of the Dress Circle (not on the centre line)

The back of the Upper Circle,

The front of the Gallery (Follow-spot positions below)

and the very back of the gallery.

Finally, a bit of nostalgia- the original location of "my" follow-spot, and the view I had. If Mike or Bernie swapped sides or went where we couldn't cover them (in my case, anywhere far stage left), we had to swap beams!

I took a couple of triple panorama shots from an upper box and was surprised to notice afterwards that I managed to give the theatre six boxes a side rather than four due to a dodgy picture lineup.

It really looks like this:

With the normal wide angle setting, we see much less, although it looks more. (The same vantage point, angled down a bit more to take in the stalls. (I couldn't do that for the Panoramas, as it would have been practically impossible to align the camera which was braced on a brass rail.

Some splendid ceiling detailing from the gallery slips

Have you ever wondered what it looks like behind all of this wonderful fibrous plaster icing? Here is a glimpse into a void space. Definitely not for public view!

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

The Glory Box storage shed has arrived from Sheds 'r us. We need to get it secured with a Scuffer-Lock (Shedache scheme) before we can put anything valuable in it though.

Call me twosheds...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I didn't want to get sent off...

A quick nip into the Theatre Royal Building Site.

The rules are hard hats, high visibility jackets and safety boots...

...the height of builder chic!

It keeps us safe from the vestigial toilets...

I don't think the gear will help if you fall down the lift shaft though!

In a few weeks, this will become an educational studio space with bleacher seating. They can't get rid of the girders though, the building structure is too complicated.

Soon it will look like the first floor space.

One is cherished, another rots...

Whilst Grey Street is looking really smart in Newcastle, Pilgrim Street is not. The former Paramount which closed in late 2002 now looks destined for the wrecker's ball.

The fire exits have been bricked up to keep any unwanted audiences out.

Missing- a D, an E, an N and two Os

Let us hope that a museum rescues one of the two metal Paramount logos high above the street at projection suite level.

The company who now own the whole block (10 acres) from top to bottom
includes the Odeon building, have lodged plans with the council for complete
redevelopment including apartments, offices and shops..

This is one sleeping beauty who may get a rather rude awakening. Some interior glances here.

Newcastle's Theatre Royal

Yesterday, I was up in Geordieland to see various technical innovations introduced in recent refurbishments of Tyneside's premier touring theatre.

On this outside view, you can see a builders compond down the side of the building. This is for the renovation and expansion of various front of house and ancillary spaces, as well as an education space.

When we got inside, we were treated to the delightful new mural of an actor taking a bow in Grey Street. This is fixed directly onto the safety curtain which was originally relatively plain.

After being told about the project, the safety curtain was flown out to reveal the stage as the audience never see it- the dream factory laid bare.

From the stage, the auditorium can be seen in all of its Matcham glory. I can remember it being described as like performing inside a wedding cake by Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse with Eric Sykes back in 1970, the first Pro show I went to see by myself. (Aisle seat, row C, front stalls).

From the back of the stage, the auditorium looks rather small in scale to the height and width.

The stage right area is new- extended into an old Barclays Bank with some forthcoming access into some vaults below for flight cases and such. When I worked the 75/76 Panto (and indeed up until a month or so ago), the wall finished to the left of the thick column next to the large white electrical box, narrower even than the auditorium on that side of the stage.

Standing centre stage and looking up, the fly floor can be seen, along with three gallery levels.

The grid, sixty feet above stage level.

In the upstage right corner is a dumb waiter lift, intended for raising chain hoists (or anything else) to grid level, safe working load 450kG.

After flights and flights of stairs, we eventually arrived at the grid. This is very unusual as it is the first one in Britain made of Plastic, or more accurately Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP), a Fibreglass (but stronger) based structural composite widely used in industry.

The Grid covers the acting area but not the wings, due to the sloping roof construction. There is a large smoke lantern over the grid, the glass painted out (but needing a repaint!)

The large yellow fixtures are movable spot loading points. All of the vertical ladders and handrails are made of GRP which is workable somewhat like timber. This view is of the counterweight and header pulleys. Note that the last four sets have an extra pulley to allow for ladder clearance.

After climbing down three sets of vertical ladders, we arrived on the flyfloor. This is a brand new flying system on the normal counterweight principle, although it is possible to link up some motorised units for powered flying. The blue weights are used to balance the bar without loading and are at the top of the cradle rather than the bottom due to height constraints in the fly tower. (It is a grade 1 listed building and much of the original timber & steel beams have been preserved)

This is the Flyman's view from the fly floor, raked the same as the stage.

This is a double-purchase system, where the rope and cradle move only half the distance of the stage bar. (It has to be this way to give the stage dock clearance stage right but is more difficult to operate for the flyman).

This is an architects model for the construction work on display in the circle lobby. The stage haystack lantern can be clearly seen at roof level.

More about the new work in another posting.

Is she really going out with him?

Last night, we went to see Karen's favourite musician ever, Joe Jackson. It was held in "The Plug", a sort of cowshed turned night club with disco lighting. The walk to the live venue was relieved (slightly) by urban graffiti style murals, whilst the main hall (which resembled an agricultural or industrial unit) was painted midnight blue with the only lighting (other than the audience wobblies & stage rig) being very deep blue panels behind the bar.

It has a high stage and a crash barrier, but it is standing throughout.

Shortly after it started to fill up, the ventilation system was turned on and it sounded as though one of those road sweeper sucker trucks was parked backstage. Fortunately the sound of the PA was mostly loud enough to overcome the sounds of a thousand Dysons, whilst the ear bleeding and the subsonic woomph becomes comfortable after prolonged exposure.

After several dirges by a fairly uninspiring support act, the Jackson Band came on to a warm reception from a mostly middle-aged crowd and performed for about 90 minutes with new songs as well as old.

He didn't do my personal favourite- (Home Town from the Big World album, suitably balladized for solo piano) but he did do "Different for Girls" and "Is she really going out with him?" (It is bizarre that he still gets put off by everyone shouting Where? after the line Look over there. He started the show with Stepping Out and finished it with A Slow Song.

Here is the one that made him famous:

(Photo image montage from

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Royal visit

I had a day off work yesterday to indulge my technical theatre muse. I was also out yesterday evening at a gig so was unable to blog. In the meantime, here is a teaser...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Healthy dinosaur food

This morning, I was slightly surprised to find that we were a bit short of cooked meats for our packed lunches, so I had to raid David's.

Here it is arranged on my desk for a photo-opportunity.

Monday, May 21, 2007

O Canada!

I want to get round to blogging about my stints in Canada which is not like America at all, apart from the cars and domestic appliances.

I was introduced to Canadian Culture whilst in Saudi Arabia by being loaned a cassette of Bob & Doug McKenzie, a parody of local cable Saturday afternoon hunting/shooting/fishing shows.

The Canadians love the great outdoors and will head north at every opportunity.

Their twelve days of Christmas is funny as well!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Not all politicians are scum...

Freedom & Whisky asks: And where is Britain's Ron Paul?

Ron Paul is a Texas Congressman running for presidency in 2008. He is a libertarian conservative Republican.

(He saw it on Lew Rockwell's Blog who got it from Josh Purinton)

To take away on holiday...

I enjoy Fabian Tassano's Mediocracy Blog, incisive thinking with occasional snippets from his book of the same name.

I have now tracked down his book and am happy to plug it here, in exchange for his extended Christmas signing offer.

(Disclosure- I haven't read it yet, although I have dipped in and enjoyed what I have surfed.)

Idiot Head

When I was a schoolboy, I had a friend called Bruce, commonly known as "Toota" (although I don't remember why). He was a member of a schoolboy band called Applecore along with Stew, Tud and a fourth lad whose name escapes me.

Toota came from what today would be called a dysfunctional family. He lived with his Dad and Brother on the 9th floor of a tower block in the centre of Newcastle.

His Dad was a journalist for the Newcastle Journal and went by the non-de-plume of "Joe Cona", inspired by their coffee machine. The brother was called Norman who was large, fat and hairy, wearing denim and liking heavy music. Norman had an unusual hobby- he transcribed cricket scores out of Wisden almanacks into exercise books. He was friendly enough, although another of Toota's friends used to wind him up mercilessly.

Toota shared a room with Norm but as Norm mostly watched Telly, whenever I came round we would go into the bedroom and Toota would play guitar. He had a Hofner Bass copy as he was a big fan of Paul McCartney and the Beatles. He wore a leather jacket and had hair long at the back.

At some point along the way, the Dad reconciled with his Mum and she moved into the flat. One one occasion, I was invited to join them for tea, which strained the crockery arrangements somewhat and they rustled me up whatever the meal was on a saucer. Using my vast wit and repartee, I said "I've never had my tea on an ashtray before".

After that, Toota's Mum took something of a dislike to me and it was a small source of argument between the couple, as his Dad rather liked me as I had intelligent conversations with him (something his two obsessive Sons were not good at).

Toota told me once that she was openly hostile about me, saying "Is that Idiot Head coming round again?", although when I was there she just treated me with silent distain.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Toota. He got a job at a hardware store (a traditional old fashioned brown overall job in the Handyside arcade) but got the push after he was caught shoplifting an Album from Callers record department. The silly fool had stuck it up his jumper but they had recently fitted a security alarm system which went off as he went out of the door and he was caught banged to rights. He was an excellent guitarist though and had the talent to go far.

By chance, many years later, I bumped into Stew at the Kenton Bar, a large Pub near my Parents' house. It was his wedding reception night and it seems it was a bit of a shotgun wedding. We were invited back to Stew's parents house, were we found the Bride sobbing on the stairs, crying "I never wanted it to be like this" and the two families arguing. Exit stage left...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A night at the races...

Last night we went charity pig racing, organised by Batley Ladies Circle, the Paramilitary wing of Batley Round Table.

The first race the pigs went in all directions, so for the other races the pig "owners" could guide them.

The event included a pie & pea supper

Yorkshire food- Pie, mushy peas, mint sauce, brown sauce.

The last race- a close thing. One of the owners gave David number six to take home; a generous gesture after he had just forked out £20 for it. (They are £5 in Leeds market).

The event raised £550+ for cancer charities and one particularly persuasive Round Tabler who had lost a friend to cancer that week at 49 persuaded us to fork out another £104.

Just in case you've not seen this type of pig before, this vid snippet shows you how they move. You can't really hear them oinking, but they do.

Well done, Batley Ladies Circle!