Blog No.34: Christmas story No.3 – He’s behind you! (Or not, as the case may be) 1975-1979

The third installment of a few memorable musical Christmases….


(Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

This was going to be my blog about performing in my first four Christmas shows, three of which were pantomimes, from 1975 to 1979. (The featured picture is from the 1975/76 Kenneth More Theatre, Ilford production of Dick Whittington, in which I played his cat, Tommy. My very first panto’.) Since I have a problem at the moment with my right arm and hand I can’t type very much, and I’m doing this via the dictation software on my Mac. Whilst it is a great piece of technology, I still find it hard to write anything of length by dictating it, so you will be relieved to hear that I’m not going to do these stories. Instead, below are just photos from two of the productions I was in during this period.

My second panto of Babes In The Wood – me being one of the babes – at the Swansea Grand, 1976/77. I’m the little guys kneeling. Those from Wales of a certain age might recognise the wonderful Ryan Davies and actor Glyn Houston, brother of Donald Houston.
My fourth Christmas show and first foray into puppet and mask theatre in 1978/79 with Caricature Theatre, Cardiff. This was a production performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. I played Jack, the one with the axe on his shoulder. After this I went onto Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre in Birmingham where I spent two happy years, and from there into film. (Neither Caricature or Cannon Hill – the largest puppet/mask companies at the time – exists any longer.)

My next blog will actually be a vlog (video log), just to wish you all a Happy New Year in person.

Until then, thanks for reading,


Blog No.33: Christmas story No.2 – In The Bleak Midwinter – The Christmas of 1965(?)

The second of a few memorable musical Christmases


(Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

Since it’s the season to be jolly and joyous (to quote The Muppet Christmas Carol) I thought I’d give you all, and myself, a break from the usual blogs and bore you with some different ones instead. No.2 is about the second Christmas I can remember, that of 1965…at least I think that was the year. I must have been around 8 or 9. Anyhow, it was the year of my first public singing performance. This all happened at Greenland Infant and Primary School, South Moor, Stanley, County Durham.

Greenland School around the time it opened in 1908. The school closed a few years back.

The first thing I remember is the choosing of who would be playing who in that year’s Nativity play. I so wanted to play Joseph…or a shepherd. I wanted to wear a costume, and have one of those tea-towels on my head! One by one the parts were going, and my name wasn’t called out. In the end there was no one left, and I was crest-fallen. But then my teacher – Miss Handy I think it was, though I can’t be certain – turned to me and said, “Malcolm [my real name], I want you to sing ‘In The Bleak Midwinter‘. I should have been elated, I should have been proud, but I wanted to wear a tea-towel on my head, and the singing would involve no costume or tea-towel!

Our Nativity play would have looked something like this photo from 1963. ( Photo is of Glengyle Preparatory School for Boys was in Putney, south-west London, from my old friend and fellow puppeteer and writer, Francis Wright’s blog:

Of course, when I told my mother she was proud…I think. It was hard to tell with ‘me mam’ as she wasn’t one for showing her feelings. I can’t remember her being in the audience that bleak midwinter afternoon, but I’m sure she must have been. My dad had passed away only a year or two before, so he was there in spirit only. I can still remember the sea of faces staring up at me: proud mum’s and dads…and probably a load of parents just wishing it was over; but I don’t remember being afraid. I may have been a bit nervous, but not frightened. (This would stand me in good stead for my later performing career.) So, I slowly walked out onto the stage, turned to face the audience, and began to sing…”In the bleak midwinter. frosty winds may blow.…” and I remember loving it. Loving the singing, loving the attention. Loving it all! I think I sang three verses, and when I finished there was applause. My first audience applause. I bowed as best as I could, and I walked off stage. As I did, I saw my teacher crying. I don’t think, at the time, I knew why she was wiping her eyes, but I hope was because it moved her and not because it was excruciating. It certainly moved me, and I had forgotten all about not wearing a costume or a tea-towel on my head.

A street scene from around the time.

I’ll leave you with Susan Boyle at the Royal Albert Hall, singing the version of the carol that I sang. Merry Christmas to you all.


Thanks, as always, for reading, and please do leave a Star Rating at the top of the Page (good or bad, I don’t mind), or Like it below if you’re a member of WordPress. You can also leave a Comment or Question below.

Until next one,


Blog No.32: Christmas story No.1 – Yet In Thy Dark Streets Shineth – The Christmas of 1963

The first of a few memorable musical Christmases


(Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window. If you’re looking at this in your email inbox, the videos won’t play there but will opened in a browser window from YouTube)

Since it’s the season to be jolly and joyous (to quote The Muppet Christmas Carol) I thought I’d give you all, and myself, a break from the usual blogs and bore you with some different ones instead. No.1 is about the first Christmas I can vividly remember, that of 1963. There isn’t really a musical connection to this, apart from the carol, Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem. That comes about because my older nephew, David Calvert, wrote a fictional short story set in this, or one like it, snow-blanketed winter, and called it Yet In Thy Dark Streets Shineth. A story that he won an award for from The Writer’s Bureau, beating over 10,000 contestants worldwide. David has kindly given me permission to include it here, and you can read it after my little Yule Tide tale.

Not exactly sure where this is, but it’s from the Beamish Museum archive.

I remember it because it was one of the worse winters we have had, as you can see from some of the photos; but my main recollection is visiting my much older sister, Irene and her coal ming husband, Joe Calvert, and their children, Carol, David and Alan. These, strangely enough, were my nephews and neice, yet all older than me (6, 4 and 3 years respectively), but being closer to me in age seemed more like older brothers and sister than six of my older siblings, most of whom were married and had children by the time I arrive on the scene…much to my parents’ surprise. My dad would still have been alive then, and may also have been visiting along with my mam and sister, Betty (6 years older than me), but I don’t remember. He could have been in hospital at the time. (He passed away the following August.)

A bus to Stanley pulls up behind a mound of snow at Flint Hill, Dipton.

Anyhoo…what I do remember, is, along with the Calvert Kids, making the biggest snowball you can imagine! Well, I think it was huge, but I was pretty tiny aged 6 – I’m still pretty tiny aged 60 – so it may not have been as large as I remember. I recall it being at least twice my size…so let’s just say it was. We created it under the orange glow of the street lights by starting at one end of their snow covered road of King Edward VIII Terrace*, Shield Row, and rolling it from a hand-sized snowball to its larger self, whatever that was, a couple of hundred yards later at the other end of the terrace…after a great deal of effort I might add! There wouldn’t have been any cars parked along that street to worry about, as so few people had them back in the day, and any there might have been would be parked in the back street; and the school opposite the row of red bricked council houses would be closed for the holidays, so no school buses to worry about the next day.

What we did with it after creating that white rotund monster, I don’t recall, but it would have taken it a hell of a long time for it to melt! For all the years, however, it has never melted from my memory.

That snow may have been an horrendous inconvenience for the adults, but it was magical for us kids, and David’s following short story puts that magic to great use….

*King Edward VIII Terrance is the only Edward VIII named street there is in the whole country, this being the kind who abdicated.

‘Yet In Thy Dark Streets Shineth’

A Christmas tale


David Calvert

Young Danny Braithwaite had but one thought on his mind as he sprang from his bed and dashed to the window. ‘This time’, he thought, excitedly drawing back the curtain. A harsh white light invaded the bedroom chasing the sleep from his eyes, and he let out a jubilant whoop at the magical transformation that had taken place overnight. At last, the snows had arrived.

“C’mon young’un”, he urged, shaking his brother violently from his slumber. “It’s been snowin’. Let’s get ready and go out to play.”

Alan, two years his junior, pulled the covers over his head and grumpily told him to ‘nick off’; adding that it was far too cold to get out of bed. Then suddenly the import of the message struck home.  Sitting bolt upright, he shrieked, “Snowin’!”

“Yeah! Look – it’s as deep as anythin’.”

Alan scrambled to the window, blankets in tow. “Cor! Look at that. It must have snowed all night to get that deep.”

A familiar voice called out from the adjacent bedroom, “What’s going on in there?”

The celebrations came to an abrupt halt. “Er, nothin’ mam”, Danny sniggered. “Where just gettin’ ready to go out.”

“Not until you’ve had your breakfast, you’re not. And besides”, she continued, “it started snowing last night, so I want you both properly dressed.”

“Yer know what that means young’un”, sighed Danny, “Before we get out of here, she’ll have us done up like Eskimos.”

That morning the conversation at the breakfast table was animated. Alan was helping himself to his third spoonful of strawberry jam, which he dolloped into his porridge and swirled around until a glutinous pink mass stared up at him from the bowl. Danny was in the throes of a protracted argument with his sister Carol, the eldest of the trio, over whose Christmas presents would occupy the sofa the following morning. In the midst of their dispute, an innocent question brought the proceedings to a shuddering halt.

“Mam – what’s the ‘Big C?”

Every eye was now trained on the youngster, as he noisily sucked the dregs of porridge from his tablespoon.

Mary’s face blanched as she slowly lowered the coffee cup from her lips. “What do you mean love? Why do you ask?”

“‘Cos Ricky Pinder said he heard his mam and dad talkin’ about me dad, and they said he had the ‘Big C'”.

She snapped, her face turning an angry shade of red. “Did they now! Well you just take no notice of anything they have to say, sweetheart.” Sipping the last dregs from her cup, she rose to collect the breakfast dishes from the table. It was then she noticed that her daughter had become very quiet and seemed preoccupied with her thoughts.

Carol was fourteen and was quite aware of the situation concerning her much missed father. When he had first been admitted to hospital, she and her brothers had been allowed regular visits, but as his condition worsened, only the adults were permitted to see him – a decision which she had found unbearably cruel, given that he would not be with them for very much longer. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes as she pondered a life without him.

“Alright kids”, Mary chirped, “Seeing as how it’s Christmas Eve, why don’t you each write a note to Santa telling him what you want.”  She knew, of course, that Danny and Carol were almost past the age of innocent belief, but this was a family tradition and there was still the youngster to consider.

As she had hoped, Carol’s sombre thoughts were soon distracted as they each took up pen and paper and began writing in earnest.

The task completed, they folded their sheets and ceremoniously burned them on the fire; the premise being that the smoke from the ashes would somehow be carried to the North Pole where, they were reliably informed, Father Christmas would, in some undisclosed manner, read them and fulfil their wishes.

Danny was first to be ready and waited impatiently as his mother dressed the youngster. True to his earlier statement, she had ensured that each of them was suitably attired for the wintry climate. They had no sooner left her sight when off came the balaclavas and scarves, and an energetic snowball fight ensued. As it progressed, so did the number of their group until, at length, it seemed as though an entire army of children were fighting a pitched battle at the end of the street. Eventually, the group filtered down to a mere handful.  It was suggested that more fun could be had on the neighbouring pit-heap.

The ‘heapy’, as the boys were wont to call it, stood almost fifty feet in height and had a broad, evened top that stretched off into the distance towards the pit-head, creating a plateau-like effect which the boys put good use to as their personal playground. In their time it had served a multitude of purposes. Today, however, it would be employed as a gigantic slide from which they would propel themselves on remnants of conveyor belting, hurtling at breath-taking speeds down the icy covered slopes.

With boundless energy and screams of delight, they descended the south-facing slope, amid flurries of freezing snow, to the farmer’s field below. After an hour or two, their youthful exuberance eventually gave way to the cold and hunger and so it was decided they would all go home for dinner, returning later to continue their adventures.

After a hearty turkey dinner, followed by freshly baked apple pie and custard, Mary informed the children that she would be visiting their father later that afternoon, and that they would be staying at Uncle Tom’s and Aunt V’s until she returned to collect them.

For Danny in particular, the idea of spending Christmas Eve with his aunt and uncle was an appealing one. They were a childless couple who lavished attention on the children whenever the opportunity arose.

True to form, Tom greeted them with a cheery smile and proceeded to pull from behind the ears of each of them, much to their amazement and glee, a fifty pence piece which he deposited into their eagerly waiting hands.

On entering the living room, they gasped in admiration. Dominating one corner was a brightly lit Christmas tree, bedecked with all manner of ornamentation, and surmounted by a glistening star of silver. From the four corners of the ceiling to its centre were draped richly coloured streamers of green and red. An advent calendar, its tiny windows peeled back, hung from the centre of the fire breast, flanked on either side with a wreath of holly. The entire room had been lovingly decorated in a multitude of effects to delight and stimulate the senses. Only when the house lights were dimmed, and the multi-coloured tree lights switched on, was their true effect fully appreciated by the children.

Within half-an-hour of Mary’s departure Alan suddenly announced; “I’m hungry!”

“You’re always hungry”, his sister declared.

Veronica looked up. “I think that should do it”, she said, applying the final strokes of the brush to her niece’s fine auburn hair. “There’s some cherry pie due out the oven. Would anyone like some?”

An eager chorus of ‘Yes please‘ went out from the children – followed closely by a grunt from their uncle, who was otherwise occupied showing off his latest feat of legerdemain to an appreciative audience of two.

Carol declared, defiantly, “There’s no such thing as real magic! Nobody can do real magic.”

Danny was becoming increasingly tired of his sister’s ill-tempered moods and was about to say as much when Tom intervened.

“Oh, and what makes you say that?”

“Because there just isn’t”, came the terse reply. “If people could do real magic, then wishes would come true; but they don’t. They don’t come true – no matter how hard you try.”

She was now almost at the point of tears when her aunt entered, laden with the food and drink.

“You know”, Tom said, between mouthfuls of freshly baked cherry pie, “wishes can come true; can’t they love.”  He turned to Veronica and smiled a knowing smile.

She returned his smile, the corners of her mouth accentuating her dimpled cheeks. “Alright then”, she relented, “If you must.”

It was then he announced, “We’re going to have a baby!”

Veronica coughed loudly.

He corrected himself. “Well – that’s to say – Aunt V’s going to have a baby. Soon you’ll have a new cousin to play with. So, you see”, he said, turning to his niece, “some wishes can come true.”

Carol wanted to believe with all her heart that somehow things could be made different simply by wishing it: that by some magical process the love she had for her father was strong enough to overcome the illness that kept them apart. In Danny and Alan too, a longing for their father began to stir, engendering cherished memories of Christmas’ past.

Tom rose from his chair and moved to the window. He gazed out at the snow-capped roofs and the streets beyond. He, too, missed his brother and sniffed back a single tear which threatened his composure.

Quite unexpectedly, the phone rang. V was the first to answer it. After listening for a few seconds, she called out to Tom, “You’d better take this”, she said, her hand shaking as she handed him the receiver. “It’s Mary”, she whispered.

With an awful sense of dread, he put the receiver to his ear and turned his back to the children. The first sound he heard was that of his sister-in-law’s weeping. Then came the words. “It’s Jim; he’s …”

“Oh God! Not tonight of all nights”, he cut in, slumping into the nearest chair.

By now the children were aware that something was wrong and Carol began to whimper.

“No, no! You don’t understand”, Mary went on. “Jim’s in remission. He’s getting better.”

“But I thought there was …”

“No hope?” Mary interrupted. “We all did, but that’s not the queerest thing Tom. Jim told me he’d had a curious dream this afternoon. He said he’d dreamt that three tiny fireballs had entered through his closed cubicle window and that as he watched, each of them turned into a sheet of paper that fluttered onto his bed. He recognised the handwritings on them as belonging to the children. It was the very same letters they had written to Santa this morning Tom; I’m sure of it.”

“But what makes you so sure?”

“Because of what they’d written. Ask them what they put in their letters Tom, and I’ll bet it was, ‘Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is my daddy back.'”

Tom did as requested, and was stunned at their replies.

Later that night, as a fresh fall of snow gently descended over a peaceful village, Carol, Danny, Alan and their aunt and uncle huddled contentedly around the tree, each knowing that something truly magical had taken place. It turned out to be a Christmas that neither of them would forget in the years to come.

© David Calvert 2011



Thanks, as always, for reading, and please do leave a Star Rating at the top of the Page (good or bad, I don’t mind), or Like it below if you’re a member of WordPress. You can also leave a Comment or Question below.

Until next time,


Blog No.31: From The Earth To The Seas – A Musical ‘History’ Of #Northumberland & #Durham – Part 4 – 1946 to 1974 – Tracks 10 to 14

Tracks 10 to 14 of the ‘album’ covering the middle of the 20th century – from a fictional mining disaster to my street fighting nephew

BLOG NO.31 – IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ BLOG NO.30 FIRST, CLICK HERE. If you’d like to read first why I wrote these 65 tracks, then click HERE to read that blog. (Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

(Those getting this via email won’t be able to see the tracks. Clicking on the title of the blog will open it in a tab of your web browser. For those reading on a iPad, the tracks will open in a separate browser windows and not play on the Page. Apologies.)

Welcome to a blog about the  last five tracks (10 to 14) of Part 4 of ‘From The Earth To The Seas. Now comes the blurb if you haven’t read the other Parts…. There are five ‘albums’, covering over three hundred years of history – both real and fictional – relating the English northeastern counties of what were Northumberland and Durham, but now Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and Durham including Teesside; Part 4 covers 1946 to 1975. As such, some of the songs are sung in the old Northumbrian, Geordie or Pitmatic accents and dialects. I’ve included explanations of the words used where necessary, and sometimes give lyrics in Standard English.

The dates by the track are either just where I have placed them (e.g. c.1900), this is when the traditional song was written, or this is when the historical event they portray happened. Keep in mind the music styles will change greatly from Parts 1 to 5 as they reflect the time they depict.

If any ex- or working miners out there spot any technical mistakes, please let me know in the comments section at the bottom of the page. If anyone else spots typos, please let me know. Thanks.

Anyone can give a Rate This star rating at the top of the blog or leave a Comment at the bottom of the page, and you can Like this blog if you’re a WordPress member at the bottom. If you’d like each blog to be posted to your inbox, click on the Follow Mak’s Music Blog tab at the top of the sidebar to the right if you’re with WordPress, or FOLLOW (THROUGH EMAIL) if you’re not. Blurb over…now for the tracks….

Track 10 – Summer of ’65 – This song is fictional story about a mining disaster and the death of the singer’s father, and it is loosely based on the death of my own. My dad actually died in 1964 aged 53, just before my 7th birthday. It wasn’t coal mining that was the cause though, as he had given that up some years earlier, but gangrene caused by thrombosis. He passed away from organ failure during the operation to remove his leg. It might have been a different story had it happened now.

In an awful mirroring of events, one of my brothers-in-law, who had also been a miner, died through exactly the same circumstances a few decades later. If you’ve read any of my past blogs you will know about my older writing nephew, David Calvert; it was his father whom this happen to.

In the song the character mentions about being 18 towards the end, and I think this is about the age that I was when I wrote it, which would have been around 1975/76, when I also composed a few other of these 65 tracks. I initially recorded this in 2007 on my Roland VS-2480 Digital Workstation, but couldn’t transfer the individual tracks to GarageBand, so ended up re-recording it this year.

Created with the aid of GarageBand on the iPad.

Track 11 – Farewell My Beamish Mary (1966) – A song about the closure of a colliery -the Beamish Mary – that was a mile from where I spent my formative years. In fact, this is the mine that the brother-in-law mentioned in the previous track worked at. It closed in the year that my mother and I moved from South Stanley to Shield Row, which is where this pit was, and where my sister, Irene and her husband Joe lived, with their children – all older than me – Carol, David (mentioned above) and Alan, otherwise know as Titchy. (He because somewhat infamous for his fighting prowess, and track 14 is about him.)

The closing of any mine has a huge impact both on the miners and the communities that they came from. From the mid-1960s, many of the mines in the Stanley area were closing, and the miners had to find either alternative pits, or alternative jobs. In the case of Joe, he went to work at Osram’s lightbulb factory in Birtley.

Created with the aid of GarageBand on the iPad.

Track 12 – Now We’ve Broken Your Back (1969– This track – which was a later addition, and is numbered as 14 on SoundCloud – was inspired by a documentary on the closing down and dismantling of the Craghead Colliery near Stanley, Co. Durham in 1969, which I only recently saw. (You can see Part One of that documentary by clicking HERE.) Whilst the song is about this particular pit, its sentiment can be applied to the closing of any mine, and the affects this has. The song focusses on the actual dismantling of the mine, and the sadness felt by those doing it.

I never knew Craghead pit – or I’ve forgotten it – but I knew Craghead, either as a place I used to go to dance at the youth club there, or passing through on the bus to go to Durham City or my Aunt Meggie’s house in Langley Park.

I recorded this on one of my off days, which affects my voice. However, I’m more interested in other musicians using it.

All instruments in GarageBand and Logic Pro X.

Track 13 – Oh For A Saturday Night! (c.1972)  – This song reflects the life and attitude of many a working man in 1970s Durham and Northumberland. There was certainly a great deal of sexism and some misogyny – it was the 1970s after all – but there were still plenty men who weren’t either.

When visiting the Northeast I always went to the Working Men’s Club of a Saturday night. I couldn’t keep up with their drinking, but it was always a lot of fun. It was here that we’d sing some of my mining ballads, and it was here that my brother-in-law, Joe, or my brother Tommy would get up to sing. Yes, it was very much in the working men’s club slow-vibrato style, but they were still good and it was always enjoyed. I only ever got up once, and that was to sing my mam and dad’s favourite song, The Wedding (Ave Maria). It made her cry, and it can still bring me to tears. A couple of my actress singing girlfriends I to North got up to sing, and one of them is the only person I know of who made the whole room go quiet near closing time as she sung…which was some fete!

I think I wrote this in 1992, but can’t quite remember.

Created with the aid of GarageBand.

Track 14 – The Shield Row Kid (c.1975) – Believe or not, this is based on a real person: the one mentioned above: my nephew, Alan (‘Titchy’) Calvert. The Shield Row back street in the photo is, in fact, where one of the street fights took place c.1972; although the photo predates this song by about 8 years. It was all diesel trains by 1975, when Alan’s fighting days were all but over and this song is set. This is the street where the Calverts, and later my mam, lived: King Edward VIII Terrace, Shield Row. Alan’s brother, David, would also be involved in that particular street fight – to which my other slightly older nephew, Keith Wilson and I were witnesses – but who wouldn’t last long, after being knocked unconscious. Never-the-less, the Calverts and their ‘gang’ came out on top. It made me never want to witness a street fight again!

The song also tells of how his abilities would come to haunt Alan, as lads would still come from miles around to challenge him. This is why I decided to do the song in a Western style, liking him to a successful gun-slinger, trying to shake off his violent past. His fame even spread to Shropshire, where I now live, over 200 miles away. A school friend of my wife married a lass from Anfield Plain, Stanley (where the actor Alun Armstrong is from), and the first time I met her, I happened to mention Titchy. Her eyes widen, she laughed, then admitted how she and friends would sometimes go up to Consett (the next big town, six miles away) to watch him fight! What a small world.

I was not into fighting or violence at all…or doing all the other daft and dangerous things these older nephews, who were more like brothers to me, would do. Every time I did pluck up the courage to try something, I always became a cropper.

Created with the aid of Apple Loops.

Recorded in Weston Lullingfields & Oswestry, Shropshire © Mak Wilson 1974, 1976, 1977, 1993, 2007 & 2017


Thanks so much for reading and listening, and please, please, please rate the blog (at the top)! (Grovelling over.)



Blog No.30: Part 9 of My Close Encounters Of The Music Legend Kind: Sir Bruce Forsyth

A day with the legend that was Bruce Forsyth, and other strange connection I would have with him


(Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window. If you’re looking at this in your email inbox, the videos won’t play there but will opened in a browser window from YouTube)

If you haven’t read any of these, I always start with a confession: I thought I would do these Close Encounter blogs purely because I knew they would get more people coming to my blog site and, hopefully, listening to my folk music too. Well, I was right on the first count, but, judging by my site and SoundCloud statistics, I don’t think it’s getting many people to have a listen to my musical attempts. Hardly surprising, really, as most of those wanting to read these – include either current or budding puppeteers – are not that interested in folk-type music that is primarily about the history of a specific region of England. Just so you know, I have blogged about the other kinds of music I’ve done – see THIS one for example – and I will be doing more in the future. (I’ve added a couple of songs to the right-hand sidebar.) There, now I’ve done my confessional, on with the blog….

In my 40-odd years as an actor, puppeteer and movement choreographer in theatre, television and film I was fortunate and honoured enough to meet and work with some music legends – both human and places – from Elton John to Capital Record Studios in LA. It’s only recently that I realised music has been with me my whole adult working life, in one form or another, and I thought I’d share these ‘close encounters’ with you. So here is Part 9 of those encounters….

Brucie in 1976 on the show he hosted at the time, The Generation Game

This Close Encounter, like the last one, is one I had completely forgotten about, and it should, like the last one, have been a much earlier post. Never mind, here it is now. Considering Sir Bruce Forsyth – known affectionately as Brucie – passed away earlier this year, I really wanted to related this story, as well as other surprising connection Brucie and I had. I’ll get to those in a moment.

The year is 1976, and I am 19 years old,  living in Putney, southwest London. At the time, my then girlfriend and I – whom I’d met doing pantomime with at The Grand Theatre, Swansea, South Wales –  were with the same London agent, and that agent happened to supply actors (male and female) to the then hugely popular BBC game show, The Generation Game, hosted at the time by the legendary Brace Forsyth, to rehearse the show and test out the game. I’ll get to that in due course.

Brucie had, in recent years, become synonymous with another BBC show, Strictly Come Dancing, and whilst many of his audience knew he could sing and dance, they were probably unaware of his incredible entertainment career; unaware that is, unless, like me, they saw the BBC tribute to him after his death at the age of 89. I was unaware, for example, of the musicals he’d appeared in, both in the West End and on Broadway.

I had grown up with Brucie on my tele’, and loved watching him in shows like Sunday Night At The London Palladium, which he hosted for quite some time. Here we’d see him sing, dance and make us laugh, and he could give guest performers, like the amazing Sammy Davis Jr. a run for their money. He was a showman in the truest sense of the word. Not only this, but he was a fine pianist, as you’ll see in the clip below.

Before we get to the Close Encounter, I’d like to relate a connection that Brucie and I would come to have: The Muppets. It was testament to his talents that he was invited to appear on The Muppet Show in January, 1977 (December 1976 in the US); a show that was recorded at ATV Elstree (now BBC Elstree of Eastenders fame), just outside of North London; across the road from the famous Elstree Film Studios. It would be the place where I’d have my first audition with the Muppets in 1982; although, in this instance, it would be for their film, The Dark Crystal. In the clip you’ll see, Brucie plays piano as he sings to/with Miss Piggy. She’s a pig I would come to know well, first through her first* performer, Frank Oz, and then later as I assisted her second puppeteer, Eric Jacobson on the last movie, Muppets Most Wanted. She’s SO demanding!

*Some puppeteers will know that Frank wasn’t her first performer, but Richard Hunt, who puppeteered her briefly.

So, to get back to the Close Encounter: as I said, my then girlfriend (an actress called Elaine Gibbs) and I were asked by our agent if we’d like to do The Generation Game. I don’t think we quite knew what he meant, after all, we weren’t mother and son, even if she was a bit older than me! Of course, that’s not what he meant at all. He meant act as if we were mother and son for the rehearsals, along with a six other actors doing the same generational kind of thing, making four couples in all, as the recorded show that night would go on to have. Our response was, of course, “Well hell yeah!” We grew up watching this show. I think it was enshrined in British law that you had to watch it every Saturday night. (Even if it was based on a Dutch show called Één van de acht (“One of the Eight”) It was HUGE! So off we went to pretend to be contestants at the iconic BBC Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre; a theatre that has seen many legends.

It just so happened to also be the episode that celebrated the birth of Bruce Forsyth and his second wife, Anthea Redfern‘s daughter, Charlotte, which affected something I did during rehearsals. One of the games we had to do was to decorate a piece of pottery with coloured glaze, after being shown how to do so by an expert, as was always the theme of one of the games of the show. I decided to paint baby booties around the top of this pot in blue gaze. Brucie asked what they were? and when I told him, thought it extremely funny…or pretended to for the rehearsal. Whether it was because of this or just that I happened to be chosen, I ended up being the finalist, and was put in front of the infamous conveyor belt, where you had to memorise as many of the objects as possible as they past in front of you in order to win them. Not that I would win them, no matter how many I remembered. For those who don’t know the show, here’s a (very dated!) clip from 1973 of some of the mayhem that usually ensued during the show, as well as that conveyor belt.

Billy Elliot: this may seem a strange connection, but bear with me. In the BBC 80th birthday tribute to Sir Brucie in 2008 (shown below) he got to dance with one of the current Billy Elliots from the West End musical of the same name. The connection comes from both the character of Billy Elliot, and where the film was set. The story, as most of you will know, is about the son of a coal miner during the 1984/85 miner’s strike, set in the Northeast of England. It’s not mentioned where exactly it was set in the movie, but it was filmed in Easington on the County  Durham coast, which then had a colliery. (I was from northwest Durham.) Billy takes to ballet rather than boxing, much to the dismay of his macho miner father, and his brother, and the film shows both his personal struggle and that of the miner’s and their families during that awful strike.

I actually found it very hard to watch the movie. Whilst there are many differences between the character of Billy and my youthful self, and the mining town he grows up in, there were things about it that rang true to my youth, which would be ten years previous to when the film was set. I had a coal ming father – although he passed away when I was six – and grew up in a coal mining town, although there wasn’t much mining left by the time I was a teenager, and, initially, I wanted to be a dancer too, as well as an actor. I loved watching any dance on television, but especially contemporary. It was bad enough wanting to be an actor in a testosterone-filled working class community, so I kept the dancing dreams quiet; but I would, when alone, dance when outside, just like Billy. I soon realised that I wasn’t committed enough to be a contemporary dancer, so I’d stick to acting, but still got to dance when I started touring in musicals or performing in pantomimes. When I moved into physical theatre, doing mime, mask and puppetry, I also started to take contemporary dance lessons. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that I wasn’t fit enough either! (It’s interesting that every girlfriend of mine, before the lady I married, was a dancer.)

There is another strange connection I have with Billy Elliot, and it’s one I related in the previous Close Encounters blog, and that is to Dame Julie Walter, who played the ballet teacher in the film, and whom I got to know whilst working at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1975. Anyway, getting back to Sir Brucie and Billy Elliot, here’s a clip from that BBC special.

My Close Encounter with Sir Brucie was the most amazing, fun-filled day, and one I will never forget…even though I nearly did. Brucie was a UK legend and gave so much joy to his audiences, almost right up until his death, just a few months ago. Thank you Sir Brucie. May you always be remembered.


If you think these stories are interesting, they will be nothing compared to those the puppeteers from The Muppets or Sesame Street could tell. They’ve worked with more musical legends than I’ve had hot dinners. Having said that, I do have more to come, and Part 10 of the Close Encounter Of The Music Legend Kind will be about singing with the legends that are Kermit and Miss Piggy on the Muppet Beach Party album, and being involved in recording the sitcom Dinosaurs‘ BIG SONGS album at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and please do leave a Star Rating at the top of the Page (good or bad, I don’t mind), or Like it below if you’re a member of WordPress. You can also leave a Comment or Question below.

Until next time,