After a summer working in a wood yard in Hull I’m happy to get on the train to Victoria Station in Manchester for the first year of my drama degree. Ellis Jones has introduced me to one of his Hull friends Dave Townsend who’s studying Politics at Manchester. Dave’s found a house to rent in Cornbrook Street just north of Whalley Range and he’s offered me a place. It’s a terrace house with a front room, a dining room and a kitchen on the ground floor with three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. There are five of us so two people have to share a bedroom. Dave has the dining room downstairs as his room. His politics department friend Chris Wright from Lincolnshire has the middle bedroom upstairs. Keith Dixon has the second bedroom upstairs which unfortunately everyone has to go through to get to the bathroom. I’m sharing the third bedroom at the front of the house with Charles Hewson, who is another Hull friend of Ellis and Dave Townsend. He’s a postgraduate looking for a job in Manchester. The kitchen downstairs leads out to the yard at the back of the house where there’s the outside toilet and the back door. The outside loo doesn’t bother me I’m used to that at home.
The Drama Department is easy to find. It’s an old building called the German Church right in the middle of the campus. It has a lobby, a few offices and a large studio. We assemble to meet Professor Hugh Hunt, senior lecturer Stephen Joseph and the other lecturers Clare Venables and Peter Thompson. It’s all going well until one of the lecturers says he assumes we’ve all got our leotards and suggests we get ready for the first movement class. We go off to change, where I ask someone what leotards are. They all pull out a pair of some sort of black tights, even the boys. I don’t have any thank goodness. Unfortunately someone says he has a spare pair and they’re clean. I’m worried about a movement class already but these black tights seem to be too far. We’re bundled into the class.
People seem to know what to do and are committed and enthusiastic. They’re all a bit like Ellis Jones. Working in the old church in the middle of the campus, and being only the second university Drama course in Britain makes us a rather different bunch. That suits me. I head back to Cornbrook Street really taken by everything.
I’m getting to know my housemates. We all go to the fish and chip shop in Brooks Bar for our evening meal. I’m surprised to see people buying meat pies or cheese and onion pies. I come from a place where we eat fish n’ chips and scraps. Charles Hewson is a bit eccentric. His wall is covered with rejection letters from just about every company in the country. He’s just got a job that he needs to keep. It means leaving the house at 7.00 am which he struggles with daily. He’s developed a strategy that involves shaving last thing at night and putting on a clean shirt and trousers. He puts a bowl of cornflakes and a jug of milk by his bed then puts his mac on and jumps fully dressed into bed. The alarm is set for 6.45. The idea is that when it goes off he leans over the side of his bed and pours milk into the cornflakes, eats them and walks straight out of the house. It’s a good plan but he inevitably finishes his cornflakes and goes back to sleep. I usually wake up in the middle of all this and call out ‘Charles…Charles’ but I give up it’s a waste of time.
Keith Dixon has seen a new film called ‘The Knack…and How to Get It’ where one of the cast is obsessed with painting everything in his room white. Keith is so impressed he’s doing exactly the same thing to his room. It looks very different to the other rooms in the house which are dilapidated and barely furnished. Chris Wright is the Social Secretary of the Student Union. It means he books the bands to play for the Saturday night shows at the Union’s Main Debating Hall (MDH) and local bands for the Wednesday night free show at the Lower Debating Hall (LDH) as well. He sometimes books bands for other smaller colleges in the area as well. He’s already got bookings at Manchester University with The Who, Little Stevie Wonder, Moody Blues and Manfred Mann. I’m just sitting at the kitchen table constantly asking questions and hanging on his every word. I’ve found someone as mad about music as I am.
Most of the students in the Drama Department have already been involved with the stage for a few years. They’ve been in school productions or local theatre groups and quite a few have worked part-time in their local theatre.
I’m out of my depth and I can’t rely on my friend Ellis he’s finished his degree and gone to work at the Library Theatre in Scarborough where Stephen Joseph is presenting a series of new plays by Henry Livings, Alan Plater, Alan Ayckbourn and our own Mike Stott. Nevertheless I’m determined to make a go of the course this time. Stephen Joseph our senior lecturer is quite a figure in the theatre. His mother is Hermione Gingold a stage and film star. He’s a major proponent of the experimental Theatre in the Round, where the audience sits in a circle around the stage. Luckily for me he isn’t interested in my lack of experience. He throws me into the improvisation classes. This involves him setting a scene and we have to improvise with words and movement to build a narrative. I find I can make him laugh and he encourages me. It helps my position in the group and gives me the confidence I lacked last year. My tutor Clare Venables is also wonderful, only a few years older than me, energetic and full of ideas.
Chris Wright and I have started going out to gigs. He has a car and knows all the clubs. Manchester has an ever-growing club scene. We often start by going to a college gig that he has booked to make sure the band has turned up and that he can collect his commission. Later in the evening we visit cabaret clubs like the Princess Club or its partner the Domino Club. They have a bill of comedians, singers and striptease. When the compere brings a chair onstage it signals the arrival of a stripper who needs somewhere for her clothes. Chris’s favourite is Mr Smith’s, another cabaret club in the centre of town, where he likes to gamble. I haven’t any money or any interest in gambling so I often chat to Derek Quinn, a guitarist from Freddie and the Dreamers, who also seems to be at a bit of a loose end.
At the weekend Chris and I go to the all-nighters. The Abadi brothers, the Twisted Wheel owners, always had problems with the lease at Brazennose Street so they have moved to new bigger premises on Whitworth Street. Their printing company does all Chris’ posters for the Student Union gigs so he gets us in free. They’re still booking a mixed range of bands, for one weekend it’s the Applejacks on Friday night and Long John Baldry on Saturday night on another weekend The Mojos from Liverpool appear on Friday followed by T-Bone Walker a blues artist from Texas on Saturday. Generally though they’re booking less blues and more rhythm and blues and some soul music. A lot of American artists are touring the UK and the Twisted Wheel is an essential venue for them. The audience love soul music and the all-night dancing that goes with it. The main competitor for the Wheel is The Cavern Club in Cromford Court managed by a Persian David Sedgh. He is also able to book some great artists. Chris and I usually drop in to his office in the club on our way to the Twisted Wheel. We’ve seen Wilson Pickett singing ‘In the Midnight Hour‘, Ben E King going solo from The Drifters singing ‘Stand by Me’ and Carla Thomas the daughter of Rufus Thomas performing ‘Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)’. After all this Chris and I finish the night with breakfast in an all-night coffee bar on Oxford Street before heading back to Cornbrook Street and sleep.
On Wednesday nights at the Student’s Union there’s a free dance with a live band. Despite gigs, clubs and the lively music scene there aren’t that many bands in Manchester. There’s big names Herman’s Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders and the Hollies but not so much in the up-and-coming scene. Chris holds auditions in MDH every term to find bands for the Wednesday show and some support spots for the Saturday night shows. The amps, PA system and drums are hired so they just need to bring their instruments. I’m there to offer my opinions. Bands apply from all over the north west even as far as Wales. Some are professional others semi-professional but they all turn up. There are usually around 10 -15 bands each time. They are asked to play two or three songs. One song the audience always wants is ‘Knock on Wood’ by Eddie Floyd so it seems worthwhile to ask each candidate to make that one of the songs they play. That helps us to make our decisions.
Getting involved with music is an evening thing so it doesn’t interfere with my drama course which I’m really enjoying. At the moment we’re studying Edward Gordon Craig a theatre designer who has created beautiful and innovative scenery ideas with modern lighting and costumes. He’s quite a character, the son of Ellen Terry the actress and he is the father of a son with the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. There are weekly studio performances on Monday evenings for students to try experimental work and there are also productions of modern plays such as Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ and Eugene Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’. This term has been a revelation and I can’t wait to be back for the New Year.
The New Year has started with the Drama Department planning a show at the new University Theatre on the campus. It’s to be a Passion Play based on traditional religious performances held each Easter in Oberammergau, Austria.
I haven’t heard of it and as I study it seems old-fashioned and weird, but it’s a big production with a four-day run in front of an audience. As we get going in rehearsals it gets exciting. I’ve got a small speaking part as a kitchen boy and some non-speaking appearances. My costume involves leotards again however they’re a stained grey colour and I wear a brown leather apron on top. I also wear makeup. The opening night arrives and everyone, whatever their experience, feels the tension. It’s my first appearance on a stage. I watch the others carefully and try to enjoy myself. I get a few laughs and come off exhilarated. At the curtain call I get some applause. The excitement crashes into the dressing rooms and we all clean up, change and head for the pub before it closes. I love this job although the next few shows are not so easy and I get a feel of some of the struggle involved.
Paul Gibson a second-year student is putting on ‘Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ a Victorian melodrama. He’s using the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology’s main lecture room. I’ve volunteered to help in building the set and acting as part of the stage management. Costumes are made behind the stage but there isn’t much room so we use the car park behind the building to build the scenery. It can get wet and cold, especially working late into the night. The best scene in the show is when a customer sits in the barber’s chair. Suddenly the wall behind the chair slides open and the chair slides backwards and the victim disappears into the cellar behind whilst the chair returns to the stage empty. It’s hard to pull off the mechanics of sliding walls and chairs lurching with no budget but it makes good fun.
Manchester is becoming an even more amazing club scene. If London is the biggest music club scene in the world Manchester must be the second in the world. People are coming from all over the northwest and Londoners are travelling up for the all-nighters at the weekends. Bands from London are keen to be playing here. The Twisted Wheel is still the main venue with British bands like The Steam Packet featuring Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Rod Stewart on vocals with Brian Auger on keyboard are often here, as are the R&B band the Graham Bond Organisation with Jack Bruce on bass, John McLaughlin on guitar and Ginger Baker on drums. Soul band Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames a jazz and soul group are both really popular here as well. The bands are changing their line-ups all the time and with it changing their music direction. It isn’t long before Steam Packet breaks up and Rod Stewart and Beryl Marsden are now doing vocals on a new R&B group ‘Shotgun Express’ formed by keyboard player Peter Barden with Mick Fleetwood on drums and Peter Green on guitar. This is happening continuously. The American artists mainly soul music keep coming especially following the massive success of Tamla Motown in the pop charts. Seeing all these gigs means being out late quite a lot. The curry restaurants in Rusholme with their late hours are very helpful.
One night I’m walking with a friend from Rusholme back to Cornbrook Street across Moss Side which has a big West Indian community. A car pulls up and a young west indian couple ask if we’d like to go to a party. We say yes and find ourselves in a house in Moss Side where the basement has been cleared for parties. It’s bouncing with massive bass speakers playing Jamaican records. I haven’t heard these records before. Everyone is hospitable offering drinks, either Long Life lager or rum and blackcurrant. We have a great time learning about the music of Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Sir Coxsone Dodd and trying to dance for hours until very late when we begin our walk home. agent for Universities and Colleges. I’m going back to Hull to work all summer in a smelting plant Capper Pass at Melton on the side of the Humber Estuary. It deals mainly with tin and lead. It means getting up at 5.00 am for a bus to Paragon Station and then a train, for six days a week. I’ll be glad to get back to Manchester.
Chris has teamed up with a friend Keith Bizeret to open a club called the ‘J & J’. It’s normally a drinking club with a late licence but on Thursdays it’s ‘J & J’ for students. Chris and Keith book a band and stay open until 2.00 am. The licensing rules say a meal has to be provided so they sell a ticket that covers the price of admission and a meat pie. It’s a big success. The bands are good and it’s the only late drinking spot for students. They ask me to help out by looking after the cloakroom and collecting the cloakroom tickets. I’m to keep the takings. I agree and I’m happy with my earnings. Chris and I continue to troll around the clubs but his course at the Manchester Business School is coming to an end. He will resign as Social Secretary and he’s starting to look for a job. Dave Townsend and Charles Hewson have already moved on so there’s only Chris, Keith and I living in Cornbrook Street. We can’t afford to keep it over the summer which adds to Chris’ dilemma. Luckily Ian Hamilton a local booker with his own Agency, offers him an office and a phone to start up as an agent for Universities and Colleges. I’m going back to Hull to work all summer in a smelting plant Capper Pass at Melton on the side of the Humber Estuary. It deals mainly with tin and lead. It means getting up at 5.00 am for a bus to Paragon Station and then a train, for six days a week. I’ll be glad to get back to Manchester.