All Sorts of Stuff!
Working as the Arts Centre’s photographer was very different to working in theatre. For a start, there was very little in the way of performance; it was mainly visual arts and poetry readings so I was producing pictures of the gallery, of individual works and of the artists, or of writers and audiences at readings. These included the poet Basil Bunting who was born in Scotswood and is best known for Briggflatts and County Durham-born novelist and short story writer Sid Chaplin whose short stories formed the basis of Close the Coalhouse Door.
Chris very quickly set up Ceolfrith Press, producing exhibition catalogues, books of poetry and even an (unfortunately, short-lived) magazine called Audience. One of my photographs (of Lear in the St David’s Arts Festival’s production of King Lear, a festival with which I was deeply involved for some years during the '70s) was the front cover of the first edition.
Some of the jobs were mundane to say the least, but even the most boring could lead to some amusement. I walked in one day to be greeted by the finance officer waving an invoice at me and saying, very angrily, “what’s this? Do you not take this job seriously? I’ve a good mind not to pay this until you submit a proper invoice! Arts Centre stuff indeed!”
This was long before word processors or personal computers and I hand-wrote invoices in a two page per job (with carbon between the pages) book. I had to explain to her that my handwriting is not very good and what I’d actually written was “Arts Centre staff”!
Yes, that was one of the less inspiring jobs: portrait photos of every member of staff to go on a display board in the entrance.
We apologised to each other, and she paid up!
But there was some theatre. It took place, to begin with, in the performance area in the basement and later, when it looked like a show might attract a larger than usual audience, we hired the upstairs room in a town centre pub, The Londonderry Arms (affectionately known as “The Derry”) which, just in the last couple of years, has been given a new lease of life as a performance venue, part of the MAC (Music, Arts and Culture) Quarter, under its original name. The Peacock.
Much of the theatre was experimental—some was really good but some was frankly awful!
However, definitely not awful was a production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party which was performed in the basement and was memorable for being excellent—and the first sight of Leigh’s work in Sunderland.
We also had (a bit weird for an arts centre I always thought) a performance from comedy magician The Great Soprendo, Geoffrey Durham, who later married Victoria Wood—a fun show, and there was really good craic for some time into the night after the audience had gone.
Also memorable—although I don’t remember what it was—was a show at The Derry (mid-seventies, I think) which featured full-frontal nudity. There was a reasonable audience but it wasn’t packed. At least it wasn’t before the interval, after which the numbers more than doubled as loads of men who had been drinking downstairs came up, pints in hand, having heard of the nude woman. They were so disappointed for everyone kept their clothes on in the second half!
That was culture in Sunderland, friends!
To be honest—although it didn’t seem like it at the time—it wasn’t the performances that were important for my future in theatre but the fact that Chris decided that, as the resident theatre ‘expert’ I should be put to more managerial use and I became, first, the Centre’s Drama Adviser and then the Theatre Programmer.
This led to my being invited to join two significant council sub-committees during the period 1972 to 1974. They were the Experiment in Leisure and the Wearmouth 1300 Festival, about both of which there’ll be more later.